Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan’s feud with former bassist D’Arcy Wretzky is undoubtedly a huge bummer for longtime fans of the band. But of course, no one who is also familiar with Corgan’s temperamental ego and control issues would expect a reunion with the original Pumpkins to come together without a hitch, as a feature by David Browne from Spin’s 2007 issue foreshadowed.
2007 was a year rife with reunions tours by seminal ’80s and ’90s post-punk and alt-rock bands, including Jesus and Mary Chain, Rage Against the Machine, and Happy Mondays. Browne implies that Corgan was eager to cash in on that wave, especially given the lukewarm reception to his Cocteau Twins-inspired 2005 solo album TheFutureEmbrace. However, instead of enlisting guitarist James Iha and bassist D’Arcy Wretzky for a new record and comeback tour, Corgan assembled a Frankenstein version of the Pumpkins with new members Ginger Reyes (bass) and Jeff Schroeder (guitar); drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was the only original member welcomed back into the fold. Although people showed up, some fans claimed that the new incarnation didn’t recapture the magic of the classic Pumpkins lineup:
In light of such a quasi reunion, though, plenty of other people were happy to sound off. One fan wrote on Stereogum, “Whatever incarnation it is…it is more than acceptable to me,” to which another poster retorted, “This reunion is a joke, and Corgan’s a twat.” At least one fellow superstar musician was wary as well: Backstage at Live Earth in New Jersey, where both the Pumpkins and the Police played, Andy Summers was overheard saying to a friend, “Oh, they’re just awful – and they’re not playing anything.”
When discussing the fate of the band in an interview with Spin in 2005, Corgan made a promise that is easily applicable to the status of the current Pumpkins reunion:
Asked by Spin in 2005 whether the megaplatinum quartet would ever reunite, Corgan answered: “When people ask me that, it means, ‘Are we going to see the four band members onstage again?’…The answer…is no. There’s no way you’re going to get those four people onstage again. The divides are too deep.” A few weeks later, Corgan placed full-page ads in the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times announcing that he was going to “renew and revive” the Pumpkins.
Given that the group played “farewell” shows when they disbanded in 2000 – and that Corgan clearly had no interest in reuniting with guitarist James Iha and bassist D’Arcy Wretzky – what did he mean? Two years after the Spin interview, Corgan finally answered that question: Zeitgeist, the first new Pumpkins album since 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God, arrived in July.
Corgan bolstered that bleak prediction from the 2005 interview by telling Spin’s Marc Spitz that if the Wretzky, Chamberlin, Iha, and Corgan were ever seen on the same stage again, Corgan would owe Spitz “a good deal of money.”
Corgan reiterated that sentiment in a 2007 post on his personal blog:
“I can now say definitively that they aren’t ever coming back. Period. There is no maybe. If the door was once open to at least have the conversation and consider the possibility, it is now closed For good,” Corgan wrote. “We have moved on. We love them, and we wish them well. The SMASHING PUMPKINS are now whoever is standing on that stage, on any given day, with a willingness to play those songs.”
Given how Wretzky went scorched earth after Corgan allegedly once again opened that door to a collaboration on the forthcoming reunion tour only to downgrade his offer to occasional Steven Adler-style cameos, the best we can probably hope for is three out of four Pumpkins to share a stage. Thirteen years later, Corgan’s prediction regarding four people never playing together again appears to be holding up.
Corgan has always crowned himself the sole creative force behind the Pumpkins, which obscures the fact that Iha is listed as the writer or co-writer of some of the strongest songs off of the band’s first four albums. If history has proven anything, it’s that the Pumpkins were always Corgan’s vessel, and he apparently views collaborators as nothing more than hired guns who live and die by his whims.
According to Butch Vig, who produced 1991’s Gish and 1993’s Siamese Dream, Iha and Wretzky provided “emotional support” more than musical chops in the studio. “Billy was very much in control,” he says. “At points, he just realized he could play [the guitar] or bass parts better, which ended up happening on 90 percent of both records. There are bits of D’Arcy and James here and there, but for the most part, Billy played almost everything.” (For Zeitgeist, Corgan handled all the instruments except drums.) Although Vig hasn’t spoken with Corgan in several years, he understands the frontman’s current motivation: “When he said he wanted to get the band back together, I think it’s a mentality…in terms of how he’s going to write, regardless of who works with him. It’s, ‘This is the kind of music the Pumpkins do.’”
In addition to being the temperamental and domineering sort, it sounds like Corgan’s communications skills could use some work. When Spin reached out to Iha’s Manhattan recording studio, Stratosphere Sound, for comment regarding the revived Pumpkins in 2007, studio manager Debb Hanks replied: “He’s never been contacted by Billy, so he doesn’t have anything to say about it.” Given how Iha and Corgan were former best friends, one would think that Corgan would at least give his former guitarist a heads-up that he’s taking a zombie version of the band they co-founded out on the road. Eleven years later, the pair seem to be on the same page as they tease photos of studio sessions with Chamberlin and Rick Rubin — for now, at least.
The same can’t be said for Wretzky, at least in regards to the text conversation with Corgan she released yesterday. It’s hard to pinpoint who is right and who is wrong in such a messy exchange, but things start off warmly with a supportive Corgan asking Wretzky to dictate how much she wants to be involved in a reunion tour and ends with him eventually downgrading her participation to brief novelty appearances at a handful of shows. Negotiating the terms of a reunion tour with a person one hasn’t seen in almost 20 years sounds like it requires, at the very least, more than just text messages.
In any event, the terms and conditions for playing in the band seem to be the same for founding members and hired guns: Billy Corgan unilaterally sets the terms and conditions and players have to decide if they’ll comply. Still—perhaps due to the criticism Corgan received the first time he tried to pass off a version of the Smashing Pumpkins comprised partly of what fans saw as scab members—he now seems either smart or humble enough to at least try and forge a functional working relationship with some of his former bandmates, even if he failed spectacularly at making nice with all of them.