Weezer Pinkerton

Are Weezer’s Songs from the Black Hole the True ‘Pinkerton’?

Why won’t Weezer admit that the “embarrassing” unfinished Songs from the Black Hole rock opera are the rudiments of 1996’s (eventually) critically acclaimed ‘Pinkerton’?

Pinkerton
Weezer
DGC
24 September 1996

!No! Weezer! NO!! Where has Rivers Cuomo gone? What has he done? What has happened to Weezer?! WHERE ARE THE REAL WEEZER?!!”

  – Spencer Owen’s review of the Weezer (the Green album) for Pitchfork, 14 May 2001

This is Pinkerton in its truest form.

– YouTube user “Ziggy Startrucker,” May 2019, commenting on a bootleg version of Songs from the Black Hole

Chuck Klosterman wrote, in Eating the Dinosaur: “People are generally disappointed by Weezer albums.” It’s hard to put it more succinctly than that. This is the central fact of most Weezer fans’ fandom. What we talk about when we talk about Weezer, usually, is why we are angry at Weezer for essentially all the music they have made since roughly 1999, with the possible exception of the guitar intro to “Perfect Situation”. Those of us who loved Weezer before the 21st-century – and Lord knows we are legion – find it distressingly difficult to stop caring about the band, even though they keep making records we mostly do not love.

Questions of objectivity and aesthetics and nostalgia aside, there is a small army of people who really do believe— whether it’s right or not, whether it’s fair or not—that the Weezer of roughly 1994 to 1999 is ineffably way, way, way better than any iteration of the band since. Their music from that era is shot through with energy, passion, desire, anguish, and personality in ways that astonish upon every listen.

There’s no way for us to know whether we’d feel this way if Weezer hadn’t made albums like Make Believe (2005) or Raditude (2009) or Hurley (2010). These are just some of the Weezer albums their fans tend to find disappointing; there are too many to list. Frankly, we wouldn’t be as disappointed by Make Believe or Ratitude Hurley or if we didn’t know about Songs from the Black Hole, which is, for those of us who think rock music should be very loud, very sad, very sincere, and written and sung solely by 1994-era Rivers Cuomo, the ur-album.

And it was never released.

Of course, it’s true that this album cannot be as good as we believe it is. It is not actually an album, for one. A handful of songs were fully recorded for another record (Pinkerton, 1996, whose 25th anniversary is this September), and some emerged as B-sides. As a whole, it “exists” as a series of sketchily realized demos, fuzzily recorded, instruments sometimes badly played, with one vocalist rather unconvincingly singing all male and female roles. This makes it even more endearing, somehow, since we now know that the young Rivers Cuomo earnestly squonking on the clarinet on the “Longtime Sunshine” solo will be writing slick pop songs for teenagers.

Songs from the Black Hole can be described as both a concept album about fame and a sci-fi rock opera, both of which should raise red flags. The lyrics are not particularly good, especially considering that their author was, at the time he wrote them, studying English at Harvard. Sex is described as “boinking”. An important motif involves speculation about the size of a minor character’s genitals; we are reminded regularly of his “big thang” which is purported to be “extra huge.” (It is worth mentioning that this character is an astronaut.)

The album, as it were, ends with almost laughably melodramatic pathos, as the protagonist completes a possibly heroic, possibly selfish suicidal mission by (spoiler alert) driving a spaceship into an exploding planet. The motive for this one-way journey? (spoiler alert): he found a used condom on his girlfriend’s bed. Surely this type of music ought to come with a Parental Advisory label.

But for all this, it must be said: the songs are exquisite. This music is ’90s proto-emo at its best: catchy and chaotic, brash yet self-conscious, brimming with tortured desire, and delivered with embarrassing sincerity. Emo as a genre has been duly criticized – most ably by Jessica Hopper’s now-classic essay, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t” which takes emo’s misogynistic caricatures of women to task. However, embarrassing truth about emo is that songs like Weezer’s “Devotion” and “Waiting on You” – bathed as they are in grunge feedback, three-part harmony, ’60s pop- ballad tropes, and metal-inflected guitar solos – resonate beautifully.

Somehow, founder Rivers Cuomo makes a collection of songs about how hard it is to be a rock star feel like he’s just any other kid in a college dorm writing songs about a girl in his Survey of Brit Lit class. Somehow, he manages to make the songs sound great despite their rough recording and half-finished composition. Its first track, “Blast Off”, is perhaps the apotheosis of Cuomo’s ’90s oeuvre: the perfect blend of bombast and self-doubt to a boom-boom chunk beat before “Beverly Hills” was ever a twinkle in Rick Rubin’s eye.

Cuomo, fresh off the surprising success of 1994’s Blue Album, cries, “Somebody’s givin’ me a whole lotta money to do what I think I want to/ so why am I still feelin’ blue?” Its primitive drumming lends just the right amount of brutality, and the end of the track foreshadows the quirky acoustic guitar riff that would become “El Scorcho”, Pinkerton’s first single. The song, never refined beyond the immediacy of the demo, remains an energetic, joyful listen some 25 years hence. Those of us who came to love Songs from the Black Hole cannot do otherwise than hear it as a masterpiece, astronaut genitals or not.

The extent to which Weezer fans are deeply wrapped up in our love for the band, even when they disappoint us, isn’t hard to see. The boundaries between a) professional critic (say, Spencer Owen of Pitchfork; see above), b) amateur appreciator (say, you or me posting about Startrucker on Youtube; also see above), and c) rock musician (say, Rivers Cuomo) are blurry in our world. The very word “fan” (that is, fanatic) offers a clue about what drives this world: people’s personal and social investment in the object of adoration, or, more simply, their love of it. Fans are self-styled critics, and identify so much with bands that they wish to be them, or pretend to be them, or become them by starting bands themselves. Critics are fans before anything else, and often (*cough* failed or amateur *cough*) musicians. Bands are fans of other bands first, and amateur critics by default.

Cuomo has had no small part in shaping the discourse about his band, through writing for magazines, social media, and other self-published ephemera. Weezer’s fans share a vocabulary, a love of the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll, a discourse universe.

All three of these overlapping communities are equally important in making music mean what it means, and we’re often members of one or more at the same time. We are all, in the fan/critic/artist orbit, the ones making all popular music mean what it means. Although Cuomo famously was ashamed and embarrassed by the dismissive public reaction to the deeply personal songs that eventually made their way to Pinkerton, he took fans’ input seriously in later years, going so far as to post demos for the 2002 album Maladroit daily, then revise and re-record the songs based on fan feedback. He later collaborated with fans via a series of videos on YouTube called “Let’s Write a Sawng”, released as “Turning Up the Radio” on the 2010 Weezer compilation album Death to False Metal (with seventeen co-writers credited). In 2014, he directly addressed fans at the beginning of “Back to the Shack”, singing “I’m sorry, guys/ I didn’t realize that I needed you so much.”

But it’s Songs from the Black Hole where this fan-critic-artist constellation shines the brightest. The amount of discourse generated about this unreleased record is copious: YouTube compilations, blog entries reconstructing tracklists, illegal zip files, interviews about chronology with Karl Koch (Weezer’s tour manager and unofficial archivist), Cuomo’s own copious notes in his Alone releases, and self-published diaries.

Of course, there are the recordings themselves. Take Operation Space Opera, a group of fans who so loved Weezer circa 1995—and so hated what Weezer had become since then—that they formed a band and covered the entire album, releasing it Bandcamp in 2012 with sarcastic liner notes. (They refer to Rivers Cuomo as a “gormless dunce”.) The musicians claim to have made the album “for the lulz”, (actual quote) but they lovingly, painstakingly recreate the songs, excavating them, saving them from themselves, so others may better enjoy them. Fans, critics, band, all in one record.

This is the kind of discourse those of us in the Weezer orbit—the Black Hole, if you will— produce all the time: Operation Space Opera is not even close to being the only fan-made Weezer tribute album. Several musicians recorded a surprisingly good album based on Cuomo’s aborted attempt to start a side project called Homie; some Weezer message boards have yielded half a dozen tribute albums.

Indeed, Songs from the Black Hole cannot be understood apart from fans’ love of and deep involvement in it. This would be an uncontroversial statement about any beloved musical artifact, but in this case, the meaning is literal: the most fully realized versions of the album are actually performed by fans.

In 2008, on Weezer (the Red album), the band released “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived”, a nearly six-minute track that repeats its titular claim via a mystifying mash-up of styles, 20 seconds at a time, in genres from rap to country to baroque counterpoint to punk. There’s one brief section that you might call “what Weezer is supposed to sound like.” It’s medium-fast, chunky, melodic, driven relentlessly forward by guitar and synthesizer. There’s a vaguely nerdy, sci-fi vibe to it, and it’s sung with what feels like deep emotion. In other words, it’s not too far from Songs from the Black Hole.

Every time latter-day Weezer feels like it’s getting close to acknowledging this lost gem, we fans feel like we’re finally maybe getting what should have been all along. Sometimes we take matters into our own hands, like when a fan invited to play “Undone (the Sweater Song)” on stage with the band in 2005 grabbed a microphone and sang the first two lines of “Blast Off”.

What Weezer is actually supposed to sound like, to Cuomo and the band, might not have much to do with Songs from the Black Hole. But they’re not the only ones who get to decide.

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