Billy, Don’t Be a Hero
Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins may be this year's alternative success story, but 'Siamese Dream' did not come easy. JIM GREER learns whether the pain and suffering were worth it.
(This article appeared in the November 1993 issue of SPIN)
Billy Corgan, rangy singer-guitarist-songwriter for Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins, is a lightweight. He makes that clear as he settles down in a midtown Manhattan bar to talk: “I’m a lightweight,” he forthrightly announces as we order our first drinks. “This is a good way to loosen my tongue.” Long black jacket hanging comfortable from his slouchy six-foot-three-inch frame, Corgan appears far more relaxed than the last time we met, in a Los Angeles recording studio during the final stages of mixing, with producer Butch Vig, the band’s second LP and major-label debut, Siamese Dream. He seemed, then, like a man at the end of his tether, the tether in this case being the grueling five-month process of completing the record. Even at that point, though, you could tell that Big Things were expected from the new album; stupid, meaningless phrases such as “the next Nirvana” had been flitting through the industry ether for some time concerning the Pumpkins. By all accounts, despite its arduous conception, Siamese Dream is a fit vehicle to deliver the band to rock godhead.
Corgan, for his part, doesn’t really seem cut out for the role of rock god. He doesn’t swagger, doesn’t leer, hardly even drinks; instead, he speaks quietly and articulately and laughs, on occasion, in a high-pitched cackle. Mad scientist might actually be a better occupational fit, which in a way is appropriate — these days, all the best mad scientists are in rock bands (Kristin Hersh, Eddie Vedder, Mark Robinson of Unrest). He constructs intricate webs of sound and sense that alternately glisten and vibrate amid a thunderstorm of overamped guitar. Its meticulous framework reflects its maker’s widely varied influences, from Black Sabbath to Cheap Trick and back again, yet the hold is remarkably organic: The other night in some club between sets the DJ played all of the Pumpkins’ first LP, Gish, but the crowd was so loud you couldn’t tell where one song began and the another ended. It sounded like a goddamn symphony, and I mean that in the nicest way.
Siamese Dream, which boldly debuted on the Billboard charts at No. 10, picks up where Gish, and, before that, the band’s early singles, left off. It’s both more expansive musically (stealing the best bits from ’70s-style prog, without the nutty mythopoesis), and more introspective lyrically, diving headfirst into topics Corgan had heretofore been “totally in denial” about, mostly concerning his childhood and relationship with his parents. “When I wrote the lyrics for this record,” he explains. “I would just sit down at the typewriter and just type pages and pages, and then when when I came to a line that made me cringe with embarrassment, that’s the one I would use.” Corgan speaks his mind bluntly, with an almost confessional intensity. He rarely shies from difficult subjects — when asked about a particular song’s lyrics such as those of Siamese Dream’s moving “Space Boy,” he replies without hesitation, “It’s partly about my brother. I have a younger brother who has a rare genetic chromosomal disorder. He’s not mongoloid, he’s not retarded, but he’s definitely different He’s like 17 now. And there’s a lot of things where I identify with him, ’cause I went through very similar things — not because of anything genetic, but my whole life I was told there was something wrong with me, that I was different. I mean, all I ever heard was, ‘You’re a freak, you’re different, you’re not like everybody else.'”
Corgan’s childhood, in general, provides ample emotional fuel for Siamese Dream’s volatile psychic broadsides. “I didn’t grow up with my mother,” he relates, “and that’s really fucked me up. I grew up with my stepmother. My parents got divorced and I went to live with my great-grandmother, then I lived with my grandmother, then I went to live with my father and his new wife. My father was a musician, he was gone all the time, so she was in essence my mother. I consider her my mother, still. And around the time I was nine they split up for good and I stayed with her. So I grew up living an hour away from both my natural parents, but I didn’t grow up living with them. That has had a lot really harsh effects on my life — things that I’ve only figured out recently.”
The result of all this soul-searching is at times obscured on Siamese Dream by the sheer force of the music, just as the directness and honesty of Corgan’s sentiments are occasionally clouded by his slightly dippy self-absorption. “I can see the title of the article now,” he jokes, after one particularly potent verbal sally. ” ‘Billy Corgan: Asshole or Genius?’ ” Well, no, actually I was thinking more along the lines of “Crazy Mixed-Up Guy With a Heart of Gold.” Clearly, Corgan’s done a few too many interviews in his brief career, but it’s easy to forgive his solipsistic lapses, because (a) jeez, the guy’s obviously had a rough time of it, and (b) he’s so endearingly direct, and unafraid of making a fool of himself. Besides, in his own opinion, “If you were to sit down with the lyrics in your hand and listen to [Siamese Dream], really listen, you could get a pretty good insight into me. I think that is a better insight into me than anything that I could ever say. If you really listen to the record, you would know that I’m a real wimp. And a hopeless romantic.”
Sitting around a table outside the band’s mixing studio in Los Angeles, under a typical curds-and-whey Southern California sky, the four Smashing Pumpkins (It’s a stupid name,” says Corgan. “A minor joke.”) take turns out-jading each other. “We’ve become extremely jaded as a band,” Corgan says. “And I think it’s really sad. I don’t think there’s anything cool about it. We’ve lost perspective about how lucky we are and how wonderful a position we’re in.”
“All my friends kept telling me before we came out here, ‘Great you’re going to L.A.,'” says guitarist James Iha. “And I’m like, ‘What do you mean? I hate L.A.'”
“We tried to make [the band] big, and then it happened, and it got bigger than we thought it would be,” explains Corgan. “You feed the machine, and the machine feeds back on you…”
In a lame attempt to make everyone feel better, I tell the band that, hell, I’ve interviewed bands a lot more jaded than them.
“You mean we can go lower?” asks bassist D’Arcy, incredulously.
The Pumpkins formed in 1987, a couple of years after Corgan moved back to Chicago from Florida, where he’d had a go at heavy-metal thunder in a band called the Marked. He met Iha first, and then got into an argument with a woman, D’Arcy, outside of a club, in the course of which he found out that she played bass. The first few Pumpkins gigs were played to drum machine accompaniment; a local club owner saw and liked the band, offering them a plum opening slot for Jane’s Addiction on condition that they hire a real drummer, which explains Jimmy Chamberlin. A few more high-profile opening slots and the release of a single on local label Limited Potential brought the band increased record company interest, which expanded exponentially when Sub Pop put out a seven-inch of “Tristessa” in 1990. The Pumpkins decided to ignore the major-label wolves in favor of pseudo-indie Caroline, which released the Butch Vig-produced Gish in 1991 to great critical acclaim and eventual sales in the neighborhood of 350,000.
Despite having slogged it out for years on the local club circuit, Smashing Pumpkins, until Gish’s success, found themselves outcasts in the local Chicago scene, all but ignored in the press and accused by other bands and scenesters of being “sellouts” or “poseurs,” whatever that means. The band’s seemingly meteoric rise provoked jealous hissy fits from the established cliques in the area: The Touch and Go art punks, the Wax Trax industrialists, the flannel-shirted pre-grungeaholics. Their antagonism, especially in the very early days of the band, helped spur the Pumpkins on to greater heights.
“At the time, Chicago was such an oppressive musical community,” says Iha. “We didn’t represent anything from any of those scenes.”
“The whole thing’s such a dead issue,” interjects Corgan. “It was an initial motivation for us, to prove ourselves, but as you grow beyond your local scene and become a more national band, then people start comparing you to bigger bands, with is equally ridiculous.”
Ironically, the Pumpkins find themselves currently on the forefront of a scene Billboard recently crowned “the new capital of the cutting edge.” Citing the success of such natives as Urge Overkill, Liz Phair, and the Top Ten debut of the Pumpkins’ record, the article maps out a brave new world of Chicago rock that has as little to do with the Pumpkins now as the critics’ uninterested did then. That the band can now sell out three consecutive shows at Chicago’s Cabaret Metro in 25 minutes says less about any sort of Chi-town renaissance than it does about the band’s burgeoning national fame.
Largely because of Corgan’s dominating personality, it’s easy, at times, to forget Smashing Pumpkins is a band. From my short Los Angeles visit, I can say without hesitation that D’Arcy (thumbnail sketch: likes to wear sunglasses and act cool), Iha (shy, friendly, big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation), and Chamberlin (madman) are truly swell people. I just have trouble figuring out where they — especially Iha and D’Arcy — fit in, at least in the studio version of the Pumpkins (live, of course, they’re a different, sloppier beast). It’s fairly common knowledge that neither played much on Gish, and despite increased contributions on Siamese Dream, according to Vig, Corgan still ended up playing a vast majority of the guitar parts, as well as many of the bass lines. For the record, Corgan will only say that “it has never been to my advantage to present myself as some sort of studio wunderkind.” The magnetic pull of Corgan’s egocentrism seems to draw in and motivate the other band members to keep them revolving around his sun.
“One of the reasons I like working with Billy is that I think he really has a vision,” says Vig, who produced Gish and co-produced Siamese Dream with Corgan. “Whether people are gonna love it or hate it, he’s not afraid to put his stamp on something, and chart out territory where he thinks the Pumpkins should be. He’s very articulate, so when he’s talking about something, it makes sense to me. He can usually explain why he wants a part to be a certain way, or what he’s going for. And if he feels strongly about something he’s generally right.
“He also takes a certain amount of pride in being able to play pretty well, which I appreciate. I was pretty demanding in terms of performance, especially with drums and just like rhythmic kind of playing. More so in terms of how the band played rather than being metronomically perfect. When the band is totally on they play great together, but there were also certain points when they weren’t playing great, and it really took a lot of patience to get them to focus. And Billy is more focused than James and D’Arcy and Jimmy would be sometimes.”
Corgan smiles ruefully when I gently broach the subject of internal band relations, especially in light of the difficulties surround the recording of Siamese Dream. “You know, I gave them a year and a half to prepare for this record,” he says. “I’m surrounded by these people who I care about very much yet they continue to keep failing me. I say, ‘I need this, I need that,’ and they don’t do the job, and what it does is it makes me feel the same abandonment I felt as a child. And then what it says to me is, ‘You’re not worth the trouble.’ You to take it to a level where it’s very personal. If you really think about it, of course, someone doesn’t do the job because they’re lazy, or they don’t think it’s important. But I took it as, ‘You’re not worth going home and working on the song.'”
Still, Corgan’s obvious (and reciprocated) affection for the other Pumpkins has helped sort things out for the moment, but the Smashing Pumpkins’ world is a fragile and volatile thing, ruled at least in part by Corgan’s battles with his own insecurity. He is enormously sensitive both to criticism from the outside and to his own relentless perfectionism. At times, this sensitivity has plunged Corgan into the deepest of funks. “Here I’m going along in life, Gish comes out, is basically successful, people are telling me, ‘You’re gonna be on your way, everything’s gonna be great,’ and here I am, I’m suicidal, completely depressed, I hate myself, I hate my band,” he relates of the period just prior to recording Siamese Dream. (When we met in Los Angeles, a couple of months earlier, he referred to the period as “so horrible I don’t even want to think about it, much less talk about it.” So I guess this is progress.) “If you had met me, or knew me, you’d think, ‘Oh, this guy’s life is going along great, things are going great.’ And in my mind it was like things were terrible.”
His depression at that point apparently was such that prospects for recording the follow-up to Gish anytime in the next decade or so looked decidedly dim — which is precisely when things started looking up. “I came off tour, we barely had any songs written, the record company’s going, ‘You go in the studio in two months,’ and I’m going, ‘There’s no fucking way,'” Corgan remembers. “I reached such a point of depression that it was like, ‘Okay, I give up. I’m gonna stop trying to be whatever I think I should be, whatever everybody wants me to be,’ and when I did that, that’s when the songs started to come. When I finally let myself be what I am, then the music came to me, and it was a lot more powerful.”
Corgan, and by extension Smashing Pumpkins, is a potent mass of freely admitted contradictions. Both in music and in conversation, Corgan shoots first and wrings his hands later, managing to pull off any number of mutually exclusive extremes because he actually encompasses these extremes. Which is why he can blurt out, on the one hand, “I’ve gone as far as saying that if the album came out and bombed, and it got horrible reviews and no one came to our shows, that’d be the end of the band,” and on the other hand say, “for the first time in my life I feel like I’m finally on that road or whatever that I was meant to be on. And that’s why I feel, like, a different confidence about this record. Because if you criticize me now, I feel like I’m being criticized pretty much at my best.” He can say both these things, and mean them, because while contradictory, both statements are, for him, the truth. If he were more consistent, Smashing Pumpkins would doubtless be a less interesting band. As it is, contradictions intact, Siamese Dream expands the previously available vocabulary of rock music — not bad for a goddamn lightweight wimp.