Billy Corgan, rock godhead, and what to make of celebrity interviews
Here’s a little counterintuitive truth about celebrity magazines: For the most part, they don’t interview famous people. Now, I know it seems like that’s all celebrity magazines do, and one could certainly argue that interviewing famous people should be a celebrity magazine’s prime directive. But this is an illusion. Most of the time, magazines interview people who are becoming famous, or they interview people who used to be famous. This is because it’s almost impossible to interview people in that rarefied kill zone of hydroelectric superstardom; they don’t need publicity. As a consequence, the kind of artists who give interviews are (a) people who aspire to be recognized, and (b) people who have lost that recognition and want some of it back.
Both of these categories apply to Billy Corgan.
I’m currently looking at three-quarters of Corgan’s boyish face, as he (and his band) appears on the cover of Spin’s 100th issue in autumn 1993. Nobody seems to like Smashing Pumpkins anymore, which surprises me; at this point, they should be embraced as classic rock. Smashing Pumpkins were like Dinosaur Jr. for people who typically preferred Tusk. However, the band’s reputation seems to erode every year, and I suspect it’s mostly because people don’t like Billy Corgan. And the reason they don’t like him is that (ironically) he’s too honest during interviews, which wouldn’t be a problem were it not for the fact that he honestly believes he’s a goddamn genius.
In 1993 Siamese Dream was — at least according to this Spin article — a “fit vehicle to deliver the band to rock godhead,” which may or may not have happened. (I’ve never fully understood what “godhead” means in the context of art, although the Sub Pop band godhead Silo came from North Dakota, so maybe it’s a farming term.) The Pumpkins did, however, become undeniably famous in the mid-’90s, a circumstance Corgan seemed to have been preparing for (or at least thinking about) his entire life. His quotes in this article are like discarded dialogue from the Velvet Goldmine script: “If you were to sit down with the lyrics in your hand and listen to [Siamese Dream], you could get a pretty good insight into me,” he told the reporter. “I think that that is a better insight into me than anything I could ever say. If you really listen to the record, you would know that I’m a real wimp. And a hopeless romantic.”
I’m listening to Siamese Dream as I type these words, and most of the lyrics are about (a) sleeping, (b) remembering what day it is, and (c) how everything feels like something else entirely. But it’s fun to play these 1993 songs (and to read this 1993 profile) in light of the interview Corgan gave Spin just three months ago in support of his solo debut. “In my world I was like Michael Jordan,” he reminisced. “I could go to the hoop every time if I wanted to.” By extension, I suppose this would make Jimmy Chamberlin the Pumpkins’ Scottie Pippen, James Iha their Horace Grant, and D’Arcy either John Paxson or Steve Kerr. This metaphor works even better with Zwan as the 2001 Washington Wizards (i.e., Corgan being an aging, less-prolific version of his former self, with Matt Sweeney representing Richard Hamilton). But anyway, I don’t think this was Corgan’s point. His point was that he once felt so transcendent he had to artistically subjugate his own irrepressible talent. Yet this is not all that different from his feelings in 1993. “I gave them a year and a half to prepare for this record,” he said while discussing his bandmates’ inability to replicate the Siamese sounds inside his prebald head. “I’m surrounded by these people who I care about very much, yet they continue to keep failing me.” This, ultimately, is why people don’t like Billy Corgan, and it’s part of the reason his records aren’t remembered more fondly: They’re good, but they’re not “asshole good.” They’re not Lou Reed good; they’re not Miles Davis good. If Billy Corgan behaved like an alt-rock Joe Walsh, he’d get to be the thinking man’s Guy in Blind Melon. But he doesn’t, so he’s not.
But, you know what? I actually like that. It’s normal to evolve and become more reasonable and quit embracing the egocentric qualities that allowed you to become somebody who wasn’t like everybody else. Normal humans change; Billy Corgan never did. And while that isn’t necessarily admirable, it’s certainly noteworthy.