Here’s a little behind-the-scenes music industry process: When a band puts out a new album, the record company works with a publicist to draft a press release which will accompany review copies sent out to all critics. This press release, while purporting to be an innocuous, plain statement of the facts, is actually a carefully crafted document embedded with subtle talking points that the record company hopes will influence each and every statement made about the band and their new album by members of the press.
One of the reasons I’m so surprised by Weezer’s new album (“Everything Will Be Alright In The End”) is that, I believe, it’s the first rock record to place all of these press release talking points into the lyrics of its songs. Exhibit A, the lead-off single “Back to the Shack” serves the same function as the paragraph in the press release that explains that the band has returned to its roots:
Sorry guys I didn’t realize that I needed you so much
I thought I’d get a new audience, I forgot that disco sucks
I ended up with nobody and I started feeling dumb
Maybe I should play the lead guitar and Pat should play the drums
Later on, in “I’ve Had To It Up to Here” we are treated to the musical version of the press release paragraph which aims to explain how songwriting and craft has once again become the focus over radio hits and monster tours (and indeed, note the impending “small club” tour being an extension of this idea— coming to Boston, October 26th at The Sinclair):
Don’t wanna pander to the masses anymore
Don’t need the whole wide world to love me, don’t wanna win the human race
Don’t need my music to be less well known than my face
And on and on it goes throughout the entirety of “EWBAITE”: apologizing, revising, and coming to terms. I even see the song “Eulogy for a Rock Band” as a barely veiled threat to fans, implying an impending end of the band unless the appreciation they once felt is properly restored. “EWBAITE” is the album as a press release, and that’s about as new of a concept as you get in a genre that’s declared dead as often as Rock ‘n’ Roll is.
In short, it’s all very bizarre, almost perverse, and really quite a lot of fun!
Beyond the sweet hooks, catchy choruses, and pitch-perfect-Ocasek production heard here, one of the evergreen (no pun implied) joys of Weezer at its best is trying to figure out how aware Rivers is of the irony of his lyrics. The question that continues to dog fans and Cuomo himself is, “Is he serious? Is it all a joke? Is none of it a joke?” Because there isn’t really a clean answer to that question, the enigma grows, and every time a Weezer-fan-boy announces, “I’m done with this band” you can rest assured that they’ll be back in three years when the next album comes out. There is something compelling about Rivers Cuomo— that’s all there is to it.
Like all enigmas, part of the fun is the trying to figure them out. And so, in honor of their impending show in Cambridge, at a club practically on the campus of his alma mater Harvard University, we’ve assembled a collection of memories about his intermittent residencies in town while he chipped away at his Crimson diploma and played stray shows around town. (Unless indicated, these anecdotes were collected by the author via interviews for this piece.)
Rivers Cuomo, lyrics to “Back to the Good Life”: “Broken, beaten down / Can’t even get around /Without an old-man cane / I fall and hit the ground / Shivering in the cold / I’m bitter and alone”
Neal Block (Boston University graduate, Class of ’01): “I saw him play at TT The Bear’s the first semester of my freshman year. It was him and Pat Wilson on drums. There may have been a bass player too. He was wearing a Ratt t-shirt. He played a bunch of new solo songs none of us had ever heard, and a few Weezer songs. I had a small tape recorder that I set down on the side of the stage to record the show. Rivers saw it and came over and asked me to turn it off. I embarrassingly complied. It was a good show.”
Drew O’Doherty (Singer/Songwriter, former guitar player for Ted Leo): “I saw Rivers Cuomo around at various shows in Cambridge from 1996-97. The first time I spoke with him was at a Pavement show at the Middle East Downstairs. I told him about the time that Paul Stanley (from KISS) came into the record store where I worked and bought the first Weezer album. He seemed genuinely thrilled that one of his childhood rock heroes had bought his band’s record. That is, until I mentioned that Paul had said (without a trace of irony) ‘Yeah, these guys look kinda goofy, but, if you close your eyes when you see them, they totally rock!’ The look on Rivers’ face abruptly changed from delight to crushing disappointment. He sputtered out ‘Well…he should talk!’ Afterwards, I felt a little bad about including that detail of the Paul Stanley anecdote. I thought he’d be more amused by the notion of a founding member of KISS saying his band looked ‘kinda goofy.'”
Rivers Cuomo (2004 Harvard Readmission Essay): “After the initial failure of my band’s second album, ‘Pinkerton,’ I decided not to return to Harvard in the fall of 1997, instead setting out on a mission to develop creative methods which would allow me to be more consistent as an artist. Above all, I wanted to cure myself of the Romanticism which I believed was to blame for my failure.”
Jake Zavracky (member of Boy Wonder, Quick Fix, & Cyanide Valentine): “Well I only played one show with him. It was him and me and Pat Wilson (the drummer from Weezer) and Joe Klompus (who was in the band Jack Drag at the time). He had been playing this sort of rootsy music in a solo band around town, but that’s not what I was in. We just did a bunch of Weezer songs, at TT’s. I think it was just a one off. He said he really liked singing with me but I don’t think he liked my guitar playing very much.
I remember asking him what he was listening to when he was writing ‘The Blue Album,’ expecting to hear a bunch of contemporary bands like Pavement or something, but he said the Beatles and the Beach Boys, which makes perfect sense now, but I was surprised by that then.”
Rivers Cuomo (from his recent WTF podcast interview with Marc Maron): “I started out as a music major and then switched to English literature. To this day, my favorite is Shakespeare.”
Kevin Stevenson (The Shods, lead guitarist/vocalist/songwriter): “Yeah, we played a few– one at the Paradise. We were booked as Homie, I guess that was the name of the band— the only people who didn’t know that were the band! We switched out band members after a month or two. We started off with Mikey Welch on bass and Zephan Courtney on drums. It wasn’t working out, so they were replaced by the drummer of the Gigilo Aunts, and the bass player from Juliana Hatfield’s band, and it was a great fit.”
Julie Kramer: “He would always come to BBQ’s, but he didn’t eat meat. So he’d eat tomatoes.”
Drew O’Doherty: “I continued occasionally seeing him around at other shows throughout the year. One night, after a benefit show at The Middle East, some friends and I took a bunch of baked goods that had been left behind at the club and set out to give them to various homeless folks in the neighborhood. On our way, we bumped into Rivers. We explained what we were up to, and he said ‘Oh my God, I’m so hungry!’ and he scarfed down a bunch of muffins and donuts before walking away. It was kind of hilarious to see this skinny dude go to town like that. Fortunately, he left us enough food that our plan to deliver baked goods to non-rock star/millionaires wasn’t completely derailed.”
Rivers Cuomo, Harvard Crimson interview, 2006: “Yeah, I had a very close relationship with my Expos teacher, Naomi Stephen. At that time, I was working on the ‘Pinkerton’ songs a lot, so I feel like she was, in a way, a collaborator and an influence. But one example is, in ‘Pinkerton,’ in ‘El Scorcho,’ two lines in the song are actually taken from someone else’s essay in my Expos class.”
Jake Zavracky: “This was also well before ‘Pinkerton’ was widely considered an indie rock masterpiece as it seems to be now, and I got the sense that he was kind of stung by the slow sales and all that. He’s more of a populist than one would probably think. We’d be at a party at someone’s apartment and he definitely just blended in, it wasn’t like there was a lot of commotion around him or anything. He was a really sweet guy, I assume he still is but I haven’t talked to him since then really.
He just struck me as shy and inward, very thoughtful and maybe sort of ADD-ish like he couldn’t concentrate on anything because he had a millions thoughts going off all the time. It’s not that he’s a weird person necessarily, I guess he just wasn’t what I would have expected from a rock star (which is definitely a compliment coming from me, anyway). He was also extremely particular about the music, which I don’t think would come as much of a surprise to most people. He had a definite vision. He liked to keep things very angular, nothing bluesy in the guitar playing or singing, no glissing up to notes or bending strings too much. I also was definitely struck by how extremely simple the songs were and how easy they are to play on the guitar, but yet there was nothing generic about them, they sounded very fresh and inventive. To me that’s his genius.”
Rivers Cuomo, from the “Alone” album liner notes: “When one of my classmates, Lucia Brawley, left a message for me on my home answering machine relaying an assignment I had missed, I couldn’t believe how obtuse the language of my world had become. I snapped mentally and made a sound collage of Lucia’s message, calling it ‘Harvard Blues.'”
Julie Kramer: “The bass player of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was a huge Weezer fan, which is so odd because their music is so different. I called Rivers and said, ‘this bass player is really into you. Will you come out tonight? He’d like to meet you.’ Rivers said OK. We go out to the show and the bass player was just gushing over him. Everyone’s a music fan. Whether you’re in a band or not in a band. I think Rivers was shy about it. But he was totally cool, like, “Oh thanks!” ‘Cause, you know, what do you say? He had a lot of humility and honor.”
Drew O’Doherty: “He was very jealous of my Stryper ‘777: To Hell With The Devil’ thrift store shirt.”
I am returning to Harvard in the fall. Other than that, I am wide open to whatever else comes my way.”
Irene Choi (Harvard class of ’06): “One thing that was unusual about him was that he woke up really early in time for breakfast everyday, which was served at 6 a.m. or something. My friends and I thought that was crazy, but it’s not that interesting, I know. Also, he had meals with someone different every time, typically a student who didn’t live in our house. I don’t know how familiar you are with the house system at Harvard, but there is a dining hall in each house (dorm building). Rivers and I were both in Cabot House, which was originally built as Radcliffe housing, so we were pretty removed from the main campus and it was clear that the only reason people were coming to our dining hall was just to meet Rivers. Plus, the daily menu is the same campus-wide, so it’s not like we had exceptional lasagna or something.”
Anonymous Student (Harvard class of ’06): “I was in my favorite English class. I sat down to take the final exam. It was a lecture, not huge. Suddenly, everyone was whispering and poking each other. Rivers was sitting in the front of the class. No one had seen him in the class. The class was called ‘Sex and Sensibility in the Enlightenment.’ We read early pornographic novels. He took the exam pretty seriously.”
Crimson: “So, do you plan to come back? If you’re touring Boston, will you just come back to the campus?”
Rivers Cuomo: “Oh, I definitely will. But I suspect that no one will notice me.”