The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)

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"The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)"
The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn) cover
Single by Weezer
Album Weezer (The Red Album)
Released May 13, 2008
Recorded Spring 2007
Length 5:52
Label Geffen
Writer(s) Rivers Cuomo
Producer Rick Rubin
Status Officially released
Live debut September 9, 2008
Stream Play on spotify.png Spotify
Play on Apple Music.png Apple Music
Weezer singles chronology
"The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)"
"(If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To"
Weezer (The Red Album) track listing
"The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)"
"Pork and Beans"
Alternate cover
Cover of the iTunes single release
Cover of the iTunes single release

"The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)" is the third single and second track off of The Red Album.



"The Greatest Man That Ever Lived" was the first song from The Red Album to be officially released on iTunes. The song includes piano, police sirens, and Rivers Cuomo singing in falsetto. Scott Shriner was particularly proud of the song saying, "The song 'The Greatest Man That Ever Lived' is a masterpiece that includes ten different styles of music based around a common theme." Rivers wrote the song during a "happy time" over the course of three weeks. Rivers said at the time he felt like a "musical geek". The song is Rivers' favorite off of The Red Album and also one of his favorite songs he's ever written.

Writing the song

Early song names included "Player", "Playa 4 Lyfe" and "Mack Daddy." Another name was "The Ballad of Oswaldo Sánchez", who was the goalie of the Mexican soccer team.

Some of the parts were written at different times. The three-point vocal counterpoint was written in 2004 as a homework assignment from a composition teacher who taught Cuomo private lessons from UCLA. Rivers has stated that the spoken word part was inspired by Elvis Presley (which was brought to his attention by Rick Rubin. Early song ideas were meant to contrast the feelings of settling down Rivers was feeling. The "I can take on anybody" part originally said "No ring on my ring finger, this bird has flown. No ring on my ring finger, I'm on my own." Another idea was "Some people wanna settle down, but that makes me sick."

Rivers has said, "The original inspiration for the song was...I just had this really strong and kind of sudden conviction that I am sick of writing verse-chorus-verse songs...I wanted to do something completely different." Rivers also said, "I thought of classical theme and variation music."

In the liner notes of the deluxe edition of the The Red Album, Cuomo stated that the song did not originally have the subtitle "Variations on a Shaker Hymn," however when Brian Bell's mom came into the studio to see them she mentioned a melody from the song sounded similar to a hymn that the choir would sing in church. As a result the band looked up the hymn and indeed the melody was so similar to Joseph Brackett's "Simple Gifts" that they credited the hymn with the subtitle.

The song was released for the game Rock Band along with the songs "Troublemaker" and "Dreamin'."

The song was performed live as the finale of the Spike TV Video Game Awards which aired December 14, 2008. The performance featured a snare drum player dressed as a member of the Queen's guard, a 50-person women's choir, Dave Kushner (formerly of Velvet Revolver) on rhythm guitar and a guitar-less Rivers Cuomo wearing a pure white suit and no shoes.

Rivers originally wanted the persona to change both musically and lyrically from section to section. Examples Rivers has stated for lyrical personas include:

  • Rap - bragging/boasting
  • Slipknot - victimization, helplessness, doom, physical destruction, being raped, cynicism
  • Nirvana – resignation, sarcasm, hating everything, indifference, clichés

Rivers mostly abandoned this approach because it caused the song to sound too disjointed. He retained the lyrical persona consistent as a backbone while retaining the musical variations. He largely leaves it to the listener to decide if the "greatest man redeems himself throughout the soliloquy:

“I was born to give? What does that mean?? Is he bragging about his potency? Or is he beginning to show his other, deeper, more altruistic side? I don’t know the answer, I was just asking you…”

Cuomo unveiled all of this information in a video with Los Angeles radio station KROQ. The first section of that video can be viewed below.

See the second video here.


Different sections were inspired specifically by different artists. Rivers has stated some of the artists and others are self-explanatory.

  1. Live 0:00
  2. Rap 0:35
  3. Slipknot 1:00
  4. Jeff Buckley 1:26
  5. Choral 1:51
  6. Aerosmith 2:17
  7. Nirvana 2:43
  8. Andrews Sisters 3:08
  9. Green Day3:33
  10. Spoken word (heavily inspired by Elvis' "Are You Lonesome Tonight?") 4:06
  11. Bach 4:37
  12. Beethoven 4:54
  13. Weezer 5:11


In late 2008, it was reported that the band was to film a video for the song, directed by Spike Jonze who had previously directed videos from the The Blue Album and the The Green Album. However, a video was not filmed after all, and the prevailing attitude was that the label felt that it was a waste of money to further promote The Red Album. Shortly thereafter, the band went into the studio to record Raditude.

The band did release a lo-fi, semi-unofficial video of the song, which was filmed as part of the MTV sessions previously released for "Automatic" and "Thought I Knew."


"The Greatest Man that Ever Lived" has been received fairly positively by the online Weezer fanbase. Many praise its creativty, even to the point of dubbing it "The Bohemian Rhapsody of the 21st century." Fans who dislike the song assert that it comes up short of the "epic" style that it is attempting to achieve. Cuomo's rapping in the opening lyrics of the song is disliked by some fans as well.

Live performance

Rivers has said that half of the time spent preparing for the Troublemaker Tour was devoted to rehearsing "The Greatest Man that Ever Lived."[citation needed]Playing along to a tape recording was never an option, according to Cuomo. The band felt that if it could not be done well live then it should not be played at all. The song was mostly used to either close the set or open the encore during the Troublemaker Tour.



You try to play cool like you just don't care
But soon I'll be playin' in your underwear
I'm like a mage with the magic spell
You come like a dog when I ring your bell
I got the money and I got the fame
You got the hots to ride on my plane
You givin' me all that I desire
Cuz down with me I'm takin' you higher

I'm the baddest of the bad
I'm the best that you've ever had
I'm the tops, I'm the thing
All the girls get up when I sing, yeah
I'm the meanest in the place
Step up, I'll mess with your face
I don't care where you are
Look up and follow the star

Ohh, I'm gonna tear down the wall
I may not be here when you call
So best be givin' me your all, ooo

After the havoc that I'm gonna wreak
No more words will critics have to speak
I've got the answers to the tangled knot
Sleep tight in your cot

Ohh baby, I've been told that I'm goin' crazy
Ohh baby, but I can't be held down
Ohh baby, somehow I'm keepin' it steady
Ohh baby, I'm tearin' up this town

Hey, this is what I like
Cut my heart with a martyr's spike
Hey, this is nothing new
I've got more than enough for you

I can take on anybody, I can do my thing
I don't wanna hurt nobody but a bee has got to sting
I'm 'a fix it if you mix it up
Talk smack then I'm a'gonna shut you up

I am the greatest man that ever lived
I was born to give
I am the greatest man that ever lived, oh

Somebody said all the world's a stage
And each of us is a player
That's what I've been trying to tell you
In Act I, I was struggling to survive
Nobody wanted my action dead or alive
Act II, I hit the big time
And bodies be all up on my behind
And I can't help myself
Cuz I was born to shine
And if you don't like it, you can shove it
But you don't like it, you love it
So I'll be up here in a rage
Till they bring the curtain down on this stage

I'm the greatest man that ever lived
I'm the greatest man that ever lived

I am the greatest man that ever lived
I was born to give and give and give
I am the greatest man that ever lived

I am the greatest man that ever lived
I was born to give

See also

External Links