Ben Weasel: His Brain Hurts (again)

August 24, 2008


On the list of underground legends of Chicago rock, few bands rank higher than Screeching Weasel.

Formed in the mid '80s in suburban Prospect Heights by chilhood friends Ben Foster, better known as Ben Weasel, the group's vocalist and primary songwriter, and John Pierson, aka Jughead, punk guitarist extraordinaire and sometimes co-songwriter, Screeching Weasel was 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 platinum-selling heroes Green Day, Blink-182 and Fall Out Boy.

Yet though the band's most successful album, "Boogada Boogada Boogada!" (1988), has sold more than 100,000 copies, the group never achieved mainstream success, partly because its sound was more uncompromising, partly because the irascible Foster could rub people the wrong way and partly because he came to suffer from agoraphobia, enduring severe panic attacks whenever he tried to leave his apartment.

As he told me back in 2000, shortly before the group called it quits for good after one final killer disc, "Teen Punks in Heat," "I was a f---ing mess for a while there."

Thankfully, a now 40-year-old Foster/Weasel is a happier and healthier man today, a self-described "gentleman farmer" living outside Madison, Wisc., and slowly returning to music. And while his two sold-out shows at Reggie's Friday and Saturday may not have been the return of Screeching Weasel that fans long for, they were the next best thing -- especially because Foster and his five-piece band opened by playing another of the group's classic albums, "My Brain Hurts" (1991), in its entirety.

Unlike most genres in pop or rock, since its appeal is largely the visceral kick of a massive caffeine jolt, pop-punk is immune from the debilitating, soul-killing effects of nostalgia and aging -- providing its practitioners have the songs and can still play up to speed.

For this gig, Foster was backed by one Screeching Weasel veteran -- Dan Vapid, now of the Methadones, on guitar -- and three ringers on second guitar, bass and drums. Sadly missing was his old partner in crime Pierson, now a respected playwright and leader of the acoustic punk band Even in Blackouts. The new band certainly was up to the task, however, and if Foster's nasal and sandpaper-harsh vocals have neither improved nor declined during his long periods of abstaining from live performance, his clenched-fist stage presence was even more intense and undeniable than ever.

Best of all were the songs. In front of a packed house that included fans who had traveled from as far as Buffalo, San Francisco and New Jersey to sing and jump along, the group tore through indelible anthems such as "Cyndy's on Methadone," "What We Hate," the amphetamine-overdrive cover of "I Can See Clearly" by Johnny Nash and the title track "My Brain Hurts," few of them more than two minutes long, all of them brilliant.

Then, in less than half an hour, it was over, just like the album -- though Foster did toss in a long coda of a few more Screeching Weasel, Riverdales and solo tunes. (Ever the punk, he noted that encores are one of the many rock cliches he hates.)

Besides Pierson, the only thing missing was the nudity. In the old days, Screeching Weasel often ended its sets with "I Wanna Be Naked," and fans cheerfully followed Foster's lead and stripped in the mosh pit. This time around, everyone kept their pants on.