Pinkerton Turns 20
Earlier this year, the record subscription service Vinyl Me, Please released a special vinyl reissue of Weezer’s landmark sophomore album Pinkerton, and Stereogum’s Tom Breihan wrote the digital liner notes. With Pinkerton celebrating its 20th anniversary tomorrow, and with Vinyl Me Please’s cooperation, we’re reprinting Breihan’s piece below.
Madame Butterfly, Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera, tells the story of one B.F. Pinkerton, and of all the damage he wreaks. As the play opens, Pinkerton, an American naval officer, marries a 15-year-old Japanese girl. She’s there, he’s horny, and, at least as far as he’s concerned, that’s the end of it.
The first chance he gets, Pinkerton takes himself back across the sea to marry a nice American girl. Meanwhile, Ciocio-san, his abandoned wife, waits and pines for him, refusing to believe that Pinkerton would really leave her behind, or that he’ll never meet the son that he doesn’t know he’s helped to conceive. When she finally learns of his absolute betrayal — when Pinkerton and his new wife are arriving to bring that abandoned son back to America with them — Ciocio says her goodbyes and slashes her own throat. The opera ends with Ciocio bleeding out on the floor, and with a regret-wracked Pinkerton kneeling over her body.
B.F. Pinkerton, then, is a real piece of shit, the type of literary figure who leaves devastation in his wake because he never stops to consider the consequences of his actions. And when Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo sat down to write the second album from his suddenly-huge alt-rock quartet, he saw so much of himself in Pinkerton that he more or less wrote a concept album about how they were the same guy. (Pinkerton, the album, was not, in fact, named after the historically feared union-busting detective agency, though that agency did attempt to sue to keep the band from releasing the album under that title.) There was nothing cool or romantic or even interesting about B.F. Pinkerton, and it takes a real damaged soul to look at him and say to itself, “That’s me. I’m him.” But that’s where Rivers Cuomo was in that singular, strange moment.
Weezer’s self-titled debut, the album that’s near-universally known as the Blue Album now, would’ve been a cultish curio if it had come out in any year other than 1994. It’s easy to spin an alternate reality, one where this collection of fuzzy pop-pop hooks and free-associative lyrical fancies would’ve spent years moldering in cutout-bin disrepute. In that alternate reality, maybe a few die-hards discover it and spend those years lamenting the idea that an album so clean and precise and interesting couldn’t get the recognition it deserved. Maybe, a few years after its release, a few critics write a few glowing retrospectives on it. Maybe a few ascendant bands cite it as an influence. Maybe, in other words, it follows that old Big Star trajectory, finding its audience years after its creators moved on and accepted their fate.
But that wasn’t what happened to the Blue Album. 1994 was a weird time, and the Blue Album was one of the great beneficiaries of that weirdness. Just a few years earlier, the bands breaking through to suburban teenagers were the poodle-haired glam rockers, the ones who looked at makeup-era Kiss and tried to figure out how to become them. Cuomo loved makeup-era Kiss, too, but he never imagined being that. Instead, he sang about Peter Criss’ cat-faced visage staring down at him while he played Dungeons & Dragons in his garage. And because 1994 was so weird, that suddenly seemed like a much cooler thing to be.
The Blue Album landed mere weeks after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, when the notion of alt-rock had captured the collective imagination of suburban America but when people were still struggling to figure out what that meant. Without Cobain, the whole enterprise seemed rudderless. And so it’s easy to imagine America’s rock-radio programmers staring at the blank-faced schlubs on the Blue Album’s cover, or hearing the giddy but laser-precise hooks on its Ric Ocasek-produced singles, and shrugging to themselves: “Sure, these guys.”
The Blue Album is a great rock record, clear and fun and hooky and enormous-sounding, but with enough vulnerable openness to scan in a brave new ambition-is-uncool-now world. Cuomo and his band hadn’t come up through the same underground-rock channels as many of their peers, and so they never got the critical respect instantly granted to, say, Beck. But their songs were bright and grand and undeniable. Their Spike Jonze-directed videos were inventive and goofy and self-mocking. Cuomo wrote lyrics that eighth-graders had fun yelling at each other in the lunchroom. (I know; I was there.) And all of a sudden, Weezer were arena-rock stars, with three hit singles and a multi-platinum album to their name.
Cuomo, naturally, had no idea what to do with all that attention. A loner-craftsman type, Cuomo had grown up on a Connecticut ashram and, as a kid, tried his hand at prog-metal. He was barely in his mid-20s when Weezer hit, and his lyrics on the Blue Album paint him as a solitary-loner type, albeit one with the sort of omnivorous pop-cultural fixation that was so in vogue in the early ’90s. So the DGC contract must’ve come as a surprise. The chance to work with Ocasek must’ve come as a surprise. And when he found sudden, near-overnight rock stardom? That sure as fuck must’ve come as a surprise.
Upon finding that fame, Cuomo promptly freaked the fuck out. He enrolled at Harvard, studying classical composition. He tried to write a sci-fi-themed rock opera that would’ve destroyed his band’s commercial prospects just as clearly as Pinkerton eventually did. He went through a long and painful surgical procedure, getting his shorter left leg extended so that it would be the same length as his right. He went through some things.
Legend has it that Cuomo went to Harvard because he’d found that rock stardom didn’t agree with him. He was meeting hundreds upon hundreds of people and having meaningless interactions with them. He was spending long hours jammed up in a tour bus with his bandmates. He was answering the same questions in the same ways in interview after interview. His entire mid-’90s existence sounds like an introvert’s nightmare. And Harvard sounds like it wasn’t much better.
Picture it: You’re 25 and famous and uncomfortable. You’re laid up in bed in this freezing Northeastern university, your leg in constant pain. You don’t talk to the kids around you, because what the fuck are you going to say to them? An 18-year-old suburban math whiz is not going to have a whole lot to say to the grown-up rock star weirdo who sits next to him in lecture hall. You have big ideas about where you want to go with your new album, but then you end up giving them up because your bass player’s side-project album got to some of those same Devo-damaged ideas first. (The Rentals’ Return Of The Rentals — it’s a good one.) You’ve already seen your rock-star dreams come true, and they’ve done nothing for you. You’ve had a ton of random sex, and it’s brought you no joy. You want to create something great and fall in love and become a grown-up, and you have no fucking idea how any of that might happen. Maybe that’s how you end up writing an album like Pinkerton.
Pinkerton opens with “Tired Of Sex.” It’s a song about being tired of having sex. This is either a deeply self-aware way to open an album, or it’s one that evinces absolutely no self-awareness whatsoever. Maybe it’s both. Consider that Weezer were a band with a largely teenage fanbase — a fanbase full of awkward half-children dreaming of the day that maybe they’d get to have some fucking sex already. Consider how a song like “Tired Of Sex” might’ve sounded to them. I remember sitting there with the album’s lyric sheet, wondering whether Cuomo was joking or what, deciding that this was some grown-up irony that was way over my head. It wasn’t. “Tired Of Sex” was about as literal as it gets.
Consider, too, that the ’90s were the first decade in the entire history of rock music when it wasn’t considered cool to have sex with tons of random women, to brag about it whenever possible. Cuomo wasn’t just acknowledging that he was doing this stuff. He was saying that he was doing this stuff even though he wasn’t enjoying it. It’s the sort of thing you can imagine someone thinking but never saying out loud, except maybe in therapy. But Cuomo wasn’t just saying it out loud. He was singing it, in plain and concrete terms, on a much-anticipated follow-up to a massive hit album. He was just coming right out with it.
Pinkerton is full of moments of uncomfortable realness like that, sentiments maybe only expressed in drunken, instantly regretted voicemails. On “Pink Triangle,” Cuomo pitches a fit upon learning that a girl is gay and that she’s just not going to be attracted to him. On “Getchoo,” he seems to admit to straight-up not-metaphorical-at-all physical abuse: “Sometimes I push too hard / Sometimes you fall and skin your knee.” On “Why Bother?,” he throws up his arms at the sky and gives up on the idea of romantic love completely, figuring that he’s doomed to constant heartbreak and that it’s not even worth it to try finding happiness.
On an album full of fraught, damaged moments, the most fraught and damaged is probably “Across The Sea,” Cuomo’s song about a teenage Japanese girl. Cuomo has said that he wrote the song after getting a fan letter from this kid and “falling in love” with her. He smells and licks the envelope, and he imagines her masturbating while listening to him. He wishes he was with her, there, in Japan, but then he makes it even weirder: “I could never touch you / I think it would be wrong.” And when you consider the album’s title and its backstory, things get even ookier: He is fantasizing about ruining this girl’s life. On the acoustic album closer “Butterfly,” he even ponders the aftereffects of this ruination. The LP’s last words: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Cuomo sounds like a creep on “Across The Sea,” and he knows it. Pinkerton is, among other things, an exploration of that creepiness, an interrogation of it. The Asian-girl fetishization runs through the entire album, right down to its most quotable line: “Goddamn you half-Japanese girls/ You do it to me every time,” the opening ejaculation from the single “El Scorcho.” And the whole time, Cuomo sings with the strained intensity of someone who knows his desires are fucked up, someone who’s going to torture himself about his bad decisions but keeps making those decisions anyway.
But as dark and disturbed as Pinkerton might be, it’s not a dirge. It’s a bright-but-damaged rock album, one full of expert hooks and pent-up energy. Cuomo’s lyrical cleverness, a huge part of the Blue Album’s success, is still very much in evidence on Pinkerton. He throws around allusions to Public Enemy, to a prospective date who’s never heard of Green Day, to girls with pet snakes. On “El Scorcho,” there’s fascinating nod to Extreme Championship, the upstart pro-wrestling league where cult-hero grapplers would slash each other open with barbed wires and staple guns. (The line is “watching Grunge legdrop New Jack through a press table.” Last year, the writer Ryan Glasspiegel attempted to pinpoint which match, exactly, Cuomo had been watching. Johnny Grunge has been dead for a decade now, but I asked the deathlessly bloodthirsty New Jack about the line when I profiled him for Grantland last year. New Jack knew about “El Scorcho,” and he didn’t care.)
Musically, there’s a real sense of exhilaration to Pinkerton. The band plays fast and sloppy, producing themselves and keeping a minimal-overdub, live-room intensity. The raw immediacy stands in stark contrast to the bright polish of the Blue Album and to pretty much everything the band has recorded since. The hooks are as big and silly as the ones on the Blue Album, but they’re also distorted and wrecked. There are peals of feedback and yelpy out-of-tune backing vocals. A young Dave Fridmann, still a few years away from producing the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, was one of the album’s recording engineers, and maybe he’s responsible for its in-the-red harshness, a sound he’d bring to Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods a decade later. Whatever the case, it’s a fascinating sonic document, a case of a polished power-pop group attempting to play like the basement punks that they never really were.
The ’90s saw the release of plenty of difficult follow-up albums, LP-length freakouts from artists not sure what to do with their sudden fame. In most cases, those follow-ups were nearly as beloved as the albums that preceded them. In Utero might not have sold the way Nevermind did, but it sure didn’t make Nirvana less popular. If anything, it granted them a new sense of credibility — at least until Cobain killed himself and turned it into a retrospectively tragic epistle. For a while there, the difficult follow-up album worked as a signal that an artist was serious.
That’s not what happened with Pinkerton. Even for those of us who loved the Blue Album, the Weezer of 1994 felt more like a fun novelty than a band capable of making something deep and cutting. So when Pinkerton came along, the world wasn’t ready to hear it. Nobody wanted to hear about the dementedly guilty desires of the guy who sang “Buddy Holly.” Pinkerton more or less sank without a trace. It debuted at #19 on the Billboard charts and never got any higher. The band opted not to make any more clever, theatrical videos, and the intentionally low-concept “El Scorcho” and “The Good Life” never caught on at MTV. Critics shrugged. The band toured on Pinkerton for a little while and then more or less broke up. Cuomo went back to Harvard and licked his wounds. It’s hard to imagine anyone thought an album this lyrically and musically discomfiting would hit the way the Blue Album did, but Cuomo still felt rejected by the album’s critical and commercial failure. He played occasional solo shows around Boston but otherwise disappeared from public life for years.
For a while there, if people even thought about Pinkerton, it was in the context of a previously established sophomore-slump narrative. A once-promising band had overplayed its hand, alienated its fans, and doomed itself to oblivion. But over the next few years, something funny happened. Pinkerton became a sort of word-of-mouth totem. It gained stature in Weezer’s absence, becoming the sort of thing that the kids who’d once dismissed it slowly came to embrace.
It’s hard to trace the hows and the whens of Pinkerton’s emergence as a cult favorite. We don’t keep statistics on this sort of thing, and I don’t know how we even would. I can only speak to my own circumstantial experience. Two years after Pinkerton’s release, I went away to college and slowly, gradually noticed Pinkerton showing up near the top of the CD piles stacked up on my friends’ desks and bedside tables. With the guys who were active in my local hardcore scene, Pinkerton was pretty much the one non-hardcore album in everyone’s heavy rotation. You’d be hanging out in somebody’s apartment, and there it would be, sandwiched between Earth Crisis and American Nightmare, staring back at you.
Weezer had never claimed any connection to the punk rock underground, and yet they suddenly belonged there, in a weird way that they’d never intended. Things were changing in punk. “Emo” had been a dirty word for years, but a new wave of open, vulnerable, tuneful punk bands was gaining steam. Maybe Weezer had been an influence, or maybe the Promise Ring and Saves The Day were finding their own way onto that same aesthetic spectrum. Either way, by the time Weezer reassembled in 2001, Pinkerton made a whole lot more sense in a cresting emo revival than it ever had in the context of 1996 alterna-rock radio. That year, I drove two and a half hours from Syracuse to Albany to see them on their comeback tour. Emo darlings the Get Up Kids opened. The stage was made up to look like a high school gym on homecoming-dance night. At the climactic final chorus of the set-closing Blue Album nugget “Surf Wax America,” glittery confetti showered the audience. Every punk kid I knew from school was in the room, howling along. It was a big night. Weezer had a lot of big nights that year.
And they were having those big nights largely because of an album that they could no longer stand. Cuomo said that the new love for Pinkerton made him sick. The album embarrassed him. He was in the process of turning Weezer into what it is now, a precise and efficient hook-machine. Pinkerton was, to him, a galling misstep, a very loud and very public fuckup. “It’s a sick album, sick in a diseased sort of way,” he said. “Honestly, I never want to play those songs again; I never want to hear them again.”
Of course, he didn’t stop playing those songs. And years later, he even came to embrace them. Weezer reissued Pinkerton and played it in full every night on tour. Last year, he turned his dark Harvard years into a sitcom pilot, though sadly no network picked it up. Maybe Cuomo found his peace with Pinkerton as it faded further into the distance. These days, he’s a middle-aged professional, a husband and a father. Those of us who clung to the album during our own darker days may have moved on, too. But when you throw on Pinkerton, it still smarts. There’s an uncalculated, open-wound immediacy to the album, a painful reminder like the drunk texts that you might keep saved on your phone, just to remind yourself never to send anything like that again. Pinkerton was a bad idea at the time, and it holds up as a great idea now. And maybe, 92 years after its release, some kid will hear the same things in it that Cuomo once heard in Madame Butterfly. Maybe some disturbed young star will write an album called Cuomo.