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Butterfly

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.

32 Comments

  1. andybedingfield wrote:

    It must have been a truly awe inspiring moment to sing this one with Rivers and all the fans live.

    I went to my first Weezer concert a couple of months ago in Atlanta(bout time, I should say), and Rivers announced that it would be the last of the regular tour shows, so he and Scott decided to tease us with YGYLTMS and Tired of Sex…and it was amazing. Not the best concert I’ve been to, but I guess knowing that I wouldn’t be able to see them playing two of my favorite albums all the way through(live anyway; watching on YouTube was too enticing to resist, and I’ve loved every song I’ve heard so far)was a bit tough on me…Weezer, PLEASE come back to the ATL, we love you.

    Oh and Soy, beautiful post for a beautiful song. Glad to see you back!

    Monday, December 20, 2010 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  2. thegreatestscorch wrote:

    I know i shook my credibility with my last comment on Stack, but in my opinion this is the most beautiful and sad song rivers ever laid down to tape

    Monday, December 20, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  3. yim_yecker wrote:

    =W=

    Monday, December 20, 2010 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  4. Adroit wrote:

    A welcome return.

    Great write-up. You could also add that Sharp lobbied for its inclusion.

    Monday, December 20, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink
  5. noobcakesmcgee wrote:

    I didn’t know about the engineer asking Rivers if he really wanted to put it on the record. Pretty cool info! Butterfly, no matter how much you like it, is an extremely personal and unique song in the Weezer canon and for that reason alone, you should respect it. But on top of that, it’s damned amazing and chilling. Beautiful.

    Monday, December 20, 2010 at 5:33 pm | Permalink
  6. clonus wrote:

    Great one, Soy. What did you think of the alternate version on Pinkerton Deluxe? I liked hearing it, although it was not quite as interesting as I hoped it would be.

    Monday, December 20, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink
  7. DJS92491 wrote:

    http://weezer.com/photo/butterfly-roseland-ballroom?commentId=6282558%3AComment%3A89076&xg_source=msg_com_photo

    Just thought I might share this with you all. =w=

    Monday, December 20, 2010 at 9:13 pm | Permalink
  8. Soyrev wrote:

    Thanks for the props thus far, folks.

    Adroit: Yeah, that’s interesting, though I wonder if his conviction actually made any difference. Had Cuomo already decided to sub out “Sunshine” in favor of “Butterfly” by the time he showed it to Sharp, or was it Sharp who actually convinced Rivers to go through with it? Something we’ll never know.

    Noob: Yeah, apparently Cuomo squeezed it in at the recording session totally last minute, and did the first take sometime around 3 or 4am on the last night. Fridmann heard it and, over the intercom, said something like, “That’s really, really personal, man. Are you sure you want to share that with everybody?” And Cuomo simply replied, “Yeah, I’m sure,” and did another take. :'(

    Clonus: Alternate take is neat to have, but yeah, not all that interesting. Just a little faster and without the tom beat. Although it’s very nice to hear Cuomo sing the first line of the song a capella — makes me wish he had recorded a version of it like that all the way through, his voice sounds so sweet and pure.

    DJS: Fantastic picture, thank you for sharing. That was one of the most moving moments I’ve been in for some time…

    Monday, December 20, 2010 at 11:02 pm | Permalink
  9. nonnymouse wrote:

    I mean it’s good, but it’s no “Can’t Stop Partying ft. Lil’ Wayne” srsly he’s stuck in this groove where he can’t stop partying sooo Kafka-esque

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 9:48 pm | Permalink
  10. Robin wrote:

    Soy, I completely agree with you about the show this past weekend at Roseland. It was really incredible to see him play “Butterfly.” The tiny smile you describe was one of the most memorable moments of the night.

    Did you see his face when he fouled up the lyrics to the last verse of “In The Garage” the previous night? It was so funny; a little tiny shy embarrassment.

    Amazing, amazing shows.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 11:36 pm | Permalink
  11. Thrillhouse wrote:

    Soy – good write up, 2 months without a review? 2 years since a write up on a Pinkerton album track? WOW

    in regards to the b-side, you really like this one that much? It annoys me that he doesn’t sing the “with my momma’s mason jar/caught a lovely butterfly” line. he tends to flub up lyrics on stage, annoying.

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  12. Soyrev wrote:

    Haha, yeah Robin, that was cute. And TH, I think he maybe stopped singing that line to let the crowd do it, which either the mics didn’t pick up at all, or the crowd simply did not do. Either way, that’s a small grievance for what I otherwise consider a great interpretation.

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  13. OOS wrote:

    This song is wonderful, absolutely one of the most sincere and bare moments on an album that’s basically built entirely on them.

    Personally, Butterfly had never been a favourite of mine until just a few months ago, actually, when I decided to give it another try and it kinda just blew me away. Like all of Pinkerton it just needed some time to click, but man is it ever worth it.

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  14. Knightboat wrote:

    Great write-up again. When first listening to Pinkerton, this song could be the “boring” song at the end that doesn’t have the same energy/recklessness as the rest of the album, and if you’re not in the right frame of mind or don’t “get” the album (I only know about the Puccini stuff thanks to the Internet and wouldn’t have otherwise) you can easily miss the point. By the same token, this song could be conversely admired simply because it’s an acoustic ballad, making it a campfire staple, and nothing more.

    But no. The true depth and beauty of the song are revealed in context as the last gasp of the whole of Pinkerton. The performance is perfectly captured… You can feel the quiet, lonely darkness it exudes.

    Lyrically it’s poetic, vivid and direct. It’s vulnerable and apologetic but at the same time defiant. It stands as both a tribute to Puccini’s story and as a personal statement.

    Seeing it live (I saw the Boston performance), in the conext of the album, performed for a crowd who “get” it and embrace it, it’s cathartic and vindicating.

    Friday, December 31, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink
  15. AF wrote:

    “When first listening to Pinkerton, this song could be the “boring” song at the end that doesn’t have the same energy/recklessness as the rest of the album, and if you’re not in the right frame of mind or don’t “get” the album (I only know about the Puccini stuff thanks to the Internet and wouldn’t have otherwise) you can easily miss the point.”

    This was exactly the situation for me.

    I was a firm fan of Pinkerton from the moment I listened to the first 10 seconds or so of each song in HMV late Sept. 1996, and ran to the counter to purchase it with giddy joy. For many years though, despite being my favourite album, to me it was simply a collection of blisteringly-awesome songs, followed by the boring “Butterfly”. I blame the “unplugged” overkill of the 90s for my general disdain of acoustic songs at the time.

    To be completely honest, even though I was later aware of the “Madame Butterfly” parallels, it was only a couple of years ago that I sat down and properly listened to the album with that in mind. It was then that I finally understood and appreciated that Pinkerton shouldn’t have ended any other way. It’s still not a song that I would decide to sit down and listen to, but I am definitely a born-again fan of “Butterfly”.

    Saturday, January 1, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Permalink
  16. Melack wrote:

    This melody has always been one of my all-time favorites, even as a 12 year old knowing absolutely nothing about what the song really meant I was totally mezmerized. On many days of the year it’s my favorite Weezer song.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Permalink
  17. blueguy wrote:

    this song has been totally under-rated in the weezer community over the years. i am at a loss to understand why, although i guess it’s just not as dynamic as ATS or OID, etc. hands down this is cuomo’s best lyrics and its set so beautifully with a sparse, simple sound.

    you are spot on, soy, this has to be the last song of pinkerton, and it made LTS (which is a gorgeous in its own way) completely irrelevant. pinkerton wouldn’t be pinkerton with out it.

    its such a great contrast lyrically to the album as cuomo frames himself as the victim in most of the songs and “butterfly” has him actually telling us, he has a part in this. all the songs before are about blaming something else – unable to find love, my leg is too short (okay he doesn’t say this but this is what the “the good life” is all about). it’s not an ocean in the way or the girl’s sexuality on why he’s lonely. it’s him. he messed up.

    this one is definitely in my top ten, maybe top five weezer songs. i can’t say enough of it, so i’ll stop. great post, soy.

    Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Permalink
  18. Soyrev wrote:

    “its such a great contrast lyrically to the album as cuomo frames himself as the victim in most of the songs and “butterfly” has him actually telling us, he has a part in this.”

    I think what’s so moving about “Butterfly,” in part, is that it’s the point at which Cuomo takes responsibility for all of his pain on Pinkerton. It’s hinted at elsewhere (“Who do I got to blame? Nobody but me”), but at this point it becomes front and center. Hard to pity a guy who starts an album saying he’s tired of meaningless sex and in need of love, and 30 minutes later, turning his back on true love for more meaningless sex. The “I’m sorry” refrain isn’t just to the girl in this song, it’s to everything that’s happened over the course of the past ten tracks.

    Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Permalink
  19. Mr. Sweeney wrote:

    I feel like this is as good a place as any to share this.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FySvK2nEh7Q&feature=player_embedded#at=20

    That interview is amazing. By far the most honest and direct I’ve ever heard him while talking about Pinkerton. Maybe our boy’s coming around after all…

    Sunday, February 20, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Permalink
  20. Chris wrote:

    You’re right Soy, I’m just as surprised (shocked?) at how the live version turns out to work really well!

    Sure, it could lose Rivers’ stupid “jiminy crickets” banter and that audience member screaming at the “I told you I would return/when the robin makes his nest” verse is a bit distracting, but it works surprisingly well. I really liked the harmony vocal on the ending “I’m sorry” – was that Brian?

    Saturday, January 21, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  21. Chris wrote:

    Also, that interview is good… I kinda really understand where Rivers was coming from, so the whole Green/Maladroit thing make more sense. And arrogant as it may be, I think I can understand why he did that “little bitches” thing as well…

    Saturday, January 21, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink
  22. Soyrev wrote:

    Yeah, Brian on the harmonies of course. And that interview was great, he does have a point: a second album selling only 10% of what the first one did, when else has that happened? That’s a mighty big drop-off, I can understand how he took that hard.

    Saturday, May 5, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  23. AF wrote:

    “he does have a point: a second album selling only 10% of what the first one did, when else has that happened?”

    I’m sure that has happened a hell of a lot of times. I wonder if Wheatus’s second album even sold 10% of their first?

    Sunday, May 6, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Permalink
  24. Chris wrote:

    AF: I guess I should’ve clarified, I meant specifically that I sympathised with Rivers’ self-doubt and feeling that he’d shown his “dark side” (as it were) too much and that’s why he felt everybody hated him and therefore not doing that again was the best idea. (Then again, I probably identify with that because I also tend to be insecure about my own music…)

    Huge dropoffs… Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie sold less than Jagged Little Pill, despite being a better album. Maybe not 10%, but still not 10x platinum and all that.

    Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Permalink
  25. Chris wrote:

    (I also mentioned I understand the “little bitches” thing… my interpretation of it may be wrong since it’s coloured by my own experiences with insecurity, but I *think* Rivers might’ve been trying to stop himself from putting too much weight on criticism and basically shout down the inner critical voice by trying to dismiss people who criticised him, sort of in a fit of anger/desperation and all that. That’s the most charitable interpretation I can think of.)

    Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink
  26. Soyrev wrote:

    AF, of course it happens all the time. But no artist is ever psyched when it does.

    Friday, June 15, 2012 at 1:25 am | Permalink
  27. catfamine wrote:

    “AF, of course it happens all the time.”

    Indeed, the phenomenon happens frequently enough that it has a rather infamous name: the sophomore slump. Any artist with a successful debut fears it, and many have succumbed to its wrath.

    Sunday, June 17, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  28. Nate wrote:

    will you ever return

    Friday, July 3, 2015 at 8:31 am | Permalink
  29. tsarczar wrote:

    I sorely, sorely miss this place. please never take any of this down. there is some truly excellent stuff here…

    Monday, July 27, 2015 at 5:17 am | Permalink
  30. Plumtree wrote:

    Hey Soy, I don’t know if you ever still check on this, but it would be cool to know your thoughts on EWBAITE.

    Friday, July 31, 2015 at 5:37 am | Permalink
  31. Ruby wrote:

    I second that. I’m really glad I came across this blog. Not so happy about its inactivity. :'(

    Thursday, September 24, 2015 at 7:03 pm | Permalink
  32. Novemberton wrote:

    When I first listened to Pinkerton a few summers ago I found it really hard to get through the first half. It was so abrasive and angry and so completely different than the music I had listened to up until that point. Then came that drum fill at the end of ATS, the insane choruses on El Scorcho and The Good Life, the tragic story of pink triangle, holy sweet god damn everything about Falling for You. I was just about in love. The first strum of Butterfly hit and a shiver ran down my spine. By the end of the song, there were tears in my eyes and I can’t say whether they were for Rivers or myself.
    I don’t think that on that day I would have said that butterfly was my favorite Weezer song. But damn, no other song has made me feel the way Butterfly did. What a song. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.

    Wednesday, December 23, 2015 at 3:31 am | Permalink

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