Billy Joel has always had a surprisingly strong influence on Rivers Cuomo, at least as far as this side of the new millennium is concerned. There’s the matter of Joel’s “Leningrad,” the introductory piano figure of which Cuomo shamelessly cribbed for the main melody line of 2001 b-side “I Do” — a surprisingly nice listen, if you can ignore the outright theft at play. Then there’s Make Believe closer “Haunt You Every Day,” which Cuomo wrote in response to producer Rick Rubin’s prompt to write a song like Billy Joel would. But I think Mr. Joel’s influence is most clearly felt — and beneficially employed — in this 2002 outtake, “The Organ Player.” (Get it?)
There are two versions of this song, and I will begin by discussing the first (and better) of the two. When this song was posted to weezer.com as part of the band’s ongoing efforts to share unfinished work with the fans (a trend that began with the Maladroit sessions and was continuing through summer of 2002, with the band’s early and abortive efforts at making their fifth album), it must have been quite the treat. Of the couple dozen songs the band scorched through on 7/2/02, “The Organ Player” is the uncontested victor: of the lot, only the faux-reggae leanings of “Hey Domingo” and the gently contemplative “Lullabye” compare; forgettable turds like the revised “Superstar” and “Booby Trap” pale laughably.
“The Organ Player,” to be sure, didn’t only stand out for its songwriting quality, but also for its surprisingly unique and successful arrangement. With a gentle tom roll, Pat Wilson escorts into a calming soundscape colored by a warmly bittersweet electric guitar and a comfortable bed of Rhodes-flavored keys. It’s immediately welcoming, and soothes the listener into being ready to take in one of the most experimental Cuomo lyrics ever recorded:
The people come and lay down on the ground
They want to hear all the beautiful sounds
Of the organ player
But in the crowd, there’s a bitter young man
He can’t accept what the other ones can
That the song is greater than him
I call it “experimental” because it’s a decidedly third-person narrative in a catalog of songs that are, both at their honest best (“Across the Sea“) and most gratingly facetious (“The Girl Got Hot”), thoroughly first-person affairs. Of course, it could just be a storytelling technique — the “bitter young man” could be Cuomo himself, at a younger age — but either way, it’s wonderfully effective. The lyrics are simple, direct, poetic, and carried by a melody that immediately resonates. There’s an intriguing sense of drama and conflict here — the cynic versus the music — and it quickly engages the listener’s imagnation. What happens next?
The song shifts into a brief interlude wherein Cuomo describes the venomous young man’s presence (while some wonderful Brian Bell “ahhh” backups float by like grey clouds), then continues more directly with the verse narrative, comparing that same venom to “arrows of flame” and identifying the source of the young man’s bitterness as being a sort of inner turmoil separate from the music. The interlude figure returns as Cuomo compares his disposition to “Casting necromancer’s spells, summoning demons from hell,” but appends a delicately building bridge: “The tones rise up,” he sings, as do those of the organ keyboard in his own song. “And spill his cup / He can’t defeat this tune.”
Gorgeously, the song breaks into an airy, lightly reverbed guitar solo that sounds as though it’s soaring up through the pink sunset sky above the concert — one of the most effetively understated guitar solos of Cuomo’s career.
Another verse, and the melodies rise
A perfect tune doesn’t need a disguise
‘Cause there is no fighting
And nature says what is high and is low
Father Time will reveal what is shown
As the bitter man is falling
To his knees
Through a soaring mantra of the line, “On his knees,” the song arrives at its conclusion and the imaginary concert ends triumphantly. It’s a great and unique entry into the Weezer canon, and one that seems to be regrettably overlooked by both the band and its fans.
Not helping its case for longevity, I suppose, is the 7/16/02 cut the band made two weeks later. The amps are tastelessly cranked up in volume and gain, which has an unfortunate domino effect: Wilson’s nuanced drums are dumbed down and loudened up to compete with the guitars, and worse yet, Cuomo’s key vocals are obscured in the mire. Equally problematic is the fact that the keyboards — once representative of the organ — are either completely obliterated in the mix, or else weren’t even played at all (hence the thickening of the guitars). Head-scratcher moves abound, making this a take truly worth forgetting at best, a reminder that this band truly knows how to butcher a great song at worst.
Either way, in celebration of the proper cut, it’s worth noting that while the Early Album 5 sessions were wisely scrapped forever, this song was a true winner and should’ve been held over for the eventual Make Believe like its contemporary “Perfect Situation” was. Failing that, this is the kind of experimentation I wish the band would pursue more often, especially on decidedly “experimental” outings such as The Red Album…But in any case, it’s a good memento from an otherwise largely disposable session, and proof that true gems exist in all eras of this band’s long and mysterious life.