Ween. The very name seems to connote the small and discounted, perhaps evoking a penis joke. Principal members: Gene and Dean Ween (these are not their real names). A glance at their repertoire reveals bizarreness practically unparalleled: grunge rock, sea shanties, gnarly jams, or heartfelt portraits of love and addiction that you’d swear on first listen must be some kind of joke. “Bananas and Blow” offers a manic, twisted answer to Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville.” Their self-described “dark, acid rock record,” The Mollusk, was an inspiration to the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants. And oh yeah, you bet your ass they have a country album. I was never really into music as a kid. I didn’t go to shows or collect albums. So I missed the boat for timely entrance into Ween fandom and I only really started listening to anything more than an occasional blare of “Ocean Man,” which everyone agrees is entry level Ween, in my late twenties. Maybe that’s a good thing, all things considered; they say not to meet your heroes, and Gene Ween is my fucking hero.
My obsession with Ween started shortly after I made the decision to stop seeing my psychiatrist. That doesn’t sound healthy, and it’s not, but there it is. Seeing him in the first place was one of the more drawn out and difficult things I’ve had to do for myself. It took holding the hand of one of my dear friends during my final MFA residency to force me to click “send” on the appointment request. It took the same hand-holding to finally admit that I wasn’t doing fine, that things weren’t getting better, that I was spending most days hating myself and feeling paralyzed with guilt about that very paralysis, all the while telling my friends, family, mentors, and anyone who would listen that being in New York, being married, being young and being a writer were a kind of Shangri-La. I’d use that word, “Shangri-La,” hate myself a little more the moment it left my lips, wondering if the person hearing it had any idea of the extent of my bullshittery.
So I ballsed up and made an appointment with exactly what I wanted: a pill pusher. I wanted an easy way to be better. In my mind I had to go to a doctor because I had a medical problem to fix. This doctor spoke in a calming voice and feigned concern as he ran through the diagnostic checklist and family history, raising an eyebrow at my past history of cutting. I followed my end of the script: I’m depressed, I’ve been depressed for a long time, I want to make it better – but I don’t want to lose my boner. This last bit was the extensively-googled linchpin for walking out with my prescription for an initial titration of Bupropion Hydrochloride.
When you make yourself known as a band that delights in goofiness and crafts every song and album from within a deep bubble of irony, it can be easy for someone – even a fan – to think that you don’t care about anything. Ween’s chameleon-like shift between styles and general disdain for “depth” or cultural loyalty can be seen in the album 12 Golden Country Greats, or in the wannabe prog rock artsy-ness of The Mollusk. But this is the great contradiction of Ween. They’re seriously joking – or they’re joking, seriously. If all there is to life is getting high and acting like a rock star, then by God that’s what you do. It’s part of what endears the band to ski bums and those with the hearts of ski bums.
Which is not to say that Ween didn’t put an incredible amount of effort into their art. Yes, they did a lot of drugs. Yes, they laughed at the very thought of taking themselves seriously. But everything they produced was created with awareness and purpose, and to anyone willing to listen, it shows.
Ween’s work invites questioning. Are they rock stars, or are they making fun of rock stars? Are their own fans failing to get the joke, or are they a necessary part of the joke? If you are alternately absurd, what does it mean when people take you seriously? Is meaning dressed up in nonsense still meaning?
In the world of Ween, what is real?
For me, getting healthy was about the dogged pursuit of some kind of answer to that question. It says something that I unironically took comfort in the song “Exactly Where I’m At,” from Ween’s seventh album, White Pepper. It starts with a lo-fi drumbeat, into which the quiet narrator’s voice emerges synchronously with a tinny guitar riff:
Let’s begin with the past in front, And all the things that you really don’t care about, now. You’d be exactly where I’m at. And to think you’ve got a grip, well, Look at yourself, your lips are like two flaps of fat. They go front and back, and flappity flappity flap…
The grungy systoles and diastoles continue for a few measures, building with quiet intensity as if the narrator is willing himself to continue while waiting for the curtain to rise. Then, with a crescendo of high-hat cymbal, that lo-fi quality reminiscent of Ween’s early days on self-recorded tapes is dropped, replaced with a rich and driving bassline and a full, rounded sound into which the now clear narrator leads:
I’m on stage; it’s all an act. I’m really scared that I may fall back on the abstract. You’d be exactly where I’m at. If you’re to be the roaming eye, then Pry it open; let me tell you why it sees The harsh realities.
This is one of those striking moments in Ween lyrics: the sudden fidelity of the instrumentals reflects the trueness of the line, scuttling any notion that this is merely a joke band by bringing a long-felt clarity, that, yes, somehow, they’ve made it. And yet the voice of Gene, in all humility, still insists that the very real earned fame, the very fact that he’s on stage, is “all an act” – both figuratively and literally.
I love this lyric. I love this song. Where most of Ween can seem deliberately exclusive or enigmatic with its bizarre lyrics, tonal shifts and overall attitude, here instead is something radically inclusive, that in fact demands the listener take a moment to empathize with the narrator. Then, after that moment of reflection during the very brief lyrics, we can enjoy the rest of the – again, genuinely talented – instrumentals.
Waxing poetic about “Exactly Where I’m At” like this might lead you to think that the song is an anomaly, but no, it is 100% Ween. And those goofy ones I mentioned before? Those are 100% Ween too.
If I’m feeling lost or stuck, this is my go-to jam. I’ll sit there at my desk with my headphones blaring, my head filled with the cautiously optimistic work of the guitars. It’s funny how now in retrospect I can split my life into before and after Ween. This is my new self-injury, finger-drumming on the corner of the desk hard enough to make it feel like my knuckles will bleed, waiting for the return of the lo-fi in the fadeout that will bring me back into the unreality of reality.
I’m all too well acquainted with the scent of my wife’s lover’s perfume. It’s spicy, musk-forward, yet altogether unmistakably feminine. I’ll catch a note reminiscent of it seemingly everywhere I go. Is it something in the air, some autumnal essence that the perfumer faithfully reproduced? Or did some stray molecules stow away in our linens, somehow evading annihilation in the laundry, only to drive me momentarily mad as they take flight? It’s as if she’s omnipresent, an olfactory apparition. I’ll note it when I’m working with soil or watering houseplants; out of nowhere the musky scent will rise, life and fertility distilled and brought out of the loam, and as I breathe it in I’m helpless to picture anything other than her.
The whole thing was difficult for me to process or accept at first. For a long time I hated her, the very thought of her. Even more I hated myself for hating her. She was, after all, so many things that I am not, can never be. She is a woman. I’ll never have her dark hair, her olive eyes, her sensuous figure, her throaty laugh. I’m no lout, but I’ll never have her intoxicating presence, her deceptive confidence, her effortless allure. At the same time as all that jealous loathing, I was in awe of her. When she tells you about her life, it’s as if she’s lived multiple lives, and all I wanted was to let her continue the spell, consume my life and steal my youth like some Twilight Zone villainess.
I once had a long conversation with her parked in a rental car in front of a liquor store in San Francisco. I don’t really remember much of what I said to her. I do remember that I couldn’t look her in the eye the entire time, opting to stare in front at the dashboard as I prattled on about trust and love and whatever else. But she listened until I ran out of words and told her as much. And then we went in and bought the bottle of whiskey we had to get. We both prefer Talisker because we have good taste.
She’s a doctor, but it’s not just that she saves lives. It’s that she cares for people, even those who are dying and those whom we’d say have lost their mind. And she does it all without losing her own humanity or ever compromising on her will to bring more goodness – more life – into the world.
It’s no wonder my wife likes her.
I talked about her to my psychiatrist in one or two of my brief attempts at sneaking in some of the therapy I knew I needed into our 15-minute medication checkups. (“I’m really more of a psycho-pharmacologist,” he’d said during my first visit, as he jotted down the number of a referral I’d never call.)
In typical fashion he heard me and took a note or two in my file, raised eyebrows betraying the pedestrian scandal of a patient with a bisexual wife. I omitted that I knew how this sort of story would end: in divorce, or, in my more dramatic moments, my suicide. Instead I preferred to water down the constant strain in my mind, finding myself saying aloud something like, “It’s fine, you know, I want my wife to be happy, and I want us to keep being in love, and I know that even with all of this, that will never change…”
Come to think of it, maybe he wasn’t such a bad therapist after all.
There isn’t always a meaning, an answer, a way you’re supposed to feel. I’m talking about Ween again, of course. Their love of pastiche, their seemingly endless appetite for goofing off, and their partying weirdo fanbase all make this clear on their own. Yet, even in the mode of pastiche, certain songs like “Stay Forever” and “It’s Gonna be (Alright)” are just simple and sweet to the point that you have to wonder whether it’s an inside joke you’re outside of. It seems almost selfish that fans like me will still have our favorites in spite of this, those we either want to share with everyone we know or else keep quietly “ours.” And isn’t that enough to make the whole thing matter?
One of the consistent fan favorites at Ween’s live shows is “Awesome Sound.” The lyrics consist entirely of the thrice-repeated phrase, “I’ve got an awesome sound, going down,” followed by the grungily shouted, “I’ve got a pork roll, egg, cheese, and bacon!” All of this is nestled in five to fifteen or more minutes of heavy andante rock beat and sweet guitar work. It’s the epitome of Ween playing the role of rock stars. You could say that the whole spectacle is “all an act.” But for the fan rocking out in the audience – be they a tried and true down-with-the-brown follower, or an East Coast breakfast sandwich enthusiast, or just someone who needs to escape life for a while in that brief respite of awesome sound – does knowing it’s role-playing make it any less real?
Try as Ween might to portray themselves as just fucking off, there is always something in there. This in turn gives them the freedom to let what’s good about a song come out in its own right; if everything is a joke, then nothing is a joke either. How else could a rock group get away with sea shanties on their best album? Yet there sits “She Wanted to Leave,” the final song of The Mollusk. It starts with an aptly piratical 3/4, and details the short story of how a band of scoundrels board the narrator’s ship and kidnap his true love. The narrator’s first reaction is one of righteous indignation, and he orders his men to fire on the interloping ship. It’s only upon his true love’s plea for him not to shoot that he realizes that, in fact, he’s not the good guy here. She wanted to leave, after all, made all the more abundantly clear: “I’ve never loved thee.” Forced to reckon not only with this loss but with the fact that everything he’s sought in his life has been a lie, the narrator concedes as the tempo slows, “So go fetch your bottle of rum, dear friends, and fill up my glass to the rim, for I’m not the man I used to be: now, I’m one of them.”
For perhaps obvious reasons, this song resonates with me. But just to say that it’s relatable is weak, a half-truth. What it is for me is a provoker. It taps into not only the jealousy and fear that your true love might leave, but more so that you might be “one of them,” the very scoundrel for which the narrator first pinned the men who board his ship, a selfish prick who would steal someone away without care for what she wants or what’s “right.” There’s comfort for me in the way this little story is framed. For the listener, what starts as empathy for the ostensibly attacked and violated narrator quickly turns into understanding that the narrator deserves no empathy. It only takes seeing the true picture with the narrator’s bias removed. I for one am left with gratitude that I can drop that pretense of empathy, that I can say, confidently, that I am not the narrator; I am not “one of them.”
As if to confirm this, or to add insult to injury, the song concludes with a plaintive bit of fourth wall-breaking. After that final line, “Now, I’m one of them,” the music fades to silence, but the rhythmic oceanic ambience of wind and waves continues. We can imagine the narrator standing at the bow of his ship in silence, now that there is nothing left: all that remains of him (and Ween’s album) is the soulless sea.
But then, in a fantastic illustration of Weenian absurdity/profundity, music returns. Out of the left speaker, still muffled by the waves, a staccato piano begins, and soon joining it, a chintzy accordion-esque ensemble playing the melody from the goofy showtune that begins the album, “Dancing in the Show.” It’s not just the fact of the reprise that makes this brilliant, it’s the continued use of very visual sound. The tune begins softly, balanced far to the left ear, and then gradually sweeps to center, then off to the right, where it finally fades away with distance. Then the waves overtake the sound once again, and the track ends. It creates the image in sound of a small vessel, in my mind an overloaded rowboat, carrying the slipshod members of a band so much like Ween who have taken to the seas with utter lack of purpose or care, and who pass the narrator of “She Wanted to Leave” just to briefly pull him from his humiliated reverie, remind us all that there’s something delightful in absurdity, and then disappear over the horizon to leave him alone once more in his miserable new reality.
Burned in my memory: we’re at a wedding in southern France at a fairytale chateau outside of Aix-en-Provence. Leading up to the trip I’d felt the tug of an ongoing depressive episode. At this point I’ve been off medication for a while, so I keep the familiar symptoms quiet, as is my default, both for fear of ruining the trip and out of embarrassment that I’m not yet “better.”
My wife and I are with a couple of friends, and more we know from New York are here too. It’s all quite beautiful, lucky and bourgeois. I even keep my composure when she arrives after a delayed flight. I see my wife’s face light up as she checks her phone for the tenth time, and I know she wants nothing more than to jump up and run to her, though she’s keeping her cool in front of the others.
It’s only later in the evening, in all the abundance of wine and stimuli, that I feel the full ponderous pull of depression. I can’t dance or chitchat, and everywhere I put myself I feel searingly out of place. My thoughts take on that familiar accusatory vocal quality that drowns out all sound and reason: “What the fuck are you doing here? Nobody here is your friend. Nobody cares that you’re here.” I find myself pacing in an unlit portion of the garden, telling myself I’m just taking a breather, but I cannot bring myself to step back toward the noise and light of the party. Eventually my wife comes and finds me. She sits me down at our table in the corner and tries to calm me down but I start crying. I put my head down on the table. I can’t breathe.
Someone else comes over to the table, and of course, it’s her. She’s just come over from the dance floor: there’s a glisten of sweat on her brow and her face is relaxed the way it gets when she drinks but her eyes are bright with youth and vim. I lift my head and I’m sure that she sees that my face is all red and shitty looking, but she doesn’t make a thing of it. She just looks at me and asks, earnestly, “Can we go back to being silly?”
It’s one of the most perfect things anyone has ever said to me.
On January 24th, 2011, Ween embarks on a tour. The first major show will be in Vancouver. The tour will be the last the band plays before their breakup.
To say the show is a disaster doesn’t quite capture it. There’s something altogether more eerie about it, all visible in what little footage of the night is available. The way the set never really gets off the ground and instead looks and sounds like some kind of extended sound check, with band members milling around on the stage, tuning instruments and holding brief one-to-one conferences, the way Gene Ween’s wilder than usual hair looks in the spotlight, the way his voice takes on the tone of a pained, intoxicated plea as he tries to power through “Birthday Boy,” the way members of the audience seem torn between entertainment and concern as they cheer a supine Gene on, even when he’s the only one left onstage, willing themselves to believe that this is not a meltdown but rather just part of “the true Ween experience”… it all makes for a sinking sort of feeling. We all know how the rock-star-at-rock-bottom narrative ends.
Maybe that’s the Achilles heel of the fuck-all immortality that brought about the rise of Ween. Whether it meant slapping together a dorky pastiche track for the hell of it, or doing a shit-ton of coke for the hell of it, Ween would always stay the course. Embracing the idea that everything’s a joke if you take it seriously may let you do anything, may blunt any misguided attempt at criticism, but it also must insist on a kind of transcendence that may inevitably lead to a hard and complete fall. The Vancouver show was a wakeup call for Aaron Freeman. He could no longer go on laughing in the face of alcohol and drug abuse, could no longer goof away the obvious pain of depression and a divorce – in short, he could no longer be Gene Ween.
Fortunately, though, Freeman’s career doesn’t end there. It’s not the expected story, with fans proving their loyalty by expressing their profound loss as yet another celebrity overdose death story hits the internet. No – Freeman, in fact, soon releases another album.
The new band he creates is also called Freeman, and their eponymous album is unsurprisingly Ween-like. When I first heard a couple of songs on the album without context, I thought in fact they were some Ween songs I simply hadn’t heard. All of the songs on the album share some of that dreamy psychedelic charm and sedate groove spiked with alt-rock flair. But taken as a whole, the album differs from any Ween album because it omits the sinister undertone that drives the narrative reality of Ween’s work. Freeman sounds almost Eden-like at times. Songs like “There is a Form” emit a sunshine-y air. It’s as if Aaron Freeman wants to drive home the fact that he escaped his existence as Gene Ween – Free Man, get it?
But there’s one song on the album that lacks this borderline-saccharine happiness. “Covert Discretion,” the very first song, instead provides Aaron Freeman’s account of the incident in Vancouver. It’s very metered, with a repetitive structure that guides you through each stanza, all set to a sobering acoustic guitar. In stark contrast to essentially anything Ween had produced, Freeman’s song begins one night before the Vancouver show:
Covert discretion, in the hotel room, Ain’t it always the same? Another gig now, got an aching head, And I’m back on display. Ain’t no thing though, all the fans agree: We killed it tonight.
Gone is any rock-star pretense, any “Awesome Sound” braggadocio. Instead we have a human, vulnerable and alone in his hotel room. This setting and narrator are much more akin to that brief voice in “Exactly Where I’m At,” the fruition of the lyrics, “I’m on stage, it’s all an act. I’m really scared,” and yet it lacks even that song’s drive and will to press on through musical verve. Freeman sings as if his being real were something he’d need to hide, as if how badly he was spiraling could be hidden from anyone. Continuing his “covert” misery, we find the lonely narrator going down into the hotel lobby, where a few fans linger. For a little while, at least, he can prop up that party-going rock star illusion. With this, of course, comes drugs. They’ll be shared in the bathroom, to which he suggests with increasing bitterness, “Let’s be super cool,” even as the song continues with its methodical, melancholic, droning melody.
The Vancouver show would bring this all to a head. The climactic moment of Gene’s downfall occurs before we’ve boarded the bus to the Vancouver show. It’s here we see his language shift from “Yeah I’m down with the Brown” – trying to convince himself more than the drunken fans he’s with– to something much more cynical and true:
What a special thing, I’m your trophy boy. Get the fuck out my face. ‘Cause you will go home satisfied, And I’ll be blacked out for the night.
By running through the memory in real time, pinpointing the moment of Gene’s failure to pretend any longer, “Covert Discretion” elevates the whole history of the moment, preempting the obvious accusation that Freeman was the “bad guy” here. Instead it brings his overt depression to the forefront, and the question becomes, did nobody care to help?
What follows this moment is the only lyrical break. During the four-bar interlude evoking his blackout, Freeman strums his guitar with heavy strikes. You can practically feel his thumb and forefinger cutting against the strings. This isn’t a song he wants to do; it’s a story he has to tell.
When the lyrics resume, there isn’t all that much new ground to cover. The rest of the story about the show just has to fall into place. We hear of Freeman, self-confirming his worthlessness, “On the bus now. They won’t look at me. Man, it’s always the same.” That “Exactly Where I’m At” idea returns in the humble apology, “I wasn’t tryin’ to blow your fantasy.” Then, in a very subtle dynamic shift, the song slows and softens at the line, “Another chance now. I’m on the stage again,” as if there’s still a chance that the fate of the evening might shift. As if there’s still a chance for Gene Ween. But of course, Freeman must deliver the simple, defeated line that sums up the whole show: “But this time I don’t fly.”
There’s no break between the stanza covering the show and that of its aftermath. A few last details come in about how the same bandmates who left Gene “alone up there to die” call the next day, “makin’ sure I’m alive.” Granted, for someone as fucked up as Freeman was, it would be a legitimate concern, if a bit base. But it’s the calls he sees as half-hearted, those saying “Man you gotta end this, just walk away,” that lead him to the final line of the quiet acoustic story:
So save your judgments for someone else, And be grateful I saved me from myself.
Then, as if in final defiance of the expected rock bottom overdose/suicide narrative – you can’t put Gene Ween in a box! – electric guitar now swells along with driving rock bass and drums as Freeman delivers the manic, many-times repeated final lyric, “Fuck you all, I’ve got a reason to live, and I’m never gonna die.” That doesn’t sound healthy, and it’s not, but there it is.
Not only would Freeman and his career survive, but Ween would get back together a few years after that “final” performance. You can still see Gene, Dean, and the rest on tour today.
Given this practically unprecedented rebound, it’s understandable that Freeman would have some measure of embarrassment or regret for creating the final “fuck you” that the song was ultimately meant to be. There are very few instances reported of the song being performed live, and Ween and their fans have focused on moving forward as well as enjoying the favorites that made them.
But on some level, I’m sure Aaron Freeman regrets none of the words or sentiments he immortalized with the song. It was, and will always be, the story of who he was, and who Ween were, encapsulated in that moment, and the hindsight logic of the story as told in “Covert Discretion” is what allows the history of Ween to have any sort of truth to it at all. Without that truth, it really would be “all an act.” Without Freeman’s raw contemporary honesty in the song, Ween’s work could be seen as nothing more than the silly pastiche they created with facetious abandon.
I’m so damn glad they got a happy ending.
My favorite thing about the whole Ween story is that theirs is not the message of the millennial platitude “don’t let your dreams be dreams.” Rather, it’s that giving up on your dreams, to an extent, is part of becoming an adult. That, more than anything else, is why I treat Ween as if they were my therapist, or more simply, believe that Ween even helped me through some shit.
Really, it was just good timing that I’d stumble into admiration of Aaron Freeman, a person who figured this fact out the hard way, at the same time I was beginning to figure it out for myself. If Freeman could shed the burden of Gene Ween, then I could shed the childish, false and hollow idea of what it meant to be whole: to be a “real” writer; to have a “perfect” marriage.
It’s only in peeling away the sanctimonious truths I thought I knew about love that I could look back at what I left to see something truer. And only then could I even think about getting back up on the stage again.
I wanted to end this essay there, with this note of acceptance, of light at the end of the tunnel. But real stories don’t fit into boxes.
The woman my wife was seeing – damn it, I have to write the woman my wife loved – is no longer in contact with her. I can imagine myself years ago being smugly satisfied at the idea of it, as though it were a victory, but instead I’m left with the hollow truths of biology and fate, narrators so heartless and unstoppable that no protagonist or antagonist could compete.
My wife and I are new parents, and the birth of our daughter has led to a total re-definition of love that we never anticipated. It is a new kind of struggle, exhaustive in its joyousness, that we want nothing more than to share: look, look what we’ve managed to do, look how wondrous the world is. But through the eyes of someone struggling with fertility, scourged with the grief of loss and weighed down by the specter of what might never be, what avenue is there to share in any of that joy? How could we ask that of her?
For a few months after the news of my wife’s pregnancy, they maintain increasingly strained and distant contact, but soon their will to prop up the façade erodes. And so, with a phone call, the relationship ends.
My best friend texts me when we’re going through this, when I’m trying to figure out how to feel, trying to assign a reason to it. “Did you love her a little bit?” they ask me. “Of course I did,” I respond, as though just saying it could be enough to shut the book, close the show.
I find myself wishing that she’s still a part of our lives, as if her being present were the only way to make any of it real. But no closure is ever found in despair. I never found an answer through medication, nor could I ever quite write my way out of my trouble, keeping it real by keeping it silly the way I always thought Ween could.
Then again, a kind of answer can be found in Ween, in “Transdermal Celebration” from the album Quebec. The song is the Book of Revelation performed with hallucinatory compassion in place of violent finality, providing a haunting yet quietly hopeful portrait of a man lost. The chorus begins, “Hey, hey, a million miles to mark A.”
And no matter how many times I listen, I consistently mishear it as “Hey, hey, a million miles from O.K.”
That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? It hasn’t been easy, and I’m sure there will always be some things that I’d prefer to hide from. There will always be more pain to persevere through, and more joys to see if I do. All there is left is to continue forward, hoping that I’ve got the words right, hoping that happy endings can be real, hoping, even if I’m still another half a million miles from O.K., that we’ll get there.