When Rivers Cuomo opened up Weezer’s songwriting (and lead microphone) to his three bandmates on 2008’s Red Album, it struck both critics and fans as a surprising move from such a typically autocratic frontman. But the gesture was not nearly as unprecedented as Cuomo’s even more recent enthusiasm for collaborating on Weezer songs with outside songwriters, friends, and people of all walks of life — a la Raditude and Hurley. History has shown that Cuomo has been at least somewhat sympathetic to the idea of his bandmates stepping into the =W= limelight: scattered glimpses into the band’s demo troves from the early aughts show that guitarist Brian Bell was pitching material for 2005’s Make Believe (the lovely “It’s Easy,” the otherwise “Rat Race”), and Weezer even played live a song or two each by Bell and drummer Pat Wilson during their adventurous 2002 tour behind Maladroit. And though they remain unheard like virtually all material of the era, four Bell tunes were regularly rehearsed by Weezer at practices in 1998, though Cuomo (whose writer’s block had spurred Bell to bring forth the songs) balked at the suggestion of recording them as a demo for the band. And though Cuomo handled much of the writing and sings lead on the songs, three of The Blue Album‘s songs feature backing tracks largely composed by Wilson.
But before any of that, Cuomo collaborated with original Weezer bassist Matt Sharp on a song called “Mrs. Young.” Likely inspired by Cuomo’s recent composition “Jamie” (indeed, an early version of Sharps’s song is listed in the Recording History as “Jamie II”), it was written as an ode to Jamie Young, the band’s lawyer at the time of their signing to major label Geffen Records. Sharp approached Cuomo with a mostly-finished draft of the song in May of ’93 for help with a couple sections and vocal harmonies, which Cuomo provided — his voice can be heard on the demo, if not perhaps his playing too. However, it was mostly Sharp’s tune, and one for which he sang lead — and seeing how there were at one point serious plans to release it as a b-side for an indie “Jamie” single (scrapped when the band finalized their thoroughly restrictive contract with Geffen), “Mrs. Young” would have been the first officially released Weezer song for which Cuomo took the back seat as early as 1994.
Looking back, it’s a dang shame that didn’t happen. “Mrs. Young” is a great song — perhaps Sharp’s all-time best — and one that is, against considerable odds, actually worthy of the “classic Weezer” period from which it hails. Sharp’s warm and melodic voice has never sounded better, in my opinion, and there’s a charming magic to when that first Cuomo-harmonized, softly strummed chorus swells into an instrumental breeze of harmonicas and guitars. Things get a little predictable when the trademark Weez crunch amp comes in at the two-minute mark — though to be fair, they’d probably just discovered the sound back then — and it sounds great, making room for a fantastic little solo and the song’s heartfelt final stretch. It’s no “Jamie,” but it comes surprisingly close.
Like “Jamie,” though, there’s no way this song could’ve fit on Blue, let alone Pinkerton — but had Cuomo at least been open to the idea of letting other band members write for Weezer on a b-side basis (or, as we see with Wilson’s case on Blue, as co-writers), perhaps things would’ve turned out a little differently. I can imagine Sharp perhaps not starting his own Rentals project, or at least being satisfied enough with his creative role in Weezer as not to leave it (or be discontented enough to act so troublesome that the band had little choice but to give him the boot — whatever was the case). Bell’s knack for songwriting is hard to deny, and with Cuomo’s help (especially one as focused and clear-headed as was his mid-’90s self), I think some great songs could have come from the partnership. And Wilson’s contributions to songs like “My Name Is Jonas” and “Surf Wax America” (hell, even an old scrap like “Lemonade”) have shown that his collaborations with Cuomo can be immensely fruitful. And while Bell’s best work has been his own (Cuomo’s never collaborated with him, ridiculously — Bell’s abortive rewrite of “Private Message” doesn’t count!), I don’t think Sharp’s ever done better than this one on his own, and with the exception of 2008’s solid “Automatic,” Wilson’s solo contributions to the Weezer name have been forgettable at best (2002’s “Reason to Worry” and “The Story Is Wrong,” last year’s “In The Mall”). Had the band seriously explored the possibility of collaboration earlier (at least during the Pinkerton fallout), I think we’d be looking at a different — and perhaps likely — kind of Weezer today.
In any event, the post-1993 life of “Mrs. Young” has been pretty interesting. Once it became apparent that Cuomo was content to leave the song behind, Sharp erased his bandmate’s contributions and rewrote it as “Please Let That Be You” — changing it from a lo-fi, autumnal reminiscence to a nightlit electro-pop ballad (the chorus lyrics left virtually unaltered). It’s a bit of a downgrade, for sure — I feel like Sharp’s sad robot routine in the verses feel a bit forced — but it’s still pretty damn catchy, and one of the highlights of his solo project’s debut album Return of the Rentals. From there “Mrs. Young” seemed largely forgotten, however, eventually turning up on the Rentals’ 2001 fan club-only collection, Excellent Stocking Stuffer — which might well have been the first time the original Sharp and Cuomo demo surfaced to the public, now that I think about it.
But thankfully, the story doesn’t quite end there. Instead, at a now-legendary Matt Sharp solo acoustic show in February of 2005 at Cal State Fullerton, during which he was joined for a few concluding songs with Cuomo — marking the first time the two had performed together since Sharp’s last gig with Weezer in 1997. In order, they played an appropriately heavy-hearted take on “Mrs. Young” (Sharp changing the opening lyric, “Since you called yesterday, I have felt so swell,” to “like hell”), a new mostly-Matt song they had recently collaborated on called “Time Song,” and the Blue staples “Say It Ain’t So” and “Undone – The Sweater Song.” The performance of “Mrs. Young” is a little sloppy, from both Cuomo’s apparent lack of preparation (reading from sheet music) and Sharp being in sentimental singer-songwriter mode, but it’s quite moving nevertheless — especially in its lovely bridge (“stand by my side, always be true”). The two Blue songs sounded great (Sharp’s improvised 2pac quotation at the beginning of “Undone” is classic), and “Time Song” shows the outlines of a song better than at least 90% of anything each of them had have released with their own projects since ’97. It all made Sharp’s little aside about how they had been working on new material for a record genuinely exciting — but any hope for that was soon quelled when Weezer’s Make Believe came out and proved to be something entirely different than what most fans had wanted, and any news of a Cuomo and Sharp collaboration subsequently withered and blew away. The two have unfortunately never played together again, the last place they were seen together at all being Cuomo’s wedding in 2006.