How the West Was Ween
In 1994 Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo, better known to the world at large as Gene and Dean Ween, issued Chocolate and Cheese, an Elektra Records release that won critical praise, significant radio airplay (for the groovy cut "Voodoo Lady") and frequent exposure on that repository of cultural significance, Beavis and Butt-head. The success of the opus clearly primed the populace as a whole for another wry shot of rock, rhythm and blues and avant-garde-friendly experimentation from these spiritual brothers. So why, oh why, did Ween follow up its commercial breakthrough with this year's 12 Golden Country Greats, an album whose title is numerically inaccurate (it contains only ten cuts) but spiritually on the mark?
"We were just going to do it for the experience," says Gene. "We didn't know if we were going to use it or not. But when it was finished, we decided to put it out. We thought, 'Wow, this could be counted as our next record for Elektra. We could make a lot of dough for this.'"
Doubt it. Gene and Dean may have more than a passing familiarity with recreational chemicals (they speak more openly about their drug experiences than anyone this side of Timothy Leary), but they're not so dazed as to believe that a long-player consisting of countrified parodies (plus a few ditties that come within spitting distance of sincerity) would rocket them onto the rock pantheon alongside Eddie Vedder and Bono. Truth be told, Country Greats (produced by auteur Ben Vaughn) is pretty much of a lark that demonstrates the boys' complete disinterest in playing the music-industry game.
When pressed, Gene fesses up to his actual goal--or more accurately, his lack of an actual goal--for the package. "The intention of this record was not really to sell mega-millions. That's why we put it out in July, a time when you never want to put out a record--unless you're Van Halen and you know it's going to sell no matter when you put it out. As far as record sales and hype, all the college kids are home for the summer and they're not really buying anything. So this wasn't supposed to be a blockbuster record. It was just something cool that our fans could have, you know? We didn't even make a video for this record."
That's too bad, since now it's unlikely that we'll get the chance to see Gene and Dean singing alongside the Jordanaires, the Elvis Presley background singers who contribute their unmistakable harmonies to tracks with titles like "Help Me Scrape the Mucus Off My Brain." This tune, a sonic dead ringer for Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman," is indicative of the Ween boys' approach. Musically, it's well-structured and tidy, with nifty playing by a crew of gen-u-wine Nashville sidemen such as Charlie McCoy and Hargus "Pig" Robbins. But the lyrics--well, the lyrics include random observations that affectionately tweak C&W conventions. For instance? "I think I spent the dog-food money/But he'll love me just the same."
"Piss Up a Rope" ("You're up shit's creek/ With a turd for a paddle") is considerably less subtle; its cheerfully misogynistic references to oral sex and hygiene problems would no doubt put a kink in the colons of Loretta Lynn fanciers. Tex Ritter aficionados will be equally offended by "Fluffy," a faux-weeper about a mutt who spends most of his time chewing on his leg ("Why'd you do it on the porch?"). But "Japanese Cowboy," "Pretty Girl" and most of the rest of Country Greats demonstrate that these guys sincerely like country music--a point Gene repeatedly underlines. "This isn't just a shtick," he says. "We have a lot of respect for country music--like Merle Haggard and all those guys from the Fifties and Sixties."
However, Gene's praise dries up as soon as contemporary country is mentioned. "It's pretty bad," he declares. "These new guys find some stupid line that an older country musician would have thrown away in one breath--something like, 'All I need is my truck and my farm'--and they base a whole song on it. There's nothing else; it's just ridiculous." After a pause, he adds, "New country music is more of a parody of country music than anything we could come up with."
Gene is selling himself short. Although he and Dean are only in their mid-twenties, they've been collaborating on songs--some farcical, some relatively straight-faced, most somewhere between these two extremes--for a dozen years. They met twelve years ago while attending a typing class at New Hope-Solebury Junior High in their hometown of New Hope, Pennsylvania, and promptly realized that they had a frightening amount in common. "We started exchanging records," Gene remembers. "He gave me some punk-rock records and I gave him Prince records, Devo records, a Laurie Anderson record. We were both really into music, and from there on, we just freaked out on it. At first we weren't really friends, but that changed when we started recording. Recording has been part of our friendship from day one, which is pretty interesting.
"There's Ween recordings from 1984. Most of the stuff back then was crap--screaming and open-tuned guitars--but it's all there. Hopefully someday we'll do a boxed set--an unreleased boxed set, like the Dylan bootleg stuff. We could fill up four or five discs, easy."
Even Gene doesn't know how many of these compositions were written in a narcotic-fueled frenzy, but there's no question that he and Dean spent a lot of time during their formative years experimenting with mind-altering substances. As a result, Gene sees the Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole's declaration of a drug "crisis" with a jaundiced eye. In fact, he believes Dole might benefit from trying an illegal compound or two himself. "Cocaine, probably," he decides. "I think he should go on a binge."
Despite this cavalier attitude, Gene insists that "none of my friends seem to be having any big drug problems these days. Like, I don't know anyone who's addicted to smack or anything--although the media makes you think that every musician in the world is on that shit. If I saw one of my musician friends who was addicted to it right now, I would just start cracking up, because it's such a cliche. I'd be like, 'Stop sucking the media dick.' I mean, that's pretty uncool. Six years ago, when nobody was doing it, it might have been cool. But at this point, it's like, 'What do you want me to do--call Entertainment Tonight for you and ask them if they want to do an interview?'"
Actually, the story of Ween's discovery might be just as intriguing to tabloid-TV types: The twosome's rise to fame and fortune--or at least a contract with a notable indie--has a Lana Turner ring to it. Shortly after graduating from high school, Gene and Dean played a party in Maplewood, New Jersey, that was attended by a staffer at Twin Tone, the Minneapolis label best known for launching the Replacements. A contract soon followed, and in 1990 the company issued Ween's debut, God, Ween, Satan: The Oneness. This epic has a homemade feel about it, as does The Pod, put out by Shimmy Disc the following year. Dedicated to "the loving memory of Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo," Pod is as eclectic as it can be: On numbers such as "Strap On That Jammypac," "Can U Taste the Waste?" and "Sketches of Winkle," the stars of the show hopscotch from style to style like a cosmic CD player set on the random-select mode.
Overall, The Pod was great fun but seemingly uncommercial--the kind of thing that practically demanded cult status. But the folks at Elektra Records disagreed: They offered Gene and Dean a hefty deal. The Ween siblings responded to this vote of confidence with Pure Guava, a nineteen-song collection that's every bit as weird as its predecessors. "Flies on My Dick" and "Hey Fat Boy (Asshole)" didn't get much airplay, but "Push th' Little Daisies" did, winning for Ween a growing college-age crowd whose size expanded dramatically following the appearance of Chocolate and Cheese, which is far and away Ween's best release. Dispensing with low-fi, Gene and Dean cut the album with professional studio gear and discovered in the process their production acumen. "Baby Bitch" and "Don't Shit Where You Eat" are crammed with the usual rude rhymes, and "Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)" is actually rather disturbing, but the music and performances are so unrestrained and ebullient that they lifted the group to a new level. Suddenly, the sky was the limit.
In a sense, then, Country Greats represents a holding action--a pause before the next Ween manifesto. Gene reassures anyone worried that he and Dean have entered the "Weird" Al Yankovic zone that the new record is a one-shot. "We're not going to do anything else like this again, if only because so many people have asked us if we were going to," he notes. "Like, 'What are you going to do next, a heavy-metal record?' No way. The next record is going to sound a lot more like Ween.
"The country thing was easy for us to do because we've always written country-like songs. Like 'Drifter in the Dark,' on the last record. But to write a metal record or a reggae record would involve a lot of work. And I don't even know if I could sit down and write that many songs in the same genre. Besides, country is just more fun."
Which is why Ween is on the road with Nashville session men Bobby Ogdin, Danny Parks, Stu Basore and Hank Singer--not to promote Country Greats, but to have a good time. Gene is confident that most Ween devotees will enjoy themselves, too.
"Our fans are pretty open to things," he says. "Not to talk shit, but it's not like Fugazi fans, who would freak out if Fugazi did something that didn't sound exactly like everything else they'd ever done. I guess we might get yelled at by some people, but I'm ready for that. I'll single them out--I'll reduce them to shreds from the stage. And then we'll play another country song."
Ween, with Doo Rag. 9 p.m. Thursday, October 17, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $15, all ages, 820-2525 or 1-800-444-
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