Ween | photo by Dana Distortion | courtesy of the artist
Welcoming Back the Boognish: A Megafan’s Guide to Ween
Beloved New Hope outfit Ween make a long-awaited return to a Philadelphia stage this Sunday, August 21st at Festival Pier. Producing nine studio LPs over a 30+ year career, digging into the band’s catalog can be a bit daunting. Thankfully The Key’s Brian Wilensky, a self-professed Ween superfan, has done the hard work for you, picking out the best and brownest from Gene, Dean, and co for your listening and educational pleasure.
Chocolate and Cheese
Just as the metal cracks the mirror Deaner’s yelling about the bender he roped you into on “It’s Gonna Be a Long Night.” Next it’s a soothing Zoloft and you’ll be feeling fine in no time. But really you’re just dumbing down the trauma from that night with the Ween guitarist, when suddenly you’ve stumbled into the wrong end of town and you’re paranoid, thinking to yourself, “So many people in the neighborhood/ Not sure if they’re really good people.” Well, things have gone awry for you, you’ve overstayed your welcome, and now you just want to get back home on, “Captain.” That’s how Quebec by Ween goes, and only you could save yourself.
Quebec is an album of contrasts. It shows beginnings, endings and everything-in-betweens. There are undefined gradual improvements and plenty of bleak perspectives. And all the while it doesn’t lose sight from Ween’s distorted perspective. Perhaps Ween’s most complete work, one that’s said to be written while Deaner was fighting addiction and while Gener was going through a divorce, makes the clear case that there’s more to these stoner rock jokesters than meets the eye initially. “Happy Colored Marbles” is an observation. There’s a perspective that those around aren’t dealing with their situations well. But then when the song cracks, explodes rather, it may be more show that Ween is not okay with their current state and carrying “that velvet sack.” And maybe they’re never going to be ready to “ask for ‘em back when they’re ready and done.”
There’s self-realization that’s both obvious and revealing on “Chocolate Town,” yet in its stark expression there’s something strangely comforting in the song’s backing keyboard line throughout. Getting into “I Don’t Want It,” a song I can personally (if I may still grant myself the opportunity to write from the superfan perspective) connect to a high school love lost after she once told me she associated me to the song (even though I have no real memory of her and I listening to the it together), is most clearly about separation. The imagery of time passing is crushing. Gener tugs the string the shows a man left in settling dust, leaves falling from trees in the fall and moving on into something much different: “The Fucked Jam.” The jury’s still out on what that sound is. Is it a keyboard? Some kind of distorted sample? Is it a vocal track pushed with no sign of mercy through some kind of distortion effect? Yeah, that’s my guess. I invite you to burn one down and give a long, close listen what you’re hearing there.
“Alcan Road,” is a segue track that’s both indistinct and crucial to the album as a whole. Its clearly of a scene of travelers lost on a long path, but where they end up is hard to say until we reach, “The Argus,” probably the most mythical Ween song. As it reaches the bridge and the ensuing guitar solo, there are triumphant moments of sunshine. Friends, we’ve done it. We’re in the clear as Gener sings, “On a free ride home/ From the embassy/ I saw the governor and his lover holding hands/ When I got to my place I empltied my suitcase/ And Opened the windows wide,” as if after recalling all he’d just gone through on his journey through Quebec, and feeling relief it’s finally over on “If You Could Save Yourself (You’d Save Us All).” You’ve made it out of fray of “It’s Gonna Be a Long Night,” the eerie feeling of “So Many People in the Neighborhood,” and cynicism of “Happy Colored Marbles.” You’ve done it, you saved yourself, you’ve saved us all.
Chocolate and Cheese (1994)
Chocolate and Cheese may be the Ween-defining Ween album. It’s the duo’s first step into more literal song writing, exchanging overdriven guitars for heartfelt melodies and bong rips for thoughtful lyrics. All the while not feeling any less Ween-like than their prior output.
“Take Me Away” comes cleanly out of the gate somewhere between the genres of confused lounge with Gener’s conversational vocal delivery and interaction with a pre-recorded crowd, and bloozey rock when Deaner’s clean guitar chords switch to a strangely distorted guitar solo. Don’t get too relaxed because the “Spinal Meningitis” will get you down. It’s a song creepy enough to be on The Pod but too controlled to make the final cut. Per a story Gener shared at a solo acoustic gig last year at Ardmore Music Hall, “Freedom of ‘76” was written in the Famous Fourth Street Deli just off South Street. The mental image alone of a young Gener and Deaner sitting at a table in the restaurant over breakfast, laughing at the opposites lists throughout the feel good tune.
Now we’ve made it to the biggest change toward heartfelt songwriting for Ween yet, “A Tear for Eddie.” Yeah, they kept their characteristic drum machine tracks, but Deaner’s delicately delivered melody is unrivaled throughout Ween’s catalog. This melody is tender and mournful. It’s longer and burns slower than you’d expect. It seems like it’d be the perfect mid-way point segue track, but it’s only the fifth song of 16, following the snake charming, “Can’t Put My Finger on It.” Speaking of animals, “Mister Would You Please Help My Pony” is riddled with Ween’s off-kilter humor, as well as more strange and dissonant guitar tones. Deaner is clearly finding signature sound he’d carry for the foreseeable future.
Without boiling Chocolate and Cheese down to its simple, softer moments, it’s tough to find it has some love-longing moments that can sit heavily on the heart when you consider them enough. First up is “Baby Bitch.” Sure, sounds a little tongue-in-cheek at first, maybe even ridiculous, but the way Gener’s reflecting on the days following since his last relationship. We can all agree we’ve been there when he mentions getting fat, angry and hating ourselves in the days following love lost. It’s just the way it goes, and the world keeps turning. However, it’s still a little unexpected hearing it from him. Another to consider is “Drifter in the Dark.” The call and response of “Do you ever walk alone/ Like a drifter in the dark/ Seeking out what isn’t there/ Looking only for a spark/ From the girl who’s all alone,” is much more sad than the song’s lazy doo-doo-dow bridge suggests. With only one song in between these two seems like Gener saw his baby bitch out at a party, just as he states in the song, and then went out drifting in the dark even though he knows he’s seeking out what isn’t there.
Without question, what follows on Chocolate and Cheese is some of Ween’s absurdity with “Candi” and “HIV Song,” just for a little bit of their reality. It’s the versatility of the album and that it’s a solid collection of songs that each hold up well, in their order, one after the other. It’s balanced, subtle when it needs to be, and weird when you weren’t expecting it to get weirder.
It had to happen. The 1990s needed this album. If it didn’t happen, popular music may have stayed in the same direction it was already headed: off a cliff. Everyone would still be banging their head, pumping one fist, while spraying Aqua Net onto their scalp with the other hand to the beat of “Cherry Pie” by Warrant, released in September 1990. Ween couldn’t do any other than that all at the same time because they probably would have spilled the bong water.
Gene Ween and Dean Ween wrote the songs and played most of the instruments on GodWEENSatan: The Oneness, Ween’s first album on Twin/Tone Records, released in November, 1990. Greg Frey, co-founder of Chocodog Records, the label that’s released Ween’s albums since 2001, played the live drum tracks; a drum machine played the rest. Andrew Weiss produced the album, although he probably contributed little since most of the tracks can be found as earlier recordings on Ween’s five preceding tapes. These early tapes are drenched in raw, sick Ween humor and the average ear should probably take them with a grain of salt, or an aspirin and water.
In 1986, the year Ween released its first of their raw tapes, The Crucial Squeegie Lip. That same year, Frank Zappa posed a valid question with his album, Does Humor Belong in Music? It’s a live album packed with Zappa favorites such as, “Trouble Every Day,” “Penguin in Bondage,” and “What’s new in Baltimore.” Zappa just wants to know what’s happening over there, answering his own question, “I don’t know.” Ween answered that question just a few years later with GodWeenSatan, with their own kind of humor; more along the lines of what most “high brow” folk would call, “potty humor.”
But don’t wrinkle your brow too hard right away. These songs tackle serious matters. On “Tick,” the album’s second track, someone has a tick in their brain and their way to alleviate this miserable experience is to, “Stab a little prick/ But now I cut my head/ In the morning I’ll be dead.” Serious stuff, right?
When Ween gets through that, however they will one can only imagine; they sing, no, they speak what they’re in mood for. After moving, “To the left three feet god damn it,” and “Falling down the steps four flights god damn it.” We feel great knowing that they are “In the mood to do our thing right, mo’ hey now/ Sunnyfish, melon jelly, ballin’ the jack at the meatwagon now.” That’s really great, we should be happy for them. These are the lyrics that made the final cut of the album. Yes, that’s no lie.
This album is a testament to the workingman’s hero. Anyone can do it. Ween released this piece of musical genius with blurry twenty-year-old drugged-out minds. Being baked throughout the entire recording process probably helped them produce some excellently diverse songs on this album. Ween goes gospel on your unsuspecting ears on the tenth track, “Up on the Hill,” when they introduce their “Demon God,” Boognish. And by God, Ween has come to take you home. But the boys don’t falter making the transition back into screaming, rapid paced, “Wayne’s Pet Youngin,’” on the next track.
These changes are what make GodWeenSatan rule. Even when they pull out the talk-box on their crooning nine minute love song, “Nicole,” the album doesn’t lose any momentum. In fact, it just gains more when Gener opens the next song almost painfully screaming right off through the lo-fi tape recording, “Let me tell you ‘bout the fuckin’ bitch, Deaner,” on “Common Bitch.” It’s a fuzzy, heavily distorted guitar jam that’s got more crunch than your favorite cereal, much like most of the other riffed-out bangers, “Old Queen Cole,” and “Papa Zit.”
There are 26 tracks. Yes, 26 and each flows into one another like it ain’t no thing. Having this many songs on an album it’s nearly impossible to have a central motive. Although they try to tackle love at times but most of the time they are just pissed off because some chick probably “Overpopulated their senses and fuckin’ dicked them over,” like they mention her doing on “Nan.” Ween gets a little psychotic on, “Don’t Laugh (I Love You).” The repeated “I love yous” over an electronic drumbeat can make anyone lose it, finding a way to say, “It’s you not, not me.” These moments are when they excel at making things awkward. Ween let’s their druggy perception of the world take over as if it’s all they’ve known. But at the time, Ween’s world was little more than small town, New Hope, Pennsylvania, which probably greatly influenced their habits, considering there’s little happening there at the time GodWeenSatan was recorded.
That outlook takes over songs, “Licking the Palm for Guava,” “Mushroom Festival in Hell,” and “Marble Tulip Juicy Tree.” Gener and Deaner are at their best in these moments. Whether it’s to better their musicality or just create their persona, Ween is undoubtedly most comfortable when they are comfortably numb.
No surprise. Ween reference a couple of rock ‘n roll’s most drug-associated songs: Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Deaner is far from capturing the power of the ever-forceful Grace Slick during her infamous “One pill makes you…” verse of “White Rabbit, on “El Camino.” Maybe the intense phaser effect on his voice is what sets it apart. Brief clips of “Echoes” were blatantly slapped onto the front and back ends of Ween’s ultimate breakup song, “Birthday Boy.” It’ll forever be a mystery where it fits into the song, yet it’s a great moment of lo-fi tape splicing, that seems to be about the time Gener’s girl left andhe couldn’t believe it. However, he was just in the mood for dirty fun with his girl ealier on the album.
“L M L Y P,” a.k.a. let me lick your pussy. And here, Ween takes on Prince. They use the lyrics from Prince’s B-Side, “Shockadelica,” to their own electro-drumbeat wah-pedaled funk fire pit that will make your next piss burn. Like “Nicole,” “L M L Y P,” clocks in at nine minutes and some change. Ain’t no tune for the weak-stomached, this one should get it’s own parental advisory sticker. Got a feeling this is the way Prince would want it – if he wanted Ween touching his music at all.
GodWEENSatan: isn’t an easy pill to swallow, but once past the jawline, the next seventy minutes will seem God, actually, Boognish-given. In 2001, Boognish came bearing gifts, with GodWeenSatan: The Oneness “25th Anniversary Edition,” yes, only 15 years after its original release. Ween probably intended this, or maybe the left side of their brain is too burnt to realize the time span.
The Pod (1991)
The Pod is a trip. But, really, it’s something more. The Pod is a dark, distorted journey into the headspace of two guys bent on recording any music that comes to them in the fleeting moments of creativity under heavy sedation. The Pod is that extra round at the bar you shouldn’t have ordered. The Pod is four a.m. with that longtime friend that somehow manages to find a way to get you in trouble. Meanwhile, you got clean and moved, and they stayed where they were. The Pod is a finger pushing against the plate of your turntable while it’s spinning. It’s a blackout. The Pod is a pork roll, egg and cheese on a Kaiser bun. The Pod is stumbling when you’re trying to get into your power stance.
After you’ve strapped on your “Jammy Pac,” in hurries “Dr. Rock,” easily Ween’s most ready-made arena rock ripper. It’s a Ween standby, and without any chance. “Dr. Rock” makes for some of their best live moments because of its unparalleled energy. Not much after that, “The Stallion, Part 1,” just as much metal but much less hairspray. The breadth of The Pod is its strength, even at its most over-confident, considering it’s probably the duo’s most indigestible album. The tones of Deaner’s most over-driven guitar distortion in their catalog are just the beginning. The lyrics are often indistinguishable. The drums, even when coming from a machine are inconsistent. Both Deaner and Gener can be heard laughing on “Right to the Ways and Rules of the World.” It’s Ween at their loosest, and maybe the last time we’d actually hear them this way. Whether they cleaned up, even just enough at the time, or they moved onto more structured writing, The Pod became their last representation of the most stoned, cloudy “brown” Ween.
“Brown” Ween is their most deranged, stoned takes in the sings Ween knows best. It’s the early, live renditions of their songs that later made their studio albums as cleaned up cuts. Take a listen to the natural “Moving Away,” or the even more blurry “She Fucks Me.”
The Pod is here for these unabashed moments. The Pod doesn’t reveal itself until almost half through when you hit a song or two that are nearly unlistenable. That’s what The Pod is here for, finding those moments. The Pod will show you what you can handle and what to get through just so you can enjoy the next song, much like finishing “Don’t Sweat It,” just because you know “Awesome Sound,” is next. It’s not for the faint of heart or the mostly-sober. But The Pod will guide you toward your next pork roll, egg and cheese.
Ween’s music can be extremely evocative. They’re unpredictable and with their ability to change genres, yet keep it all “Ween-like,” is what sets them apart from the rest. Their music is often categorized with the stoner rock adjective, it’s why you’ll often find the burner and stoner sets congregating at their shows, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the crowd at a Ween show is one of the most warm and enthusiastic I personally have experienced. The best way to describe a crowd at a Ween show, the way everyone knows every lyric to the songs and is singing along, and has an equally excited reaction to a deep cut such as “Someday” off of Shinola, Vol. 1 as they are to hear the Ween standby “Roses are Free,” is that the crowd is one giant, collective smile. And through Ween’s poignancy and densely expressive nature, I’d like to take the last piece of of this Ween series to share some of my own memories that come to mind when I hear the following songs. Here’s to Ween and their upcoming show at Festival Pier on Sunday, August 21st, and to creating more of these instant memories. See you there, Boognish.
Birthday Boy: As if it wasn’t unconventional enough, rather that it seemed like something only Neil Young could pull off, Ween opened their show at the Tower Theater in November, 2007, with this song and an acoustic set to follow. It was my first Ween show and I was amazed at their ability to open a show with such a tender, heartfelt song and still grab their audience. I was equally impressed by the crowd not groveling once, and instead cheering with approval.
Polka Dot Tail: The last time I saw Ween was in Asbury Park, New Jersey, at the Stone Pony. It was an outdoor show in the middle of July. And suddenly fireworks started being shot from the beach just across the street during “Polka Dot Tail” and “Pandy Fackler.” The band acknowledged them and the crowd went wild. It’s weeks after Independence Day, what was the occasion for these exploding overheard, I wondered. They must’ve been left over in someone’s stash, but they were welcomed appearance.
Captain Fantasy: At that same show I wanted to hear “Captain Fantasy,” maybe a little too much. I kept yelling to the stage for it. Yeah, admittedly, I was that guy. Normally I wouldn’t have done such a thing, but with a little liquid courage, judgement went astray and I was rewarded for it. The band played it during their encore and the only way I could express myself was repeatedly jumping straight up with my hands high above my head.
You Fucked Up: At a show at Brooklyn’s McCarran Park Pool in 2008, I saw Deaner call out the sound technician at the venue after the speakers on one side suddenly went out towards the end of the show. The band quickly met in the middle of stage and started “You Fucked Up,” after the problem was fixed, much to the crowd’s approval expressed through laughter.
Can You Taste the Waste?: After that show in Brooklyn, someone I was with grabbed a nitrous balloon from from one of the friendly pushers sellig them outside the venue. He took a pull, looked at me and asked matter-of-factly, “Can You Taste the Waste?” And then we all just laughed carried on and later lightly ridiculed him, as friends do, for his ill-advised choice.
Springtheme: It’s a beautiful spring afternoon. I’m standing on Main Street in beaucolic Kutztown, Pennsylvania, waiting for the oncoming cars to pass. One of them is blasting “Springtheme.” It instantly made me smile and feel at home, surprised I was able to identify the song at all, and happy I was there to cross at the street at that time.
Baby Bitch: Once a girl I had a massive crush on played this one at a party in college. I instantly melted. Her and I later became good friends, but I never told her about this mostly trivial moment. She got engaged this year. Congratulations.