Weezer's Rivers Cuomo Gave the People What They Wanted -- But He Betrayed Me
I'm 16 years old, working at our family tool shop, and I'm listening to the acoustic guitar introduction of Weezer's "My Name Is Jonas."
My father and I are at separate workstations, a few feet from each other. I'm in the throes of adolescence and my father has taken to incessantly criticizing the length of my hair. (Or so I perceived. Thinking back, I doubt my dad was actually insulting me — but when you're 16, it's tough to make the distinction between good-natured ribbing and an all-out attack.)
So, I'm drowning out his jibes with my headphones when my father sneaks up behind me and yanks them from my shaggy head at a key moment — when the electric guitars kick in. I turn, surprised to see him listening intently. He pops offs the headphones and hands them back to me.
"Sounds like The Cars got hold of Nirvana's distortion pedals," he says.
My father, the amateur music critic, is utterly and undeniably right. Produced by Cars mastermind Ric Ocasek, the record did owe its existence to the super-saturated fuzz of Kurt Cobain, who died the year the album was released.
"That's good stuff," he says.
The grin on his face stands out in my memory as one of the first times I recognized my own budding adulthood. We listened to the album — and for 10 songs' worth of fuzzy, melodic, alternative rock, my dad and I are equals.
Weezer has been cranking out soulless pop-rock jingles for almost 10 years, but at one point, the band felt like the most important band in my world. In the wake of Cobain's suicide, they suggested a kind of alternative rock that was less nihilistic, smarter, and geekier than the grunge that preceded them.
But the music was far from fey. The guitar solos pointed to Rivers Cuomo's hair-metal roots, as did the thick distortion of fellow guitarist Brian Bell. Bassist/part-time vocalist Matt Sharp and drummer Patrick Wilson produced a hefty chug, assuring listeners that even as Cuomo's lyrics reflected the subtleties of comic book fascination, shy-guy posturing, and geeky approximation of hip-hop slang, the band never failed to completely and sincerely rock.
That first record was a hit, too. Its string of successful singles placed the band in the hot seat. In what appears, in retrospect, to be Cuomo's first act of insane-or-genius rock-star behavior, he rejected the polished approach of "the Blue Album" and followed up with a Madame Butterfly-influenced concept album inspired by his recent years at Harvard.
The lyrical naivety of the first record was replaced by tortured, angst-ridden diary entries on Pinkerton — and the music matched, with discordant art-rock solos and unhinged vocals from Cuomo and Sharp. The album flopped when it was released in 1996.
Following the album's commercial failure, Weezer went into hibernation. Most figured the band was over, destined to join their 120 Minutes peers in the bargain bin, but a curious thing began to happen in the wake of their hiatus: They became a touchstone for the arty, geeky indie-rock, power-pop, and emo scenes. The allure of Pinkerton and "the Blue Album" resonated deeply with the Warped Tour generation, and — slowly but surely — dressing in argyle sweaters, old-man polyester pants, and checkered slip-ons became a badge of honor.
The time seemed right for the return of Weezer, and the band did just that in 2001, with another self-titled album (fans called it "the Green Album"). The album met commercial approval, and singles like "Hash Pipe" and "Island in the Sun" returned Weezer to full-blown rock-star status, dominating alternative radio and MTV with kooky videos.
Sure, the album was a bit lazy. The lyrics didn't bite the way they used to, the tunes were hackneyed, and every guitar solo mirrored its verse's melody. Matt Sharp, Cuomo's true creative foil in the band, had abandoned ship during the break, following the success of his side project, The Rentals. Replaced by Mikey Welsh, who was quickly replaced by Scott Shriner, it became obvious that Sharp's hand in the band dynamic was sorely missed, even as Sharp faded from memory with a series of uninspired releases.
Most of us were just happy to have a new Weezer album, but it was a portent of worse things to come. Subsequent efforts, Maladroit, Make Believe, and another self-titled record ("the Red Album," this time) subsequently trumped "Green" in terms of declining quality. The Muppets couldn't save "Keep Fishin'." "Beverly Hills" took the irony too far out of context, and "Red" proved that the other guys in the band were just as insane as Rivers.
Last year's Raditude took things even further, with "so-crazy-it-might-work" collaborations with Jermaine Dupri and Lil' Wayne coming across as calculated pop experiments. Did you hear the Middle Eastern-tinged "Love Is the Answer"? Beyond being the worst song the band has released, it sounds like a joke on the band's target audience.
This month sees the release of Hurley, the band's first record for independent label Epitaph. Depending on whom you ask, the album is named either for the sportswear company that funded it or after the Lost character, but neither tidbit matters when you listen to "Memories," the lead single from the record. Despite the slightly pleasing resemblance an Andrew W.K. tune, it's yet another fake-out from the band, a backstage nostalgia trip that's endearing to no one but Cuomo himself.
I'll admit that it's pathetic for me to still care enough to feel betrayed by each release. I can't exactly blame Cuomo for collecting the easy paycheck. After all, he tried the "artsy" thing once, and it got him booted from the pop charts, forcing him into hiding, where he nursed his wounds with Asian-girl fetishes, soccer shorts, and theories of song construction.
No wonder he's clammed up, but I can't help asking whether it was always a clever joke played on me, the listener who found something meaningful in those early songs, that dumb kid sharing his rock 'n' roll with his dad.
Yet I still play "Blue" and Pinkerton and their assorted B-sides. I won't be seeing Weezer take the stage this go-around, but Rivers and company have publicly discussed a tour playing nothing but those first two albums. It sounds like another calculated business plan, but I could probably be talked into going, if only for the chance to listen to the band momentarily discard the past 10 years, taking private pride in singing along.
"The driver said, 'Hey, man, we go all the way, of course we were willing to pay.'"
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