The first time I went to see Ween play live, I ended up passed out on the floor. I came to with beer in my hair, a friend kicking me in the ribs, and the band singing about a Voodoo Lady. This was maybe an hour into the show, and given the wildly disorienting, unpredictable music that had come before, I can’t say I was surprised. God, Ween were a weird band. Great, but weird. One minute they’d be banging out a heavy psychedelic rock stomper called “Touch My Tooter,” the next they’d be swaying on just the right side of sappy, pleading for their loved ones to “Stay Forever.”
That past-tense is a bummer. It seems Ween was, not is. If what Aaron Freeman, a.k.a. Gene Ween, was saying earlier this week is true, he and Mickey Melchiondo (Dean Ween) are kaput after 28 years of cracked, eclectic songwriting and blazing guitar.
I wouldn’t try to argue that Ween are an all-time important band. There are huge hermetic chunks of the band’s catalog that I can’t really get with, and I like Dean and Gene. But they filled a hole that too few bands even noticed was there — and they filled it with a playfully encyclopedic, loving sense of genre-jumping songcraft, and the smart-but-inexperienced adolescent’s unending desire for dick jokes. Ween are the ultimate freaks-and-geeks band.
Growing up, if you’re neither cool nor particularly angry — and very much enjoy loud guitar and getting high — it can often feel like there isn’t a ton of music that speaks to your situation. Ween did, though. Their early albums sounded like the work of two music-loving teens interested in little more than being left alone, getting messed up, and making each other laugh. Which makes them pretty much the same as a wide swath of high schoolers. The band’s official debut, 1990’s GodWeenSatan: The Oneness, is all sped-up helium voices, ADD song sketches, and impenetrable inside jokes. Some deity named Boognish supposedly reigned over the proceedings. It was basically a mess, but also, in its way, charming. Especially if you, too, had ever spent long, late-night hours in your parent’s basement, goofing with a tape recorder, cackling over jokes that would make no sense the next morning and probably never did.
Underneath the jokes, though, was a deep respect for composition and instrumental skill. Ween stayed strange, but got better. The Mollusk is the best sci-fi concept prog-rock album of the ’70s released in the ’90s. And 1996’s confusingly titled 12 Golden Country Greats is beautifully played traditional country music, recorded with Nashville session stars. And so what if one of the album’s best songs is a filthy break-up shitkicker called “Piss Up a Rope”?
Gene handled nearly all of the vocals on Ween’s albums, and could go from gonzo belting to tender delicacy. The Deaner held down the guitar, and pretty much picked up where P-Funk genius Eddie Hazel left off, playing one majestic rainbow-fuzz solo after another. (“A Tear for Eddie” acknowledges the debt.) He also was the undisputed king of the guitar-orgasm face.
The band’s gift for psychedelic guitar rock eventually led them to the zonked comfort zone of the jam-band circuit. And that’s where they lived for the last decade or so, sometimes transcendently. But as Deaner got deep into fishing and Gener struggled with, and eventually overcame, substance-abuse problems, the studio albums stopped coming as quickly. When they did, they were more miss than hit, but there was always a track or two that could bring you right to Boognish. The mock-turtleneck yacht-rock smarm of “Your Party,” from what looks like it’ll be the band’s last studio album, 2007’s La Cucaracha always makes me happy.
People have, and will, peg Ween’s legacy as that of a joke band. They were that, sure, but they were more. They were a friend band. As long as Dean and Gene were still out there together, being inspiringly over-the-top and unrepentantly stupid and foul-mouthed and sentimental and smoked-out and hilarious and all those other things you’re supposed to stop being when you get a job and become a responsible adult, then you could join them, even if only for a night. I guess after 28 years together, the guys have grown up and moved on. But as long as their music exists, we don’t have to. The basement will always be there, and the mighty Boognish will never die.
On the next page: The 10 Best Ween Songs