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Cutting Classes

The rock band Weezer. from left to right are –– Rivers Cuomo, Brian Bell, Mikey Welsh and Pat Wilson in Hollywood, Friday, April 6, 2001. (Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In the opulent dressing room of Milwaukee’s Rave Ballroom, Rivers Cuomo is sitting on a tapestry-covered couch, looking uneasy. The series of connected rooms is cloistered deep in the bowels of this castle-like venue, a Prohibition-era ballroom and onetime local headquarters of that creepy, quasi-Masonic old men’s club called the Eagles. It is also, as noted by many a Weezer fan, the hall that hosted Buddy Holly’s second-to-last show in 1959.

“Did someone in this room write these questions?” Cuomo asks quizzically, looking up from a cheat sheet and squinting in the glare. A permed, blonde MTV producer fidgets behind studio lights. The crew is here to shoot a clip for MTV News, though the questions seem oddly designed to coax sound bites praising the generosity of the Internet company sponsoring the band’s tour and the thrill of selling tickets on the Net. During the shoot, Cuomo, who calls himself a “difficult subject” and even onstage makes no attempt to engage his adoring audience, hardly looks up. Sardonic drummer Pat Wilson deadpans about hawking topflight tour memorabilia on eBay, and guitarist Brian Bell flashes his all-access laminate in the light. “Don’t knock it man. There’s a nice steak right there!” Then comes a real hardball question: “So, you guys sold out all your shows several months in advance. Were you shocked?” Wilson and Bell politely register affirmation, prompting Cuomo to sit up and quash what to him is nonsense. “We’ve always had a loyal fan base. We’ve always sold out shows.”

Actually, selling out shows in 2001 is kind of a big deal when your band’s been in a carbonite deep freeze since 1996. And this spring tour, a 20-city campaign to pump fans for the May 15 release of The Green Album, Weezer’s long-awaited third LP, isn’t just sold out. It’s been greeted with a fervor normally associated with bread riots and Beanie Babies. Somewhere between Ethan Hawke and Rick Moranis, 30-year-old Cuomo–an introvert with a mercurial disposition–has morphed into a god.

Strange, considering that after Weezer’s triple-platinum, eponymous 1994 debut, featuring hits like “Buddy Holly” and “Say It Ain’t So,” the band’s popularity tanked when their rougher-sounding, lyrically dyspeptic follow-up, Pinkerton, got little radio love (and less label support) and sold fewer than 500,000 copies. During the making of the second album, there was considerable band conflict, and its less-than-spectacular reception gave rise to breakup rumors. After the Pinkerton tour wound down, Cuomo went back to school, Bell and Wilson nursed side projects, and, in 1998, high-profile, hammy bassist and Rentals moonlighter Matt Sharp officially quit the band.

During this downtime, however, Weezer have mysteriously drifted into the center of one of the more bizarre love triangles in rock. Among alt-nostalgists, they’re still revered for their six-string power-pop. Their open-journal confessionalism appeals to emo latecomers, and their well-articulated vitriol seems to scratch an itch among high-IQ nü-metalists. Kids hail them as stylistic originators, and they’re right. it was Weezer that roller out the reliable blueprint for cocky dorks like American Hi-Fi and Dynamite Hack, while Pinkerton’s plangent angst elevated middle-class rug burns to opera-sized grievances, making it a rallying point for emo gut-spiller and Tool fans alike.

Weezer’s success–if by some inverted logic their somewhat reverse trajectory, from platinum superstardom to near-gold cult heroes, is success–comes down to this: the slow burn of Pinkerton, abetted by the Internet. Many of the record’s devotees, mostly guys, were in junior high when they first heard Weezer on the radio. By the time Pinkerton came out, they were ready for a riot of their own. It hit them at just the right age. Even better, it wasn’t popular. It was the perfect chat-room litmus test. Behold, a cult was born.

Outside Rave, fans are lining up. The building stands in what is now one of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods, and for lots of these white kids arriving from places like Dubuque, Sheboygan and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this is as inner-city as they’ve ever been, despite looking like they just stepped off the subway from Brooklyn in their ass-challenged sweats and Fubu caps. Booked for a night in the crumbling flophouses nearby, or planning to haul home after the show, they’re now swarming the Open Pantry across Wisconsin Street to snap up the Sobe teas stocked especially for their demographic.

These kids were weened on Weezer. “They’re geeks like us!” one 19-year-old tells me, apparently speaking for the rest of the 3,500 fans who have braved mid-March misery like hearty Packers fans. His equally ruddy pal adds, “I was going through some rocky stuff in my senior year of high school. Pinkerton saved my life.”

Truth be told, these kids seem decidedly un-geek-like. They’re more heroic, actually–of that athletic Midwestern archetype that poet James Wright called the “suicidally beautiful.” Their adolescent pain was real, sure. But Weezer’s middle-American fans, known by some as “Weezerjacks,” personify what alt-rock did in the ’90s.–namely to make mainstream the kind of self-aware dorkiness and deprecation that was formerly the province of arty parodists on the fringe. In 1994, Weezer epitomized that contradiction–they were geeky yet triumphant, jaded yet potent. They were Pavement for the masses, irony for dispossessed linebackers.

“Good times, great oldies,” says Ryan Michael Pope, describing Weezer. The spazzy 22-year-old drummer for the Get Up Kids says this not with derision but with warmth and appreciation. Even though his band has more direct lines to the indie scene that spawned the post-Promise Ring emo boomlet, he doesn’t deny Weezer their influence. Cuomo himself readily understands his band’s simpatico with emo fans. He finds it harder to understand Weezer’s appeal to the hard-rock set. “It’s strange,” he tells me. “A lot of these tough-guy bands really dig us, which always surprises me.” But that doesn’t keep him from being unabashedly psyched about Deftones’ cover of Weezer’s 1994 power ballad “Say It Ain’t So,” a nugget that’s turned up on Napster. Cuomo enthuses, “They rock it!” But while the band can joke about their weird elder-statesmen cred, the question remains: Where the hell have they been?

River Cuomo’s passive-aggressive path to notoriety began as an identity crisis. He wasn’t always the close-cropped, self-aware pop star. Those metal licks, equal parts edgy plink and monster crunch, are a tribute to long hours of Yngwie Malmsteen worship and superglam hair theory. “When I first got excited about hair was maybe ’84,” says Cuomo. “I brought the Quiet Riot album to the hair salon and said, ‘Make me look like Carlos Cavazo.’ And they did. And my mom got so upset, she got in the car ad drove home without me, which was, like, five miles away.”

Like many late-blooming mod-rockers, Cuomo had no teenage introduction to punk of the ’80s indie scene. A self-described somber child whose early years were spent serially relocating around Connecticut with his massage-therapist mom and stepdad, he didn’t have many friends. But hard rock and hair-metal monoculture persisted from town to town, and in 1989, the high school junior hooked up with fellow metalheads to kick it out Kiss Alive!-style in his first band, Fury. He says his metal urge waned, though, when, after graduation, he finally took his band down to Paradise City, to the pre-Nirvana tinseltown of Poison and Pretty Boy Floyd.

“I moved to L.A. with my metal band, and we went straight to the Sunset Strip,” Cuomo says. “But we immediately realized that the whole thing was really comical, seeing everybody prance around in their Spandex.” It was his fellow clerks at his Tower Records job who turned him on to what is pretty much the troika of the alt-rock revolution: the Pixies, Sonic Youth, and Jane’s Addiction. “That’s when I realized how retarded I had been,” he says.

In the following year, Cuomo took up pop songwriting and started Weezer with new roommate Sharp and Wilson; in 16 months they had inked a deal with Geffen Records. Like the Pixies, who were also signed practically after their first soundcheck, Weezer got some sneers from the road-tested DIY crowd, but Cuomo bridles at the suggestion that he and his bandmates were ever corporate darlings. “I don’t recall anyone at the ‘corporation’–that is, the record company–having any faith in us whatsoever,” he says. “They totally ignored us. I’m sure they had no idea that we were going to have any success at all. They just put out the record, and when our song actually got on the radio, they were utterly shocked.” Well, maybe less shocked than relieved that the post-Nevermind strategy of signing any band that competently rip off Frank Black would result in at least one platinum smash.

The relentlessly tuneful first record’s hard pop was just that. But even as it blew up and Spike Jonze’s cut-up video “Buddy Holly” spliced the band into their own version of Happy Days, Cuomo was getting antsy. “I applied to Harvard a few months after our first record came out,” he recalls. “I already realized I was going to get really bored and depressed on the road. We were playing in Boston, and so I walking around and went by Harvard, and I was like, ‘Man, this place rules!'” He picked up an application, filled it out on the tour bus, and got accepted. That fall, after the band schedule wound down, Cuomo started school. “I just thought of music and school as things that I’d go back and forth between. I never saw either one of them really taking off or taking over my life,” he says.

But this Ivy League oscillation produced some of his darkest tunes, devoid of the irony that provided Weezer‘s emotional camouflage. During that dreary Boston winter, Cuomo also underwent an operation to lengthen one of his legs which had always been slightly shorter than the other. Limping around and munching Percocets, he was distressed to find that his success didn’t make it any easier to talk to hot valedictorians who didn’t know Weezer from Winger.

When the band reconvened that fall to record Cuomo’s new, gnarled laments like “Tired of Sex” and “Why Bother,” the other guys were feeling increasingly distant from Cuomo’s lyrical vision. When Pinkerton didn’t sell, underlying tensions began to chafe. In one interview, Wilson called Cuomo the “hauteur” of the band–a zinger pun that summed up the band’s umbrage. Cuomo wrote the songs; naturally he demanded control of the process, claiming two-thirds of the royalties as lyricist and songwriter. Says Cuomo now, “Matt obviously wasn’t satisfied being in the band, and he ended up leaving, so that takes care of him. Brian, I think, came off pretty cheery. Pat was disgruntled. It’s just his nature.”

But even cheery Brian Bell summons a little gravitas when he tells me about that time. “A lot of bad things happened,” he remembers. “The worst, of course, was that the girls who ran our fan club had an accident.” That accident was the highway crash that killed sisters Mykel and Carli Allen, who had run the Weezer fan club and fanzine since meeting the band while attending several shows on their first tour. Cuomo wrote a song for them, “Mykel and Carli,” and on the antique map tucked behind the cradle on Pinkerton‘s cover, he bequeathed them their own island. On top of internal troubles, says Bell, the tragedy “just kind of made us all really question what we were doing. There was a big black cloud over us. We just had to away from it.”

While Cuomo insists he spent most of the intervening five years “watching Friends,” that’s a bit of an understatement–he also wrote hundreds of songs. The replacement of Matt Sharp with bassist Mikey Welsh, late of Julianna Hatfield’s band, seems to have settled any dispute that Weezer is singularly Cuomo’s vehicle. And, as seems to be in his style, he’s driving things in a direction that might end up puzzling loyal fans. Tour sets featuring new songs like “Island in the Sun” are hipping fans to the fact that Cuomo is writing less personal, less revealing lyrics. “I wasn’t really having the kinds of stereotypical breakup experiences,” he says, “so I just ended up writing about other things.”

They’ve been playing the new songs live, though craftily changing things so the MP3 crowd won’t have the code entirely cracked. During “Hash Pipe,” Cuomo’s elisions turn “You’ve got your problems / I’ve got my hash pipe” into “got my half-pipe.” In general, though, he says he’s trying to make his lyrics more universal, “like early Beatles, Burt Bacharach, Beach Boys–songs that stand up without having to be some sort of personal revelation.” Wilson chimes in, “It’s like a triumph of science over nature. I mean, those songs from that era have no fluff, no artsy breaks. They’re meant for the hoi polloi–versus emotional freakouts.” Cuomo, abstractly considering his cult’s preference for freakouts, observes, “That’s probably the last thing our fans want to hear.”

But for now, the kids in Milwaukee under the fuchsia lights of Rave’s vast ballroom are singing every word to “My Name Is Jonas” and “Tired of Sex” like the battle hymns of their freakout republic. They throw their wee hands in the air like they really, really care, seven thousand pale arms that look, from the balcony, like trembling noodles. And it seems clear that as long as the owners of those arms believe they’ve got his problems, Rivers Cuomo will have his half-life.