This journey starts out in a way that no one who meets me today would believe.
When I first heard of them, I did not like the Smashing Pumpkins.
I remember tuning in to 120 Minutes and catching the end of the video for the Smashing Pumpkins song “Rhinoceros.” The camera cut to Billy Corgan and their bassist D’arcy sitting on a couch while talking to host Dave Kendall. Billy said something about how his lyrics were hard to explain because they were based on memories, so it’s not like he could say, “Well, I was walking down the street one day, and I thought this.” Then D’arcy cut in and said, “We don’t want to tell you what to think the songs mean anyway. We’re here to say, ‘Think for yourself.’” And the way she said it was in this tone that annoyed me for some reason. It was snotty. I thought, “Oh Lord, these people are obnoxious.”
That was in 1991 or 1992. I didn’t hear about them for a long time. Then in the summer of 1993, I was watching 120 Minutes once again, although this time the host was Lewis Largent. He said they had a new video from the Smashing Pumpkins, the lead single off their second album SIAMESE DREAM. I thought, “Oh no, these jerks again!” But it was midnight on a Sunday, and there was nothing else on to watch, so I kept it on MTV. The video was for the song “Cherub Rock.”
I’m glad I left it there, because it changed my life.
Not too long before this video aired, I had given up on trying to learn guitar. I was confused about what I wanted to do with the instrument. One day I would be listening to Cat Stevens, and the next I would play Nine Inch Nails. This conflict made me give up. Then I heard that main riff for “Cherub Rock,” and I said, “You know what? I want to pick up guitar again, at least to learn how to play that!”
SIAMESE DREAM came out shortly after that, but I didn’t get it right away. In fact, I didn’t get it until that Christmas. But when I did, I listened to it non-stop. I got their first album, GISH, after already owning DREAM. While that album is also good, it really was a step backward. The only way I could get into GISH was by leaving SIAMESE DREAM home and bringing only GISH to school, so I listened to only that on the bus ride to and from school, as well as when I was walking between classes.
Fast forward to 1994. I was at SUNY Albany. The Pumpkins released an album that was a collection of B-sides and rarities called PISCES ISCARIOT. This was a stop-gap to satisfy the fans while we waited for the Pumpkins to release their next album, which they said would be a double album. At some point, I bought a Smashing Pumpkins T-shirt that had a list of about 52 song titles on the back. What astonished me was that there were maybe 10 titles or more that I’d never heard of. I did some digging around, and I found out many of these songs were demos that had been recorded in 1998, three years before GISH came out. Damn, I thought, I want to have ALL their music, but how can I if it was never officially released? What am I going to do? How am I going to get them? GODDAMMIT, I NEED THOSE SONGS!
While I pondered this question, I was also reading as much as I could about the band, and specifically their amazing songwriter Billy Corgan. There were certain parts of his life that eerily seemed to echo mine. I wouldn’t say they were like looking in a mirror, but they were close in their own way. For example, his dad was a musician, and a drug addict. My dad was neither, but he has also exhibited a similar sense of emotional distance throughout my life. I believe Billy’s biological mom was sent to a mental hospital for a while. Mine was not, nor was she ever officially diagnosed with anything, but we all know the stories about her. If she doesn’t have at least one or more mental disorders, I would be shocked. Then Billy’s dad remarried, and Billy did not get along with his stepmother. It’s easy to see how THAT aspect of his life paralleled mine.
Billy also talked about his relationships with his peers. He said, “My hair was either too long or not long enough. My clothes were either too weird or not weird enough. It’s been that way all my life.” I also felt this way in high school. I mean, I seemed to be too “weird” to get along with what I call the “mainstream” kids (also known as the “in-crowd”), but then I didn’t seem to be weird or edgy enough for the kids that were more accepting of me; by that I mean the smoker/skater kids who hung outside smoking between classes. They were more open to the kind of person I was, the kind of music and movies I liked, and so on. They didn’t consider me weird or a future psychopath simply because I liked horror movies. However, they were open to many things that I was not, like running the streets all hours of the night, doing drugs, and so on. I did give those things a try, but I didn’t like them.
When Billy said this, a lot of people mocked him for it. You see, even that early in their career, Billy was developing a reputation as an asshole. When he made these comments about not fitting in and having a hard childhood, people said things like, “THAT is his excuse for being a jerk? I had it hard too, but you don’t hear me using it to justify treating people bad!” The thing is, I knew Billy wasn’t using it for that purpose…because I UNDERSTOOD the man. He was simply saying that, even though he was this great big rock star now, he had been where we were. He could understand feeling alienated from others, but no one else gives him that.
Time passed. I met my first girlfriend Adalena in 1995. During Spring Break, I stayed with her in New York City. We went to some record stores downtown, and I found a TON of Pumpkins bootlegs that included all those songs that were missing on my shirt, and more! At this time, the Internet was starting to really become “a thing,” so I went online looking for Smashing Pumpkins websites, and I found out there were even MORE songs that I didn’t know about or possess. For a year or so, this became my obsession. I hunted down rare singles, even if they were imports.
It wasn’t just their music. It was Billy’s experiences and attitude and personality that spoke to me, WAY more than the other musician who was labelled our “generation spokesperson.” Naturally, I am speaking of Kurt Cobain. Kurt and Billy were alike in many ways, which meant I noticed similarities between Kurt and myself as well. For one thing, he was a very kind, sweet, sensitive soul. For another, he was not just a lyricist; he was a poet. And of course, he also had a poor self-image. Billy did too, but he chose a different path. As we all know, Kurt took himself out. When Billy got close to taking the same course of action, he decided to step back from the edge and, in his own words, “deal with it, get over it, work, and be happy.”
The fact that he came back from that edge at all is admirable, but what he accomplished was astounding. When the Pumpkins were getting ready to record SIAMESE DREAM, Billy suffered a crippling bout of writer’s block. But then when he bounced back, the man became prolific. Ever since beating that block, he has always written enough material where EVERY album could have been a double album.
After MELLON COLLIE AND THE INFINITE SADNESS, the Pumpkins took three years to put out a new album. This one was called ADORE, and it features none of the bombast of the previous records. It was a mix of acoustic and electronic music, and it fell flat on its face. Billy thought the fans that bought MELLON COLLIE would stick with them no matter what. He thought, “The fans finally get us. They will stay by our side.” Unfortunately, he was wrong. The fans he got from MELLON COLLIE were what I call the “casual” or “MTV fans.” They liked MELLON COLLIE simply because that is what the radio and MTV told them to like. They didn’t have the same deep affection for the band that people like I did. What I have come to find out in my life is that people prefer to be sheep. Why? Because it’s safe. If you are into what everyone else is, there is a sense of security. Unfortunately, being sheep makes it easier for things like…I don’t know…a guy like Hitler rising to power.
A lot of people mocked Billy’s decision to change the sound. At the time he said things like, “Rock is dead. I mean, how long can you beat people over the head with the metal?” Some of my friends would say things like, “If that’s true, then why aren’t ALL those rock bands turning toward that kind of music?” I said, “Because those bands are not Billy, and Billy is not those bands.” No one else understood that it was a personal choice. They just wanted the Pumpkins to keep rocking.
A couple years later, the Pumpkins released MACHINA. Even though they were rocking again, they did not regain the commercial success of MELLON COLLIE. They had another album ready for release (MACHINA II), but Virgin Records was not interested in putting it out after the dismal sales of MACHINA I. So Billy gave vinyl copies of MACINA II to people who ran the most popular Pumpkins fan sites and told them to distribute it. In other words, they gave us a whole album for free in the year 2000, which was several years before Napster and file sharing became a thing. Talk about a visionary! Then again, that should come as no surprise. I mean, in an article Billy wrote for his high school newspaper, he said the three biggest bands of the future would be R.E.M., U2, and Metallica.
Billy resurfaced with a new band called Zwan, which had Jimmy Chamberlin from the Pumpkins still on drums. That band didn’t last long, which sucked because I thought some of the tunes were brilliant. It was a while before Billy came out with his debut solo album The Future Embrace, which showed a heavy Depeche Mode influence. The album quickly disappeared from everyone’s minds. Yes, even mine.
On the day that his album was released, Billy took out a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune, saying he was going to reunite the Pumpkins. I waited eagerly for more news. I was not surprised when Jimmy Chamberlin agreed to come back, and I was even less when James Iha and D’arcy did NOT. It was a while before the new lineup debuted. Jeff Schroeder was the second guitarist, and Ginger Poole was the bassist. This lineup played together for a few years, although Jeff and Ginger were NOT present on the album Zeitgeist. That is the one album I couldn’t get into. I loved it at first because I was excited that my band was back together. However, after the shock wore off, I realized that only half the album really hit me like the old material.
There were quite a few ups and downs during this period. The band stumbled as they tried to regain their footing. At some point, Ginger Poole left the band because she was pregnant, and Jimmy quit because he said his heart wasn’t really in it anymore. Nicole Fioerntino was recruited as bassist, and I think by far she was the best one the band ever had. Then they got 19-year-old Mike Byrne on drums, a move that was heavily criticized by many. How could this kid summon up the chops to match Billy’s riffs? Well, somehow he did.
For a while, the Pumpkins dismissed the idea of making full albums again because of the shift in the music scene ever since Napster. They focused on crafting one song at a time. Billy said they would release one song per month in this fashion, but here’s the thing: most months are four weeks long, and four weeks is a LONG time to ask people to maintain interest in one song while they wait for another. Also, it didn’t help that the four-week wait often stretched into six weeks or more. Eventually, Billy released a statement that the band would go back to making albums.
The next one was called Oceania, and holy shit…what an album it was. While it may not have recaptured the band’s old glory, it kicked ass, and it earned Billy some of the best reviews he’d gotten since Mellon Collie. He’d been stumbling in the dark for a few years, but Billy finally found his path again.
And then he veered off it. How? Well, Nicole and Mike left the band. There was no real explanation. I’d never had a problem with Billy replacing D’arcy or James because, in my opinion, the entire Pumpkins’ sound was Billy’s songwriting, guitar, and voice, and Jimmy’s drumming. When Jimmy left, I was nervous, but then Mike proved a worthy replacement. Many fans and I vested our hearts into this incarnation of the Pumpkins because they sounded pretty damn good. We also bought into Billy’s line that this was the most excited he’d been about the lineup since the band started, and then BOOM, 50% of them are gone. I was pissed. Just when I thought we were on solid ground, Billy yanked the rug again. There was no clue who the replacements would be this time.
News started bubbling up that the Pumpkins were working on a new album. This was to be called Monument to an Elegy. It turned out that Billy was bringing Tommy Lee from Motley Crue to drum in the studio. Many people were like, “What the hell?” After all, Motley Crue was part of the “hair metal” scene that Billy and the Seattle bands had kicked off the charts. They were thought to be a joke by our generation, but if you listen to the man’s drumming, he DOES have chops. Plus, it wasn’t as out of the blue as many people thought because Billy and Tommy had known each other ever since the Pumpkins toured on their first album Gish in 1991 and 1992.
For live performances, the bass player from the band the Killers joined Billy and Jeff, as well as the drummer from Rage Against the Machine. The bassist was all right, but that dude from Rage SUCKS. His drumming is boring as hell; they might as well have a metronome on stage because the guy does nothing but keep the beat. He has no inventiveness at all. I was glad this lineup was short-lived.
Then, exciting news came. At a couple shows on an acoustic tour that the Pumpkins did, not only did Jimmy Chamberlin return…but JAMES IHA joined them on stage at two shows. Within no time, rumors were brewing of a reunion. Billy said he was talking to D’arcy again. It seemed like the original four would be back together. And then reality had to ruin it all. D’arcy said that Billy withdrew his offer, and there were some harsh words in interviews. Billy said this was false, and James Iha got his back.
I don’t care about the petty band mate squabbling. I just wanted to get that part out of the way so I could backtrack to something else., something much more profound and interesting about Billy that I used to notice about myself, but I have gotten over.
As I said before, Billy had a dysfunctional family. His dad was physically abusive and emotionally absent, and his mom and stepmom were both nightmares too. Despite all that, Billy still wanted to get their approval…if from no one else, then at least from his dad, who was also a musician. In fact, there was an interview where Billy said, “My dad said when he listened to Siamese Dream, he heard a part of me that made him understand why so many kids connected with me.” He said it was one of his proudest moments; he said that, even when you are an abused kid, you always want that pat on your head and to hear them say you did a good job.
I was this way with my parents too. Whenever mom said something where she expressed disappointment in me, I would get upset. She always chose to focus on my failures instead of my accomplishments. Many times I said to her, “I could run a Fortune 500 company, and you would still find a way to paint me as a failure.” With dad, he was emotionally not there. I remember when I told him for the first time ever that I had a girlfriend. All he said was, “Oh, that’s nice,” and that was it. Didn’t ask her name, where I met her, etc.
The thing is, I am past expecting these sorts of things from my parents. Billy kind of isn’t. He still needs external validation and approval. How do I know this? There was an interview where Billy was complaining about the reviews that Monuments received. He said something like, “All these magazines are rating the album three stars. No one believes I could release a three-star album.” I remember thinking, “Billy, who gives a fuck? Write the music that’s in your heart and don’t worry about reviews. The people who get it…will get it.”
That was when I realized: this guy still needs external validation. It was amazing to me to be able to spot that. I was the same way. I still am sometimes, but I’m getting over it. It’s just crazy that, despite all his success, Billy can still get hung up on that. It’s kind of like the music magazines are his parents now, and he is mad that he can’t get their approval. The funny thing is, his success is what has given him such a big ego that he would never be able to admit he still has some work to do on the inside.
In that moment, Billy was no longer a rock god. He was human. I realized that was why I had identified with him all along: the guy was real. I identify with and admire him for the reasons that everyone else mocks him: his mood swings, his so-called “crazy” ideas, his off-the-cuff/borderline temper tantrum kind of remarks. He has never believed in posturing as some perfect, flawless idol for us all to worship. THAT is why he strikes a chord with me.
This revelation made me feel closer to him, that if the man and I had a chance to talk, it would become immediately obvious that we are a lot alike…well, other than his riches, fame, and number of records sold.