A Life Of Chasing Butterfly

Why did Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo peak as a songwriter so early in his career?

by MATT STOKES | MARCH 26, 2011

And so it seems: Only in dreams.

“I don’t have any friends,” Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo told Chris Mundy of Rolling Stone for a story published in the fall of 2001. This statement, Mundy says in the piece, is completely consistent with Cuomo’s attitude. Which is to say: You’re never sure when he’s fucking with you.

This attitude comes across in a million interviews with Cuomo throughout the years. He says so many different things to so many different people that all seemingly contradict each other, rendering him practically impossible to understand. I’ve read every magazine piece, watched every YouTube clip, heard all the radio appearances, and read John Luerssen’s biography Rivers’ Edge: The Weezer Story, and I still don’t have a good grip on my all-time favorite musician.

To be a Weezer fan is to live in perpetual frustration. It’s a life of chasing Rivers, to constantly hope against hope that he can recapture the magic he briefly tapped into when he made 1996’s Pinkerton, an album of which he once said, “The most painful thing in my life is the cult around Pinkerton… It’s a sick album.” It’s quotes like that that make Cuomo so frustrating; I read them and I want to say, “Seriously… Are you kidding? The most painful thing in your life is an album you made?”

It’s watching the recent Guitar Center Sessions special on Weezer, and wanting to scream at the TV as Rivers explains what he was doing during his five years of inactivity between Pinkerton and The Green Album. He explains it by saying things like, “Oh, I was just sitting around writing music. Sometimes I’d write some songs a certain way, and then I’d be like, ‘No, that’s not right’.” (What you want to scream at the TV is the word “REALLY?!” Really, the host of the show, Nic Harcourt, couldn’t have asked a follow-up question right there? Really, all you were doing, Rivers, was sitting around writing songs?)

It’s swimming in a sea of information on one man who spent years as a recluse, barely communicating with the outside world, but who has in recent years opened up and became highly accessible. And yet we know as little about him today as we did ten years ago, when he wasn’t saying a word. How is this possible?

The Beautiful and Unattainable

The broad outlines of Cuomo’s story have been well-documented: He was raised by hippies on an ashram in Connecticut, he rebelled against their culture by becoming a guitar-slinging metalhead as a teenager, then he moved to California to pursue music, became a star in 1994 on the heels of the near-novelty hit singles “Buddy Holly” and “Undone – The Sweater Song” (and the more serious “Say It Ain’t So,” which was a preview of things to come). How he poured his heart and blood into the second Weezer album (Pinkerton) and how the hugely negative reception to that album crushed him. How he essentially went into hiding for five years, the band thought to be broken up, and how a Japanese tour done solely for money helped restore his interest in Weezer. And now, more than a decade after the revival of Weezer, they’re more popular than ever, and yet their core fanbase has never been more frustrated.

The narrative goes something like this: Cuomo—the member of Weezer who is solely responsible for their songwriting and musical direction—has spent his entire career trying to live up to The Blue Album and live down Pinkerton. He is said to be embarrassed by Pinkerton. The liner notes of the Deluxe Edition of the album contain a reprinted memo that Cuomo sent to his record label, and in it he describes how proud he is of Pinkerton and how well he thinks it will do for their company. Once released, however, the album sold very few copies, did poorly on the radio, and Rolling Stone famously called it the worst album of 1996.

He was devastated. And it’s not difficult to see why he’s embarrassed by some of what he said on the album—lyrics describe, among other things, fantasizing about a teenage fan and falling in love with a lesbian. The criticism reverberated with him for years, despite the subsequent praise the album received as people came to their senses and realized how great it was.

So it’s here we get one idea of who Rivers is. He’s the pretty girl we all know who refuses to believe she’s pretty, still stung by the time she was called ugly in high school, still obsessing over making herself appear perfect. He’s spoken many times about his “Encyclopedia of Pop,” his series of notes he’s compiled while breaking down and studying every song by Nirvana, Green Day, and Oasis. He’s tried for years to break pop music into a solvable algorithm, effectively never having to go back into the world of Pinkerton to connect with fans; hoping instead to carve out formulaic, easily digestible three-minute singles that everyone can enjoy. And this is largely what he’s done with Weezer’s music since Pinkerton—he’s made albums full of cactchy songs that are a great deal of fun but lack real emotional depth. It may not hit on the same level as Pinkerton, but at least Rivers doesn’t have to risk opening himself up and inviting inviting scorn, because that’s something he’s not comfortable with. The Encyclopedia of Pop, then, is a makeup that allows the real person to disappear and hide behind a shield.

How strange is Rivers Cuomo? Why don’t you read a paper he wrote in 2004 when he went back to Harvard, in which he details his attempts to sleep with groupies and his various trips to happy-endings massage parlors. Gawker has it available to download as a Word doc. Hey! He uses Word docs just like we all do. One of us!

A Rolling Stone cover story from 2005 that describes Weezer as the most dysfunctional of bands, whose members barely speak to each other.

A review of Make Believe by Stephen Thomas Erlewine for AllMusic explains how Rivers is able to make such normal-sounding songs despite how weird he is.

It’s the act of “putting himself out there,” of being so vulnerable, open, and honest, that makes Pinkerton so incredible, that gives it its weight. Yes, the production of the album is grainy, the guitars are raw, the musicianship is much less precise and refined than on other albums… these all add to the appeal of the album. But it’s clearly all about the lyrics. They’re like none you’ve ever heard before. My favorite lyrics are to “Across the Sea,” especially the lines in which Rivers sings, “So you send me your love from all around the world/As if I can live on words and dreams and a million screams/Of how I need a hand in mine/To feel.”

And so we get to the most important question: Why stop writing lyrics like that, if your goal in music is to move people? Isn’t the risk worth it?

As always, with Cuomo, the answer isn’t easy. He’s always been wired differently than other musicians; he was from the beginning what Kurt Cobain derisively called a “careerist.” He openly wanted to make money and be famous. He claims that his songs contain none of the irony that people often praise him for; that when he sings, “Beverly Hills/That’s where I want to be,” he is dead serious.

You can never be sure. Maybe he’s just lying. Maybe even he doesn’t know the answer himself.

But here’s what I think: When he wrote Pinkerton, he was in his mid-twenties, and people in their twenties feel things differently than people in their thirties, which is the age Rivers was when the current incarnation of Weezer began. Rock music has historically been made by people in their twenties for people in their teens (and for people who never grow out of it, like me), and once you “lose it,” it’s very hard to get it back. People change. They grow. They feel so strongly about something one day and then completely flip upside down. It’s what makes life so wonderful and strange, and why we need music to help us make some sense of it all.

When the Robin Makes His Nest

Rivers Cuomo turned his career into a personal quest to craft the perfect pop song. And on August 18, 2009, “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” made its debut on radio, the first single from Weezer’s upcoming album Raditude, just a year removed from the band’s last release.

The song is typical Weezer—bouncy, cheeky, and with a huge, singalong chorus. The first time I heard it, I thought it was a fantastic song that still kept very close to Rivers’ magic and safe formula.

But after a while, I started to notice something about the song. It’s different, and its differences don’t become evident until you listen to the song on repeat. Pay close attention and its true nature reveals itself. It sounds at first like a happy, nostalgic recollection of an idyllic summer romance. But there are clues that reveal something else is taking place. Very specific wordings on certain phrases (“The rest of the summer was the best we ever had”… not “The rest of the summer was the best we’d ever had,” which means something entirely different.) suggest sadness. It’s a song about loss, sung from the perspective of a man who has been with the same woman for a long time and who is reflecting regretfully on the death of their youthful spirit and love, where “So make a move/Cause I ain’t got all night” now means, “Let’s hurry up and have sex, cause I’m tired and I have to get up early.”

The words in the early verses—the descriptions of a dinner with the girl’s family, of swims at the neighborhood pool, of trips to Best Buy—are now tainted with pain. It’s a song about losing what you can never have back. Which is kind of like Rivers. He’ll never be 25 again, and he’ll never write another Pinkerton. But he can still go to that place every once in a while and pull out a great song like “I Want You To.” A song that stands alongside his very best, that tantalizes you with possibility and punches you in the gut.

He still has it in him. And that drives me crazy.

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