Yesterday was the birthday of Billy Corgan. Remember him? He was the leader of The Smashing Pumpkins. They were tremendously successful from 1993-96 and then . . . not. There was a precipitate plunge in fan adoration after Corgan fired powerhouse drummer (and heroin addict) James Chamberlin. Corgan and Chamberlin were the key factors in the Pumpkins, though the other two members, James Iha and D’arcy Wretzky added a lot to the look and aura and played live, whether or not they played on all the recordings.
In 1997 sometime, Kajsa and I went to a record show and bought a copy of Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness (1995). I’d been curious about it ever since it showed up in record stores with that distinctive cover art. We were pleased to find that the album had a variety of moods and was at times a major shot of rock adrenalin. My comment about the Pumpkins, based only on their appearance, was: “It looks like Pugslie grew up and formed a band.” Pugslie, of course, was the son of Gomez and Morticia Addams on The Addams Family. The name stuck, and Corgan was henceforth known as Pugslie in our house. After hearing Mellon Collie, we tacked on the tagline “savior of modern rock” to his name.
|James Iha, D'arcy Wretzky, Billy Corgan, James Chamberlin|
So here, on today’s track, you can hear how Corgan earned and lived up to his half-facetious moniker, “Pugslie, the Savior of Modern Rock.” Let’s recap: Cobain was dead; The Pixies had disbanded; Pearl Jam was too earnest; Jane’s Addiction were in hiatus; mostly everyone else was selling out to Rap. Rock was close to dead. Sure, there was still R.E.M., but, Monster notwithstanding, they had never been balls-out rockers. Corgan’s contemporaries, like Jeff Tweedy of Uncle Tupelo and then Wilco, were on a rather different trip. Roots rock and all that. For a brief patch there in the dwindling years of the Nineties, the Pumpkins ruled.
And today’s song was one of the chief exhibits from Mellon Collie, thanks to James Chamberlin. When I heard this I was happy, like I was when listening to “Baba O’Riley” by The Who, or “Guts” by John Cale, or “The Nile Song,” by Pink Floyd. We put it on in the car and cranked it. And that was what rock was all about. From Dad to kid.
I also got a kick out of Pugslie’s strangled singing, as though his vocal chords are being pressed in a vice and he still manages to sing: “I know I am meant for this world!” Chamberlin’s drum fills sell this all the way, and I like that Corgan, like The Pixies, goes quiet at times before stoking up the sledgehammer: “Have you heard the words / I’m singing in this song / It’s for the girl / I’ve loved all along / Can a taste / Of love be so wrong?” That last line was a bit de trop, but the idea of singing all along for one girl felt merited, even if it’s bullshit.
Since we were approaching the end of Kajsa’s high school days, the lines “As all things must surely have to end / And great loves will one day have to part” had a certain melancholy to them. It’s doubtful that Corgan was thinking about the great love of a parent and child duo but that’s what was on my mind in those days, especially as the line “I know that I am meant for this world” kicked with a full-tilt rush, like the surge of joy at one’s spawn heading out into the world to see what’s what. Go win some college funding, young one!
All of this is a way of saying, I suppose, that Smashing Pumpkins are forever the band of the late Nineties, to me. During my daughter’s teens, they tapped into my own adolescence, returning me to the love of power chords and megaton drumming, as well as little lyrical and moody inflections, that I associate with listening to Black Sabbath and Deep Purple in my day.
Hear it in that great opening as Pugslie sounds out the heart-rending cry that spells the defeat of all our rock’n’roll dreams: “I fear that I am ordinary / Just like everyone”—then hear the music crash over his head like a wave that buoys him rather than annihilates him . . . and we’re off.
Recently I read a piece, very mean-spirited, that held Corgan’s recent incarnations up for scathing ridicule. Dude seems adrift. But I liked Zwan, Corgan's post-Pumpkins band, and the album Mary Star of the Sea which, as it happened, was released the year my daughter graduated college as if Pugslie wanted to look in one last time—“my life has been extraordinary / Blessed and cursed and won”—before claiming “the silence of the world.”
Now Corgan is 47, and looks more like Uncle Fester.