Rivers Cuomo, The Ugliest American


While visiting The Howard Stern Show in 2005, Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo noted that he listened to the program every morning while writing his band’s second album, 1996’s Pinkerton, pointing out that the host’s name was even hidden in one of the drawings on the cover art. Stern was grateful, but also wondered why he couldn’t have influenced one of Weezer’s more popular albums.

It’s true: Compared to their debut — 1994’s self-titled and more commercially tenable Blue Album — Pinkerton is a noisy, charmless mess. In 2001, Cuomo called it “hideous.” It is. It’s the only dangerous-sounding record the band ever made, filled with bucks and whines and melodramatic crashes, needling synthesizer lines, and coronas of feedback radiating around their power chords — no “Buddy Holly,” nothing pert, nothing huggable. Each song deals with a different aspect of Cuomo’s own romantic failure. Conveniently, the series of girls he is cursed to fuck on “Tired of Sex” have names that rhyme. He sniffs a letter from a young Japanese fan and fantasizes about her masturbating. Foreshadowing the sitcom-level writing he’d indulge in throughout the ’00s, “Pink Triangle” is about a guy who thinks he finds love, but, whoops, she’s a lesbian. At one point, he blames it all on his mom.

Basically, he revels in the kinds of thoughts that a lot of angry heterosexual adolescents have, but would be mortified to even admit to having. Two years before LiveJournal launched, Pinkerton — now getting the deluxe reissue treatment — was a relentlessly me-first document of the kinds of things people should probably keep to themselves. It’s ugly, inarticulate, and alienated from the people it might hurt. In an essay Cuomo later wrote while studying at Harvard, he admits that he was once rejected from an online dating site and ostensibly stalked someone on Friendster — someone he had initially taken interest in as what he called “wife material.” Pinkerton is the self-portrait of a guy so desperate for true companionship that he doesn’t realize companionship involves other people.

That an album so lean and viciously antisocial could earn such a cult is evidence of that particular magic that transpires when an artist articulates something — nice or not — that serves as some kind of safety valve for an audience he probably never even imagined. Given the success of the relatively sweet-hearted Blue Album, there’s no reason Cuomo could have banked on something like Pinkerton. But it turned out that his most selfish gesture was also his most oddly Christ-like one: Pinkerton bears the sins of his frustrated and confused fans.

And, in retrospect, it began the long con of transforming Cuomo into a new and totally contemporary version of a rock star. This was a guy who was born in an ashram in 1970 and was a super-successful musician by 1993 in part because he was a nerd — because he was more interested in daydreaming about romance than fucking, because he sang about Dungeons & Dragons. By 1996, he was telling girls to strip in his hotel room; by 2006, he was graduating from Harvard while meatheads screamed his songs at karaoke bars. Pinkerton, despite its unpopularity at the time, is the album that cemented what the Blue Album started: the further collapse of indie ideals into mainstream culture. It’s an album that could only meaningfully be made once, which is at least part of the reason why all the emo/pop hybrids it inspired are so ignorable: Nobody will build a better Pinkerton, and, really, nobody needs to.

The album started out as a rock opera called Songs From the Black Hole, pieces of which exist as bootlegs but aren’t given official release on this reissue — instead, the bonus material is mostly the typical radio-session and live stuffing, with a few happy exceptions, but even the exceptions wouldn’t have fit on the original album. “Tragic Girl” is soppy and tearful, but comes dangerously close to being actually nice (and the line “I don’t want my mom to know that I’ve been a dirty boy” comes dangerously close to being comedy); “I Just Threw Out the Love of My Dreams” not only makes a lot out of ironic distance on an album that otherwise doesn’t have any, it’s sung by an actual woman on an album where women are otherwise treated as concepts. Cuomo is documented as a ruthless self-editor, and for all Pinkerton‘s indulgences, one of its biggest strengths is that it’s only 35 minutes long, so the bonus material ends up being more victory lap than skeleton key or hidden treasure. When Cuomo talks about the album now — he’s dutifully tried to walk back the whole “hideous” thing — it’s almost as if someone else wrote it. There’s always been this sense that whatever place he reached on Pinkerton is too unpleasant to go back to, so reissuing it now — on an off-brand 14th anniversary — seems like his way of making peace with it.

Good for him, and good for his fans, a large contingent of whom seem to think that everything he’s written since has been part of a long, bad dream. (As I write this, the most popular discussion topic on the very active message board is “What is Rivers’s best song post-Pinkerton?” — the implication should be clear.) While working on 2005’s Make Believe, Cuomo had started practicing Vipassana, a form of Buddhist meditation (named for the Pali word for “insight”), and Buddhism is really one of the only contexts in which I think later Weezer albums can be understood. Cuomo rips off lines like, “When you show up late to school and you think you’re really cool” possibly because revising them would be defying the simplicity of the moment. The sound is tame, routine, and filled with musical jokes, most of them at the expense of rap; he time-stamps his songs with references to Rogaine and Timbaland, but also makes a relentless effort to keep them as general as possible. The band is now signed to Epitaph, where they recently released Hurley, an album with the face of Hurley from Lost on its cover and a song that makes a run-on gag of replacing the word “socks” with “sex.”

Cuomo seems committed to his own work’s impermanence. But the sad paradox here is that records are, by nature, not impermanent. Weezer has become so formulaic that the words “return to form” are a warning sign. The band’s albums tend to resemble Home Shopping Network products now, fascinatingly lifeless and unlimited. Fabulous in every season. Imagine yourself in power-pop mastery. Are you a Weezer girl? Luxuriate in Weezer feel. Cuomo is not so much writing songs anymore as he is inventing new sauces for his classic sandwich. He’s building a mall at the edge of your town. It’s a lot like the old mall.

In addition to releasing the Pinkerton reissue and the dregs-drinking rarities compilation Death to False Metal (which spans 1993–2010), the band is going out on what they’re calling “The Memories Tour,” wherein they will play the Blue Album and Pinkerton in their entireties on consecutive nights. Unlike Pavement, Weezer didn’t stop at championing a strain of suburban geekiness — they integrated it so successfully into the mainstream that their spirit, that spark that made them successful to begin with, disappeared. Hurley‘s first single, “Memories,” debuted on Jersey Shore and is on the Jackass 3-D soundtrack. Weezer, like so many elements of what was once “indie culture,” now live happily amid all the most glorious and transient junk of their time.

There is a song on Weezer’s self-titled 2008 record (a/k/a the Red Album) called “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived.” It’s composed of a series of imitations, 11 in all, of other bands. “I am the greatest man that ever lived,” Cuomo sings. “I was born to give and give and give.” Maybe that’s all reissuing Pinkerton is. At least Cuomo knows himself: the egomaniac who obsesses over liberating himself from his own ego for the sake of his fans. He just wants you to be able to sing along. “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived” is a very sad and very beautiful song. According to Cuomo, the last band they imitate on it is Weezer.

Weezer play the Roseland December 17 and 18