Sunday, August 01, 2004

Rivers Cuomo: A Brief History of His Time

This is his re-admission letter to Harvard:

I wrote this for readmission to school...

What I致e Been Up To Since I Left School

Weird Science
After the initial failure of my band痴 second album, Pinkerton, I decided not to return to school in the fall of 1997, instead setting out on a mission to develop creative methods which would allow me to be more consistent as an artist. Above all, I wanted to cure myself of the Romanticism which I believed was to blame for my failure.

Throughout 1998 and 1999 I engaged in hundreds of song-experiments. I filled notebooks and cassette tapes. I drew graphs, tables, and charts. I studied other writers・methods. I took hundreds of pages of notes on the creative process, mostly from Nietzsche, but also from Goethe and Stravinsky.

At first, I maintained a social life, playing and coaching soccer and continuing my classical piano studies with Bruce Sutherland. Eventually, however, I became more and more isolated. I unplugged my phone. I painted the walls and ceiling of my bedroom black and covered the windows with fiberglass insulation. I disciplined myself to an extreme extent. My goal was to purge myself of all weakness so that I could write 菟erfect・songs as reliably as a machine.

Most of the time, I believed that I was optimistic and happy. The song-experiments, however, produced music of less and less joy and, occasionally, I would fall into despair. At one point, in September of 1999, I actually gave up my mission and decided to go back to school, sacrificing my music career indefinitely. I contacted Dean Thomas Dingman to gain admittance, but learned that I had missed the registration deadline by two weeks. I could only move forward with the music.

I struggled on for two-and-a-half years in all. I finally concluded that such intense focus on musical perfection was only scaring off any real inspiration I might have had. I needed to broaden my focus onto a more practical, tangible goal, in the hopes that music would start to flow in service to that goal. Nietzsche痴 discussions of 堵reat芭en憂ulius Caesar, Cesare Borgia, and Napoleon耀uggested the goal of 努orld domination・ or in terms applicable to me, commercial success.

Commercial success, I believed, simply dictated making the most of what I had, musically, and becoming active with my band again, and making an album and touring. I swallowed my creative insecurities for the sake of that success and revealed my songs to close associates in early 2000. Their positive reactions led to rehearsals, which led to performances. We discovered that during our long absence, we had only become more popular. Our 吐ailed・album, Pinkerton, was now viewed by many critics and fans as great. With momentum behind me, I kept writing. At the end of 2000, we entered the studio to make our long overdue third album.

Imperial Aspirations
The Green Album was released in May of 2001, going on to sell over two million copies worldwide. We toured extensively, playing our biggest concerts ever. We performed on Saturday Night Live and at the MTV Movie Awards. The album痴 success at radio and MTV, and in foreign markets wherein we had had no previous success, seemed to me to validate the approach I had taken with myself and my art. I became the opposite of the unconfident hermit I was in 1998 and 1999. I believed that my band would become 鍍he biggest band in the world・and that I was the man to lead us to that destiny.

I sought to cultivate the same ruthless practicality in my business that I had achieved in my music. I studied the lives of Napoleon and David Geffen, Machiavelli痴 典he Prince・ and contemporary texts on leadership and management. I gradually took over all of the business responsibilities from our manager and managed the band completely by myself. My performing, writing, and recording continued but were now joined by my business activities, all of which together I viewed as converging on the one goal of 努orld domination・ I read books on business and negotiating. I hired a staff. I reformed our operation, renegotiated contracts, and consolidated power. I found it easy to gain ground in negotiations because no music businesspeople wanted to 菟lay hardball・with 鍍he artist・ Furthermore, I believed we were able to grow with integrity, as I could make informed choices, seeing for once exactly how the business worked.

However, I also steered us into many bitter battles, including two lawsuits and many other very tense negotiations. For example, in order to demonstrate our independence from the record company in the new age of digital media, I shut them out of the making of our fourth album, Maladroit. We financed and produced the album entirely ourselves, sending hundreds of copies of the finished product to press and radio傭ut none to our record company. The record company could only watch on the sidelines as the first single quickly climbed the charts, and the fans downloaded the promotional copies off the internet. At this point, we had what I believed was optimal leverage, and we renegotiated our contract.

Ultimately, however, Maladroit was not the big hit that it had threatened to be, selling only about three-quarters of a million copies. I had succeeded in improving our financial arrangement, but not in making a hit album. The record company blamed my shenanigans for the downturn in success.

Many fans also criticized the music. They heard both Maladroit and The Green Album as being 杜echanical・and 兎motionless・ I tried to evaluate the criticism objectively but I had a difficult time. I had crushed my faculty of self-criticism in 1998-2000 in order to make a comeback. I could not tell if my current predicament was just a classic case of an audience lagging behind the development of an artist (as in the case of Bob Dylan when he went electric) or if I had I really 斗ost something・ I reacted defensively, calling the fans 斗ittle bitches・in an interview with Guitar World magazine. Now the fans were unhappy, the record company was unhappy, my associates were unhappy, and I was unhappy. I did not know what could be done to change that.

I fell into a life of ego and vice. Deep inside, however, I was having serious doubts. I asked myself, 的s my life really supporting the production of the music I know I am capable of creating?・ I had to admit that music no longer gave me the feeling of sublime ecstasy that it once had. Although I had already written another large pile of songs for our fifth album, I put all plans to record on hold. There was a revolution brewing in my mind, soon to be triggered by the man we had hired a few months earlier to produce the album, Rick Rubin.

In February of 2003, Rick gave me a copy of Daniel Ladinsky痴 translation of Hafiz痴 poetry, The Gift. After overcoming my initial aversion to all things spiritual, I decided to read some of the book because I trusted Rick so much. Henry Mindlin, in his introduction to the book, says:

Hafiz wrote hundreds of ghazals [or love songs], finding ways to bring new depth and meaning to the lyrics without losing the accustomed association of a love song・e explored different forms and levels of love: his delight in nature痴 beauty, his romantic courtship of that ideal unattainable girl, his sweet affection for his wife, his tender feelings for his child・is relationship with his teacher and his adoration of God.

I was struck by the connection between all these different forms of love. I recognized that the feeling of sublime ecstasy I once got from music was just one more of these forms of love.

I had an epiphany: if the feeling these mystics get in union with their God is analogous to the feeling I used to get in union with my music, then their teachings for how to achieve their union should likewise serve to instruct me how to achieve my union. A whole world of spiritual teachings opened up to me for the first time since, as a child, I had decided that I was an 殿theist・ I now read these teachings as coded instructions for how to connect with my musical creativity. For example, when Hafiz says, 鉄elf-Effacement is the emerald dagger you need to plunge deep into yourself upon this path to ・od・ I read it as 鉄elf-Effacement is the emerald dagger you need to plunge deep into yourself upon this path to Musical Creativity.・ Like this, I just replaced the word God wherever I saw it. I had discovered a new path. I believed that this path was what I had been waiting for.

I eagerly studied a wide variety of traditions including the mystical poetry of Hafiz, Rumi, and Kabir, contemporary spiritual teachers such as Eckhart Tolle and Leonard Jacobson, and ancient texts such as the Tao Te Ching. In accord with my understanding of these teachings, I abruptly dropped all of my business responsibilities and hard-won power, and isolated myself once again. I fasted and lost fifteen percent of my weight. I took a vow of complete celibacy. I gave away or sold most of my possessions, my house, and my car and lived in an empty apartment next to Rick Rubin痴 house for the rest of the year. I moved to settle outstanding lawsuits and reconcile myself with enemies. I apologized to many people. I volunteered six days a week at Project Angel Food in Hollywood, preparing meals for people with HIV.

Thus, my life made another extreme swing, as it has many times, at least since I was a teenager. I have been sometimes a tyrant, sometimes the most frustratingly passive person you have ever met, sometimes a socialite, sometimes a hermit, sometimes a rock star, sometimes a student. I have had little inner stability.

During this latest swing towards spirituality, however, I started a practice at Rick Rubin痴 suggestion which may help me achieve some balance: meditation. I was averse to the idea, initially. My goal in trying all the crazy experiments in my life has always been to improve, maintain, or recover my connection to music. Meditation, it seemed to me, would rob me of the angst that I believed was an essential precondition to that connection. With little to lose, however, I took the chance. I experienced immediate benefits.

The technique I was drawn to is called Vipassana. It is taught around the world at over one hundred centers. (Go to for more information.) I started the practice fourteen months ago, attending seven ten-day courses and serving as a volunteer at two. Since then, I have found that the areas of tension in my mind葉he fear, the anger, the sadness, the craving預re slowly melting away. I am left with a more pristine mind, more sharp and sensitive than I previously imagined possible. I am more calm and stable. My concentration and capacity to work have increased greatly. I feel like I am finally much closer to reaching my potential.

I now live in a small but comfortable apartment. I feed myself adequately. I took a class at USC this spring, 典he History of Literary Criticism・ and enjoyed it very much. I take private lessons in music composition once a week from Bruce Reich, a professor at UCLA. I still volunteer, once a week, now at the West Hollywood Food Coalition, feeding homeless or otherwise disadvantaged people. Most pleasing to me is that, month by month, I have watched my creative flexibility growing. The music I have created over the last six months has brought me much enjoyment.

I am returning to school in the fall. Other than that, I am wide open to whatever else comes my way・

Interesting bit on the meditation. Weird that Rick Rubin has his spiritual back.

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