It must have been around 1987 when people first started talking about the smartassed and hilarious Maximum Rocknroll scene reports emanating from Chicago and authored by a kid calling himself Ben Weasel. He combined a passionate belief in the music that he and his friends were making with a mercilessly skewering of Chicago punk rock's sacred cows, and before long it would be a rare copy of MRR that didn't contain at least one or two letters praising or (more often) denouncing the irascible Mr. Weasel.
I first met Ben in 1988 when he brought his band Screeching Weasel to Berkeley to play with Operation Ivy at Gilman Street. He was staying at Matt and Lint's house, and I'd barely walked in the door when he baited me into an argument, something which admittedly didn't take much effort in those days. It was probably something to do with the relative superiority of California vs. Chicago and/or his opinion that despite my punk rock trappings, I was too much of a mushbrained, sproutheaded hippie at heart, and it was an argument that would continue in one form or another over much of the following decade.
Screeching Weasel were not yet in their prime, but there was something special enough about them that I immediately wanted to put out records by them. But as it happened, their latest record was already set to come out on another label, and though we talked about it when they came back to California the following year, the band broke up before anything could come of it.
By now I'd become a huge Screeching Weasel fan, but between the breakup and the fact that despite their album selling quite well, he had very little to show it, Ben was pretty discouraged with the band. During the next couple years, we kept in touch by phone and talked a lot about what he might do next. I urged him to reunite Screeching Weasel in some form or another; Ben was of the opinion that it would be better to start fresh with a whole new band called the Gore Gore Girls.
Finally in 1991 Screeching Weasel was reborn and came to San Francisco to record My Brain Hurts. It wouldn't be their biggest-selling album, not by a long shot, but it was an absolutely seminal moment, not just for the band and for Lookout Records, but also for a whole generation (or two) of pop-punk bands. People argue to this day whether My Brain Hurts is the best Weasel album (Anthem For A New Tomorrow is the most frequently cited alternative), but few would deny how vital it was. Sales exceeded any expectations either the label or the band had had, and Ben, who'd written or co-written virtually everything the band had done, and who ran the S.S. Screeching Weasel as a very tight ship indeed, was for the first time faced with the semi-plausible prospect of making a decent career out of music.
For the next few years it was onward and upward. Each successive Screeching Weasel album met with instant success - at least by the pre-Dookie standards of what was still a relatively underground scene, the shows were getting bigger and bigger, and apart from the band, Ben was gaining a reputation as a powerful and incisive writer through his columns in MRR and other magazines.
And this is where I'd like to be able to say that everyone lived happily after, but it wasn't going to be quite that simple. As he began to reveal in his columns, Ben was suffering from increasing anxiety about playing shows and the pressures of being, at least within the relatively insular punk scene, more or less a superstar. At times, he said, it was difficult enough just to leave his house to journey to the corner store, let alone appear on stage before hundreds or thousands of maniacal fans.
It was during that same time that Ben and I began to fall out, our long-running but mostly good-natured arguments finally escalating into a vicious feud that lasted ten years and during which we never spoke directly to each other, though we did occasionally trade insults and accusations via the media. Although I didn't keep up as closely as I once had with his music and writing, I never stopped being a fan and never stopped listening to my Weasel records during those years.
When we finally met again at last year's Insubordination Fest in Baltimore, where Ben was giving a rare performance and resurrecting a number of Screeching Weasel classics, it was almost as though the bad years had never happened. Almost, I say, because Ben still felt conflicted about the whole idea of playing music for people. Actually, it wasn't so much the playing music part that bothered him - backed up by two of today's most exciting pop-punk bands, the Guts and the Steinways, and welcomed back by an adoring and rapturous crowd, Ben thoroughly enjoyed the experience. But within days the backbiting and criticism, often from people who weren't even there, started bubbling up through the internet, and on at least a couple occasions, Ben told me that he was pretty sure he was finished with playing music and was ready to move on to some other way of life.
Fast forward to May 25, 2008, and Ben strode confidently - and, from all appearances, happily - onto the stage in front of a sold-out crowd at Reggie's Rock Club on Chicago's South Side. The audience was going mental before he could say a word, and after thanking them for coming and explaining a little about the set he was going to play, he launched into "Acknowledge," the declaration and cri de coeur that had heralded Ben's turn toward the personal and introspective on the Weasel album Emo: "I am alive, I am here, I am now, I acknowledge the fact of my life."
Almost 20 years to the day after I first saw Screeching Weasel in California, I felt like I was watching Ben's triumphant homecoming. It had to be especially poignant for him, looking out at a fanatical crowd, members of which had come from a dozen or more states and a couple other countries to witness this moment, and knowing that he was doing so in the town where it had all started and where, face it, he hadn't always received such unanimous approbation. "When's the last time you saw Screeching Weasel?" I asked Patrick Hynes, my longstanding friend and partner in Lookout Records, who'd come out from California for the show.
"1993 at Gilman Street," he unhesitatingly told me, and I knew instantly which show he was talking about, because I'd been there too. Before we could say another word, Ben and the band tore into "Dingbat," the opening song from 1988's Boogada Boogada Boogada, the years fell away, and we along with everybody in the house were going crazy. There was barely a pause for breath before "Cindy's On Methadone" from My Brain Hurts, and there was no longer any doubt that this was going to be a truly magical experience.
Not surprisingly, the classics from the early 90s got the biggest response, and it would have been easy for Ben to put together a set of nothing but "greatest hits" (though perhaps at the risk of a few cardiac arrests among the no-longer-quite-so-young segment of the audience). But he seemed determined to provide an overview of his entire career, including tracks from last year's well-received solo effort These Ones Are Bitter and some Riverdales songs from the upcoming re-release of Phase 3. It all flowed together beautifully, and the pacing made it all the more effective when he unleashed some of my (and, I suspect, quite a few other people's) all time favorites like "What We Hate," "Teenage Freakshow," and, in one of the very few times I've actually seen it performed live (I was fortunate enough to be there when it was first recorded), "The Science Of Myth."
I've always been a My Brain Hurts man myself, but Anthem is a close second, and there was an ample helping of songs from it as well: "Peter Brady," "I'm Gonna Strangle You," and one of my personal favorites, "Falling Apart." After a brief interlude in which Mamma Weasel, Erika Crumbly, Weasel Radio's Owen Murphy, Matt Lame and several others took over the stage to hurl 500 donuts at the audience (don't ask; like many of the things being shouted back and forth and even the backdrop of a wizened old sailor on the USS Intrepid, it's a bit of a PPMB in-joke), Ben wrapped up what he later acknowledged as "the longest show I've ever played in my life" with a blinding five-song encore that finished with "Cool Kids" and had everyone in the room feeling like they were one.
I'm a big fan of redemption narratives, and for me that was exactly what I was privileged to witness. It felt as though Ben's years in the wilderness were over, that at last he was at peace with his gifts as a singer, writer and performer, and was able to share in the joy that they've brought to so many people over the years. It often seems that the longest and hardest, but ultimately most rewarding road is the one that takes us back home to where we've belonged all along. It would be presumptuous of me to suggest that I know - or indeed have any idea - what the future holds for Ben in terms of his career, but I will note that he's already talking about doing a couple - maybe even three or four - more shows later this summer. Based on what I saw Sunday night, he'll never be short of an audience. Nor should he be. The man is a genius and a treasure. Long may he run.