This article originally ran in 2016; we’re dusting it off in honor of Rivers Cuomo’s birthday on June 13th.
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Southern California is a strange place. You could call it a disjointed hellscape or a perpetually sunny paradise, and you wouldn’t be wrong in either case. The paradoxical nature of a city like Los Angeles is liable to send plenty of transplants running back to their East Coast enclaves, but not Rivers Cuomo and Weezer. The band have called LA home from the very beginning, and they’ve not only embraced the weirdness of a land defined by its sandy beaches and lack of distinct seasons — they’ve internalized it.
Weezer’s 10th studio album, which they’re unofficially calling The White Album, is a sort of love letter to California. Cuomo has said that songs like “California Kids” and “L.A. Girlz” were inspired by his experiences “hanging out with people in Venice and Santa Monica, the beach, the Hare Krishnas, the Sikh on roller blades with the guitar, girls on Tinder within a four-mile radius, seeing other bands, the kids from La Sera.”
That’s all fine and good, but this isn’t the first time in Weezer’s career that they’ve turned to the Golden State for inspiration. Cuomo’s professed love of The Beach Boys dates back to The Blue Album, and it’s only the tip of the surfboard in terms of what his songwriting owes to California. Let’s examine 10 songs from Weezer’s catalog that trace their roots back to the West Coast.
We’re Going Surfing!
“Surf Wax America” from Weezer (The Blue Album) (1994)
Any song titled “Surf Wax America” is going to draw comparisons to The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, regardless of whether its call to grab a board and ditch the rat race comes with a tidal wave of sarcasm. While Weezer’s own version of Californ-i-a isn’t quite the surfer’s paradise that Brian Wilson envisioned, the band’s love of The Beach Boys is well documented and slathered into every pore of this Blue Album ripper.
But here’s the thing: “Surf Wax America” ain’t no feel-good ‘60s pop song. Cuomo’s snotty declaration that he’s “goin’ surfin’ cuz I don’t like your face” fits right in with the slacker mentality that permeated Southern California’s punk scene in the ‘80s. It’s the kind of lyrical loogie you’d expect from a guy who’s got Milo Goes to College filed right next to Pet Sounds in his record collection, as Rivers Cuomo almost certainly did at one point in his teens.
A Strange and Distant Land
“Holiday” from Weezer (The Blue Album) (1994)
Cuomo finds himself “on the road with Kerouac” in the final verse of “Holiday,” but his reference to the San Francisco Beat poet isn’t the only lyric that hints at a California setting. The opening line, “Let’s go away for a while,” is almost certainly an allusion to the Beach Boys song of the same name, and the doo-woppy vocal harmonies in the bridge solidify the song’s connection to Pet Sounds.
Cuomo’s lyrics often touch on the theme of escapism, and it’s probably no coincidence that his home state predominantly exists in the popular imagination as a place to escape to. Think of “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas and the Papas (“I’d be safe and warm/ If I was in LA), or switch mediums and go as far back as Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. Cuomo internalized the myth of California early on, and he draws on it liberally to create the postcard-perfect dream of “Holiday.”
Looking West for Answers
“Across the Sea” from Pinkerton (1996)
Like “Holiday,” “Across the Sea” is a song that yearns to be somewhere else — literally across the sea in Japan, where a young girl had written Cuomo a fan letter that profoundly affected his psyche during a lonely winter at Harvard. Aside from the fact that the intro sounds a lot like The Beach Boys’ “You Still Believe In Me” (another Pet Sounds connection, for those keeping track), “Across the Sea” once again taps into Cuomo’s distinctly Californian attraction to escapism. This time, he’s trapped on the snowy East Coast and looking west for answers, a feeling that probably strikes a chord with any number of transplants who have packed their bags and bought the first ticket to LA.
A Different Kind of Sunshine
“Longtime Sunshine” from Pinkerton (Deluxe Edition) (2010)
Let’s flip the script for a minute, because the truth is that California ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Plenty of Golden State transplants eventually fantasize about getting out and moving somewhere that has four distinct seasons and a sense of history that stretches further back than a couple decades. “Longtime Sunshine,” a relatively rare track written by Cuomo in 1994, finds him yearning for a kind of sunshine that can’t be found on Southern California’s beaches.
He wants “an East Coast college with some history” and “a house with a wood stove or a fireplace,” things that essentially represent the antithesis of LA. Every dream has its dark side, and you can’t talk about California without examining all the simple pleasures it precludes.
On a Golden Sea
“Island in the Sun” from Weezer (The Green Album) (2001)
Is “Island in the Sun” Weezer’s best song? Nah. But it’s arguably their most likeable song (c’mon, you’d have to be a monster to not get down with those adorable “hip hips”). With its bright production and beachy vibes, “Island in the Sun” is the quintessential summer jam.
It’s also one of the few tunes in Weezer’s catalog that succeeds in creating an entire universe unto itself, one in which the sun never stops shining and the love never stops flowing. If a band from the East Coast or Midwest wrote this song, it would sound like they were trying too hard. But for Weezer, who had already established their cred as California boys by the time the Green Album came along, it seems just right.
Beautiful and Clean
“Beverly Hills” from Make Believe (2005)
You could write a book on all the things wrong with “Beverly Hills,” but that would be a pretty dumb book, so let’s just stick to the basics: It’s a silly, vapid pop song that repackages all the cliches you’ve ever heard about celebrity culture without adding a scrap of insight to them.
The song’s blunt sincerity (“Look at all those movie stars/ They’re all so beautiful and clean”) is so off-putting that it comes across as sarcasm, which only goes to show how out of touch Cuomo had gotten by this point in his career. To be fair, “Beverly Hills” was also the band’s most commercially successful song to date, so it must have struck a nerve with people who fantasize about Hollywood’s rich and famous.
Give Peace a Chance
“Peace” from Make Believe (2005)
In a just world, “Peace” would have been the lead single off Make Believe. It’s one of the few songs from that album that holds any kind of weight within the context of Weezer’s wider body of work. The track’s sunny guitar hook and spot-on vocal harmonies put it in the same school of Cali rock as a band like Phantom Planet, which happened to peak around the time Make Believe was released. “Peace” isn’t a grand statement by any means — the lyrics actually signify a desire to retreat from the spotlight — but the simple chord progression pairs nicely with a beach-side bonfire. Hey, sometimes that’s all you need.
Left Coast Lineage
“Go Away” from Everything Will Be Alright In The End (2014)
Weezer had been around for a full two decades by the time they released Everything Will Be Alright In The End, which is plenty of time to rub off on the next generation of young songwriters. One of those songwriters is Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast, who joins Weezer on that album’s standout track, “Go Away.” The song functions as a direct anthropological link between Weezer’s trademark power pop and Best Coast’s breezy, surfy indie rock, and the vocal interplay between Cuomo and Cosentino feels almost like the passing of a torch.
Get Goin’ Til You Hit The Ocean
“California Kids” from Weezer (The White Album) (2016)
Back in 2013, Cuomo and Scott Murphy released a song called “California” as part of their Japanese-language side project. That song has since morphed into “California Kids,” a driving, wistful rocker with lyrical themes that reach all the way back to “Holiday” and “Island in the Sun.”
“When you wake up/ Cobwebs on your eyelids/ Stuck in rigor mortis/ Just get goin’/ Til you hit the ocean/ And you turn Californian,” sings Cuomo, once again drawing on California’s reputation as a place of renewal and rejuvenation. There’s something indescribably sad about the song, though, as if the place Weezer wants to get back to was never really there in the first place.
Meet Me Down at Tower 28
“L.A. Girlz” from Weezer (The White Album) (2016)
“L.A. Girlz” is not a promising title for a song, but Weezer’s latest paean to hot ladies isn’t nearly as cringe-worthy as it could have been. In fact, there’s something kind of sweet and sad about the desperation with which Cuomo delivers the opening line: “L.A. girlz, please act your age.” The irony, of course, is that Cuomo has never acted his age, and he’s not about to start now.
Like many of Weezer’s best songs, this one is about wanting something you can’t have. That something isn’t necessarily a pretty girl in a bikini, though. It’s more like a state of mind that slips away with age, which explains why the video for “L.A. Girlz” centers on a young and restless version of Cuomo.