20 year’s after it’s initial release, Getintothis’ Martin Summerfield takes a look back at Weezer’s Pinkerton, and why he remembers it so fondly.
Mention Weezer to anybody and you’ll either hear somebody singing “oh wee-ohhh, I look just like Buddy Holly” or the “pip pip” of Island in the Sun, but Pinkerton occupies a very strange place in the band’s discography. It didn’t light up the charts upon release, but it did later accrue a cult appreciation that persists to this day.
Anecdotally many fans (myself included) see it as Weezer’s last good album – more personal than The Blue Album and less safe pop pandering of The Green Album. It’s Weezer’s equivalent to the REM album, Green – it’s dark, funny, and personal, and it speaks to who I was at the time, a disaffected adult who was terrible at relationships and desperately searching for meaningful connections whilst friendships at home were atrophying.
It’s apposite that I was first introduced to the album getting a lift home from one of my erstwhile friends on a drive home, and something just clicked when Rivers Cuomo singing “Why can’t I be making love come…true!” blared out of the windows of his boxy Ford Escort.
Pinkerton came at an odd moment in River Cuomo’s life, it was the result of an abandoned rock opera project called Songs From the Blackhole, he was studying at Harvard following the success and touring of The Blue Album, and he was recovering from extensive leg surgery and physiotherapy to make both his legs the same length, hopped up on painkillers.
Instead of a rock opera, we instead received an incredibly intimate audio autobiography about a difficult period in Rivers’ life in which he was trying to legitimise his life of being a rockstar by studying music at Harvard and to reconcile himself with a normal life only to end up spending his first semester laid up and isolated – neither living the life of a rockstar or a normal social life.
“Well, I was overjoyed to be at Harvard. I was craving mental stimulation for about a year and a half leading up to that point, being on the road. Touring in a van and just feeling like I was wasting my life. To go back to college was so exciting to me. And on top of that, to be Harvard! Just the greatest place in the world for me to be. I was quite excited. I was pretty isolated living on my own. And I couldn’t drive, because my leg was all jacked up. Socially, I was kind of retreating into a shell after the shock of being in the spotlight in ’94 when our film was released.” – Cuomo talking to Rolling Stone, November 02 2010
Perhaps what I connect most with is the autobiographical nature of Pinkerton, and that although we obviously both went to different universities in different times, the themes of loneliness, disconnection and trying to escape the feeling of being trapped are universal.
Rivers, by his own admission, felt trapped in the routine of living on the road, and “playing the same 10 songs every night,” and going from playing to crowds of people to just being alone in his room. Even the album cover hints at this isolation and feeling of being burned out, with its bleak and stark imagery of mountainside houses covered in snow.
The album cover is a ukiyo-e print, specifically Kambara yoru no yuki (“Night snow at Kambara”). The definition of ukiyo-e is “pictures of a floating world.” Ukiyo is a Buddhist concept, that originally suggested the sadness (uki) of life (yo), so it is a fitting choice for the dark and bleak themes contained within the album, it hints at hibernation, of involuntary hermitude and of bitter realities hiding beneath the pure snow.
I never felt a connection to the singles, El Scorchio or The Good Life – how they were both chosen as singles over Tired of Sex, Across the Sea or Why Bother? I don’t know – if anything they’re the epitome of middle-of-album tracks. They’re not terrible, but they’re hardly stand out on an album with such highlights.
The one exception to this is the hilarious and sad dissection of a man with a broken gaydar, Pink Triangle. The song is a brilliant parody of a man who misses the obvious in his romantic pursuits when loneliness hits.
“I’m dumb, she’s a lesbian, I thought I had found the one, We were good as married in my mind, but married in my mind’s no good.”
I had terrible gaydar at uni, and I remember stupidly trying to chat a girl up whilst she was holding hands with her girlfriend, brilliantly oblivious to the obvious, whilst a friend in the background was desperately mouthing “no!” and waving her hands at me. Whenever I think of Pink Triangle, I think of this memory and have a good laugh about just how wilfully dumb I was and as a reminder not to fool myself.
I remember a year later, me and the same friend going to Leeds Festival in 2002 and seeing Weezer in the middle of the day and being in the middle of what could possibly be described as the nicest moshpit in the world while we were all singing “Why bother?/It’s gonna hurt me/It’s gonna kill when you desert me?” It was my first fest, and I still maintain one of the best line-ups I’ve ever seen, and looking back at it, how in the name of Great Satan’s hairy balls did I miss Pulp?
Across the Sea also really resonated with me, as at the time I had a penpal who I was crushing on pretty hard, and it’s frighteningly easy to love in the abstract when you don’t have to commit to a real person with real faults, and wish that person inhabited the same geographical space as you when everyone else is just awful and romantic prospects are few and far between.
It’s also a song that returns back to the themes of romanticism of the Japanese – the album is after all named Pinkerton after an American sailor who falls in love with a Japanese woman named Butterfly, from the opera Madame Butterfly, Rivers called him an “asshole American sailor similar to a touring rock star.” This is an album about dissection as much as introspection, and Rivers Cuomo acting as a haruspex reading his own entrails in an attempt to find out who he is and where he can go from here.
Pinkerton is an important album because it was an album that almost broke the band. Matt Sharp left the band two years after it was released to underwhelming sales, and it would be another five years before the band would release another album; an album that was a radical departure from the intense and personal nature of Pinkerton in an attempt to recapture the light-hearted garage rock of The Blue Album.
The band themselves would only come to appreciate the Pinkerton much later, culminating in a reissue in 2010, recognising that although it was that difficult second album that it was formative and an important musical milestone in their career. Pinkerton was exactly the right album for me at the right time (I was 19) it was an album that was as awkward as I was that gave me something to empathise with at a time in my life when I most needed it.