Looking at the original lyric sheet for the pre-Blue Album song “Paperface” is a pretty rare (and funny) treat. There is an aborted attempt at a verse that begins, “I played the game / I was all right / For a while / I didn’t fight,” which Rivers Cuomo scribbled over with an emphatic “CRAP” (made slightly ironic in hindsight, since those kind of lyrics aren’t too uncommon in his latter day songwriting). And there is what wound up becoming the song’s second verse, an autobiographical story of learning that it pays to be a fake in the competitive push-and-pull of Los Angeles — to “wear a paper face,” so to speak, which presents Cuomo with some struggles of authenticity (“How am I supposed to sing with this thing in my way?”). There are also two interesting marginal notes, a list labeled “Weezer” that was either meant to be a setlist or some early contenders for album material (notably including the unheard and fantastically titled “Spiderbitch”), as well as a note that says, “It sounds like something I heard before in a Spike Lee movie.”
The latter note probably isn’t a reference to this song, ’cause “Paperface” is a genuine slab of that angriest of white dude musics, punk rock. In fact, Weezer — then with Jason Cropper on guitar and backing vocals instead of his soon-to-be-replacement Brian Bell — have never attacked a recording with quite such unbridled energy ever again after the 1992 recording on the Kitchen Tapes demo. The guitars come surging right out the gates, and the larynx-lacerating scream that Cuomo and Cropper share moments later is more intense, primal, and unleashed than anything else ever to bear the Weezer name. Cuomo also indulges in a rare moment of third-person storytelling during that frantic first verse, crafting a thrilling vibe also unique in the band’s catalog before or since:
Amy Moore blew her top
Stole a car, shot a cop
Sped away — 2000 miles
Didn’t stop until she hit New Orleans
That’s all right
There’s just one thing…
Her wedding ring, or anything
She left behind, forgot to pack
How the hell is she gonna get it back!?
As the energy builds through the verse and into the narrative’s wry punchline, Cropper appears in the last couplet with some scream-shouted echoes that are pitch perfect (marking another distinction this performance has: Cropper vocals that actually fit!). The chorus offers no answer to that concluding question, but only the insane, blood vessel-bursting refrain: “PAPERFACE!!!! PAPERFACE!!!!” Fortunately, it sounds fucking great.
And so does that early Weezer acoustic arpeggiation that introduces the second verse (the same as the one originally written in Cuomo’s notebook), just before the electric comes roaring in with a pickscrape to tear the thing to shreds. The chorus reappears, twice as long as before, leading into a fantastic bridge that could make for a pretty good swing progression (if they slowed it down a few dozen BPM) but winds up collapsing on itself in an exhausted heap.
And this is where things really click. The acoustic reappears — this time shouldering the progression while a clean-cut electric moseys a melody around it — and Cuomo repeats the first verse half as fast as he did before. While the frenetic energy of the song’s opening made the mid-line pauses sound as though Cuomo was fighting to breathe through the bedlam, now he savors every moment of it, as if telling some sad bluesy tale almost too hard to believe. (I’d say it sounds like he’s the new east coast boy trying to fit in with the guitar-slingers in some Nashville bar, if it weren’t for what sounds like crickets in the background — so we’ll have to settle for a Nashville porch instead.) The bass, drums, and a third guitar add in for dramatic emphasis halfway through, but soon Cuomo loses control of the thing again, as the rhythm speeds up, Cropper challenging him with those scratchy back-up vocals of his. The chorus explodes once again, even more brutal than before, Cuomo testing out his vocal stamina as Cropper barks like a rabid dog and either of them pushes one of those wailing electrics into its death throes. It’s an intoxicating, lose-your-shit-or-protect-your-neck moshpit moment up until the very last chord.
This version — finally released in 2004 as a bonus track on the Deluxe Edition reissue of Blue — is a real winner, and the one song “Getchoo” has to answer to in the raw rock power department. But in 2007 we got to hear this song in another, earlier light on Rivers Cuomo’s Alone II compilation — that of its original home demo. (Curiously, this was issued as “Paper Face,” with an added space.) For the most part, it’s a similar arrangement, but performed with a beat machine and some truly fuzz-smothered guitars. The tempo just barely lacks the velocity it needs to work, though, and everything here — from Cuomo’s vocal to the beat machine — sounds tentative and unsure. There’s also a different (and seriously cheesy) bridge that features awkwardly melodramatic lyrics — “Let’s see what you have got inside / Underneath your paperface” — and some very deep-voiced counterpoint in the backing vocals, an effect that was never repeated in Cuomo’s recorded history outside of maybe “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here.” The bridge is far from the best part of the Kitchen Tapes version, but the one here just doesn’t fit lyrically or musically, and really weighs things down — especially when the bridge is reprised as the song’s anticlimactic outro. But to his credit, I don’t think Cuomo included it on Alone II for its quality, but rather its humor. My favorite part is his hilarious vocal intro to the song, in which he acknowledges the performance’s shit quality by bragging that it’s a scratch track.
Oh, I nearly forgot to mention that a new recording of this song was included on 2008’s Not Alone DVD. It’s an acoustic performance (not sure if Cuomo’s playing the guitar, but it’s got a surprisingly Brazilian bossa nova swing to it), which is interesting for a moment but ultimately ruined by an absolutely bizarre rendering of the chorus. It’s neat to hear Cuomo choose to revisit this song a decade and a half later, but this take is even worse than the original demo.
In short: wanna brush up on your Weezer archaeology and hear some strange little curiosities? Check out the solo Cuomo variations. Wanna get whiplash the fun way? Crank the Kitchen Tape.