He's My Brother
By Beth Wilson
(Transcribed by Andrew Miller)
There were divorces. Money was tight. You could say the Corgan boys grew up knowing hardship. Yet, today Billy is a rock star and, despite numerous disabilities, Jesse finished school, got a job and is writing plays. Here is their story.
If you know Billy Corgan, it's probably Billy Corgan the rock star, the voice and driving force behind the Smashing Pumpkins, one of the nation's top alternative rock bands.
It's the Billy Corgan who, in the hit "Disarm" raises his voice in anger, then softly pleads for understanding and compassion.
It's the Billy Corgan who, as the song builds to a crescendo, reveals, "I used to be a little boy, so old in my shoes."
That's the Billy Corgan most people know -- the man with the sold-out concerts, the man publicized in Rolling Stone magazine, the man with the triple platinum albums.
But there's another Billy Corgan that few people see. That's the Billy Corgan who made it through a rugged childhood in a broken home while helping to raise a younger, disabled half brother named Jesse, once diagnosed by doctors as having "no potential".
Today, Jesse is a high-school graduate, works part time and attends College of DuPage. In his spare time, he writes plays.
It's late Friday morning when Billy Corgan walks into a tiny North Side Chicago diner after parking his black Mercedes outside.
At more than 6 feet tall, he ducks in the door, quickly surveys the crowd and sits down.
That Smashing Pumpkins have just come off a series of four sold-out benefit concerts at the Double Door in Chicago. Previewing material for the upcoming double album, the Pumpkins donated part of the proceeds to the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association -- a group to which Billy's brother Jesse belongs.
Jesse was born with mild cerebral palsy that caused him to walk on his toes, and Tourette's syndrome (a neurological disorder that can cause nonsensical or uncontrolled speech). He also had heart problems and a chromosomal disorder that caused him to be slower than the other children.
Those kids, naturally, made fun of him, but Billy was usually nearby to look out for him.
"It comes with a lot of mixed feelings," said Billy, 28, of his role in raising Jesse. "I just did it because it was the right thing to do. I just accepted it as the way things were."
As kids, he remembers always being with Jesse. A member of the junior high basketball team, Billy would play sports for hours on end. He brought Jesse, who played in a nearby sandbox.
Some boys wanted to know who the "retard kid" was. "That's my brother," Billy would tell them.
Jesse looked different and had difficulty talking. At times, his speech was garbled, indecipherable to anyone but Billy, who tried to teach him to speak more clearly.
"I saw how cruel people really are," said Billy, whose parents divorced when he was 3. "If you can't find it in your heart to love someone like this...well," he pauses. "The world is so petty. So damned petty."
Although the experience gave Billy a strong sense of individuality and determination, it also left him alone-and angry.
"Taking care of my brother, I missed out on a lot," he said. "I never seemed to fit in. But it made me try to strive for things ten times more."
Billy taught Jesse how to play baseball near Marquardt Middle School in Glendale Heights and read him books at night before they fell asleep.
Occasionally, in the middle of the night, Jesse would wake up and then go back to sleep on the floor by his brother's bed until Billy would wake up and let him in.
Says Billy's stepmother, Penny Andersen: "He became to Jesse what he would have wanted in a father."
As an honor student at Glenbard North High School, Billy said he didn't have much of a social life. He felt isolated and resentful.
"Most kids with my kind of energy don't sit in the house and take care of kids," Billy said.
Music was Billy's escape. He played guitar and dreamed of becoming a rock star.
"I just started dreaming this elaborate dream," he said. "It made life more bearable."
Then, Billy thought, he would be rich, famous, beautiful and accepted.
Although he struggles to talk about his troubled youth ("I've blocked a lot of it out"), the emotion often propels and pierces through his music.
Writing "Siamese Dream" a 1993 CD that sold more than 3 million copies, Corgan said he collected thoughts about his own life, selected the most embarrassing lines and used them.
Lines like "I'm all by myself as I've always felt" and "We don't belong."
The result was an album that catapulted Corgan and the Pumpkins into the national spotlight. The music ranges from driving, bass-propelled mosh-pit favorites to soft, light, beautiful melodies-often with songs containing a mixture of both.
After Billy Corgan's parents were divorced, Billy and his brother Ricky were shuffled between households. They ended up living with their father when he remarried.
But that marriage, which produced half brother Jesse, was rocky, too. His father, a guitar player, spent a lot of time on the road.
When the couple finally separated, the three children, Billy, 11, Ricky, 9, and Jesse, 2, continued living with Jesse's mother, Penny.
"I was terrified," Penny remembers.
There she was with two kids who weren't biologically her own, and another with multiple disabilities and hefty medical bills.
She spent a good deal of time in and out of doctors' offices with Jesse, who nearly died during heart surgery at the age of 4 months. The diagnoses were often grim or wrong, she said.
"Unfortunately, I leaned on Billy," she said. "Billy had a lot to handle as a young man."
Worried about what would happen if she lost her job as a flight attendant, she went to school full-time to pursue a college degree.
Needless to say, money was tight. In the evenings, sometimes Penny brought home dinner. Sometimes they had macaroni and cheese. Sometimes cereal.
"It was always Kmart," she said.
Answering the door to his Glen Ellyn home, Jesse is happy, polite and gentle.
He likes his job. He sorts laundry at the Oakbrook Hyatt and visits a mentally retarded man in his home once a week.
Sometimes this weekend, he'll have to study for his history class at College of DuPage. He's also taking driving lessons.
Clutching a can of Canfield's soda, Jesse, 19, talks with ease about his life and relationship with his famous brother.
"We've been through a lot," he said. "He's just a great brother to have."
Although Penny says Jesse may not fully comprehend his complex disabilities or accomplishments, others do.
"No one in our family would be as special without Jesse," Penny said. "You can be born with so little and achieve so much. He's been an inspiration."
Growing up, he gradually learned to speak more fluently around his family, but friends made him nervous. "I'd have a normal conversation with him," Penny said. Then outside around his peers, Jesse would say, "Oh, it's going to snow tomorrow," and it was June, Penny said.
The more the kids made fun of him, the more he withdrew. "I just kept it to myself," Jesse says now. "I just got quiet, you know."
But in school, Jesse continued to surprise everyone.
A one-time honor roll student at Hadley Junior High School in Glen Ellyn, Jesse graduated from Glenbard West High School with more credits than necessary.
In high school, Jesse began to open up. There he made his own circle of friends and enjoyed Billy's newfound fame.
"Kids who would call him retard now said 'Hey J-man, how's it going?" Penny said.
Billy's success made some students give Jesse a chance. And once they got to know him, they liked him, Penny said.
Although Jesse struggled his senior year with fears of leaving high school, he, like his brothers, has developed his own creative outlet.
Billy writes songs, Ricky is an artist, and Jesse, it turns out, loves acting. He joined the acting troupe at the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association, and then began to write his own plays.
He wrote in study hall, at home, anywhere. When a thought hit Jesse, he'd write it on a scrap of paper. Pretty soon, scraps of paper were all over the house.
Jesse says he'd shut himself in his room, writing three scenes in one sitting. Describing the plots, Jesse quickly becomes absorbed.
In the "Haunted Sleep Over", a group of teen-agers spend a night in a haunted mansion.
In his second play, "Phantom of the Hoosiers," set at Indiana University, one character is disfigured, similar to the character in "Phantom of the Opera."
The latter play, performed by the recreation association's acting troupe, received two standing ovations.
In the audience, not only were there childhood neighbors from Glendale Heights, but also his brother Billy.
"I'm so proud of him," Billy said. "He's just so damned determined. I take a lot of inspiration from that."
At one time tentative on stage, Jesse, whose most visible disability is evident in his speech, is now one of the most confident. He faces the audience, speaks clearly, remembers his lines and coaches others.
"I am more confident," said Jesse. "Ten years ago, I would never had done that."
And, as he gets older, he and Billy have more in common.
"We're both pretty creative," Jesse said. "We both like to do things to entertain people."
Jesse says fame hasn't changed Billy, except that he cut his once shoulder-length hair. Jesse likes going to the Pumpkins' concerts and staying in the VIP section, or the "safety zone," as he calls it. "I don't want to get moshed on."
He also enjoys hearing the song "Spaceboy," which Billy wrote for Jesse.
"I'm the only one at the concerts," he said, "who gets teary-eyed."
The brothers are grown now. Billy's married and Jesse has his own life. Their conversations are more of the man-to-man variety. Jesse needs a friend more than a father figure. "When someone has so many needs," Billy said, "it's an awkward transition not to be needed like that anymore. I felt a bit rejected."
Regardless, Billy said he's trying to ease his paternal instinct with Jesse. But it's hard.
"I'm still telling him what to do and he's still ignoring me," Billy laughs. "I hope to grow beyond that."
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