By Jim DeRogatis
"Its been a long time," Ben Foster says
as he takes the stage at Chicagos House of Blues. To be precise, its almost
seven years to the day since his bands last hometown performance. In its absence,
the pop-punk scene it helped inspire has produced platinum sellers such as Green Day,
Blink-182, and the Offspring. There but for the grace of God and Fosters big mouth
could be Screeching Weasel.
The group is still a considerable drawit has sold
out two shows with a total of 2,600 ticketsbut Screeching Weasel is no arena act. It
made its name in rented VFW halls and crummy suburban bars, and it looks supremely out of
place under the ornate frescoes and faux outsider art decorating the House Dan Akroyd
Built. It would probably be playing elsewhere if Fosterbetter known as Ben
Weaseldidnt nurture ancient feuds with every other promoter in town.
Glaring like a deranged preacher, Foster leads the band
through a hail of two-minute anthems spanning 10 albums and 14 years: "Im Gonna
Strangle You," "I Dont Give A Fuck," Cyndys On Methadone,"
"Gotta Girlfriend." Eight songs and 15 minutes into the set, he takes a breather
and surveys the crowd, an odd mix of kids who were in Pampers when the group formed and
potbellied punks wearing cracked leather jackets that scream of beery reminiscing about
the good old days.
"This is a song about getting on with your
life," he says, and the group launches into "Acknowledge."
"I am alive! I am here! I am now! I acknowledge the
fact of my life!"
Many in the crowd join in, propelled by the frenetic
drumming and buzzsaw guitars. Its a transcendent punk-rock momenta celebratory
declaration of joy, defiance, and triumphmade all the more poignant by the fact that
six months ago, Foster was plagued by panic attacks so intense that the mere thought of
leaving his apartment left him gasping for air. The four-block walk to the post office
"was like storming Normandy on acid. Half the time Id turn around half way
there and try not to run home." Agoraphobia, his therapist called it, the fear of
being in open spaces. For two years, he hardly left the apartment, and friends thought
hed never perform live again.
The Halloween weekend shows are partly a celebration of
Fosters triumph over adversity. If he hasnt entirely vanquished his demons, he
has at least beaten them into submission, chronicling the battle and finding catharsis on
a pair of extraordinary albums, 1999s Emo and 2000s Teen Punks in
The gigs are also a reminder of the bands enduring
popularity. Its most successful album, 1988s Boogada Boogada Boogada!, has
sold more than 100,000 copies, many of those for its own label, the aptly named Panic
Button Records. Its T-shirts are ubiquitous at punk house parties as well as corporate
rock fests like Warped. Guitarpunk.com even manufactures a "Weaselrite" model
designed to Fosters specs. Itll set you back $695, but the groups
cartoon logo comes stenciled on the headstock.
Screeching Weasel is the punk band that made it cool
again to embrace bubblegum melodiesthe missing link between the Ramones and the
Buzzcocks and pop-punks modern-day heroes. As Green Day progressed from recording
for Lookout! and opening for Screeching Weasel to having hits for Warner Bros. and
headlining arenas, Billie Joe Armstrong frequently turned to Foster for advice. In 1994,
Mike Dirnt gave the group a boost by playing bass on How to Make Enemies and Irritate
People and wearing its T-shirt onstage at Woodstock. That same year, Blink-182
covered "The Girl Next Door" on its first album Buddha. Says guitarist
Tom DeLonge: "Screeching Weasel was probably the biggest influence on my songwriting
after the Descendents. I absolutely loved that band."
Contrary to popular belief, bolstered by the fact that
the band released a cover version of the Ramones entire first album, Foster did not
set out to clone Da Brudders from Queens. Raised in a working-class family in the Chicago
suburb of Prospect Heights, he was a pot-smoking metalhead expelled from three different
high schools for unruly behavior and chronic truancy. "How do you get kicked out so
much? You stand up in class when the teacher asks you a question and you say, Fuck
you!" he says. "So the school district and the state agreed to split the
bill for my stay at this place in Poland, MaineI use the word rehab
because its too difficult to explain what it really was."
The Elan School was actually a therapeutic community
based on the model of Californias controversial Synanon. For the first year of a
21-month stay, Foster rebelled, and he was the victim of many a
"shot-down"screaming verbal reprimands from his peers. In time, he
discovered that he could give as good as he got. "I was a very skinny kid, and it
wasnt a physical thingit was my mouth. I became very good at yelling. People
told me years later, I was scared of you. I was afraid to be in groups with
you. At the same time, I really discovered punk rock."
The unbridled aggression of hardcore bands like Black
Flag, the Dead Kennedys, and the Circle Jerks drew Foster in, their rage mirroring his
own. When he returned home at age 17, he got a job at the Randhurst Cinema in Mt.
Prospect, and there he bonded with fellow usher John "Jughead" Pierson. The two
first met years earlier on a junior-high wrestling team. "He wasnt very
good," Pierson recalls. "He was always on the verge of throwing punches."
In the interim, Pierson had also discovered punk via the 1984 film, Repo Man. "When
we met up again, we both wanted to be in a band," the guitarist says. "There was
no one doing anything we wanted to be part of, so we started our own."
At first they were All-Night Garage Sale. Screeching
Weasel came later as a variation on a frat-boy T-shirt proclaiming, "Ive Got A
Screaming Otter in My Pants!"
In the late 80s, the punk underground was
dominated by intense straightedge doctrinaires and bullying, narrow-minded
skinheadstwo groups dedicated to bashing each other to a pulp. Chicago added an
artier twist with the square-jawed, broad-shouldered men of Naked Raygun, the Effigies,
and Big Black. Along comes Screeching Weasel, a bunch of giddy, long-haired geeks spewing
random venom ("I Hate Old People," "I Hate Led Zeppelin") and proudly
championing the culture of the strip mall ("Hey Suburbia," "Murder in the
Brady House"). Its sets ended with "I Wanna Be Naked," and underage fans
cheerfully followed Fosters lead and stripped in the mosh pit.
Nobody ever slam-danced in the nude at a Big Black or
Dead Kennedys show.
Other band members came and wentfellow suburban
teen doofuses given noms de Weasel like Steve Cheese, Brian Vermin, Dan Vapid, and
Dan Panicand the group released a string of snotcore classics like My Brain
Hurts, Wiggle, and Anthem for A New Tomorrow, each one a little more melodic
and self-assured. The audience grew as the band toured the underground circuit, found an
adopted home in the scene centered at Berkeleys Gilman Street, and became the first
band outside California to sign to Lookout! But its leader was increasingly ambivalent
On one hand, Foster courted stardom and knew that
his band deserved it. "My friends are getting famous/Oh what can I do?" he sang
in 1994. "My friends are getting famous/And I think I oughta, too!" But he was
also appalled by the mediocrity that often followed platinum success. He was allergic to
compromise of any kind, and he derided any band that wasnt as hypocrites.
"People who like the band in the mainstream press
always ask, Why is it that a band like Blink-182 or Green Day is so popular and
Screeching Weasel hasnt reached that level of success?" Foster says.
"Its probably 95 percent by choice. Not that we sat down and said, We
dont want to be that popular, but we made certain decisions that prohibit
that. I was never willing to be on the road as much as Green Day.
None of the
various combinations of band members ever had the type of relationship that could last
being on the road that long."
Skeptics counter that Foster thwarted his bands
chances of breaking big by living according to a rigid if inscrutable code of D.I.Y.
conduct and serving as the self-appointed arbiter of all that was
"authentically" punk. In a long-running column for Maximum RockNRoll, he
made endless pronouncements about the way things ought to be, taking everyone to
task but himself. Sonic Youth reprinted one diatribe on the sleeve of a 1988 12-inch:
"While D.R.I. & 7 Seconds may very well be the Bon Jovi & U2 of the
90s, Sonic Youth & Hüsker Dü will be the Yes and REO Speedwagon.
Bleeaacchh!!" In one sentence, Foster eliminated four potential allies, and he
repeated this routine time after time.
"Bens got opinions on everything, from what
kind of tennis shoes you should wear to how you should wash your jeans, what record you
should listen to to how you should play your guitar," says Lookout! president Chris
Appelgren, who nonetheless adds that the groups importance to the label "has
been immeasurable." After fellow Chicagoan Steve Albini, Ben Weasel became the
undergrounds most infamous grumpthe punk everyone loved to hate. The Queers
even penned a song in his honor: "He rants and raves, he screams and shouts/He always
flips his lid/But deep down inside/He really loves you kids."
Todays Ben Foster is a different man than the Ben
Weasel of the early 90s. Back then, he never imagined that he and Pierson would be
able to buy homes and fashion careers from the band, especially at point when they rarely
perform live. Foster is sitting on a comfortable couch in a sunny six-room condo in Oak
Park, a mannered suburb best known for its Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. His living
room is dominated by a giant TV and an impressive stereo system, and his new Honda is
parked downstairs. Punk rock has been very, very good to him.
"At 19 or 20 years old, I would look at a person
like me now, and Im certain that I would have criticisms," he says between
drags on an omnipresent cigarette. "I realize that when I was that age, I was making
criticisms of people without having lived enough in punk rock to understand certain
realities, and Ive retracted some of those things through the years
. I think
if youre my age, 32, and youre still mired in negativity, youve got some
serious problems. You basically need to grow up. I hate to say that, because it makes me
sound like a stodgy old adult, but frankly, Id be embarrassed if I was still acting
that way. It shows a complete lack of growth as a human being. People talk about the
meaning of life. The meaning of life is to live it, period."
This is a lesson learned the hard way. His Moral Crux, I
Was A Teenage Teenager T-shirtthe same one hell wear onstagedisplays
two new tattoos that cover earlier inkings inspired by his high school sweetheart. In
1998, a painful divorce ended their 12-year relationship and exacerbated his agoraphobia,
though the panic attacks had started even before that. "I was a fucking mess for a
while there," he says. "There was a year or two where I could barely leave my
house." Therapy helped, as did the drugs. But there was also the music. His drive to
express himself finally overpowered his urge to live like a hermit. And just as the
hardcore punk that he discovered at Elan gave vent to his anger, his newest pop-punk
anthems express feelings he couldnt otherwise voice.
Screeching Weasel always mixed its more bilious ditties
with outpourings of heartfelt emotionwhat Pierson calls the bands
"sun" or inspirational songsbut the latter dominate the last two albums.
Tunes like "Acknowledge," "Ill Stop the Rain," and
"Molecule" chronicle Fosters personal low points with a tough,
self-deprecating wit evoking Charles Bukowski. At the same time, they emphasize that the
joys of being alive outweigh the inevitable pains. "Youve gotta have love in
your heart, and youve gotta have pain in your life, and youve gotta have some
vision and confusion for some peace of mind," he sings over the killer hook in
"Bottom of the 9th."
"With Ben like with a lot of creative people, when
its darkest, they take that moment to actually glance up at the sun," Pierson
These days, the two founding Weasels both have ambitions
outside the band. A member of the well-regarded Neo-Futurists theater troupe, Pierson has
self-published a collection of his plays, while Foster has completed a novel called Like
Hell. Foster acknowledges Pierson as the motivator, peacemaker, and workhorse who
keeps Screeching Weasel an ongoing entity. "Sometimes I say that Ben and I get along
so well because were like a mother and father," Pierson says. "Ive
always been the nurturing one, and hes been more the stern father setting down the
Both say the current lineup of bassist Mass Giorgini,
drummer Dan Lumley, and second guitarist Phillip Hill is the most accomplished the group
has ever had, but the band is not without its critics. "The influence of Screeching
Weasel on punk cannot be understated, but their insistence on staying a band long past
their expiration date has only cheapened their legacy," says Dan Sinker, the editor
of the Chicago fanzine Punk Planet. "As a nostalgia act, they can still be
entertaining, but their relevance to the modern punk scene has long since
Foster draws strength from such barbs. He loves being
the underdog, and relishes opportunities to prove people wrong. At the House of Blues, the
band tears through its set with a precision and passion that cannot be denied. It encores
with a reworked version of "What We Hate," a 1991 song about the inevitability
of compromise. "Youre all getting older, and youll become what you
hate," Foster sings, his gaze sweeping the crowd.
"We were on a roll, and to me, that was the
exclamation point," the singer says afterwards. "Like saying, Were
back, and you can talk all the shit you want about us, but were still around and
were still doing this. Are you still going to have the same ideals and be doing
whatever it is thats really important to you when youre our age?"
It is hard to grow old gracefully in punk, a medium that
never does anything gracefully. But the genre is also about pissing on all the rules.
Maybe the punkest thing of all is to mellow out in real life but still rock like a
fucked-up teenager on album and onstage. At least Ben Weasel is going to try.
Spin, March 2001
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