There's a long pause--20, maybe 30 seconds. Maybe longer. Rivers Cuomo, Weezer's notoriously press-shy front man, is in Tulsa, a couple of hours before his band is set to take the stage at the legendary Cain's Ballroom, "the house that Bob"--Wills, that is--"built." The doors have just opened, and the sell-out crowd is slowly trickling in, staking out its turf for Weezer's set. Tonight's opening band, Dynamite Hack, is just a formality, like every other group with whom Weezer has played on this tour, the soundtrack to a thousand sweaty fans swinging elbows and kicking ankles--jockeying for position in anticipation of the main event. They are nothing.
While the fans file in, some of them just managing to stave off tears, Cuomo is on the phone, wondering what has brought them all here. And wondering. And wondering. If not for the occasional uhs and ahs he sighs into the receiver, the beginnings and ends of a handful of responses, the line would appear to be dead. More than half a minute after the question was posed, he hits upon an answer.
"I have no idea how it happened," Cuomo says, finally. Then adds with a laugh, "But I hope we don't screw it up by playing again."
A few nights later, at Deep Ellum Live, the scene repeats itself, as it has since Weezer hit the road in June for the first time in almost four years. Lines of fans wrap around all sides of the venue like a moat made of ringer T-shirts and Chuck Taylors. Many of them are eyeing the tour bus parked at the curb, hoping for a brush with drummer Pat Wilson, guitarist Brian Bell, bassist Mikey Welsh, maybe even Cuomo if they're lucky. A few of them linger on the corner, hopefully asking any and all passersby if they happen to have an extra ticket they wouldn't mind parting with. Some wait optimistically near the box office, just in case.
For others, favors have been called in and bank accounts have been emptied for the chance to attend tonight's performance. The $15 tickets were worth 10 times that much during the frantic final days leading up to the concert, since the show sold out in about the same amount of time it took to type this paragraph. Not a single person is complaining, however. They're just glad to be here, regardless of the price or the fact that, more than likely, Weezer will be back in town early next year, around the time it's long-long-awaited third album hits stores. Well, that's the plan anyway.
"It's just bananas," says Karl Koch, a longtime friend/roommate/roadie of the band, considered by most to be the fifth member of Weezer. He's seen the phenomenon up close for the past four months. "They are so happy to be going to these shows, it's like mini-Beatlemania every day."
For many of the people here, it is as if the Beatles had reunited, since Weezer has, for the most part, been together in name only since 1996's Pinkerton came and went, touring for a couple of months in 1997 before going their separate ways. (The band last appeared in Dallas--again, at Deep Ellum Live--on December 18, 1996.) A sold-out date was a given in Dallas, seeing as how it's home to Weener, the cover band that could win a Pepsi challenge against the real thing. "If 500 people come out to see us," Weener singer-guitarist Jason Weisenburg said before the show, sitting at a table at the Angry Dog, "of course a thousand people are going to come out for Weezer."
Which they did. Dynamite Hack left the stage after its lackluster set to a loud cheer, if only because they were leaving, finally. Now that the fans had no reason to even pretend to be polite, they were piling on top of each other at the foot of the stage, pushing and shoving and yelling, "Weeee-zer! Weeee-zer! Weeee-zer! Weeee-zer! Weeee-zer! Weeee-zer! Weeee-zer! Weeee-zer!" Then, all of a sudden, the house lights dropped, and there they were, fanned out beneath a brightly lit, over-sized version of the familiar winged-W logo.
"My name is Jonas," Cuomo sang, though you could barely hear him thanks to the deafening cheer that erupted as soon as Bell started picking out the song's first few notes. Except for when the band played four new songs in the middle of the set ("Mad Kow," "Too Late to Try," "Peace and Quiet," and "Superstar"), the cheering didn't die down until well after "Surf Wax America," the last song of the night. For the rest of the show, Weezer was accompanied by several hundred backup singers. When Cuomo dropped a word, a hundred other voices picked it up.
But the question remains: Why? Why has Weezer's popularity endured--expanded exponentially, in fact--even though it has been on the sidelines since 1997? It's not as if that many people care what happened to Nada Surf and Nerf Herder, two of the bands that tried, and succeeded briefly, to use Weezer's blueprint. Of course, they learned quickly that even if you have the right plans, it won't work without the right parts. Nada Surf was only "Popular" for about five seconds, and Nerf Herder's "Van Halen" might as well have been called "In the Garage...Again"--too close to the source to pass for inspired-by, and not done well enough to count as homage. Both exist, just barely, on the fringes, waiting for Weezer's comeback so they can make one of their own.
It's easy to remember a time when Weezer was almost a guilty pleasure, the band most likely to be found after the phrase "Now, don't laugh, but...." Not that there was anything to laugh at, necessarily, but far too many people had written off the band as a novelty, a one-trick, one-hit wonder. Too many only saw the clever Spike Jonze videos and missed everything else, lost the band somewhere amid a studio full of barking dogs ("Undone--The Sweater Song") and a dancing Arthur "Fonz" Fonzarelli ("Buddy Holly"). And hey, in most of those people's defense, it is hard to take anything involving Henry Winkler seriously.
The problem is, those singles were only the shallow end of a very deep record. Listen to the epic "Only in Dreams"--seven minutes of rock-and-roll catharsis. Or "The World Has Turned and Left Me Here," or, "No One Else," a song with a guitar riff that makes a smile start in your stomach. It was a soundtrack for freaks and geeks, by freaks and geeks. And Pinkerton was even better, stripped of anything even remotely resembling kitsch, revealing the heart of every great record: wanting the girl you can't have. Cuomo's lyrics made it seem like it was happening all over again every time you heard them, and the music backed it up, with guitars that sounded like frayed nerves and heart palpitations subbing for the rhythm section. It's a raw record, in every sense of the word.
But it isn't just the songs that have kept the fans hanging around--even though the 20 songs on Weezer and Pinkerton and the handful of others that popped up as B-sides and on soundtracks are great, a barbershop quartet backed by the Cars, jamming on Pixies tunes, an exhilarating combination of '60s pop, '70s rock, and '80s new wave. It's not that, or at least, not only that. It is the sense of This Could Be You that comes from the band, the idea that these four guys aren't that far removed from the people in the audience. Or removed at all, for that matter. The members of Weezer are tennis racket-in-hand, air-guitar heroes come to life, the kids who used their desks and a couple of No. 2 pencils as a drum kit in math class, every suburban pizza-face practicing his scissors-kicks before even learning a barre chord. They were YOU, fans who had crossed over to the other side.
In Rivers Cuomo, all those kids who looked smart but only wanted to act stupid had found a patron saint, a four-eyed member of the KISS Army with his Dungeon Master's Guide, 12-sided die, Kitty Pride--and Nightcrawler too--waiting for him "In the Garage" right next to his guitar. They all saw themselves in Cuomo and Weezer, and they've been waiting a long time to tell him. Which scares Cuomo. At least a little bit.
"It seems like they're a little more"--he looks for the right word--"crazy now. Like, literally crazy." He laughs. "Kinda frightening. Like some of them might actually be dangerous. People following our bus and stuff." Cuomo admits it's been worth it, however. "It's been unbelievable," he continues. "Every show has been sold out, and everywhere we go, we've broken the record for merchandise sold in whatever venue we happen to be in. Just incredible audience response. It's pretty exciting. I like hanging out at home and doing nothing too." He laughs again. "But this...it's pretty OK."
The only thing the crowds have been disappointed by, if anything, is the set list. Weezer has stuck mainly to "the oldies," as Cuomo called them at Deep Ellum Live, songs from its 1994 self-titled debut (also known as "the blue album" because of its cover design), playing only a few--"Tired of Sex," "El Scorcho," and one or two others--from Pinkerton. Speaking with Cuomo, it's clear he is still licking his wounds caused by the album's comparative lack of success (while Weezer went platinum several times over, Pinkerton only managed to go gold). He thought he had hit on a sound that the world was waiting for, music he knew people would want--no, they'd need. When they didn't, he felt rejected. As Koch observed on the band's Web site, www.weezer.net, "He was simultaneously not giving a crap if it did well, and totally assuming that it would be enormous."
"I think I was surprised that it didn't do better than it did," Cuomo says, after another protracted silence. "Now it seems like, of course it wasn't going to do well. But..." He stops. "I was really excited. I thought we had something new and exciting, like a new kind of music. And...um...looking back at the time, that was right when people got excited about ska and swing music"--he spits out the two genres like curse words--"and maybe they didn't really want the brand new kind of music that we had to offer."
Many, however, did, and during the band's extended period of inactivity, that number rose steadily--you know, the whole "I told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on and so on" routine. They've been not-so-patiently waiting for the return of Weezer in the years since Pinkerton, and most of them have been waiting online, checking the band's Web site for anything qualifying as news, keeping the band's name alive via newsgroups and chat rooms and bulletin boards, trading live recordings on Napster. The band's strong Internet presence, as much as anything else, is responsible for the success of its recent tour. "I think it has to be," Cuomo agrees, before quickly adding, "We'd still be doing Weezer if the Internet crashed, or whatever. This is our fate."
Not so long ago, that didn't seem to be the case. In fact, it didn't look as though anyone wanted to be doing Weezer. Bassist Matt Sharp left in February 1998 to concentrate on his other band, The Rentals, and was eventually replaced by Mikey Welsh, who had played with Juliana Hatfield, among others. Brian Bell and Pat Wilson both spent more time with their own side projects, The Space Twins and Special Goodness, respectively. Cuomo was back in school--enrolled at Harvard, as he had been briefly between Pinkerton and Weezer in 1994--and playing sporadically in bars around Boston.
"I think maybe I did two," Cuomo says now, dismissing the heavily bootlegged gigs. "They weren't really solo; they were with other people. It was nothing"--his voice drops an octave--"serious at all. It was probably just a way to meet girls, really." And? "I think, probably, it did work," he says, laughing.
His decision to resume his scholastic career "was kinda stupid, in retrospect," Cuomo says, referring to how it brought any plans involving Weezer to a halt. More to the point, it was all for naught. "I think I have two semesters left, but I'm never going back. I was an English major, but I was just basically doing general ed. I don't know...it just seemed like fun. I really enjoyed it when I was there, but now, uh, I just don't want to go anymore."
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While Cuomo was writing English term papers, Bell and Wilson recorded and played around Los Angeles with their other bands. Wilson even took Special Goodness on the road, with Welsh joining the group on bass. The four of them regrouped in 1998, working on new Weezer songs on and off throughout the year, material that was later scrapped by Cuomo. Which seems to be a pattern: Cuomo says that since Pinkerton, the band has written "hundreds" of new songs, with only a dozen or so, apparently, still surviving. The rest will "turn up on Napster five years later," he jokes.
Now, finishing a tour that began on June 16 in Santa Barbara, Cuomo insists the band is ready to go into the studio and make another record, and the quartet of songs the band played at Deep Ellum Live bear him out. In particular, "Superstar," with guitars swiped from Rick Nielsen, sounds like the proper reintroduction to Weezer, with lyrics like, "I'm just a regular white guy/Who's afraid to rock so hard/I'd break my guard/And give myself away." The band has studio time booked at the end of October, though strangely, no one has agreed to produce the album yet. "We sent out our demo tape to a bunch of producers, but most of 'em turned us down," Cuomo says. "So we don't know yet. But we're gonna start in October regardless." The band's label, Interscope Records, maintains that no work on a new record will begin until a producer is chosen. So the waiting game begins again.
As for how a new record will sound, Cuomo says the new songs "are like one-third new, one-third Pinkerton, and one-third 'blue.' It still sounds like us, but it's a little different." He still sounds cautious about edging into the territory Weezer explored on Pinkerton, maybe a little gun-shy, even though Pinkerton is a better record, and as the years pass, more people agree with that sentiment. He doesn't want to be ahead of his time. All that means is more heartbreak.
Even hearing the phrase sends him into a fit of nervous laughter. "Well," he says, stifling a chuckle. "Hopefully our timing will be better next time."