Up From the Ashes - Circus Magazine - Fall 1996
By Edward Fruchtman
(Thanks to Eve Stahlberger for the article)
The Smashing Pumpkins lead singer and guitarist Billy Corgan strummed gentle chords to their ballad Tonight, Tonight as a rainbow backdrop of floating stars spilled rays of light on the band members faces. The event was the MTV Video Music Awards September 4th. Corgan, wearing a black outfit with white dots, seemed as if he had stepped out of a rock and roll version of Disney's Fantasia. With his cherubic face and baby smooth scalp, Corgan looked like the embodiment of the song's innocence and wistful message a startling contrast to his primal angry deliveries on the familiar rockers like, I Am One, Bullet With Butterfly Wings, and Quiet.
The quartet sounded tight and well rehearsed and confident to transcend this very turbulent year. Their new drummer ex-Filter skin basher Matt Walker performed with conviction for his televised debut as a Pumpkin. Armed with winnings in no less than seven categories for two videos from their seven million selling Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Tonight, Tonight (which won for best video and 1979, the group sounded grateful during their acceptance speeches.
The enthusiastic responses of the audiences at Radio City Music Hall in New York City must have changed any feelings the group had that they had lost fans because of the recent tragedies. The death of touring Keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin happened not too far away from the awards ceremony. Melvoin 34, died on July 12th of a heroin overdose, joining the long line of rock musicians who have become casualties of the voracious drug and chemical habits. The band announced five days later that they were sacking their long time drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, hoping that he cleans himself up of his own recurring heroin addiction.
After two and a half days of auditions in Chicago, they chose walker as their new drummer. Walker got to know the band when Filter was the opening act for the european leg of the tour. Walker will play in a performance capacity. It is uncertain whether or not he will participate in future Pumpkins recordings. Chad Smith of the red Hot Chile Peppers was reportedly approached about the job but the Pumpkins have flatly denied these rumors that circulated over the internet as well as MTV. The Pumpkins enlisted Frogs founding member and drummer, Dennis Flemion to assume the ivory tinkling duties on the rest of the tour. The Milwaukee based Frogs recently signed up on Scratchie Records, a two and a half year old label founded by bassist D'arcy and James Iha. Corgan produced their Scratchie debut Starjob further strengthening their ties to the Pumpkins.
Chamberlin and Melvoin, shared an extremely close personal relationship and musical relationship. But the bond may have led both to experiencing a darker fate. They were inseparable onstage, banging the skins together on the raucous, feedback driven encores of Bodies and Silverfuck at their 1996 shows. (Melvoin was hired only six months prior to his death) Offstage they bonded like two partying pals. They shared a hotel room at the Regency in New York City the night that Melvoin died. The other three Pumpkins were staying at a different hotel four blocks away. Melvoin was found dead at about 4:15 am. Chamberlin who attempted to resuscitate his friend was later arrested on charges of drug possession.
Melvoin's sisters in a press statement insisted that his death was a freak accident because he did not have a known history of chemical addiction or substance abuse. Though the New York Daily News reported that he was caught doing heroin once. The Pumpkins threatened to fire him if he didn't clean up his act. Melvoin who once played with Prince and the Dickies, and Chamberlin OD'd on heroin during the European wing of their 200 show Mellon Collie worldwide tour, according to the Addicted to Noise Webzine. They were revived in a hospital by being revived with adrenaline.
Chamberlin, the Pumpkins long time drummer had a more publicized lengthy bout with drug abuse. The drummer told a Rolling Stone interviewer that he had "gotten high in every city in the country and probably about half the cities in Europe." Chamberlin checked into drug rehab later that year prior to the band's headlining gigs at Lollapalooza because of his fellow members insistence and a mental breakdown that almost drove him to suicide.
Explaining Chamberlin'd dismissal the band stated "that for nine years we have battled with Jimmy's struggle against the insidious diseases of drug and alcohol addiction it has nearly destroyed everything we are and stand for. So we have decided to carry on without him we wish him the best we have to offer." An August 13th court date was announced but was later postponed to September 26th to give the District Attorney time to finalize the investigation. Chamberlin's expulsion from the group must have been an extremely difficult decision for the band. Yet on MTV Corgan admitted that their former drummer is "out of our lives 110%"
As the leader and main song writer, Corgan placed high regard and confidence on Corgan's drumming capabilities as a hard hitting, creative drummer. Chamberlin was the only other member of the band to fully participate on the recording of their sophomore effort Siamese Dream. Though Corgan stated that he later regretted excluding the others during the taping of the basic tracks, he felt at the time that Chamberlin was an integral element in the desired sound which he helped achieve by overdubbing the other parts by himself.
Chamberlin was also a founding member replacing what was originally a drum machine that provided the backbeat for Iha's and Corgan's already corrosive sound. Raised in Joliet Illinois. Chamberlin was especially famous for his keen sense of dynamics and drum rolls. A skill he honed by his early study of drum technique and jazz. Melvoin's death and Chamberlin's dismissal were not the only tragedies that the band faced so far this year. The Pumpkins aborted their May 11th show in Dublin, Ireland because pushy moshers refused to calm down during Cherub Rock discovering later that 17 year old Bernadette O'Brien died after being crushed to death by over excited concert goers.
The Smashing Pumpkins boosted their profile after Walker and Flemion's recruitment resuming their Mellon Collie world tour. The band first decided to postpone shows from August 12th to August 24th so that the new touring members could learn their parts. Their first show was on August 27th at Las Vegas's Thomas and Mack center. Since their formative years in Chicago in the 80's, the band rarely got along, constantly riffing because of personal differences. Their hostile temperaments seem to fall into their music that frequently contains themes of depression and alienation. The lyrics mostly written by Corgan, explore the quest for identity and individuality through a muddied magnifying glass. Corgan was inspired to pen these words because of what he felt was his troubled childhood. His parents were divorced and he spent his early days being shifted from one relative to the next.
These melodramatic themes are also dominant in songs by Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. Corgan, however, adds his own unique brand of guitar rock, fuzzing and distorting his guitar to take his noted headache prone and taxing to the ears as a drill.Both he and guitarist James Iha helped create their thundering sound when they formed in 1988. After bassist D'arcy Wretsky Brown and Jimmy Chamberlin entered the Picture, the band played an endless chain of gigs before releasing their first album Gish, on the independent Caroline Records debut.
Outsiders speculated if any recently built bridges were shaken because of the firing of Chamberlin. During and MTV interview aired before the video music awards, Corgan said that he was fearful of breaking the chain of success if they got rid of Chamberlin. "He is an amazing drummer if he is not the best drummer of his peerage, he's top fleet...it was very hard to face his removal." But Pumpkins made up for lost time strengthening their eventually rescheduled performances (which were initially canceled for recuperation and intensive rehearsals so that the new members could learn their parts) with as much maturity and vigor that the Mellon Collie album offered.
The Smashing Pumpkins have given their fans a lot this year, aside from the almost non stop barrage of performances prior to Melvoin's death. They coupled three of their current CD single releases with no less than three bonus tracks for each. (As many as six of have been released in Europe) The extended play CD for their scorching Punker Zero contained five bonus tracks. These are not your regular leftovers. All are of such a high quality that they could have made it onto the Mellon Collie album.
Later this fall the Pumpkins will be giving their fans even more with the release of a special limited edition box set entitled The Aeroplane Flies High. The set will include all Mellon Collie era b-sides in a retro carrying case. Despite a rough go this year the Smashing Pumpkins have proved that they are not just any band. They are indeed flying high once again.
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