Ween: In Memoriam


“There are things in my life that no one can understand except Aaron,” Mickey Melchiondo noted of his bandmate Aaron Freeman in 2007, when they—as Dean and Gene Ween—put out their last album, La Cucaracha. “We kind of have a parallel life. We went through everything together: junior high school, being broke, getting evicted, meeting our wives and ex-wives, having kids. We make, penny-for-penny, the same income, because we don’t do anything other than the band. He’s like my brother. And a lot of getting this record together was getting back to that. But there are other things where I can talk to anyone but Aaron.”

Apparently, the same is true of Freeman, who perhaps accidentally announced Ween’s breakup in an interview with Rolling Stone. “This is news to me,” Melchiondo wrote on Facebook, “all I can say for now, I guess.” Perhaps it’s all a horrible mistake, something to be talked out as only two old friends can.

But if it’s true, it’s at least as sad a rock split as Kim and Thurston. Melchiondo and Freeman took their brodom to its fullest creative extension, adopting for all public purposes a joint family. With a name cribbed from the colloquial pre-teen shortening of “wiener,” the two spun the giddily obnoxious language of their friendship into Ween’s three-decade creative partnership. In Mrs. Slack’s middle school typing class, they imagined a personal deity named the Boognish, an illustration of which soon found its way onto the four-track recordings they were producing at an astonishing clip for a pair of goof-offs with a shared obsession for getting fucked up. The first Ween shows took place in local garages for neighborhood kids. It didn’t take long for their tapes to reveal a barely concealed vein of raw emotion.

“Jesus Christ, pain, take one,” Freeman intones at the beginning of “Birthday Boy,” recording over an answering machine message of his mother singing “Happy Birthday” to him earlier that day. The guitar tone is hideous and brown, the painterly adjective the brothers Ween used to describe their best work, and when the first take runs out, it becomes obvious that the tape previously housed some Pink Floyd.

One can only imagine the further generation loss “Birthday Boy” underwent as Ween’s music disseminated throughout the late ’80s indie cassette underground, and—by 1992’s Pure Guava—via MTV. More importantly, they developed a genuine cult following, becoming the nearly definitive soundtrack for the subspecies of teenager rock writers once meant by “punk”—obscure, quasi-vile glue-sniffers from the greasier side of the tracks. Differentiating themselves from the sometimes overlapping Deadhead/Phishhead kin with a drug agenda that came not from any cosmic desire to become One, but instead to get swiftly destroyed, Ween’s presented a fantasy that was just as much about getting fucked up than it was about literally getting fucked up. Though it was that, too. Within those parameters, and an extraordinarily deep songbook that included at least an alternate album’s worth of material for each disc released, Ween bred a fanbase with a nearly three-dimensional appreciation for the band’s body of music, something rare and beautiful in any part of the music world.

The examples are almost too legion to catalog completely, but Ween’s drugged-out odes were more attainable pop fantasy than Satanism, bling, the Lord of the Rings, or hippie bliss combined, and—to Ween’s infinite credit—far more creative. See, for example, the unreleased live favorite “Booze Me Up and Get Me High,” which transformed the wimpy passive indictment of Traffic’s “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” into triumphant moral imperative. There was also he matter of the Scotchgard bong they put on the cover of 1990’s The Pod. It was whispered that each of their successive albums was a concept album based on a given substance, which remained at least quasi-provable through 2000’s White Pepper (“Bananas and Blow”) and right up to the mood-stabilizing swinger “Zoloft” on 2003’s Quebec. And while Ween’s “funny” ’90s genre games, obscenity, and other brown obsessions continued to pull in new generations of listeners, Freeman and Melchiondo’s collaborations grew even more intimate. Freeman’s endless gallery of funny voices emanated from an apparently bottomless well of hurt, as on “Someday,” a track left off Quebec that—with its positively crippling “Tuesday is pizza day” lyric—could be seen as a spiritual B-side to Ween’s turn as Pizza Hut jinglers.

Living for a time in a horse-farm/commune called The Pod, Ween were their own species of American dreamers, creating a bizarro land strain of cathartic music as important to some listeners as artists like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or the Mountain Goats or Neutral Milk Hotel or the Clash are to others. They chased the Boognish into middle age, sticking it out around their hometown of New Hope, never the type to try to make it in the big city. It was rock myth so pure it could have only invented itself. Plus, the Boognish looked just fine on T-shirts and stage sets and carried them on its doofish spiked dome into a career so legitimate they never had to go back to their day jobs.

They didn’t last on the commune. Gener went to rehab a few times, and it didn’t stick. Touring puttered down to a few well-paying festivals and concert runs a year, while Deaner ran fishing tours. (Still does.) Gener went to rehab again, hired “sober ninjas” and—as Aaron Freeman—recently recorded a supremely great new album of Rod McKuen covers, not a really funny voice anywhere in the batch. It was perhaps the brownest of all possible vessels he could pick for picked for a season away from Ween that now seems to be longer than expected.

Dismissed as a cult, novelty, or even jam band by detractors, Ween offered something—to audience and musicians alike—as holy as any mission in rock: The preservation of the Boognish and all it stood for, which is to say, the preservation of the peculiar bond between Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo. In the original telling of the Boognish tale, the godhead materialized before the two offering “scepters of wealth and power,” and now Freeman looks to go into the wilderness without its benevolent teeth-bared grin beaming down from the clouds. But the Boognish has always worked in mysterious ways, and today it again roams free in the universe, looking for new friends.