#32, "Birthday Boy," Ween (1990)

Ween is an all-time favorite of mine. They’re a top-ten band for sure. Looking critically at the ranking, I wondered whether it should have been moved up, but no, I think I stand by Ween being represented in this spot. The relatively low ranking of their only song on this list may be the result of a consistent and expansive catalog. If you discount 12 Golden Country Greats* I can count on one hand the number of songs they released that I think are just-OK or worse on the five other studio albums they released between 1994 and 2007 (I rewrote that sentence like five times and I’m still not sure it makes sense, but I think you probably get what I mean). I can think of several others I could have included, but they all would have been tied for #32. The math I used to make these rankings is instinctive and very sophisticated, so I can’t explain how that’s possible. I would like to mention these songs because they are also so very great: “Even if You Don’t,” “Flutes of the Chi,” “Your Party,” “The Golden Eel,” “Freedom of ‘76,” “Roses are Free,” “With My Own Bare Hands,” “Don’t Laugh I Love You,” “Transdermal Celebration,” and “Pumpin’ for the Man.” 


*12 Golden Country Greats is a popular one among Ween fans, but it’s sort-of a concept album and I don’t care for the concept so I admittedly didn’t give it much of a chance. So I mentally exclude it when thinking/talking about Ween, but I’m not even sure whether that’s because I think it sucks or because I’m just unfairly dismissive. Also, I don’t want to talk about this. 


Like a lot of people, my introduction to Ween came in the early 90s. I can’t remember whether it was because I heard them on Radio Free, who gave “Push th’ Little Daisies” some airplay or whether I saw them first on Beavis and Butthead, but that’s a fine point because I’m sure it would have been fairly simultaneous. I didn’t think much of them. “Push” was a funny song, but seemed an awful lot like a novelty track and not something I could large-scale love, not realizing at the time that ALL of their songs were like this. When “Push th’ Little Daisies”-mania faded, I kind of forgot about them.


Threeish years later, enter guess-who! When I met him, Pete basically had two buckets of music he liked. One included those falling under his loosely-defined punk-rock umbrella, but he also had a small-but-mighty low-fi/weird music bucket that included such outfits as Beck, Daniel Johnston, and of course Ween. And as with many of the artists that appear on this list, Ween showed up early and often on the mix tapes he’d tirelessly and persistently put together for me. At the time, we were basically working with the first five albums through Chocolate and Cheese If you’re like me, you think of Ween in two major phases, before and after Chocolate and Cheese. 


By this standard they’d barely gotten going in 1996. Ween’s early period is marked by drug-fueled creative chaos. I like it, but it’s not super easy to like and I don’t think it’s nearly as good as their later output. I think it’s fairly analogous to Bowie, before and after Hunky Dory.* There are, however, a handful of really outstanding songs from those earlier albums, including the one I ultimately settled on for my 32nd favorite song of all time. 


*Idk maybe that’s unfair. You’d call someone crazy if they’d say their favorite Bowie album is one released before Hunky Dory but Pete’s favorite Ween is Pure Guava and I don’t think he’s crazy. I stand by the fact that they’re basically two different bands before and after Chocolate and Cheese, though. 


Though Chocolate and Cheese is fundamentally a better album, I hit my stride with Ween when we got the Mollusk. It’s basically another concept album, all the songs unified by a loose nautical theme. I have very clear memories being on the Big Island with Pete and my family during a Thanksgiving trip. Pete and I were both in college and scrambling to finish up our work for the semester. I had a paper due in my labor history class and we went to the UH-Hilo library so that I could look at microfiches of newspapers covering the air traffic controllers’ strike of 1981 and we spent a lot of time driving around by ourselves and listening to the Mollusk. More than 20 years later, I still associate the Mollusk with that trip.


We have seen Ween* play four times together *I think*, which is a low average for a Ween fan. When I posted about Pearl Jam I said that I didn’t think I liked any bands that had a following like Pearl Jam’s, but that’s clearly untrue because Ween is definitely one such band. Our dear friend Gary, with whom we drop in and out of touch for reasons that aren’t mine but I accept, is the kind that follows/has followed Ween around regionally. I can’t say how many times he’s seen them and Pete can correct me on this, but I think it’s north of 50. When Ween reunited after a several-year feud, they played three consecutive nights at Manhattan’s Terminal Five. Each night, they played a 30+ song set and had zero repeats, they were all amazing sets. We went to the second night and in reviewing the setlists for each, I can’t even tell you which is the better one. Most recently we saw them play in Baltimore and had front-row tickets. I was so excited to have gotten such sweet seats, but of course as soon as they started playing, everyone rushed to the front and it didn’t matter. I will go see Ween play whenever it’s feasible. I can’t see getting tired of seeing them.


*+1 for the time we saw Gener do a set of Billy Joel covers, which was one of the best things I will ever see. 


I think for the handful of people intimately familiar with my Ween sensibilities, “Birthday Boy” probably strikes as an odd pick. As I mentioned, I like Ween better in their polished, showoffy, elder-statesmen period post-Chocolate and Cheese. Of their early period, God Ween Satan is fairly challenging (if not as much as the Pod) and most of it is silly/experimental and noisy. Still good, but fundamentally different from their classic period. Most songs on God Ween Satan like “Papa Zit” and “El Camino” are so weird and emotionally detached, it makes their raw and vulnerable output that much more special. “Birthday Boy” is the most raw and vulnerable of all. 


It’s another breakup song. Can we take a second to step back and appreciate the creative potential of humans-as-a-species that they’re able to churn out tens of thousands of breakup songs and still manage to find new stuff to say? Like, compare “Against All Odds” to “Birthday Boy.” They are about the same thing but couldn’t be more different. “Birthday Boy” is comprised of a vocal track, electric guitar, a barely-present bass track, and sampling and that’s it. It’s a very lonely song, atmospherically. There’s an effect on the vocals and Gene is doing his high-whine (not quite falsetto, I think?), which I think maybe he started using as a joke but eventually became how he sings. 


I learned today that the backstory of “Birthday Boy” is that Gener and a girlfriend broke up because she was going to move to California. The tone is hopelessly sad and powerfully regretful. He didn’t appreciate the relationship when they were together but now that it’s over, he can’t see pulling himself out of this dark, dark space. It makes sense to me that the reason for the breakup was a move because it’s a sure-fire way to break up on good terms and to still be sad about it. This is still nothing new. I think the reason this song is so powerful is his reflection on the breakup happening on his birthday. The title is an obvious allusion, but the samples that come in at the end hammer the point home. They’re answering-machine messages, both mention his birthday. I love the juxtaposition. The first one sounds like it might be from a friend or coworker. I listened REALLY hard today and can’t quite make it out. The voice wishes Gener a happy birthday, mentions work and then gives a phone number (I think). The other one is the one that really sticks its hand into your chest to pull out your still-beating heart. It’s from his grandma, who sings happy birthday and congratulates him on his transition from “little teenager” to “full-grown-twenty.” Which, christ. First of all, can you imagine? I think most of us think of our grandmothers as an embodiment of our most innocent times? I do. I think of kindness, vacations, someone always happy to see me, with a fairly simple life, who donates to animal rescue organizations, enjoys TV and a garden full of flowers. And then putting myself in Gener’s place where you feel 100% like shit and like he doesn’t “know if [he’ll] be ok” for complicated and grown-up reasons and then get this sadly sweet reminder of a simple and soft past? Ouchie. 


Another point of note is that “Baby Bitch,” which appears on Chocolate and Cheese references this relationship again. I guess they ended up in the same place again and it didn’t go as well as Gener built it up in his mind and he closes the loop with: 


Got fat, got angry, started hating myself

Wrote "Birthday Boy" for you, babe

Now I'm skinny and sick and paranoid

Without a cent to my name 


This epilogue makes me feel less sad about “Birthday Boy” and adds to the lore. It’s also a kind of poignant closing because it adds layers to the simple Breakup Song motif. You don’t appreciate something until it’s gone AND sometimes that appreciation is just amplified by absence.


The world needs Ween. I can’t explain how happy it makes me that they’re friends again. It’s personal too because even though we don’t sound super-a-lot like Ween, they’re really the closest things EG has to role models. They’re funny and serious but never take themselves seriously. They’re amazing musicians, fabulous at what they do and genuinely themselves. I love it when people see Ween in EG. It’s the highest possible compliment.