The Grass Is Always Greener For Rivers Cuomo

Both Weezer lead singer Rivers Cuomo, Class of ’98, and I have three semesters left to complete our Harvard undergraduate degrees. And here the similarities between us end. I can pacify my inner struggle between a desire for academic fulfillment and a desire for rock stardom with a few fantasies of packed arenas and haughty TRL appearances; for Cuomo the decision is far more difficult. Cuomo recently told SPIN in a recent interview, “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.” Still, no matter which side of the proverbial fence he lands on, the grass is always greener on the other.

In his teens, Cuomo was a self-described “metalhead” with prototypical teenage fantasies of rock star hedonism. He told Vox magazine in 1995, “When I was 15 and dreaming about being a rock star…I thought the whole point of it was to get chicks.” After high school graduation, Cuomo moved to Los Angeles to pursue success as a musician. At that time, academia seemed to be the furthest thing from his mind. Cuomo enrolled in college, but told Mean Magazine in 2000 that “I never actually went…basically it was a cover so I could tell my parents I was coming out here to ‘school,’ so they would pay my rent for a little while…It was a very irresponsible thing to do. And I highly recommend it for anyone who is desperately ambitious.”

Cuomo played with different bands until settling with Weezer. The band’s first release, the self-titled Weezer (Blue Album, was met with resounding success after its 1994 debut. Described by MTV as “refreshingly poppy,” Weezer’s upbeat sound, well-constructed harmonies and self-deprecating demeanor endeared to critics and fans alike who were left directionless after the death of grunge.

Despite the fact that Cuomo for all intents and purposes was a rock star by 1994, he was still apparently unfulfilled. He told SPIN, “I applied to Harvard a few months after our first record came out…I already realized I was going to get really bored and depressed on the road. We were playing in Boston, and so I was walking around and went by Harvard, and I was like, man, this place rules!”

I firmly believe that many academics dream of rock star hedonism. In terms of the reverse—rock stars who dream of monk-like academic celibacy—Cuomo appears to be the exception, not the rule. Still, fantasies of the core curriculum won out over the realities of adoring crowds, and Cuomo, having been accepted to Harvard, enrolled. Prior to his matriculation, he told Vox, “I really want to disappear, grow a beard, not talk to anyone, not make any friends…I just want to disappear and study.”

Cuomo seemed pleased with his newfound anonymity, at least temporarily. In a 1997 interview with the Boston Phoenix, Cuomo said,“It’s actually kind of cool…If I were going to a big state school or something, it would probably make studying much more difficult because I would be having too much fun reaping the advantages of being a star.” Still ivory-tower academia was not all that Cuomo had hoped. He told Guitar World that “as soon as I get in school, I’m lonely and miserable. Then I start writing.” In a February 8th phone interview with the Harvard Crimson, Cuomo tells me that “I guess that Pinkerton has the makings of a cold Cambridge winter. I miss Cambridge, but I can’t say that I miss the weather.” The songs that comprise Pinkerton, Weezer’s second album, document Cuomo’s inner debate between the desire for real life—on “Pink Triangle,” he sings about wanting to find the love of his life and “settle down”—and “The Good Life,” where he sings about his desire for “shaking booty, making sweet love all the night.” On “Across the Sea,” a lonely Cuomo becomes obsessed with an unknown Japanese fan who has written a letter “wanting to know all about me/ And my hobbies/ My favourite food/ And my birthday.” The irony of the song—that the fan would have no interest in knowing him as a person had she not come to know him as a rock star—is not unintentional. Cuomo was, as he told the L.A. Times in 2001, “writing and I was thinking and waiting and resting, just being patient.” Eventually music gained the upper hand once again, and he took an indefinite leave from Harvard.

Cuomo’s return to music and the good life of a rock star was fulfilling, at least temporarily. Recalling the band’s reception on their Vans Warped Tour in 2000, he told the L.A. Times that “I was practially in tears…After years of isolation and being 100% certain that no one cared about us anymore at all, then to step out in from of 20,000 people that are screaming their heads off because of us was really cool.”

Despite the wild success of Weezer’s new self-titled “Green Album,” Cuomo’s enthusiasm has tapered off. During our phone interview, he seems uninterested in discussing his fan base (“they could be the same as they were eight years ago, or they could have changed entirely…I don’t know; to me they’re just a sea of faces”), the band’s musical evolution (“I don’t like the term ‘evolution’…I guess we’ve changed”), or where the band fits into popular music today (“I don’t think we ‘fit in’ anywhere”). Cuomo denies being a full-fledged rock star. He tells me, “I guess I’m a rock star wannabe. It was always my understanding that rock stars get chicks…[I don’t].” In fact, the only thing he wants to discuss is Harvard. I ask him if he wants to come back. As recently as the summer of 2001, his response to this question was “Nope.” In an interview for the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue this summer, Cuomo said, “at a school like Harvard, every waking moment is spent doing what somebody else told you to do. As long as you do it well, you get you’re A’s and you feel good about life. Then after a while you get the same feeling that you get on drugs, like ‘Oh man, I’m just wasting my life away. I should be doing something productive.’” Still, Cuomo tells me that he is planning on coming back “next January or February…if they let me back in.” He tells me about his favourite class at Harvard, “Music 50, or 51, or 52…I can’t remember. Introduction to music theory with Professor Fisher. He didn’t believe that we should learn through books.”At the end of our conversation, I ask Cuomo if he has anything else to say. To my surprise, he ends with, “My time at Harvard was one of the best times of my life…the people were amazing—genuine, interesting, intelligent, humble, focused…” This is unexpected given the descriptions of his misery at Harvard in previous interviews, but Cuomo seems to have his sights set upon the greener pastures of the Yard once again.

The quote in tiny print on the liner notes for the Green Album seems to support this. Originally credited to Verdi, Cuomo told the BBC that the quote—“Torniamo all antico e sara un progresso”—loosely translates to “Let us return to old times and that will be progress.” For now, Cuomo wishes to return to old times—that is, until wannabe rockstardom comes calling again.

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