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Another Ween World: Why Dean And Gene Are The Weirdo Lennon & McCartney
JR Moores , November 15th, 2021 09:29

In this month's subscriber-only Low Culture essay, JR Moores talks about the Pennsylvania duo who had the chops to back up the japes and the integrity to keep it "brown"

Ween

When recently dusting off my CD copy of Quebec, originally purchased back in 2003, I became convinced that Gene Ween and Dean Ween are the best songwriting partnership since John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Perhaps that should read were, but we'll get to that later. Admittedly, this epiphany did occur mid-lockdown, when I was months-deep into nightly home measures of whisky (ie bucket-sized), starved of non-virtual platonic companionship, and becoming so obsessed with making my own pizza dough that when mentioning this newfound hobby during a Skype interview with the drummer from scary avant-metal duo The Body, I blurted out the words "Are you proud of me?" I've just listened back to the recording of this excruciating bid for approval. He was very polite about it. Bless him. That part of the conversation did not make the edit.

"Lennon and McCartney?!" I hear you cry, while spitting your mouthful of Twinings' Lapsang Souchong across the room like Regan MacNeil and accidentally soaking your 12-LP expanded box set of Past Masters. Fair enough. Hear me out.

It's usually more common to see Ween likened to Frank Zappa. Yes, both parties are known for their (often off-colour) humour. Their work straddles numerous different styles and genres to the point that questions of intent and authenticity blur into a big mush of confusion. Both have been inspired by urine, gravy and other fluids. Yet Ween are no fans of the moustachioed hot rat, and they balk at comparisons. Growing up, Gene Ween had a passing interest in The Mothers Of Invention, but not Zappa's vast array of solo material, whereas Dean Ween doesn't like Zappa at all. He never has done. He finds Frank too "sarcastic" and "showoff-y". Deaner's got a point. "A lot of times he's making fun of this genre he's playing," he told Boston radio station WBUR News in 2017. "It's not sincere enough for me." He then cited two key Ween influences who balanced things better: "I think The Beatles without the humour is not The Beatles at all. Prince without the humour would suck; it has to be in there."

Funny movies don't win the prestigious awards and nor do funny books. Comic geniuses reach peak acclaim only when they have ticked off a straight acting part by playing a woman-stalking psychopath. (What does that tell us about "civilised" society?) The stand-up performances that attract the greatest number of column inches are not the objectively funniest ones but those that "reveal" the most detail about the personal life of the given on-stage narcissist. (Reader, I typed the requisite autobiographical material in this piece through gritted knuckles. Or, rather, "JR" did, for he is the "Dean Ween" or "Gene Ween" equivalent of the real "me" and finds intentionally mixed metaphors amusing. The prick.) The humorous sides to The Fab Four and His Royal Badness have to be swept under the carpet, lest their position in the hallowed pantheon of musical legend be called into question. Likewise, other artists will repress the funny side of their personalities in their ongoing quest for approval, because they have noticed the sidelining of those who do raise laughter in their work. Surely, it is more sincere for musicians to actually show their funny side, at least some of the time and presuming it exists. Few cultural commentators see it that way, preferring to identify purported "honesty" in works of prefabricated po-facedness.

Note: Ween are not a comedy or novelty act. "We're just a band with a sense of humour," Gene Ween told CMJ New Music Report in the year 2000. Ween were promoting White Pepper at the time, its title a hybrid of two Beatles classics. Ween's work has most in common with The Beatles' later (and greater) work. It was when making Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and their self-titled double album (AKA The White Album) that The Beatles' penchant for parody and pastiche became particularly pronounced. The White Album, especially, is packed with satire, self-referential mockery, amusingly incongruous shifts in style and mood, piss-taking impersonations of other artists and playful genre tryouts. It's a pretty funny album at times, and you'd have to be a frothy-mouthed madman, like Charles Manson, to take it too seriously. Many of the most successful of these moments came from the imagination of The Best Beatle, Paul McCartney, whose 'Back In The USSR' opens Side A in style by drawing on the pop-music patriotism of Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys but celebrating instead the illicit sexiness of the Soviet Union. Writing about this track, the music journalist (and comedy writer) David Quantick noted that humour is "a quality that is always underrated in pop and rock, in which suicidal determination and hard-faced romanticism are more popular than the ability to find things ridiculous".

Pastiche continued to be a feature of McCartney's work with Wings and beyond, albeit to less critical praise. By 1978, wrote biographer Howard Elson, "Paul seemed content with aping the various styles of music that had become McCartney favourites." Another common criticism of McCartney is that he doesn't put enough "personal" material into his songs. Compared with John Lennon, who self-mythologised himself as a more honest, more real, more MANLY songsmith, McCartney has often written in character and in other ambiguous ways. Ween, who have been known to cover both The Beatles and Wings, are similar. Like McCartney, they have also thrown in the odd straightforwardly revealing moment. Take their occasional breakup songs, for instance, ('Birthday Boy'; 'It's Gonna Be (Alright)') or their songs about each other ('I Saw Gener Cryin' In His Sleep'; 'What Deaner Was Talkin' About'). These prove all the more touching, exactly because of their infrequency.

One of the differences between the two acts is that McCartney usually emphasises inclusivity. Ween are more exclusive, and being part of this elite club is one of the draws, a bit like the cult of Beatlemania on a far smaller scale, and with greater opportunity to sing along to choruses about pork roll, egg and cheese.

JR embraces his inner Dean Ween

I discovered Ween around the time of White Pepper, although not through that album. Back then, I was still listening to Foo Fighters and Ash. (Incidentally, the former appeared alongside Ween on The X-Files: The Album and the latter covered one of Ween's gentler tunes on a B-side.) My university housemates and I, we only knew two Ween songs, both thanks to MTV2: 'Freedom Of '76' and 'Push Th' Little Daisies'. The first was a soulful tribute to Philadelphia, with a whiff of Prince, a shoutout to Boyz II Men, and an impressive falsetto performance from Gener. 'Push Th' Little Daisies' was a less fathomable affair. A love song, it seemed, with very strange vocals ("Daffy Duck on crack," wrote one reviewer) and a backing track that suggested Andy Kaufman had been trying to create an easy listening number with Fisher Price toys. In the video, Deaner had something pulled up to his forehead so his ears stuck out. We lifted our T-shirts over our hair to imitate the look and danced along. This could explain why no DJs played Ween at the uni disco.

As bizarre as each of those songs were, neither prepared us for an older Ween album, and the first one we heard, The Pod, on which my friend Colin spent a negligible amount of his student loan in Reflex Records, Newcastle. Talk about diving into Ween at the deep end. We would sit in our digs playing Mario Kart for hours on end, listening to The Pod on repeat, and theorising about Ween when we should have been going out and trying to talk to girls. At one such session, my other pal, Matthew, boldly proposed that The Pod's greatest songs were all named after people. "Frank…" he said. "Molly," he added. "Laura… Boing…" Cue the appropriate response of "That's not a name, you knobhead!" and Matthew's unwilling rechristening as "Boing" for the rest of our studies.

In those days, only the (now affluent) nerds doing Computer Studies had the internet in their student rentals. We short-sighted humanities scholars were content to cycle on to campus to check our email accounts, and when I mention that to today's students I am sure they are picturing me riding towards the desktop cluster on a penny fucking farthing. Needless to say, access to concrete information about Ween was not at our fingertips. Was it at anyone's? Ween were prone to lying in their interviews and sleevenotes to perpetuate the juicy myths. Were they brothers? Or lovers? Could they be taking listeners for a ride, or were they earnest audio experimenters? Could they play and sing properly… or not? They appeared to nail stuff at times. Other tracks were so amateurish and deliberately irritating, it seemed as though any idiot could have made them, which was quite inspiring. On the other hand, perhaps they were a mischievous Paul McCartney side-project, like The Residents were once thought to be. It was hard to be sure of anything.

The press release for 1990's GodWeenSatan: The Oneness, reprinted in the 2001 "25th Anniversary Reissue" (even their maths was a lie) said that Ween played gospel music to spread the word of Boognish. This demon-god, whose vibrant image adorns the cover, first appeared to Ween in 1984, when Gene and Dean were teenagers. "He has since appeared only twice, once to punish Gene for trying to leave the band. The other time Ween will not discuss." GodWeenSatan opened with a bitter hard-rock song called 'You Fucked Up'. It ended with a stoned folky number about a cloud. In between, there were songs about ticks and weasels and bumblebees and bitches with song styles that drew on metal, punk, noise, reggae, pop, funk and more, all squeezed through Boognish's filter. Like all the most creatively ambitious bands, their second album was even weirder...

JR Moores gets his Ween fix

Recorded at home on a four-track cassette recorder, with a drum-machine backing, nasty distortion and a general murky atmosphere, 1991's The Pod sounded as though its creators were genuinely deranged. The liner notes claimed Ween had completed it while inhaling Scotchgard from a bong. This was later confirmed as another hoax. "I'm surprised we're not in jail for that," Gene Ween recalled. "I've seen kids come up on the side of the stage with their cans of Scotchgard, and I see 'em huffin' it and you see the checkerboard come across their face and they pass out. It's really fucked-up."

Incredibly, the "brothers" Ween were then signed by Elektra Records. They recorded their major-label debut, 1992's Pure Guava, in the exact same manner as The Pod. It wasn't quite as disturbing or alien as its predecessor but it would be just as shocking if you heard this one first. And it certainly had its moments. Vocals pitch-shifted to peculiar places. A painfully slow song about 'Flies On My Dick'. The outright noise-fest of 'Mourning Glory'. The cheerful sludge of album closer, 'Poop Ship Destroyer'. If you like the sound of that last one, be sure to check out the punishing 26-minute rendition included on the live compilation Paintin' The Town Brown.

"Brownness" is key to Ween's philosophy. The example of "brown" that's been provided by Ween producer and collaborator Andrew Weiss is that the best sound you're ever going to get out of a distortion pedal is when its battery is fading and it sounds uncontrollably strangled. Brownness emerges from those glorious and often grotesque mistakes that paradoxically improve the recording or performance. At any rate, they make it more unique. "It can be really bad, it can be a horrible thing, when you get browned out by some band," Dean Ween told the podcast Culture Creature in 2016. "A band shows up and they're brown – none of their equipment works or whatever. But it's a strength. You know you're getting the real thing." He says he can't define The Brown, only provide examples: "Iggy [Pop] is brown. He's out there still at 99 years old or whatever he is, and fuckin' crapped his pants or something. Literally." For the record, Deaner also insists that brown has "nothing to do with poop".

Along with their brownness, another thing that makes Ween stand out from other bands who are prone to absurdity is their undeniable power as a live unit. In the early days, Gene and Dean would perform as a duo, playing along to backing tapes, often high on mushrooms, much to the annoyance of the straight-edge crowd who once saw them support Fugazi. Chocolate And Cheese from 1994, on which Ween started recording in a professional manner and flaunting their musicianship more overtly, while still maintaining that elusive brownness, marked the beginning of their journey towards being one of the best live bands ever. As a baffled Spin reviewer put it after hearing that album's instrumental tribute to P-Funk's Eddie Hazel ('A Tear For Eddie'), "Dean, you fake, you can play!"

The only time I saw Ween was at Shepherd's Bush Empire in 2008. There was no support. The band came on at 8pm and played 29 songs in just under three hours. There are few bands I'd want to watch for that long, not least because I always need a wee and don't want to miss anything. Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band and Neil Young & Crazy Horse are good at holding audiences' attention for hours on end, in very different ways. Springsteen does the best he can at making an arena concert feel like an intimate gig, drawing in even those at the back with the popcorn tubs and binoculars. In the other case, it's like you've accidentally wandered into Crazy Horse's rehearsal barn and Young couldn't give a monkey's elbow whether anyone's enjoying it or not. Each is engaging in its own special way. Even so, their whole concert will basically remain in the same constant rock idiom, with a mandatory acoustic bit thrown in somewhere. Paul McCartney's concert repertoire, drawn from his 60-plus-year career, is pretty wide-reaching. It pales in comparison to Ween's. You can't get bored at a Ween gig. Down at the altar of Boognish, surrounded by zealous worshippers, you'll marvel at how Ween's long-term backing band can reproduce the abnormalities of the studio recordings, repurpose scummy older numbers as spectacular anthems, and balance smooth virtuosity with absolute brownness. If you still think Ween are a joke, then you can't have seen them live.

Ween

The night after the Shepherd's Bush gig, Dean Ween broke his heel scaling a 13-foot fence at All Tomorrow's Parties in Camber Sands. That was the last time Ween played in the UK. Shortly afterwards, the shits and giggles took a darker turn. The wholesome drug-dabbling of yore had tipped into destructive addiction. Gene Ween checked into rehab. Alleging lack of support from his bandmates, and determined to remain sober and well, Gene called time on Ween. He reverted to using his real name, Aaron Freeman, and began releasing solo material, some of which addressed the misery he'd been in for the last few years and his need to stay clean.

Dean Ween (real name Michael Melchiondo Jr) refused to accept it was over. "As long as Aaron and I are both alive on this planet, Ween is still together," he told MTV News when discussing his side-gig as a fishing guide. "…This isn't something you can quit. This is a life sentence." Boognish provided no public statement. Recalling that time a few years later, Melchiondo said he had suffered an identity crisis and severe bout of depression when his life's work since the age of 13 had abruptly ended.

It sounds similar to the woe suffered by Paul McCartney once the penny had dropped that, in spite of his best efforts, his beloved Beatles were no more. He retreated to his farm in Scotland, stopped shaving, drank too much, refused to get out of bed, and became scared stiff of making new music because… well, how do you follow The Beatles? Luckily, he had The Lovely Linda by his side, who kicked Paul's arse until he was upright again. (Sidenote: Linda's cod-reggae song, 'Seaside Woman', released under the pseudonym Suzy And The Red Stripes in 1977, has a decidedly Ween-esque feel, anticipating moments like 'Nicole' and 'The Fruit Man'.)

Like the ex-members of The Beatles in the 1970s, Gene and Dean also thrashed out their differences in public. There is no need to repeat the back-and-forth accusations here. Can you imagine how even-nastier things would have got if John Lennon had social media and internet forums to vent his frustrations? In Ween's absence, Melchiondo revived his Moistboyz project and formed The Dean Ween Group. Both Freeman and Melchiondo's non-Ween work has had its moments, but their best creations have been together. Comparing the partnership to Lennon and McCartney, some listeners have suggested that Gener writes the more "heartfelt" and "meaningful" material, whereas Deaner provides the viler and brasher stuff. It's an oversimplification which misunderstands the alchemy of both partnerships.

Although Ween began playing shows again in 2016, the lack of new studio material suggests their differences may still be close to the surface. Their last album was 2007's La Cucaracha. A few of its songs drew on the theme of companionship, especially the pumping Europop effort 'Friends'. These became a bittersweet listen in the midst of the rift. Will Ween ever make another record? How would it be received? Their politically incorrect humour, use of socially taboo language and joy in cultural appropriation is all of its era. Come to think of it, it wasn't particularly OK back then. A few weeks ago, Steve Albini expressed his regret at inspiring "edgelord shit" in a thoughtful Twitter thread about how he and his peers had mistakenly thought the battles over equality and inclusiveness had been won, and so hadn't considered the harm they might have caused with "contrarianism, shock, sarcasm or irony". I certainly wouldn't want to repeat some of the immature jokes I might've cracked in the student union with Colin and Boing. I'd imagine that Ween might stick to their guns.

Colin, "Boing" & "JR" go to a festival by mistake

Singing in Mexican and other mock-foreign accents? The use of homophobic language and misogyny? 'Reggaejunkiejew'?! The mixed messages. The lack of clarity. La Cucaracha includes 'Object', a haunting condemnation of the male gaze and where it leads. It's one of Ween's most sophisticated lyrics. A couple of tracks later, there's 'With My Own Bare Hands' on which the narrator's aggressive demands for sex don't feel so ironic, even if they are expressed in absurdly unusual ways:

"She's gonna be my cock professor
Studying my dick
She's gonna get a master's degree… in fucking me!"

Various defences have been offered. "Chill out," reads one response on the FAQ section of www.ween.net, "['Reggaejunkiejew'] is about one particular person who was a real asshole. Besides, Gener is a Jew." The same webpage notes that "Ween are the most diverse bigots that the entertainment industry has ever seen. As a rainbow band (blacks, Jews, Italians, homosexuals…) Ween has used their un-PC attitude to great effect."

One of Ween's more infamous tunes is 'The HIV Song'. Here, the humour arises from the juxtaposition between the subject matter and the music, as the words "AIDS" and "HIV" are sung over light-hearted circus music. "It's not like they're saying 'AIDS is great! HIV rules!" says one messageboarder quoted in Hank Shteamer's book on Chocolate And Cheese. "They're just using two words." Shteamer also provides the example of the HIV-positive humourist and motivational speaker, River Huston, who used that song as the theme music for her one-woman show, How HIV Made Me A Pain In The Ass. Melchiondo knows people who have had the disease, and died of it, and also notes that any interpretation has to be projected onto the song by the individual listener. Shteamer quotes another online commenter who reads 'The HIV Song' as a riposte to those who think they'll never catch the disease and refuse to consider it seriously.

There are other jaunty illness-related tracks on Chocolate And Cheese – 'Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)'; 'Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony?' – which you could argue show Ween facing up to the mortal fear of sickness and death in ways that others might shy away from or try to ignore. Whether or not we're buying that, I'm not convinced Ween were either punching up or down. I'm not sure they were even punching. What were they doing? To quote one of their own lyrics, I can't put my finger on it. Nor can the Hollywood actor Jesse Eisenberg, whose favourite band is Ween. "They never let you in on the joke," he told Spin in 2009. True, and nor do they deal in punchlines. They are not in the business of parodic impersonations, like Weird Al Yankovic. They don't have the same button-pushing, frat-house, edgelord mentality of the reprehensible Bloodhound Gang. Ween put brownness before bro-ness. "It almost seems as if they have a perverse desire to squander their considerable talent," suggested Chris Campion of Dazed & Confused. The humour is part of that self-sabotage; that need to keep things brown.

Throwing a few daft gags, or even obscure in-jokes, into your work might deny you the keys to the castle, but it can help establish a modest loyal following. Every now and then, a reader or editor will praise my writing for its humour. That's very nice of them to say. However, I see this less as kudos for my need to compare Idles to a bunch of artisan beard oil crowdfunders or liken Kevin "The Bug" Martin to The Incredible Hulk, than a damning condemnation of the field. People have long asked when music journalism ceased to be critical. Was it around the same time it stopped trying to amuse? It doesn't have to deploy the same brand of humour as before. No one wants to return to the days when Kris Needs could perv on about The Runaways for 500 words without mentioning a single aspect of their sound. But I, for one, would welcome (even) more piss-taking of Frank "studiously apolitical" Turner or that time Lorde capitalised on the lift of lockdown by insensitively mooning the world. Even in grim times, when there exists the danger of laughter equalling catharsis equalling apathy, it is simply dishonest to leave out the humour entirely. It can also be self-defeating. If it is to survive, then music journalism, above all, must try to entertain. If it's good enough to crack down the pub, then why not throw in that joke about Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth being one horse away from a Lloyds Bank advert? It's not all about showing off your remarkable acumen, breadth of musical knowledge and talent as a wordsmith. Besides, the two are not mutually exclusive, as Ween's work shows. In this ridiculous world that we happen to live in, and for ever so briefly until some peril or other pops our clogs for us, to have raised a few smiles is as noble a pursuit as any.

Electric Wizards: A Tapestry of Heavy Music, 1968 to the Present by JR Moores is available in all decent bookshops. It includes a brief mention of Ween