A LONG STRANGE TRIP TO 1979
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It's an undeniable four-and-a-half minutes of shimmering, percolating pop, and a video that Billy Corgan calls "the closest we've ever come to realizing everything we wanted." It's the music that introduces a bit of dance and a pinch of trance into the Smashing Pumpkins' hard-rock arsenal, the song that radio stations nationwide pounced on within days of the double-CD's release last October--and the one that will likely crank the band's Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness into the commercial stratosphere.
It's also the nearly forgotten song that barely sneaked onto Mellon Collie, an orphan about to be bum-rushed out the studio door until an eleventh hour fix-up by Corgan. And it's the incredible disappearing video that had to be made and remade after it was lost on the sun-glazed Los Angeles streets, the victim of an innocent but nonetheless costly accident.
The saga of the making of "1979" is the stuff of a rockumentary, if not a beach novel, and Corgan--unshaven, hacking away from the effects of a lingering head cold, but in an amiable mood as he packs in a New York hotel room for a flight to Brazil where his band was to begin a 10-day South American tour--is glad to provide the Cliffs Notes version, with the requisite "What could possibly happen next?" bemusement.
"All I know is, I feel like we're really blessed and lucky, but we have this weird dumb luck. Nothing that kills us, but this is yet another thing that falls into the category of only us does this happen to," says Corgan, perhaps alluding to a year in which a worldwide radio broadcast of the band's Mellon Collie debut concert was interrupted by a power outage, and in which the Pumpkins parted ways with longtime manager Andy Gershon just as the double-CD was about to be released.
Luck had very little to do with the initial writing of "1979." The song wasn't really a song as the Mellon Collie sessions wound toward their conclusion last summer in Chicago. It was more a couple of chord changes and a snippet of a melody without words. When the time came for paring down the nearly 40 songs in contention for what would be a 28-song double-CD, it was an easy call for Flood, the famed producer (U2, PJ Harvey, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails) who shepherded Mellon Collie through its six-month studio birth with Alan Moulder and Corgan.
"He just said, 'Not good enough,' and was ready to drop it," says Corgan, "but I had a gut feeling about this song from the very beginning." He accepted Flood's implied challenge. "It was almost like I was afraid to go where this song was taking me. It's the kind of song that if I thought about doing it on the previous albums, I'd have questions about whether I'd sound shitty doing it. It's just not the typical Pumpkins song. So when he was hesitating about putting it on, it riled me. I thought, 'No fucking way, this is not another toss-off song.' It really inspired me to finish it and prove him wrong. So that night I wrote the entire song in about four hours. The next day Flood heard it one time and said, 'It's on the album.' "
The song is a sparse, atmospheric slice of dance pop, reminiscent of an early New Order or Cure track. It consists of little more than Corgan's guitar, a drum loop from the original demo, a few rhythmic accents from Chamberlin, a tambourine sample and a synthesizer. In an album notable for the significant contributions made by the three other Pumpkins---D'Arcy's stately yet pile-driving bass lines, Jimmy Chamberlin's acoustic and electronic drum rhythms, and myriad guitar fills and solos by James Iha---"1979" is essentially Corgan's baby, an electro-pop departure from the quartet's normal take-no-prisoners musical fare.
To capture the proper feel on video, the band traveled to Los Angeles to renew acquaintances with directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who in 1994 had filmed the Pumpkins' video for "Rocket," from Siamese Dream. Dayton and Faris have an impressive resume that includes R.E.M.'s "Tongue," Jane's Addiction's "Gift," and Porno for Pyros' "Pets," as well as producing Penelope Spheeris' 1988 cult-movie classic, "The Decline of Western Civilization: The Metal Years."
"Jonathan and Valerie so got what I wanted," Corgan says of "1979" as he turns to the VCR in his hotel room to play the video. "And I think part of the reason is that Jonathan and I grew up in similar surroundings." Namely, suburbia.
Corgan takes a hands-on approach to most of the videos with which he is involved, everything from picking a director and working up basic script ideas to fine-tuning camera angles. "Where the camera shots involve the band I'm a little more hands on, because I want the band to come across in ways that are appropriate," he says. "I don't want camera angles on my crotch. There are camera guys who automatically assume you want this ego shot, and the next thing you know they're on their knees. And I'm like, 'No, you don't understand, this is not us.' "
Among those in the running to direct "1979" was Spike Jonze, but the current darling of alterna-rock video was already booked. That made Corgan's decision that much easier to call upon trusted collaborators Dayton and Faris, and after verbally outlining the narrative and describing the mood he wanted to capture in the video to them, he let the directors have at it. "I'd watch their work for 20 minutes and I'd say, 'Fine,' and walk away. They got everything I thought they would get."
The song is central to the theme of the Mellon Collie album, which Corgan describes as "a farewell to my youth." At age 28, he acknowledges, "I'm on the edge of losing my connection to youth, but I wanted to communicate from the edge of it, an echo back to the generation that's coming, to sum up all the things I felt as a youth but was never able to voice articulately." For "1979," Corgan drew on a specific high school-age memory for inspiration: "I remember being about 17, 18, this weird feeling of having a job and a car, and I could go anywhere I wanted, but I still had the tethers to home, to school. It's kind of a restless period with a lot of sexual energy and you're stuck in fucking nowhere. That's the feeling I had writing the song. Why "1979?" I have no idea, I had to call it something. Much of the song is more intuitive than literal. I trust my intuition way more than I trust my conscious mind."
For three days, Corgan, Iha, Chamberlin and D'Arcy shot the video with dozens of teenage extras and actors. The video's plot line will be familiar to anyone who has seen "American Graffiti" or one of John Hughes' coming-of-age movies like "Sixteen Candles," with a group of youngsters cruising the suburban streets in a car, first attending a party at which the Pumpkins are the house band, then invading and trashing a convenience store. Iha plays an oblivious clerk and Chamberlin drops in as a doughnut-scarfing cop.
While Corgan tends to take the lead decision-making role in video shoots, the other band members often contribute solid ideas---a division of labor not unlike that on Mellon Collie, for which Corgan wrote the majority of the songs, but then took them to Iha, D'Arcy and Chamberlin to chisel into band arrangements. While the singer initiates many ideas, he's open to suggestions: the directors proposed a pool-party scene that made the final cut in "1979," and it was Flood who suggested that Chamberlin play a policeman. "If it requires group participation to convey something, than everyone gets more involved," Corgan says of the video decision-making. "If it's more an aesthetic idea, then there's usually less involvement."
It's rare for Corgan to be swayed on a key aesthetic issue, but for the climactic scene of "1979," he was. Corgan wanted the kids to completely level the store, but Dayton and Faris talked him out of it. "Their kinder, gentler tone is the right one," Corgan now says of the $350,000 production. "What I like is that it turned out to be about the spirit of the song, a good piece of representative art and not one of these horrific Aerosmith million-dollar commercials. It's more in the spirit of the early pop-music videos, a little more rag-tag, with a hand-held video camera, like watching a home movie."
Enthused about the video they had just made--Corgan was tickled by the naturalness of the young cast's performance, and was particularly amused by what he called the "James Dean-like smirk" on the blond-haired lead actor's face--the band flew back to New York to begin January's three-night stand of sold-out shows at the Academy. In this intimate, pre-tour performance, the Pumpkins actually opened for themselves by playing a moody, acoustic set in their pajamas before taking a break to get ready for the main event. It looked to be a celebratory weekend, but after the first show, the band was informed that an important chunk of the video footage--the party scenes with the band playing to a house full of bopping teens--had been lost.
The comedy of errors that became the story of "1979" will no doubt loom large in the year's rock'n'roll folklore. "One of the video assistants apparently put the tapes in a box, put them on top of his car, then drove away and the tapes fell off somewhere along the way," says Corgan, more amused than upset in the retelling. Ironically, as he sits in his cluttered New York hotel room, surrounded by CDs and slips of paper with phone messages and numbers scrawled on them, he is wearing the same black turtleneck sweater that he sports in the video. "They actually found the box, but the tapes had been removed. And they found an off-duty cop who saw an old Mexican man take the tapes out of the box, but they never could find the man. They offered rewards on Spanish stations, rock stations, everywhere. It just wasn't meant to be."
So, the day after the last New York show, an exhausted band of Pumpkins took a red-eye flight back to Los Angeles to reshoot the lost scenes. As for the unfortunate production assistant, he was last seen, according to the band's publicity folks, standing by the side of the road in the vicinity of where the tapes may have been lost, holding a sign pleading for their return. As for whether he'll ever work in Hollywood or any town ever again, the band's management wouldn't say.
It's an episode that is by far the most bizarre in the band's video history, which extends back to their 1991 debut album, Gish, for which two videos were released. Though justly celebrated for their music, the Pumpkins have quietly built an impressive visual resume as well.
"I always said when we first started making videos that I thought of it as another artistic opportunity, in the same way that playing a show is or making a record is," Corgan says. "So instead of bemoaning it, I look at it like, 'Cool, let's do the best we can. Let's do something different.' I think if you're in a band and putting out records, you have to make videos. It's not even worth debating."
Corgan's conviction is no doubt bolstered by the band's success at making video. "Siva," the band's first video, was shot in their home town of Chicago for $15,000 by British director Angela Conway, who had developed a reputation for making relatively inexpensive but artful videos for the 4AD and Mute labels and artists such as Nick Cave. Corgan's imprint was all over the "Siva" shoot. "I was taking all this LSD and I got all these LSD-type shots in it," he says with a laugh. "But it was that video that got us the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers tour" in the fall of '91. "Anthony Kiedis told us he saw us on TV and was like, 'We'll have this band open.' "
For the Pumpkins' major-label debut, Siamese Dream, the video budget soared into the $150,000 range, and resulted in at least one resonant image for the '90s: that of a lone ice-cream truck wending its way through the desert, driven by a wan, cherub-faced Corgan who picks up several odd stragglers, including a cross-dressing Iha. Soon the van is converted into a modern-day version of the Merry Pranksters' magic bus in a cathartic burst of frenzied painting by all four band members. Directed by Stephane Sednaoui, the "Today" video--one of four released to promote Siamese Dream--originated from an idea by Corgan to illustrate a song that finds ironic comfort amid despair.
"When I told the band about the ice-cream truck, everybody was like, 'You've got to be kidding!' " Corgan says. But the truck was actually his perfect metaphor. "I remember being about 14 and there was an ice cream truck driver in the neighborhood," he explains. "One night about 10 o'clock he comes along and we run up waving. And he says, 'God, I hate this job.' Typical 17-year-old guy. And he just hands us all the ice cream left in the truck. He takes off---fuck the job, fuck the ice cream truck. For that one moment that guy was the coolest guy in the world."
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the band enlisted Samuel Bayer to shoot the lead-off video, "Bullet With Butterfly Wings." Unlike with past video directors, Corgan took a back seat to Bayer. The director looked to the art world for inspiration and suggested a concept based on the stark black-and-white images of manual laborers by Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado. The song, an indictment of rock stardom that Corgan says is done at least partially tongue in cheek, is mirrored by a video that suggests a connection between the frantic activity in a concert mosh pit and the oppressive conditions in a labor camp.
Not exactly an optimistic view of how the Pumpkins will spend their next two years while they tour the world. "Jimmy (Chamberlin) calls me 'Mister Sunshine.' I'm supposed to be the doom merchant---what do you want?!" Corgan shouts in mock seriousness. Nevertheless, he was impressed with Bayer's damning treatment.
All of which makes the lighter tone struck by "1979" a welcome change of pace. Whereas "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," with its chorus of "Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage," plays up to preconceptions about the grim-faced, self-serious Pumpkins, the "1979" song and video turn them upside down. Yet with the prospect of at least two more videos to be pulled from Mellon Collie, Corgan tempers his enthusiasm for the art form with a sense of resignation.
I think videos only limit," he says. "Unfortunately you can't help but attach the video to the song. The great thing about music is you can go anywhere you want to go and then the minute you attach visuals to it, there's really no escaping them. When you hear a song, you don't think about the singer with crooked teeth and acne. The mystique aspect ... videos have certainly ruined concerts for all time."
Corgan pauses for another swig of mineral water, before jumping back to a topic that he treats philosophically rather than ruefully. This, he seems to say, is simply the way of rock in the '90s, for better or worse.
"Bands have lost the element of surprise," he says. "You watch the video, with ten shots of the band playing, and every shot is some cool moment. You watch a whole concert and you might see five flashes of brilliance, where the concert congeals and everybody is moving in sync and everyone is in the moment. Before videos became such a large part of what rock is, you went to concerts and you were fascinated by the way the band moved. You were finding out about their persona, looking beneath what was going on, getting a personal connection. But now, the minute you walk in the door, people know you already. They've already seen you walk and talk and move around, and there's not much I can do except disappoint them after that."
Greg Kot is the rock critic for the "Chicago Tribune," and has written for numerous music publications, including "The Trouser Press Record Guide," "Rolling Stone" and "Request."
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