Smashing Pumpkins frontman and alternative poet William Patrick Corgan turns 53 this St. Patrick’s Day. One of the most acclaimed songwriters of the alternative era, Corgan once told the Independent of he and Kurt Cobain in 2014, “He and I were the top two scribes, and everybody else was a distant third.”
Corgan wasn’t wrong.
Few lyricists, regardless of era, have expressed feelings of alienation, isolation and feeling outcast as eloquently or accurately as Corgan. But his exceptional lyrical prowess goes well beyond being outside the norms of society. He can also capture being in love and joy with equally profound depth.
Just look at the diversity of the body of work: from the rage of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and the sorrow of “Disarm” to the sheer unbridled musical joy of “1979” and “Tonight, Tonight.”
Corgan has been a poet of our ages for the past 30-plus years. So what better way to honor a poet on his 53rd birthday than reflecting on his greatest lyrical works? Here are 10 of his best.
“My life has been extraordinary/Blessed and cursed and won/Time heals, but I’m forever broken”
Reportedly written in part as a preemptive strike at critics who Corgan expected to tell him to shut up after hearing the epic, grandiose and larger than life Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness album, “Muzzle” is arguably Corgan’s finest complete lyrical work for the sense of longing and ultimate discovery he makes within the magnificent self-declarations. “I know that I am meant for this world,” he declares at one part. For anyone who has ever questioned their place in the world, “Muzzle” is a masterpiece.
“This Time,” 2000
“I’ve lived my life alone/My every step foretold/To never linger/And yet it haunts me so/What we are letting go/Our spell is broken”
“In my mind when I was recording the song I thought, “This is the ‘last’ Pumpkins song we’ll ever do,'” Corgan told Forbes in 2018. “I thought maybe we’ll do other music at other times and there might be a chance we would reform down the road. But in my mind that was the end of that band with that song. So it’s interesting you keyed in on that song.” When it was pointed out to him that the song could universally be applied to breakups, he laughed and said, “That was brutal. I’m still paying for that breakup.”
“Bleed in your own light/Dream of me/I miss me/I miss everything I’ll ever be”
Buried beneath the then trademark Pumpkins wall of guitar sound, the opening stanza is a profound one that set an early tone for future themes of longing and self-awareness in Corgan’s writing. Most people aren’t blessed with enough self-awareness to recognize how they evolve over time. Corgan definitely didn’t have that problem. “It stands as a poem to the past that has just left us behind. We are going places fast! And we can’t get there fast enough,” he wrote in the liner notes to the 2011 reissue.
“To Forgive, 1995”
“I knew my loss/Before I even learned to speak/And all along, I knew it was wrong/But I played along with my birthday song”
One of the things that makes Corgan so exceptional as a songwriter is his ability, as John Lennon also had, to put into simple and relatable terms universal truths. And this is as fine an example of that as you will find in his more than 30-year catalog. It is direct, haunting, moving and a feeling of being out of place so many can identify with, even if they couldn’t put it into words until Corgan did it for them.
“Love is good and love is kind/Love is drunk and love is blind/Love is good and love is mine/Love is drunk all the time
In addition to being one of the finest lyricists of the last three decades, Corgan is one of the most misunderstood artists as well. Because he can come across as serious or even stern at times, he is not given nearly enough credit for his sense of humor. This witty stanza, that feels like Tom Waits’ “The Piano Has Been Drinking” era or that the great Paul Westerberg of the Replacements might have penned, is a perfect example of that. What person who’s been in love hasn’t felt like they are falling over drunk, out of control? Again, it took Corgan to articulate that feeling.
“For Martha,” 1998
“If you have to go, don’t say goodbye/If you have to go, don’t you cry /If you have to go, I will get by/I will follow you and see you on the other side.”
One of Corgan’s most emotional and heartfelt songs, this more than eight-minute epic for his late mother, who passed while he was on tour for Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, is a masterpiece of melancholy and beauty. And the above couplet is, once again, like all great songwriting, universal. Though he wrote it for his mom, anyone who has ever experienced the death of a parent or a loved one, has shared these exact sentiments beautifully written by Corgan.
“Yet I sing, how does a wishing tree run dry/Cherished in remembrance in my mind/The embrace of those who loved you cannot die”
Great lyricists only get better with time. From Waits and Bob Dylan to Lou Reed it’s been proven time and time again as they have more experience to draw on and more tricks of the trade to tell their message, whether with sparse directness or clever wordplay. This underrated anthem from the Pumpkins’ last release is proof, mixing both the clever lyrics in the chorus and poetic passages like the one chosen.
“You wrap your arms around/A feeling that surrounds/Like liquid peppermint/Just taste the dreams that she sent”
It’s fascinating to do a list like this of 10 songs over 30 years and chart Corgan’s metamorphosis as a lyricist. Reference this early passage from the Pumpkins’ seminal first album. It feels much more abstract than later lyrics, but this love song, written for his future wife, still shows an early beauty and depth that would only get stronger in his work over the years.
“Emptiness is loneliness/And loneliness is cleanliness/And cleanliness is godliness/And God is empty, just like me”
One of Corgan’s most famous and quoted passages for good reason, it is likely he knew it was special as soon he wrote it. It is clearly enunciated, almost spoken, allowing it to breathe outside of the thunderous hard rock backdrop that Corgan has said the Pumpkins’ James Iha has compared to Judas Priest. Live it takes on more power as the crowd screams it with Corgan, making it a refrain for a whole generation.
“No matter where you are/I can still hear you when you dream/You traveled very far/You traveled far, like a star/And you are/All of those yesterdays/Coming down”
“Drown” is quintessential Billy Corgan and Smashing Pumpkins in a variety of ways. Not only is the dreamy, mid-tempo sound familiar to Pumpkins fans and the lyrical poetry and mysteriousness also a staple of the Pumpkins, the song was released first on the iconic soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film Singles. Putting it out that way took nerve but the song has remained a band favorite for almost three decades and Corgan himself has said when the band plays it live it is treated as a hit record.