Rivers Changing Course
Sure, we could follow the lead of nearly every story ever written about Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo and spout off about what a weird guy he is. The heralds at Rolling Stone even said so on their cover just a few months ago.
Yeah, we could pile it on, maybe even get flagged for a personal foul -- some unnecessary roughness, as it were -- since if one-tenth of the what-a-wingnut tales are true, you could pretty much guarantee Cuomo a conviction in the court of strange rock-star behavior. Suffice to say that Rivers Cuomo has practiced so much self-imposed isolationism (including a well-publicized two-year diet of celibacy) you could name a desert island after him.
Witness the man's abandonment of rock and roll. And his band. After Weezer's hooky, power pop debut sold two and a half million copies, Cuomo took his figurative ball and went home, enrolling at Harvard to try his hand at classical composition. It was only the first of many curious steps the now 35-year-old songwriter would take.
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When Cuomo emerged from Harvard's hallowed halls in 1996, his group delivered album number two: Pinkerton, a dark, twisted reenvisioning of the 1904 Puccini opera Madame Butterfly about the doomed affair between U.S. Naval officer B.F. Pinkerton and a fifteen-year-old Japanese geisha. (See what an Ivy League education will do for you?) Like the original, Cuomo's adaptation is populated with love connections unmade and an abundance of remote Asian women to be fixated upon ("Goddamn you half-Japanese girls," he laments in "El Scorcho"). Self-gratification plays substitute for real relationships. Frustration and its resulting emotional self-flagellation abounds. Call the album, which sold about half as many copies as its predecessor, a pile of pain with a shellac of pop rock.
Weezer fans -- legions of 'em -- have since embraced Pinkerton as the band's Pet Sounds and elevated the disc to its own pedestal in the alt-rock canon. But initially the group's second record stood as the dictionary definition of sophomore slump. In fact Pinkerton was such an immediate failure, both commercially and critically, that the aforementioned Stone named it the second-worst album of 1996. Blame it on the concept, blame it on the songwriting, blame it on Cuomo's disaffection -- whichever, the people just weren't buying it.
But Cuomo is singing a different song now.
"I don't have any interest in being an alternative artist or a cult artist or any kind of exclusive, elite, or esoteric type of artist at all," he says of those Pinkerton years. "If people like that side of me, that's fine, but that's just not where I am right now." Yes, it seems that with the recent release of Make Believe, Weezer's fifth album, the once hermetic Cuomo is finally ready to walk among the living. For those predisposed to think of the man as a sort of carnival freak, this is big news.
"I think one lesson I learned," he continues, backstage at London's Hammersmith Odeon, "is what a strong instinct I have for separating myself from everyone and thinking of myself as different and weird and special. That kept coming up again and again as I was writing songs, writing lyrics that most people couldn't relate to. And then hearing from our producer, Rick Rubin, that I was really just cutting myself off from people who like me and appreciate me, and that wasn't necessarily the smartest move." Rubin is of course the production guru behind Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell, the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill, Johnny Cash's American Recordings, and System of a Down's Toxicity. When he proffers advice, people -- even Rivers Cuomo -- listen.
"I think my attitude has really changed," Cuomo says. "Instead of trying to separate myself, I'm always looking for ways to reach out to other people and to be normal and to be social. It can be difficult, but ultimately I think it leads to an easier and happier life." That disconnect, that self-styled estrangement, a dominant theme throughout Pinkerton, demands costs from both the human being and the artist, according to Cuomo. "It's really held me back from reaching my potential, as a songwriter and as a person. They kind of go together."
For Make Believe, Rubin prodded Cuomo into experimentation with "assignment songs." "For whatever reason it didn't work with me at all," Cuomo says. "He gave me a lot of different assignments, but none of those songs turned out very good. I think the best songs always have parts in them, or at least a germ in them, that was created emotionally and spontaneously. I've definitely tried it the other way, but the songs just don't feel as important."
Despite protestations to the contrary, the exercises were at least partially successful. A pair of Make Believe's dozen cuts, including the album's first single, came from homework doled out by Rubin. "One [assignment] was öWrite a song like Billy Joel,'" Cuomo says. "That turned into 'Haunt You Every Day,' which I think is really great. The big one, though, was 'Write a song with the "We Will Rock You" beat.' I realized, as I was writing the song 'Beverly Hills,' that I could use that beat, and indeed it turned out really good."
Also at Rubin's prompt, Cuomo dove into the deep currents of meditation. Despite the rigors of fronting a world-touring band, he hasn't missed a day since he began in May 2003. Which means that, like a nervous narcoleptic, meditation can happen anywhere at any time.
"I have to be very flexible," the singer says. "Sometimes it's in the hotel. Sometimes in a closet somewhere in the venue. Sometimes it's in a van that drives me a few minutes away from the stage at an outdoor festival. Sometimes it's in the Playboy Mansion if I'm shooting a video. It's too beneficial to me to sacrifice."
And what have these very personal, emotional exercises yielded for Rivers Cuomo the artist? "Beverly Hills" and the album's second single, "We're All on Drugs," smack of the sardonic wit that pushed his band to the alt-rock forefront more than a decade ago. But "Perfect Situation," a song that drummer Pat Wilson describes as "classic Weezer," rings as unaffectedly honest as anything the band has recorded in years. Yet once again, Cuomo adopts the all-too-familiar role of unaccomplished suitor.
"'Perfect Situation' is the oldest song on the album," he says. "We'd just finished touring and I'd come back to L.A. and I was going out a lot. And I went out to a bar one night and there was a really pretty girl who sat down next to me and we were kind of talking. We were in this group of people and occasionally we would end up talking to each other, but I couldn't make it happen. It wasn't that she was giving me a negative vibe at all. Just something within me was stopping me from connecting with her even though I was really attracted to her. And that's something that's happened so much in my life. And I just got so frustrated and angry with myself I went home."
In his fabled one-room L.A. apartment with blackened windows, no car, and no phone, the sequestered songwriter drank a beer, turned on his tape recorder, and "very quickly" sang out words to capture (one more time, with feeling) his lack of fulfillment.
So despite continued critical and commercial success, hours of meditation, and a professed desire to reach out and join, you know, the real world, it's hard to say that anything has really changed for the talented songwriter.
"Like I said, that's the oldest song on the album," Cuomo insists. "I think I'm in a much more happy and healthy space."
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