Out On a Limb
Details Magazine - October 1996
(Transcribed by Nikki Christoff)
Billy Corgan sits like a big sissy, sidesaddle in an antique wooden chair. He's wearing the polyester slacks of a '60s swinger, a shiny yellow shirt, and a smirk. He is very striking, and much taller than you'd expect from listening to his more delicate songs. Despite his reputation as an arrogant control freak, he doesn't have the posture of one. He hunches. Billy is the kind of guy whom other men mistakenly regard as homely, and whom women of all ages immediately want to meet.
"My mother came to a Smashing Pumpkins gig once, and I was wearing a dress," he tells me dryly. "She was very upset. She said, 'Everyone's going to think you're a fag.' I said, 'Well they already think I'm an asshole.'"
Yes, they do. In fact, until now, I myself was a pretty typical Billy Corgan hater. Maybe he's noticed. He meets a lot of my initial questions with a shrug and a half-swallowed "Don't really wanna talk about this..." Finally I'm reduced to complimenting him on the one piece of his musicianship that I know I like, the screaming, strafing guitar solo from the Smashing Pumpkins' breakthrough 1993 single, "Cherub Rock."
"Oh, thanks." Billy smiles graciously. "Tape flange. That's the trick on that one. You copy the solo onto another tape, then you run the two tapes simultaneously and alter the speed of one tape. It's geek shit, you know?"
In other words, I say, you faked it in the studio. Billy smiles acidly. "Of course! You're in Pumpkins World, buddy. Where nothing is as it seems."
In some ways, Billy Corgan meant the last Smashing Pumpkins album as a joke on everyone else in the world. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, an amazing double CD of bone-rattling nihilism and gentle, nostalgic love songs, is the ambitious antithesis of much of today's too-cool-to-care whatever rock.
The music-impossibly passionate, wet, and epic-overwhelms the senses. The band can sweep from a lullaby into a distorted, swirling firestorm, often within the same song. But its not anger that drives Billy and the Pumpkins. It's love and hatred, in all their delicious guises: swooning and self-loathing, forgiveness and alienation, tenderness and antipathy. Billy has said, somewhat tongue in cheek, that he wanted Mellon Collie to be for this generation what Pink Floyd's The Wall was for the kids in 1979. He intended the title as a joke about his reputation as a gloomy gus.
For the past year, the joke has been on everyone who ever envied, hated, or laughed at Billy Corgan. Mellon Collie sold and kept selling until it became the most successful double CD ever released (it's gone platinum seven times over). Billy's wildest artistic instincts were vindicated, and for the rest of the Smashing Pumpkins-guitarist James Iha, bassist D'Arcy, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin-the triumph was especially sweet.
Because unlike their earlier albums, Gish and Siamese Dream, Mellon Collie was the work of a real band, not just one obsessive former baseball-card collector who wanted to play all the guitars and bass himself. The album was twisted up with that peculiar grudgestalt and rivalry we quaintly refer to as "rock group dynamics." The Smashing Pumpkins were no longer fighting, quitting, bitching, or "becoming" anything. They were just shining.
And then they went on tour.
Like the poignant after-school piano chords that begin Mellon Collie, the start of the Pumpkins' 1996-97 world tour was emotional but clear-eyed, precious but also very powerful. It was startling to see the Pumpkins acting so nice, especially so to people who'd seen them bicker, break up, and act like jerks on stage.
"The only criticism about is that I've ever agreed with came from my own band," Billy says. "Jimmy used to say I was going off into 'the art breakdown.' I'd rant, I'd destroy the stage, I'd tell everyone they sucked, I'd say we sucked. The whole junior-rock star bit."
But even as Billy Corgan had begun to display signs of adult hood, things started to go wrong. Jimmy Chamberlin's father died in Chicago, prompting the band to cancel several Australian dates and their March New Zealand shows and fly home. They resumed the tour, but then on May 11, a fan, seventeen-year-old Bernadette O'Brien, was crushed to death in the mosh pit at the Pumpkins show in Dublin. The Pumpkins were very upset about O'Brien, but after canceling the next night's show at Belfast, the decided to carry on.
In June, the Pumpkins returned to America with an appearance at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in San Francisco. They shared a backstage area with the Fugees, Beck, A Tribe Called Quest, and typical Pumpkin-hates Pavement, who'd dissed the band as pretentious "nature kids" in their 1994 song "Range Life." Never less, the vibe backstage was sweet, and there was a crisp chill in the air. Mark Williams, the A&RE rep who signed the band to Virgin Records in 1990, was changing with the Pumpkins. When a group of Tibetan monks came back stage and started blessing some of the bands, the Pumpkins were all somewhere else, doing an interview. Williams went and got them.
"I thought that the band needed this blessing," he says now.
The only member of the Smashing Pumpkins not blessed that afternoon? Touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin.
I meet Billy and the Smashing Pumpkins a few weeks down the road, in Washington D.C. Just days later, in New York City, Jonathan Melvoin and Jimmy Chamberlin will be sitting in a New York hotel room, nodding off after shooting up a batch of Red Rum heroin. Jonathan will never wake up. Five days after that, Billy will make the painful decision to dismiss Jimmy from the band Because of the drummers long, losing battle with drug addiction.
Later, when I talk to people who know the band, I began to understand how tragic Jimmy's ejection is. Several sources tell me that Jimmy and Billy were very, very close. One puts it this way: "Jimmy is musically very keyed into Billy, and is able to tolerate and communicate with him in a way that is very profound to Billy. I don't know if Billy has another male friend like that."
But before all this mess, I spend a couple of quiet, clear afternoons with Billy Corgan. He is suspicious, defensive, and sardonic, and I like him quite a lot. He's intimidating intelligent, and articulate enough to spin a sound bite, throw it away, then says something even better. That takes about ten seconds. He keeps his arms folded at first, and then somehow, he begins to trust me a little. I even make him chuckle gently a few times, which, according to some of his friends, means that Billy Corgan is enjoying himself wildly.
Then one morning, Billy disappears. Because suddenly, the infinite sadness in his life is not a joke anyone.
Tuesday afternoon, 3:30 p.m. I've heard Billy is a big fan of Cheap Trick, the greatest power-pop band that ever lived. So I break the ice by showing him a relic from my past: a black Cheap Trick baseball jacket.
"A satin jacket," he chuckles appreciatively. "A lost time..." Billy grew up in Chicago, listening to the Trick and other superrock heroes on the radio. He's recently befriended the veteran band, and feels a kinship with their leader, guitarist Rick Nielsen.
"Rick wrote most of Cheap Trick's songs," Billy explains, "and we run into this same sort of thing too, where people say to me, 'Well, you write all the songs, so you are the band.' But bands are so much more about personalities. People like tension, the weirdness, and the pseudo sexual underpinnings of a band. And if you take any element out of a great band, it doesn't seem to run out on all cylinders. The Who was never the same without Keith Moon. The way he played the drums, that was half the game."
Although rumors and third-person accounts have circulated for years about how Billy played most of the guitar and bass on Siamese Dream, he has never confirmed or denied this. He just feels that talking about that stuff would be indiscreet.
"There's a lot of chemistry in the band that the outside world could never witness," he says to me. "In our band, D'Arcy is absolutely the mortal authority. She's the moral conscience-it's really hard to do something if D'Arcy thinks it's fucked."
Okay, but can you veto D'Arcy? I ask.
"I've vetoed everybody. Seeing that forest for the trees-that's always been my department. D'Arcy just believes, 'Fuck everybody-who cares what they think?' If I had my way, I'd just wish everybody would like what we did. We are a bit preposterous, but we're also a really special band."
What do you mean, "preposterous"?
"You can't truly respect something and own it if you're not willing to poke fun at it, but we also think it's a flatulent, ego-serving kiddie playground. You can have your cake and eat it too. Our concerts have moments where it's stupid, where it's funny, little cheerleading moments, and there's moments where we are just totally crushing the audience. And that is who we are."
The emotional pitch of Mellon Collie is a lot like the weather in Texas: If you don't like it, just wait a few minutes and it'll change. Billy says he tried to write songs from inside the psyche turbulence of a typical troubled fifteen-year-old's head. But there's also a fair amount of Billy Corgan in dark, melodramatic lyrics like "The world is a vampire" and "God is empty just like me." At twenty-nine, he's riding out the end of a phase his astrologer calls a Saturn Return, a time when one's world view is best summed up by the words,"Everything you know is wrong."
"On Mellon Collie, I wanted to address the general negativity malaise, and nihilism that permeates the world right now," he says. "And I was also trying to address that turning point where you choose between 'me as an individual' and' me as part of my community,' between 'me as an artist' and 'me as this, like loser.' I think addressing all these choices must be much more difficult now than it was ten, fifteen years ago. It's almost like I wanted to send some telegrams back in time to myself."
William Patrick Corgan was born on March 17, 1967-as Courtney Love says, "same year,same hour" as Kurt Donald Cobain. Billy's parents divorced when he was very young, and he was bounced from home to home as a kid. He ended up spending the most time with his stepmother, while his father, a guitarist, stayed on the road with various Chicago R&B bands.
"I was a well-behaved nightmare," Billy tells me. "My stepmother told me that at five I was complete intimidating. People have told me that at five I was pretty capable of carrying out completely adult conversations about completely adult things."
Billy was a big kid, and an athletic one. He lived for baseball. He figures he had about 10,000 baseball cards, and remembers getting pissed off if the local television stations only broadcast 154 of the 162 Chicago Cubs games.
"In first of second grade," he tells me, "I was literally twice as tall as everyone else. Kids caught up with me by the time I was twelve. By fourteen, my ability to dominate other children physically had diminished, so suddenly I found myself with, like nothing to do. And me with nothing to do is not a pretty sight."
This is when Billy found an even better way to dominate his peers: super rock. He was a friend playing an electric guitar in his basement, and decided he could do that, and better. He saved up, told his family to give him cash instead of birthday presents, then handed all the money over to his dad and asked the old man to buy him a guitar. Corgan Sr. bought Billy a cheap, Sunburst-finish, piece-of-shit Les Paul copy. And this was an exchange laden with all the pride and regret that can pass between a boy and his father.
"I got the feelings that he didn't want me to play guitar," Billy says. "He told me later he didn't think I'd have the dedication and the perseverance. My dad liked to shoot guns. He always had them around. One time, he let me shoot off his shotgun. It was the only time I ever shot a gun. Scared the shit out of me. Maybe that was kind of what he was thinking. My father was like that. King of reverse psychology."
Of course, Billy immediately set out to prove his father wrong. Perhaps he's never stopped.
Becoming a junior guitar hero didn't leave much time for romance, but Billy remembers his first kiss pretty vividly. "My first real kiss was with somebody I really, really liked, and still like, and it was in my bedroom in the suburbs. There was no music playing, and it was after school, I think. When you're young like that, and especially being as weird as I was, I don't think it was so much of a romantic love as it was a love of the spirit and the connection that two people can have at that age. We still have that same connection. It stopped articulating itself as a romance, but we're still really good friends. I love her very much."
Did it blow your mind that someone could feel that way about a weird kid like you?
Billy thinks for a second, and then chuckles.
"The way that i am, I still don't believe that anybody likes me. I still find it kind of shocking."
Well, a lot of people like you.
"No, I mean I find it shocking that anybody, like, loves me."
Tuesday 8pm. Backstage at the US Air Arena in Landover, Maryland, Billy and Jimmy Chamberlin are doing a radio interview. Billy is dressed completely in black: black turtle neck, black pants, black shoes. Jimmy, a compact and amiable fellow, wears a black suit.
The DJ, a wacky guy named Johnny Riggs, asks the boys to do a little word association with him. Riggs says, "D'Arcy." With out blinking an eye, Billy responds, "Angry." Now Riggs tries: "Courtney Love."
Billy and Jimmy duck away from the microphone and this frequent line of inquiry. (Courtney and Billy dated before she met Kurt.) Then Billy comes back to say, "Courtney Pain."
Riggs changes the game. "What's the best toy you've bought since the money started pouring into your big old pockets?" he asks. Jimmy: "A life." Billy: "A relationship>" Riggs: And how is that going?" Billy: "It's expensive and difficult to maintain."
Maybe this is a veiled reference to Billy's marriage, which he has sworn to never speak about publicly. Maybe it's not.
Then Johnny Riggs asks the Pumpkins to name the last word they looked up in the dictionary. Jimmy Chamberlin answers: "Recidivism>" And everybody in the room laughs.
8:30 pm Behind the Smashing Pumpkins, two tall curtains fall away to reveal a towering wizard's cap cone of spotlights, which begin to play over the audience. Billy prowls the stage, in silver space pants and his ZERO shirt. He lurches around with all the menace of a bald Boris Karloff villain. He seems to be constantly encouraging the audience to give themselves a hand. At one point, he leads the crowd in shooting the finger at the sky boxes, because, he says. "they get free popcorn and hot dogs up there."
I see the fifth Pumpkins, keyboard player Jonathan Melvoin, tucked away behind James Iha, audible but barely visible. He comes out to sit next to Jimmy Chamberlin and whale on a second set of drums for the space jam of "Silverfuck." Later, when I try to recollect what Melvoin looked like, I can't remember much, except that he has light brown or red hair, and that he mostly kept his eye on Billy Corgan.
When the band breaks into the lovely "Disarm," I watch two buzz-cut jocks next to me sway and sing along like romantic little girls. They bob and weave, holding their skulls or pained emphasis as the moan along with Billy, "The killer in me is the killer in you."
After the song, I tap one of them on the shoulder and ask him what he's doing here. He's wearing a Georgetown Hoyas T-Shirt, and he tells me he has been in the air force for four years. His name is Jeremy.
"I like 'Disarm' because Billy's standing up there in front of 30,000 people, telling his parents why he is messed up," he says. "He comes from divorced parents, just like me. I can totally relate. I'll be able to relate thirty years from now. Because I only know the disaster side of myself. I don't know the together side of myself."
Later, I see Billy, and I tell him what Jeremy said. He smiles the smile of the vindicated. And he seems to relax a bit. "I'm not crazy," he says. "I'm not crazy."
Wednesday afternoon. When I sit down with Billy again, on a deserted and sun-dapples hotel patio, I ask him if he's always wanted to give the audience something grand.
"Yeah," he says, nodding vigorously. "I want the power and emotional content to be so overwhelming it's almost hard to watch. Because when I go see other bands, I want them to take my breath away."
"I came out of alternative music," Billy continues. "I came out of Bauhaus and the Cure-you know, funny hair and funny clothes. Jimmy grew up on Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, and when he joined the band, we were still playing kind of dark pop, and it wasn't really putting a dent in anybody. But if you want people to pay attention to you, you have to have some other thing going on. And for us, it was power, sheer fucking muscle, and I got the drummer to do it. Me and Jimmy were like, 'We might as well play what we know.' So we started beating the shit out of everybody, and as soon as we started doing that-pffftt! We had a record contract."
Mark Williams signed the band to Virgin in 1990, and their first album, Gish, sold more than 300,000 copies, at least partly because the band stayed on the road for an exhausting year and a half to promote it. By the time they returned home to begin their next record, Iha and D'Arcy had bitterly broken off a long affair, and Chamberlin had begun to use drugs more heavily.
When the band entered the studio to make Siamese Dream, Jimmy disappeared without a trace, out on a drug binge for five days. And Billy, eager to compete with Nirvana's Nevermind was unsure that he could finish the album by himself, suffered a complete crisis of confidence. He was virtually paralyzed.
"I was a twenty-four-year-old man under tremendous pressure, not only form the world of music but in my own mind," Billy says now. "Everybody was suddenly selling a zillion records. I knew I could sit on the sidelines, or I could write songs that make the kids sing, because I realized it was there to be got. I created tremendous pressure, and that wasn't healthy. I created a monster, and I lived it."
But Billy, you were the monster.
"Yeah, it's true. But I wasn't wrong. About six months ago, I listened to Siamese Dream. That was the first time I'd ever really heard my own album, because I had separated from the experience of making the record. And it really moved me. It made me cry, it's so beautiful."
Friday 10 a.m. My phone wakes me up with the news that keyboarder Jonathan Melvoin died of a heroin overdosed at about three o'clock this morning. At one in the afternoon, I join a phalanx of TV reporters outside a Midtown police station. Billy, James, and D'Arcy having come and gone, but Jimmy is still inside, being charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance. At about two-thirty, a black town car pulls out of the station. All I can see, slumped low in the backseat, is what appears to be a white fedora. Jimmy doesn't stop to give a statement.
Five days later, the Smashing Pumpkins fire Jimmy Chamberlin.
Saturday, 10a.m. On the plane to Chicago I imagine this is what Billy Corgan is thinking these days: Speak now, and forever have no peace. We live in a culture of disclosure and on camera arrests, and once you engage in it, it rewards you instantaneously, then terminates you forever. There is another problem with the culture of disclosure: We look for simple truths in the middle of horribly complex, amazingly shaded events. We want to know who's to blame and we want to know how to make it stop. But tragedy is never that simple.
In Chicago, I talk to bartenders, junkies, former death-rockers, other journalists, bellhops, publicists, rival bands, photographers, rival editors, close friends of the Pumpkins, and assorted Chicago hipsters. Most of the people who know Jimmy characterize him as a sweet heart. Within the Pumpkins, he was often able to dissipate tension and rivalry. "Jimmy was Billy confident," says one friend. "Whenever Billy was feeling really alienated from the rest of the band, from management, the label, or from just the world, Jimmy was there. Billy knew 'Jimmy's got my back.'"
I learn less about Jonathan Melvoin, who, at the time of his death, made his home in New Hampshire, with his wife and a three-month-old son, born while Jonathan was on the road with the Pumpkins. Melvoin got along well with the band at first, and the five of them spent a lot of goofy times in karaoke bars during the bands pass through Japan. But slowly, the band began to suspect that Jonathan was bad news, even as Billy was telling people that he thought the Pumpkins sounded better them ever. As one source tells me, "Jonathan and Jimmy had become pals-I'd say they shared a dark common goal."
You mean they bonded because of what they like to do after the shows? I ask.
Monday, 9 p.m. I hang up the phone, put on the most melancholy CD I have with me, and turn off all the lights in my shitty little hotel room. After two days in Chicago, I've discovered the saddest truth of the sad story. A friend of the Smashing Pumpkins has just called. It seems that about two months before Jonathan Melvoin died, while the Pumpkins were in Portugal in May, Jimmy and Jonathan had gone out and bought some drugs.
"Jimmy apparently OD'd outside the hotel, and was pretty much gone," my source tells me. "He was with Melvoin. Jimmy was revived, and Melvoin was fired from the band." Melvoin finished the European tour, then somehow talked his way back into the Pumpkins.
"I talked with Jimmy about it," the source continues, "and he seemed to be really shaken up. He said, 'That was it, I've learned my lesson, it's not going to happen again.' I said, 'Well, you were gone. There's not much else that can happen.'" But of course, two months later in New York, something else did happen.
In the weeks that follow, the band announce that they will continue the tour, with drummer Mat Walker of Filter, who played with the Pumpkins in Europe, and keyboardist Dennis Flemion, of the Frogs. Meanwhile, the story of another, earlier overdose, this one in Bangkok, trickles out. The day the Pumpkins begin rehearsals with Walker and Flemion, Billy agrees to talk about the band's recent difficulties.
What happened that morning in New York? BC: I got a call at five in the morning from Gooch, our tour manager, that Jonathan was dead, Jimmy had been with him, and that the cops were there, and immediately decided to go down to the hotel, figuring Jimmy would be in distress. And they made us go down [to the station]. I kind of chalk it up to the police being slightly naive about the dynamics of the band. I think they kind of made believe that we were like a gang. They had a hard time understanding the organization.
The trouble started in Bangkok in February. Can you tell me about that?
BC: Whether or not Jonathan overdosed at that time, we're not really sure. Jimmy overdoses, and because of the prior history was told, "You need some help," and he of course said everything was fine, that it was an isolated incident. Jonathan was told that if it happened again he would be fired. That was how it was dealt with. But Jimmy lied to us a lot. He'd give you enough truth to make you think that he was being candid. So we were operating under the assumption that, okay, now he's telling the truth, everything's fine.
But it wasn't. What happened in Portugal?
BC: Both of them overdosed and had to be taken to the doctor and the whole but. Jonathan was told he was fired but was asked to complete the tour-it was the first successful European tour we'd ever had, and I felt he still owed us. We had to fly that day to Barcelona to do a live radio show and play, and it was like a black comedy, the two of them were so out of it.
Was as there discussion at this point of putting the tour on hold or finding replacement musicians?
BC: Every step along the way, even when there wasn't incidents. We felt That we did the appropriate things along the way. I just can't appropriate things along the way. I just can't really open that up to peoples moral judgments because they weren't there. I know in my heart that I did the appropriate thing along the way. Was I in denial at certain levels? Absolutely.
So whose decision would it have been-would you have relied on Jimmy to say "I need help," or would you have forced him to get help at a certain point?
BC: In '93 we forced him to go into rehab, but in '93 he was drinking and doing whatever else everyday so there was no hiding it. This year there were extended periods of sobriety-at least the appearance of sobriety. He didn't seem out of control. In fact, he seemed exactly the opposite. If I was under the impression that they were regular drug users, we would have stopped the tour. I was under the impression that the were basically sticking their hand in the cookie jar. All I kept saying was, "Just don't stick your hand in the cookie jar, and there won't be any problems." I didn't wake up everyday thinking "Okay, what's the drug addict gonna do today?" The only times it really came to a head were the two prior incidents in Bangkok and Portugal. Then we dealt with them in a very kind of PC way. "Do you need help?" "No. this is never gonna happen again. You guys don't worry about it, we're sorry."
Why did you believe him?
BC: There's no answer I can give that makes it seem like a real thing. Psychologically, the drug abuser takes advantage of the fact that you want to believe them and you don't want to believe they have a problem. You're in denial like they are. It's part of the insidiousness of drug and alcohol addiction.
What was behind the decision to continue the tour?
I have great sorrow for Jonathan and his family because he was really amazing person. I have sorrow for Jimmy to have destroyed, in some ways, everything that he helped build. But we don't feel like we did anything wrong. We worked along time to get to a point to play these kind of people. Believe me-we're not turning a blind eye to tragedy, but who we are we punishing by not continuing the tour? Ourselves and the fans. And that seemed to just make the tragedy even worse. We did not act with malice or a cold heart.
When you tell your drummer, "We will cancel this multi million dollar tour at any point so that you can go into rehab" and he doesn't take that kind of help and tells you everything's fine, where doesn't the responsibility lie? You can only stick your hand out so far. All three of us stuck our hands out repeatedly and he pissed on them. If somebody doesn't want help it doesn't do any good. The is Jimmy's third rehab. Obviously the first two didn't do a damn bit of good. Is anybody gonna call the rehab and blame them?
Was there a point during all this when you thought about pulling the plug on the band?
BC: It certainly crossed my mind. But we're not going to let the bad apple spoil it for us. When we're ready to end the band, we'll end the band. It started on our terms, and it will certainly end on them.
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