Upon the recent news of the Ween breakup, I was sad, but couldn’t deny the simple truth of Aaron Freeman’s quote: “It’s been a long time, 25 years. It was a good run.”
It was only upon listening to this playlist from Montreal’s tireless compiler DJ Luv that I had the occasion to truly reflect on the band’s greatness and what they meant to me over the years.
I must have first heard of them through the punk rock media. That seems improbable now, but this was before the term, and concept, of “indie rock” had coalesced, and anyone vaguely DIY or underground could find themselves squeezed into the punk box. I do remember reading a great interview with Dean Ween in Flipside magazine. True to the punk-rock model of the time, it was a long, sprawling, seemingly unedited transcript of a conversation. One quote has always stuck with me, which I can’t find online so will paraphrase here: “You know, when you jam for three hours and then realize you’ve just written ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ Those are always the best songs, man.”
I bought Pure Guava on cassette. My initial reaction, typical for the time, was something along the lines of “Hey man, this isn’t punk rock.” But I gave it a few more tries. The absurd lyrics and skewed vocals roped me in, but it must have been the pop hooks that kept me listening. And there was something so evocative about the photo of them on the porch of their house, surrounded by local weirdos.
Then I bought The Pod, which a lot of people seem to think is for hardcore fans only, but which still remains my favourite to this day. There was just something about how they synthesized a catchy, melodic pop sensibility with a twisted, alienating, noisy attitude that I loved, and still do.
Detractors claimed that Ween’s stuff was the kind of thing that “anyone could do.” Some of my musician friends argued that their stylistic pastiches, inside jokes and vocal fuckery were no different than what every kid does with their first 4-track. But to me, this quality was an asset: maybe anyone could do it, but these guys were the only ones with the nerve to actually do it—to not only record, but release these damaged, homespun pop gems.
Shortly after Chocolate and Cheese came out, something funny happened. All of a sudden a bunch of “normal” people (i.e. not just stoners and nerds) were into the band, even though they hadn’t really cleaned up their approach much at all—the production was slicker, but the sense of humour was just as sick and the music was still all over the place. I couldn’t figure out how they’d broken through to the mainstream, but as my friend pointed out, “hot chicks like Ween,” so it was all good. This was at a time when genuinely weird, original and creative artists like the Melvins, Flaming Lips and Daniel Johnston were getting major-label deals in a post-Nirvana fervor for all things “alternative.”
Around this time I saw them live for the first time, at the Phoenix in Toronto. The show was sloppy to the point of chaos, yet somehow incredibly engaging. “If you only knew,” Dean proclaimed at one point, wild-eyed. “If you only knew about the last 24 hours!”
For the finale, they started off with one of their own songs—I believe it was “I Can’t Put My Finger On It”—then segued into a bout of jamming with Gene doing a kind of pseudo-Eastern chant on top. This led into a more or less straight cover of “Dazed and Confused,” back into the chanting jam, back into their song. They turned on a drum machine and all left the stage except for bassist Andrew Weiss, who proceeded to perform a solo for about 10 minutes. Then the band came back on and did a cover of Prince’s “Shockadelica.” Between the announcement of the last song and the actual end, it must have been an hour.
It was a bit too close to a waking nightmare I used to have as a kid—lying in bed, I’d imagine a band or orchestra playing out their last note, but I couldn’t get the note to ever stop—so I skipped their next Toronto show, for the country album: a decision I’ve always regretted since my friend described their performance, supplemented with a pro Nashville piano player, fiddler and steel guitarist, as one of the best he’d ever seen.
Although I like it a lot now, the country album seemed a bit too jokey to me, and this marked the beginning of my moving away from heavy-duty fandom. I saw them live again a few years later, this time at the huge Warehouse. They had progressed into a tight ensemble, albeit one prone to incredibly long jams. But their audience was bigger than ever and they still seemed to be having fun. I left when it seemed like they were about to start an interminable jam, with warm feelings intact.
For the next few years, the band was like an old friend that you only check in with from time to time. I heard bits and pieces of their later albums—they had some good tunes and I was happy to hear them still doing their thing, but I didn’t feel any urge to buy the records or see them live. So when I heard about the breakup, I felt some sadness, but it was just another sign of the passing of time. It seemed like towards the end, their legendary appetite for debauchery had caught up with them, as it does for just about everyone.
But listening to the Luv playlist, there was so much to appreciate. The nasty, noisy early stuff; the pastiches of soft rock that approached pop perfection, then subverted it with a gleefully juvenile lyric; the songs so goofy that the band couldn’t even control their own laughter; the unexpectedly beautiful ballads, and the country songs, as ambitious as they are absurd: it was all so good. Like Guided by Voices, another one of my big 90s influences, they inspired with their audacity (wow, you could do that?), their progression from a lo-fi perversion of anthemic rock to the real deal; the fun they had onstage, and above all, their capacity for head-sticking hooks.
So RIP, Ween. Thanks for the memories, the inspiration and the tunes. See you on the reunion circuit—we may all be geriatric, but I’m sure you’ll find a way to make it work.