Chicago, Oct 23, 1995.
From the front row of the pit in Chicago's dilapidated Riviera Theater, crushed up against the security fence and wet with the moldy elegance of the place, you couldn't miss it. The florid gestures of an authentic debut, in the aristocratic sense of the term. Billy Corgan getting his. What he wants more than anything else. Validation. Chicago royalty Cheap Trick bounce back on stage to help Smashing Pumpkins close their shortish, packed premier performance of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a worldwide radio and internet simulcast of this metallic KO of an album that will probably be double or triple platinum in the states by the time you read this. Presiding over the wide-eyed and somewhat disengaged competence of the other Pumpkins, Billy seems in command despite the bad judgement of having shaven his head.
He looks flush, knowing he's at the top of his game thus far, unflappable even during a 10-minute power outage that is probably brought on by all the extra equipment feeding the show into the hungry maw of the broadcast audience. He and guitarist James Iha, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and bassist D'Arcy walk around on stage in the dark and banter easily with the crowd, and when the lights come back up they continue to rock with the same raw intensity as before. Then, during the three-song encore with Cheap Trick, I see it, smooshed up against the bare back of one of Billy's Boys in the steaming pit.
With all eight musicians on stage and caroming off each other like little kids, which the Tricksters definitely ain't, they launch into "Baby Loves to Rock," from All Shook Up. Billy starts to smile. Really for the first time all night. Like suddenly he gets it. This is what I do. I play rock songs and make people happy, just like Cheap Trick. But Billy's night gets better. The pit's been pretty heavy all night, and there's this little girl literally half my age clinging to the back of my once-nice now-soggy shirt. She's about 4 foot 6, and I turn around and say, "Can you see anything at all?" and she shakes her head "No," jumping up and down and grinning up Billy's nose. I yell back, "Do you want to go up there?", pointing at Billy. She shakes No again, then quickly nods Yes, holding up two fingers in the universal sign language for "just for a second." So I sort of bend over and she scampers up my back like a little monkey, right in Billy's face. The band languidly grind through the sing-along hit, "If You Want My Love," from Cheap Trick and then rocket into one of the best show-closers (and suicide songs) ever written, "Auf Wiedersehen," from Heaven Tonight.
And that's where it happens. There are guitar solos. Famously-morose Billy stands there grinning like crazy. Billy-an obsessive guitar perfectionist whose daddy was a pro blues-rock guitarist who refused to notice his kid Billy wrote some emotionally epic music that would shake an entire generation in its Chuck Taylors-playing rhythm to Rick Nielsen tweedling one of his legendary solos! That Cheap Trick guy knits his own sweaters, for chrissakes. Then, with a flick of a seasoned eye and a little finger, Rick Nielsen hands Billy all the credit he'll ever need: Your solo. And there it is. Billy plays it. I think his grin is going to spread so wide it'll meet again at the back of his head. He has arrived. Aloha means hello and goodbye. The girl on my shoulders climbs down and disappears. Farewell. Aufwiedersehen. Sayonara.
"So many artists work out of anger-possibly all. Anger is a fuel, that's the motivation, you know-Cezanne, Michelangelo-writers, too, like Flaubert. There's that tremendous anger, even with the artists who seem to be full of lyrical, gracious statements like Degas and Matisse." -Elaine De Kooning "It's just music," snuffles James Iha, flipping through a magazine in the kitchen at Pumpkinland, the band's very incognito brick rehearsal/recording space in one of Chicago's warehouse districts. "It's like anything else. It's like wallpaper. It's not worth dying for." D'Arcy looks over at him from the refrigerator, sitting in the dim room. "Definitely not worth dying for," she says. "I don't think so." Jimmy Chamberlin pads in, seeming very eager to continue talking.
The phone rings. He gets it, then walks out. The phone rings constantly for someone or other. "I have fun just walking the dog," says James, peering out from under a miserable cold. Or something. "Music's just like anything else." "I think it's important," says D'Arcy, looking at him, sensing James is going somewhere she doesn't want to go. "I think it's a lot more important than wallpaper. I don't know if you're just joking or whatever, but I mean, for me personally, it's definitely not worth killing myself over."
It's a blustery day of cold, hard sun, a precursor to full-on Chicago fall. Pumpkinland is spacious and carpeted and uncluttered. I myself have taken great interest in wallpapers over the years, especially the textured velvet and chrome varieties, but the decorative arts have rarely made anyone feel like a saint. The Pumpkins inspire questions. Billy has answers. We move away from the others to a tiny booth in the back, where the sun pours in through skylights over Billy's head.
The other members of Smashing Pumpkins don't seem to notice anymore, nor Billy's assistant Brittany or their tech, Gooch; just another writer or exec or star who wants a private audience with The Man Who Writes The Songs. But of course they agreement not to be split up like this anymore, but that it happens every day anyway. "I think this is the most accurate representation of what you get when you pour all four of us in the same glass," notes Jimmy, reflecting on the fact that this album was written and recorded by all four Pumpkins, unlike their last disc, Siamese Dream, which was created almost entirely by Billy. "But, you know, it's as collaborative as we've gotten from the top end, from the writing side of it, and also on the recording of the songs.
At the core of the two CD set there is a band." "It was either gonna be a rock album with a band or we weren't gonna do it," says James. "Forget it. So, it did happen. And I think everyone was pleasantly surprised when we started rehearsing, that we were getting work done and we were getting along."
Billy is considerate and gentle to a fault, smiling easily and plunking his tall, gangly frame down on a couch with a mineral water. He looks a bit awkward folding his frame into the symbol of suburban escapism. Without being too presumptuous, I imagine him squirming in the couch of some relative at Christmases past, ready to explode. Brittany dumps a pile of vitamins on the cushion next to him, which he gobbles down two and three at a time.
RAYGUN: There's always a moment of great beauty in your songs. I always feel like, in your heart, you really like something nice. Is that one of the salvations, that you get to write beautiful things?
Billy Corgan: Yeah. As I have gotten older, the need to pummel is less and less. One thing I've discussed is doing just a totally beautiful album. No rock guitars. Just totally peaceful, like the kind of album you listen to in the morning or in the middle of the night. I'm a sucker for the extremes; I like the metal and I like soft shit.
RG: Is there a movement there towards the light, in terms of salvation? Billy: Hmmm. I don't know. I mean, people have used the words "salvation," "redemption," things like that. I think in terms of "transcendence," because I think heavy situations and heavy feelings, coming through, it's like you end up in a different space. It's like you end up on a different part of the earth. And I think that that's one of the things I like about the band live, is the ability to take the audience from here to there. We really want to take you to another spot. So I think of that in terms of transcendence. I guess in recording there is kind of an emotional transcendence. You're trying to transfigure perception and emotional depth and things.
If, you're thinking about a 15 year-old kid listening to your record, obviously the 15 year-old kid cannot understand everything.in depth because they haven't experienced what it's like to be married or things like that, right? But there is a lot of inspiration and hope that can come out of saying to somebody, "Look, there is more. You may be living in fucking Mallville, and look around you and hate everybody, hate your life, but there is another side to the hill, here."
RG: Is that a responsibility that you assume? I mean, you are an artist; you can no more not be a musician than you could be male and white, you know what I mean?
Billy:[chuckles, nodding] Well, I'll answer your question this way I think, if you take it from a spiritual end, it is a responsibility. Anybody who is empowered or granted an ability that allows you to transcend normal things, whether you are like an athlete or a politician, I think there is a certain responsibility that falls in your lap. People are going to listen to what you have to say, and I think it's important that your integrity is clear in your mind. I don't feel a responsibility for the youth of America. But I feel a responsibility to best articulate what I feel, knowing that somehow that will have some kind of positive affectation.
That's the difference between being selfish and noodling atonal guitar riffs in the corner. Cause often times what I do is seen as an act of complete self-indulgence, but I've never felt that way about it. Because if it was, I wouldn't be singing about what I'm singing about I wouldn't be treading in the water I'm a treading in—objectively, I'm treading in water that's like easily picked on, easily attackable. You know, what is a 6'3" white guy from the suburbs of Chicago talking about these emotional subjects? I should be singing about Floyd The Barber or whatever else people sing about.
RG: Cars and chicks.
Billy: That's right. I know what I've gotten myself into, but it's that kind of weird sense of duty that goes underneath it that drives me along those lines and makes me have more belief in that than what other people would have to say. And I've been lucky enough to transcend the boundaries of what other people thought I wasn't capable of. People said I couldn't sing. People said I would never make it So I've been lucky enough to put the proof in the pudding, but...
RG: You seem to have been very concerned that people would perceive it as real. You mention the word "faking" a lot, or "faker," in the songs.
Billy: Yeah, 'cause it's very important to me that I'm not faking. I do get caught up in this kind of illusion about what the world thinks, but I guess, when the world says that you're a faker, if you know that your not a faker, then it's not a problem. But if somewhere back in your mind there is this squirrelly thought that maybe I am faking it, then those things resonate. And that's the only way that I think you can truly deflect the negativity, is to be sure of who you are and where you are and what you stand for. I think the integrity of my band and myself is being borne out over time. It wasn't handed to me in the way I would have liked it handed to me-like it is handed to other people.
RG:It's very hard to get instant recognition of all that heart.
Billy: Well, I would have liked it, I'll tell you that. but...I accept realities now a little better than I used to.
RG: There seems to be a little bit more acceptance, maybe a little bit more hope on this album.
Billy: Really? I thought this album to be pretty fucking nihilistic. "Living makes me sick" you know, "you're nowhere," things like that.
RG: What about "Tonight," where you say: "Believe that life can change/that you're not stuck in vain"? And you do have songs about love.
Billy: Not that I know what that is.
RG: My perception was that there was even a little more humor than in the past. You know, even like silly things, like the name of the album.
Billy: Well, I've certainly lightened up. I feel like I know who I am, and I think when you feel comfortable, you're more inclined to open up. When you feel like the world is fucking attacking you with an icepick you're gonna take up the most hardass position you can uke. And that's the position I took. It's slightly immature, but that's what happened.
RG: Is the success of the band a validation of those things?
Billy: Absolutely. Absolutely. The fact that we have sold the amount of records we've sold, and we've been able to play to these kinds of people and stuff, says a lot of the validity of it. It means a lot to me. I won't deny it. I really, really appreciate people who really get it. I have a weird connectedness, I can't explain it. I really feel...
RG: When you look out there, do you see Billy's People? Billy: No, no. I would never go that far, because I think it's very obvious that those people are listening to Green Day and other bands, but I'd like to think that there is a good part of that audience that is getting something more than just a good lyric and a good catchy melody. I've always believed from the very beginning in what I like to call our intangibles. Because when we first started playing as a band, and the band had not formed the Pumpkins' sound and we weren't coalesced as people-people still were drawn to us. The songs weren't very good, the band was shaky live, but there still was like a weird magnetism there.
RG: You did say once that you always wanted to be famous. And so here you are now, very.
Billy: But I have to explain that, because when I was very little, I felt like I was gonna be famous. People have said, "Oh everybody thinks like that." But I've talked to other successful people and they said, "Yeah I felt the same way. I knew when I was like eight." Maybe I just had the normal dream of kids. But I operated under the premise. I mean, kids don't pick up the guitar and start practicing like four-six hours a day, everyday, seven days a week. I had this weird drive about it.
RG: There must be a change in perspective now from being hungry then?
Billy: Certainly. You can look back and see that hunger almost to a fault. You can see the naivete of like, doing ridiculous things or saying ridiculous things because you just want it so bad, and I think in some ways that was not a good thing. 'Cause it's kind of like with blinders on. I feel happy to be in a position where the blinders are off. I feel more comfortable now. I feel like I know what I am, I know what I'm capable of, and the questions in my mind are more about my desires now. You decide you're gonna climb a mountain, you get to the top of the mountain. You need to decide if you're gonna climb another mountain. In my way of thinking, I've climbed that mountain. RG:It's pretty premature, but a lot of people wonder what you'll do next. Billy: I have lots of notions about that I really think that you'll know when you get there. I mean, we could easily tour for two years and look at each other and say, "You know, it's just not there anymore." That's it And it was worth it. Or, it could be like, "Hey, let's make another fucking record."
RG: Is it important to be a band right now? Is your voice important, socially and politically, amongst all of these kids that we were talking about-I mean, those who are listening to your music?
Billy: Are you talking about as far as I'm concerned, or as the as the world's concerned? Because, I would have two different answers for that.
RG: As far as you're concerned....
Billy:As far as I'm concerned, I don't really need to be in the band. It's not as important to me as it once was. I have very positive things about the band and I have very negative things about the band. I have friends for life. Those kinds of things are the positive things. But there's other wounds that are deep and they just won't go away, but..I could go on and be Neil Young from here on out and I think I would be okay. I feel that confidence in myself. On a public level, I think people want to see bands. I'm not that egomaniacal that I want everybody to see me. I still like the notion of having a band or being in a band. And obviously the communication we have on a musical level at this state is pretty sophisticated, so, it's pretty difficult to think about not having that. 'Cause I've occasionally played with people or jammed and it's like it's impossible. You're speaking a different language. 'Cause it's the Pumpkin language.
RG: All of us grew up assuming that these bands that we really idolized all of our young lives were very important in society, and everybody paid attention to them-including our parents and everyone else. Do you still feel like that is a reality? I'm trying to identify a social purpose.
Billy: I still do think it's important, but I don't think it's as important as it once was. I think that videos and hyper-media have all diminished that impact In my youth, you saw the person in an idealistic way. Nowadays, rockstars are too human. So the impact of the message is not coming from up on the mount When I was 14 and I thought about Jimmy Page, I didn't think he was, you know, unhappy and bitter. I imagined him on a jet with naked women, you know what I mean.
RG: Right, right With dragon pants on.Billy: Totally. And you're like, "Whoa, that sounds cool." The total Beavis and Butthead evluation of life. And, nowadays, these kids, they know what I'm doing, they know what my life is like and... In the past, I thought, "Okay, I'll let them see into me, the real person." I thought there was a sort of poignancy in that I found out that-that's a dead-end. Deep down, I don't think anybody wants that reality or that reflection. I'm certainly not gonna go the way I was going. I'm somewhere on the decided middle. I certainly cannot play into rock mythology. The rock mythology that I have is the reality of me-the temper tantrums and the failed love affairs I've had. That goes with the territory. But that's nothing I created on purpose. RG: That's an interesting thought, since the band's public persona, so to speak, has always been so personal. I see people taking it more personally than pretty much anyone I've seen in a long time. Billy: You know who's listening. And you know the depth at which they're listening, and I definitely have a feeling of what you're talking about You know, when you talk like that, you sound like a megalomaniac. But it's true, you have a connectedness there, especially to today's-the way things are now. That's really fucking important I don't take it for granted, because there's so much competition for that attention span.
To get someone to sit down in 1995 and listen to a double album will be an amazing feat, but the fact of the matter is that we will actually do it And we didn't drop the ball. We didn't fuck them. We didn't go for a 30-minute mega-jam to fill it out It's all there. People perceive that as arrogance-it's just confidence. I know that if I deliver, I got it. I mean, the message I get from an audience is, like, "We want to be kicked in the ass. We really want it. Make it happen." And I'm glad to do it.
RG: A second ago, you were saying, "I do feel that connectedness, and I think it's really important now." Is there something missing that your listeners don't have, so that it is important that they feel connected to somebody?
Billy: Absolutely. I can't imagine what it's like to be a young person now. I can't imagine. Because there's so many conflicting messages. At least, in the generation that we were brought up in, we were coming up in the tail end of the American flag, da-da-da, da-da-da, right? That may make this generation unique, as far as the art that it's making because we were on that weird cusp where we were coming off the America vibe into this kind of like '80s cynicism. If you're 15 years old, how do you decide between Pearl Jam and Silverchair?
RG: don't know.Billy: Right You're going "Well, I can't see Pearl Jam 'cause I can't get tickets and they never tour, but I almost like Silverchair. It's almost just as good, it almost sounds the same. I guess I'll go see Silverchair..." The belief systems have all been eroded. And you're looking around you, going, "Well, either I go to I school for the next eight years of my life so I can have a college degree, and then maybe I'll get a job. Or I can become a slacker fuck and do bongs and watch TV all day." And that's the genius of Beavis and Butthead, because that culture does exist. I grew up with those people.
RG: Me, too. People I know, especially parents, are pissed off about it 'cause they're thinking it's a bad role model or something. To me, it was every kid I knew back in Kalamazoo.
Billy: Look at the storm of controversy about that movie that Larry Clark put out, the Kids movie. And they're going "This isn't what the youth of America is about." It is what the youth is. Totally on the money. You got 14 year-old kids having sex, smoking cigarettes, doing bongs, snifffing glue and everything else, doing LSD...no wonder they're out of their fucking minds. There's no value system, there's no integrity. I have different opinions on Nirvana, but Kurt Cobain had a lot of integrity. I really believe he had a deeper sense of integrity and obviously was blessed with a talent. So, if there was any hope in that kind of integrity, the debate that went on after he died stripped that all away because what was real about [him] got turned into a cartoon character.
I've been accused ,of, "You're negative," i.e., "You're making negative music," i.e., "You're causing more negativity." They just don't get it That is what I'm talking about transcendence: You can say, "Why, listen, I understand, I've fucking been there, I know what it's like, and here's the other side, you can get from here to here." But no one's gonna believe you unless you can go down and speak their language. That's why I felt that it was important, on this album, to communicate these things before I felt that I'd gotten too old to really communicate them. Obviously I'm living an opulent lifestyle-how much longer can I communicate to that sensibility? In a weird way, now is a very weird, important time, and I don't think that there's anything I can do to change it on any kind of grand scale. I'm not that delusional. But I think artistically I at least have to signify it.
RG: I was watching the Pumpkins' "Euphoria" video, and there's that monologue on "I Am One" where you go off....
Billy: The Rant
RG: Right The Rant About "nothing." Coming back to that word all the time-"giving me a whole lot of nothing." You're talking about the erosion of the belief structure.
Billy: And I get a lot of shit, including from my band! about those very monologues. But those monologues were really the gestation of my thinking on this record. You're at Lollapalooza or wherever, and there they are, the Youth of America. Do I toe the party line and put on the happy show-"Thanks for coming!"-or do I really take the opportunity to fucking push the buttons and make a rock & roll statement as much as, like, "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger" was a statement? Make a fucking stand. Believe in something. You hit it right on the head. That's exactly what I'm talking about I supposedly have everything. I don't have jack shit Here you are, you ain't got shit, either. You know, 'It's negative, what are you trying to say? You're insulting your audience, you're attacking your audience." It's like, "No, you don't get it." You have to go down in this muck to see it You cannot stand up on this hill and go, "Gee, it's really desperate down there."
RG: Of course not. Cause then you are faking it Then it's not real.
Billy: That's exactly the point of my band. You cannot expect me to be a faker. Three weeks into Lollapalooza ['94], we had this little meeting where everyone was like, "You know, it's getting a little out of hand." After that point, 'cause I was being very negative, I thought, "Okay, I'm gonna try to look for the positive in this." So I took cues from that, too, on the album, to not be completely nihilistic and complain.
RG: Does it point somewhere? Okay, you get down to their level; in that kind of situation, everybody wants a leader. Everybody's looking for direction. And what is that? Be a band? Because almost no one can, you know.
Billy: Well, simply put, it's a belief in yourself and it's hopefully a belief in others. Because that's really all we have. It's a very spiritual way to answer the question, but that's it. Sometimes I get in these Jesus arguments with kids, they want to Jesus argue with me. And I'll say to them, "Listen, hey, it's been roughly 2000 years since Jesus lived and died. Has life gotten better in those 2000 years? No. Are we any closer to God in those 2000 years? No. Are we any more spiritually together? No. Are we headed to be a decadent, morally corrupt society? Absolutely. And in 2000 years of thought and great minds since the time of Jesus-if that's where you want to put your zero point-no one's figured it out. It's obvious that's not the direction we're headed." We're not headed towards any kind of purity in our living.
I mean, we can anesthetize everybody, like Huxley's Brave New World. I'm sure we'll get to a point where we'll take synthetic happy pills that will have no side-effects and we'll be able to cure the majority of diseases and nobody will have bad teeth and da-da-da. But it's not about that. Because no matter what time you live in, all you know is you're alive right now. What can you do in your life right now that creates that kind of garden? Where you can go and be in it and remember why you're alive, what's important about life? Life is ultimately about love, sunshine, having a good time and doing what you want to do. People have said, "Well, does that mean I should get into rock 'n' roll? No, do what you want to do. This is what I want to do. Doesn't mean you oughtta do it. You get in a lot of these weird situations where you meet a kid who really admires what you do. And they're almost embarrassed that they are just a mechanic or something. What's wrong with that?
Chicago's Double Door nightclub, after the Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness debut at the Riviera. The after-party's roaring at 3 AM, packed, with well wishers and Virgin staffers swarming over the open bar and the piles of BBQ. A brash 12-piece Mariachi band blares away on stage, toodling nicely, but looking a bit disconcerted by their obvious ironic value. Do they even know who or what a Smashing Pumpkin is? Cheap Tricksters arrive, then some Pumpkins, and finally Billy.
He talks to some people, smiling a little. They pitch him the proposals. They give him the business. He looks exhausted. So this is what it's all about-once you've made it. I look over at one point, about to step over and say hello, but catch myself; Billy's ignoring the person chattering away in his ear, staring over everyone's heads (he's tall) at the Mariachis, as they wail on about Old Mexico. He seems stunned. They have such nice uniforms.
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