Weezer: Happy Days Canceled
SWM, 26, looks just like Buddy Holly. Ivy League-educated rock star with fondness for tattered sweaters. Likes Kiss, but tired of sex. Shy, introspective, obsessive. A pig, a dog. Sometimes becomes bearded hermit. Other times wants commitment and kids. Seeking Japanese woman for shaking booty, making sweet love all night. Must be willing to hear about relationship on the radio. Please, no lesbians.
River Cuomo should be happy. Heís wanted to be a rock star ever since he was a kid. Then Weezer's debut sprinted to the top of the pops, going double platinum, spawning three hug singles- "Undone", "Buddy Holly", and "Say it Ainít So"- and garnering MTVís best video award for the Happy Days parody in the "Buddy Holly" clip.
This afternoon, more than 300 people, mostly teenagers too young to get into the bandís two sold-out Sydney shows, have crammed themselves into Red Eye, a small record shop below street level, on one of the first sunny days of spring in Australia. Weezerís acoustic set for the in-store contains only five songs and lasts just 20 minutes. But the band-Cuomo, guitarist Brian Bell, bassist Matt Sharp and drummer Pat Wilson- spend the nest 90 minutes signing autographs for a long stream of polite, clean-cut and well-behaved Sydney teens.
The line winds around the store, up and down the aisles and out the door. The kids own both Weezer albums, of course, but the y also have Weezer t-shirts and every one of the bandís singles. Those that left their albums at home have the band sign sneakers, jeans, hats, water bottles, a plastic dinosaur and even a Rage Against the Machine CD, which elicits a few guffaws. Fans slip the band elaborately decorated and folded notes, one tied with string.
So Rivers Cuomo is a rock star. But heís still far from happy. On Weezerís new album, Pinkerton, Cuomoís emotions run form confusion to self-loathing. In the first song, he proclaims heís tired of meaningless sex. He yearns for commitment but desperately fears it. He seems ready to settle down in "El Scorcho" and "Falling For You", eager to stop being "bitter and alone" in "The Good Life". But "Getchoo" and "Why Bother?" find him closed off again, his fear of being hurt exceeding his fear of loneliness. In "Pink Triangle", the woman of his dreams turns out to be a lesbian.
Cuomo dreams have come true, but heís still deeply disillusioned. Kids flock to his in-stores and try to talk to him after shows, but he has few friends. He has wealth and fame, as well as the same problems with girls he had when he was in high school. Indeed, after Cuomo finished touring in support of Weezerís first record, he we was back in school completing his undergraduate degree at Harvard, but he knew no one in Boston. But the ache in his heart was nothing compared to the pain in his leg. One leg had always been two inches longer than the other, so Cuomo underwent surgery to stretch the bone of the other leg until both were the same size.
"I had rock star dreams from 8 or 9 almost nonstop. I thought it was going to be like being a God on earth, having super powers, being incredibly wealthy, never doing laundry. Instead I found myself in the dead of winter in Boston with a long beard, no friends and a bum leg. It was pretty disillusioning," says Cuomo, over a pasta dinner later that night on Sydenyís Coojey Beach.
Indeed, itís been a year of considerable frustration and some turmoil inside the band, as well. Cuomo struggled with intense writerís block before he penned Pinkerton. His bandmates wondered whether a second album would be recorded. Meanwhile, Cuomo watched as his three bandmates embarked on side projects, including Sharpís high profile Moog flavored music with the Rentals. He also dealt with the confusion of whether his songs became popular because of Spike Jonzeís brilliant video for "Buddy Holly" which spliced the band into the hit Ď70ís sitcom Happy Days. Cuomo responded by making the band less of a partnership and more of a "selective democracy," in the words of the somewhat annoyed Sharp and Wilson. His bandmates responded by making this their only interview to publicize Pinkerton.
"Iím a sick bastard," says Cuomo. "If I have no self confidence by now, I canít ever imagine having any. Iím sitting there in class, Iíve sold two million records, Iíve toured around the world singing in front of thousands of people. And there's a girl sitting across the table in English 101, and I just kind of look up at her every once in a while and put my head back down. Iím still a pathetic fool. Itís amazing. No matter how many records I sell, Iím never going to be in Kiss."
The Rivers Cuomo story begins with Kiss. An outsider and a loner, Cuomo joined the Kiss Army early, and the band fueled his first suburban rockstar dreams. After he learned t play the drums (age 11) and the guitar (age 13). Cuomo started a metal band of his own called Fury. They debuted as Kiss cover band. Ace Frehly and Peter Criss would later make a cameo in the Weezer song "In the Garage". Earlier this year, Weezer turned down an opportunity to open for Kiss when the aging rockers reunited and donned makeup yet again. "Some dreams just shouldnít come true," Cuomo says.
Metalís primal scream helped ease the pain of a difficult adolescence. Cuomoís family moved nearly every year while he grew up, bouncing from one pastoral Connecticut town to another. That meant Rivers never kept friends very long.
"I know I was a very somber child," remembers Cuomo. "I would never smile. In the second grade my teacher asked my mother what was wrong with me because I never looked happy. So my mother advised her to say, ĎLet me see the smile,í and then I would smile." Almost 20 years later, his voice still shakes at the memory. "So she did that Ėin front of the whole class. She got the whole class to turn around, look at me an say, ĎLet me see the smile."
Cuomo still doesnít smile that much. Fans approach him after Weezer shows and ask whether he enjoys performing because he seems so solemn on stage. But in-between bites of dinner, Cuomo grins and glows talking about his early metal bands. Fury played just three songs at their debut, he recalls, all straight from Kiss Alive: "Cold Gin", "Rock And Roll All Night", and "Strutter".
"Those were the three songs we learned in the months we had our guitars," he says. "We were 14, we had black streaks under our eyes and probably parachute pants or something. My hair was just starting to grow out. And it was great.
"Looking back now it all sounds so weak. But at the time it sounded so heavy and powerful an 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 (Conn.)- metal served that purpose perfectly well for me." Another metal band, called Avant Grade, followed. ("It was anything but," quips Rivers.) Kenneth Holton, who taught Cuomoís music classes at E.O. Smith High School in Mansfield, Connecticut, and led him in the chorus and 16th-century Madrigal singing groups, remembers Cuomo as one of his favorite students.
"He was fascinated by heavy metal, but that didnít seem affect him when it came to my groups," says Holton. "He didnít blow me off because I was a classical theorist. He had very teased long hair all around his head. He was a very noticeable kid because of his appearance. I guess he thought he was playing the part of a rock star. My chorus got a reputation for having a kid with the long hair."
When Cuomo gave him a copy of Weezerís first record, Holton says he was surprised that his former student had blossomed into such a clever wordsmith-and that it didnít sound like Kiss.
"Itís been really interesting for me," says Holton. "I hear a lot of harmonies and the chord changes of pop tunes. I was really surprised to hear that coming through. He rejected all that entirely in high school."
"We just kind of sucked," admits Avant Garde guitarist Kevin Ridel . "We were trying to be the kings of our instruments and just disregarded the idea of writing good songs. We were striving for technical prowess, but we still count really play."
In 1988, Cuomo and Ridel brought Avant Garde to Los Angeles, where Cuomo moved after he graduated from high school, after his parents divorced and after his girlfriend dumped him. But L.A. was changing , and so was Rivers. Janeís Addiction and Rage Against the Machine were the cityís new standard-bearers, replacing Guns Ní Roses. And after Cuomo got hired at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard, co-workers introduced him to the Velvet Underground and the Beatles. That was it for Avant Garde. Even Ridel discovered Tom Waits and formed a pop band of his own, Ridel High.
"I just realized that metal want going to be a sufficient form of expression for me," says Cuomo. "When I wrote songs, it didnít sound like Judas Priest. It sounded like Weezer. But I think you can kind of hear some of the metal in Weezer. I think of myself as far too wimpy to ever pull off any real metal, and Weezer is kind of like a failed attempt at being super-rock."
Weezerís first guitarist, Jason Cropper, remembers Cuomo as a big heavy metal fan who somehow knew that alternative music was about to explode. He remembers working with Cuomo at an Italian restaurant in L.A. (Rivers washed dishes) and hearing Nirvanaís "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the radio for the first time. They both stood there in amazement before Rivers got angry that he hadnít written that riff-so catchy, so perfect, so simple.
"He was in kind of transition, from Kiss and Judas Priest to the Velvets, the Beach Boys and the Beatles," says Cropper of Cuomo. "Our demos then would make the best lo-fi record youíve ever heard. Itís as good as anything Guided By Voices have done."
Brian Bell, who would replace Cropper just as Weezer would start recording their first album, remembers growing up in Tennessee and liking both Iron Maiden and the Circle Jerks. He didnít know whether to grow his hair long or shave his head. Cropper had a Kiss phase of his own before he discovered the Velvets. "(That shared background) made us feel we could get out there and make this band successful, whereas at the time a lot of alternative bands just wanted to have fun," says Bell. "Coming from liking Kiss, half the fun was being successful."
"If Kiss made success cool for Weezer, then Spike Jonzeís video for "Buddy Holly" made it possible. Not since Bruce Springsteen plucked Courteney Cox from the crowd to dance with him in "Dancing in the Dark" has a video done more to launch a career.
But it almost didnít happen. The Happy Days concept-with the band performing at Alís Diner with footage from the show spliced in to portray the band playing for Richie Cunningham and Fonzie-was one of three concepts presented by Jonze.
"When I walked onto the set that day, I knew it was going to be a smash," says Bell. "I literally almost fell over when I saw the set. All the extras were already there in costume. Al Molinaro (the original Al) was there. The whole day was really one of the most surreal days ever."
The "Buddy Holly" video still splits the members of Weezer. The debate over the video and what future clips should look like is a fierce divide that highlights how different Cuomoís vision is from Sharp and Wilsonís. Just as Cuomo is writing serious, irony-free songs now, he wants the videos to be serious and free from gimmicks. He also wants to be the focus of attention and has told his bandmates that videos should be a 70-30 split between shots o him and shots of the band.
But Sharp, Wilson and Bell believe that the "Buddy Holly" video is largely responsible for the bandís popularity. They think videos should be fun not somber, and that entertaining videos have a better chance of getting played on MTV-and therefore selling more records.
"At once I didnít like it, and at the same time I knew it was an amazing idea and it had to be done," says Cuomo. "Itís strange that me and my music got caught up in this. But our music got a lot of people as result of that video. Itís my least favorite of all the videos weíve done. I think id like it more if it werenít me and it werenít my song. I think its truly amazing. Iím extremely grateful to it. But it has nothing to do with me."
Sharp and Wilson understand Cuomoís point of view, but disagree with him completely.
"I donít think we can have the success we did in the past because we cant make another video like "Buddy Holly", even though I want to dearly," says Wilson. "I think itís the best thing Weezerís ever done. And it wasnít even us, it was Spike Jonze."
End of Part 1, On to Part 2