Some people find it hard to believe that after all the ups and rather precipitous downs we’ve been through, I could still harbor a bit of sympathy for Ben Weasel and the predicament he has most recently gotten himself into.
I find it a little unbelievable myself. In my younger years, in fact for most of my years, I was a fairly vengeful and resentful fellow. If someone wronged me, either in reality or in my imagination, I was not likely to forget it anytime soon. I didn’t always do something about it, especially if the person in question was bigger, stronger, or otherwise more powerful than me, but I’d at least devote a great deal of time to hatching plots and sketching scenarios whereby I’d get my much-merited revenge.
When I did try to put these schemes into action, they’d usually come to nothing or backfire on me, and on the few occasions when they did work out the way I’d planned, I’d wind up regretting it, or even feeling sorry for the person I’d supposedly been wreaking vengeance on. My fond fantasies notwithstanding, I never would have made it as a Machiavellian.
So when my relationship with Ben reached a new nadir last week, when he published some truly awful misinformation about me on the internet, my first reaction was not to get revenge on him by posting some similarly scandalous misinformation (for that matter, when you’ve known the guy as long as I have, you don’t even need to make things up; the truth can be bad enough). No, actually it was to pray for him.
I’m serious, too. I’m not claiming to be so devout or turn-the-other-cheekish that I didn’t have other, darker impulses, and I don’t wish to enter into a theological debate about who or what I was praying to. For those of you who believe in some sort of God, the short and sweet version is that I was asking God to bless and take care of Ben, and to bring him the happiness and success. For those of you who have no truck with deities, think of it as me sending best wishes, “good vibes,” as the hippies would put it, willing the universe to enfold him in its arms, lighten his load, and make smooth his path.
So, you might infer, I must be really bad at this praying/good vibe-wishing business, because within days Ben underwent the most spectacular meltdown of his career under the merciless gaze of dozens if not hundreds of cameras and numerous representatives from the national media. He even made it onto the nightly TV news for his foul-mouthed rant against the South By Southwest festival, the music journalists and industry flacks there to see him, and the fans who grew testy and confrontational in the face of his complaints about his label, his staff, about not being paid enough and even himself, for having agreed to play the show in the first place.
It all culminated, of course, in an ugly brawl in which Ben jumped into the audience, took a swing at one woman who’d been harassing him with taunts, chucked ice cubes, and a mouthful of either saliva or beer (accounts vary) launched in his direction. Which he then followed up with a couple attempts to hit another woman, who turned out to be the manager of the place.
People have tried to spin this as garden-variety woman-bashing, which I don’t think is accurate or fair to Ben. If I know him – and I think I do – I feel confident that given his state of mind, he would have swung at anyone or anything, regardless of gender. And to me, that state of mind was the real problem, far more than the actual punches, none of which seemed to connect with any great force, nor done any substantive damage.
Except to Ben and his career, of course. The first fallout came with the cancellation of the following night’s show in San Antonio, which couldn’t have come cheap. Rumors – almost certainly inflated – had him passing up a $25,000 payout in order to get the heck out of Texas, but even if the amount was only half that, it would have been a hefty loss, especially considering that it represented half the money (a Friday night show in Dallas being the other half) meant to make up for his having accepted a nominal $250 (“We normally get that much per song”) for the SXSW showcase.
Seeing videos of Ben’s performance, which appeared to contain as much diatribe and vitriol as it did actual music, I realized that his foul temper was part and parcel of a mood that had been building up all week, and that his attacks on me and other people, particularly a transsexual poster on the PPMB, had almost certainly been a part of it.
But why? It should have been one of the best weeks of his life. Mr. Weasel had, you might say, finally got all his ducks in a row: he had gained complete control of the lucrative Screeching Weasel brand, and put together a band of outstanding musicians capable of bringing his musical visions to life with a level of prowess that exceeded – at least on a technical basis – all previous lineups, even the “classic” one. A new album, the first in 11 years, had come out to mostly positive reviews, and showed signs of being the one that might finally edge Screeching Weasel into the musical and cultural mainstream.
Is it too flippant, then, to ask, “Why so glum?” I had a similar go-round with Ben back in the early to mid-90s, when, just as he was achieving some of his greatest commercial success, he announced that he found the rigors of touring and performing on stage nearly unbearable. At the time, I found it difficult to be sympathetic; in my own narrow view, no sane person would pass up an opportunity to be a rock star who could play night after night before crowds of adoring fans.
It was insensitive and clueless on my part not to understand that one person’s dream can be another’s nightmare, and not to take seriously his earnest protestations that most of the time he found it too painful to put himself through the wringer that live performances entailed for him. When I had matured (or, to put it bluntly, sobered up) enough to understand this, I apologized, and encouraged him to find other, less stressful ways of pursuing his career.
Which, until this last weekend, he seemed to be doing. Granted, he and I, after a period of tentatively renewing our friendship, had again drifted apart, primarily as a result of differences over politics and religion, but this didn’t seem a major deal; I disagree with almost everyone, sometimes including myself, about politics and religion, and yet manage to maintain civil relationships most of the time.
But where we really seemed to run afoul was over what seemed like an increasingly hostile, negative, almost hateful attitude Ben began exhibiting toward almost anyone who crossed him, even if it was something as minor as saying they didn’t like the new record as much as previous efforts. Ben had always been sharp-tongued and smart-alecky, often to hilarious effect. It was one of the qualities that made me admire and like him from the first time we met.
Lately, though, the humor seemed to grow more heavy-handed and, even when it was funny, it was often at a level that had you wondering, “Whoa, should I really be laughing at this? Do I like myself when I laugh at stuff like this?” On the day his new album was officially released, Ben unleashed a Don Rickles-cum-Charlie Sheen offensive on the PPMB, seeming to seek publicity (or possibly just amuse himself) by hurling insults with a velocity and intensity even long-standing friends and acquaintances had never witnessed.
I’m not a perfect human being, not even close, and I’ll readily admit that I laughed out loud at some of his sallies, especially the brutally childish sort that mocked people for being fat or wearing glasses. And I’ll admit as well that while I tried to abstain from the fray as much as possible, I joined in on some of the wisecracks, some of the “carnival of Schadenfreude” (Ben’s eerily prescient characterization of the whole SXSW phenomenon) that followed his spectacular fall from grace.
But while the darker, pettier side of me wanted to shout “karma’s a bitch,” the part of me that rules the roost most days was deeply saddened. Even after Ben posted an apology that sounded sincere to some and to others as though it had been written by his publicist (not surprisingly, I found myself somewhere in the middle), I didn’t much feel like listening to my favorite Screeching Weasel tracks, not even the ones that have been in steady rotation on my iPod for as long as I’ve had one, and on my Walkman long before that.
The troubling thing about Ben’s apology was that while taking full responsibility for his own actions, he couldn’t resist throwing in a veiled comment about the actions of the offending audience members that seemed to suggest Ben’s actions were, if not acceptable, at least a little understandable.
The way I was taught to apologize is to keep the focus on myself. If I’ve injured someone, regardless of why or how I did it, I try to describe exactly what I’ve done and why I regret it, and avoid as completely as possible any discussion of what the other person might have done to deserve it. This is because when I apologize, my primary reason for doing so is to undo the harm I’ve done to myself. I can make amends to my victim, repay any loss, replace what was broken, but try as I might, I can’t fix them, can’t repair their damage.
This being so, you might ask, why am I commenting on Ben’s behavior at all? Well, first off, because this isn’t an apology. I’ve said and done things to hurt Ben in the past, and I’ve acknowledged and apologized for them, but in this case I don’t feel I’ve done anything wrong, not when I upbraided him for speaking crudely to and about a transsexual woman, and not when I described my feelings and thoughts about his recent misfortune.
He may or may not believe it, but I still like him, still wish him well, and hope very much that both he and his life get better soon. I’m not a shrink or a doctor or a priest, so I won’t presume to judge or even guess exactly what went wrong for him, but I don’t need to be any of those things to know that a happy man at peace with himself does not say or do the kinds of things Ben Weasel did last week. I doubt I’ll be visiting him or going to hear him play music any time soon, but I’d be thrilled, once he’s done wrestling with whatever demons might be assailing him at the moment, to see him back out in the public eye and enjoying all the success and adulation he and his music deserve.