Watching Grunge Leg Drop New Jack Through A Press Table: Pinkerton at 25
Reckoning with the complex legacy of the LP everyone thinks is the best Weezer album
Leslie Jones: “I’m just getting to know the neighbors. I’m just a little confused because real Weezer fans know that they haven’t had a good album since Pinkerton in 96’.”
Matt Damon: “Oh! Uh-oh. Looks like we got a purist in the house. All right, I’m going to have fun with this.” — Saturday Night Live, Weezer sketch, December 15, 2018
When Pinkerton was released on September 24, 1996, one certainly wouldn’t have expected it to be referenced in an SNL sketch 22 years later, and not just because SNL was only a year removed from almost getting axed by NBC.
VIDEO: SNL Weezer sketch
No, this was a case of a follow-up to a smash debut getting a lot of bewilderment and disappointment in response.
The first of the band’s self-titled albums, later named after the background colors on them, was released in 1994, a little over two years after they’d played their first show, opening for Dogstar, the musical footnote in that band’s bassist Keanu Reeves’ career.
The album, known as Blue, full of alternative arena rock and geeky power pop with the guitars turned up was a quadruple-platinum smash, with three hits — “Undone (The Sweater Song)”, “Buddy Holly” and “Say It Ain’t So.”
A year later, work started on the patented Difficult Second Album.
Pinkerton wasn’t even supposed to be the follow-up, but Cuomo scrapped his disaffected-with-sudden-fame, self-described rock opera based on Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” — which was hardly an obvious next step for a bunch of guys who’d inserted themselves winningly into the TV show “Happy Days” in the Spike Jonze-directed video for “Buddy Holly.”
AUDIO: Weezer Songs From The Black Hole (full album)
That “Black Hole” concept didn’t hold together, and the album was never released. Some songs came out as B-sides while others remained unheard until later Cuomo demos compilations were released.
The next move was to winnow it down, with Cuomo taking lyrics from his personal journals into an album exploring his own internal issues with isolation, success and relationship. The connection to “Madame Butterfly” was kept with the name of Pinkerton, the character Cuomo years later described as “a**hole American sailor similar to a touring rock star,” or, to be honest, a colonialist a**hole who marries an underage girl with the express intent of dumping her when he goes back to America, eventually ending in tragedy as his cruelty, wanting to take their son away from her to raise as “his” property, drives Butterfly to suicide.
The short story the opera was based on– written by John Luther Long — ends less tragically — Pinkerton and his new American wife arrive to take the child, only to find that Butterfly — who couldn’t go through with suicide — goes off with her son, leaving an empty house behind. Still, the arrogant Pinkerton is an awful abuser, entitled and cowardly. Hardly a “rock star”, no matter how much Pinkerton himself might think had the term existed in the 1800s.
AUDIO: Madame Butterfly full audiobook
It certainly says something about what was in Cuomo’s head in the mid-1990s that he looked at the character and thought, “That’s me”, or at least, “There’s that part of me.”
After a difficult mental and physical period (Cuomo had painful leg-lengthening procedures to go through and recover from), the album came together, self-produced after the band had worked with Ric Ocasek on Blue.
Knowing how different the album was lyrically, Cuomo seemed to sense the response coming as the release date approached. In a letter to the Weezer Fan Club in July, 1996, he said in part, ““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.”
The album arrived and the more personal and thornier it was, it flopped. First single “El Scorcho” just cracked the Alternative Top 20, the follow-up and most Blue-like “The Good Life” stalled at 32 and “Pink Triangle”–about an unrequited crush on a lesbian–failed to chart at all.
The album’s initial commercial failure didn’t stop the band, at least at first. They went into the studio to start work on the follow-up, but those sessions fell apart. It would be another two years, punctuated by Cuomo’s depressive seclusion, various other musical projects for band members and bassist Sharp’s departure, before they returned.
When they did with 2001’s Green, Cuomo didn’t mince words about what he thought about Pinkerton, telling Entertainment Weekly, “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.”
While Pinkerton is far from hideous, there was some truth in what Cuomo said back then. The album’s lyrics aren’t Pinkerton’s words, nor do they come off as Cuomo writing in character. Rather, Cuomo remakes the role of Pinkerton into a caricature of himself, or at least the worst parts of himself that emerged from those journals.
“Across the Sea,” the album’s fifth song, definitely induces a cringe now, as Cuomo, 26 when the album was released, writes a letter to an 18-year-old girl that comes across as rather predatory and fetishizing. Nasty stuff, indeed, especially knowing it was inspired by an actual fan letter.
Picture being 26 and your buddy, the same age as you, starts talking about this 18-year-old he’s grooming and how he talked to her about what she wears to school and how he wonders about how she touches herself. If your buddy set those thoughts to guitar, it’s not going to make you think, “Oh, that’s not creepy and off-putting at all now.”
“Pink Triangle” luckily managed not to be called “Friendzoned By Lesbian,” if only because the song’s protagonist never even approaches the woman. In a bit of restraint, Cuomo manages to stop short of thinking he can “convert” the object of his crush, only wondering “Everyone’s a little queer/Why can’t she be a little straight?” The key word is “object,” as the woman in the song exists solely for him to admire.
Cuomo at least possesses enough self-awareness to accept the truth of the song’s situation and not go full incel. One pictures the woman grateful that the creepy guy staring at her on campus disappeared. Well, at least that creepy guy.
Cuomo never goes as far as Pinkerton, the character. He thankfully knows following through on his worst impulses is something that can never happen and never should happen.
On the same album, the same writer, who on the “Blue” who sang about surfing, wanting to go on a fun holiday and the X-Men and Kiss posters in his garage is spending part of his time painting himself as some sort of lothario.
“Tired of Sex” opens the album and it’s basically listing off women’s names as he plans to sleep with one every night while yearning for something more long lasting. He’s not trying to come as Mr. Loverman, but he’s being quite literal in a song that could use irony.
Did I mention the fetishization? “El Scorcho” opens with the lyric, “Goddamn, you half-Japanese girls. You do it to me every time,” for crying out loud. Sure, the album is taking its cues from the predatory character who doesn’t care who he hurts, including the Japanese girl he views as disposable, but, again, personal journals.
VIDEO: Weezer “El Scorcho”
Honestly, there are enough other pop-culture references in the song (Green Day, Public Enemy and pro wrestling) that, coupled with the verse music that played like a Pavement piss take — that at the time, isolated from the album, I thought it was a reference to the band Half Japanese.
And despite all that most memorable thing about the song, despite the wince-inducing opening, turned out to be that earworm chorus tailor made for possibly inebriated singalongs at concerts.
Indeed, while Pinkerton’s production is less-polished than Blue, it has moments and the roughness suits the material. The band — guitarist Brian Bell, bassist Matt Sharp and drummer Patrick Wilson still provides the rocking backdrop for wherever Cuomo’s obsessions go and Cuomo still has his knack for hooks.
“The Good Life” is one of his best songs, it has a chorus that sticks with lyrics with the mix of longing and irony with the realization that by being so isolated, the pendulum had swung too far the other way. It would have been a better choice for a first single.
“Falling For You” is the closest Pinkerton comes to a love song, as Cuomo is singing about having something that feels real, that isn’t a crush or TMI, a soon to be on one of those old episodes of Dateline with Chris Hanson level of oversharing. And it’s catchy in the chorus, natch.
The character in “Getchoo” plays like the louder sibling to the abuser in Blue’s “No One Else,” albeit with a better hook though, sadly, without the sequencing comeuppance that first character received in “The World Has Turned And Left Here.”
The more vulnerable “Why Bother” is probably the most Blue-like song here. which is a compliment.
It all wraps up with the acoustic Big Star-esque “Butterfly,” in which there’s no real emotional reckoning for the disreputable narrator, as there was none for Pinkerton in either the short story or the opera.
VIDEO: Weezer at the Bizarre Festival in Cologne, Germany August 1996
The commercial fates might have left Pinkerton adrift, but as with home video that allowed box office disappointments to find their audience that they didn’t find in theaters, the growing internet led to Pinkerton finding one.
A number of emo and pop punk bands started to express their admiration for it. There was a growing audience wanting Weezer’s return and Cuomo was getting into a better headspace.
Shows returned in 2000, with new material that promised a good third record that was certainly not going to be Pinkerton 2.
That material, which came to be known as “Summer Songs”, only had three songs make it to the band’s proper albums although Cuomo later assembled ten of them and gave them to a website for fans to download for free.
Green, when it came out was all hook, polish and impersonal, lacking Pinkerton’s distinctiveness, for better and worse. It brought the band back to platinum status, thanks to “Hash Pipe” and “Island in the Sun” being hits.
Weezer’s steadily been going ever since (seven albums in the last seven years), albeit with inconsistent quality.
Some moments approach what they do best — much of Everything Will Be Alright in the End and parts of the White Album, for starters.
But, oh, the worst, led by the karaoke waste of the self-titled Teal album, which is basically the musical equivalent of Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. There’s also the ongoing self-consciousness that shows up too often, as when Cuomo’s attempts to sound up-to-date with more current pop trends have him coming off like rock’s version of the Steve Buscemi GIF saying, “How do you do, fellow kids?”
Pinkerton turned into a cult hit, eventually going platinum in 2016. Cuomo himself, no longer disavows the album, buoyed by the appreciation of the fanbase and by being able to have enough distance from being in the headspace he was in when he created.
These days Cuomo’s too much of a craftsman and the band is good enough that there’s always hope that Weezer can get on a roll, producing an album that, sorry, Matt Damon’s character in that SNL sketch, approaches its best work, which came earliest.
Just not another Pinkerton, though. I don’t think anyone needs that kind of oversharing, least of all Cuomo. He’s a married dad in his 50s. The time for snapshots tinged with his self-described “mean, sexist nasty stuff” and identifying too much with Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton is past. He knows it. Thank goodness.
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