May 17 1998
Thanks to KJRCArich for the article
Billy Corgan was the bad boy of grunge, but he's grown up to make a surprising new album, says ANDREW SMITH
Simultaneously, the brightest and most frustrating star in the American rock firmament, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins has at times made Shaffer's Wolfgang Amadeus look like Anthea Turner. For the better part of 10 years, he has appeared to be at war with the world: with his family, his band, his own enormous talent. Rock music as an art form he dismissed as a "flatulent, ego- serving kiddie playground" that had lost its vitality, and his own efforts to invest it with new meaning were knowingly self-destructive. "Friends would come to shows and I'd ask them how it was, and they'd say, 'It was painful. Like a bright light. Hard to watch and not pleasant.' I'd go, 'Great!' "
It was not just the shows, either. Smashing Pumpkins' ambitious last album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which aimed to mimic the violent mood swings of a disturbed 15-year-old - who may or may not have been Corgan's adolescent self - alternated passages of sublime beauty with excoriating aggression. All but impossible to listen to all the way through, it nevertheless went seven times platinum in America, setting Smashing Pumpkins up to become one of the world's foremost rock groups. Then the world decided it had had enough and reopened hostilities with Corgan.
The three years since Mellon Collie have seen Smashing Pumpkins' keyboard player die of a heroin overdose while on tour, and the subsequent sacking of the drummer, Jimmy Chamberlin, who had OD'd on several previous occasions, but was the member Corgan had always been closest to. Closer still to home, Corgan watched his marriage disintegrate and his mother - whose neglect of him as a child had previously been a constant source of fury - die slowly of cancer. The process of nurturing her through the last weeks of her life proved curiously liberating for him, and, seemingly, for her.
Corgan maintains that the relatively restrained, reflective nature of Adore, Smashing Pumpkins' fourth album proper (out on June 1 on Hut), owes less to these specific events than to his and his band's natural evolution. Either way, those who have waited patiently for him to make peace with his music, and to embrace his potential, will be thrilled. It is not that anyone should be surprised by the quality of songs such as the luminous, acoustic To Sheila or breezy Pug: there are plenty of equally fine tunes to be found in the back catalogue. The difference is that they have not been sacrificed either to noisy perversity or to some unifying concept, as happened with Mellon Collie. "This time," Corgan says, with a smirk, "we're here to serve you."
Perhaps because of his voice, which veers between arid whisper and primal whine, interviewers are invariably unprepared for Corgan's imposing physical presence: 6ft 3in and broad with it, his smudged baby-face sits beneath a shiny, bald head. Today, he is dressed all in black, wearing leather trousers and a net shirt with little silvery threads in it. He has a sharp intellect and is unusually quick to spot and assess any hidden agenda in a line of questioning. He attributes his current ease with himself to the influence of a new girlfriend (a photographer who took all the snaps on Adore's sleeve) and the maturity that allegedly comes with age, even - sometimes - in rock stars. Only when he claims to have been too closely identified with his songs, referring sarcastically to the prevailing view of himself as "the dysfunctional child of my generation", do you suspect that he is being disingenuous. Nevertheless, his contention that Smashing Pumpkins' apparent impetuosity was about more than his own neuroses bears consideration.
"You might find this hard to believe," he explains, "but I knew I was pressing a lot of buttons at the time, both within myself and the band, but I tended to view it as somewhat of an art experiment. I know I probably took it further than we discussed, but I remember talking to the band about the idea that everything had been done in rock'n'roll, especially that cartoon Dionysian, Jim Morrison thing.
"The only thing left seemed to me to get so real it was almost painful, both to watch and be a part of. The trouble is, where do you draw the line? We never drew the line and it got really personal and intense, but it made for some great moments. There were times when everything came together and you thought, 'This is why I play rock'n'roll: this is what it can be.' "
There certainly were such moments during Smashing Pumpkins' performances, though they were probably more frequent for the group than for the audience.
At the age of 31, Corgan also claims to have learnt to accept aspects of his own life that had troubled him deeply and affected his relationship with everyone, including the band, whom he used to attack frequently for not working hard enough ("They keep failing me," he once raged. "It makes me feel the same abandonment as when I was a child"). Whether his problems were so easily explained or not, when reference is made to Michael Hutchence's memory of his mother taking him to live in LA, but leaving his younger brother behind with friends (his last, despairingly tearful words were, "Mummy, I'll be good for ever"), Corgan replies: "Yeah, I have an almost identical memory, of my dad saying, 'Okay, I'll take him,' and pointing to my brother, not me." Rest assured that, after that, things got much worse.
Careful readers will notice that they have heard similar tales before from American rock stars who were born in the 1960s, especially those who rose to prominence on the alienated, self-loathing back of grunge rock in the early 1990s. Apart from Corgan, notable examples are the late Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Henry Rollins, though there are many, many others. Corgan thinks that this is significant, and helps to explain why his music struck a chord.
"As far as America goes, these people are expressing something more than their own little pile of pain. In 15 years' time, when you hold our work up against all these other bands', it'll look like part of the same thing."
If Corgan is correct, the "thing" boils down to a generation of educated middle-class Americans who became parents in the 1960s and failed their children badly. He takes the romantic view that they were the first generation to notice the disparity between the American dream and reality. I suspect that they were the first to be presented with a significant degree of choice in their lives and they did not know what to do with it, forgetting that they had responsibilities, too. In any case, if Corgan gets his way, they may have played an unwitting part in the final flowering of American rock. If you look through his press file, you find that each new album comes with a prediction as to what the next one will sound like. He has not been wrong yet. So what about the next one?
"Difficult," he states, flatly.
Difficult to predict?
"No. I want to make the record that'll be the end of rock'n'roll, that'll finally kill it off."
"Oh, well, if that's all," I say - and for the first time in the interview, Corgan laughs out loud.
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