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Where's Weezer Been?

Not much has been heard from the band since its disappointing 'Pinkerton' album in 1996. After all, singer-songwriter Rivers Cuomo was at Harvard for a while, and he spent some time (voluntarily) in a dark room. But they're back with a new CD.

May 12, 2001|RICHARD CROMELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As rock 'n' roll epiphanies go, it has to rank right up there. Misfit teenager Rivers Cuomo, aimless and depressed, decided to join a Buddhist monastery.

"I went to my parents' Zen master and I said, 'Life is [expletive], I want to shave my head and do this,' " Cuomo recalls.

"He's like, 'You know what? Being a monk is [expletive] too, so I can't advise that for you. What you should do is really listen to yourself and see what path would make you the most excited and just go do that, however crazy it seems.'

"And it took me about five seconds and I was like, 'I want to be a rock star.' "

As unlikely as it seemed, Cuomo would be just that within a few years, after moving from rural Connecticut to L.A. right after high school and forming Weezer, a band whose self-titled 1994 debut album sold more than 2 million copies.

With its melodic mix of effervescence and ache, this teddy bear of a band was embraced by an audience eager for an alternative to grunge. Its biggest hit, "Buddy Holly," was a gem of pop dynamics that took rock's classic us-against-the-world stance to giddy new heights.

But if you really want unlikely, just stick with Weezer, which went on to torpedo its cruise to stardom with a strange second album, "Pinkerton," and then all but vanished for four years, surfacing mainly in the form of Rivers rumors--he'd enrolled at Harvard (true), he'd suffered a Brian Wilson-level meltdown (not true, though you can see why people would think so).

But suddenly Weezer is on the brink of a rousing comeback, propelled by the unexpected audience enthusiasm at some testing-the-waters shows last year and escorted by a rising buzz of anticipation for its new album, also called "Weezer" and due in stores Tuesday.

It might even erase the trauma of "Pinkerton," which came out in 1996 and sold less than a fifth of the first "Weezer's" total.

"That was a devastating disappointment," says Cuomo, 30. " 'Cause at the time I felt we had come up with something really new and fresh and exciting and important. It was very personal to me also.

"And we put it out and everyone said they hated it, just across the board--our fans, all the critics. It was just the worst stab in the heart. And that was definitely one of the factors that led to me not being able to leave my room for a few years."

Cuomo exaggerates. It was only one year.

*

The small, bird-like Cuomo, dressed in his best nerd look--dark-rimmed eyeglasses, yellow shirt, V-neck sweater and down vest--prepares his Beachwood Canyon living room for the interview by drawing heavy curtains across all the windows. He sits attentively in the dim light and pauses for a long time after each question, then issues long, carefully formed replies.

"He's pretty intense, Rivers. Very intense," says Ric Ocasek, the former leader of the Cars who produced both "Weezer" albums. "He knows what he wants, so he's not like, 'Is that OK?' He's like, 'That's OK.' And it usually is."

When Cuomo, guitarist Brian Bell, drummer Patrick Wilson and bassist Mikey Welsh ended their long dormancy by stepping onto the outdoor stage of the Vans Warped Tour last summer, the last thing they expected was the crowd going nuts. But that's what happened.

"I was practically in tears," says Cuomo. "After years of isolation and being 100% certain that no one cared about us anymore at all, then to step out in front of 20,000 people that are screaming their heads off because of us was really cool."

That reaction accelerated what had been a slow return to action. Weezer went on to play some more shows, then recorded its first album since "Pinkerton" late last year.

Teaming again with Ocasek, Weezer restores the old rich dynamism, coming up with a hook-happy cross of Beach Boys and Ramones. There are also some changes of pace, with the gentler "Island in the Sun" recalling the British band Squeeze, and the atypically hard-edged "Hash Pipe" shaping up as a big radio hit.

As it was in Weezer's beginning, the band once again is an anomalous force of buoyancy and winsomeness in a musical climate of rage and aggression. In the early '90s the contrast came not from Limp Bizkit and Disturbed, but Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.

The novice band struggled in its club shows around L.A., plowing on through its discouragement. Fellow bands were supportive, and Weezer finally started building enough momentum to interest record labels. They signed with Geffen, went into the studio with Ocasek, shot a couple of irresistible videos with Spike Jonze and hit the big time.

But instead of rehiring Ocasek and cranking up more variations on the formula for the follow-up, Cuomo started writing painfully personal and graphic memoirs about such topics as compulsive womanizing and sexual depletion, obsession and fear of loneliness

The songs on the self-produced "Pinkerton" had the melodic signature but not the rich sound, and the album flopped commercially, even as it nurtured a devoted audience that would wait patiently for the next step.

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