In response to one of his friends’ Facebook posts, a clip of Weezer playing live, my friend Mark found himself wondering why the band remained so popular after all these years. Since, once upon a time, I was in a Weezer cover band, he decided to ask me. In short, he wanted to understand “the significance of this man [Rivers Cuomo], his band and why they’ve stayed important for 15 years.” My relationship with the band is kind of complicated (though likely not unique), so I knew that in order to answer this question, I would have to detail my history with them, rather than attempt to write something objective. After all, I usually can’t understand why the masses like what they like. But I do know why I loved Weezer, then hated them, then came to terms with them throughout their existence. My story is a long one. But hopefully it will be interesting to more than just one or two people. If you please:
Like most people my age, I first heard Weezer around the time they released their first self-titled album. The year: 1995. The song: “Undone (The Sweater Song)”, their first single. I heard it on a Seattle alternative radio station whilst on a college tour of the Northwest. Hailing from a conservative southern town, which had 4 country music radio stations, this song kind of blew my mind. I had dabbled in alternative music, buying records blind based on magazine articles. I got into the Pixies and Violent Femmes I loved punk and was still on the tail end of my metal phase. I also loved old pop like the Beatles and Buddy Holly, having grown up around their music. “Undone” never made it all the way to Richmond, VA radio, but we did get MTV and it wasn’t long before their innovative video for “Buddy Holly” (directed by a then unknown Spike Jonze) was all over prime time. I bought their record immediately. I really liked the entire record and thought the lyrics were fun and clever. The songs didn’t move me, particularly. They just made me happy. I didn’t think much about who Rivers Cuomo was then. I’m not sure I even singled him out from the rest of the band. They were all just ultra-hip L.A. guys in a band I liked.
In 1996, “Pinkerton” was released. I bought it. It took me a while to warm up to it. It was so different from their previous record. The music was heavier and the melodies were unlike anything I’d ever heard before. I enjoyed gritty music and even dark music, but these lyrics were new to me. I didn’t understand what Rivers was so sad about. I was even mildly disturbed by a couple tracks. Why was he masturbating to letters from 18-year-old Japanese girls? Isn’t it a little weird to obsess over a lesbian when you’re a straight male? In retrospect, it was because my romantic experience was extremely limited at that point. I was 17. I’d only had one boyfriend and it was for a millisecond. There were plenty of crushes; some of them painfully unrequited but I only understood Morrissey style pining. Not the more complicated emotions that accompany having had sex with more than one person.
They toured that year and were playing a small (200 capacity) club in Richmond. They were playing bigger venues elsewhere, but few people in RVA had ever heard of them. Though I was only partly digging their second record, I got a ticket to the show. I thought they’d be fun live, especially when they played songs from their first album. [Back then it wasn’t called the Blue Album. It was Weezer (s/t). Who knew they would release two more self-titled records, which would require some sort of differentiation? I’ve always thought this was a stupid gimmick. It was by no means the last stupid gimmick the band would come up with.] But then, for reasons now unknown, I got grounded. I was always getting grounded for stupid shit (like “talking back” and “having an attitude”) so it’s possible I didn’t even understand THEN why. As is often the case with parents, my mother didn’t care one iota that I had a non-refundable ticket. I was pissed.
But not nearly as pissed, as I was thinking about that missed opportunity three years later when I finally “got” “Pinkerton”. It happened my junior year of college. With a couple of boyfriends under my belt (2 of them long-ish term), some flings and a few interesting prospects on the horizon, my romantic life had evolved. One day, I was feeling curious and put “Pinkerton” on. I don’t think I’d pulled it out in at least two years. In that time, I had gotten into a much wider variety of music. College had been a complete cultural awakening for me.
Suddenly, the riffs and musical arrangements made sense. They sounded like pop music, but dirty and raw. Rivers’ growl resonated with me. And so did the lyrics. As I listened to each song, a wave of understanding flowed over me. I was in love, love, LOVE with this record. I even loved “Across the Sea”, the song about pining for a young Japanese girl. “He’s so lonely and desperate for meaningful human contact that he invents relationships,” I surmised. “It’s harmless.” When he blamed everything on his mother, it sealed the deal. In fact, I found something to relate to in every single track. As boys came and went, I found even more of myself in those songs. By the time I was 22, it practically felt like my diary. “Pink Triangle”, was no longer just about being in love with a lesbian. It was about wanting what you can’t have. And who hasn’t felt that way at some point?
Everyone who lived with me eventually grew to resent “Pinkerton”. It became my go-to record whenever my love life was in turmoil. And naturally, it had to be played at top volume so I could sing along as loud as possible. What an asshole I was. Sorry, former roommates.
Growing more interested in “Pinkerton” also meant becoming interested in the people behind the songs. The first thing I learned was that it wasn’t people plural. It was all Rivers Cuomo. Bassist, Matt Sharp, contributed a bit to the first album. [He left under bad terms and later sued the band for songwriting residuals] But as much as “Pinkerton” was my metaphorical diary, it was Rivers’ literal diary. And therein lies what my friend Mark referred to as “the ‘Pinkerton’ controversy”. I’ll get to that in a second.
Next came The Green Album, another self-titled release so named to differentiate it from their first self-titled album. On their first album, the band was pictured in front of a blue background with their name printed above them. On their third album the band was pictured on front of a green background with their name printed above them. Adorable. Their first album was henceforth known as The Blue Album.
Fans highly anticipated the Green Album. At least, I assume they did because I know I was sure as hell excited about it. New Weezer! What would it sound like? “Pinkerton” was such a musical departure from the Blue Album. Would they take things in yet another direction? The answer is yes and no. The Green Album sounded much like the Blue Album in the sense that it was polished pop music. But it also sounded like something else. Something horrible: Top 40. Every song on the Green Album sounded like it was written for radio. It was like a bad interpretation of the Blue Album.
None of that would have been so bad if it weren’t for the lyrics. Dear god, the lyrics!
“On an island in the sun/we’ll be playing and having fun/and it makes me feel so fine/I can’t control my brain”.
What drivel! How cliché! How utterly soulless! Did Rivers move to Stepford and trade in his emotionally complex girlfriends for a sexy robot? The “edgiest” track was written from the point of view of a transvestite hooker. When he tried to get more personal, you could practically hear him thumbing through the rhyming dictionary.
“Cause everybody wants some love/Shooting from the stars above/And though my heart will break/There’s more that I could take/I could never get enough”.
Needless to say, it was a huge disappointment to most of Weezer’s pre-existing fans. But it did just fine. The people who loved it were probably also the new target audience: The radio-listening masses. Suddenly, Weezer were selling out large clubs. Really large clubs. Their songs were in commercials. They were a commercial. We all know how much Hipsters hate it when the stuff they like becomes popular. Again, they probably could have dealt with it if the Green Album had actually been good.
Despite all of this, I went to see them in concert. I hoped they would play at least one track from “Pinkerton”. They didn’t. They also played a boring show. Rivers didn’t speak to the audience besides the usual “Hello [your city]” banter. I hated to admit it but suddenly, Weezer kind of sucked. I distanced myself from their new incarnation and chose to focus on the past. I wasn’t alone. Some of the folks who agreed with me were also rock journalists. They wrote about their feelings. Rivers, no doubt, read these articles and had a…controversial reaction.
When Rivers wrote ‘Pinkerton’ he was, as you can imagine if you know the music, depressed. It seems he spent a lot of time alone, feeling sorry for himself and recording his feelings. [He spent so much time alone that he later released a collection of these lo-fi ditties, some of them acoustic versions of album tracks, some of them appendices for released albums. Appropriately, he called this collection “Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo.”] After the Green Album, Rivers decided that “Pinkerton” horribly embarrassed him. Because the media had mostly ignored “Pinkerton” when it was first released, perhaps Rivers assumed that nobody really listened to it anymore. But they did. Hipsters united over their love for this “little gem”. Word spread and eventually, it became an indie classic.
Once Rivers realized that people were paying attention to it, and perhaps also because he had distanced himself from the emotions he’d shared on the album, he was mortified. He denounced it in the media. He refused to play any of those songs live. He even went so far as to tell off fans of the album, saying, essentially, that he preferred his new fans. This pissed off a lot of people, myself included.
I decided I would no longer pay any attention to new Weezer. I think I chose a good time to take a break, because their subsequent albums were increasingly inane. I caught wind of singles like “Dope Nose”, “Beverly Hills”, “We Are All On Drugs” [Sample lyric: We are all on drugs yeah/Never getting enough/We are all on drugs yeah/Give me some of that stuff”] and “Pork and Beans” [Sample Lyric: “I ain’t gonna wear the clothes that you like/I’m fine and dandy with the me inside/One look in the mirror and I’m tickled pink/I don’t give a hoot about what you think”]. It made me sad. Not only were these lyrics lame, but they also made Rivers sound like a goofy old man. It’s true that some of the lyrics on “Pinkerton” are a little simplistic. But they are sung with such earnestness and raw emotion that they feel much deeper than the packaged sentiments he later gave us.
When they released a third self-titled album, this one with a red background, (dubbed the Red Album…duhhhhhhh) I was sure they were out of ideas. Even when Rivers finally let the rest of the band collaborate on songs (on the cringingly named, “Raditude”), they produced only idiocy. By this time, I had gotten over hating Rivers, but I still missed the old Weezer. I knew I would never hear the songs I loved performed live. So when my friends and I started dicking around in the basement and covering songs, I pulled out a few “Pinkerton” tracks.
After a while, we started coming up with our own arrangements and adding in other songs. They were essentially live mashups, with the occasional rap interlude (composed by yours truly) thrown in. We played Blue Album tracks too. I decided that “Surf Wax America” sounded like it was sung from the point of view of Bodhi, Patrick Swayze’s character in the film “Point Break” so I wrote a rap that heavily referenced the film. In lieu of the between-verse chatter on “Undone” that’s so hard to recreate live, I expounded on the song’s theme with more rap. It seemed most of our alterations involved rap or hip-hop. When we finally decided we wanted to play a battle of the bands, we called ourselves “the MC Superman Skivvies”. The name referenced a line in “Undone” and also hinted at our mashuppy nature.
I loved playing in this band. The rest of the band was very sad when our guitarist (whose talent provided the heavy lifting) quit to focus on grad school and his kid. Now my husband (the bass player) and I also have a kid so who knows when or if we’ll be able to play again? But playing those songs was not only fun, it was cathartic. After all, I had loads of practice singing them. I connected to the lyrics. If Rivers didn’t want those songs anymore, then Goddamnit, I was going to give them a good home!
I recently read that Weezer is going to tour playing just the Blue Album and Pinkerton. There was no mention of Rivers apologizing to his old fans for dismissing them. However, the tour itself sounds like a sort of apology. I’m not mad anymore either, so I will most likely attempt [I’m sure it would sell out immediately] to get tickets to the “Pinkerton” night, should they come to my town. I’d love to make up for not seeing them the first time they toured the album.
Though I’m glad Rivers is making up for trying to bury it, I still can’t bring myself to enjoy post-“Pinkerton” Weezer. I admit that after hearing shit like “Pork and Beans”, the Green Album doesn’t sound so bad anymore. But it’s still nowhere near as good as the first two. I’m pretty sure I’ll never love another Weezer album. Some bands only have a handful of brilliant songs in them anyway. And I’m OK with that. Now.
I can’t speak for what the masses see in the commercial records because I despise them. Mark will have to find one those fans and ask them. But I think there are a lot of people out there who will always love and respect Rivers Cuomo for those first two perfect records. And despite what he’s done (and said) since, he deserves that respect. How many people can write even one perfect album? How many can write even one good song? All told, not many.
Leave a comment
No comments yet.