In July of 1996, just two months before Weezer’s Pinkerton dropped, frontman Rivers Cuomo issued a precarious warning to the band’s fan club about his mental state during the writing process.
“There are some lyrics on the album that you might think are mean or sexist. I will feel genuinely bad if anyone feels hurt by my lyrics but I really wanted these songs to be an exploration of my ‘dark side’ – all the parts of myself that I was either afraid or embarrassed to think about before. So there’s some pretty nasty stuff on there,” he wrote.
“You may be more willing to forgive the lyrics if you see them as passing low points in a larger story. And this album really is a story: the story of the last two years of my life. And as you’re probably well aware, these have been two very weird years.”
Unbeknownst to Cuomo – one of rock’s strangest treasures – the forgiveness he sought would soon be from himself, and the chapter he hoped to close was far from complete.
Weezer’s sophomore release would first hit shelves on September 24th, 1996. With the recent triple-platinum success of the band’s 1994’s self-titled debut, listeners and critics alike anxiously awaited Pinkerton‘s unveiling. The so-called Blue Album had charmed listeners across genres with catchy radio-ready power-pop tunes like “Buddy Holly,” along with a groundbreaking music video to match. Weezer was an easy band to like – they were approachable enough to fit into a scene from Happy Days with ease and hip enough to get honorably roasted by Beavis and Butt-head. “Say It Ain’t So” and “Undone (The Sweater Song)” had propelled this quintessentially geeky group into the mainstream.
“We saw our audiences change from intelligent, hip-looking people to complete jocks who just came because they saw the video,” guitarist Brian Bell admitted to The Toronto Star in 1996.
“That’s the price you pay if you want to make a living at this.”
While the rest of the band may have come to terms with their newfound fame, Cuomo struggled. Fast-tracked success left him uneasy and conflicted. He began channeling his feelings into the follow up record: a Madame Butterfly–inspired science-fiction rock opera. Dubbed Songs from the Black Hole, the opera explored themes of ill-fated relationships and celebrity disillusionment. Over the course of nearly two years, however, the album’s direction would change substantially.
A surgery to extend his left leg in 1995 left Cuomo in crippling pain. In a fragile state both emotionally and physically, he retreated from public view by enrolling in Harvard University to study classical composition. Cuomo’s writing progressed from songs about surfing and 12-sided dice to a deeply confessional style. Fueled by lyrics lifted straight from his journals, Songs from the Black Hole slowly morphed into Pinkerton, a nod to Madame Butterfly‘s selfish antagonist who ends up destroying all that he loves.
Raised in a Connecticut Zen center, Cuomo’s first real glimpse at rock music had come from a Kiss record. These mismatched influences finally converged with Pinkerton, which precariously balanced lustful themes with expressions of profound sex-centric guilt.
It didn’t help that the songwriter was in constant physical pain.
“Rivers was on painkillers. … 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 position [on the fret board]. I would almost have to egg the songs out of him,” Bell recalled to Rolling Stone in 2001.
Hoping to replicate the vibe of their live performances, Weezer opted to produce Pinkerton on their own. The result was a grittier, slightly darker sound that was more Pixies than the polished power pop Ric Ocasek had helped the band realize on the Blue Album.
“I think a lot the sound from that record, for me, came from Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California. The initial sessions were from Electric Lady and Fort Apache, but when you hear the record, I hear Sound City and moving into there in January of ’96 was a significant part of that sound. It was in the same room that [Nirvana’s] Nevermind was recorded,” band historian and “fifth member” Karl Koch recalled to Alternative Press in 2010.
Just one day before the release the band was slapped with a $ 2 million lawsuit from detective agency Pinkerton for trademark infringement. The album’s clearly Madame Butterfly–influenced lyrics and cover art made the case an easy win for the band and label Geffen, but the incident ended up being some of the best press the record would get that year.
“Pinkerton wrote us saying, ‘Your album debuted very nicely on the charts, thanks to all the free press,'” Bell told The Toronto Star.
The lawsuit was just the beginning of an unfortunate string of events.
Despite Cuomo’s pre-apology to his fan club, the sexual nature of Pinkerton caught listeners off-guard. The harmless bespectacled guy who once pined for his Mary Tyler Moore had turned his attention to an 18-year-old Japanese fan. Lyrics like “I wonder what clothes you wear to school/I wonder how you decorate your room/I wonder how you touch yourself/And curse myself for being across the sea” were too strong of a reminder of the man behind the curtain.
“As a songwriter, the band’s singer and guitarist, Rivers Cuomo, takes a juvenile tack on personal relationships,” wrote Rolling Stone critic Rob O’Connor.
“Throughout Pinkerton, he pines for all the girls he can’t have, the girls he can have but shouldn’t, the girls who are no good for him and the girls about whom he just isn’t sure.”
Lukewarm reviews rolled in. Both the record and lead single “El Scorcho” peaked at Number 19 on the charts, but fizzled out from there. Sales continued to slump as Geffen made two more efforts at finding a hit single. The poppiest track available, “The Good Life,” peaked at 32, while “Pink Triangle,” a tale of one boy’s unrequited love of a lesbian, failed to chart at all. Rolling Stone readers declared Pinkerton the third worst album of the year. The record was dead in the water.
“You [would] never know [the album was performing poorly] from the shows. That tour was great,” Koch recalled to Alternative Press.
Despite a successful corresponding tour, morale was low and tensions were high. Cuomo’s resentment for his creation was palpable. The biggest blow came in July of 1997: Weezer friends and fan-club founders Mykel and Carli Allan, along with their youngest sister Trysta, were killed in a devastating car wreck following one of the band’s shows. The breaking point had been reached; Weezer wrapped up all contractual obligations and went on hiatus.
“Everybody hated it. 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,” Cuomo told Entertainment Weekly of Pinkerton in 2001.
“It’s a hideous record. … It was such a hugely painful mistake that happened in front of hundreds of thousands of people and continues to happen on a grander and 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 realizing what a complete fool you made of yourself.”
After the initial Pinkerton fallout, Weezer splintered. Frustrated by Cuomo’s unwillingness to get back to work, guitarist Brian Bell refocused on his previous band Space Twins, while drummer Patrick Wilson followed suit with his band Special Goodness. Rumors began to circulate about the reclusive frontman’s well-being, a situation that seemed to echo the fate of one of Cuomo’s own idols, Brian Wilson.
“I became more and more isolated. … I unplugged my phone. I painted the walls and ceiling of my bedroom black and covered the windows with fiberglass insulation,” Cuomo confirmed in The New York Times in 2006.
Meanwhile, bassist Matt Sharp’s band the Rentals was still thriving, following their debut Return of the Rentals. Though what transpired between him and Cuomo has never been made clear, Sharp officially announced his departure from Weezer in April of 1998.
“I don’t really know how to speak on this because I don’t know what should be kept private and what should be shared. I certainly have my view of it, as I’m sure everybody else has their sort of foggy things. When you have a group that doesn’t communicate, you’re going to have a whole lot of different stories,” Sharp told Alternative Press of his final days with the band.
Weezer wouldn’t return to the studio until late 2000 – this time with Mikey Welsh on bass. By then, music consumption had undergone a huge change. The Internet was now a hub of forums and illegal file sharing. Mainstream emo was also finding its way into the cultural zeitgeist and the genre’s stars – Jimmy Eat World, Saves the Day and Dashboard Confessional – all seemed to be citing Weezer as their biggest influence. Pinkerton had become an underground sensation lovingly rescued largely by teens that looked up to Cuomo as their impassioned king of misfits.
“Not only is Pinkerton my favorite Weezer album, but one of my favorite overall albums of all time,” Motion City Soundtrack’s Justin Pierre would later tell Alternative Press. “It is messy, ugly and raw. It’s full of pain, humor, and brutal honesty. Let me put it this way: If Weezer were the movie Rudy, Pinkerton would be like playing for Notre Dame.”
Cuomo, however, didn’t embrace the resurgence.
“The most painful thing in my life these days is the cult around Pinkerton,” Cuomo told Rolling Stone in 2001.
“It’s just a sick album, sick in a diseased sort of way. It’s such a source of anxiety because all the fans we have right now have stuck around because of that album. But, honestly, I never want to play those songs again; I never want to hear them again.”
In May of 2001, Weezer released another self-titled record, the so-called Green Album. In a nod to their debut, the cover art mirrored that of the Blue Album and Ric Ocasek was back on production duties. The first single, “Hash Pipe,” was an instant smash. The band had scored another platinum hit.
With squeaky-clean power pop and impersonal lyrics, the Green Album was considered the anti-Pinkerton, and Cuomo would spend much of the record’s press tour confirming just that with the media.
“This record is purely musical,” Cuomo proudly told Rolling Stone. “There’s no feeling, there’s no emotion.”
The ego boost that came with the Green Album’s success combined with years of meditation and the media’s willingness to bury the hatchet seemed to help Cuomo heal old wounds. In 2002, Rolling Stone readers named Pinkerton the 16th greatest album of all time. Two years later, RS amended the original review of three stars to a full five out of five. Most significantly, Cuomo went on the record about finally making peace with his masterpiece in 2008.
“Pinkerton‘s great. It’s super-deep, brave and authentic. Listening to it, I can tell that I was really going for it when I wrote and recorded a lot of those songs,” Cuomo told Pitchfork in 2008.
In a plot twist fraught with irony, some longtime fans began lamenting the band’s latest efforts, begging for more Pinkerton and Blue Album–type material. This time, Cuomo gave the people what they wanted. In 2010, the band released a deluxe edition of Pinkerton and embarked on an international tour playing both the Blue Album and Pinkerton in their entirety. Fourteen years after its release, Pinkerton had finally gotten the recognition it deserved.
“The experience of learning those songs again, singing them every night, working on them with the guys, and then being in a relatively small venue with 1,000 of the most hardcore Weezer fans and hearing them sing every syllable, seeing them air drum all the fills – it was such an amazing experience. … So it was a great feeling of validation from the fans, for this album that was so personal to me and had been such a source of pain for years. To feel loved and accepted for this very honest part of myself was inspiring,” Cuomo told Pitchfork in 2015.
Since then, Weezer has released two more records: 2014’s aptly titled Everything Will Be Alright in the End, and this year’s self-titled White Album. Both received critical praise for harking back to the band’s “old” sound. Pinkerton has become the gold standard for Weezer records, with each new release held up against what initially seemed like a career-ending flop.
On September 16th, 2016 – just eight days shy of its 20th anniversary – Pinkerton was certified platinum, capping the surreal saga of an album that took the better part of two decades to move from embarrassing to essential.