- Stevie Kristian
MUSIC HISTORY 101: A Relationship with The Smashing Pumpkins
Do you remember the first time you heard of The Smashing Pumpkins? I don’t. I think I do, but I probably don’t. They’re a household name for a couple of generations; their vocalist and main songwriter Billy Corgan is definitely, without a doubt, one of the most prominent musicians of his era. But I must’ve been 10 or 11 years old when I finally connected a memory of them to one of my synapses. That would make it about 2003, past the prime of the band which was no longer in existence at that point. Their seminal album Siamese Dream was almost as old as I was. Their debut preceded me by 9 months or so. I don’t think any of their members spoke to each other, besides their drummer Jimmy Chamberlain to aforementioned Billy, by 2003. Yet, there I was, fresh out of elementary school, being peer pressured by 18 year old boys in an AIM chat room to illegally downloaded Siamese Dream because it was the ‘the best album of all time’.
So I did. I didn’t like it. I pretended that I liked Spaceboy to gain some kudos and I didn’t revisit it. I was ten, I didn’t want nuance. I liked Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson and A Perfect Circle, which isn’t bad for a literal child to gain credibility with the edgy cyberpunk goth kids in the Powerpuff Girls AIM chatroom where I’d become a “reg” but I felt like a failure and a disappointment for not understanding. It was too smart for me, which is funny haha now, because it’s not opera, it’s just rock music. Regardless, the Pumpkins don’t make music for the masses or those who can’t comprehend their feelings. I couldn’t even understand a song like Today, which is almost as straightforward as Corgan can get because I was too naïve to grasp the sarcasm.
But that fucking band infected people, it wasn’t easy to catch that illness but when it did.. I saw it a lot, without ever taking full notice of it. Their name lingered in the air of most musical conversations at that time, they were omnipresent and mysterious. I didn’t feel worthy, I was ashamed of my adverse reaction to Siamese for years. And honestly, if that’s what their music completely entailed, I wouldn’t be writing this article. The reason I am writing this article is because it was probably around this time that a cousin of mine got the Pumpkins infection. I didn’t really notice at the time that it was happening besides the Zero shirt that my mother had gotten him for a birthday or something like that. He would’ve been 15 or 16 years old and for convenience, I’ll call him 'C' in this article. I don’t think we ever really spoke about the group because I just wouldn’t have been interested in talking about it and the further we grew apart, the less I thought about them in general. I made the inevitable connection between the band and Billy being the guy who goes on TV with no hair like all other teenagers of my generation.
I don’t know why I’m defending myself here but I just didn’t feel the need to connect with their music. I was emo by the time I was 15 or 16, I liked Bert McCracken who didn’t like Billy Corgan and “tripped him up” (whatever that meant), so it’s easy to say I was offput towards the group. Panic! At The Disco did a cover of Tonight, Tonight on their first headlining tour, which reintroduced me to the band at this point. That’s when I learned that they weren’t so bad and I gained some respect for their work. This was the turning point in our relationship! Except, it wasn’t, I just learned to tolerate the other tracks I had begun to encounter in my musical journey through life. None of them struck me until 1979 came into my life.
Let me stop here to give my very important opinion on that song because it’s very important. It’s their best song. The song is better than the band itself, they should be kissing that song’s ass everyday because it’s literally transcending. It’s almost baffling that they casually have this song in their discography. It’s the only Pumpkins song that’s stayed with me since my first listen. I don’t even want to know what the words are because I don’t want to actually know what it’s about, it’ll ruin the magic of it somehow. It’s that kind of song.
So, that seemed to be the end of me and Smashing Pumpkins for over a decade. I had a vague understanding and respect for them, knew the name of their singer, two of their albums and called it a day. It would’ve stayed that way if my life hadn’t been destroyed and ripped apart at the roots when the cousin I mentioned earlier hadn’t taken his life last year. And I don’t want to take away from his death or trivialize it in this article or simplify it. I’ll never get over it, it’s a complicated trauma that my entire family will live with forever. But he left a lot of stuff behind when he left us, and some of it was his love of Smashing Pumpkins. I don’t know how he felt about them in the years leading up to his passing, I can only go off of what he literally left. I was lucky enough to help pack up his belongings, which I did with a deep sense of respect. He was very fond of his possessions and took very good care of his things. He had a lot of the band’s merchandise, all of their CDs, a book and a DVD of their music videos. He also had his Zero shirt hanging in his closet. I was lucky enough to be able to keep that and hang it in my own closet.
I began living with this reminder of his love for this band I didn’t know anything about in my closet, sometimes bringing me to tears at a glance, sometimes making me smile with fond memories of who he was before life got very complicated for us all. At some point after his death, I began gathering little testimonial messages to include in a gift for his parents from people we both knew growing up. One was his teenage girlfriend, others were former classmates of his.. they all mentioned how much he loved Smashing Pumpkins in every message I got. I wonder what his parents thought of that but anyway, it nudged at my curiosity but I was too grief stricken at that point to really even think or function beyond day-to-day basics.
The months started to pass and grief does what it does, it begins to feel like a normal appendage that you can adapt your new life to. It was near my birthday this year, I don’t know if it was before or after because.. grief does that too. So, it was May of this year and I was spending time with C’s little brother, who is closer to my age. Someone got the idea that it would cure our boredom to watch that DVD of their music videos. Of course, I had seen some of them. In passing. Without much thought. Probably all of them being from their Mellon Collie era. So I don’t even know what I was expecting from the videos. I love music videos so really, anything would’ve been fine with me but I do recall the early Gish videos surprising me with how dark they were. I think my only remark was, “is Billy Corgan a Pisces?” which Google quickly informed me that, yes he is.
I didn’t even finish the DVD, I took it home with me. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had seen, so I finished it the next day. Then I watched it with commentary. Then my heart started burning like it does when you realize you like someone that you’ve known for a while in passing and you can’t stop your mind from racing with thoughts about them. Then every time you see them, your heart starts racing from excitement but you’re trying really hard to keep your cool.. you know what I mean. I had a musical crush and I wanted to know everything about them.
So I did what you do (this is the musical equivalent of asking someone out on a date), you add their music to your library while you read their Wikipedia page and you’re in deep from that point on. So, I’m in love with this band and we’ve been together for 6 months and it’s serious this time.
Part of me feels guilty in a strange and sad way, like I’ve taken something from my cousin. Or that I’ve gained something good from his death, which validates his decision to die. It doesn’t. Rationally, I know that’s not happening and it hasn’t happened. I can’t do anything to change his passing. I would if I could. What has happened is that I’ve inherited something good and I’ve inherited a lot of bad from his death. If I can have a couple of good things, I don’t think that’s too bad.
There’s a lot to take away from that kind of musical inheritance. This has to be one of the most complicated bands in history, right? Not just musically, but in their interpersonal situations. Each member is so individual and so key to their essence.. they’re fascinating to watch, to dissect, to absorb. Honestly, I’m drawn to James Iha the most. The e-girl of the group, if you will. While the other members obviously bring a lot of personality to their dynamics, I can’t see there being any spark without the broody, beautiful man lurched over his guitar in some shadow by his amplifier. Then you realize, he’s quite funny behind his deadpan gaze. I mean, his Wikipedia page says he’s famous for his on-stage quips, which happen when they happen, even to this day.. he’s pretty unpredictable in a demure way.
Why I was initially drawn to that, I don’t know. Maybe because it surprised me. I understand Billy at a glance; over-confident, mentally ill frontman.. I already liked The 1975, so I don’t know if I needed anymore of that. And honestly.. personally.. I’m not that different from Billy, so I guess it just didn’t intrigue me at first glance. But I’ve never encountered an Iha before. The closest personality I can compare him to in Rock History is.. like Charlie Watts, in the sense that he stays out of the limelight, minds his business, is there for The Art, is a team player, and is really funny when you can get him to open up. Charlie’s are rare creatures, as you can see if you paid any attention to the tributes from his passing.. Charlie’s are cherished and Charlie’s are special. James Iha is a Charlie.
Of course, a big part of their “lore” is his ill-fated relationship with bassist D’arcy Wretsky, which I really don’t find interesting personally because I don’t think it’s my business. The only reason it still comes up is because it still dictates some of the interpersonal politics of the band. But finding any details of that relationship as it was happening interesting, I can’t bring myself to do that. But outside of that, D’arcy seems to bring a lot of intrigue to that band in a different way. Obviously, she’s female but they came up in an era that tried to normalize that, so it’s not too unique to have a woman in a 90’s band, but D’arcy seems to standout from her female contemporaries in the way that she doesn’t stand out. She’s not clamoring for the spotlight. She’s not writing her own music, like a Kim Gordon or a Courtney Love. She drinks her silly little drinks, she wears her silly little outfits, and she plays her silly little bass. I’m just kidding, she doesn’t just do silly little things. I don’t want to undermine or disrespect her place in the band. She’s a distinct player, she seemed to really champion the band and try to bring an interesting perspective to their music and their public relationship. She’s definitely a contrarian and the Yang of the group.
I think anyone who knows anything about the group knows that D’arcy had the hardest fall from grace, especially after her time in the band. They all seemed to come out of it completely shellshocked but I find that Jimmy Chamberlain, their drummer, took a different course. He famously reached his rock bottom during the height of their popularity, in a tragic way. It’s strange to look at the news coverage of the death of their touring keyboardist, Jonathan Melvoin and remember how fucking famous they were at that time. I know the news media was probably clamoring for any dead rock stars after Kurt’s passing, but it’s hard to imagine the Nightly News telling me anything about any band in the year of 2021. Look it up on YouTube, seriously.. it’s a sad, weird Time Capsule.
Jimmy’s recovery was surprisingly quick and surprisingly successful. It’s almost awe-inspiring to see him now and think that he ever suffered through years of heroin addiction. After being swiftly kicked out of the group in 1996, he was already back and better than ever by 1999 with a Y2K frosted hairdo, as you do when you get sober.. You highlight your hair, it’s like an unwritten rule. Obviously, he’s highly adored in their bandom for his immense talent, his hilarious interviews, his Billy favoritism, his Vegan Zaddy status and his connection with their fans online.
The whole band is online quite a bit, which is a bit odd for someone who grew up thinking the guys in these bands are literal gods, but they have a peculiar or unique online presence. James is the least online (further pushing my Charlie theory, hm..), but the other three (and the two new and current members, Jeff and Jack) are relatively active on platforms like Twitter and Instagram. None moreso than Mr. William Corgan, though. I feel like there’s some kind of update somewhere on some account for some thing he does every single day. Of course, there’s Madame ZuZu’s (his café in Highland Park, Chicago which I would love to go to, just by the way) insta which is almost always active, the wpccodex (which I’m not sure the purpose of this account, someone explain. I am confusion), the bands official page, and the spcodex page, which are relentlessly in my feed at any given time in a rotation. There’s also the band’s YouTube page, which updates a lot and has a pretty interesting docu-series on it from several years ago where Billy does stuff in America in less than 10 minutes per video. I don’t know, there’s a lot of online presence from this man and it can be kind of overwhelming. He can be kind of overwhelming. I mean, their discography is so vast, without including the unofficial releases or his Zwan stuff or his Solo work.. Billy, go to bed. He’s definitely a controversial figure, to say the least. He always has been. He’s so extremely complicated, personality wise and musically. Sometimes I wish I could ask my cousin for some of his insight on the man, but I’m left to my own devices to come up with my own opinions. I will say that he’s obviously gifted in a way that makes you question the world as you can physically see it. He can write any kind of song, probably, if he wanted to. I sense that he worried about his legacy at some point, but I think his influence is in a lot of places people would be surprised to look. That’s a topic for a different article..
But beyond that, he’s slightly self-righteous, he’s extremely opinionated, he loves long winded answers, had a questionable penchant for “alternative media” in its infancy (yikes).. but he’s also an early advocate for talking about mental health honestly in his music. As a formerly suicidal person who loves a lot of suicidal people, seeing someone very honestly discuss these things, even if it was 30 years ago, is refreshing. Songs like Mellon Collie’s “Here Is No Why” soothed some of my deepest moments of grief in the last few months. Obviously some of their standout hits like Today or Disarm must’ve been incredibly powerful in the early 90’s. I can’t even imagine going from a bombardment of Poison or Motley Crue on MTV to a video like Disarm..
The mere thought of that is kind of mind blowing.. and what makes it worse, is that they get left out of so many conversations regarding the music history of that time. They get treated like a side note, pushed aside by "grunge" acts, which is fine in a sense. Until I remember how much they mattered, how much they were The Band, the ones to look up to, the standard, the milestone that no one could cross when I first encountered them.. but by the time I’ve fallen in love with them, they’re a relic.. an unpolished mirror in an attic somewhere, an aged trinket in a box.
As much as I don’t like Pitchfork, their review of their last release, Cyr, nearly hit the nail on the head. They’re happy where they are. They’re the couple in their On Golden Pond years, and maybe that means they can do what they want (except get D’arcy back in their group, but again, another issue..) but part of me has this feeling, they’re going to get a new breath of life soon. Maybe it’s hopeful thinking, maybe it’s just because I’m in infatuation with them right now, but I just can’t think that this is it for the Pumpkins. We shall see.