An American punk legend riffs on a life of punk rock and flower petals
When you live a life of an artist, whether you are part of a band, acting in theater, writing a poem, painting a mural, or calculating a mathematical formula, you sometimes end up in an absurd occupation. Perhaps you even end up delivering flowers in a storefront company’s minivan for ten dollars an hour.
Press play to hear John Pierson’s stunning narration of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
You spend the first part of the mornings standing around mostly silent with aged misanthropes and thirty-something hipsters whose tattoos and general lackadaisicalness prevents them from acquiring more substantial salaried jobs. You wait for packages of flowers to be set at your feet to deliver them within the predesignated city zones. You are 25A. When you live a life of art you often have to stop yourself from screaming by simply taking a literal step backwards. The motion helps you calm down.
Actually I’m not talking about you. I’m really referring to myself. Besides being considered a punk rock legend, the delivering of flowers is one of my part time jobs. I’m not quite sure why I started this article referring to “me” as “you.” That’s called writing in the “second person.” I wrote my first novel, Weasels In A Box, in second person. I said I would never write in that style again. But when I started scribbling words down today this is what came out. I was probably hoping to write something in which “you” can relate. And perhaps you do.
Maybe you can also relate to spending too many hours a day reading and thinking about aesthetics, because you promised to guest star on a rather famous philosophy podcast called A Partially Examined Life. You have a passion for philosophy, but you don’t know a lickety-split about the 18th century German philosopher, Johann Gottfried von Herder. But for a punk you are pretty proud of your knowledge of philosophical matters, and at times the leaning towards the thoughtful may have an effect on your dealing with others. You had a twenty year working relationship with a fellow musician, he was quite the thinker himself, and much of your highly successful bands’ history revolved around high levels of contemplation and planning. So this may have prepared you a little in respect to studying a dead philosopher who studied the aesthetics of art and music. But most of Herder’s work isn’t even translated into English, which makes it hard to study all aspects of his writing in order to prepare for the podcast. Why did you do this to yourself?
Wait. Was I just talking in the second person again? Yes, I was. The second person can make you feel alienated, by creating a cognitive disconnect, because you know you are not me. Whether this is your experience or not, I’m sure you can relate to being lost at sea, out of your depth, bobbing in the waves and gasping for air, and other claustrophobic, romantic, Mellvillian nautical metaphors. Perhaps you are being presented a cautionary tale that you get to experience, but from a safe distance.
John Pierson was the second youngest of five children. His family lived in a two story house in the middle-class neighborhood of Mount Prospect, Illinois. His father left his mom, and so also the children, when John was seven. The destabilizing environment caused his older brothers to lose control of themselves. They often caused violent acts and punched holes in walls and pulled doors down and threw them upon each other. John always watched these events perched on the top step of the staircase, removed from harm. Their lives were the living embodiment of chaos. Even though he was the fourth one to enter high school, John was the only one to graduate. (Until his younger sister became the second one, five years later.) When John finished his senior year, the family was shocked that someone had actually graduated, including himself, so no forethought had gone into any kind of continuing education. John got two jobs, one at Gloria Jean’s Coffee Beans and one at General Cinemas, both at Randhurst Shopping Center in Mount Prospect.
Ben Foster was the middle child between two girls. They all lived together, with both parents, in a one floor house in Prospect Heights. Prospect Heights was just like Mount Prospect, but without sidewalks. Unincorporated neighborhoods had no sidewalks. It was a minor but impactful division, raising the status of the area from middle-class to slightly higher middle-class. Ben’s house was spotless. White carpet dominated the interior of each room. It was so immaculate it made some visitors a tad bit nervous they might cause some disorder. The house was full of eccentric and brilliant people. Ben hated school even though he was probably the smartest student in every single one of his classes. He started to smoke pot. He stopped going to classes. He bounced around a few high schools, but they were all the same to him. He ran away often, and once he hitchhiked all the way to Texas. One day he came home to the spotless house and two men waiting in the living room put him in handcuffs, threw him on a plane, and took him to an institution in Maine. He experienced a lot of weird shit there. Some people died and some people ‘recovered”; Ben was released. He came back to Prospect Heights around 1986. He got a job at the movie theater at Randhurst Shopping Center in Mount Prospect, Illinois.
Ben Foster and John Pierson would cross paths a few times.
- Ben and John met first in junior high on the wrestling team. Their friendship did not stick. They were too different.
- Ben and John met a couple years later in the hallway of John Hersey High School, but Ben got kicked out soon after and then disappeared. They were not even close to becoming friends that time. Different social circles. John had no idea where Ben had gone, one day he was there and then the next he was not.
- Ben and John met for the third and final time a few years later, around 1986, while working together at a movie theater in Mount Prospect. For some reason they started to hang out. And through a series of unexceptional events, they started a band, even though neither of them knew how to play an instrument very well. For some reason they kept doing it, even though not many people cared, except for a handful of outcasts. They took on the stage names of Ben Weasel & John Jughead, altered their sound a bit, took some chances other people might not have taken, gained a bit of popularity, and worked together for twenty years.
The loftier me–the artist and musician inside, contrarian by nature–the me of the purest form, is searching for meaning, or passion, or desire. Perhaps you are, too. You might unexpectedly find pleasure standing in a warehouse and spotting the simple beauty of a single wilted flower separated from it’s stem and waiting for death in the filth of lot 25A. The flower’s color has washed out and there are traces of dirtied bootprints on its petals. Yet it still contains an elegance. The dim light of the chilled warehouse touches its unique contours. In the grand scheme, which you see clearly when looking outside yourself, there is a larger beauty to be observed. Something about this particular flower, the surroundings, and the circumstances makes you appear small in comparison to it all. In this recognition there is no feeling of fright or anger, there is only awe. You can stare through the fleeting failures and successes where the pursuit of integrity ruled over your choices in a capricious world, and even when the current moments appear hopeless, it all still seems worthwhile.
The bouquets and packages accumulating in spaces like Lot 25A are mere utilities, mundane tools. They are means to an end. The down-and-out all gather here, at the beginning of their day, in a floral warehouse in the concrete laden area of the cities’ industrial district. This particular part of the job is called pool. There is no large body of water here. It is not that kind of pool. There is no chance of drowning here. Only deserted or overwatered plants drown in this pool. Each deliveryman stands next to their number and waits for the bouquets to appear at their feet. They write down addresses and the receivers’ names and then shove the packages into rusting trucks and old beaters.
You have headphones on, listening to Kant’s Critique of Judgment. You are tired. There is caffeine circling through the blood, and the senses are easily overloaded by stimuli from such things as the floral scent in the air which makes you contemplate Wordsworth’s heavenly daffodils. There is this Italian delinquent next to you, naturally kind but unabashedly odd. He is named Mike. Even though he is a fairly calm man you can tell he is barely holding on to his sanity. He’d rather be in a blues club playing his harmonica drinking himself into oblivion. He often talks of blues clubs and playing harmonica. You get the impression he has something to say about every bar in and around Chicago. He is pleasant to talk to and pass the time with, but he smells like a stale beer that someone puked into a urinal and then rubbed on his coat. His aroma adds a certain indescribable something to the scent of flowers and pine cones in the air. Everyone has a certain interesting smell there, including yourself. I mean, MY SELF.
Ben started writing articles for a punk magazine called Maximum Rocknroll out of San Francisco, which just this weekend announced it was ending its print edition after 37 years.
John discovered that since his grades were above average in high school, a couple years prior, and because his family was poor, he could get a full grant to go to Columbia College in Downtown Chicago.
Ben nurtured his writing skills and became a well-respected contributor to Maximum Rocknroll. He was loved by Tim Yohanan, the magazine’s founder. Tim loved controversy and Ben was very good at creating articles that polarized and caused thoughtful conflict.
John studied theater and literature. He started working on a novel and also wrote and produced successful plays. He balanced two jobs with schooling and lived at home and he took the train and bus each day to school and worked each night back at Randhurst shopping Mall. He never slept. Ben got a job at a gas station and worked the nightshift. He shaved his hair into a mohawk; the rebellious, yet, traditional garb of a punk. He wore a bandana while at work and he had a green army jacket. He looked a lot like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. It was more likely he shaved his head for the that reason than to look like a punk. John liked to keep his hair long and never took on any punk-like physical characteristics. He looked more like Jon Bon Jovi than any character related to punk. He wore his sisters’ bright patterned shirts. He never wore jeans. He preferred bright blue or red slacks. One night Ben called John to the gas station to let him know that the famed DJ John Peel was playing one of their records on a station in England. This led to an overseas record company subleasing and releasing their record in the UK. It did well but the band never got paid a penny. John and Ben quickly learned that they couldn’t trust other people to do work for them, especially if they couldn’t drive over and yell at them. They were already doing most of the work themselves, but this may have been the first time they talked about it out loud. They would handle as much of the business as they could by themselves. And this they committed to till the very end.
Through his connection with Maximum Rocknroll, Ben got the band a gig in Berkeley, California, at a club called Gilman Street. During this early period of the band neither Ben nor John knew how to book a full tour, although they were willing to try and eventually would do so. But this time even though John was willing to take time off school, and Ben was willing to quit yet another job, the bass player and drummer could not afford to leave their jobs for the time necessary to complete a full tour. The gig at Gilman Street was important to Ben and John so they decided to fly bass player and drummer to California and the two of them would drive the instruments and themselves to California. They would play the two shows at Gilman Street, stay for a couple days, and then drive back home. The bass player and drummer did not have any spare money, so Ben and John worked as hard as they could to raise the money for gas and for the flights. They fell short on funds so Ben’s parents offered to pay the difference if the band would paint the house. On the day the painting began, no one was able to make it except Ben and John, so they painted it themselves. (Bass player may have helped out a bit. He was a pretty good guy.) The two of them drove back and forth from California and almost died many times in mountains and in deserts. They argued a lot. Ben was a good driver. John hated driving, and so was very bad. But he was willing to do his part, they both were. John sucked it up and drove his share. It became very obvious that the two of them trusted each other and depended on each other more than the average friends. It was hard to understand if they were actually friends, it really never came up, but they were close nonetheless.
Ben’s family decided to move out of the state. Ben wanted to stay in Illinois. John invited Ben to live in his family’s house. Ben liked John’s Mom, and John’s mom liked Ben. So there was no problem there. There was not much space, so Ben and John lived in the same room. The room fit two beds, and this left some space for a television, two dressers, a bunch of records, and a few other necessities. They got jobs with opposite schedules to make it a little easier on themselves when they were both around. John was barely home anyway, because of school and jobs, so it worked out OK. John’s dad got sick and started dying. John’s mom let him move back into the house. She did not like him as a husband, but she cared highly about everyone, even above herself, and she couldn’t let the father of her children, her ex-husband, die on his own. Ben liked John’s dad and John’s dad really liked Ben. Ben would stay up late with John’s dad, and often talk with him late into the night, and sometimes early in the morning when he got back from the gas station. John will always remember that bond. It affects him on levels he doesn’t understand. Sometime later Ben moved into the city. And a little time later than that John’s family lost their house, and John moved to a farm in Galena, then into a turret in a castle in Glenview and then finally to an apartment in a part of Chicago that was very dangerous at the time called Logan Square. John got shot at for the first time in his life. Someone a few feet away from him took the bullet to his head and fell dead in the street. John has never mentioned that publicly till now. A few months later John’s father died right before Screeching Weasel went on a tour. John and Ben talked about it while sitting together in something that seemed like an atrium in the middle of a school. They both missed him.
A label ran by a fellow named Larry Livermore in Berkeley, California called Lookout! Records signed Screeching Weasel. Larry really liked Screeching Weasel and even though he preferred signing local bands, he offered to release Screeching Weasel as the first non-California band. Because of this people would get confused and think John and Ben were from California. That could not be further from the truth. Ben and John were very midwestern. Screeching Weasel played with many bands from Lookout! and even brought some of their own friends along to work with Lookout/Panic Button like The Queers, The Lillingtons and Moral Crux. Screeching Weasel played with a few cool bands including Operation Ivy, Crimpshrine, Isocracy, and a couple shows with a small three piece called Green Day. Green Day claimed Screeching Weasel was an influence on them. Yet Green Day had a way different appeal. It was punk, but a punk that wasn’t as raw and ugly as how John and Ben liked it. Green Day outgrew their label and signed to a major label and became one of the most famous bands in the world. Many bands were being signed and many other bands who weren’t signed were writing songs about how all their friends were becoming famous. Ben wrote one of those songs too, even though Screeching Weasel WAS approached by a major label and turned it down. Ben and John knew their band would never do well on a major label, they wouldn’t have enough control and they couldn’t conceive of a mainstream audience actually liking their lack of skill as musicians and singers. John, during one heated conversation, asked Ben to consider signing a major label contract, so that they could make a lot of money, drop from the label, and use that money to put out whatever bands they wanted on their own label on their own terms. John, in the back of his mind knew that that would never work, that a major label would ruin them, but it took Ben clearly stating it, in a slightly perturbed manner, for it to truly sink in. They were not meant for that world. They started to talk a lot about integrity. Ben and John had always had it, but around this time it really became a badge of honor. And they kept each other in check, one was always there to remind the other that it was them against the world.
This past week while delivering flowers to funeral parlors, nursing homes, hospitals, to lovers, both real and imagined, and to wealthy doctors receiving pastoral gifts from grateful patients, I have had plenty of time to contemplate the pure beauty of a flower. They are plentiful and directly in front of me from start to finish. Even when I arrive at a door with a smile, not knowing the reason for the delivery, jubilant and bubbling with joy, holding flowers, and discovering they are for the bedside of a dying old woman, I still find the experience valuable. I may question myself, and wonder whether I should, in the future, approach the doors with no emotion at all in order to avoid an uncomfortable situation. Although capable, it seems a rather silly thing to do. I’m holding flowers for god sake! Don’t you find flowers beautiful? Don’t they make you feel things? Is it not punk rock to think so? Is that too sentimental with not enough of distant-inducing irony? If that is how you feel, then maybe you are not like me. Flowers are fragile. Fragility may be one of the main things that makes them so delicately beautiful. They are fragile, and yet these malcontent drivers, of which I am one, handle them with such gritty nonchalance, thinking about how much they will make, which is very little, and balancing that with how much work they are willing to put in to the job. We are selfish in our reasons for delivering goodness, apologies, and grievances. Are we, the deliverers of these emotions packed in boxes and bouquets, part of this active process of beauty? That’s highly debatable.
We drivers, alone behind the wheel with clipboard at hand, travel from place to place within one’s own zone. We drive back and forth, sometimes passing the same place from which we just came, double parking our work vehicles, and distributing bouquets that are haphazardly splinted and jammed into milk crates in the back. This keeps them from tipping over. If they tip over, there is a water bottle to refill the liquid that has spilled out. Sometimes the weight of the vase can force the bouquets forwards, smashing the flowers to bits. This is a sad disaster for the flowers, of which, if you do not remember, I find beautiful. If there are just a few losses the whole package can be quickly mended by tossing the smashed and separated ones aside. This is sad for any one particular flower, but not as sad as those occasions when the whole bouquet gets ruined. That’s hard on the flowers but this easy to execute mishap is an even worse disaster for the driver. If you recall, the job only pays ten dollars an hour, and a cheap bouquet costs three times that price. And who is expected to pay for any mishaps? It is 100% the driver’s responsibility. My twisted “artistic” mind can find enjoyment in this financial predicament. The futility of an action can be quite agreeable. Perhaps that is one of the things that makes me a punk. Also not giving a fuck if other people think it’s stupid to love flowers. With that said, it is still true that the love of flowers is common among all peoples, but the love of futility not so much. Futility does not feed you or keep a roof over your head. As a matter of fact this job, without disasters, barely covers food for the day, even during holidays. This fucking sucks for you.
Many years pass and many things happen in the lives of Jughead and Weasel. There is no easy way to get to where we need to get to for the story to end. Someone will not be represented fairly, or accurately enough, with such little time and viewpoint. That’s the product of time moving and not making a carbon print of itself with infinite shots from all directions. And on top of that to make it even more difficult just let it be understood that this series of narratives, even those previous words talking about the infinite, although appearing objective, told from a third person point of view, are very subjective. Can there actually be any other way? Perhaps that is for the philosophers to figure out. This is just a story. Any universal, timeless lessons gleamed from this, which philosophers may call a priori information (truths like all bachelors are single), it may have been constructed to do so, but know that it is actually impossible to achieve such a thing. There is no a priori that states all partnerships must come to an end… but that does sound to make sense.
Ben moved to Schiller Park and John moved to Lincoln Park. They both end in “park” but they were on the opposite sides of the city, very far apart. Even though they took a lot of the money they made on royalties and started a label of their own, they never saw each other. Due to Ben’s anxieties and intellectual inclinations the band stopped touring or playing live. The band had become only a studio entity. But in terms of business that needed to be done, since there was no lawyer, accountant, or manager, Ben and John had to do it themselves. So even when the band wasn’t functioning the business of the band continued to function. And this they did from opposite sides of the city. In general Ben had taken on the lawyer responsibilities and John took on the accountant responsibilities. Once in a while John would take the bus to Ben’s place and they would exchange mail and packages and talk about the band. John, each time, couldn’t help but notice that Ben’s place was immaculate, always so clean as to appear untouched. Where the band had kept them together in the public eye, the label and all the behind the scenes work of maintaining Screeching Weasel, this could not be seen by the fans. All that was seen was a band that didn’t function but only put out records occasionally. And since the band didn’t function as an actual band anymore, it made logical and creative sense that all the creative output of the band was concentrated on the thoughts and actions of the main songwriter and singer, Ben Weasel.
Since their lives were so separate, and the social situation had shrunk, the topics became more personal and introspective. The decision making at some point in 2005 was beginning to strangle the band. It became obvious to John that the company and the band, (which was on it’s third hiatus, maybe “break up.”) could no longer financially cover even its own work that needed to be done. And after nudging occasionally to get the band back on the road, and Ben making it more and more difficult for something like that to happen, John got very sad. Simultaneously, it became obvious to Ben that he could not maintain this course of his life with large amounts of royalties being split between himself and John. But they were partners and he had stated that there would be no Screeching Weasel without Jughead and Weasel. Maybe he was mistaken when he had said that. They had come along way since then, maybe it was time to disassemble the partnership. One day while Ben was sitting in his very clean apartment he got a call from John. John stated that he wanted to quit Weasels Inc. He couldn’t afford to keep the company going and he wanted out. Ben was very angry, and even though this may have been what he wanted, he felt betrayed. And after the phone was hung up he allowed his lawyer brain to justify his need for full control. John had broken their trust. He had to be dealt with. John hung up the phone and felt lost, confused. If the band was actually functioning it would not have to be like this. He started to come up with other solutions. Maybe we can make the plethora of labels that were paying them bulk royalties split up the royalties and pay all the members separately. This would make the paperwork a little easier on John. You see, the money that was allowed out of royalties to cover office expenses was not enough, and John had to start paying for supplies and tax bills out of his own royalties. Maybe if this could be alleviated he could patch things up with Ben. In the meantime, Ben came up with a solution.
Ben sent John a letter that said that he should give up all his rights. He wrote that this was just a courtesy. He implied that there was really no need for him to offer this reconciliation which was attached with an in perpetuity semi-annual royalty of five percent. (Of which John was getting fifty percent prior. Split between the two of them.) John called Ben and proposed his idea of not stopping the accounting but just making it easier on them. Ben stressed it was too late and that John should sign the rights away. John, after some time, and maybe even tears, talked Ben into allowing it to be a gentlemen’s agreement. John thought that signing an actual agreement would symbolize him signing away his whole past, and even though that might sound dramatic, Ben agreed. As long as John allowed Ben to do all the business and make all the decisions. This lasted almost a year before Ben did not want to do this anymore. He called up John and told him a new company had to be formed and that John had to sign the contract. He had to accept the terms of the agreement of only 5 percent royalties. John thought he deserved more, and besides still wasn’t very interested in signing a contract. Then Ben said he would keep John in court for the rest of both their lives if he didn’t sign. Even though all John’s friends said Ben was bluffing, John thought otherwise. John was playing music with another band called Even In Blackouts, and it made no sense to be spending all his time battling his old band mate when he could be spending his time working on new material. Was the time in court, driving the two of them farther apart be worth whatever the result would be in the end? John agreed with conditions.
- Ben would never change the royalties agreed on for all 13 previous members of the band.
- Ben would not restart the band without first giving John first refusal. (Meaning if Ben started the band again he had to ask John if he wanted to be in it still)
Ben said “He would never do that.” Years later John would analyze that phrase and realize it may have been purposely vague as to refer to what he wouldn’t do. He continued by saying he would never be able to get his lawyer to agree to put this in the contract. But he would be willing to create a gentlemen’s agreement between the two of them. They had been doing these for years, most people thought John an idiot to accept such a thing, but they didn’t realize that This used to mean more to the two of them than an actual contract. An actual contract can be toyed with, distorted, words can take on other meanings, but a gentleman’s bond, was about the two people involved and nothing else. John signed the contract, but the gentlemen’s agreement was never sent. Not many days later Ben restarted the band without John. John wrote a letter about how he had just lost his friend and that was what mattered most. And that he would never acknowledge this new band as Screeching Weasel.
THE SUBLIME (A totally personal take on the idea of the SUBLIME, even though I believe the circumstances for a sublime experience to happen are waaaay more intense than anything in this narrative. Experiencing the sublime must bring one close to death… this may be symbolically close to death.)
Near the end of my time in Screeching Weasel, after seven years of not playing shows, I experienced two back to back shows with nearly 3,000 people attending and singing our songs. This would happen one more time at the same place a few months later, then it would never happen again. We had stopped touring when we were still only bringing in about 200 to 300 people a gig. We scheduled these rare shows at the House Of Blues. The original two shows sold out in less than an hour. This was in October of 2000 and in April of 2001. This overwhelming feeling of being on stage, playing music, in itself is not the sublime, but nears an active sense of the beautiful, an active contentment. And I am so rarely content. I have experienced many many beautiful things, and I imagine I will continue to experience beautiful things. But the closest I have been to the sublime, outside of natural phenomena, is having these shows in my past, and knowing that from a young age, art and performance were the most important life affirming activities I could engage in, both for entertainment and career. And the unstableness this has brought my life, brings me close to financial and emotional destituteness. And when I am made to see this around me, it brings on fear and anxiety, and I can be brought out of this by getting a little cash, here and there, taking on a job near but not in my field, selling my belongings, this calms the fear. But the pleasure from the sublime of ruination is the moment a creation I have taken part in brings together a community, whether it is just the band, when all is going well and we are all singing and loving to be together. But even more so, when this is accompanied by an audience of individuals singing along and being affected enough by the joy that they too experience, you get this overwhelming feeling of selflessness of community. This danger of self-destruction bubbling under all encounters is subdued by the memories I hold dear, the overwhelming awe of my luckiness, the love of community that so often surrounds me, and that I help to create this love, manifested from my will to do so. This balancing of the forces feels sublime.
THE BEAUTIFUL (The free play of the senses, free from reason.)
This, what I am about to say, may sound ridiculous and shallow, but you… I mean “I.” Let me start over. This may sound ridiculous and shallow, but I love it all! All the bad jobs and sadness, and scraping by, and even the good times too, but that should be a given. I’m not a curmudgeon! I love it all, from the smell of stale beer, to remembrances of my father’s death, from the calculating of royalties to the sharp prickly feel of the stem of a beautiful rose. Even when depression knocks on my noggin bringing me nearly to my knees I still can look at the world, can look at the art of living, with both genuine awe and curmudgeonly aloofness. I am lucky enough not to have a debilitating mental condition and must acknowledge that whatever chemicals I have that naturally circulate through my brain, many lost souls can only hope to find in medication or drugs. I look at all this in front of me, the flowers, the van, the old men close to death and the lazy hipsters, my past and my present, all of these subjects of my attention, and I ponder whether my aesthetic appreciation of these objects are pre or post cognition. You might not understand what that means, but that’s OK. Maybe it catches you on a deeper level, or maybe you face it with disinterest–a voyeur reading about this–the musicality I am looking for in my life. You are reading this from a safe distance, perhaps waiting for it to make a logical turn towards critical observation of a live band or of the songs they record. Maybe this is needed to justify this article being in a music journal. And even though you may be right, I jump from these words and say to you, “Well buddy, this IS the music, this is where it often comes from, from this hardship we call life. And I love it.”
You are surrounded by other drivers, who are now staring, as you catch yourself standing in row 25A, with your own headphones making it impossible to hear yourself, too emphatically repeating this phrase, under your breath, “I LOVE IT! I fucking LOVE IT!”