The Incorrigible Billy Corgan
One of indie rock's most notorious contrarians returns
By Paul Davis
Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan has never been one of the cool kids, one of those art-rock hipsters he openly scorned at the peak of his career. Instead, he has often appeared to be the shut-in obsessive-compulsive, the kid in the back of the class who is chronically underestimated but constantly hatching grandiose plans both dazzling in scope and in need of some healthy constructive criticism from peers.
In the mid -'90s, overweening ambition worked to Corgan's advantage. At a time when the hipsters scorned rock stardom, Corgan and his Smashing Pumpkins were glad to take the title, presiding over the state of popular rock in the way that Bono and U2 had a decade earlier. They were the arena rock heroes of their time. But while the band strode the continents with the self-importance of a modern-day Led Zeppelin, Corgan was no debauched frontman in the mold of Jimmy Page. Instead, he was more akin to the Dungeon Master whose inventions had attained a global scale, manipulating the elaborate undertaking that was the Smashing Pumpkins like a 20-sided die, mapping out circuitous routes for the band and constantly placing new threats in its path.
For all his meticulous planning, Corgan may have been the band's own worst enemy. Even before the breakthrough album Siamese Dream topped the charts, rumors began appearing about strife among the members, and a persistent theory took hold that Corgan's extreme perfectionism had reduced his band mates to the role of glorified session players. As the band grew bigger, the fissures grew wider, and the end seemed always imminent. So it's not a surprise that the band's brand new album and tour have been viewed with a healthy amount of skepticism by critics and fans alike. Characteristic for the Smashing Pumpkins, this is no simple reunion tour. Instead, it's a career second act that re-opens the book on the strange tale of the public figure that is Billy Corgan.
And these are not the Smashing Pumpkins you are looking for.
Not if you think of the Smashing Pumpkins as a collection of four individuals named Billy Corgan, James Iha, D'arcy Wretzky and Jimmy Chamberlin. Those fans will likely be disappointed; in the still-tender aftermath of the band's rancorous breakup, guitarist Iha and bassist Wretzky chose to sit the reunion out. In fact, as many reviewers have pointed out, this could just as easily have been billed as a reunion for Zwan, the ill-fated group that Corgan and Chamberlin formed with two members of Slint after the Pumpkins called it quits in 2000.
But if you consider the band to have always been Corgan's singular brainchild—the project he masterminded, wrote the bulk of material for and helmed with a stern hand—then the band's current incarnation remains a long-awaited return to form. In this view, the Pumpkins have always been Billy Corgan, and to a lesser extent Chamberlin, with whom Corgan has had a tumultuous yet close relationship, and whose subatomic drum blasts might be the band's second-most recognizable element behind Corgan's unmistakable voice.
This may be the more accurate way to think of the band. A notorious control freak, Corgan was known to overdub entire albums by himself in the band's heyday; the rumor mill maintains that most of the breakthrough album Siamese Dream was rerecorded by Corgan at night after his band mates left the studio.
As Smashing Pumpkins version 2.0 heads out on its first tour since the Clinton administration, touring behind the new release Zeitgeist, it's almost impossible to separate the enterprise from its auteur. As with all things related to Corgan's career, this is a strange story, one about which the press-shy performer has remained mum. Even after years in relative obscurity, Corgan continues to avoid the press.
Which isn't to say that Corgan has remained silent during the long arc of the Pumpkins' decline and resurrection. In fact, the process has been documented on the Smashing Pumpkins' Myspace blog maintained by Chamberlin, on Corgan's Livejournal page and in the advertising section, of all places, of Chicago's two largest daily newspapers.
Pumpkin Go Splat
When the Smashing Pumpkins called it quits in 2000, it was a very different time for popular music. The band's moment in the sun had long passed, its final two albums, Machina/The Machines of God and Adore, having failed to catch fire the way Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness did. This was a grim time in music, what with the likes of Limp Bizkit ruling the rock charts; even detractors of the mid-'90s grunge scene waxed a bit nostalgic for the days when the Smashing Pumpkins reigned supreme. So it came as no surprise that the band, always seemingly held together by little more than Corgan's gumption and bailing wire, called it quits in the face of diminishing returns.
Despite a short downtime and the Internet-only release of the band's final album, 2001's Machina II/The Friends And Enemies of Modern Music (the band released it for free online when its label refused to press it), Corgan soon announced that he and Chamberlin were forming a new band. Zwan, with Dave Pajo of Slint and Matt Sweeney of Chavez, released what would be its only album, Mary Star of the Sea, in 2003. Though portrayed at the time as a new start for Corgan and Chamberlin, there was much in Zwan to keep Smashing Pumpkins die-hards happy—lush soundscapes and ornate mash notes to Corgan's ego ruled the day, and the sound wasn't too far removed from his previous output, with the minor exception of a heretofore unseen strain of Catholicism creeping into his lyrics.
Zwan toured, but its time for this world was brief. In September of 2003, Corgan disbanded the group and almost immediately began publicly excoriating his band mates. Indeed, since the end of Zwan, Corgan has received as much attention for his blog posts as his musical output–the blog has shown Corgan to be both vitriolic and apologetic, lashing out at Iha and blaming him for the end of the band on a number of occasions and calling Wretzky "a mean-spirited drug addict." Iha and Wretzky have both largely stayed silent, with Wretzky shunning the spotlight and Iha opting to focus primarily on his record label Scratchie Records in interviews.
Despite Corgan's seeming inability to maintain professional relationships for long, he has managed to retain a stormy, oddly devoted friendship with Chamberlin the entire time. Corgan kicked Chamberlin out of the Smashing Pumpkins after Chamberlin and touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin overdosed from heroin in 1996 (Melvoin did not live), but the ouster did not last long, and by 1999 Chamberlin had returned to the band. Since then, Chamberlin has remained the only constant of Corgan's career, performing as a member of Zwan and backing Corgan up on his 2005 solo release The Future Embrace.
Corgan was not to perform as a solo artist for long, however. The day The Future Embrace hit store shelves, he ran full-page advertisements in Chicago's two major daily newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times, with the heading "A Message to Chicago from Billy Corgan." In the soul-baring, utterly surprising message, Corgan wrote: "When I played the final Smashing Pumpkins show on the night of December 2, 2000, I walked off the Metro stage believing that I was forever leaving a place of my life behind. I naively tried to start a new band, but found that my heart wasn't in it. I moved away to pursue a love that I once had but got lost. So I moved back home to heal what was broken in me, and to my surprise I found what I was looking for. I found that my heart is in Chicago, and that my heart is in The Smashing Pumpkins."
In a statement that elicited no small amount of chortling from his critics, Corgan went on to profess, "For a year now I have walked around with a secret, a secret I chose to keep. But now I want you to be among the first to know what I have made plans to renew and revive The Smashing Pumpkins. I want my band back, and my songs, and my dreams. In this desire I feel I have come home again."
It looked like he'd be living there in milk crates. In an April 2006 interview with Rolling Stone, Iha categorically denied that he would rejoin the band, protesting, "I haven't spoken to Billy in years." Wretzky followed suit. Despite Iha's and Wretzky's refusal, the ever-loyal Chamberlin signed on soon after Corgan's announcement.
Word that the Pumpkins had been resurrected eclipsed Corgan's solo album, and The Future Embrace stiffed on arrival, selling only 69,000 copies. As Corgan and Chamberlin entered the studio to work on the album that would become Zeitgeist, rumor and speculation proliferated wildly. Would the band reappear at the 2006 Coachella festival? The late-summer '06 Lollapalooza in Chicago?
Corgan and Chamberlin, blogs notwithstanding, remained cagey, letting rumors fly and responding only with cryptic one-liners. Skepticism began to encircle the project as rumored appearances failed to happen. Yet after a year and a half of this, the band's label Reprise announced in early February of this year that there was indeed a new album coming down the pike, with the uncharacteristically succinct title Zeitgeist.
Fresh, Not Canned
Despite intense interest among fans and bloggers alike, it's a bit of a leap to title the Smashing Pumpkins' new album Zeitgeist—that ship sailed a very long time ago, centuries in rock time and eons in Internet time. Still, the album captures much of the mixture of rock intensity and baroque melodicism that has always been Corgan's strong suit. No longer experimenting with electronics a la Adore or laboring to pen epic string-laden suites, Corgan has in Zeitgeist wrought what is in many ways a return to form for the band.
The critical response has not been too kind—Rob Mitchum slagged the band on Pitchfork, which is not universally loved but has become a formidable arbiter of taste. Excoriating the release, Mitchum wrote, "Given the chance to revisit the good old days, Corgan has unearthed only a portion of the Pumpkins' character—and while that portion is meticulously revived, all the parts left behind remain sorely missed." Paste magazine, which generally uses a lighter touch with its critical drubbings, has been no less harsh. In a review in upcoming issue 33, contributor David Mead writes, "For once, Corgan's infamous narcissism seems to fail him, and we're left with the troubling image of a rock star in priest's robes wondering why he couldn't save us again."
The thing is, the Smashing Pumpkins have never been a critic's band. What with Corgan's longstanding contentious relationship with the press, his insistence on standing aligned against the prevailing underground trends of the day and his weakness for the mawkish and sentimental, it's little surprise that Zeitgeist is getting batted around. Siamese Dream may have been hailed as the thinking-man's return to the grandiosity of arena rock at its time, but by the time the ambitious two-CD set Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness hit stores, daggers were being drawn (there may be no quicker way to incur critical wrath than to release a double album).
But by the same flip of the coin, Smashing Pumpkins has never been a band whose fans give a shit about critical feedback. For loyalists, the Pumpkins are sole keepers of the torch for sweeping and epic arena rock, the type of stuff that is rarely done nowadays and almost never done well. And despite its glossy sheen and a certain mercenary quality to the proceedings, Zeitgeist delivers in this sense. Corgan abandons the string sections, leaves the electronics in the basement, stays away from the high-concept trappings of the concept album, and plugs back in to deliver the sort of strangely desolate yet undeniably anthemic rock that many fans have been waiting to hear again since the Siamese Dream days. The results are better than they should be, considering the album's three-legged pedigree, and as with the Pumpkins' best output, the album is by turns cathartic and cringe-inducing.
Despite the semantics, the negative reviews, the quibbling over band lineup and the fascination with Corgan's ongoing public meltdown, the time may be ripe for a Smashing Pumpkins reunion, whatever the lineup may be. For weeks, music blogs—those hyperactive, ever-renewing barometers of what is cool and relevant—have been awash with '90s Smashing Pumpkins nostalgia. When you consider that the overwhelmingly indie-rock-centric music blog community is embracing a band that in its heyday proudly and defiantly defined itself against the indie scene, it brings an important distinction into relief: for bloggers and young bands today, the Smashing Pumpkins were that first rock band you heard on the radio, the first arena show you attended, the first CD you bought with a gift certificate on a holiday. For a music-savvy type now in its early-to-mid-20s, the Smashing Pumpkins are what AC-DC and Led Zeppelin were to Guns 'n' Roses, what R.E.M. and Hüsker Dü were to Corgan's onetime rivals, Pavement and Nirvana. For this generation, they are the Rosetta Stone, the point of departure where rock began and from which all other music can be understood.
A quick glance at MP3 blog aggregator the Hype Machine, which tracks what musicians and bands are getting the most attention online, displays a plethora of Smashing Pumpkins tracks and links to top-10 Pumpkins hits over the past two weeks. Remarkably, there were few leaks of material off Zeitgeist prior to the album's release, a nearly unheard-of phenomenon nowadays; in lieu of leaks, the bloggers turned to decade-old radio hits like "Today" and "1979," to fan favorites like "33," all without the heavy-handed ironic disdain the previous indie rock generation heaped on the band back in its glory days.
If nothing else, this may be Corgan's most enduring legacy: despite the indulgences of his public personality, for the generation that came of age in the mid-'90s, his band carried the torch for ornate and grandiose arena rock in a time when people shunned such aims as ridiculously pretentious. And though the indie kids of his day may have sneered at his raw ambition, it's debatable whether any of his '90s arena-rock brethren retain the same cultural cache: Trent Reznor has returned to being a singular obsession for hackers and 13-year-old Goths, Chris Cornell continues to turn out forgettable '70s rock pastiches to consistently diminishing returns, and Scott Weiland makes butt-rock as sterile and forgettable as a Michael Bay film with the members of Guns 'n' Roses not named Axl Rose. And it may be Corgan's final triumph that the new generation of the indie movement he once scorned looks to his work for inspiration.
Hate him or love him–and many do both—it's hard to deny that the perpetual underdog is on top once again
The SMASHING PUMPKINS perform Friday, July 20, at 8pm at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St. Tickets are $35. For more information, visit www.ci.santa-cruz.ca.us/pr/civic/.
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