SCREECHING WEASEL IS DEAD
Photo courtesy of the Screeching Weasel picture gallery
by Ted Esquivel (May 2002)Perhaps this note comes a bit late, but somehow it seems only too fitting. I must say I wasn't surprised or shocked to learn that one of the truly important rock n' roll bands of my generation called it quits. You see these boys have called it quits before. In fact, by my count this would be number three. Or is it four? Turmoil comes with the territory: it's what I heard a girl once say. It gives them their piss and vinegar. And their humble passing to me was like losing a friend, not a friend I would consider close, but a friend I felt I understood, a brother I could turn to when I wasn't feeling right with the world because I knew they'd known that trouble. But Screeching Weasel was something more than just another independent punk band that marched alone, refusing to give in to trends and thereby setting their own.
No, I'm afraid what they represented was the soul, for lack of a better word, of genuine rock n' roll. In the present state of rock music, so desperately lacking originality, Screeching Weasel carried the torch of rock music, perhaps unknowingly picking up were The Ramones left off. This isn't to say that Screeching Weasel's music sounds like the boys from Queens, it does and it doesn't, and if you can't tell the difference than you have no business listening to either one. Simply put and poorly expressed, just as the Ramones relentlessly pursued a perfection of their sound, a back-to-basics rock n' roll thunder refusing to wilt to trends, Screeching Weasel also kept their aesthetic structurally simple so they could relay their emotions, frustrations, and passions honestly, without highbrow musicianship clogging the path to their audience. They had contempt for their audience and also sorely needed them. The bottom line was always fierce integrity. And now sadly, both bands are gone. While the Ramones are still undervalued and have yet to receive the full recognition of their expansive influence, but are nevertheless still recognized, Screeching Weasel, I'm afraid, will be whittled down to a slivered footnote in rock history. I can't think of a greater injustice to a band that never sought critical praise or national attention, but rightly deserved it
So why now? Why write about a dead band, praising them after the fact? Maybe in a sense I see their demise as a time to reflect not just on the bands output but on my own musical preferences and my own feelings about the state of rock n' roll. It has pained be for some time now, that the airwaves and TV channels are littered with music that is nothing but boring dreck What pains me the most is not that there isn't enough good rock n' roll today, it's that the rock 'n'roll chosen for the masses is always z-grade of an original.
So, whenever I find myself becoming restless and frustrated with such shameless grandstanding of popular rock music I turn to the boys from Chicago, Illinois, Screeching Weasel: the band that to me exemplifies the vibration and thunder of rock 'n'roll. And as the years have past, time and again cranking through their numerous albums, it wasn't a stretch to recognize that their music extends far beyond simple teen punk antics. Don't get me wrong- there is plenty of teen-punk, power pop in their songs, which is essential. But these guys are and will always be light years ahead of the likes of Blink 182 or Sum 41, two bands that are nothing more than a cuter version of Green Day minus the lyrical chops or farting grace to charm the pants off a prostitute if they had a freebie.
If I could borrow a tired, overwrought film term, Screeching Weasel were auteurs of rock 'n' roll. Listening through their ten studio albums, minus their rendition of the entire first Ramones album, spanning roughly twelve years, it is clear that what Ben Weasel, Jughead and company have been trying to do. They were taking their style, which truly began to take shape on their second album, and bend it and vary it from one album to the next. Thematically, these guys were consistent: alienation, frustration, social observation, broken love, youthful recklessness, the pains of growing up, being a rock 'n'roll adult, music as therapy. Ben Weasel would shoot me on sight if he heard me say this but his lyrics on an album like Emo are as sublimely gut wrenching as Townshend's lyrics are on The Who by Numbers or Empty Glass, filled with thoughts, like an open diary, about failed ideals, introspective self-doubt, being an old man in a young man's game, but ultimately embracing the pain in a humble but furious attempt to fight on. But as with any true auteur, you can't understand an album like Emo if you haven't listened to their other stuff. The meaning reveals itself only by placing it within their entire body of work. It would be like trying to understand the chain of events within a story by only knowing its outcome. The magnitude of this band can only be grasped by ingesting and digesting the whole.
Now if it seems as though I've placed this band on a pedestal, making them out to be saviors of rock 'n' roll by way of punk rock it's because somebody needs to. In reality, the band isn't musically brilliant; Weasel, who sometimes plays guitar, has a clunky and jagged sound, Jughead, the guitarist mainstay, is no Keith Richards, and Weasel's vocals are the polar opposite of professionally trained. Nor are they lyrically literate. But you see, that is exactly what true rock 'n' roll should be. It's what punk rock is: guys (he or she) who learn their instruments on the job, find their sound because they can't perfectly imitate their heroes, writing songs about things they know, things they think about, things they feel, and things they see, not striving for sophistication. Weasel's lyrics are art because they are honest and undressed. And, if they don't quite add up to "The Times Are a Changin'" or "The End," that's fine- most songs don't and are better off for it. The Troggs sang "Wild Thing" which is nothing more than four guys pleading for some tail, with Reg's lusting vocals, a plundering hard-on for a backbeat, and a wankingly driving powerchord to set the tracks mood on fire. Dare I say that Screeching Weasel were perhaps slightly more sophisticated than those would-be British Invasioners? Sophistication doesn't really cut it. But let's just say that early Weasel classics like "Murder at the Brady House" and "I Wanna Be Naked" are as rude and crude as The Troggs were horny, with both bands sowing their adolescent oats.
Where does this leave us? Why should you see Screeching Weasel as musically significant? How did I come to see this light; the callousness and sensitivity, the melodic and revved up avalanche of sound of Screeching Weasel? I can remember my first experiences listening to a lot of bands. I can remember the places I bought records and the great pains I went to find certain ones. I lived in a small town with only one true record store, I mean they actually still sold vinyl and were proud of it even though there were fewer and fewer takers. They didn't care if nobody wanted Dokken's second album. They'd carry it until somebody did. This place was the place to go for kids of the town who weren't quite old enough or bold enough to pursue there recording buying in the more thorough domain of San Francisco. No matter, at the time I knew very little about myself and even less about music. For god's sake a year earlier I was listening to bad metal bands. I was still wet behind the ear's musically speaking. I had just found out about R.E.M., The Cure, The Jesus and Mary Chain, New Order, an entire world of music that didn't sell its hair style first and its music second.
But what really symbolized my rite of musical passage, what started to give my life its own soundtrack was my embracing punk. It actually had started many, many years earlier, which I only now realize. It was the day I went into my sister's stack of records, and after filtering through many eighties staples - Like a Virgin, Born in the U.S.A., The Go-Go's, Rick Springfield, Moon Unit Zappa's Valley Girl- I came across The Clash: London Calling, Combat Rock, and Give 'Em Enough Rope. I could thump to the beat of "Rock the Casbah" or parade and stomp to "London Calling", but it would be years before I could see "Train in Vain" or weep for "Straight to Hell". Even on those albums The Clash were being alienated from the punk movement, despite being one of the few genuine punk acts, real rock n' rollers. Maybe it was something like Green Day recording "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)", sounding unpunk to make a punk point.
And, Green Day brings me back to the record store and Screeching Weasel and how I got to this point to begin with. I had bought Kerplunk and 1039, and this was before Dookie and I'm sure you know what followed. Punk wasn't a commodity but well, I guess it always has been. What were the Sex Pistols but something for Malcolm to sell- Rotten and Vicious just made sure nobody but Virgin (and themselves) would profit.
The point is I felt good about punk- it fit me, even if Green Day has pop tendency there heart and soul has always been in the right place. But this little punk band started out on an independent label out of Berkeley called Lookout! And if you don't know, Berkeley had one the better punk scenes, at least the music was raw, honest and as diverse as punk should be. Lookout! put out Operation Ivy, who along with Screeching Weasel, are perhaps one of the most scathingly powerful bands of my generation to make music that mattered without getting the recognition. Going into the record store that day I was craving new sounds, a new band, a band like Op Ivy and Green Day but different. Randomly shuffling through the oddly organized hodgepodge of CD's, I saw the label: Lookout! To me, they seemed like a company you could trust, a sure fire winner in every jewel case. There it was, Screeching Weasel's My Brain Hurts. London Calling has the best cover art, My Brain Hurts has perhaps the worst with its black and white shot of a couple washing the dinner dishes circa 1945: the woman, a dead ringer for Myrna Loy, is smiling up at hubby. I wasn't impressed which made we want it even more. To me, the band wasn't relying on attractive covers to draw listeners, which means their music must be good, a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. So, I rhetorically ask the headbanger behind the counter, "Is this any good?" as if he'd know. Of course he said yes and I believed him. Hell, he'd been right about Green Day, maybe he has a gift for knowing without listening. I bought it, and was listening to it a friend's house moments later, lighting up a cigarette in his room and pushing the speakers to their limits.
The sound that emanated from the speakers that day in the smoked filled room humbled me. I can only equate it the closing image of Two-Lane Blacktop or when I told my fiancee that I loved her for the first time. After those experiences, concepts you've held about life and about yourself seem different, in need of change. You're the same person but forever different form the person you once were. You just know you're better off for it. The sound and speed at which the guitars and drums smashed through the stereo in the opening moments of "Making You Cry" threw me back. How could such primitive instruments take such abuse and sound so perfect? Like sadists of instruments, finding pleasure in others pain. And then Weasel began to growl. He sounded perfectly awful, emphasis on perfectly. Like a frustrated boyfriend writhing in anguish for the kinda love he can't give. It just ain't him to be Mr. Right- there's too much internal pain he can't shake. And as the songs relentlessly crashed on me at breakneck speed I finally found a connection, an outlet for my anger at society that wasn't like the way I wanted it to be. Of course that wasn't society in the broad sense, it was the society of high school, but the songs still worked just the same: "Veronica Hates Me" about the girl you just can't please, "The Science of Myth" with the lines "Do you ever question beliefs that you hold? Your not alone" and "Teenage Freakshow" the dead-on anthem for nowhere teens.
It wasn't till years later after somebody had stolen my first copy of My Brain Hurts, compelling me to buy a new one, that I realized just how complete that album is- not one wasted note or grunt. Of course this can only be grasped by stacking it against their subsequent work, but tracks like "What We Hate" and the album's title track- both as primal as The Troggs sound but with the soul baring emotion of Blood on the Tracks. Yet, Screeching Weasel is wholly original, the bastard sons of no one. "What We Hate" is the acknowledgment that anger and resentment always has a way of coming back to bite you in the ass. It isn't a peace, love and understanding message of togetherness, Weasel and company are merely pointing out the pitfalls. The song within the context of album's focus and mood, makes your mind work in a way that is far less obvious than Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." "My Brain Hurts" is a bitter pill of personal failure and desire for personal redemption, at least that's how I read it. You can sit around bitching and complaining about all the things you don't like, waste time, or take it and run with it, end the apathy and powerlessness. To this day, I absorb that song, the words, Danny Panic's machine-gun drum solo, like a soldier marching us wasted eternal adolescents off to do battle in an adult's world.
I could continue to explain the many ways this band gives its listeners naked emotion and biting wit, a layout of Screeching Weasel's full charm and irreverence, and perhaps I will save that for later, but not now because this isn't about breaking down the strengths of a great band to prove their worth. This is about how a group of guys who played instruments and wrote songs felt the same frustrations and passions as the people who heard their music. I wanted to write something sentimental, a glowing last line, but somehow it doesn't seem appropriate. Maybe it's enough to say that growing up in a world that never meets your expectations and always searching for solace and answers, music, genuine rock n' roll, can help you find a way to navigate through the chaos within and around you. And that is what Screeching Weasel does for me, in the purest and most direct way possible.
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