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Harvard Blues

It’s interesting that Rivers Cuomo notes in the sleeve for the Alone II demos compendium that by the time this little piece was composed — spring of 1997 — his ambitions to quit rock and become a classical composer by age 30 had already begun to wither. Even at the late date of 2008, when he wrote these notes, Cuomo was making excuses for himself: the first consideration he noted was that, while studying classical composition at Harvard, he was mostly just writing scholarly papers rather than composing much of his own material. Secondly, he felt that he couldn’t connect with the kind of classical they were brewing there in Boston: while Cuomo dug the emo-Romantic sounds of Puccini and Tchaikovsky, he found that “Harvard music…was modern, 20th century, atonal, serial, non-catchy and non-emotional.”

Of course, Harvard’s just one place he could’ve honed his craft, and a truly determined individual rarely dismisses artistic practice out of hand because of one or two bad teachers. Indeed, the truth comes out with Cuomo’s third point: his Puccini mancrush had done nothing but cause him pain, as the relative commercial failure of Pinkerton‘s Madame Butterfly-inflected rock’n’roll was, by early 1997, confirmed to be a no-go on the charts. And while one artist might have withdrawn deeper into his craft, perhaps dropping the rock and going full-out on the classical front as Cuomo had originally planned, this failure sharply stung the young man. How this would impact his songwriting was something that, in April 1997, remained to be heard — but by semester’s close, Cuomo had his heart set on the English major after all.

I mention all this as a preamble because this little piece, while “not a real song” (Cuomo’s words), reflects that the auteur’s experimental and explorative tendencies had not let up. His mind frayed to its limits by Ivy League academia, Cuomo made a sound collage out of a voicemail from his classmate Lucia, who had called to give him the details on an assignment that was given in a class he had missed, layering her voice at different speeds to create an altogether disorienting effect — culminating after 30 seconds with an anguished scream from Cuomo. (Whether or not it was one Cuomo intended to make, “Harvard Blues” serves as a witty comment in and of itself: at Harvard, even the blues are more intellectual than musical.)

In any event, this stands as a nice little lo-fi transition piece, which is how it functions just perfectly on Alone II: a great segue into the exhausted-schizo piano pop of “My Brain Is Working Overtime.” I almost regret that the randomized format of Teenage Victory Songs forces me to separate these tracks into separate discussions, but alas… The point remains: whereas the Cuomo of just a year or so later might find such a pursuit to be a waste of time, the Cuomo of ’97 was still interested in adventuring into sonic territory he had previously yet to chart. And though it would bear far less modest (and brilliantly inspired) results in the form of contemporaries like “Lover in the Snow” and “Rosemary,” this little audio paste-up is just as much a reflection of that creative curiosity as anything else.

24 Comments

  1. Madcap wrote:

    Completely agree with you 100%. I feel the biggest thing Weezer is missing these days is Rivers’ curiosity and experimental approach that he had back in the day.

    it’s all just pop now. the perfect pop song.

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  2. runnersdialzero wrote:

    That little song fragment in there. What a tease, even if it’s 1.5 seconds of Rivers singing a melody into a tape recorder. *shakes fist*

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  3. Low wrote:

    http://www.dailymotion.pl/video/x90h1r_steve-reich-its-gonna-rain-part-1_music

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jfssj80oNuM

    just for the reference, i think this is what ricer had in mind saying “Harvard music…was modern, 20th century, atonal, serial, non-catchy and non-emotional.”.

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  4. danup wrote:

    If I was reading about that stuff every day I’d freak out and record the Green Album, too.

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 6:44 pm | Permalink
  5. Soyrev wrote:

    Madcap: Actually, I found the pursuit of the perfect pop song to be quite interesting — and it produced a pretty good (and in its own way, unusual) album in Green. From there we see aggressively half-baked “how little can I get away with?” songwriting (Maladroit), peaceful/meditative coexistence with pain and music (Make Believe), a return to experimentation with form and genre (Deliverance!/the Red sessions/the beginning of the Raditude sessions), and finally, popularity at any cost (what Raditude wound up becoming). But for better or for worse, Rad’s more about collaborating with big names, seeing what happens, and accepting whatever it is that might come out of it. A far cry from the rigidly methodical perfect song pursuit of the late ’90s/early ’00s, in that Cuomo’s “approach” now seems to have no real method at all.

    Runners: Really? I never even noticed it. Also, you might be interested to know that I’m helplessly addicted to Chrono Trigger these days, after at least half a decade since the last time I touched it.

    Low: Those composers (Reich at least) have definitely done some of the stuff that Rivers was talking about, but I’m quite sure he meant stuff that is actually musical, however dissonant (“atonal”) and certainly “non-catchy.” Here’s a little bit o’ that from a Yale music prof (basically same difference):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkt0W_SYPSg&feature=related

    The whole “neo classical” thing — i.e., classical music that isn’t really classical by any measure. I can definitely understand why Rivers felt like he was getting the opposite of what he had in mind. Some of it’s cool though, this piece is nice in a way.

    Danup: Excuse me if I was unclear in the post itself, but “Harvard Blues” was inspired by the semester he took nothing but English courses — i.e., when he ipso facto became an English major. Which is a distinction I like to make, ’cause I’m with him on that one. 😀

    Oh, and can I say that I think his Music training at Harvard was entirely worthwhile just for the choral breakdown in “Greatest Man?” That song’s up and down, obviously, but that one little section is one of the best musical segments to bear the name of Weezer.

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 11:36 pm | Permalink
  6. waitingandwaiting wrote:

    I feel disappointed that a great song title was wasted on this

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 3:08 am | Permalink
  7. noobcakesmcgee wrote:

    This is a great segue into My Brain, I must agree. It would’ve been a cool opening track for an alternate universe Green to have Harvard Blues play into My Brain.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 6:38 am | Permalink
  8. Adroit wrote:

    noobcakesmcgee wrote:
    This is a great segue into My Brain, I must agree. It would’ve been a cool opening track for an alternate universe Green to have Harvard Blues play into My Brain.

    Wow…great idea! Has that been mentioned before?

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  9. Willy Dee wrote:

    The Alone song articles benefit from having each song’s origins explained. I wish I could find my liner notes.

    Never saw the commentary on the stylistic approach to a Harvard “blues” song. Nicely done.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 10:05 pm | Permalink
  10. Burgess wrote:

    Since there’s not a ton to say about this track, I will put this request here. You should really add some way on this site to see a list of all songs, sorted by most recent comment. Or at least make the recent comments list longer. It’s tough, if you go away for a while, you might miss a cool conversation.

    I understand if there is some technical limitation that prevents this, or if it can already be done, and I missed it, but I would like it!

    Wednesday, May 19, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  11. Soyrev wrote:

    I’ve got it set to the max (15 most recent) now. It used to be 5… How do people feel about it now? Maybe 10 would be a nice compromise. If folks like it as long as possible, though, I’d be happy to keep it as it is now.

    Also, couldn’t see a Most Commented widget or anything like that, but I’ll look into it. I agree, a way of better facilitating conversation would be great — comments keep this place alive.

    Wednesday, May 19, 2010 at 11:22 pm | Permalink
  12. Burgess wrote:

    15 does look pretty long, though it is useful! 10 might be a nice compromise, as you said. Better than 5!

    Time to go comment on at least 5 songs! Haha

    Thursday, May 20, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink
  13. AF wrote:

    I’ve got the comments RSS feed subscribed in Google Reader (as well as the new entries feed), so I can just click on the title of any new ones and see the full post too. It’s pretty handy, and was easier to deal with than trying to figure out whether I’d already read the ones on the front page or not.

    Thursday, May 20, 2010 at 11:36 pm | Permalink
  14. Ludicrosity wrote:

    I just realized this is in the grand playlist and I’m not entirely sure I agree with that. While it works very well for what it is, including it in the grand playlist as a random song in a playlist? I dunno, to me it seems too short to be considered THAT good.

    Thursday, June 10, 2010 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  15. yim_yecker wrote:

    Maybe the grand playlist will have an order… this song will obviously precede My Brain is Working Overtime if this is the case.

    Thursday, June 10, 2010 at 9:24 pm | Permalink
  16. Lams wrote:

    how long can this grand playlist be anyway? infinite?

    Friday, June 11, 2010 at 2:09 am | Permalink
  17. yim_yecker wrote:

    No, because while the Weezer repertoire is very wide and practically countless, it is definitely finite. Within this finite number, there is an even smaller group of songs that fit the status of Grand Playlist. I guess it will approach 200 songs excluding any future work the band may summon.

    Friday, June 11, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  18. Soyrev wrote:

    There’s no way I’m actually going to come up with an intelligible order for such a massive sequence of songs, but yeah — I value a solid segue, and this one works great for “My Brain Is Working Overtime.”

    This playlist can be as big as it needs to be, and I have no idea whether or not Yim’s ~200 prediction will ring true or not…But keep in mind, this is coming from a guy who has several playlists on the order of a thousand-plus songs. My relaxed summer playlist alone is approaching 3000 tunes.

    Friday, June 11, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  19. Madcap wrote:

    Let me just say

    I cannot wait till you cover My Brain.

    Friday, June 11, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  20. Ludicrosity wrote:

    Yeah I’ll have less of a problem with this if My Brain goes on the grand playlist at least since the two pieces work so well together… I will give you that for sure.

    Friday, June 11, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink
  21. danup wrote:

    I can see this being on the Grand Playlist, but I can also see myself skipping it most of the time when said Grand Playlist was on shuffle.

    So as long as the playlist is hypothetical, I think it fits; once it becomes something that actually gets put on iPods it gets awkward.

    Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 11:09 am | Permalink
  22. waitingandwaiting wrote:

    It shouldn’t be on the Grand playlist, it’s a none musical interlude, it’s like declaring a rap skit a great song. If it was at the start of the recording it would be more acceptable, but it’s not even recorded together or with each other in mind.

    Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Permalink
  23. noobcakesmcgee wrote:

    Maybe I’ll edit this w/ My Brain together and make an mp3 so they won’t be split.

    Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 7:10 pm | Permalink
  24. Soyrev wrote:

    Rap skits can be great songs! “I Got To Tell You” and “General Hospital” are the best songs on Dr. Octagon’s first record, and that’s saying something!

    The Grand Playlist is a way of remembering everything worthwhile Weezer and Rivers have ever done: a way of salvaging the good (and great) from the pool of dreck that they have accumulated over the more recent years. It’s my seal of approval, as if to say, “There’s a whole lot of this stuff out there, and it’s not all worth your time, but anything on this list is.” And it might not be a traditional song by anyone’s measure, but “Harvard Blues” is a cool little sonic experiment that is definitely worth saving from oblivion. And yes, I would only recommend it as an intro to “My Brain Is Working Over Time” on purely musical terms, but even then it’s just simply a really neat little curio.

    Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

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