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For my money, “Buttefly” might very well be the best thing Rivers Cuomo’s ever done. I usually vacillate between this one and “Only in Dreams” as Weezer’s definitive moment (and sometimes the defiantly great Red era outtake “Pig,” even), and at 8 minutes, “Dreams” has a bit of an inherent advantage — it is conspicuously epic, resoundingly conclusive, and masterfully beautiful. But “Butterfly” lacks only the first of those three descriptors, and might actually be better for it. As it sheds the the coarse, distorted cocoon of Pinkerton‘s first 9 tracks to make its gentle skyward escape, “Butterfly” is a song that achieves everything its shouted, amplified, cathartically immature predecessors do with just one guy playing one guitar and singing one voice. At a bit under 3 minutes in length, “Butterfly” is approximately as long as the overwhelming finale of “Dreams,” and — just like “Dreams” — it can send waves of chills through my body the whole way through, if I’m in the mood to let it.

“Butterfly” is the perfect quiet-after-the-storm for one of the most raucous albums in rock history, the inversely spare denouement to the album’s aesthetic and literal centerpiece, “Across the Sea.” It’s inevitably disappointing to imagine Pinkerton ending in any other way, and it’s interesting to think that for a time Cuomo did (with the grand, though much lesser, “Longtime Sunshine“) — though I doubt he could’ve called the record Pinkerton if he did. Though scholars are still searching for evidence of the Puccini-quoted melodies that Cuomo has claimed are scattered throughout his own song suite, “Butterfly” is the one place where Madama Butterfly‘s presence is most clearly felt. Butterfly, Puccini’s 1904 opera, ends with naval lieutenant Pinkerton forever leaving behind his secret love in Japan, Cio-Cio San, as he makes his final return to his American life and family. Pinkerton ends with our own Pinkerton (Cuomo himself, on page and in life) making the same reluctant betrayal of the love he’s finally found after so much pained searching (the miserable morning-after regret that follows a starlit night of love and confusion called “Falling For You“). In a lot of ways, it’s a progression from the adolescent angst that makes all previous Weezer songs so vital: “Across the Sea” is fantasizing about a girl too young to have without hurting, “Only in Dreams” is a prom night too perfect to exist, “In the Garage” is being too lonely to even find someone with whom to play Dungeons & Dragons. “Butterfly” cuts down on the self-pity but none of the self-loathing, lucidly aware that the pain he is about to inflict on her and himself is entirely his own doing; it is painfully honest and confessional, so much so that recording engineer David Fridmann felt compelled to ask Cuomo if he really wanted to say it on record. But even then, it’s not one bit more mature than those other songs — you can tell as much in the second verse, when he sings pettily, “If I’m a dog then you’re a bitch,” but even more plainly so in those gorgeously awful last three lines, when it is quietly revealed that Cuomo is singing this song to himself, not to the poor girl. “I did what my body told me to / I didn’t mean to do you harm” isn’t an insincere apology, it’s not an apology — the bastard is just rationalizing his mistake for his own conscience’s sake. The real apology comes later, at the very end, and that’s one for not having the guts to apologize. You can tell he means that one.

This song has been performed a number of ways by Cuomo and company, and improbably enough, they’re all brilliant. In the early ’00s, Weezer had a remarkable knack for misinterpreting their own classics (the godawful extended intro for “Buddy Holly” was just the most common; the worst was probably newbie Scott Shriner’s effects-pedal smothering and improvisational dance-upon-corpsing of “Only in Dreams” and its bass spine). But somehow, the full-band jam take on “Butterfly” actually came off: I’ve heard many slight variations across a number of bootlegs, and some worked better than others, but they all worked, and that’s something of a great achievement, considering their common features include rather active drumming, free-range bass roaming (ably introduced by Mikey Welsh, not Shriner, interestingly enough), echoic electric guitars, and twice as many “I’m sorrys” as the recorded version. Probably the best take is the one that wound up officially released on the b-side of “Beverly Hills” in 2005. This strange pairing of songs continued with the placement of “Butterfly” in what was otherwise probably the Raditude era’s pivotal nadir, the 2009 AOL sessions, this gorgeously simple and understated epic following the likes of Chamillionaire ruining the one redeeming moment of “Can’t Stop Partying,” and Kenny fucking G flute-shitting all over a song about banging teenage girls in the Palermo’s men’s room. Here “Butterfly” had harp instead of guitar, and Cuomo stood in place and sang instead of shouting around like a rhesus ape, and it was lovely.

My absolute favorite performance, though, was probably the one that took place this past weekend in New York City. The band was just finishing up the local leg of its Memories tour, in which they play a greatest hits setlist and then one of their first two albums on succesive evenings. Blue was fantastic but Pinkerton was uniformly superior (just like the records), and after years of air-guitaring and -drumming and bad-singing along with friends in the car, finally getting to shout and jump and do it all with thousands of perfect strangers felt like something of a lifetime accomplishment. But it was “Butterfly” (with that minimal tom-tom beat played by Karl Koch, just like on the record) that gave us the chance to calm down and really soak it all in — an opportunity to think not what these songs have meant for us, but what they’ve meant for Cuomo. Back in the late ’90s, when it seemed the man had all but disappeared, fans interpreted the last three lines of “Butterfly” as a goodbye to music. Now, in the late ’00s, it could just as tenably be read as an apology from Cuomo, having returned but not once having really seemed like himself, for the music he has made since. But all those several thousands of us could now stand in place and sing and really try to hit all the notes, not for ourselves as we did loud and free on “The Good Life” and “El Scorcho,” but for Cuomo. As he finished amidst great applause, warmth in his eyes and a small smile as he stood holding his acoustic high in triumph before a sea of hand-symbols representing the band he’s fronted mostly just in name for so long, you could really sense that he gets it, he got it in ’96, and he never honestly forgot it. Cuomo’s just always wanted to be loved, and when Pinkerton didn’t go over so well he simply tried to find what he needed from a different audience; meanwhile, we who love Pinkerton and have wanted to love him for it have grown as an audience, and for a night we could each give each other exactly what had been missing from this record’s history for so long. I waited nearly a decade for that one moment, and I’m not sorry.