Due out in the second half of March is Hank Shteamer’s excellent study of Ween, and particularly of their Chocolate and Cheese album from 1994. Here’s an extract from the book:
At the complete opposite end of the emotional spectrum from “Deaner” is the notorious “HIV Song.” Despite its extreme simplicity and brief length, it’s nevertheless one of Ween’s most memorable compositions—as well a staple of the band’s live shows to this day—due to its maniacal central conceit: the juxtaposition of the words “AIDS” and “HIV” with whimsical carnival music. Realized, like “Baby Bitch,” at Graphic Sound with Greg Frey, the track features an exhaustively repetitive arrangement, marked by a chugging drum-machine groove and festive organ. A calliope-esque theme plays for seven bars, then drops out for a queasy-sounding vocal interjection. The song doesn’t stray too far from Pure Guava territory, but it’s more nuanced than it initially sounds. For example, electronic textures swirl around the song’s bluesy midsection, lending the track an otherworldly trippiness. In the end, thought, it’s obviously the lyrics—all two of them—that make “The HIV Song” stand out.
As one might imagine, responses to this tune have varied wildly. “I’m pretty sure this song just came about by Gene and Deaner sitting in the studio thinking to themselves, What’s the most offensive song we can possibly make? They sure pulled it off!,” observes one message-board commenter. Another takes the opposite view: “I don’t see why people consider this offensive at all. It’s not like they’re saying ‘AIDS is Great! HIV Rules!’ They’re just using two words.” Melchiondo claims that he has received mainly positive feedback regarding the track, even from those affected by the disease. “I’ve never had any controversy about it,” he claims. “And actually there was this woman around [New Hope]. She was an AIDS victim and she was a public speaker; she went and spoke at high schools about safe sex and HIV and [’The HIV Song’] was her theme song! I met her and the first thing she said was, ‘I love that song.’ She’s like, ‘I start all my lectures with it.’ ”
The New Hope public speaker Melchiondo cites is author and humorist River Huston, who used “The HIV Song” as theme music for her one-woman show How HIV Made Me a Pain in the Ass. To her, the song offers a kind of comedic therapy.
“I’m HIV positive and I do a lot of comedy, which most people don’t get. And I love when people make fun of AIDS. And it’s not that he’s making fun of it, but the circus sounds—the dichotomy between the seriousness of the subject and the fun melody—it’s circus-y to me or ice-cream-truck-like, and I just loved it! It made me laugh. AIDS is horrible, and I write all kinds of books and things on treatments, and I present things about how horrible it is, but I also need to find a way to laugh and to deal with, and [“The HIV Song”] always made me smile.”
Huston’s reaction proves that “The HIV Song” is more of a litmus test than a statement. “[The song] doesn’t say anything,” Melchiondo contends. “All it says is ‘AIDS’ and ‘HIV.’ People can make of it what they want. But by bringing it up to us, that makes them guilty of interpreting it the wrong way. It doesn’t say anything; it’s not like making fun of anybody or doing anything.”
In a 12 Golden Country Greats–era interview, Melchiondo elaborated:
“It’s probably the best song about AIDS that’s ever been done. I used to have to answer this question like every single interview. AIDS is sort of like a circus and I think you have to demystify it. I grew up here in New Hope which is probably the largest gay community in the Northeast and I have friends who have AIDS and I know people well who have died of it. I think if you take something like AIDS and put it in the context of music like that you get the most… I don’t know. You could never hear a song like that and forget it. By saying nothing, we’ve said more.”
Dave Ayers, Ween’s manager at the time of Chocolate and Cheese, can attest to the song’s unlikely resonance. “They had a remarkable ability to get away with things,” he marvels. “People appreciated the joke. I remember being in San Francisco, and I think it was probably the first time I ever heard ‘The HIV Song.’ So they decided to whip that out to open their set in San Francisco, and I just thought this was the boldest fucking thing you could possibly do—I was again concerned that people were gonna flip out. But the whole room, including gay couples, was laughing hysterically.”
Perhaps audiences were so forgiving because they sensed that any inherent antagonism present in “The HIV Song” wasn’t directed at them. As Melchiondo reveals, the song actually expresses a very local kind of rage:
“New Hope is on the Delaware River, and it’s basically a river town; that’s its No. 1 identity, and there’s a bridge that crosses from New Jersey into New Hope and on the weekends, New Hope is a big tourist town, and there’s all these rides. There’s like horse rides and carriage rides in the street; there’s train rides; there’s a mule barge that takes tourists on mule-barge rides on the canal; there’s ferry boat rides on the river, bicycle rides. And the town gets packed like you’re on the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore on the weekend.
But when you grow up in a town like that, you become fucking bitter. It’s like people who live at the beach year-round, and all the summer tourists come in. That’s what it’s like living in New Hope. So I was with Guy [Heller, a member of Melchiondo’s side project the Moistboyz] one day and we’re walking across the bridge and we’re seeing all this shit: people eating ice cream and it’s so ugly. Guy’s like, ‘Man, I just wish I had a fuckin’ megaphone. I’d just like to fuckin’ make an announcement and say, “AIDS! HIV! Cancer!”‘ And I thought that was hilarious, so I turned it into a song. I did an instrumental where it’s like this happy melody and it’s like, ‘AIDS! HIV!'”
Freeman describes Heller’s vision further: “It would be all of the ugly Americans eating ice cream and shopping for garbage in the quaint shops of the area. Guy would be standing, shirtless, with a megaphone, yelling ‘AIDS, HIV!’’ repeatedly. I thought that was a perfect image and that’s how the song was born. I still see Guy and a megaphone when we perform the song live.”
Andrew Weiss takes a more serious view of the tune:
“That song’s an amazing work of art. That stands up there with one of their best, I think. That’s a brilliant, brilliant song, and it’s up there with ‘Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World’ in terms of deft social commentary in my opinion. There’s not a lot of words to [’The HIV Song’], you know? But it’s not just shock value. It’s not just, ‘Oh, here’s a fuckin’ clown cartoon calliope jam, throwing in the word “AIDS.” ‘ It’s deep. But it shocks at the same time too. It’s much heavier than just saying ‘fuck’ or ‘nigger.'”
Another online commenter seems to agree that there’s a serious message embedded within the song: “I think this song is a slap in the face to people who dont take AIDS seriously. The music they play is like carnival cheesy music, kind of like a joke. And that’s how a lot of people take AIDS. They don’t think they will get it and don’t take it seriously.”
Dave Ayers sees the song as stemming from a very sincere paranoia. “AIDS was everywhere,” he says. “You couldn’t escape reading about it, and for them to be making fun of it was so outlandish that people couldn’t really understand where they were coming from. Somebody in an interview asked them, ‘What’s your position on AIDS?’ As though somebody would have a position. And they kind of looked at each other and there was a long pause and one of them said, [In quiet, serious voice] ‘Scared.’ I mean, it’s like the only answer. It was fuckin’ scary, and that song is just whistlin’ in the graveyard.”
Josh Homme also praises the song’s subversive humor. “I just love the avant-garde nature of ‘The HIV Song,’ ” he explains. “Because my favorite movie is Blazing Saddles, and it says ‘nigger’ and ‘Jew’ thousands of times, but it’s written by Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor. The movie’s about how dumb white people are, and using these tools that you have against you. And something like ‘The HIV Song’—[Freeman and Melchiondo] have so many gay friends, and they’re actually really sensitive, cool dudes, but also, when they’re gonna use sarcasm, you better put your armor on, ’cause it’s gonna be sharp and it’s gonna be right in the gut.”
An illustration of Homme’s point is Ween’s never-realized music video for the song. “We would have a video concept for almost every song, and the one for ‘The HIV Song’ was brilliant,” recalls Weiss. “It was Mickey’s concept, basically. It was a single-camera, point-of-view shot from a person in a hospital bed, like drab, off-green walls, you know. And you see these feet coming out, and the door. And the song starts and the door flies open and in comes, like, the fucking carnival: clowns and people fuckin’ spitting fire and all that shit and it just turns into this big swirling mass around the room over the course of the song. And then at the end of the song, he flatlines. Pretty evil shit.”
While many are either amused or offended by the edgy humor of “The HIV Song,” bewilderment might be the most common reaction, as evidenced by Steve Ralbovsky’s perspective:
“I support the entirety of [Ween], and I defend the entirety of it, but [‘The HIV Song’] was always a bit of a head-shake move for me. What was the point of it? Was it just shock value for shock value’s sake? However many years later, I’m still not sure what the ultimate value derived from it was. It was so minimal that maybe it was, in some way, just calling [HIV/AIDS] out there, so that if those guys could comment on it in that way, it would somehow make it an issue that people would have to deal with differently in the Ween world. But it had this kind of carnival music or circus-music thing about it that made it hard for you to think that they were making some poignant comment. The long-winded answer is: I still don’t know.”
Despite his ambivalence, it’s to Ralbovsky’s credit that, much as he embraced Ween’s lo-fi methods wholeheartedly, he left the final judgment of where to draw the line of taste entirely up to the band.
“I don’t think it would’ve made a bit of difference if I had cautioned them that ‘The HIV Song’ might put them in bad light with people or make them seem insensitive,” he asserts. “You can’t sign something that was so self-determined and so unique and then try to say, ‘Well, maybe you should think about this or maybe you should think about that.’ It was take it all as it came in, for good or bad. They were determined to do what they wanted to do and it was unthinkable to guide them in any particular direction. All you could do was maybe express preferences: ‘I love that song’ or ‘That’s one of my favorite songs.’ You weren’t fiddling with them or advising them to leave songs off of records because of their potential misunderstanding or shock value.
“I could always kind of compartmentalize. There might have been some private cringe moments around a few colleagues from time to time when you’d be listening to something in a group. But there was no boundary line for me in terms of good or bad taste, with them. It was just what they did, and shock value was part of it.”
With Chocolate and Cheese, it became obvious that what Ween did was changing. These 16 songs laid out the blueprint for a new Ween: The lovable underdogs of The Jane Pratt Show were giving way to real musicians, artists who swam parallel to the rock mainstream even if they never wholeheartedly entered it and whose records rivaled canonical classics for hi-fi inventiveness. It was clear that Ween had a future after all.