"It’s been a long time," Ben Foster says as he takes the stage at Chicago’s House of Blues. To be precise, it’s almost seven years to the day since his band’s 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 Foster’s big mouth could be Screeching Weasel.
The group is still a considerable draw—it has sold out two shows with a total of 2,600 tickets—but 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 Foster—better known as Ben Weasel—didn’t 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: "I’m Gonna Strangle You," "I Don’t Give A Fuck," Cyndy’s 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. It’s a transcendent punk-rock moment—a celebratory declaration of joy, defiance, and triumph—made 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 I’d 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 he’d never perform live again.
The Halloween weekend shows are partly a celebration of Foster’s triumph over adversity. If he hasn’t entirely vanquished his demons, he has at least beaten them into submission, chronicling the battle and finding catharsis on a pair of extraordinary albums, 1999’s Emo and 2000’s Teen Punks in Heat.
The gigs are also a reminder of the band’s enduring popularity. Its most successful album, 1988’s 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 Foster’s specs. It’ll set you back $695, but the group’s cartoon logo comes stenciled on the headstock.
Screeching Weasel is the punk band that made it cool again to embrace bubblegum melodies—the missing link between the Ramones and the Buzzcocks and pop-punk’s 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, Maine—I use the word ‘rehab’ because it’s too difficult to explain what it really was."
The Elan School was actually a therapeutic community based on the model of California’s 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 wasn’t a physical thing—it 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 wasn’t 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, "I’ve Got A Screaming Otter in My Pants!"
In the late ’80s, the punk underground was dominated by intense straightedge doctrinaires and bullying, narrow-minded skinheads—two 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 Foster’s 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 went—fellow suburban teen doofuses given noms de Weasel like Steve Cheese, Brian Vermin, Dan Vapid, and Dan Panic—and 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 Berkeley’s Gilman Street, and became the first band outside California to sign to Lookout! But its leader was increasingly ambivalent about success.
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 wasn’t 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 hasn’t reached that level of success?’" Foster says. "It’s probably 95 percent by choice. Not that we sat down and said, ‘We don’t 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 band’s 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.
"Ben’s 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 group’s importance to the label "has been immeasurable." After fellow Chicagoan Steve Albini, Ben Weasel became the underground’s most infamous grump—the 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."
Today’s 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 I’m 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 I’ve retracted some of those things through the years…. I think if you’re my age, 32, and you’re still mired in negativity, you’ve 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, I’d 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-shirt—the same one he’ll wear onstage—displays 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 couldn’t otherwise voice.
Screeching Weasel always mixed its more bilious ditties with outpourings of heartfelt emotion—what Pierson calls the band’s "sun" or inspirational songs—but the latter dominate the last two albums. Tunes like "Acknowledge," "I’ll Stop the Rain," and "Molecule" chronicle Foster’s 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. "You’ve gotta have love in your heart, and you’ve gotta have pain in your life, and you’ve 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 it’s darkest, they take that moment to actually glance up at the sun," Pierson says.
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 we’re like a mother and father," Pierson says. "I’ve always been the nurturing one, and he’s been more the stern father setting down the laws."
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 disappeared."
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. "You’re all getting older, and you’ll 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, ‘We’re back, and you can talk all the shit you want about us, but we’re still around and we’re still doing this. Are you still going to have the same ideals and be doing whatever it is that’s really important to you when you’re 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
(c) 2001 Spin Magazine and Jim DeRogatis