Rivers’ Edge

How did Rivers Cuomo spend his time between Weezer’s self-titled first album and their second one, Pinkerton? With all of the typical self-indulgent rock-star activities: studying classical piano, going back to college for a year, paying good money to have his right leg deliberately broken. And of course, he lived like a hermit, trying to purify himself from the temptations of the touring life.

After a concert in Lawrence, Kansas, Rivers’s bandmates and road crew peer through the tour bus’s windows and watch him disappear into a Holiday Inn with a girl. It seems that the self-cleansing didn’t succeed.

“Rivers just got here.”

“Does he have some hot little number?”

“She’s not really hot. She’s not even Asian.”

“Man, he’s slipping.”

Rivers Cuomo grew up in a Connecticut town called Yogaville. Rivers, his brother Leaves, and his mother and stepfather all lived on a Connecticut ashram run by the guru Sachia Ananda. His parents ran a massage school; Rivers and Leaves weren’t allowed to own toy guns, play tackle football, or curse.

When Rivers was ten, the guru packed up and relocated Yogaville to Virginia. The Cuomos moved to Storrs, Connecticut, where darker urges were less taboo. Before entering the public-school system, Rives and his brother sat around, practicing the correct pronunciation of “shit.”

The first thing Rivers did after the ashram: join the Columbia Record Club and buy every Kiss album they offered. In high school, he found other obsessions–The X-Men, Dungeons & Dragons–but metal remained a constant. Senior year, Rivers and his long-haired metal friends regretted that they had never done any extracurricular sports, so they formed a lacrosse team: “We all quickly learned the rudiments and had a season of two games, both of which we lost miserably.”

In 1989, a year after he graduated, Rivers moved to L.A. with four friends. He was the shredding lead guitarist of their metal band, the Avant Garde. After a few shows, two of the Avant Gardists tired of the squalor of sharing a one-room apartment and moved back East. Rivers took a year off, working at Tower Records, and began writing his own songs.

He found some like-minded East Coast transplants and formed the power-pop Weezer, rehearsing three-part vocal harmonies before they ever played a live show. Weezer got a reputation as the geekiest band in town; record company interest waxed and waned until Geffen finally signed them in 1993. And then, on the strength of Spike Jonze’s witty videos for “Undone–The Sweater Song” and “Buddy Holly,” the band sold two million records.

As a teenager, Rivers would have given anything to walk a mile in Ace Frehley’s platform boots. Now that he was a star, he shut down completely: Over and over again, he went mute during interviews, turned celibate when girls flirted with him, and ran away if anything looked like an opportunity to have fun.

After three singles and three American tours, Rivers took a year off from the band; in the summer of 1995, he had a leg operation. When Rivers was born, his legs were the same length, but as he grew older, the left leg ended up two inches longer: hello, orthopedic shoes. So, flush with royalty money, Rivers had his upper right leg broken with a hammer and chisel and then held together with a metal frame. Every day, Rivers would turn four cranks on the frame, eventually creating a two-inch gap between the bones. The leg was supposed to knit together, but it never did. Six months later, Rivers had a large chunk of his hipbone removed and ground up. The powder was packed into the hole in his leg. Now, after much pain and physical therapy–and a Percoset habit that almost became an addiction–he walks without much of a limp, although the leg doesn’t bend back as far as it should.

In the fall of 1995, Rivers enrolled at an Ivy League college (he prefers not to say which) and moved into a large house five minutes off campus. Not bothering to get a phone installed for several months, he promptly became a recluse and grew a long beard. He was a music major, but he didn’t pass the audition for the undergraduate chorus. He stayed anonymous and spent most of his time at home alone, studying and eating frozen dinners. Rivers listened almost exclusively to opera, especially Puccini. (The title of Pinkerton comes from the fickle male lead in Madame Butterfly.) Limping across a snowy campus with a cane and a brace, he would sometimes see students wearing Weezer shirts and hats. Rivers remembers, “At this point I was so lonely that I was hoping they would recognize me, but I couldn’t bring myself to say, ‘Hey, I’m the lead singer of Weezer. Give me some attention.’ ”

Meanwhile, Rivers was writing songs about his romantic traumas. His last real girlfriend was six years ago: “I was so consistently critical and condescending and jealous that eventually she couldn’t take it any more and broke up with me.” Rivers’s life is filled with impossible crushes–on lesbians, on 18-year-old girls living in Japan–and, he admits, when somebody finally does let him close, he crushes her and leaves. He doesn’t know why he does it; he only knows that he’s sorry. Psychoanalysis is left as an exercise for the clever reader, but it’s worth noting that when I suggest to Rivers that he’s bipolar, he agrees, saying his cycle between “lame-o and partier” is about six months. Right now he’s enjoying the unfamiliar sensations of being happy. Those songs about romantic failure became Pinkerton: as poppy as the first album, but with the heartbreak and casual cruelty closer to the surface. Rivers doesn’t want any Spike Jonze videos this time–he worries that eye candy would sell out the pathos in his confessional songs.

Rivers tells me all this personal history in a Denny’s in Missouri, eating a grilled-cheese sandwich, making no particular effort to varnish his foibles. When questions make him nervous, he gets shy: I can tell, because his body begins to vibrate like a tuning fork. Even when he’s relaxed, he’s fidgety, doing imaginary piano scales with his hands. He’s fun to spend time with–maybe because his antisocial impulses are directed toward himself. Since he revealed so many of the cracks in his personality on Pinkerton, I ask if he finds it hard to respect any girl who still likes him.

“Um, I don’t know yet. I’m avoiding the consequences of admitting all that–on the road, there’s no chance to begin a relationship.”

You still have encounters like last night in Kansas, I say.

Rivers looks surprised, and stops vibrating. “Well, of course I don’t respect her. But I also don’t think she really likes me–she’s objectifying me as some superhuman rock star.”

The other members of Weezer are all smart guys with side projects. Guitarist Brian Bell leads the Space Twins, drummer Pat Wilson has an album with his band Special Goodness waiting for release, and most famously, bassist Matt Sharp had a fluky hit with the Rentals. Brian, named after Rolling Stone Brian Jones, is the band’s resident mensch–and fashion plate. He likes to show off a Hugo Boss jacket he bought cheap in Spain. Brian ends up doing a lot of the band’s interviews with local newspapers–Rivers gets too wigged out, while Matt and Pat don’t want to say anything that’ll undermine the band, and worry about coming off as whiners. The self-conscious pair keep asking to read my notebook.

Although Rivers and Brian valiantly insist that the band is closer than ever, Pat and Matt–with their eye-rolling and their requests that God not kill them until this tour is over–make it clear this isn’t the case. For Pat, at least, Weezer has become a money gig: “I’m not here to support the concept of Pinkerton. The concept of Pinkerton is here to support me.”

During a free afternoon in Columbia, Missouri, the band separate: Rivers practices piano at the deserted hotel lounge; Brian goes shopping; Matt and Pat shoot pool and listen to the Specials’ first album. But onstage at the Blue Note, they come together with an excellent, high-octane show. Matt goads the crowd, leaps about, and periodically sings falsetto backing vocals, adding comic relief to Rivers’ personal dramas. Brian shimmies like a born rock star. And Rivers, as ever, rocks autistically back and forth, summoning up the music, often with his eyes closed. He doesn’t talk between songs because he doesn’t want to break his trance.

Afterwards, Brian, Rivers, and I sit in the burned-out basement that serves as a dressing room. Above us, the P.A. is playing The Moog Cookbook version of “Buddy Holly.” Rivers drinks Jack Daniel’s and talks about how he’s never even seen heroin and cocaine. “What kind of rock star am I, anyway?” He pledges to score some hard drugs–when he asked his management, they wouldn’t give him any. And then his head snaps up. “Fuck! I’m sitting here dicking around, and all the girls are escaping!” With those parting words, Rivers runs up the staircase and disappears.

By Gavin Edwards. Originally published in the February 1997 issue of Details.