In honor of this week’s long-awaited homecoming by the Smashing Pumpkins, for those who really have absolutely nothing better to do, following the jump, I’ve posted Chapter Four of my best-of-the-’90s anthology, MILK IT: COLLECTED MUSINGS ON THE ALTERNATIVE MUSIC EXPLOSION OF THE ’90s (Da Capo, 2003), which chronicles–you guessed it–some of my assorted writings on Billy Corgan and his mates, under a chapter title drawn in part from the band’s epic double album, and in part from a very funny phrase that Courtney Love once used to describe her former paramour to me.
Warning: It’s long (and this isn’t even everything I’ve written about the band, only my favorite pieces!). But parts of what follows are entertaining and, especially with the passage of time, even revealing at times.
Chapter Four: Melancholy and the Pear-Shaped Boy
Of all the memorable artists and characters that the alternative era produced, Smashing Pumpkins bandleader Billy Corgan was the most traditional rock star, with all of the good and bad traits that that implies. His sometimes imperious attitude and my reluctance to abide by it led to a bit of a tiff, though the version of events presented in FAQ files on fan Web sites doesn’t really get things right. (“A Chicago Sun-Times reviewer, Jim DeRogatis, gave Smashing Pumpkins a few bad reviews, saying of ‘Hummer,’ for example, ‘the lyrics are sophomoric, and the song is stupid.’ This got him barred from attending the Double Door shows. Some of Billy’s statements on this can be heard on the Drown bootleg.” Er, not quite.)
In the summer of 1993, shortly before the release of “Siamese Dream,” I spent several hours with the Great Pumpkin in his living room in the beautiful Victorian house that had been purchased with his share of the advance from Virgin Records. I liked the parts of “Gish” and “Siamese Dream” that evoked the English shoegazer movement, but I had problems with the elements that were coming from the Cure’s goth-pop and, even worse, classic-rock schlock like Journey. Corgan felt that I’d “betrayed” him with some of my criticisms in the piece entitled “Smashing Pumpkins Carve Out Their Niche”–notably with the dig in the sidebar about his lyrics (which, you’ll note, I never called “stupid,” though I did use the word “sophomoric”)–and a Virgin publicist subsequently told me that he’d never speak to me again, nor would I be welcome at future Pumpkins shows. At the Chicago gigs that followed, including one broadcast on live radio, Corgan endearingly referred to me from the stage as “that fat f— from the Chicago Sun-Times,” but I attended and reviewed the concerts nonetheless.
Some time later I faxed Virgin requesting a “bury the hatchet” interview. Corgan faxed me back himself (one of several letters I wanted to include in this book in its entirety, but Da Capo’s lawyers nixed that idea). “must you continue to prove your nothing but a sniveling, jealous person,” Corgan wrote, seemingly averse to capital letters and the rules of grammar. “i’m very sorry for you that you are fat and that your career choice (wire cover band) didn’t work out. . . . please try to find a life for yourself, and attempt to reconcile the fact that some people actually like what we do. see you in hell. best wishes / go f— yourself, billy c.”
In February 1995 the band booked several nights at Chicago’s relatively intimate Double Door night club to road-test its new material before recording “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.” I was indeed banned from these shows (along with all other Chicago journalists, unless they agreed not to review), but the Double Door’s stage is backed up against a large plate-glass window that borders Milwaukee Avenue, and I took a lawn chair, sat outside in the sub-zero chill, and heard better than if I’d been inside the hot, smoky club. I phoned in a report for the newspaper on deadline, and that notion that he could not control everything really got Herr Corgan mad.
Mind you, I was aware that this was becoming a sort of low-rent Lou Reed-Lester Bangs routine, and so was Corgan, I think, but he was always up for feeling aggrieved, misunderstood, and set upon; for a while he seemed to think that it made for better art (shades of the high school outcast who took to his bedroom and found solace in his guitar). None of this was personal on my part–I just disliked some of the melodrama and lyrical angst of the first three albums, which I will readily admit are the band’s best-selling and the fans’ favorites.
“Adore” and “Machina/The Machines of God” were a different story. Corgan made a huge leap forward as a lyricist after the death of his mother, a reconciliation with his father, the end of his first marriage, and the beginning of a meaningful new relationship. The whining and the self-pity disappeared, and the music, which had always been impressively crafted, became even more expansive as he extended his palette away from FM-radio clichs in favor of more electronic and experimental sounds. There weren’t many critics who felt as I did, and I guess Corgan appreciated that. We started talking again–in addition to the interview included here, he spent three hours with Greg Kot and me dissecting the band’s career on “Sound Opinions” shortly before the group broke up–and I had no problem gaining entry to review the Pumpkins’ final show at Metro.
A few months later Corgan sent me another fax to thank me for sending him a copy of “Let It Blurt,” and this was a very different Billy (though he still didn’t have much use for capital letters). “it made me think a lot about the tangled relationship–even love / hate relationship–between critic and artist (note even in the distinction between critic and ARTIST there is a hint of condescension),” Corgan wrote of my biography of Lester Bangs. “as you are well aware this is something that has pained me unnecessarily over the years and reading the book brought a certain clarity to the way i feel and made me understand a bit more where you come from as a writer. in my older years i am becoming a bit more punk rock and am starting to agree with the basic manifestos that lester had written. i think if one can bring to bear the idea of a needed incandescence to recorded work without the negativity and cynicism that has become the nom de plume of most, i guess i am all for it.”
This approach (and Corgan’s new optimistic attitude) can be heard in his latest project, Zwan–he did indeed return as predicted in the final piece in this section, launching his new band with a strong album called “Mary Star of the Sea” in early 2003.
* * * * *
Part I: Smashing Pumpkins Carve Out Their Niche
The Chicago Sun-Times, July 18, 1993
At twenty-six Billy Corgan seems to have it all. As the leader of Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins he’s poised to reach a massive audience with Siamese Dream, the band’s major-label debut. The group sold three hundred fifty thousand copies of its first independent album, Gish, and scored a million-selling hit with a song on the Singles soundtrack. But the introspective guitarist and vocalist dreads the trappings of the rock world. He describes recording Siamese Dream as a hellish ordeal, complains about the way he’s portrayed in the media, and often thinks out loud about breaking up his “dysfunctional” band.
For somebody who’s so successful, he sure is miserable.
“After Gish, the last thing I wanted to do was go back into the recording studio,” Corgan says. “Because it was like saying, ‘Let’s start this process all over again.’ Let journalists beat me over the head, let people throw things at me in concert. And part of you doesn’t want any part of it. I like the part about making records, and I like the part about playing. But all of the periphery is in your face.”
Nevertheless Corgan and the band entered Triclops Studio near Atlanta last fall. More than three months and two hundred fifty thousand dollars later, the result was the sophomore album which will be released on July 27 by Virgin Records. Produced by Butch Vig, whose credits include Gish and Nirvana’s Nevermind, Siamese Dream is a solid collection of swirling but tuneful guitar-rock epics. Like the English “shoegazer” bands Ride and My Bloody Valentine, the Pumpkins use guitars to create disorienting walls of noise. But like the super-successful Seattle grunge bands Nirvana and Pearl Jam, they add catchy, radio-friendly riffs and stomping heavy-metal rhythms.
“The minute you say ‘psychedelic,’ it conjures up hippies rolling in a muddy field,” Corgan says. “I stopped using the word because people can’t get beyond their own preconceptions. But the essence of ‘psychedelic’ in the true sense is exploring and trying to look for something different. I always had a problem with a lot of the punk ethic, because there’s more of an art to the presentation. Maybe I’m just an art fag or something, but I like the idea of creating your own alternative universe: ‘Welcome to Pumpkin Land, this is what it sounds like on Planet Pumpkin.'”
Tall, baby-faced, and ghostly pale, Corgan is wearing an MC5 T-shirt and sitting in the stately Victorian home that he and his wife recently bought in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, a few blocks from his beloved Wrigley Field. Most of the house is Home and Garden-perfect. Sunlight filters through lacy curtains to fall on a grand piano in the living room, but Corgan seems most comfortable in the dining room, which has been converted into a sort of cluttered rock ‘n’ roll clubhouse. The room is lined with CDs, stereo equipment, and guitars, and the platinum disc for Singles is framed and mounted on the wall. “It makes a great conversation piece at parties,” Corgan says, smiling.
The musician’s father, William Corgan Sr., was a jazz-rock guitarist who played with members of Rufus and Chicago back in the day. Born in west suburban Elk Grove Village, William Jr. grew up in Glendale Heights listening to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. He discovered alternative music via the Smiths, Bauhaus, and the Cure, and he started playing in bands when he attended Glenbard North High School. He moved to the city shortly after graduation and began gigging with the Pumpkins in 1988. Metro owner Joe Shanahan was an early fan.
“First and foremost it was the songs,” Shanahan says. “There was a songwriting ability and a depth. And Billy was a guitar virtuoso; he could really play.”
Shanahan booked the band into prime opening slots and gave its demo to record company talent scouts. Within two years the Pumpkins were selling out Metro (three thousand, three hundred tickets to its upcoming performances sold in twenty-three minutes), but Shanahan’s patronage and the band’s success earned the scorn of jealous scenesters. As a result the Smashing Pumpkins are both the most loved and most hated band in Chicago.
The group’s appeal to alternative-music fans is obvious: It’s weird enough to alienate parents, but tuneful enough to attract kids weaned on Depeche Mode and the Cure. Onstage Corgan recalls Robert Smith’s non-threatening, regular geek stage presence. But the band has scores of detractors who dismiss its members as posers and wannabes, and Corgan readily admits that he’s partly to blame. “A lot of it I think has to do with me–the way that I carry myself or the way that I put myself across,” he says.
Alternative rockers are rarely so self-analytical; Corgan often sounds like grizzled rock geezers James Taylor or David Crosby rehashing their latest therapy sessions. He believes fans relate to his honesty and appreciate the fact that he doesn’t adhere to the rock ‘n’ roll myth. “When I was fifteen years old, I had my Jimmy Page poster on the wall, and all I could see was, ‘Fun, sex, rock ‘n’ roll’ and that whole bit,” he says. “I saw all the myths and bought into the whole thing. So I went along and met chump after chump and got treated like s— and paid nothing, and I started to realize this is all a big fake. When I started to see the inside and how rotten and bitchy and backbiting the whole thing is I said, ‘F— it.’ At some point, I personally had to get over my own connection to rock mythology, and as I’ve grown up somewhat in public, I made a decision that I’m not going to perpetuate the myth. There’s this weird resistance to somebody actually being a real person. But that’s not my life. My life is I get up every day with the express purpose of writing music. That’s all I care about.”
When he’s talking about the Pumpkins’ music Corgan vacillates between the pronouns “mine” and “ours.” He writes the majority of the band’s songs alone (eleven of the thirteen tunes on Siamese Dream), oversees recording and mixing, dominates the stage show, and gives most of the interviews. To many people, Billy Corgan is the Smashing Pumpkins. Guitarist James Iha, bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain are left in the shadows.
“There’s what the press writes and there’s what actually happens in the band,” Iha says in a separate interview. “A lot of articles don’t mention that the drumming’s awesome on the album, or the fact that [I’m] writing songs. I myself am comfortable with the way we work.” Adds Corgan: “The best thing you can say about the band is there’s an energy, and when it’s on all cylinders and everybody believes in the idea and everybody’s trying, it’s transcendent. But the analogy I make is we’re pushing a rock up a hill, and the moment you stop pushing, the rock rolls back. If it’s not going one way, it’s coming back the other way. I’d rather have the band explode at the seams than become fat, dull, and lazy, which is what we became last summer.”
Corgan almost broke up the band before recording Siamese Dream. Chamberlain was sidetracked by drug and alcohol problems (he has since been through treatment), and Corgan thought the others weren’t contributing their share. But relations have improved since he issued an ultimatum. “When I finally decided that being unhappy and being totally displeased all the time were no longer worth the band, then suddenly the band got better,” he says. “It was like drawing a line: ‘This is where we stand, and you’re either in or you’re out.'”
“It’s frustrating sometimes,” Iha admits. “Billy says a lot of dramatic things, and some it might be self-defeating. But he has a pretty high set of standards, and we’re used to the ups and downs.”
Corgan and Vig have both been described as incurable perfectionists, so it isn’t surprising that making Siamese Dream was an ordeal. Speaking from his studio in Madison, Wisconsin, Vig describes the Smashing Pumpkins’ sessions as “arduous.” Recording lasted for more than three months and the band and the producer often put in fifteen-hour days. By the time the project was finished Vig and Corgan were too emotionally spent to mix it. Corgan is a fan of My Bloody Valentine, and he suggested hiring Alan Moulder, staff engineer at England’s Creation Records. Moulder made sense of tapes that sometimes included fifty or more guitar tracks, and he gave the album his trademark shimmering sound.
“We deliberately tried to push ourselves in terms of some of the things we were doing arrangement-wise,” Vig says. “About half the songs were fairly finished when we came in; the band had been playing them and there were really good arrangements. But a lot of it was worked out in the studio, especially some of the detailed things like guitar parts.” The producer seems to agree with Corgan’s description of the Pumpkins as “dysfunctional.”
“They were not necessarily a happy bunch of campers,” he says diplomatically. “There was the typical stuff with bands, where there were a lot of things going on personality-wise. One day they’d love each other, and the next day they’d all hate each other. But they have it particularly bad. I think Billy sometimes puts the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is very sensitive about everything and can be real meticulous and also very passionate about what’s going on. He would often push the band further or I would push the band further than what they were ready for at that time.”
Both Vig and Corgan think the results were worth the angst and trouble. “There are some tracks on the record that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up because I remember when Billy was singing those songs how it affected me,” Vig says. For his part Corgan describes making Siamese Dream as a learning process. “The person who made Gish couldn’t have made this record. That person wasn’t capable of this kind of honesty and depth.” Yet he still talks with some regularity about the possibility of disbanding the group, and he concedes that this topic makes his managers and Virgin executives extremely uneasy. “They don’t like to hear it, but we’ve become a band that from here on out will be a band of the moment.”
Whatever the future holds it’s hard to imagine Corgan quitting music. He’s the archetypal rock nerd–someone who’s most comfortable facing the world from behind his record collection, his guitar, and a multitrack recorder. “I’ve reached a point where I have confidence in what I do,” he says. “I was watching this thing on TV last night about baseball players, about how when you’re a rookie, you’re not quite sure if you belong. And at some point you decide, ‘Not only do I belong, I deserve to be here.’ That’s the way I feel. I feel I’ve earned it and I’m capable of continuing as long as I want to. If the Pumpkins can’t do that, then that’s the end of the Pumpkins and I’ll do something else. But I feel I can make viable music as long as I want to. I’m past the point of no return.”
SIDEBAR: PUMPKINS MUSIC
The Smashing Pumpkins have had a short but successful recording career. Here is a discography. (Star ratings are based on the Chicago Sun-Times’s four-star scale.)
Gish (Caroline, 1991) * * *
After a debut single on Limited Potential, the Pumpkins released the “Tritessa” / “La Dolly Vita” seven-inch on Seattle’s hip independent, Sup Pop Records. That disc was enough to attract offers from several major labels, but the band signed to the Virgin-distributed indie Caroline with the understanding that it would graduate to Virgin proper for its second album. Gish is a slickly produced introduction to the band’s sound, which mixes swirling psychedelic guitars with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath-inspired rhythms (drummer Jimmy Chamberlain does a mean John Bonham stomp). But Billy Corgan’s lyrics are often indulgent, trippy nonsense, his guitar solos can meander, and the album pales in comparison to truly innovative discs by new psychedelic groups like the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Ride, and My Bloody Valentine.
Siamese Dream (Virgin, 1993) * * *
Several songs on the Pumpkins’ second album are as indulgent as anything on Gish (notably “Mayonaise” and “Soma”), but the disc is generally more focused and direct. Corgan still can’t be accused of undue originality: “Space Boy” is “Space Oddity”-inspired glam-rock fluff; “Today” recalls the California psychedelic-pop band Game Theory, and several tunes ape My Bloody Valentine’s distinctive guitar sound. But “Cherub Rock” is a strong single, and it’s driven by a powerful riff that’s hard to resist. In interviews Corgan emphasizes the honesty of his lyrics, many of which seem to address his childhood, but too often they sound like sophomoric poetry (“Faith lies in the ways of sin / I chased the charmed but I don’t want them anymore”).
* * * * *
Part II: Up Against the Wall: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
Rolling Stone, November 30, 1995
When Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan boasted that he would follow the triple-platinum Siamese Dream with a sprawling double album that would be The Wall for Generation X, the assumption was that he would make a concept album like Roger Waters’s rock opera about the lack of communication and love in modern society. But the twenty-eight songs on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness aren’t linked by a libretto; they’re only connected conceptually through the broad theme of being part of a day in the life of a typical, alienated teen. (The two discs are designated as “Dawn to Dusk” and “Twilight to Starlight,” and the time frames in the songs roughly correspond to the passing of the day.) Maybe Corgan meant that he wanted Mellon Collie to be a lush, diverse soundscape that would be as state of the art for 1995 as Pink Floyd’s album was for 1979. Or maybe he wanted to make an album that teenage fans could obsess over, getting comfortably numb while listening on headphones in their bedrooms. If so, he succeeded on both counts.
Although Mellon Collie clocks in at more than two hours, it’s one of the rare epic rock releases whose bulk is justified in the grooves (it certainly beats the comparable length of, say, the Use Your Illusion records by Guns N’ Roses, which were marketed as two separate CDs). The accomplishment is even more impressive when you consider that Corgan single-handedly wrote twenty-six of the songs, and he co-produced the album with Flood (U2, Depeche Mode) and Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Nine Inch Nails). Corgan’s role as the Great Pumpkin is undeniable, but Mellon Collie at least feels more like a band effort than its predecessor. Even as it incorporates such baroque textures as harp, strings, and grand piano, the album retains the rough edge and intimate vibe of old friends (and sometimes enemies) playing together in their rehearsal space.
Corgan and James Iha stretch out on several fiery guitar workouts, covering the gamut from Tom Scholz-style studio perfection to Sonic Youth noise-rock skronk. The Pumpkins deftly swing from unapologetic art rock (the nine-minutes-plus “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans”) to pop metal in the Boston or Journey vein (“Tonight, Tonight”), and from techno-industrial lullabies (“Beautiful”) to twisted cow punk (“We Only Come Out at Night”). Brimming with hooks, the songs quickly work their way into your subconscious, making the album seem a lot shorter than it is. The problem, at least for rock fans who want substantive content with their seductive form, is Corgan’s lyrics.
Corgan is a romantic who believes in the redemptive power of love, but he’s also a cynic, having been constantly disappointed by those he loves. “Believe, believe in me, believe / That life can change, that you’re not stuck in vain,” he sings in “Tonight, Tonight,” the swelling ballad that follows the album’s opening instrumental. But for much of the rest of the album, he’s stuck in a lyrical rut, wallowing in his own misery and grousing about everyone and everything not meeting his expectations. “Intoxicated with the madness, I’m in love with my sadness,” he sings in “Zero,” just after the song breaks down into a chant of, “Emptiness is loneliness, and loneliness is cleanliness / And cleanliness is godliness, and God is empty just like me.”
One could argue that Corgan’s lyrics aren’t intended to be analyzed under the microscope, that–like those of Depeche Mode or My Bloody Valentine–they’re simply intended to conjure a mood along with the music. But the vocals are much too prominent in the mix to accept that. Musically Mellon Collie solidifies Corgan’s position as one of his generation’s most ambitious songwriters–no one else in alternative rock’s superstar stratum has attempted an album of such length, let alone scope, and it may even match The Wall in its sonic accomplishments. But his lyrics don’t fare nearly as well in comparison. It may be too much to ask that Corgan be as poetic as Kurt Cobain or as earnest as Eddie Vedder, though his therapeutic self-examinations could at least probe as deeply as Trent Reznor’s. But while Waters’s tale of the rock star Pink only reached the literary level of a comic book, “We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control” seems deeper, more universal, more entertaining–and heck, a lot more inspiring–than, “Living makes me sick / So sick I wish I’d die.”
(The album was rated three stars on Rolling Stone’s five-star scale.)
* * * * *
Part III: No, Really: The Smashing Pumpkins, “Adore”
New Times Los Angeles, May 28, 1998
Watching the Smashing Pumpkins open for Cheap Trick with a strong set of new material a few weeks back, it seemed like we were seeing a new Billy Corgan: kinder and gentler, certainly, and maybe even (dare I say it?) “happy.” Then bassist D’Arcy Wretzky paused to introduce hired drummer Kenny Aronoff, formerly with John Mellencamp. Aronoff wasn’t paying attention, and he prematurely started the next groove. “Hey, nobody plays when somebody in this band is talking!” Corgan barked. He was kidding, but only partly. There was also a flash of the infamous dictator and egotist–you know, the Billy everyone knows and loves.
You’re going to read a lot elsewhere about the revolutionary “new” sound on the band’s fourth album, Adore. That’s mostly a load of hooey. These are the same old Pumpkins, only more mature and self-confident. At long last the band members are curbing some of their most bombastic tendencies–at least on disc–while daring to expand (though by no means reinvent) their sound. And they’re doing it in two distinctly different modes.
Our boy Bill has always been a notorious perfectionist; there are certain drummers who might also add “son of a bitch.” (Joey Waronker reportedly quit Beck’s band to join the Pumpkins at double his salary, then bailed after two weeks. Aronoff, formerly with John Mellencamp, got the gig next, but you can’t help but wonder: For how long?) Sure, you had to give the Great Pumpkin props in the studio for crafting amazingly ornate walls of sound, but anyone with half a brain also had to be disappointed with what he did with ’em. On Gish, Siamese Dream, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, those mighty musical constructions–better than Journey! Styx! Queen, even!–were employed by the man to vent his raging angst and revel in his terminal miserableness. You know, that whole sorry “despite-all-my-rage-I-am-still-just-a-rat-in-a-cage” trip.
Either the music on Adore is strong enough to outweigh the lyrics (sample: “You remind me of that leak in my soul”) and typically whiny singing, or those lyrics and that singing have gotten better. Probably a little of both, plus the fact that for all his talk about the ambition of previous efforts, Billy’s never really put it on the line like he does here.
How so? For starters, he succeeds where David Bowie, U2, and Madonna have failed, successfully merging rock and techno for the pop-rock mainstream the way Blondie blended rock and disco on “Heart of Glass.” Songs like “Ava Adore,” “Daphne Descends,” and “Tear” incorporate electronic dance grooves and washes of ambient synthesizer without sacrificing rock’s essential visceral kick, and they do it without a hint of grunge. Corgan and James Iha have dramatically expanded their six-string arsenals, delivering some of the coolest tubular-buzz E-bow leads since “Heroes” (the Bowie-Eno-Fripp version, not the damn Wallflowers cover).
That’s half the album. In typically schizophrenic style, Corgan devotes the other half to tender acoustic ballads that expand on his earlier cover of “Landslide.” There are some genuinely beautiful moments in “To Sheila,” “The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete,” and “Annie-Dog.” The latter is particularly effective because the lilting, piano-driven melody contrasts with lyrics that seem to portray Corgan’s pal and former lover, that whirling dervish Courtney Love. (“Amphetamine Annie-Dog has a leash and a face . . . She is Venus, she is Mars / She’s electric.”) Then there’s “Behold! The Nightmare,” which somehow combines both of the album’s divergent approaches and a better imitation Pet Sounds vocal break than any of those indie-rockers like the High Llamas can muster.
Best of all is “For Martha,” a moving tribute to Corgan’s recently deceased mom. Naturally he pulls out the stops on this one, crafting an elaborate mini-symphony the likes of which hasn’t been heard since Genesis’s Selling England by the Pound. “I will follow you and see you on the other side,” he croons, then builds to a thunderous climax with an elegiac, way over-the-top guitar solo. Oh, mama! Even if you’re a cynical, pierced, and multiply-tattooed alterna-teen, you won’t have a dry eye after this one.
“My mother’s death helped me to refocus my priorities,” the singer-songwriter recently told Guitar World. “It showed me the true value of my life.” Notice he didn’t say it made him love life–that’s still a problem. But at least he has grown up enough to be able to ask the key question, “Who am I?” at the end of “Crestfallen,” and to observe in “Shane” that, “Love is good and love is bad / Love is drunk and love is blind / Love is good and love is mine / Love is drunk all the time.” I’ll take that over “Life’s a bummer / When you’re a hummer” any day.
Two other losses are key here. With original drummer Jimmy Chamberlain out of the picture, Corgan is free to play with samplers, sequencers, and synths. Obviously he made the most of the opportunity, but Chamberlain is still missed onstage. Corgan is also mourning the death of the genre that he helped usher in. “We blew it,” he tells Guitar World. “There was a real purity in the early ’90s scene that cut through everything like the white-hot blast of a laser gun. But we screwed up, because everybody got so caught up in it in the wrong way. Instead of taking over the world, we just gave it away. Kurt takes himself out. Pearl Jam doesn’t tour. Soundgarden breaks up. Courtney decides she’s not even going to start. I freak out on the world and have a nervous breakdown.”
As usual Billy’s romanticizing here: Nervous and broken down or not, he was always the most focused and productive member of the alternative nation. The difference between him and almost everybody else on that list is that they all rejected the notion of stardom. Corgan and Love embraced it from the start, though Love has opted for Hollywood these days, while Billy continues to make music. Are any of these sounds revolutionary, oh-boy!, brand-spanking-new? Hell no, but this is certainly the best music these goobers have produced. And now that alternative rock is officially dead and buried–one could trace this to the ascendance of Bush, but the history books will no doubt mark it by the dismantling of Lollapalooza–it leaves Corgan as the last American Rock Star of his generation. And that oughta count for something, no?
* * * * *
Part IV: Billy Speaks
The Chicago Sun-Times, April 11, 2000
Although they have released one of the strongest albums of their career, the Smashing Pumpkins have watched Machina / The Machines of God slide steadily down the Billboard albums chart after five weeks in the stores, falling from a debut peak at No. 3 to No. 54 with some three hundred forty thousand copies sold. As much as the phenomenal first-week sales of two and a half million by ‘N Sync, this seems like concrete proof that a new wave of young pop fans has turned a deaf ear toward alternative rock. But the songwriter for the most successful rock band Chicago has ever produced maintains that he is not disappointed by his new album’s performance.
“I’m very happy with it; I’m just glad we still have a pulse,” Billy Corgan says. “I don’t mean the record–I mean the band in general. We’re just happy to be alive. We’ve been through so much that the ability to go out, make a good record, play good shows, and be ourselves without making any compromises is enough. It’s probably one of the happiest periods in the band.”
There is reason to believe that Corgan is sincere. The artist who brings his band to the Aragon Ballroom for two sold-out shows on Saturday and Sunday is a different man than the Great Pumpkin that I last interviewed one-on-one seven years ago, during the heady days before the release of Siamese Dream. This Corgan is more philosophical, less arrogant, slower to take offense–and he’s producing his best work ever. I spoke with him last week upon his return to Chicago after a series of European shows, in the midst of rehearsals with guitarist James Iha, back-in-the-fold drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, and new bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur.
Q. There’s been speculation on the Internet based on something you said in Rolling Stone: that bands have a natural life span of about three albums. A lot of people read that as you saying, “This is it; we’re breaking up after this.”
A. No, there’s still more life in us. What form that takes and how we do it, I don’t really know. Sometimes I say this for dramatic effect, and sometimes I really mean it, but it really is a powder keg, the intensity in this band. It’s this sort of self-generated intensity to always be great, to always perform at a very high level, to never take the easy road out. We’re rehearsing again today, we’re going to rehearse all week, and we’re trying to learn another ten songs to rotate in the set. Everybody wants time off. We could have just taken some time and basically done the same show we’ve been playing on tour, but instead we’re rehearsing and changing songs around. That’s the sort of intensity I’m talking about, and that can blow up at any second.
Q. Would that change if you were recording alone, or is that just the way you operate?
A. I’ve really wondered if that would be the case, if I was with a different set of personalities. I’d like to think it’s somewhat unique to this unit.
Q. You don’t think that little voice in the back of your head would still be there?
A. I guess so. [Laughs] But to their credit, my bandmates never balk at the notion of moving forward.
Q. You’re involved in a lawsuit with your old manager, Sharon Osbourne. How did things go so bad so fast? You were only with her for eight or ten weeks.
A. Maybe twelve. That’s a story for the ages, man. She’s a total phony. When somebody tells you, “The way that you are is fine. The way that you are with business, I support that,” and then suddenly out of nowhere it’s a problem . . . It was a lie. It was a total deception. I’ve been had by the best, that’s the best way I can describe it. I’ve been faked out by the best: Sharon Osbourne, Courtney Love . . .
Q. Are the Aragon shows and the rest of this tour the end-all and be-all of what you’re doing to support Machina, or will you be coming back for a shed or arena tour?
A. There doesn’t seem to be enough energy in the country to be looking at a big tour right now. A lot of people that are going out are gonna die. Nine Inch Nails is doing this big arena tour, and I don’t see how they’re going to do it. Right now we’re viewing this as our only American tour. We’re booked through December–we’ll be touring the world–and we’re sort of hoping that by that point these kids will wake up and say, “I’m so uncool, I’ve been listening to ‘N Sync!”
Q. What do you make of ‘N Sync’s success and the rest of what’s been happening on the pop charts?
A. I don’t think it says as much about ‘N Sync as it says about the future of our business, the entertainment business. All of the mergers, the Internet stuff–we’re going to see more and more of this disparity of mega-acts selling huge amounts of records and other people being completely unable to compete. It’s gonna be like Michael Jackson all over again, where if you’re a good band with good songs, you don’t have a shot. You might as well accept that you’re going to sell twenty thousand records and that’s it, because all of the money and all the energy is going to be going into blockbuster events. Where it gets really scary from an artistic point of view is, what if you don’t agree with all of the corporate synergy? SFX and all that–what if you don’t agree with it? Where are you going to go? Especially when you’re competing with people who are willing to do whatever they are asked to do and say whatever they are asked to say.
Q. Generation Y seems to view music differently from Generation X. They don’t define themselves by what they’re listening to, the way that you and I did as teens.
A. It’s an accessory. It’s a commodity that can be traded like movie stars or wrestling heroes. It’s trading cards. But to their credit they’ve been programmed this way. As a generation, they’ve been programmed to accept that it’s OK that–I’m looking at a magazine here–here’s Sarah Michelle Gellar promoting Maybelline. There’s nothing negative to them, they probably think it’s great. Whereas I look at it and think, “Shouldn’t she be above doing a Maybelline ad? Why does she need the money? Why doesn’t she just be a TV and movie star?” There’s been an erosion of standards and standard-bearing. You and I know that as good as I think my band is, you know that I know that the Beatles are way better. My band still sits around and talks about the Beatles, like, “How the f— did they do it?” We wish we could achieve that level of perfection or integrity. But if you look at Generation X and its mainstays, they’ve been ripped to shreds. Who in Generation Y would want to be like Generation X? If I was Generation Y, I wouldn’t want to be like me!
A thing I hear from kids is that, “It’s not easy being a fan of your band.” What they mean by that is that they hear a sort of criticism. It’s not a musical criticism, it’s a criticism like, “Billy Corgan is a pain in the ass.” How do they know I’m a pain in the ass? Because they’ve read it a thousand times. And if my band doesn’t get the musical credit it deserves–and at this point we’re more cartoon characters than a musical entity–than why would you want to be me? That’s what I’m saying: The heroes of Generation X–there aren’t any. They either self-destroyed or were destroyed by others.
Q. You’re saying people need illusions in order to have an ideal to strive towards?
A. You know as well as I do that nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s got skeletons in their closet. But part of what made rock ‘n’ roll exciting to me as a kid was the idea that it was perfect. That’s what made it so much fun.
Q. Outside of music, you generally seem a lot happier today than you were seven years ago. Is that true?
A. [Laughs] Yeah, I am.
Q. Where does that come from?
A. That’s just sort of getting my personal life together. My girlfriend [photographer Yelena Yemchuk] has had a huge impact on my life–putting this sort of manic energy into my life. I feel I have a little more foundation. Five years ago music was all I had, because that was all I believed in and that was all I loved. In some ways having other things takes the edge off what you do musically. But at some point you do have to live. It’s still an unhealthy balance. I love what I do, and I believe there’s a reason I have talent for it, and I believe that there’s a lot of good that can come out of it, besides just self-serving patting on the head. I guess it only gets complicated when the reviews start and when people start making assumptions about why I do things.
Q. I would have thought that after Gish and that first experience of being reviewed, you’d have realized that it’s all just people’s opinions. Why did bad reviews register the way they did?
A. You want a serious answer? It triggers the same button as child abuse for me. I know that may not really translate in a public forum, but it sort of seems to open up the same wounds. I don’t know why, and I suppose I could spend a year in a therapist’s office trying to figure it out. But it seems to stick a knife in the exact same wound that exists from those years in my life, and I don’t think I’ve ever found the right balance. Though I will say that it rolls off my back a lot quicker these days. It used to be that if I read something I didn’t like, it would be like weeks–the one line that I didn’t like would repeat in my head like a mantra. Now it’s like I read it and I just go, “That’s not right; they’ve got it all wrong.” My biggest complaint is that we’re not reviewed these days as a musical entity. We’re reviewed as a sort of a personality.
Q. Let’s talk about your lyrics. It’s my contention that with Adore and Machina, you took a big leap forward as a lyricist. Do you feel that way?
A. I do feel that, and I feel it’s sort of an unspoken thing. In some ways I think I’ve let the words do more of the talking and the music do less of the talking.
Q. What was the breakthrough?
A. That’s a really good question. There’s a song on “Adore” called “Annie-Dog.” If you read the lyrics, it’s sort of like how it comes out on the page. It’s hard to explain . . . I can’t even remember how I used to write lyrics. It’s sort of like I used to sit down and say, “Now I’ve got to write lyrics.” Then there was a point where I would just write this free-flowing stuff and somehow let the context make it into the song. I let the lyric kind of take over the song instead of trying to force the song unto the lyric. “Annie-Dog” was one of the first songs where I just sort of wrote a bunch of stuff about this archetype of a woman who f—s for power. The ramble of it came out and made it into the song, and that was what made the song. That’s where it started to change.
For me it’s always like whatever part I feel weak about, that’s where I go next. With lyrics it seemed like on the first couple of albums there would be the one great lyric song, and then the one song where after a couple of months I’d hate singing the lyrics. And it seems like if you let lyrics just sort of come out of your body, you never seem to have a problem with them later. Where if you sort of cerebrally say, “What am I trying to say? What am I trying to get across?,” that’s where you start cringing at lines later.
Q. I hear “Everlasting Gaze” as posing an existential question: How does a sentient individual survive in a cold, corporate society of the sort you described earlier?
A. It has a lot to do with spirituality and trying to find my place in the universe and sort of humbly accepting limitations and the things I’ve been graced with. It’s more of a humanistic worldview. I’m not writing anymore for the tortured teen–both me and whoever was listening. I’m writing with the idea that everybody’s experiencing these things all the time, and even if they’re not experiencing them personally, they’re affected by them. You can live in the street and write about the garbage, or you can try to get up a little higher and look down and try to see the bigger picture.
Q. Do you feel that you’ve matured?
A. Oh, I don’t know. Just when I would think I wouldn’t write about personal stuff anymore, I would turn around and a write a whole album about it. As I’ve always said, if I could have chosen what I wanted to do, I wouldn’t have chosen these things.
Q. There’s that perverse streak. Do you enjoy confounding expectations?
A. I enjoy the energy in that. I don’t find comfort energizing. Inside, there must be some sort of thing in me that needs to be contentious.
Q. Well, I can relate to that!
A. [Laughs] Yeah, I know.
* * * * *
Part V: Perfect Timing: The Smashing Pumpkins Say Goodbye
The Chicago Sun-Times, December 4, 2000
And so it ended pretty much where it had begun: onstage at Metro. With a marathon four-and-a-half-hour set on Saturday night one of the most successful rock bands Chicago has ever produced put an end to a career that spanned thirteen years and six studio albums with twenty-two million copies sold.
The Smashing Pumpkins will stand as a cornerstone band of the alternative-rock era, but the zeitgeist has changed since their mid-’90s heyday. Alternative has given way to sickly-sweet teen-pop and testosterone-crazed rap-rock, and the cynical, angst-ridden Generation X has yielded to the cheerfully consumerist Generation Y. Always an astute student of rock history, thirty-three-year-old bandleader Billy Corgan well knows that it’s better to burn out than to fade away. Thankfully he did not define that well-worn rock clich like his peer Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Instead the Great Pumpkin decided to pull the plug on the band that was his life before it could live on past its prime. In so doing, the Pumpkins made history again, becoming one of the rare rock groups with the fortitude to retire while it was still at its artistic prime.
“Sorting through the ashes of the Smashing Pumpkins, there’s a lot of beautiful stuff there, and that’s the most important thing,” the guitarist-vocalist said toward the end of a night designed to make that case. Divided into three “acts” and including a mid-evening acoustic set, the thirty-eight-song performance spanned the group’s career, touching on every aspect of its complicated legacy: the laser-focused, ultra-melodic hard rock and the self-indulgent, artsy noodling; the petulant, self-obsessed whining and the poetic outpourings of heartfelt emotion; the great, the awful, and pretty much everything in between. It was as if the Pumpkins decided to play the entirety of their inevitable box set. But the friends, family members, industry insiders, and lucky fans in attendance didn’t mind, nor did the approximately five hundred faithful without tickets who sat in the cold outside Metro. (They were accommodated with speakers that broadcast a portion of the show, which was also recorded for a potential live album.)
The highlights were numerous. Chief among them: a duet by Billy Corgan and his father on the breathtakingly beautiful “For Martha,” an elegy that Billy Jr. wrote after the death of his mother from cancer. Corgan and James Iha’s guitars never sounded better than on the roaring versions of “Siva” (from their debut album Gish) and “Starla” (a rarity included on the Pisces Iscariot collection). Drummer Jimmy Chamberlain was as always an astounding force of nature; the crowd sing-alongs on “The Everlasting Gaze,” “Today,” and “1979” were inspiring; and the moving hometown homage in “Tonight, Tonight” (“And your embers never fade in the city by the lake”) was never more poignant.
On the flip side however were numerous stretches of merciless bombast of the sort that gave ’70s rock a bad name and prompted punk to rise up in opposition. The nadir was the last song of the night, an endless twenty-minutes-plus version of “Silverf—,” Corgan’s epic meditation on love and pain. It found the artist erasing the new levels of musical and lyrical maturity that he reached with the Adore and Machina albums and reverting to the insufferable mode of the tortured soul who loves to be miserable. Ugh.
Before the rosy glow of nostalgia sets in, it needs to be said that minus the emotion and history of the occasion there have been many more memorable Pumpkins shows. Among those that I witnessed: the Siamese Dream record release gigs at Metro, the Lollapalooza tour, the pre-Mellon Collie show at the Double Door (even if I never actually made it in to that one), and the Adore show at the New World Music Theatre.
Despite the rampant pre-show speculation there were no real surprises Saturday. Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen and former touring drummer Matt Walker came out for cameo appearances, but founding bassist D’Arcy Wretzky did not. Corgan did offer her a heartfelt thanks. as well thanking just about everybody else who’d helped in his career, including his enemies–“for pushing us to try harder and be better.”
When the music stopped, the band members filed off one by one, tossing guitar picks to the fans as they left. (Concertgoers also got a commemorative CD of the Pumpkins’ first show at Metro in October 1988.) When the mighty Chamberlain tried to toss a drum stick up to the balcony, it actually lodged in the ceiling above the dance floor, where it will no doubt stay forever as a testament to the evening.
At the very end, Corgan stood onstage alone, looking awkward in his silver and black outer space priest outfit. He basked in the adulation of his Chicago fans, took their hands, made the “I love you” sign from his heart, and finally broke down in tears.
And so it ended pretty much where it had begun–the climax of a week that witnessed more farewell hoopla then when Michael Jordan retired for the first time. Remember, though, that Jordan came back. And so, too, will Billy Corgan.