Rivers Changing Course

Weezer's auteur takes a tentative step into the real world

Sure, we could follow the lead of nearly every story ever written on Weezer front-man 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. Let's just say that Rivers Cuomo has practiced so much self-imposed isolationism (including a well-publicized, two-year diet of celibacy) that you could name a desert island after him.

Witness the man's abandonment of rock 'n' roll. And his band. After Weezer's hooky, power-pop debut sold 2.5 million copies, Cuomo took his figurative ball and went home, enrolling at Harvard to try his hand at classical composition. It was but the first of many curious steps the now-35-year-old songwriter would take.

Team Weezer: Pat Wilson (left), Rivers Cuomo, Scott Shriner, and Brian Bell
Team Weezer: Pat Wilson (left), Rivers Cuomo, Scott Shriner, and Brian Bell

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When Rivers 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 15-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 on "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 Pinkertonas the band's Pet Soundsand elevated the disc to its own pedestal in the alt-rock canon. But initially, the record stood as the dictionary definition of sophomore slump. In fact, Pinkerton was such an immediate failure, both commercially and critically, that Rolling Stonenamed it the second-worst album of '96. Blame it on the concept, blame it on the songwriting, blame it on Cuomo's dissaffection: 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 Pinkertonyears. "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 on a cell phone 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, 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 'Write 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."

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