My life changed in 1994 when a friend jammed Chocolate and Cheese into the tape deck of my boxy, baby-blue colored Ford Fairmont. By the time Gene Ween’s last high-pitched falsetto of “Freedom of ‘76” gave way to the sultry swagger of “I Can’t Put My Finger on It”, I had become a cassette-carrying member of the band’s growing legion of nerdy, fiercely dedicated fans, and soon found myself making pilgrimages to see Ween in corners of the country I’d otherwise have no real reason to visit.
In those high-school days of homework, curfews, and 5pm – 9pm jobs, my Ween travels were mostly limited to drives down I-275, from Michigan’s sprawling suburbia, onto I-96 for the straight shot into downtown Detroit to catch the band at dingy St. Andrew’s Hall, my teenage cathedral of music appreciation and discovery. Since then, my somewhat-obsessive fandom has driven me to nine different states and two different countries, some destinations more noteworthy than others.
Like Birmingham, Alabama, where the band was headlining at Sloss Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark and former pig iron-producing blast furnace from 1882 – 1971. As we drove southbound through the state from Memphis, where we’d seen the band perform the night before in a cramped, sweaty club near Beale Street, the backwoods B-horror movie vibe was palpable everywhere we went, especially during quick stops at the gas station or a local Taco Bell; the malevolent stares were unnerving.
After the show (which also included a then-newly formed, and still listenable, Queens of the Stone Age as the opener), I asked somebody in the parking lot what Birmingham was all about: “Hoses and dogs, man, hoses and dogs,” he said between sips from a tall can of Budweiser. To this day I’m still trying to decipher the meaning of his obtuse response, but do recall swerving to avoid both an errant hose and a stray dog as we headed back to Tennessee late that night.
There’s no getting around it: Alabama was a seriously creepy place, the perfect retirement destination for Captain Spaulding and Otis Driftwood.
From Nashville to Norway
Ween has led me to Asheville and Louisville, to Atlanta and Cincinnati. In Nashville, my sort-of adopted hometown during college—I lived and studied 30 miles down the road in Murfreesboro—the band was memorably joined by Bobby Ogdin and other session musicians who contributed to the brilliant, criminally underrated 12 Golden Country Greats. New Hope, PA, was the site of a casual, barefoot performance in a small downtown park; this liberal Pennsylvanian town is, of course, the hometown of the band’s founding members, Mickey Melchiondo (Deaner) and Aaron Freeman (Gener).
Seven years ago I traveled to Oslo, Norway, for four days of early-winter sightseeing in one of the world’s most expensive cities. During my stay Ween was playing at the Rockefeller, and before the show I hooked up with a typically hearty Norwegian named Stig, whom I’d met online on the band’s forum.
The late-November weather in Norway was dreary, gray, and cold, but the hospitality was genuinely warm. Stig and company treated me like an old friend from the moment we met, springing for drinks at their favorite haunts all night, cheerily pointing out places of note in their neighborhood, and leading me to a greasy (and, lo, affordable!) late-night falafel joint to sop up the beer after our alcohol-drenched evening on the town.
Ween wasn’t the reason I visited Oslo, but their presence alone enriched my time by way of indirect introduction to this group of fun-loving folks and a locals-only scene I wouldn’t have otherwise tapped into.
On September 17 I’ll head to Central Park for Ween’s late-summer shindig at Rumsey Playfield. I’ve now seen the band perform either under the official Ween banner or as an offshoot at least 25 times, probably more; after all these years, I still want more. After all these years, I still cycle through the band’s two-decade strong catalogue; after all these years, I still look to those random road trips to those random cities, like Birmingham and Louisville, as my earliest tastes of life on the road as an adult.
And I still have that cassette, too.
Photo courtesy of Buck Lewis on Flickr