The first time I saw the Smashing Pumpkins live was in the fall of 1993 in a club that held maybe 1,000 people. The video for “Today” was dominating the MTV playlist, and the band was on the brink of stardom, as evidenced by the their headlining slot on the Lollapalooza tour nine months later. Billy Corgan still had hair, and an affinity for loudly patterned button down shirts. His cranky stage banter consisted of instructing the audience to drop crowdsurfers on their heads. The most vivid memory of that vintage Pumpkins performance doesn’t concern anything that happened on the stage, but after the show, when my dad picked me up. We were walking to his car and saw Billy standing outside the tour bus, holding hands with the woman I assume was his wife at the time, casually chatting with a small group of people gathered around him. I eked out a small “Hi, Billy.” He responded with a nasally “hi,” and dad and I kept walking.
My dad, who came of age in the ‘70s and grew up on Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, and Led Zeppelin, glanced at Corgan, a guy who aside from his height was indistinguishable from any member of his audience, and shot me a look that said, “That’s a rock star? Are you sure about that?”
A lot has changed in the 25 years between my first and second Smashing Pumpkins concerts. For starters, my parents no longer pick me up from shows. Also, Corgan is now entirely too famous to just chill on a street corner after a concert while the audience files past him. And he’s since gotten in touch with his inner showman. Last night’s show at Madison Square Garden included elaborate video projections, several costume changes for Corgan, and a pre-recorded cameo from Mark McGrath as a vaudeville emcee looking like he’s about to sell Springfield a monorail. The Pumpkins frontman looked uncharacteristically elated during the three-hour performance of the band’s ‘90s classics and select covers, and it only took about 20,000 adoring fans to lift his spirits.
Let’s be honest: Smashing Pumpkins have always been a little corny, even before Corgan shaved his head and started dressing like Anton LaVey’s intern. Of the big Gen X alt bands, the Pumpkins were never seen as having the depth of Nirvana or the earnestness of Pearl Jam. As Kim Gordon so succinctly put in it her memoir, Girl in a Band, “Smashing Pumpkins took themselves way too seriously and were in no way punk rock.” Over time, Corgan’s temperamental quirks seemed to overshadow the music, with antics like investing in a pro wrestling franchise and buddying up to the tinfoil helmet crowd with a bizarre appearance beside Alex Jones on Infowars. In the midst of Corgan’s shenanigans, it’s easy to forget that, oh yeah, once upon a time this band had some songs.
The show opened with Corgan peeking his head out from behind the set pieces, with the lighting converting his bald noggin into a glowing incandescent orb. From there, he played a solo acoustic version of “Disarm” before the rest of the Pumpkins joined him for “Rocket.” With D’arcy Wretzky conspicuously absent, the band now consists of Corgan, the ageless guitarist James Iha, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, guitarist Jeff Schroeder, touring bassist Jack Bates, and touring multi-instrumentalist and singer Katie Cole. After the two Siamese Dream tracks, they dug into their 1991 debut Gish with an electrifying performance of “Siva,” complete with an extended psychedelic freakout during the breakdown. And so began a three-hour concert that felt less like an exercise in nostalgia and more like a celebration of the band’s best output. As one would expect, Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness were the most thoroughly represented albums.
The show exceeded the length of a Lord of the Rings movie, but managed to keep the audience’s rapt attention. The visuals included the kind of Catholic imagery that a guy with a persecution complex and a name like “William Patrick” would naturally obsess over, as well as some standard male gaze representations of angelic dancing blonde women with pencil thin eyebrows, who bore an eerie resemblance to Wretzky. Whether or not that was the intended effect, it felt like her specter was haunting the proceedings.
Corgan’s costumes shifted from a mall goth KMFDM look with a silver skirt and Frankenstein platforms, to a mall goth Jello Biafra look with a long-sleeve novelty skeleton t-shirt and ludicrous two-tone jorts, to a mall goth Elton John look with a comically large incandescent white fedora and a piano played atop an elevated platform. In the final quarter of the show, he donned a mall goth Liberace ensemble, complete with a glittery cape and a shiny black floor-length gown, followed by a mall goth marching band uniform and an ornate headdress. During the encore, Corgan motioned for his young son to join him onstage but the child declined. “He’s terrified,” Corgan explained. I get it, kid.
Try as he might, Corgan couldn’t overshadow the music with his costumes. The marathon performance was a treat for the diehard Pumpkins devotees and for once-and-future fans who parted ways with the band in the mid- or late-90s. For those of us in the latter category, it was a welcome reminder of why those early albums resonated in the first place.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified “Siva” for “I Am One.”