Music News
5:03 pm
Sun August 17, 2014

The Man Who Was Gene Ween, Back From The Bottom

Originally published on Mon August 18, 2014 9:59 am

Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo grew up in New Hope, Pa., and quickly became friends, bonding over their love of music one day in the eighth grade.

"I remember going to his house and he was writing, you know, these punk-rock riffs," Freeman says. "I just started screaming into the mic onto a cheap tape recorder cassette, and that was it."

Something clicked that day. Soon, the two friends were on their way to developing a signature sound, one that relied heavily on fiddling around with tape speed and plenty of references to drugs and alcohol. It was the birth of a band: Ween.

"A lot of this stuff is really noisy and sort of difficult to take, but then over time it evolved into something a lot more serious and substantial," says Hank Shteamer, music editor at Time Out New York and author of a book about Ween.

Shteamer's book focuses on what happened to Freeman and Melchiondo — redubbed Gene and Dean Ween — after they landed a deal with Elektra Records and produced the 1994 album Chocolate and Cheese. Far more polished than the band's previous work, it still included some pretty bizarre and absurd songs ("Spinal Meningitis"), alongside beautiful tracks that seemed to come straight from the heart ("Baby Bitch").

"There's other bands that are funny. There are other bands that are sad. But I don't know that I can think of another band who is that extreme about their emotions in a way," the author says.

That extremity struck a chord, Shteamer says, and eventually the band wound up with a large and intensely loyal following.

Like fans of the Grateful Dead, the Ween tribe liked to trade recordings of live shows, and they liked to party — a lot. But for Freeman, the availability of drugs and booze became a serious problem.

"I just wasn't a happy camper," he says. "I was very addicted and very out of control."

Freeman says he had been on a bender for several days in 2011 when Ween played a show in Vancouver. He could barely play, he forgot lyrics and, at one point, just laid down on the stage and started ranting. Finally, his fellow band members walked off stage and left him alone to finish the show.

Eventually Freeman made the choice to go into rehab — and to break up the band.

"It helped me get my head together, helped me focus, and it helped me get sober and eventually write music again," he says.

New songs would lead to a new band, simply called Freeman. That's also the name of the band's debut album. Released this summer, it includes a song about that infamous Vancouver show, which the songwriter says was cathartic to illustrate from his own perspective.

"When you are blacking out and you're getting on the bus the next day, you're terrified. It's horrible, and you feel really ashamed of yourself," he says. "And as mad as other people are at you, boy, you feel worse."

As part of his recovery process, Freeman moved to Woodstock, N.Y., and took a job teaching music. His employer, Paul Green, founder of the Paul Green Rock Academy, says he's seen an enormous change in the musician.

"When you are in a rock band like Ween and you're touring, anybody over 30, there's a certain amount of cynicism of some level involved," Green says. "But when he's teaching these kids, it's pure, it's idealistic in the best way, and it's making music for music's sake. I've really seen Aaron's love of just the music-making process jump out; I really see it in his eyes."

Freeman says teaching at the Rock Academy has helped a lot, but that he realizes he still has a long way to go to earn back the trust of others, especially his family.

"When you're a musician, you're kind of like Peter Pan. You don't have to be accountable, you just have to be on stage," he says. "So I really had no, like, skills on how to be a man, a 42-year-old man. And that is something I wanted to be. I wanted to be that guy, if my daughter called at 2 in the morning and needed me to pick her up, I was going to be there."

Freeman says he knows it may be some time before his family and his fans trust that he's really sober. But he says he's striving to live up to his birth name, and the name on the cover of his new album: He hopes to truly be a free man.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. For many years, musician Aaron Freeman went by the name Gene Ween. Along with a childhood buddy who took on the moniker Dean Ween, they formed an alternative rock band and with a very twisted sense of humor. The band Ween had a loyal following and put out several successful albums, but along with fame came the rock 'n roll life. Freeman wound up with a serious drug problem. Two years ago, the band broke up and the guitarist and singer went to rehab. Now Aaron Freeman is back with a solo album that explores what went wrong. For member station KBCC, Alex Cohen has this story.

ALEX COHEN, BYLINE: Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo grew up in New Hope, Pennsylvania. They quickly became friends, bonding over their love of music one day in the eighth grade.

AARON FREEMAN: I remember going to his house, and he was writing these punk rock riffs. And I just started screaming into the mic you know, onto a cheap tape recorder cassette, and that was it.

COHEN: Something clicked that day says Freeman, and soon enough, the two were developing the Ween sound - a sound which relied heavily on fiddling around with tape speed and plenty of references to drugs and alcohol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WEEN: We totally support and encourage young children to smoke crack and drink a lot.

COHEN: In the late 1980's Ween released six cassette tapes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DRINK A LOT")

WEEN: (Singing) My wife's fat, my brother's thin. I don't care, I drink a lot. All you people, live or not. I don't care, I drink a lot.

HANK SHTEAMER: A lot of this stuff is really noisy and sort of difficult to take.

COHEN: That Hank Shteamer, music editor at Time Out New York and an author of a book about Ween.

SHTEAMER: But then over time, it evolved into something a lot more serious and substantial.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPINAL MENINGITIS")

WEEN: (Singing) Why you want to see my spine mommy?

COHEN: Shteamer's book focuses on what happened to the band after they landed a deal with Elektra Records and produced a much more polished album in 1994, which included some pretty bizarre songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPINAL MENINGITIS")

WEEN: (Singing) Smile on mighty Jesus, spinal meningitis got me down.

COHEN: Right alongside beautiful tracks which seemed to come straight from the heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY [BLEEP]")

WEEN: (Singing) It's been a while since I've seen you smile, but you've come back again. Came into the room and you saw my girl, and you asked her how long it's been.

SHTEAMER: There's other bands that are funny, there's other bands that are sad. But I don't know that I can think of another band who is that extreme about their emotions in a way.

COHEN: That extremity, Hank Shteamer says, struck a chord. Eventually, the band wound up with a large and intensely loyal following. Like fans of the Grateful Dead, the Ween tribe liked to trade recordings of live shows, and they like to party a lot. But the drugs and booze became a serious problem for the man on stage, Aaron Freeman.

FREEMAN: I just wasn't a happy camper, and I was, you know, very addicted and very out of control.

COHEN: He says he had been on a bender for several days in 2001 when Ween played a show in Vancouver.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FREEMAN: I wrote this song after two weeks on mushrooms.

COHEN: Freeman could barely play. He forgot lyrics. At one point, he just laid down on the stage and started ranting. Finally, his fellow band members walked off stage and left them alone to finish the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FREEMAN: (Unintelligible).

COHEN: Eventually, Freeman made the choice to go into rehab and to break up the band.

FREEMAN: And it helped me. It helped me get my head together. It helped me focus. It helped me get sober and eventually write music again.

COHEN: One of the songs he wrote for his solo debut is about that infamous Vancouver show.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COVERT DISCRETION")

FREEMAN: (Singing) Down in the lobby, there's a couple left. Have them buy me a round. I'm your best friend. I'm your superstar. Yeah, I'm down with the brown. We in the bathroom. Let's be super cool. You've got a little bit left. What a special thing. I'm your trophy boys. Get the [bleep] out my face. Could see you will go home satisfied. I'll be blacked out for the night.

COHEN: Aaron Freeman says it was cathartic to write about what went down from his perspective.

FREEMAN: You know, when you're blacking out and you're getting on the bus the next day, you're terrified. It's horrible, and you feel really ashamed of yourself. And as mad as other people are at you, boy, you feel worse - the alcoholic and the addict - and you don't even know you feel that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COVERT DISCRETION")

FREEMAN: (Singing) In the morning, I can't remember. I can't remember a thing. I'm on the bus now. They won't look at me. Man, it's always the same. I'm broken. Why can't you see? Can you give me your hand? No, I'm the bad guy - don't appreciate, can't you see who I am?

COHEN: As part of his process of recovery, Freeman moved to Woodstock, New York and took a job teaching music.

ELVIN GREEN: I've seen an enormous change in him.

COHEN: Paul Green is the founder of the Paul Green Rock Academy where Aaron Freeman has been teaching kids and teenagers about what it's like to be a working musician.

GREEN: When you're in a rock band like Ween and you're touring, there's an amount of cynicism of some level involved. But when he's teaching these kids, it's pure, it's idealistic in the best way, and it's making music for music's sale. And I've really seen Aaron's love of just the music making process really jump up out, and I really see it in his eyes.

COHEN: Teaching at the rock Academy has really helped a lot, says Aaron Freeman. But he realizes he still has a long way to go earning back the trust of others, especially his family.

FREEMAN: When you are a musician, first of all, you're kind of like Peter Pan. When you're in a rock band, you don't have to do anything. You don't have to be accountable, you just have to get on stage. So I really had no, like, skills on how to be a man - a 42-year-old man. And that is something I wanted to be. I wanted to be that guy that if my daughter called at two in the morning and needed me to pick her up, I was going to be there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I COULDN'T PLAY MY GUITAR LIKE A MAN")

FREEMAN: (Singing) For a while, I couldn't play my guitar like a man.

COHEN: Freeman realizes there may be sometime before his family and his fans trust that he's really sober. But he says he's striving to live his birth name and the name on the cover of his new album. He hopes to truly be a free man. For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I COULDN'T PLAY MY GUITAR LIKE A MAN")

FREEMAN: (Singing) Baby, won't you let me get me back on my feet. Is it true I'm falling in? I want to play my guitar again. I want to play my guitar again.

VIGELAND: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Tess Vigeland in for Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for WEEKENDS ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And you can follow the show on Twitter @nprwatc. I'm @tessvigeland. We are back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.