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Read Graham Rae’s interview with Pierson on The New Review section of this site
Summarizing 15 motion-and-emotion-packed years of your life is no easy thing. John Pierson found this out to his cost upon starting the writing of this book, a part-fictional final exam on the time he spent as guitarist ‘Jughead’ in the now-defunct seminal Ramones-inspired Chicago pop-punk combo Screeching Weasel. Hindsight can be 20/20, but it can also be blindsight, and transposing his thoughts onto the page would eventually take the author on an inner and outer adventure that would span two continents, several countries and a full six years from start to the book’s long overdue finish.
Pierson’s self-published ‘Weasels In A Box’ lets us into the head and life of guitarist JJ Bunkbed (a pretty obvious ‘John Jughead’ riff), the string-strummer for pop-punk band Semi-Famous (a status Screeching Weasel were by their demise, with a cult following on both sides of the Atlantic and a big influence on the current sound of pop-punk). JJ is one half of the band’s creative nucleus, with the other half being singer/lyricist Franklin Famous, whose real-life counterpart was Ben ‘Weasel’ (‘Benjamin Franklin’, you get it?) Foster.
The ex-SW singer himself wrote a book (also published by Pierson) about being in the band a few years back, ‘Like Hell.’ It’s worth mentioning briefly here, because the two men’s writing styles are so different. A large part of Foster’s prose-writing self-education (as opposed to Pierson’s college education in literature) came from writing spiky, funny, acerbic monthly columns for ‘Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll,’ a San Francisco punk magazine. This showed through in his fictional writing and meant that his wordwork was no-frills nuts-and-bolts. But this is vastly different to the angle taken towards the subject matter by Pierson and taken together both works form a complementary overview of being in a band which has influenced everybody from Green Day to Blink 182 and beyond. The main difference, however, between ‘Hell’ and ‘Weasels’ is in the treatment of sex. Foster’s work has a lot of (occasionally humorous) somewhat graphic sex in it, whereas there is none whatsoever in Pierson’s oddly chaste novel. But I guess that’s just the kiss-and-tell difference in the two men and it hardly means anything, except insofar as it highlights the divide between their writing on generally the same subject matter.
‘Weasels’ takes us from the low-budget recording of Semi-Famous’s (whose pre-band history and timeline is helpfully illustrated in a two-page family tree at the start of the book) first album to their last with the prologue, cleverly inserted here as an epilogue, being the band’s final stage performance. Anybody familiar with the history of Screeching Weasel will be fairly conversant with the material in these pages, which is a pretty straight (in some ways) retelling of certain elements of the band’s history, though it’s presented as ‘a not so musical journey through partially truthful situations with eighty percent fictitious dialogue.’
The book cheerfully and unselfconsciously recreates the youthful naïve happiness and stupidity of being in a band, whilst the adult Pierson throws in a few pertinent analyses of the punk scene, its inhabitants and its wheelings and dealings. Semi-Famous are a DIY (jokingly referred to here as meaning ‘Dumb Idiotic Yahoos’) band, which means that they retain control of all aspects of their business dealings, as befits the personalities and wishes of Franklin and Bunkbed. They tour the country in a shabby vehicle, playing to small-but-growing crowds, and encounter various anarchists and nutcases (who have real-life punk scene counterparts) along the way. A load of American punk bands of the late 80s and 90s also put in cameos, and it’s fun (for the punk-scene-aware reader) to identify the likes of Operation Ivy, Green Day, Crimpshine, Rancid, The Queers, Gorilla Biscuits and more under their amusing pseudonyms in the text.
‘Weasels’ is written in a pretty complex style. It’s presented second person (a style the author says he will never write in again because of its difficulty), as Pierson tries to convey to the reader the actual experience of being him in a band, complete with all the paranoia (is that person looking at me because they know who I am, or they find me attractive, or they have some problem with me, or at least with my public image, or what?) and insecurity and trenchant sociological and psychological observations this entails. This method of presenting the material makes some of it come across, oddly, like Pierson is writing diary entries to himself. Thus proxy invites us to make deductions about the writer himself and his worldview though there is, of course, a danger in trying to read too much into observations on a (to my mind thinly veiled) fictional work and world.
Compounding the confusion (a state of mind which is, along with over-thinking things, is one of the themes of this book) is Pierson’s surreal and experimental-in-places text style. He jumps in and out of modes and realities and timeframes. One minute we are in one time and place, the next another:
So let’s just examine the above. Pierson is having a conversation with the character he is constructing for you through another character, about what the other character should be like and where your character should be at that point in the story, a fiction addressing a fiction. It’s an incredibly complex and convoluted and slightly stilted style of writing, if interesting in places, but it really slows the story right to a halt sometimes and I found myself skipping over the odd line or paragraph here and there through sheer incomprehension or frustration or just to get to the more linear parts of the work where I didn’t have to think about past and present and future and here and there and everywhere and nowhere and go back to move forward in the text.
Pierson also moves in between fictional and real modes too, putting in some realistic conversation about (amongst other things) Screeching Weasel and their album My Brain Hurts (an excellent piece of work, and my own all-time favorite album), which confuses matters even further, as does throwing in parallel-existing chapters. It’s definitely a book to pay a lot of close attention to, which is fair enough, but I just didn’t think the presentation was clear and good enough in places to merit the extra-complex lateral thought that had to go into decoding what was actually on the page in front of me. It’s Pierson’s artistic vision, and I respect him for not just making ‘Weasels’ a straight retelling of the Screeching Weasel story and for writing it how he wanted to, but sometimes John…I just didn’t get it or wasn’t entirely satisfied with what I did get. And I know I’m not the only one who had that problem either.
However. The experimental prose only takes up a smallish portion of the book and doesn’t really detract from the overall enjoyment of the work, which is laugh-out-loud in places (‘He is a scrawny, foul-mouthed lad with bleached-blond hair and a pale, spotless complexion that attracts little women and homosexuals like geeks to a new Star Wars movie’ – P30), very intelligent, and with taut, poetic writing as good as any I have seen from anybody else. Consider, for example, this passage from page 152, describing Semi-Famous out on tour in a Chevy Malibu (a nod to the 1984 Alex Cox punk film Repo Man, the place where Pierson first heard punk music):
“After five hundred bottles of beer has been removed from the wall, it doesn’t matter who can sing, everyone (front and back seat) is awake and all are equally tired, having hardly slept in three or four days. Driving through Texas is like digging a six-mile-long irrigation tunnel with a detachable tongue. Your eyes have now been open for thirty-six consecutive hours, and fifteen of those (not consecutive) hours have been spent behind the steering wheel of the obstinate Malibu ever-propelling itself forward. Everyone’s voices somewhere along the trip magically become highly trained. The echoes ring out in hilarity. The limited ranges soar, and all can sing beautifully and intelligently, chirping out four-part harmonies like mechanical birds perched in a suburban mall’s holiday winter wonderland. Except right now in the bowels of Texas it is ninety-eight degrees, cramped, with no air-conditioning, at 3.15a.m., on some endless interstate highway.”
The mechanical birds are a beautiful image, and there are many more moments like this throughout the book. As somebody who grew up listening to American punk music, and more specifically Screeching Weasel, who were my favorite band for many years, I could go on and on about this book, drawing parallels between the material in it and its real-life correlations, but there’s no real point. Anybody interested in the American punk scene of the 1990s, the history of Screeching Weasel and the personalities of/dynamic between Ben Weasel and John Jughead (themselves somewhat fictional creations) will definitely get a kick out of reading this book, as will the casual reader interested in being in a hard-working independent band (it’s not necessary to know all about punk to enjoy the work) or about punk music in general. Reading ‘Weasels In A Box’ is time well spent in the company of the quirky, intelligent, funny, talented, eccentric man who plays a mean underwater guitar. You won’t regret or forget it. Trust me.
Reproduced with permission
Graham Rae is a Scottish scribbler from the cheery charming picture-postcard-perfect post-industrial up-and-coming internationally renowned tourist destination of Falkirk, now resident in the US. He has been writing for as long as he can remember (started at any early age, carving graffiti into womb walls) and am halfway through my first novel (well, third, but the other mishmash misfires don’t count),’ Weekend Warriors.’ He has been writing about film for various electronic and print publications for 18 years now, and you can see a sporadically entertaining eclectic selection of his ramble/rantings at www.filmthreat.com
|WEASELS IN A BOX
by John Pierson
(Hope and Nonthings 2005)
Reviewed by Graham Rae
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