If you haven’t noticed, I’ve put off writing this one for quite a while now. When it came up in the song randomizer, I knew there would be trouble. “Longtime Sunshine” is just one of those songs that is a real pain to do justice (ahem). In fact, I’m not quite sure it can be done.
For his part, Rivers Cuomo might agree. Evidence suggests that “Longtime Sunshine” has been weighing heavily upon his mind ever since he wrote and demoed it in January 1994, on a tape that included embryonic versions of other greats like “Tired of Sex,” “Susanne,” “Waiting On You,” “Why Bother?” and “Getchoo” (as band historian Karl Koch noted, “quite a crop!”). When it came time to start sequencing the never-completed Songs From The Black Hole rock opera, “Sunshine” was placed in the first iteration of Cuomo’s vision for the project, which is now referred to as “Tracklist 1.” While what Cuomo used for the mockup of the album was the original January ’94 demo, the tracklist also included a “Reprise” version, the origins of which are unclear. However, the rather personal and earthly matters discussed in the song’s lyrics don’t exactly jibe with The Black Hole‘s interstellar narrative arc, which apparently became obvious to Cuomo soon thereafter: the song was dropped from the project’s second draft, “Tracklist 2.”
So began a long history of “doesn’t quite fit” for the prodigal “Longtime Sunshine.” In August of 1995, Weezer entered NYC’s Electric Lady Studios for the first of their second album’s sessions. In conversation, Cuomo appeared still bent on the Black Hole concept, but actions spoke louder: the first songs that were laid down were done as they were originally and, as Koch put it, “no story, no theatrics, no characters.”
What happened in these sessions is rather fascinating — perhaps especially because no fan has ever heard any of it. First, Weezer laid tracks for “Waiting On You” and “Blast Off!,” then attempted the first ever full-band “Longtime Sunshine.” From there, they recorded a “special ‘coda’ version experiment” of “Sunshine,” which Koch described thusly:
This started as “Longtime Sunshine,” but after the first verse, lyrics from [“Waiting On You” and “Blast Off!,”] plus others [including] “Why Bother” were recorded on top of it to create a cool overlapping medley, with the different songs vocal parts meshing together. It was then mixed as a fade-out. I think Rivers was trying to emulate a technique used in classical music, where all the major elements of a musical piece are briefly recalled at the end.
In any event, it sure sounds like one hell of a closer for a hypothetical album. The band also did a second, “regular” take of “Longtime Sunshine” on September 6th. Shortly thereafter, Cuomo shipped off for his first term of Harvard, an experience that would put the final nail in Black Hole‘s coffin while also giving full birth to the Pinkerton concept. Although “Longtime Sunshine” fits Pinkerton‘s heart-on-sleeve template much better than that of the erstwhile space rock opera, it still would have had some trouble finding a way onto Pinkerton without disrupting its delicate and masterful flow — and so, away went “Sunshine,” gone away for another day.
That day wound up being roughly two years later, long after Pinkerton had come and gone. Cuomo was depressed by the record’s commercial failure, and began seeking ways to cheer himself up through his music. Most of the September 1997 tape that Cuomo recorded on his DA-88 in his Boston abode consisted of sketches for his upbeat and carefree alt.country sideproject, Homie. But, curiously, here “Longtime Sunshine” reappears, closing the eight song tape. While Cuomo played all the instruments on that string of demos, a rehearsal tape from that same fall of 1997 reveals that the full Homie band attempted “Longtime Sunshine,” done up with an extra dash of southern sun and country twang.
However, the Homie project soon disbanded as Cuomo’s fickle interests swayed back to resuscitating Weezer. No Homie version of “Longtime Sunshine” has surfaced and, as far as we know, this was the last time the song was seriously considered for a viable Cuomo project.
But then, there are little scraps of evidence that suggest the song never quite left his backburner. Most intriguing is a brief clip of Cuomo showing the tune to director Spike Jonze on the set of Weezer’s video shoot for Green single “Island In The Sun,” playing the piano-based song on an acoustic guitar (!). The clip (go to about 0:55) is brief and muddled, but the chorus (as well as the emotion in Cuomo’s delivery) is unmistakable — indeed, it’s a bit odd to see Cuomo, fully coifed in his most manufactured and stylized Green persona, performing one of the most emotional and personal lost gems in his entire life’s repertoire. But it remains very reassuring (and interesting) nevertheless, to see that this song was still on Cuomo’s mind as late as mid-2001.
Cuomo leaked his original demo to fans himself via the Internet around the same time, but his biggest stamp of approval came in late 2007, when that same familiar version was finally released on his first home demos compendium, Alone. Since he sums the song’s origin up quite nicely (and we rarely get Cuomo’s own in-depth analysis of a track), I’ll quote his liner notes here:
In the midst of struggling to make it as a rock star in Los Angeles, I started longing for the safety, peace, quiet, simplicity, and family structure of my New England childhood. I thought back to one of my favorite memories, lying in the bottom bunk, my brother in the top, in our bedroom in our farmhouse in Eastford, Connecticut, in the hot, hot, summer, 7, 8 p.m., sun still up, but having to go to sleep because it’s our bedtime, one of those big box fans blowing, and my parents, Ma and Steve, sitting at our bedside, singing an old hippie song to us, to calm us down and ease us into sleep, “May the Long Time Sun Shine Upon You.”
I borrowed the hook phrase from this song and set about writing my own song to capture my feelings of loss and longing. I wrote it on my mom’s piano when I was back in Connecticut at Christmas. My mom had a piano because I told her that the house seemed too quiet and I was worried about her living in silence, all alone after my step-dad left. So that is how “Longtime Sunshine” came to exist.
When I recorded this track, I had just bought a clarinet and figured out how to play a few notes. Because of my poor embouchure it sounds very much like a kazoo.
In a lot of ways — the clarinet, the quotation of another song, the conversational tone and barebone honesty — this song is a sort of a spiritual cousin for its later Pinkerton contemporary, “Across the Sea” (if you’re curious, the quotation in “Sea” is the melodic figure of the intro clarinet; take a quick listen to the beginning of the Beach Boys’ “You Still Believe In Me”). But while the climax of that song practically seethes unfulfilled hormones and brokenhearted frustration, “Longtime Sunshine” breathes a more melancholy air. Everything about its design feels open, organic. The slow, subtle build into the second verse feels like nature, a bright autumn afternoon the golden leaves and dark green grass of which seem to foreshadow the “east coast college with some history” where Cuomo would wind up a year and a half later. Though he pines for it here, the irony is that once it became a Harvard reality, it would only make him feel that much more miserable. And that hopeless longing is what makes this all ache and bruise so poignantly: the simple half-notes bassline that enters with the chorus, the McCartneyesque piano chords, the warm breeze clarinet solo that stutters inelegant beauty. Making the insight makes me feel like an over-analytical English professor, but the way it hobbles reminds me of the limp Cuomo once had, as due to his 1.75-inch leg length difference he had yet to get treated. It’s a painfully cute and helpless little clarinet, full of all the endearing inadequacy that, in various ways, made early Weezer’s work so relatable and emotionally resonant.
The drums enter, and Cuomo’s thinking of wood stoves and living rooms now. “Sometimes it doesn’t seem so bad; settle down with a good woman,” he sings, so unencumbered by the expressive restraints of a traditional pop rhyme scheme that it’s clear the thought of accessibility never once crossed Cuomo’s mind when he took the pen to this particular page. “Leave this lonely life behind,” he continues, snapping us out of his daydream and back into the pain and reality of the present. “Forever and ever.”
The second chorus is heaven — a comfortably cool cut of shade beneath a big New England oak tree. Cuomo opens the hi-hat, doubles the vocals, then triples them with the return of that tearjerking clarinet. It solos again, a little more eloquent this time, giving way to the bridge that encapsulates the driving force of the entire song:
Sometimes I wanna get in a car
Close my eyes and drive real fast
Keep on goin’ till I get someplace
Where I can truly rest.
What happens next is probably the most gorgeously simple climax of any Weezer song. It’s only a repetition of the chorus, an inobtrusive organ added behind it, Cuomo singing a little louder and higher than before. A second, slightly-off-the-beat Cuomo vocal adds in, the drums do some subtle fills, and then it all comes slowly to a picturesque stop. The piano descends, the sun sets, the clarinet waves goodbye.
In a sense, Cuomo is wise for never having released any Weezer or studio variation of this song. As previously noted, it would’ve disrupted Pinkerton‘s flow; and while it would’ve been the crown jewel of The Green Album several exponents over, that’d be precisely the problem: it’s just so much above and beyond the rest, it would have blown Weezer’s cover. (Which they did a good job of maintaining. Riding a wave of second coming hype and making the critics feel as though they had missed the point the last time around, Green fared quite nicely with the critics for a 28-minute CD that essentially rehashed the same idea over the course of its brief runtime…Then again, when the last record you had to review was by Limp Bizkit…) There’s also the simple fact that, as it is, it’s pretty much perfect: perhaps more than any other song, Weezer’s hope of doing it justice in the studio was (and remains) pretty much nil. But now, thanks to the lovely Alone series, it has its place in the sun, beautiful little scars and all.
That said, it’s a damn shame the fans haven’t heard the other versions of the song in existence. The three Pinkerton recordings would be fascinating to hear, especially the “coda” version, which sounds like a mid-’90s Weezer fanboy’s wet dream. Then there’s the matter of the Homie “country version” demo and rehearsal tapes, perhaps the tapes of an unfinished Homie album, and whatever other versions may have been attempted down the road, considering Cuomo was playing it for people like Spike Jonze as late as 2001. My only prayer is that, when all is said and done, the =W= diehards crazy enough to read (or for chrissakes, write) this blog regularly get a chance to hear it all.