If one-tenth of the what-a-wingnut tales are true, Rivers Cuomo is guaranteed a conviction in the court of strange rock-star behavior. He has practiced so much self-imposed isolationism (including a well-publicized two-year diet of celibacy) that you could name a desert island after the guy.
Witness his abandonment of rock and roll -- and his band. After Weezer's hooky, self-titled 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.
When Cuomo emerged from Harvard's hallowed halls in 1996, his group delivered Pinkerton, a dark, twisted re-envisioning of the 1904 Puccini opera Madama Butterfly, about the doomed affair between Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy and a fifteen-year-old Japanese geisha. Like the original, Cuomo's adaptation is populated with love connections unmade and an abundance of remote Asian women to be fixated upon. Self-gratification substitutes 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.
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Legions of Weezer fans 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 record stood as the dictionary definition of sophomore slump. In fact, Pinkerton was such an immediate failure, both commercially and critically, that Rolling Stone named it the second-worst album of '96. Blame it on the concept, blame it on the songwriting, blame it on Cuomo's dissaffection. Whatever it was, 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 from a cell phone backstage at London's Hammersmith Odeon. "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. "I think one lesson I learned," he continues, "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, of course, is 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 offers advice, people listen.
For Make Believe, Rubin prodded Cuomo into experimentation with "assignment songs," says Cuomo. "For whatever reason, it didn't work with me at all. 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."
Yet 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 recalls. "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 and hasn't missed a day since he started, in May 2003.
"I have to be very flexible," he 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 over a decade ago. But "Perfect Situation," a song 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."
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Back at 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 if anything has really changed for the talented frontman.
"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."