Appetite for Destruction
Details magazine December 1993
By William Shaw,
(Sent to us by BCorgan4SP)
Smashing Pumpkins records are anguished, bruised reports from Billy Corgan's nightmare-land, and he has no shortage of material. The singer and guitarist has the love-wracked soul most aspiring poets would die for. "I want to retire," he pleads. "I figure about six and a half million albums and then I can afford the therapist who will stop wanting me to do this."
The Smashing Pumpkins released Gish, their first album, in 1991, leading the way in the grunge epidemic. But what made the record fresh was Billy's habit of using feedback-filled guitar onslaughts as a backdrop for introspective sentiments. The CD of Gish concludes with an unlisted "hidden track", a spiky tune where Billy croaks, "I'm going motherfuckin' crazy." He stops in midesentence:"I have gone..."
The song turned out to be prophetic. By the time BIlly Corgan recorded this year's brilliant but nerve-jangling Siamese Dream, he was suicidal, hadsplit painfully from his long-term girlfriend, had lost his apartment, and had totally alienated the other three members of his band.
Siamese Dream turned into a Freudian concept album. On it, track by track, Billy painfully dissects his yearning for stable relationships with his family and his lover, even the rock business. It would be easy to dismiss the LP as self-centered navel-gazing if it weren't for the magical beauty with which Billy details his disappointments. He dreams of a perfect relationship--like the Siamese twin of the title, to whom he imagines he's joined at the wrist--but each time he gets close, it escapes him. "Soma" is a hypnotic meditation on his numbness after his breakup with his girlfriend: "I'm all by myself, as I've always felt," he sings. "Spaceboy" is a gentle love song to his family, in particular his handicapped brother Jesse, with Billy wailing over and over, "I want to go home."
Clothers never quite fit Billy's awkward frame--he's 6"3 1/2. As people drift into his dressing room at the Corn Exchange, a ballroom in Cambridge, England, Billy shows his discomfort by constantly stooping. The band's manager appears and asks whether Billy's dad liked a recent show. This touches a sore. Billy thinks his parents have undermined him all his life. After the show his father came up to him and said, "You were rocking." Billy's heart filled for a moment, until his dad said, "It was like looking at myself 20 years ago." Billy still can't shake the idea that his father is still competing with him.
Billy blames his upbringing for a lot of things. His parents separated when he was four; his father then married a stewardess and moved to the suburbs of Chicago. Billy describes himself as a very energetic child who was told to shut up all the time. "Basically, I was beaten down until I became lazy and got the attitude of 'Why bother?' It makes me so fucking angry. God knows what I would have done--gotten a gun or something..."
Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin catches my eye. He slides over to whisper, "Start writing!" and laughs cynically. This is what journalists come for: The Billy Corgan self-destruct show.
Billy never had a girlfriend until after high-school; he spent a lot of time at home baby-sitting his brother Jesse. When Billy was thirteen, his stepmother suggested that he had a persecution complex and sent him to a therapist. But the therapist was a friend of his stepmother's, so how could Billy tell this guy that she was part of the problem? When I ask Billy whether he thinks his stepnother might have been right, he sighs and says, "Whether anybody thinks I'm right or wrong, I do feel persecuted."
Billy was born with a large strawberry birthmark on one hand. That, in particular, convinced him he was some sort of freak. He was sure that whenever anyone looked at him they always looked at his hand first.
After practicing guitar in his father's basement for two years, he left home at 18 and moved to Florida, where he formed his first group. The drummer had a birthmark too, so Billy called the band the Marked, his first act of chronicling the traumas of Billy Corgan. But they split up after a few months. Billy returned to Chicago, where he spent another two years playing guitar in the basement before forming the Smashing Pumpkins with guiratist James Iha, bassist D'Arcy Wretzky, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin.
That lineup it still together five years later, but only just. By the time they were recording Siamese Dream, Billy felt that the band was on the verge of splitting up. "I hated all my friends, I hated myself, I hated the band." He went into therapy again. I ask: Did the therapist tell you anything that was news to you?
"The biggest revelation was that I had been living a lie. In childhood I
became someone who could survive, could handle painful things. The result of
all this was self-destructive behaviour."
Were you suicidal?
"Oh yeah. Shrug.
Did you ever try?
"No. Because if I did I would have succeeded." After therapy, Billy decided to talk about all his emotions and crises, write songs about them, and be nakedly honest about them. He started telling the press about the group's problems. James Iha and D'Arcy had been in a relationship, but they'd split up. Drummer Jimmy had acquired a narcotics habit and spent twenty-eight days in rehab. "The idea that the stance was to tell the story and force it into the open."
Did it have the effect that you hoped?
"No." Pause. "In fact, I think it killed the band."
Understandably, the rest of the Pumpkins have gotten annoyed with being treated as a backdrop for Billy's dramas. Noodling on his Les Paul, James tellsme he'sfed up with people writing about the band's melodramas instead or the music. "Journalistsare always writing like me and D'Arcy split underpressureof making this album," he says. "We split up a long, long time before that. It's not a big thing to us." I sympathize. The fact that Billy interprets all relationships as damaged infects everyone around him.
Billy just got married. To the girl he split up so painfully in with "Soma". Strange, I say.
"Um," says Billy. "Not really, because it's true love. After I went through this spiritual transformation, what stuck out was how much I was in love with this person. I couldn't bear the thought of living my life without her.
Her name is Chris, she works in a museum, and she's an artist whose drawings, Billy says, are "Really amazing. I can't even explain them." Whenever Billy says "my wife," he looks surprised and pleased. When I ask about the relationship he had with Courtney Love, he says, "I don't discuss that. I'm married and it's not kosher." I press him, but he shakes his head. "It's unfair to my wife." Then he adds: "Plus Courtney continues to lie about the circumstances, and I can't be anything but honest, so..."
Billy comes offstage in Cambridge pale as milk. A fan down front kept asking for the samesong over and over, and when Billy didn't play it he started shouting abuse. Someone asks Billy how he rated the show. "Definitely in the top 200", he replies acidly.
Later in the hotel lobby, Billy--who doesn't usually drink much--gets drunk on vodka and orange juice, sitting until 2:30 A.M. with two Japanese girls who silently idolise him. He's still furious. "I'm not there to be your jukebox machine. I want to feel like I'm there for a reason other than fuckin' promoting records. I mean, call me a romantic idealist..."
The next day, wedrive north to Leeds. Nobody talks much in the minibus. d'Arcy, the bleached blonde bassist, is unhappily nursing her swollen wisdom teeth. Billy scribbles lyrics on yellow lined paper.
That night, he's still hung over. He starts talking again about how he feels trapped in the music business. So I quote aline in "Cherub Rock": We are frightened and we're scared, it you don't stare." Billy admits that he needs attention but says it's more than that. Onstage he connects with people. He sees the looks on their faces and feels electricity between them and him. He says no one else will understand it. "It's like trying to understand what goes on between two lovers. You just can't."
During the show, I stand in the wings, behind the band, so I can see the looks on the crowd's faces too. Two numbers in, the Pumpkins play "Quiet" andit's obvious it's going to be a great show. Jimmy's drums are frantic, chopping against the steady, fluid lines of D'Arcy's bass and James' guitar. It's another deliciously bitter songabout Billy's sense that the world has repressed him. "Be ashamed of the mess you've made," he sings with stinging resentment. I can see Billy's face as he hunches over his guitar, propping it against one knee to pull squealing notes from it, but I can see a boy of about 17 in a red checked shirt, crushed at the front. The fan's face in contorted in pain as he bellows the song's words back at Billy, filling them with his own sense of rejection. It's a communication of the persecuted--singer and fan. Tonight Billy leaves the stage beaming.
Return to the Band's Page