WEEZER: Heart Songs
Capturing that magical moment when a young kid first falls in love with popular music is difficult for an artist to pull off in any medium. For my money, Cameron Crowe, a former rock critic as it would happen, really hit the bull’s eye in the scene from his autobiographical film, Almost Famous (2000)-when his thinly veiled alter ego, William Miller (Patrick Fugit), discovers a bag full of vinyl albums that his sister left under the bed before she ran off to see the world. One by one, young William/Cameron pulls the records out, running his hand over the artwork in an almost fetishistic way before finally settling on The Who’s Tommy, putting it on the turntable, dropping the needle into the groove and…well, many of you know the rest.
On its first self-titled release in 1994, Weezer attempts to portray a similar scene within a teenager’s inner sanctum. “I’ve got an electric guitar/I play my stupid songs/I write these stupid words/And I love every one,” sings guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and bandleader Rivers Cuomo. “In the garage, I feel safe/No one cares about my ways/In the garage, where I belong/No one hears me sing this song.” As a rock and roll bildungsroman, “In the Garage” is pretty great, but it’s more about the joy of learning to rock out than it is about the more universal experience of first discovering the magic of such sounds wafting over the radio. Now, 14 years and five albums later, Cuomo has at last crafted the musical equivalent of that scene in Almost Famous in a tune called “Heart Songs” from the sixth Weezer album, officially entitled Weezer (but inevitably soon to be known as “the Red Album” so as not to be confused with the 1994 debut, a.k.a. “the Blue Album,” or the 2004 Weezer, a.k.a. “the Green Album”).
“Gordon Lightfoot sang a song about a boat that sank in a lake/At the break of the mornin’ a Cat named Stevens found a faith he could believe in,” Cuomo sings. “Eddie Rabbitt sang about how much he loved a rainy night/ABBA, Devo, Benatar were there the day John Lennon died/Mr. Springsteen said he had a hungry heart/Grover Washington was happy on the day he topped the chart… These are my heart songs/They never feel wrong/And when I wake/For goodness’ sake/These are the songs I keep singin’.”
“Music hits you in a heavier way when you’re a kid, and that was what I was thinking back on-how I felt as a kid listening to the radio and records, going back as far as [Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the] Edmund Fitzgerald,'” Cuomo says of “Heart Songs.” Generally soft-spoken and interview-reticent, this is clearly a topic that hits close to home. “My family had a 45″ of that song, and I remember it used to just scare me to death. It was so spooky, and just shook the foundations of my soul.”
Did Cuomo ever stop to think that the band’s fan base-which has only grown larger and younger in the years since the group first emerged during the alternative-rock explosion-would be a bit confused by all of those now-dated pop-chart references? Or that, given their devotion to parsing the meanings and searching for multiple layers behind every word Weezer’s frontman writes, some listeners might actually run out and buy an Eddie Rabbitt record, however strange that seems in the new millennium? The musician laughs.
“No, I don’t think I did! That song…I’m just really writing in my own little world, writing the song to myself pretty much. I’m sure those names are going to mean something different to younger people than they are to me. Eddie Rabbitt will mean nothing to them…or mean something different. But I remember being 10 years old and loving ‘I Love a Rainy Night,’ and it just freaked me out! It can’t hit a younger person now the same way.”
Cuomo is selling himself short, because even if less ‘70s- and ‘80s-astute listeners can’t differentiate between Pat Benatar and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, to say nothing of Agnetha Åse Fältskog (that would be, respectively, the brunette and the blonde in ABBA, kids), I contend that the shift between the quiet, acoustic guitar-driven verses and the rousing, melodic choruses in “Heart Songs” is certain to connect with listeners on a deeper level that conveys exactly what he’s singing about. He pauses to consider that.
“Yeah, I always hope that works with my songs,” Cuomo says at last. “I just think ‘Heart Songs’ is a song that is very particular to me, and that someone who is a few years older or few years younger might not react to these songs the same way. They didn’t hear them at that certain time in their life.” On the other hand, “at some point in the songwriting process, I’m always trying to steer it back to where people can get something out of it. It usually starts with something very close to me, very personal, and then I make some effort to universalize it so people can relate. Not all the time; in some cases, I very consciously decide to keep it personal and specific…I think our album Pinkerton is very much like that.”
Ah, yes, Pinkerton, the 1996 album probably most beloved by hardcore Weezer fans, and the one that arguably offers the best insights into the “real” Cuomo and the power of his songwriting. Here it would be helpful to recap the history.