Ween is the band that conveys this cosmic truth. It's with songs, not bodies, that they illustrate and prove it. A bit of an ear is necessary to comprehend this. To those without one, Ween sounds like a joke band, because all of their songs are eerily reminiscent of other artists' work. But there's never even a single line, riff, chord, nor phrase ripped off--not a single copied note to point to and say, there is why this song reminds me of Ozzy, or Prince, or John Lennon, or Funkadelic, or Hank Williams, or any of the dozens of musicians Ween has reproduced the essence of without mimicking.
Critics scratch their heads over Ween's conflation of parody and panegyric, their lack of concern with issues of authenticity, and their refusal to stick to one or even a few genres. It's all beside the point. Ween shows that those concepts rely on spurious distinctions, while the real essence of musical performance is an intangible thing called style. What else could the word "authentic" refer to? Transcending the gross specifics of chord structures and language to emphasize the pattern (or soul) of various styles, Ween communicates the Music in music--the sacred whole assembled from mundane parts. Or is the notion of sacred pop songs a joke? Their albums hold a mirror up to every listeners' true feelings about rock 'n' roll, which is why critics with graduate degrees find Ween trivial.
It's talk like this that helped turn my friend Jamie from a Ween fan into an obsessive Ween fan. As is undoubtedly clear by now, my own capacity for pro-Ween zealotry is considerable. But it'd been mostly dormant since my original conversion, which occurred back when I was an entirely different set of cells. Jamie outdid me. He is something of an obsessive type. Before Ween, he was into Nietzsche--so much so, his girlfriend told me, that on vacation in Germany he repeatedly visited a bookstore that had the only Nietzsche works he hadn't studied--because they'd never been translated--just to hold them. When I met Jamie, we were both 18, and he was a Zen scholar. He knew literally hundreds of koans by heart. Before that, he says, Jamie had mastered the works of Henry Miller (including his letters and watercolors), and in grammar school, he was obsessed with the Beatles. Now, 29, he works with computers. Besides Ween, he's fascinated with the uncopyrighted Linux operating system, and its role in something called the "open-source movement."
Recently, Jamie clued me in to what's going on now with Ween, on the Web. He showed me how the band's peculiar world view is replicating and mutating in a community of obsessive Ween enthusiasts, and how that's driving the evolution of a new type of fandom. Maybe it should have been obvious, judging from their intuitive sense of structure, that Ween songwriters Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman (a.k.a. Dean and Gene Ween) would be computer people. But the culture growing out of their interface with their audience is something only the boldest sort of futurologist would have dared predict. As Jamie tells it, while brandishing his newest set of home-burned CDs, each packed with web-released, high-grade Ween material, the band's current fan culture portends an entirely new relationship between art and commerce.
You know how the Grateful Dead used to let people tape their concerts? Music-industry wisdom held that such a custom would destroy a band's profitability, but it didn't work out that way for the Dead. "If we're done with the music, you can have it," is how Jerry Garcia put it. His generosity was reciprocated, and the Dead became one of the highest-grossing live acts of all time. Their studio albums always sold well, too. Today, neo-prog band Phish keeps the tradition alive, allowing a network of tapers to record and log the musicians' every public move.
In the last year, Ween has adapted that communal vibe to a private home and studio setting. Through the controversial MP3 format, they're giving away the cow and the milk along with the farm. "Ween did it first," wrote Jamie on alt.music.ween. "They were not just the first 'signed' band to release an entire original MP3 album; they were the first commercial band to release an album as a friend would."
Long before that album, Craters of the Sac (liner notes included in the uploaded file call it "Ween's worst album of all time"), appeared on Ween sites such as Magic Pig, the band's fans were trading live recordings and rare tracks online. (Ween allows concert taping, though reportedly had to fight to get a provision for it in their contract with Elektra. Magic Pig's and other Ween-trading sites use the file-transfer protocol--ftp instead of http--so that users can upload to as well as download from the page. Magic Pig is at ftp://ween:email@example.com:555/.) This sort of fan community is becoming more and more popular, as the cost of the bandwidth and hardware needed to send and receive large sound files decreases. Phish fans have been on it for years.
Things started to get unusual about a year ago, when suspiciously rare Ween tracks started showing up unannounced, in high-quality MP3 form, on the ftp sites. Among the first of these, Jamie recalls, was a series of four-track demos of songs that appeared (and some that didn't) on Ween's 1996 12 Golden Country Greats. My friend assumes that the impetus behind the clandestine releases was Ween's own home page, at a site run by their friend Greg Frey (credited with drum recording on the first Ween album, 1990's God Ween Satan: The Oneness) and his wife. There (http://www.chocodog.com), Ween had experimented with using MP3s the standard way--as low-quality "teasers" featuring parts of songs, posted as promotional material. Apparently having noted in chat rooms the demand for new Ween material (the core duo writes songs almost every day, and has for over 15 years), they began a furtive trickle that soon grew into a flood of online releases. Jamie suspects that he might have fanned the flames by arguing passionately in chat rooms for the free flow of art. He even exchanged a few e-mails with Ween's Melchiondo, who wondered why Jamie was so fervent about the MP3 format. The long and short of it is that my pal's homemade CD collection now features scores of great, otherwise unavailable Ween tracks.
Jamie now thinks conventional uses of sound files have led to a widespread misunderstanding of online music. He explains that "the model for understanding MP3s involves a conflict between 'legitimate' MP3s versus 'illegal' ones." The distinction is based on adherence to existing copyright law. But the fact that anyone can move recorded music anywhere for free, Jamie claims, changes the market completely. "Not everyone can be a mechanic, and not everyone can put on a Ween concert," he says. "But now anyone can compile, sequence, package, and sell a record." He adds that record companies' efforts to "protect artists' interests" by enforcing antiquated property issues online amount to flailing attempts to capture and control what has already been set free. What Ween is proving, as Jamie sees it, is how "artists no longer have to make a deal where the only people who can sell their work have to control access to it."
Ween does have such a deal. Standard major-label record contracts always provide for the company's exclusive right to a band's output. As Chuck D of Public Enemy has been pointing out at web conferences lately, MP3s eradicated the leverage labels need to reasonably demand such a deal. Their monopoly on distribution is dead. This summer Public Enemy, their contract with Def Jam newly expired, will reintroduce themselves as "a web presence first." They'll post the new Public Enemy album, Bring the Noize 2000, on a pay-for-download basis months before the physical disc shows up in stores. They'll cut out the label as an outmoded middleman. But because once a customer has an MP3, there's nothing but old parchment law to keep her from posting it in public web space. Chuck's going to have to hire people to police and stop the spread. To radicals like Jamie, this puts the rapper in the old-school, while Ween boldly defines the next age. "It seems kinda antithetical to what an artist is," he muses, "to try and control access to art." In other words, when music is loosed from matter, applying proprietary law to it is like trying to tie a leash around a spirit.
Much of what shows up at Ween ftp sites falls in a gray area, legally. The tracks are not technically sold (though they're often bartered), so posting them doesn't violate Elektra's exclusive right to peddle Ween's music. The label is definitely aware of what's going on. Late last year, on the day before it was supposed to be posted, Elektra pre-empted Ween's online release of a new live album. Fans gnashed their virtual teeth in the Ween chat rooms for months--the label had detected a "buzz" around the new compilation, they said, so they decided to exercise their right to release it themselves. The CD, Painting the Town Brown, finally came out on June 22.
Many hardcore fans, though, were by that time already sitting pretty with a version of a concert Ween performed at Rutgers University. It was posted as an 86-minute MP3 file, and the chat-room regulars held a raging debate over how to best convert it to CD. Some wanted to omit "Buenos Tardes"--Ween's Mexican-style, acoustic revenge ballad, which takes a while to play out--while others said the concert should spill over onto a second disc. Jamie loaded the recording onto his digital editing software, and cut out all the between-song applause and every tune-up pause, thus breaking a long-held "don't edit" convention of Grateful Dead and Phish tapers (which Jamie didn't even know about, but is generally observed in the hippie-overlapping Ween community), while managing to pare the album down to the CD-maximum of 74 minutes.
Jamie loves to use his editing software to make his own Ween albums. He scoffs at fans who think artists' wishes regarding the selection for release and sequencing of their music are necessarily wiser than anyone else's. He says that while he'd be interested in buying Ween's own packages of their MP3 songs, the output and outtakes of Dylan and Springsteen (both of whom despise bootlegging) prove that songwriters don't necessarily know best. "We can't let artists decide which of their songs we can hear and when, because they make such bad decisions," Jamie says flatly. "That's why there's a 'skip' button your CD player--and don't you violate an artist's intentions when you use the 'random' function?"
As a fan-community member with a CD burner, Jamie forms a "branch" in the grassroots distribution scheme developed by Phish fans: the CD-R "tree." Every branch signs up for whatever number of copies he's willing to burn, and is assigned the addresses of that number of burnerless "leaves." Each leaf might (or might not--Jamie often distributes for free, eating the cost of blanks and postage "just to spread the word") compensate her branch for the blank and postage--or "b&p," in Phish-speak. (There's currently a tree for a recording of a concert by Ween side-project the Jimmy Wilson Group at http://www.continentalbooks/weentree/index.html.)
It's informally customary for fans receiving free Ween material to send the band some money. "Everybody takes pains not to violate the band's interests," Jamie says, pointing out that posting material from Ween's Elektra albums is frowned upon, while the unreleased songs would have, in another era, gone unheard. He sees Ween as straddling the old music culture and the next one. Jamie has no doubt that bands who don't make any profit from recordings, but instead give away studio gems like the Dead gave away concert tapes, are the wave of the future.
"We can't stay with a system that was conceived when there were only two printing presses in a city and it took time and money to get something out," he asserts. Just like the invisible pattern that makes "you" You and gives a song soul, Jamie assures me, art has too important a function for it to be pinned down or regulated. Talk to Jamie about starving artists, and he'll explain how patents on medicine feed our health-care crisis. "The idea behind these laws is that they serve some greater good, but if they ever did, they don't anymore," he says. Asked about the welfare of the band he's obsessed with, Jamie replies, "I want them to be financially successful. But I don't think they have a right to be.
"What motivates human activity, human progress, is people being interested," Jamie argues, "so why would we want to limit that?" Or, how can anyone decide they own something that, as more than the sum of its parts--and in cyberspace perhaps nothing but that mystical pattern of energy--must necessarily come from without as much as within? "I think artists should get a lot of credit for their work," Jamie concludes. "But they have to release it. Release it! They have to let the shit go!"