As he withdrew from the outside world, the young man locked the doors, covered over the windows, and cut off all communication from his family and friends. He had poured his heart and soul into a project that he believed would be his masterpiece, but now he was retreating from his audience as a failure, questioning every aspect of his future. He felt disillusioned and alone, and with his most personal artistic expression having been ridiculed and misunderstood by even his closest companions, the dark cloud of depression slowly cast over him. ‘I became more and more isolated,’ he later confessed. ‘I unplugged my phone. I painted the walls and ceiling of my bedroom black, and covered the windows with fibreglass insulation.’ Every boy grows up wanting to be a rock star. To have spent their adolescence as the class geek, the uncool kid, there is a certain amount of vindication in one day standing before a crowd of thousands, each one chanting your name, while beautiful women are desperate to tear off their clothes. To go from a loser to a superstar is the ultimate success story, and for this to happen after only one album, which almost overnight reached Platinum status, is something most musicians can only dream of. But for twenty-four-year-old Rivers Cuomo, this dream became a reality when, as the grunge scene of the early nineties gasped its dying breath, he became the most unlikely of stars with his group Weezer. And yet whatever he had expected from this sudden fame, he soon felt jaded and alienated by a life of tour buses, anonymous sexual encounters, and performing the same three-minute pop songs night after night. He longed for something more meaningful, and it was this yearning that would lay the groundwork for his most complex and personal work: Pinkerton.
Success can transform a kind and intelligent individual into something grotesque. To achieve fame and fortune can fracture one’s ego and reduce them to a lifestyle of Caligula-like debauchery, and it is this aspect of their personality that threatens to push away their loved ones. But for Cuomo, the rock star nerd, he had reacted to this new life by turning his back on it and returning to school, enrolling at the prestigious Harvard University in Massachusetts, where he wished to indulge in his passion for classical music. He believed he could become something more than what he was, and as he immersed himself in the world of operas, he felt determined to create a work of art that was an emotional experience for its listeners. And the life of a student felt like a welcome escape from the bright lights of the stage. ‘For the previous year and a half, I’d done nothing but hang out and do photo shoots, and play shows, and drink. And I just wanted to crawl into a hole and be alone, and think, and write songs for a while,’ he lamented. ‘It was a real tough year for many reasons, one of which was the crash of coming down from being a rock star to being a scumbag, which is basically what I was.’ The creation of Pinkerton, his band’s sophomore record, would come as a result of all the insecurities, anger, and pain that Cuomo felt at the empty and vapid life that rock stardom had brought, and even as he struggled to overcome both a painful operation and insecurities over his supposed lack of talent, he drew inspiration from this internal conflict to fashion new material that expressed contempt at his own success.
While not a concept album of sorts, Pinkerton represented Cuomo’s experiences as a rock star, moving through meaningless sexual encounters without any kind of emotional connection to another human being. ‘I’m tired of having sex. I’m spread so thin, I don’t know who I am,’ he crooned on the opening track, a statement that encompassed everything he would attempt to say over the following half an hour. Up until this point, he had been known as the guy who sang songs about sweaters and Buddy Holly, but now he was pouring his heart out with an assortment of tunes that seethed with self-hatred and self-doubt. Cuomo had shunned the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll cliché, venomously rebutting the rock star dream as soulless and without merit. He had also privately declared himself a hack, fearing that his music was childish and lacking sincerity. ‘I had a huge inferiority complex about being a rock musician,’ he confessed to L.A. Weekly. ‘I thought my songs were really simplistic and silly, and I wanted to write complex, intense, beautiful music. That’s why I went to Harvard, to learn how to be a classical composer. And I started studying it, and I realised that I didn’t really like any contemporary classical music. And I very quickly started missing being in a band, and I wanted to get back to it. And since then, I’ve gotten a greater appreciation for what pop artists do.’ But in the summer of 1996, when Pinkerton first reared its ugly head, Cuomo hated what he had become, and desperately wanted to prove to the world that he had more to offer than radio-friendly hits and tongue-in-cheek music videos.
Barely five weeks after the death of Kurt Cobain, Weezer released their eponymous debut record, affectionately known as the Blue Album, and over the following six months they became stars, climbing high up the American rock chart with three successful singles, and becoming a regular staple of MTV. Lauded by music critics and adored by their fans, Cuomo and his cohorts were soon enjoying the life of Riley. ‘It was a crazy time for all of us,’ admitted guitarist Brian Bell. ‘When the Blue Album became a huge hit, we became this group of dorky guys who were suddenly multi-Platinum rock stars. When I used to go into a restaurant and ask for a soda, they would tell me, ‘No way, you freaky nerd!’ But now they were saying, ‘Here’s your soda, you beautiful freak!’ It was night and day. We were a huge deal.’ But behind the scenes, their frontman was struggling with his own fears and paranoias, and as the pressure of having to create a worthy follow-up began to consume him, he believed that he was little more than a one-hit wonder. ‘I had rock star dreams from eight or nine, almost nonstop,’ Cuomo told the Alternative Press. ‘I thought it was going to be like a god on Earth: having as many women as you want, whatever you want; having superpowers; being incredibly wealthy; never doing laundry. Instead, I found myself in the dead of winter in Boston with a long beard, no friends, and no bum leg.’ While his bandmates attempted to capitalise on their newfound status, Cuomo grew increasingly withdrawn and, having secluded himself from his fellow students at Harvard, turned to his guitar for comfort. And before long, the pain he was feeling was spilling out into his diary and taking the form of songs that he hoped would shape their highly-anticipated second album.
Believing that his future lay in classical music, perhaps it was inevitable that opera would cast a significant influence over his songwriting during this time. And arguably the one that made the greatest impression on the young musician was Giacomo Puccini’s adaptation of Madama Butterfly, the tale of a heatless misogynist who travels the globe collecting women like trophies, only to discard them once they have served their purpose. Cuomo could see parallels between this despicable character and the life of a rock star, sleeping with groupies and then casting them aside once the sexual act was complete. And to further cement the relationship between the opera and his own mentality, he decided to name his album after this obnoxious protagonist, B.F. Pinkerton. ‘I started to get into Madama Butterfly, and I became so fascinated with that character, and, at the same time, I started becoming infatuated with that kind of girl that’s singing in that opera,’ he explained. ‘I just saw how the events of my life were unfolding, and how they paralleled some of what was happening in the opera. I was like this Pinkerton character. He’s the American sailor that tours the world and stops in a port in some exotic foreign country, and tries to find a temporary girlfriend, and then gets back on his ship and heads to the next town. And it just occurred to me, like, ‘Wow, isn’t that the rock star dream right there?’ By tying my work to Puccini’s work, it just enriched the whole thing and tied it to tradition.’ But before Cuomo could deliver his own masterpiece, first he would have to fall further than he had ever fallen, and from the ashes of his depression rose his magnum opus. And yet long before he first tasted this pain, he was nothing but a naïve kid with dreams of becoming a rock star.
Like many American children of his generation, Rivers Cuomo had something of an unorthodox upbringing. Born on the East Coast in the summer of 1970, at a time when many teenagers embraced the country’s hippie counterculture, Cuomo was raised in a rural community in upstate New York, and spent much of his childhood isolated from mainstream popular culture. ‘My parents were Buddhists, they were part of the Rochester Zen Centre, which is one of the very first centres for Buddhism in the United States,’ he recalled. ‘I had chores like feeding ponies, clearing weeds and gardening, cooking and cleaning. Yoga, meditation practices every day, and then some traditional academics, and a lot of self-lead creative projects. I couldn’t imagine a more nurturing, safe, and supportive environment for a kid to grow up in. Years later, when my brother and I went to public school, we had to teach ourselves how to swear and talk shit so we could fit in better.’ Even before he made his way into high school, he had already fallen in love with the theatrical anthemic rock of KISS, then at the height of their late-seventies success. ‘Rock and Roll Over was the first KISS album I heard, but I was totally oblivious to their whole image, and the make-up, and all that. I was so out of touch with the wider world. All I had was the album, and there was just this mandala image on the cover. I had never heard anything like that, and it completely electrified me and my brother. A friend had left the record at our house, and we taped ourselves listening to it, and running around on the coffee table in circles, over and over. The friend took the LP back, so all we had was this cassette of us listening to the record and screaming, and that’s what I listened to for a year.’
As the seventies gave way for the new decade, the rock ‘n’ roll scene developed a more aggressive and cocksure edge that the press had dubbed thrash and glam metal, and it was through the records of Quiet Riot, Metallica, and the Scorpions that he discovered something far heavier than what KISS had to offer. ‘I didn’t like rock. I liked metal,’ he insisted to ABC. ‘There’s a very clear difference in my mind. Rock is just kind of embarrassing and old-fashioned. It was more blues-based, and there was no real shredding technique. Whereas metal was all about technique, speed and sweep picking, and more influenced by classical music than blues. Another super important band for me in high school was Metallica, with Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. They just brought so much emotion. No just anger, but tremendous sadness, and I really related to that as a kid. The power of James Hetfield’s right hand as he’s doing those crunchy, muted, distorted power chords. It’s a big influence on me.’ Much like other young metal fans of the eighties, Cuomo was all too eager to adopt the same appearance as his rock star heroes. ‘When I first got excited about hair was maybe 1984,’ he detailed. ‘I brought the Quiet Riot album to the hair solon and said, ‘Make me look like Carlos Cavazo.’ And they did. And my mom got so upset. She got in the car and drove home without me, which was, like, five miles away.’ Arguably one of the most important albums for Cuomo, outside of KISS, was Ride the Lightning, the second record from thrash pioneers Metallica, that made its debut just six weeks after his fourteenth birthday. Even as he endured his parents’ divorce and her growing relationship with another man, Cuomo’s passion for music continued to grow and, after attending his first concert in July 1983, he made the same decision as countless other teenagers and formed his own garage band.
Around the same time that he discovered Metallica, Cuomo joined forces with two fellow students, along with his younger brother, to form Fury. Despite having little talent, this was overcompensated by their naïve enthusiasm and, channelling their inner KISS, they made their live debut in Massachusetts in September 1984. The following year, his passion for what is derogatorily referred to as hair metal influenced his musical direction, and soon his latest project was Avant Garde. ‘We were fourteen, we had black streaks under our eyes, and probably parachute pants, or something,’ he laughed. ‘My hair was just starting to grow out. It was great. Looking back now, it all sounds so weak. But at the same time it sounded so heavy, and powerful, and wild. I suppose somebody should have turned me on to punk, or music that actually has some of those qualities. But at the time – eighth grade in Storrs (Connecticut) – metal served that purpose perfectly well for me.’ It would be within the walls of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, which Cuomo enrolled at in 1987, that he crossed paths with a young guitarist and metal fan called Michael Stanton. ‘One day, I was in my room, playing Master of Puppets on the guitar pretty loud. Rivers heard that and knocked on the door,’ he explained. ‘We spent hours writing our elaborate counterpoint guitar solos, then recording them. Along with some other students, we might go out late at night to a pizza restaurant or get on the subway. Once, a movie theatre closed down for the night when they saw a horde of us stomping up to watch Rocky Horror Picture Show. That was cool. This trip was one of my favourite experiences as a teenager, especially because I came from a small Bible-belt Texas town that would have burned us all at the stake for such hedonism. Another fun time was taking a train to Salem and catching a glimpse of a real witch in the back room of a new age bookstore. I remember a lot of hysterical laughing during those five weeks.’
By the time he was eighteen, Cuomo and his friends decided that their greatest chance of success would come with moving out west to California and, pursuing the rock ‘n’ roll dream, they arrived in Los Angeles in March 1989. During the late eighties, the city was still dominated by the glam metal scene, with Guns N’ Roses having overthrown Mötley Crüe as the kings of Sunset Strip. ‘It was definitely a scene, but I always thought it was pretty cheap and basically poseur central, because everything was so plastic,’ claimed Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash. ‘Poison was sort of the band that was going to carry Mötley Crüe’s torch, but by that point Hollywood had no balls. That was part of the reason we hated it so much.’ And yet despite having desperately wanted to become the latest L.A. success story, once they had arrived in Hollywood, Cuomo felt disillusioned by the mentality of the local music scene. ‘I moved to L.A. with my metal band, and we went to the Sunset Strip. But we immediately realised that the whole thing was really comical, seeing everybody prance around in their spandex,’ recalled Cuomo. ‘That’s when I realised how retarded I had been.’ His opinion on metal would change when he finally found himself a day job. ‘At nineteen, I got a job at Tower Records, and everything started to change very quickly,’ he told Pitchfork. ‘I started listening to the Velvet Underground, Pixies, early Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and also early music like the Beatles. Around that same time, Weezer started.’ Taking its moniker from a childhood nickname bestowed upon the sick Cuomo, his latest band would come together when he was introduced through a mutual friend to a young drummer who had recently arrived in California.
One year Cuomo’s senior, fellow New York native Patrick Wilson had also fallen in love with rock ‘n’ roll at an early age, but while his new friend had been fixated on hair metal, Wilson’s tastes veered towards something more progressive. ‘I had a cousin who was seven years older than me. When he was fourteen, he would bring over records like 2112 by Rush, and Van Halen I, and I just really loved music. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love it,’ he explained. ‘So I would constantly listen to these records. I would listen to the drums and think, ‘How do they do that?’ But somehow I knew what the sounds were, I knew that was the hi-hat, that was the snare drum, that was the kick drum. I didn’t even have a drum set until I was nineteen though. I had two friends with drum kits and I would just play their kits because they weren’t that into it. I must have been an annoying friend!’ Much like Cuomo, Wilson moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a rock star. ‘One day I got introduced to this kid called Pat Finn, the ﬁrst bass player I ever played with. He’s like, ‘I’m moving to L.A. I’m gonna be in a band.’ I was like, ‘I’m gonna go with you.’ Pat wound up getting a job at Tower Records on the Sunset Strip, where Rivers worked,’ Wilson told Phawker. ‘Rivers had a ponytail and could shred with the best of them. He was like the Valley metal jock. I don’t know if you know about those guys, but at that time it was a distinct breed of long-haired, semi-athletic, and really proﬁcient on an instrument. Rivers wanted to start a new band, and he said he wanted me to be the drummer. But, he said ‘We’re not gonna have any kind of rehearsal until we have fifty songs written.’ So we were writing and writing.’
10 September 1991 became ground zero for a cultural shift that would drive the final nail into the coffin of not only glam metal but everything that the eighties represented. DGC Records, the same company that would one day sign Weezer, issued the major label debut of a rising rock group from Seattle called Nirvana. Backed by a promo video that would receive a nomination at MTV’s annual awards ceremony the following year, Smells Like Teen Spirit proved to be a call-to-arms for Generation X, affectively destroying the L.A. hair scene and ushering in the arrival of grunge. ‘From the moment Smells Like Teen Spirit first appeared on MTV, it feels like a paradigm shift,’ declared songwriter Desmond Child, the man responsible for such eighties classics as Livin’ on a Prayer. ‘An era closed with Nirvana.’ Cuomo was one of countless young musicians that were influenced by the song and its parent album, Nevermind, and as he continued to distance himself from the thrash-style shredding, he soon adopted a similar approach to songwriting as Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, and began to craft more traditional rock songs for the early nineties alternative crowd. ‘I just realised that metal wasn’t going to be a sufficient form of expression for me,’ claimed Cuomo. ‘When I wrote songs, it didn’t sound like Judas Priest, it sounded like Weezer. But I think you can kind of hear some metal in Weezer. I think of myself as far too wimpy to pull off any real metal, and Weezer is kind of like a failed attempt at being super rock.’ With heavy metal now in his rear-view mirror, Cuomo turned his attention to crafting songs tailed for the mainstream.
Oh my god, what’s happening?
It was on Valentine’s Day 1992, when couples around the world celebrated their love for one another, that Cuomo, Wilson, bassist Matt Sharp, and guitarist Jason Cropper gathered at a recording studio in Los Angeles for their first rehearsal session. From the very first moment, they felt that there was magic between them when they began to perform, and barely a month later they found themselves as the opening act for Dogstar, a popular local group that boasted Hollywood star Keanu Reeves among its ranks. By the time they recorded their second demo tape that August, they had already created a song that would one day become a fan favourite. ‘I remember being in our apartment and our guitar player at the time, Jason Cropper, had an acoustic guitar. He started playing this little riff, just messing around,’ said Wilson on the creation of My Name Is Jonas. ‘I heard it and thought, ‘What is that?’ So I got a four-track and recorded it, laid down all the music, and gave it to Rivers. He added the end part with the climb on the guitar, and I was over the moon. I just loved it so much.’ Slowly gathering a fanbase around Los Angeles through incessant performing and promotion, Weezer began to flirt with several labels before finally signing with DGC on 25 June 1993. Immediately commencing work on their debut album, Weezer recruited the services of former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek to oversee the recording sessions. ‘When we first met Ric, we were so freaked out by everything,’ confessed Sharp, whose prior group was a gothic rock act called The Clique. ‘We’d never met anyone famous. We were like, ‘Oh my god, what’s happening?’ It was very hard to look at anybody eye-to-eye. But we milked him for all The Cars stories we could because we were all Cars fans.’
Having relocated to Electric Lady Studios in New York, following a production demo that was cut at S.I.R. Studios, Ocasek brought a commercial sensibility to the material that would help to define the Weezer sound for years to come. Their producer would also be responsible for the inclusion of what would become their signature tune: Buddy Holly. ‘It’s such a tightly-written song. There’s no fat on it at all. It starts at ten, and then goes up from there,’ boasted Wilson. ‘Ric Ocasek insists that we put it on the album. I think that song was a little problematic for Rivers, because I think he wanted things to go in a certain direction. So when that song got big – partly because of a pretty important video – I think he thought the focus wasn’t on the right thing. At the time, the very idea that you could watch a video on a computer was like madness. I remember being really mad at Geffen Records for putting that video on Windows 95, because I didn’t understand how promotion worked. But I came to find out that it was basically one of the biggest coups of all time. I’m an idiot, basically.’ For Brian Bell, who would later replace Cropper following his dismission from the band, the promo clips for both Buddy Holly and their earlier single, Undone – The Sweater Song, would play a significant role in their subsequent success. ‘On that first tour, before we made the videos, like, ten people would show up in a three-thousand seat place,’ he claimed. ‘We go to Berkeley Square and it’s just zero paying people, or playing after the movie Rollerball in Portland, and hardly anyone stuck around. And then we made the videos.’
When Weezer released their debut album in the spring of 1994, the suicide of Kurt Cobain still cast a shadow over the music industry, but following the release of Buddy Holly in September, they found themselves labelled as the next big thing. But the critical and commercial reaction took the band by surprise, and they were unprepared for the success that would follow. ‘While recording the album, Rivers asked what would be the minimum number of albums they would sell,’ said Todd Sullivan, the A&R agent at DGC that was responsible for signing them to the label. ‘When I told him Geffen never ships less than fifteen-thousand copies, he felt pretty convinced that’s all they would ever sell. Of course, when the album was released, the label only shipped thirteen-thousand copies. The reason why so few copies were shipped was due to the fact that there was no commercial radio airplay on the band. I wanted people to have a chance to discover the band through word-of-mouth. However, this plan only lasted a few weeks.’ But Cuomo would not be the only member of the band who underestimated the level of success they were about to achieve. ‘We made the ﬁrst Weezer record and we literally wrote out, before it came out, who’s gonna buy this album,’ recalled Sharp. ‘We jotted down a list of our aunts and uncles and parents, and whatever, and we had everybody do it. And I think we came up with a list of a hundred and some people. And the ﬁrst week the album came out, something like three-hundred people bought the album, and I remember sitting in the kitchen with Rivers and just going, ‘Who are those people? Why the hell would they buy the record? These are people we’ve never met before, and they’re actually buying the album,’ and thinking that was such a victory.’
By the time that the recording sessions had come to an end, however, Weezer had undergone its first line-up change as Cropper was forced from the ranks. Having discovered that his partner had fallen pregnant, the future of Jason Cropper became uncertain. ‘The final straw?’ he posed. ‘The woman I married a few years later showed up in New York unannounced while we were making the record, with no place to stay. And that was it. Rivers was like, ‘I can’t fucking take any more of this inconsiderate guy.’ And, you know, he was right. He explained it to me as kindly as he could; he was like, ‘I like you, we’ll stay friends but I can’t…this is a really special moment for the huge amount of work we’ve done to get here, like a life’s time of work, and I don’t feel like you get it in the same way.’’ In a separate interview, he elaborated further on Cuomo’s single-minded focus when it came to Weezer. ‘It’s hard to be friends with someone who is so intellectually stimulated,’ he claimed. ‘The guy is really creative. He’s an artist, and he’s following that path really intensely. Could you imagine being best friends with Van Gogh or Mozart, or somebody like that? It’s just probably not possible to share a one-on-one ‘Hey buddy!’ relationship for a long time. Especially if you’re working for, or with, the guy; whatever you want to call it. The guy’s a genius. When you meet him, talk to him, or you read his personal writing, it’s just mind-blowing what the guy can do with the written word. He’d be a great author somebody.’ With Cropper no longer in the picture, Cuomo, Wilson, and Sharp were forced to desperately search for a replacement for the tour that was to follow.
Long before he joined the ranks of Weezer, Brian Bell’s introduction to the world of rock ‘n’ roll came when, on 8 April 1972, he was taken by his parents to see the legendary Elvis Presley. Playing guitar from a young age, at the age of nineteen, Bell relocated from Iowa to the bright lights of Los Angeles. ‘I kind of played it cool when they first asked me, like a girl that you really want to go out with, you don’t call her back right away, I played that game,’ he said. ‘They call me up, and the first question Rivers asks is what is my favourite Star Wars character. I thought of the most obscure character I could, which was Hammerhead. I also knew that Rivers loved KISS, but I totally lied and said I was into KISS. They sent me a plane ticket, then I got picked up at the airport by this little man in a tuxedo with a hat and grey hair. I’ll never forget it. I thought, ‘I feel like I’m in Led Zeppelin all of a sudden.’ I took the red-eye, so I get there at, like, 5:30am. I went straight to the Gramercy Park Hotel, and Rivers answers the door, and he had a horrible moustache. He said, ‘Welcome to the band. Oh, by the way, you’ll have to grow a moustache.’ Rivers said, ‘Here’s the floor; get some sleep.’ So I slept on the floor the first night. Pat came in and said, ‘Hey,’ then he turns around and moons me!’ Yet despite Bell receiving credit as the guitarist in the liner notes of the album, it would be Cuomo who was tasked with re-recording Cropper’s work in the studio. ‘After he fired his guitarist,’ explained Ocasek, ‘I said, ‘Rivers, who is going to do his parts?’ And he said, ‘I’m going to do them all.’ And he did them all. In one day. And he did them perfectly. In one take!’
Weezer’s first tour would commence three days before the release of the album at Bob’s Frolic Room IIII in Los Angeles, opening, as usual, with My Name Is Jonas. While the band should have been excited about finally touring in support of the record, Cuomo grew increasingly withdrawn during the latter half of 1994. ‘Touring is fun,’ he had joked in his diary. ‘A typical day: drive for five hours through incredibly boring terrain – usually the desert – with frequent stops for hacky-sack. Hacky-sack is our only form of exercise.’ By the end of October, just five months after their album made its debut, Cuomo decided that he was going to enrol at university, while his growing interest in the likes of Beethoven caused him to doubt his own talents as a songwriter and musician. With a date of autumn 1995 in mind, he remained conflicted between studying at either Columbia in New York, or Princeton in New Jersey. As he craved the opportunities that higher education offered, his loneliness on the road, and his own insecurities, threatened to push him deep into a depression. ‘I got very sad,’ he later admitted. ‘I became very unsure of my instincts. I didn’t know how people were going to react to me, if they were going to ridicule me, or harass me, or fawn all over me completely. Eventually, I got to the point where I was like, ‘Shit, doesn’t anyone want an autograph?’’
Despite his emotional turmoil, during his time at Harvard, Cuomo began to develop ideas for Weezer’s second album. Set in deep space in the twenty-second century, his proposed concept followed the crew of the spacecraft Betsy II, under the leadership of Captain Jonas, who set out on a mission of mercy to save a planet that faces annihilation. With Cuomo’s disgust at the emotionless sex that populates the rock star lifestyle, his central character engages in a sexual relationship with the ship’s cook, before bringing it to a premature end when he decides that he is unable to feel anything for her. Instead, he finds comfort in the arms of one of his crewmembers, but this fractured love triangle soon becomes too much for him to take, and he finds himself drowning under the weight of his own actions. ‘He ends up with nothing,’ wrote Cuomo in his treatment for the concept, ‘but in the void, his set of morals come into existence, he finds his path and it is alone.’ The despair that Jonas would feel as the narrative approaches its conclusion would echo that of Cuomo as he began to feel disconnected from all those around him. ‘My gorgeous and atrocious sexual desires had reached a boiling point,’ admitted Cuomo. ‘I thought that maybe if I expressed them, I would be able to resolve them, and maybe even meet the flawless, abominable woman of my dreams. But I didn’t think I could truly express myself until I had opened my mind to a world outside of rock shows and sex. Which was why I decided to go to college.’ With Cuomo seeing a reflection of himself in his protagonist, it was inevitable that he would choose to portray the damaged hero himself in his narrative, with bandmates Bell and Sharp taking on the roles of his fellow crewmembers, Wuan and Dondo.
While the sound of the Blue Album had drawn inspiration from sources as varied as the Beach Boys and Nirvana, for his next project, Songs from the Black Hole, Cuomo turned to the opera to fuel his imagination. ‘In ’93, I had spent a lot of time listening to Jesus Chris Superstar,’ he recalled in the booklet for his demo compilation, Alone II: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo. ‘In ’94, on the road with Weezer, I listened to Les Miserables, Verdi’s Aida, and Madama Butterfly. I loved how these works married music and drama, how the different characters would sing to each other instead of talk, and how the story unfolded through song. I realised that musical-drama could be the larger scale composition I wanted to write for Weezer’s second record: a new wave-influenced rock musical, Songs from the Black Hole. I purchased an Electro-Harmonix keyboard, and a Korg keyboard from Centre Music in Newington, Connecticut on 3 January 1995, to aid a sci-fi tone to Weezer’s guitar crunch. I got excited, now knowing what I wanted to do. I started planning and writing out sketches, music, and songs.’ As Cuomo assembled a group of collaborators that he intended to fill out the roles of the various characters, he turned to the bassist of another group to portray one of his love interests. ‘For me, touring with Weezer and Teenage Fanclub kind of boosted my self-confidence about being in a rock band,’ said Rachel Haden of That Dog, who would contribute vocals to the track I Just Threw Out the Love of My Dreams. ‘I never thought of us as sounding as huge as them, but playing with them helped that insecurity of mine.’
Cuomo’s work on Songs from the Black Hole progressed even further when, in Europe during their World Domination Tour in February 1995, events forced the band to cancel several dates and remain in Germany. ‘I had the perfect opportunity to work on this project when Matt had to go back to the United States because of a family emergency, leaving the rest of Weezer in Hamburg, Germany, in the middle of a tour, with nothing to do for a week,’ recalled Como, who also recruited the band’s webmaster, Karl Koch, to take on the role of the ship’s robot. ‘At the studio, I recorded Blast Off, which I had reworked and expanded from a 1993 songlet Negativland. The song was to be sung by the four male lead characters; Jones (me), Wuan (Brian), Dondo (Matt), and our mechanoid, M1 (Karl). M1’s part sang with a vocoder. The song expresses the characters’ different feelings about heading out on a space mission, or, in other words, my different feelings about heading out on tour and up the charts with a rock band.’ Throughout Cuomo’s development of Songs from the Black Hole, he had intended for the album to commence with Blast Off, while Tired of Sex was his most unsubtle expression of frustration at the meaninglessness of promiscuous sex. Elsewhere, Longtime Sunshine represented a desire to escape. ‘In the midst of struggling to make it as a rock star in Los Angeles, I started longing for the safety, peace, quiet, simplicity, and family structure of my New England childhood,’ he continued. ‘I thought of my favourite memories: lying in the bottom bunk, my brother in the top, in our bedroom in our farmhouse in Eastford, Connecticut, in the hot, hot summer, 7-8pm, sun still up, but having to go to sleep because it’s our bedtime; one of those big box fans blowing, and my parents, Ma and Steve, sitting at our bedside, singing an old hippie song to us, to calm us down and ease us into sleep.’
Despite some progression on the project, Cuomo finally decided to abandon his rock opera. And in the years since, he has downplayed his commitment to it. ‘I think the whole Black Hole thing has gotten way out of proportion in people’s minds,’ he later claimed. ‘It’s just a third of an album that was sketched out, and most of the songs on it weren’t really written specifically for the Black Hole; they were written before I conceived of the Black Hole, and then I reshaped them a little bit for the Black Hole, and then I abandoned that idea.’ In a later interview with Rolling Stone he added, ‘I think I was planning to make the second Weezer album a sort of space travel-themed rock opera with lots of synthesisers and new wave flavour over the Weezer rock sound. And then our bass player, Matt, put out his first solo record, and I felt like it had a lot of the same musical and lyrical themes that I was planning to explore on the second record. So that would be one contributing factor; my change of heart. Also, I had this really painful surgical procedure on my leg, which lasted thirteen months in all, and it took me to a place, emotionally, where the whole idea of this whole rock opera started to feel too whimsical for where I was emotionally, going through the pain of the procedure. And so I scrapped the whole idea and went to a more serious and dark place.’ The events that would unfold following the success of the Blue Album sent Cuomo into a downward spiral, and soon he felt the camp and lighthearted tone of Songs from the Black Hole was no longer relevant. But before he could fully commit to Weezer’s future, first he had a long-standing issue that he was forced to finally deal with.
As Weezer stepped off the stage of the Hollywood Palladium on 8 April 1995, Cuomo prepared to take a leave of absence from the world of rock ‘n’ roll in order to recover from a procedure to correct a condition that had plagued him his entire life. ‘I was born with one leg shorter than the other, so I had to wear special shoes, one with a lift: just one more reason I wasn’t as cool as everyone else,’ he explained in 2018. No longer willing to live with this birth defect, Cuomo had finally decided to undergo a medical procedure to rectify this issue. ‘I had an operation where they cut my femur in half and put my leg in a steel frame; each day, I would turn some screw on the frame so that it would extend and increase the space in the break in my bone. After thirteen months, that space filled in, and my leg was longer. Two months in, I was back out on the road with Weezer, stumbling around with a cane, and as soon as the frame was off, I was back out on the soccer field. I couldn’t run – I was basically hopping – but I was so happy to play. I’d been dreaming about it.’ Returning to the stage on 12 June with a show in Barcelona, Spain, Cuomo struggled through performances almost every night for the next two months until, on 20 August, the tour finally came to a conclusion in San Francisco, where he then turned his attention to student life.
As Cuomo made his way to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he intended on spending the foreseeable future focusing on his studies at Harvard, his bandmates ventured onto other projects while they waited for their frontman and songwriter to return. While guitarist Brian Bell focused on Space Twins, which had produced the single No Show the previous year, drummer Patrick Wilson agreed to participate in bassist Matt Sharp’s newly formed group, the Rentals. Another associate who would contribute to this venture was Rachel Haden, who had already toured alongside Weezer with her own band That Dog. ‘I wasn’t a member of the band, because there wasn’t a band yet. I sang on about six or seven songs. And Matt started to slowly get a band together, and wanted me to be a part of it, but I couldn’t do it at the time,’ she said of her work with the Rentals. ‘He has always had his own musical vision, and I remember talking with him about that years ago. We were both involved with bands where we were very important to the band, but it was ultimately someone else’s vision. We were both songwriters struggling with that.’ As both Bell and Sharp flexed their creative muscles, Cuomo settled into his routine as a student as he suffered with the after-effects of his operation. ‘Rivers was on painkillers,’ recalled Bell. ‘He had this painful contraption on his leg. It was painful for him to hold his guitar up a certain way, so most of those songs are written in the first person. I would also have to egg the songs out of him.’ With Songs from the Black Hole now officially abandoned, Cuomo tried to overcome his insecurities about his failures as a musician, but cut off from his friends and family, loneliness soon began to take hold of him.
What is love? What is sex?
Despite the physical and emotional pain he was struggling with, Cuomo felt confident about his decision to focus on his studies. ‘When I went to get my Harvard ticket, there was a line around the corner and down the block. I got one of the last they had,’ he said. ‘So there I was, standing at one of the best educational institutions in the world, down $75 for the ticket, plus a $9.86 processing fee. I knew in that moment that no matter what music I ended up writing, I had to make the most of the educational experience. I had to get smart enough to defeat my sex demons. At Harvard, I kept myself completely isolated a lot of the times; noise-cancelling headphones, blindfold, hazmat suit, everything. I would sit there all bundled up in my room, shred an entire Shakespeare play, eat it, throw it up, and then, as I was puking, I would be thinking, ‘What is love? What is sex? Why do they hate each other? Will they ever get married?’ Eventually, my roommate would come banging on my door, telling me it was time for class, but I wouldn’t let him in. As isolated as I was, there was also a lot of drama in my personal life. I fell in love with a girl who turned out to be a reflection of a duck that I saw in a warped classroom window. I had really convinced myself that things were going to work out with her, so when they didn’t, it was crushing. The same thing happened with a girl who turned out to be a tall dining room chair, a girl who turned out to be the floor of my room, and later on, a girl turned out to be the concept of determinism, which I was learning about in my ‘intro to philosophy’ class. Those failed relationships inspired a lot of Pinkerton. I was getting rejected thousands of times a day, and every time I did, I would write down all my feelings. I wrote until I had seven-hundred songs, and then I pared those down to the ten loudest ones. I was excited that what I’d written was really brave, and real, and true to my own experiences.’
Listening to the music that had inspired him while he was on the road, Cuomo turned to Madama Butterfly to help shape his latest concept. Giacomo Puccini’s opera, itself based on the French novel Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti, centred on a young American lieutenant, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, who in the early years of the twentieth century acquires a house overlooking a harbour in Nagasaki, Japan, along with a fifteen-year-old bride called Cio-Cio-san, known to her loved ones as Butterfly. Following their wedding, the American consul warns him against breaking the young girl’s heart, but for the next three years she shares at the horizon, desperately waiting for his return. He finally arrives with his new bride to claim the chid he had fathered with Butterfly, and after reluctantly handing over their offspring, the grief overcomes her and she takes her own life. The manipulative and egocentric Pinkerton was, to Cuomo, a representation of the selfish and emotionless lifestyle of a rock ‘n’ roll star. The more Cuomo listened to Puccini’s work, the more enriched he felt, and yet the disappointment of falling short as a musician began to consume him. ‘One of my favourite operas by him was Madama Butterfly, specifically when the role was played by Maria Callas,’ he said. ‘On tour, I would listen to her every night after the show and be moved by the depth and emotion, and sadness, and tragedy. It really was calling to me, ‘Come on, Rivers. You can go there. You can go much further with your music than The Sweater Song, or Buddy Holly.’’
As the project mutated from Songs from the Black Hole to what would become Pinkerton, Cuomo began to ask existential questions regarding his relationship with women and his place in the world, often reworking material that had been written for the space opera and refashioning it for his new vision. And when looking deep within himself for the answers, he recalled a memoir of a pop star he had read two years earlier, around the same time that he signed with DGC Records. ‘When I first read Brian Wilson’ autobiography, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, in 1993, I strongly identified with his words,’ recalled Cuomo. The book in question was from the architect behind the Beach Boys, and documented how the success of the group had often fallen to him, the principal songwriter. ‘By summer 1965, my chief concern was to stay atop the field of artists, like the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who were influencing and changing pop music,’ he wrote in the 1992 retrospective. ‘My bandmates were not bothered because I hung around with strange people, took drugs, behaved in ways that defied convention, and had a marriage that was truly weird. Their problem was accepting what I was doing to the Beach Boys. They were afraid I was fucking up the formula that had made all of them wealthy and famous, and that wasn’t kosher. My defence was a stellar track record, and the fact that none of the guys wrote songs.’ Cuomo saw something of himself in Wilson; the reluctant rock star struggling with fame, doubting his talents, and fearing the inevitable failure that was sure to come. But this anxiety and depression was in some way necessary in order for Cuomo to grow as an artist. ‘When you think about it, the normal thing to do when you’re done touring behind an album is to take time off and write songs for the next one,’ he explained to Guitar World. ‘That’s all I did. If I hadn’t gone back to school – if I had stayed in Los Angeles, and hung out at the Viper Room and partied – I surely wouldn’t have written the songs on Pinkerton, and the songs I would have written would have sucked. I wouldn’t have found the inspiration.’
Even though Cuomo had relocated and commenced studies at Harvard, he would frantically write in his dorm room, and would return to his bandmates during the holidays to present his new material. And while they were aware that the painkillers could have an impact on his emotional wellbeing, it was clear that he was in a dark place and needed the support of his friends. ‘Rivers was tortured. He couldn’t enjoy all the cool stuff we got to do,’ revealed Sharp. ‘Rivers told us thousands of times that he was finished with sweaters, and wanted to write about sex. He would get up in our faces and tell us, ‘Millions of people are having sex every single second, in this building alone. If we don’t sing about it, we’re not musicians; we’re just clowns with microphones and guitars in a band called Weezer. While Rivers was in school, the rest of us were off working on our own projects. I got a job at a tattoo parlour, giving tattoos that said, ‘Surf’s up, suckers!’ in cursive. It was a fun gig. A surprising number of people wanted that tattoo, even if they didn’t walk in wanting it. It was a pretty easy sell. Once we got into the studio, it was back to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.’ As Cuomo struggled to write material that he felt was worthy enough for a Weezer album, Sharp’s own project, the Rentals, released their debut album through Madonna’s label Maverick in October 1995. Return of the Rentals, a somewhat ironic name for a first record, would see contributions from Patrick Wilson and Rachel Haden and, following positive reviews from the entertainment press, finally allowed Sharp to prove himself as a songwriter and artist.
Despite the pop sensibility that Ric Ocasek brought to the Blue Album, the members of Weezer agreed that their next record should have a rawer sound than its predecessor and so, against the objections of their label, decided to produce their sophomore album themselves. ‘We decided against using a producer for Pinkerton, which meant we didn’t have anyone to incentivise us to behave with a pizza party,’ stated Bell. ‘When we recorded the Blue Album, our producer, Ric Ocasek, would tell us that if we were quiet and well-behaved, and finished recording all our songs before 3:15, we would get a pizza party with soda, and we’d get to watch Ghostbusters.’ In retrospect, however, not all of Weezer felt that this was the best decision. ‘A classic sophomore error, if you ask me,’ declared Wilson. ‘In a weird way, there’s kind of a beauty to that blind reaction against what you’ve just done. At that time, we weren’t really getting along very well, and we just weren’t very functional. When you’re young, you think you know things. And then you get popular, and you have different ideas about what that means, I guess. It didn’t feel very uniﬁed at that time. You can kind of hear that in the way Pinkerton sounds. It’s a perfect match of angry people, and Rivers has a broken leg.’ As he spent months sat in his room at Harvard, fighting through the discomfort of his recovery, Cuomo composed a wealth of material that laid the groundwork for Pinkerton.
Ever since Weezer’s first tour in support of the Blue Album came to an end shortly before Christmas 1994, Cuomo had been working on material and recording demo tapes for the band’s second album. And throughout these songs, he found common themes of self-doubt and despair that echoed those of his favourite memoirs and operas. ‘The lyrics to Pinkerton tell the story of someone who’s having real difficulty connecting with anyone on a deep emotional level,’ he detailed. ‘There’s always something getting in the way, be it rock music, your own hang-ups or, in the case of Pink Triangle, the other person’s orientation. For most people, the initial impetus to becoming a rock star is to cure oneself of loneliness. I wanted to have this feeling that millions of people love me, to charge me up and make me feel secure. The frustrating part about becoming a rock star is realising that the loneliness won’t go away. Then you start to think, ‘If I can sell a couple million records and I’m still really lonely, that just makes it all the more depressing.’ Especially when I still have the exact same problems. I’m still really shy. I can’t talk to girls. That was particularly frustrating this past year at school. It was like, ‘I’ve got a Platinum record and I can’t even say hello.’ I was really incapable of talking to anyone; I had this big metal cage pinned into my leg, which I needed because I had my leg broken to have it lengthened. I was walking around with that and a cane. I had a really long beard. I looked really weird, and people gave me a fair amount of distance in the hallways.’
After months of home recordings, Cuomo reconvened with the band in Boston, located approximately seventy-five miles north of Cambridge, where they took up residence at Fort Apache Studios. Acting as their own producer, Weezer worked hard to develop the material as each were distracted by side projects and pain medication. ‘We recorded the vocals with all of us in the same room, singing at the same time around these three mikes,’ said Cuomo. ‘That also had its good and bad points. If one of my band members sang a really sour note, it also ended up bleeding heavily onto my track, so that in order to keep some of the tracks of myself that I really liked, I had to accept that there would be some pretty strange stuff in the background. But I think that, overall, it was worth it, because there’s such a live, fun vibe about the whole recording. I’ve never really wanted a producer.’ Despite Sharp having found modest success with the Rentals, he still acknowledged Cuomo’s important place as the frontman of Weezer. ‘Rivers know where I’m coming from, and I don’t really have to explain much to him anymore. We have a very good understanding between the two of us,’ he confirmed. ‘I love working with Rivers. He’s very influential on me; he’s my favourite songwriter.’
The recording of Pinkerton would take place during three separate sessions; the first in Boston in September 1995, and then two further sessions at Sound City in Los Angeles, in January and June 1996, respectively. ‘Ninety-nine per cent of the making of Pinkerton was me in that house in Cambridge all by myself. And then, the recording was done very quickly,’ Cuomo told Rolling Stone in 2010. ‘I remember just being in there by myself, hour after hour, until two in the morning, and then walking home by myself and feeling pretty on my own for extended periods of time.’ Heavily inspired by the raw production sound of Steve Albini, the man responsible for the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa and Nirvana’s In Utero, Cuomo wanted to capture the feel of a live band, avoiding the commercial style of their debut. ‘A lot of people mention that album, and say that they love the drum sound, and that they love that everything sounds like it’s about to explode,’ said Wilson in an interview with MusicRadar. ‘When I hear that record now I’ll go, ‘Wow, it sounds like we were on cocaine or something!’ It’s cool; that record is a really unique point in the band’s history. In terms of songs, I love Tired of Sex from that record; that is such a fun song to play.’ For Ric Ocasek, who had played a key role in fashioning the sound of Weezer, he understood why the band wanted to work without outside input. ‘I just figured that he wanted to do Pinkerton himself,’ claimed Ocasek. ‘I did go into the studio with them, and Rivers asked me about the guitar parts he did. I think he was getting hung up on the lead guitar parts of the song. He was working with an engineer who was taking a little too long for his liking, and putting the music through a lot of stuff, and I don’t think Rivers had the kind of control he wanted to have. So I went in, and I was telling him I loved the guitar parts he had on tape, and I told him he should just go for it.’
For Cuomo, recording the songs that he had developed over the previous twelve months, from his time applying to schools in the fall of 1994, and through his attempts at launching Songs from the Black Hole, would finally grant him something of a catharsis, allowing him to express his sexual frustration and insecurities as he screamed into a microphone. With the songs on Pinkerton sequenced almost in the order they were written, starting with Tired of Sex, which he first demoed in 1993, to the closing number Butterfly, a loose narrative of a despicable tyrant began to form. ‘I had been completely out of the spotlight for eight months, maybe, and it was very cold. My leg hurt a lot. And I didn’t have any friends where I was,’ he told Addicted to Noise. ‘I didn’t have any girlfriends, especially. Probably hadn’t even really talked to girls in a long, long time. And I was becoming really frustrated with that hermit’s life I was leading, the ascetic life. And I think I was starting to become frustrated with my whole dream about purifying myself and trying to live like a monk, or an intellectual, and going to school and holding out for this perfect, ideal woman. And I was really frustrated and lonely…I started to realise or become aware of a pattern in my life, that I seem to be having a lot of disastrous encounters with half-Japanese girls. For some reason, they’re particularly beautiful to me. I don’t know why. And when I became aware of that, and also the fact that it was the masculine part of myself that I was learning about in these songs, I remembered the story of Madama Butterfly, and the story of the character of Pinkerton in that opera. And I decided to use or refer to that story as a means of unifying the record.’
By 1996, Weezer’s debut album had sold over a million copies, with two of their videos, Undone – The Sweater Song and Buddy Holly, becoming regular fixtures of both MTV and VH1. Understandably, expectations were high for their follow-up album, and when the first single from Pinkerton was released five days before the album, the public were left dumbfounded by what they had witnessed. ‘Rivers is against doing another Buddy Holly-type video, because he feels it adulterates the Pinkerton experience, which is ludicrous,’ said Wilson of the promo for El Scorcho. ‘Nobody watches Help! and says the Beatles suck and their records are awful. We sat around a room with lights, and spent way too much money on stupidity, basically. It was on MTV, but they took it off their list.’ Cuomo would also express his reluctance to recreate the pop culture humour of their earlier clips. ‘I really want the songs to come across untainted this time around,’ he insisted. ‘So when I want to write the songs, I was very careful about being straightforward and sincere. And not being so ironic or using weird metaphors or imagery. I really want to communicate my feelings directly, and because I was so careful in writing the songs that way, I’d hate for the video to kinda misrepresent the song, or exaggerate certain aspects.’ With their first single failing to reach the commercial expectations of both the band and label, there was a certain amount of trepidation as the release date of the album grew nearer.
It was barely two years since Buddy Holly had transformed Weezer into superstars, but on 24 September 1996, fans and critics were left confused and disappointed by Pinkerton. ‘We put out Pinkerton, and it seemed like what I was hearing at that point was, ‘What happened to our fun band? They’re catchy, and poppy, and fun, and energetic, and now they’re…bizarre, grotesque, obscene, noisy,’’ said Cuomo. ‘And, at the same time, it was such a personal record for me. I felt like I was saying, ‘Okay, world! Here’s the truth. Here’s what I’m really like.’ I guess part of me assumed that it was going to be very successful, and I’d become, like, this superstar, because the record was so focused on me. And it came out and sold a tenth of the Blue Album.’ In an interview with Guitar World, he elaborated further on his disappointment. ‘When the second record didn’t do so well, everyone wanted someone to blame, and the person to blame, obviously, was me,’ he continued. ‘Everyone formulated their theories as to why I was an asshole, and one of the guys even left the band. Since then, I’ve gained a lot more confidence. I can stand up for myself more and basically say, ‘This is the direction I want to go in. I don’t care what happens in terms of album sales, but I’d love to have you come along.’’
If the lukewarm reception from the band’s fanbase was a disappointment, that was nothing compared to the reaction of the critics. ‘This follow-up to Weezer’s 1994 double-Platinum debut packs a novel’s worth of shame and fleeting happiness into less than thirty-five minutes,’ wrote the Los Angeles Times. ‘The songs here are often sloppy and awkward, but express a seemingly genuine, desperate search for sex and love. By the end, leader Rivers Cuomo is left alone to strum an acoustic guitar and, fittingly, ask forgiveness.’ But this would not be the only publication that were left underwhelmed by the long-awaited Pinkerton. ‘On their self-titled debut, Cuomo sang about the KISS posters hanging in his garage, and here they take the Gene Simmons approach, except without the great light and make-up show,’ stated Pitchfork. ‘The album is way harder than the last one, and I miss the instant impact, because Pinkerton takes a few listens to get into. Which is not to say that it won’t rock your world. In fact, by listen number three, you’re on the ground with pop spasms. With that in mind, Pinkerton might actually be a bit much for fans who were wooed with the clean production and immediately accessible sound of these guys’ debut, but if given a chance, it might surprise even some anti-Weezer folk.’ But not all critics were so generous. ‘Though hardly a party record, Weezer’s first album at least allowed the odd glimmer of goof,’ said Spin’s conflicted review. ‘No longer…in this etiquette manual for today’s sensitive young man, being in love means always having to say you’re sorry.’
After the universal acclaim that had surrounded their debut, Weezer were shocked by the disappointing response to their second effort. ‘I’ll never forget the morning I picked up the New York Times at a newsstand, and there was the cover story, in huge type, above the fold: ‘We here at the New York Times think the new Weezer album sucks – it just plain sucks, and if you ask me, that’s all there is to say about it,’’ said Bell. ‘Immediately, we could tell that the album wasn’t selling. Stores would have piles and piles of our CDs outside on the sidewalk with the trash. Kids were climbing up the piles and getting hurt falling down. The surgeon general went on TV and interrupted the season premiere of The X Files to issue an official warning against kids climbing up piles of Pinkerton; that didn’t put us in a good light.’ More than ten years after its release, Cuomo expressed his heartbreak at the album’s failure. ‘I was frustrated with the reception that our first album received. You know, what I was hearing was that people thought we were kind of jokey and shallow and a corporate version of the Pixies,’ he told OC Weekly. ‘And I wanted to be taken more seriously, so I wrote the second album, Pinkerton, very carefully; trying to avoid anything that would have made it seem like a novelty act, which is what I assumed was happening on the first record.’
Even as critically-acclaimed albums were being released by Type O Negative and R.E.M., the knives were definitely out for Weezer. ‘I never gave a shit what the press thought,’ claimed Wilson. ‘It’s nice to have nice things written about you though. Hey, I knew something was up and I knew that the fans liked that album when we were touring Pinkerton, and we would do album tracks, songs that weren’t singles, like Falling For You, and people knew every word. I thought that was pretty cool. The album is quite diﬀerent from the Blue album, so that was really cool. Maybe to the casual fan, they wouldn’t know the diﬀerence. I think it was just hard for Rivers. He poured so much of himself into writing Pinkerton, and he really wanted it to be a success. Ironically, today it really is a success. All of the music snobs think that is the greatest Weezer record. It was kind of a weird time for us. Around then, nu-metal was starting to get big with bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn. I don’t know, man, I didn’t really buy into the cultural relevancy of what we were doing, I just wanted to play drums. It was a weird time; Matt had left the band, and it took us a while to ﬁgure out what we really wanted to do. Really, to me it feels like it took us until last year to really ﬁgure out what we wanted to do.’ But still the reviews kept coming, and, on rare occasions, even some proved to be positive. ‘Butterfly is a real treat; a gentle acoustic number that recalls the vintage, heartbreaking beauty of Big Star,’ said Rolling Stone. ‘Cuomo’s voice cracks as he unintentionally bludgeons the fragile creature in the lyric, suggesting that underneath the geeky teenager pose is an artist well on his way to maturity.’
In the twenty-five years since the release of Pinkerton, Cuomo’s attitude has changed from hatred to acceptance. ‘It’s a hideous record,’ he declared in 2001. ‘It was such a hugely painful mistake that happened in front of hundreds of thousands of people, and continues on a grander scale, and just won’t go away. It’s like getting really drunk at a party and spilling your guts in front of everyone, and feeling incredibly great and cathartic about it, and then waking up the next morning and realising a complete fool you made of yourself.’ Just seven years later, he told Pitchfork, ‘Pinkerton’s great. It’s super-deep, brave, and authentic. Listening to it, I can tell you what I was really going for when I wrote and recorded a lot of the songs.’ In 2021, he sat down with Apple Music to discuss the album further. ‘Those are the most complex songs, and they’re the most emotional songs. And yet, the way we recorded is so raw; a four-piece rock noise,’ he stated. ‘I love the sound of my voice. It’s very low in the mix. I’d love to hear a remix with the vocals louder, but there’s just so much pain and vulnerability in my voice. I don’t know if this is disillusioning at all, but I think some of the pain you hear in my voice is actually physical. At that time, I was going through this procedure on my leg, where I had all these pins and spikes and wires going through my muscle and bone, for a year-and-a-half, and this constant pain. And right in the middle of that, I went and recorded vocals for the album. I don’t think my perspective has changed at all. I feel like that was such a rough time.’
Following the release of Pinkerton, Weezer suffered through several disasters; the resignation of bassist Matt Sharp, a lawsuit filed by a detective agency over the use of the word Pinkerton, and the further withdrawal of their reclusive frontman. With his obligations to the band now fulfilled, albeit temporarily, Cuomo finally returned to his studies. ‘In February 1997, I went back to Harvard to finish my junior year. I decided to take all English classes as if I were an English major, leaving open the option to formally switch to English (from Music) at the end of the semester,’ he later wrote. ‘I had become disillusioned with my goal of becoming a classical composer.’ As a result of Pinkerton’s failure, Weezer retreated from the spotlight, as Cuomo locked himself away from the world, finally returning half a decade later with a hit single, Hash Pipe. In the years since the album’s release, time has been kinder to Pinkerton, and while it has remained a bone of contention for the band, fans and critics have since come to regard it as a classic of nineties rock ‘n’ roll. And yet despite the praise that it would later receive, for Weezer, all they can remember is the crushing disappointment of its initial failure. ‘Everybody hated it,’ insisted Cuomo five years later. ‘Critics, the majority of our fans, most of my friends and family, the other band members. Everyone thought it was an embarrassment. One of the worst albums of all time!’