My old friend Ben Weasel is having a bit of a comeback these days. Maybe more than a bit; after toiling for a quarter of a century in the vineyards of pop punk and punk rock, his newest release, out March 15, might be the one that finally catapults him into the realms of substantive remuneration.
It’s not as though he did so badly during the 1990s heyday of Screeching Weasel and the Riverdales, and he also netted a big cash payout from the sale of his Panic Button record label, but since that time things had dried up. With both of his bands inactive or broken up, depending on how you look at it (Screeching Weasel, for example, spent nearly half of its 25 year history “broken up” without ever showing signs of actually going away), Ben’s solo releases and appearances attracted attention and critical approval, but little in the way of profits.
Not unlike The Queers, with whom they share a long interlinked history, Screeching Weasel has always consisted of Ben accompanied by whichever set of musicians he happened to be playing with at the time. Both bands have a “classic” lineup (Joe, B-Face and Hugh O’Neill for the Queers; Ben, John Jughead, Dan Vapid and Danny Panic for the Weasels) and era (early to mid-90s), but no serious fan would deny that Boogada Boogada Boogada, recorded and released before Vapid and Panic were on the scene was a “genuine” Screeching Weasel record, which makes a mockery of some contemporary critics carping that the latest Weasel incarnation is somehow less real because Jughead is no longer in the fold. (Vapid is, however, and one could argue that his trademark harmonies and guitar lines have become nearly as definitive of the Screeching Weasel sound as Ben’s gravelly, impassioned vocals.)
As fans of the genre will know, I have quite a bit of history with both Ben and Screeching Weasel, and not all of it is pretty. I met Ben in 1988, when the Boogada-era version of the band came to Berkeley to play Gilman Street with Operation Ivy, but his reputation and charisma had already preceded him. At the time I was working at and writing for Maximum Rocknroll, the then-crucial fanzine none too subtly lampooned as Punk Bible in Ben’s thinly veiled roman à clef Like Hell (2001).
Ben would eventually become one of MRR’s most popular columnists, but prior to that he was sending in Chicago scene reports that were not only refreshingly irreverent and hilarious, but possessed the added fillip of absolutely infuriating the Windy City’s older and more established scenesters. Scarcely an issue passed without one or more letters demanding to know who “this kid” thought he was and why we were letting him speak for the Chicago scene when they’d never even heard of his stupid band from somewhere out in the suburbs.
The reason we did was, of course, that Ben’s scene reports embodied the punk rock ethos and aesthetic: the irreverence was more than balanced out by his almost palpable idealism and excitement for not just the music, but the whole community that was then growing up around punk rock. His smart-assed, confrontational personality was only one facet of the real Ben Weasel, I realized within minutes of our first encounter, when he greeted me with a stock putdown of the California granola-head lifestyle that, rather than getting the rise out of me he was clearly hoping for, merely reawakened my inner Detroiter (very much like a Chicagoan, only with a bigger inferiority complex), and we were off to the races, talking shit and shinola about everything and everybody.
That conversation continued by phone and letters through the next couple years, during which Screeching Weasel underwent its first “breakup” and Ben spent a couple years growing disillusioned and embittered over the fact that while Boogada had sold something in the neighborhood of 5,000 copies (a stunning achievement for a relatively unknown band at that time), he and the band had almost no money to show for it. I shared Ben’s shock and amazement; if Screeching Weasel had sold the same number of records on Lookout, they would have been raking in the money. This wasn’t idle speculation; although Lookout was still a fledgling label, we had two bands who were in the 5,000-records-sold ballpark, so I needed only look at my quarterly statements to know whereof I was speaking.
That evolved into a discussion of Ben coming to record for Lookout. I’d made an offer to him in 1988, but Boogada was already committed to another label (the one that would ultimately stiff him). There was a sticking point, however: Ben wanted to put “Screeching Weasel” to bed and start a new band under a new name, the Gore Gore Girls. I listened to the tapes and said, “Sounds like Screeching Weasel. Why don’t you just be Screeching Weasel? Why throw away all the publicity and credibility you’ve already built up?”
The crux of it was that Ben wanted to be on Lookout; I wanted him to be on Lookout, but as Screeching Weasel. He ultimately assented, and came out to California to make what for my money remains, hasty and haphazard production and all, the greatest Screeching Weasel record ever, My Brain Hurts. It sold like gangbusters – deservedly so – and for the first time in his life, Ben was deriving a significant amount of income from playing punk rock, something that until that time he had never quite believed possible.
It’s no secret that while the relationship between Screeching Weasel and Lookout Records went very well for a while – probably for longer than with any of the numerous labels the band has since been associated with – it eventually turned very sour indeed. Bitter, even: despite all evidence to the contrary, Ben became convinced that I was ripping him off, and I maintained just as steadfastly that I had treated him with the same honesty, openness and yes, even generosity, that I had shown to every band on Lookout.
The dispute has been bandied about endlessly in public and private, so there’s no sense in rehashing it here; it’s long since passed the point where a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. For nearly 10 years Ben and I had no contact apart from the occasional barb exchanged in the media, but in 2007 we began communicating again, at least in part because Ben’s interest had been piqued by the Pop Punk Message Board (PPMB), an online community that for me represented some of the best aspects of the old MRR and Gilman Street scenes minus the political and intellectual rigidity and proscriptiveness.
Among the PPMB’s recurring tropes is a constant reworking of “What’s your favorite Screeching Weasel record?” and the classic Weasel lineup was beyond question the ur-band by which all “board bands” were measured. Ben’s participation in the PPMB led to a highly acclaimed appearance at that summer’s annual Insubordination Fest, the high holy days of modern pop punk.
Nearly everyone there recalls a New Ben, a happy, smiling Ben, who readily, enthusiastically interacted with fans and showed every sign of enjoying being back on stage again. (I should note that one of Screeching Weasel’s recurring difficulties – the Riverdales’ as well – had been Ben’s growing antipathy for nearly every aspect of touring and performing in public.) This led to a series of shows, beginning in his former home town of Chicago, then in a few other towns around the country – as long as he could fly in and out in a weekend, it didn’t count as “touring” – in which, billed as Ben Weasel, he and a newly put together band performed a medley of Screeching Weasel, Riverdales, and Ben Weasel songs.
At first the shows were instant sellouts, with people (yours truly included) flying in from other states and even other countries, but gradually the excitement died down, and Ben grew perturbed once more about his future. Worse, he’d fallen out with the PPMB, home of his most impassioned and influential fans, for what I can understand would be upsetting but still seemed trivial reasons. A handful of self-appointed loudmouths had been taking him to task for allegedly making too much money at the Insub Fest (he didn’t; in fact he was very modestly paid) and otherwise not pandering to their particular and peculiar notions of what constituted “punk rock.”
Considering the abuse that had been heaped on Ben over the years by “da punx,” it was pretty mild stuff, especially when you considered that most PPMBers still loved him. But though I urged him to overlook and/or laugh at these attacks, he ultimately concluded that, contrary to his initial impression, the PPMB was a “cesspool” of bottom feeders, and that he’d be better served by starting his own message board where he’d be free to ban anyone with disagreeable opinions or (one of his favorite tactics) edit posts to make them say something quite different from what the poster had originally intended.
While the Riverdales Discussion Board attracted its share of witty and personable members, several of whom permanently defected from the PPMB (your motives and character were called into question if you visited “that board” unless on a specific mission to obtain information or make mischief), but also drew a group of sycophants so thrilled at the opportunity to interact with “the” Ben Weasel that they would say or do virtually anything he asked.
It began to resemble an online amalgam of Orwell’s 1984 and Enver Hoxha’s Albania, with a side order of Lord Of the Flies. Those who took the business seriously – primarily the sycophants – lived in fear of uttering a wrong word or opinion – and what was considered “wrong” changed with dizzying rapidity – which would result in a temporary or permanent banning; in Orwellian terms, becoming an unperson. As if that weren’t enough, there was a secret board-within-a-board invisible to most members, where the inner circle, what would have been called the Central Committee in commie days, could gather to ridicule and gossip about everyone else. I suspect there might even have been a secret board-within-a-board-within-a-board that I wasn’t privy to, but I’ll probably never know now.
Because, sadly, I’m no longer a member of the inner circle, nor the outer circle, nor any circle at all. I’m even banned from following Ben on Twitter. And how, you ask, did this sorry state of affairs come to pass?
Before I delve into that, let me bring you up to speed on the Screeching Weasel front. As you’ll recall, the Ben Weasel solo shows were beginning to run out of steam, and Ben, in unguarded moments, was expressing some concern at what he was to do next. I urged him, just as I had in 1990 and 1991, to resume using the name Screeching Weasel. It’s your “brand,” I told him. It’s got an indefinable and invaluable cachet that you created and that you deserve to benefit from.
A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but a piece of music clearly identified as Screeching Weasel will sell more sweetly. I’d found that out back in the Lookout days when the clearly superior My Brain Hurts lagged noticeably behind the also excellent but inconsistent Boogada when it came to sales. The explanation, when it finally hit me, was blatantly obvious: the Boogada cover featured the classic Weasel head that has launched a thousand punk rock tattoos; My Brain Hurts had some weird artsy crap that barely let you know it had anything to do with Screeching Weasel.
I don’t claim sole responsibility for Ben’s decision to re-christen his music-making endeavors as Screeching Weasel. It could be that many people were telling him the same thing, or that he himself had been leaning in that direction. But however it came about, my prediction came true: a simple name change produced a stunning uptick in demand, to the point where he was not only able to pack out larger venues than he’d been able to play before, but was also able to demand – and get – five-figure performance fees he could have only dreamed of a couple years earlier.
It helps, of course, that he’s put together a band that, while perhaps lacking the je ne sais quoi of the “classic” lineup, is easily the most technically gifted and adept group of musicians he’s ever played with, and married that with top-flight production values on both the new Weasel record and efforts by the similarly revived Riverdales (almost but not quite the same personnel).
So, it looks like it can only be onward and upward from here, and while I hesitate to make predictions, let me say that if Ben/Screeching Weasel are ever going to break through to the mainstream, this will be their time to do it, and I’d say the chances of that happening are better than average. But what, you might still be wondering, about that bustup between Ben and myself?
Well, it’s about that old bugbear, politics. Ben and I have, over the years, argued politics from a variety of different standpoints. We’ve both changed positions numerous times, enough so that there’ve been times when I’ve been to the right of him and other times to the left. My own shifts have been more dramatic than his; when we first met I was a firebrand, garden variety leftist with overtones of both hippie and punk rock extremism, whereas he’s generally gravitated between slightly left and slightly right of center.
But that changed when he acquired a fondness or at least a sympathy for Sarah Palin and then for the whole Tea Party movement. I suspect his devotion to either cause was not as wholehearted as it seemed, and flowed at least partially out of the old Weaselian desire to provoke and disturb those who think in slogans rather than ideas. But as these things often do – I’ve caught myself pulling the exact same stunt in dealing with lockstep leftists – the provocative statements begin to take on a life and reality of their own.
I was one of the few people on the Riverdales board allowed to passionately and defiantly dispute Ben’s take on government spending (he’s against it) and government health care (ditto). But I finally ran afoul of him when, in his words, I made things “personal” (this from the man who suggested that my own ideas must stem from being “on drugs” and who erased a carefully reasoned and written argument I’d posted and replaced it with the Simpsons internet meme “old man yells at clouds.”
What had I said that was so offensively “personal?” Merely pointed out that by opposing Obama’s “bailouts” and health care plans as unaffordable, he was being kind of hypocritical, considering that his own family derived much of its income and all of its health insurance from the State of Wisconsin (his wife’s employer), which in turn was staying in business only through the grace of – wait for it – those damned Obama stimulus funds.
“That’s different,” he retorted in various ways, refusing to engage with my contention that, as the old 60s slogan had it, all politics is personal. You want to cut spending, you want to cut health care? Great. Now tell me whose benefits, whose health care you’re cutting. Because it always comes down to that. “Government spending” is not some abstract pie-in-the-sky concept that you can slash without consequences, and I demanded repeatedly that Ben explain exactly who was going to have to go without a government job and government health care so that Ben and his family could continue to enjoy theirs.
Well, that’s where it ended. My next visit to the Riverdales Board found me confronted with a ban notice charging that “You can’t argue politics without making it personal,” to which I can only answer, “Neither can anybody else.” And now, with what some might call delicious irony, Ben is up in arms over a whole new cause: the Tea Party-affiliated governor of Wisconsin has had the unmitigated gall to do what the Tea Party and Sarah Palin were saying all along they would do: cut government spending and benefits, and suddenly Ben’s own family is in line for the chop.
We’re talking, most likely, about a few hundred bucks at most here, but it’s the principle, damn it (i.e., it’s the money), and overnight Ben is practically singing the International and Solidarity Forever over the perfidiousness of those damned Republicans (don’t worry, he hasn’t come around to supporting Obama, who he still reviles as a tax-grabbing liberal, or those “dumb ass left wingers” who, through organizing unions, won that pay and those benefits for the Weasel family in the first place).
In fact, he claims, he’s now “getting it from both ends,” Republican and Democrat, which he takes, with a certain morbid sanguinity, as a sign that he has “finally” arrived in the middle class. And so he has; between his wife’s government job, his family’s government health care, and his greatly increased income from playing and recording punk rock, he’s in a position that most Americans – and nearly all aspiring musicians – can only dream of. All tatty little political disagreements aside, I wish him well, hope he enjoys the ride, and wonder if perhaps next time he’ll be a little more careful about what he wishes for.