Article in MOJO - December 1996
(Sent to us by Steve Hemming)
It is June 1996 and the lobby of San Francisco's plush Stanford Court Hotel is littered with people of position, power and influence, just as one would expect here high in the clouds of Nob Hill.
But the gentleman bouncing toward reception with his daughter on his shoulders is Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. And the bit of head not completely swallowed by her enormous down jacket, itself being swallowed by an overstuffed lobby chair belongs to Bjork. Standing next to a trolley overflowing with luggage is a mystery wrapped in an enigma in wraparound sunglasses: Beck. The guy beaming in the corner looks like a Buddhist but is actually a Beastie Boy (though Adam Yauch happens to be a Buddhist as well).
The weirdest sight is of movie stars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell -closer to this establishment's customary clientele - disappearing into an elevator. All these modern rock gods and goddesses (and Goldie and Kurt) are here for the Tibetan Freedom Concert, organized by Yauch to draw attention to the physical and cultural genocide that threatens Tibet after three brutal decades of Chinese occupation.
The two-day event is being touted in the media as Alternative Nation's very own Woodstockcum-Live Aid, and a scan of the talent roster seems to encourage such a grand delusion. The above will be joined by, among others, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against The Machine, Foo Fighters, The Fugees, Yoko Ono, John Lee Hooker and A Tribe Called Quest to fill a bill more diverse than Woodstock or any of the Lollapaloozas to date. All this and Smashing Pumpkins too.
It has been arranged that I will meet with the four Pumpkins individually: second guitarist James Iha first, then bassist D'Arcy; drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and finally leader Billy Corgan. Knowing that I will see a proper date later in the tour I decide to keep these first encounters brief and breezy Soft-spoken and reserved, James Iha becomes slightly more animated when discussing Scratchie, the record label he and D'Arcy have a stake in. Its eclectic roster already includes dance singles, reggae, mainstream guitar pop and even committed alternative fringe-dwellers Chainsaw Kittens and The Frogs.
On the subject of Burt Bacharach, Iha rhapsodizes about what he expects the Bacharach/ Noel Gallagher collaboration will yield. Noel probably needed Hal David more, I venture. At this, James begins bombarding me with whole verses of Chairman Noel's poetry I am informed that D'Arcy has a headache, but that Jimmy Chamberlin wants to see me. He's apparently flying back to Chicago immediately after the gig; something about "getting his boat into the water".
In room 620 the drummer pushes aside a ravaged room service cart and gestures for me to sit. A big band and Duke Ellington fan, Chamberlin is confident, no-nonsense, and seems happy to be given to opportunity to talk. Read with the knowledge of what will transpire within aa month, his comments are rip with sad ironies that at least one of us could never have imagined at the time.
"We've got some heavy changes ahead of us," he nods. "Mellon Collie was our final statement as a rock band. We're all in our thirties or approaching 30 [Chamberlin is 32, Corgan 29, D'Arcy and Iha 28], and we don't want to end up like those older bands that are out there pretendin' they're still rockin'. It's not natural. We've all made enough money to take care of ourselves now so we're free to approach the music from a purely artistic standpoint. I'll admit that I had my reservations when this band started out. But as me and Billy did more and more together it became obvious that we were cut from the same cloth. Very few drummers get to step up and test their fullest capabilities. Those who get that chance are very fortunate."
And what next musically for the Pumpkins? "I don't know what it's gonna sound like. I can't even say for sure that it will be the band as you now know it. All I know is that musically it can't be about influence anymore, it's gotta be about soul. Beyond that, any-thing goes. It could be two pieces of sandpaper and a fuckin' tin whistle, who knows? But I'm hookin' forward to findin' out. This band has never been about playing it safe..."
Give or take Oasis.
The Smashing Pumpkins are the Alternative Rock Band of the Moment. They should have earned that distinction based on the commercial and aesthetic triumph of their double CD Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, a bold move in these meek times and one that not even head Pumpkin Billy Corgan's admirers held out much hope that he'd pull off. Instead, this musical triumph -which has turned the Pumpkins into the kings of the arena hill Corgan always predicted they'd one day be - has been overshadowed by the tabloid-magnetic tragedy of hired keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin's death from heroin and alcohol poisoning on July 12, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin's dismissal from the band five days later.
I braved The Smashing Pumpkins' dizzying orbit twice in recent months; in San Francisco in June for their appearance at the ballyhooed Tibetan Freedom Concert less than a month before the trouble, and again in late October after they'd regrouped in the wake of the July tragedy. This was only the latest in a series of misadventures to have befallen the quartet-turned-trio that rose through a Chicago indie-rock scene they were never part of to become kingpins of an alternative rock scene they feel no greater affinity with. Each of their three studio albums -Gish (1991), Siamese Dream (1993) and Mellon Collie (1995) - has moved increasingly heavier tonnage but has actually improved musically as well.
The Pumpkins have progressed from a punishing Sabbath Floyd mutation to a unit that can reference Beatle and Brian Wilson sophistication and still dole out punishment with the best of 'em. In the process Billy Corgan has become the consummate rock'n'roll record-maker. But a price has been paid every step of the way: emotional splits, chemical excess, nervous breakdown, Courtney Love.
Many will tell you that Corgan's habit of dissecting his band's affairs under a public microscope has only made a bad situation worse. Every band has its peaks and valleys, but never before have I seen a band that suffers them simultaneously with such regularity It would be easy to write them off as too much trouble, but the music's too damn fine.
'This is for Tibet...or Tourette's," Quipped guitarist Stephen Mallunus as Pavement kicked off their early afternoon set at Golden Gate Park. Though there would be moving and sometimes horrifying speeches between bands, this is what passed for wisdom from the musical sector on day one. The event wound up drawing 100,000 people and raising $800,000 for the cause, but one suspects that what this mainly proves is that in Alternative Nation it is much easier to raise cash than consciousness.
"We were getting along horribly. The drummer was not showing up. I couldn't get anyone to focus. I wasn't being the nicest person ."
It was a curiously flat afternoon. The speakers were treated with considerably more respect and the music with a bit less enthusiasm than I'd expected. The abbreviated sets on alternating stages kept things moving, but apart from the sparks Foo Fighters and hip hop court jester Biz Markie worked hardest to generate, nobody seemed interested in going anywhere. Outside of the potential MTV video-bites down front, the music was mostly a sonic backdrop against which the crowd milled aimlessly. It felt less like a mini-Woodstock than a maxi-version of the all-day shows now staged by alternative rock radio in every city so that the bands the station has "helped" can "thank" them by playing gratis. The Smashing Pumpkins were among the flattest notes.
Positioned just before the closing Beastie Boys, they took the stage to more squeals of anticipation than greeted any other act on the day His skull shaven, and dressed entirely in black, Billy Corgan looked like a Dark Monk. And when the band tore into Bullet and Zero - the heaviest hitters on Mellon Collie - the Pumpkins appeared to have the muscle to back up their leader's image.
Then some genius in the moshpit threw something at the stage. The Pumpkins promptly shifted into their noise epic Silverfuck, an odd choice after only three numbers. They might only have played it for 20 minutes, but it seemed to lumber on forever. Supposed to climax their full-length concerts, here it was employed as an extended fuck-you to the mosh gitators. When Silverfuck finally ground to a halt, someone among the waiting Beastie Boys on the adjacent stage shouted, "Enough of this shit!" I was inclined to agree.
Showered and refreshed after a hard day's Silverfuck, though still dressed all in black, Billy Corgan strides purposefully across the lobby. He offers a dead handshake, the kind you give your dentist We are seated in a corner of the restaurant that has been leased for our summit. Corgan is one of those hyper-conscious individuals who can give you his undivided attention while one eye discretely sweeps he room for any sign of movement.
The previous month, a 17-year-old Dublin girl had died from injuries sustained in the mosh-pit at a Smashing Pumpkins show The band had never encouraged this senseless alterna-ritual, but now they are vehemently opposed to it. This is only the latest in a series of bones Mr Corgan has had to pick with the infrastructure of Alternative Nation.
"I've never quite understood," he begins evenly, "how you're supposed to be 'independent' when all you're doing is kow-towing to an alternative master. From the very beginning it was, 'You guys are playing guitar solos - no no no. Your songs are too long - no no no.' I kept thinking, Why am I in alternative music if I'm just gonna have to follow somebody else's rules? That's why it never bothered me when those people called us retro band. I openly admit that I was always attracted to the Beatles/Hendrix kind of creative values. In some ways I probably have idealized that mentality but what better mentality is there? I really miss the day when people made complete albums. I don't think it's such a bad idea to have a concept occasionally."
Noting that he had announced his intention to record a double CD before he commenced work on it, I wonder if going public with that concept was Corgan's way of locking himself into the challenge.
"Absolutely," he laughs. "A friend asked me why I say all these things, and I told her, because then I'm forced to do them. The band had a meeting about it, but of course it was after I'd already declared that this is what we were gonna do. I was frustrated by the fact that we were getting lumped in with everybody I was sick of hearing Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Pumpkins/ Stone Temple Pilot/Soundgarden. No slight against any of those bands, but I've always felt we came at it from a completely different angle. I didn't feel we were getting the recognition as, and I know you're not supposed to say it, but.. art. The idea was to try to do something completely overwhelming, so that even if you don't like the band you couldn't deny us our place as individuals. It started as a pissy I'm-gonna-show-you thing; that's where the public declaration came in. It was like challenging a guy to a fight, except I was challenging myself to the fight. "The first reaction - and this even came from my friends - was that I was gonna fuck it up. I almost felt like people were licking their chops: 'Here's our chance to really stick a fork in this fucker.' Right? But when people heard it and had to realize that it was a step beyond what they thought we were capable of; it turned the tables. We had put our money where our mouth was; or should I say my mouth..."
Since Mellon Collie seems to represent the Pumpkins at the peak of their powers, it must have been designed as his farewell to the band. No? He winces but faces the notion head on. "No, only to that particular idea of what the band is. But that could possibly be true if the band doesn't rise to the challenge of the next phase, which is likely to be more reliant on technology and place a little less emphasis on creating a band dynamic.
For lack of a better analogy it'll be like the Wild West for a while. Roles will not be defined. I've spoken to Jimmy about what it might be like if there was a lute keeping the beat; what would he play? Or say there was a synthesizer playing the root bass notes; D'Arcy could play whatever she wanted a la Peter Hook, or something. It's up to them to define their roles. If they don't, then I will," he shrugs.
This raises the subject of an old wound, one that still causes The Smashing Pumpkins a fair amount of pain. Under pressure to deliver a knockout second album for their major label debut, Corgan very publicly vented his frustration with his bandmates' work ethic, and wound up playing all the guitar and bass on what became the double-platinum Siamese Dream. As a result, the musical competence of D'Arcy and James continues to be called into question by their detractors.
"What happened was we were getting along horribly," Corgan maintains. "The drummer was having problems; disappearing, not showing up. I couldn't get anyone to focus on the record, and I wasn't being the nicest person. There was so little spirit for the band from within that I just went ahead and did the best I could. It caused friction, and understandably so."
So did he try to make a great record in the hope that the band would then live up to the spirit of the record? "That's exactly what I tried to do. But that's not easy to explain, so there was some antagonism. When the record was done and we all chilled out, we went out on tour and realized, Hey, it's not such a bad thing to be a Smashing Pumpkin after all. Only us four can really understand. We've healed all that and we're cool. I mean, we could not play Siamese Dream when we put it out. But within three months we could, and three months after that we could play it even better, so fuck it."
James had told me the band was taking six months off Jimmy said a year. But both had joked that for their fearless leader it was more likely to be a week. "Right. The classic story is that after 18 months on the road behind Siamese Dream, we came off Lollapalooza and three days later I started writing Mellon Collie. There is no break for me. I'm 29 years old, and every year that goes by I lose some of that chip-on-the-shoulder energy of youth. Now I certainly understand the idea of maturing, and I think I'm making those kinds of transitions. At the same time, there's a part of me that doesn't want to let go of that crazy idea that I sold the band in 1988. It's come true - to a T. I really wasn't wrong. I guessed it, called it, lived it. We maybe could have gone other routes, but whatever, it worked. I won't second-guess it. For me there are no breaks."
New York July 12 "Jimmy's od'ed Jonathan's dead. Cops are here."
With those seven chilling words, Billy Corgan was informed that his tightly-plotted scenarios for the present and future Smashing Pumpkins had hit the wall. Jimmy Chamberlin's bouts with heroin and alcohol abuse - and the band's attempts to handle them -were part of the Pumpkins' open book. Until July 12, the book said that Jimmy had been clean and relatively sober for well over a year. It subsequently came out that there had been two major relapses on the band's spring tour, both also involving hired keyboard hand (and chemical dabbler) Jonathan Melvoin. Melvoin, son of one-time Phil Spector sessioneer (and vigorous anti-drug crusader) Mike and brother of former Prince guitarist Wendy, had been fired after the second incident but had talked his way back behind the keys.
Five days after Jonathan's death Jimmy Chamberlin was out of a job. The Pumpkins dismissed their drummer, announced their intention to carry on, and did a couple of selected interviews to explain their refusal to be victimized by rock's ongoing heroin plague. The band's supporters applauded this as sensible and brave, their detractors saw it as cynical careerism. There is seldom any middle ground when the subject is The Smashing Pumpkins. (Chamberlin, arrested on a charge of possessing drugs, has since been acquitted on condition that he undergo rehab until the end of the year.)
Among the most vehement detractors was Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes who insisted in the pages of Rolling Stone that the Pumpkins had fired Chamberlin "not because he was hurting the band. He was a liability financially... Say it! You people are the most corporate thing I've ever seen!" He went on to accuse them, with reference to the drugs, of "talking about things that you don't know about."
The Pumpkins announced the addition of drummer Matt Walker of Chicago band Filter and keyboard player Dennis Fleming of The Frogs, and were back on the road by the beginning of 1 September. Though Corgan had expressed the desire for MOJO to L see a 'real' Pumpkins show he was noncommittal when it came to ~ firming a date in October. Finally (and right up against deadline) the green light was given, with the understanding that Corgan was not prepared to discuss the Chamberlin episode further.
CHAMPAIGN. ILLINOS, OCTOBER 25, 1996
This place smells like shit!, Literally. When I got out of the taxi in front of the University of Illinois arena where I was to meet up with the Pumpkins, the scent of excrement hangs so heavy in the Midwestern air that I have to gag Inside the domed facility awaits a different, though related problem
"What's with all these flies?" Shirley Manson of opening band Garbage is using one arm to keep the pests away, so that she can use the other to guide a bite of pre-show dinner to her mouth unmolested. A local explains that the U of I has quite a School of Agriculture, and that we are sitting directly downwind from its award-winning sheep farm. The Pumpkins' performance does not stink even remotely.
The lights go down, the Mellon Collie theme comes up, thousands of cigarette lighters are thrust heavenward, and we're off on one of the best arena rides I've ever taken. In deference to the cavernous hall they stick pretty close to the loud stuff, but with such power and precision that they make this strategic necessity seem like their own decision. And when they segue from their -titanic rearrangement of MC standout Ruby into an unplanned version of Siva from the first album, they even succeed in making arena music that has something more to offer than surface. "Thanks very much for coming," Billy says. "We hope you have a good time. We hope you stupid flicks down here don't hurt yourselves," nodding toward the impromptu mosh-pit (or can anything now so obligatory possibly be impromptu?) that's broken out down front.
I hold my breath, but Silverfuck is not forthcoming just yet. The long loud set tells me a couple of important things about this band. The first is that those who've dismissed the musicianship of D'Arcy and Iha simply haven't listened closely enough. Billy may be able to play circles around James technically, but Iha has definitely evolved a style that's an important component of the group's sound. ("It's a really bad guitar technique," he tells me later in mock rock crit, "but so practiced and well-rehearsed that it has now become interesting.")
The other important thing is that Corgan's legendary on-stage rants are, at least for the moment, a thing of the past. Instead he banters, mostly playing straight man to Iha's deranged game show host. "We're like a fuckin' jukebox; we'll play whatever you want," Corgan announces. James elaborates, "Wanna hear any songs by other incredible alternative rock bands? Bush? Everclear? Better Than Ezra?"
"Hey," Billy smirks, "how about The Black Crowes? They're kind of alternative." From the laughs and hisses this elicits, there must be more than a few Rolling Stone readers in the house.
In Davenport Iowa, James Iha paces his hotel suite, guitar in hand. One of his windows looks out on the mighty brown Mississippi River, the other on less mighty Davenport, known principally as the home town Bix Beiderbecke escaped. An Asian-American growing up in a white-bread Chicago suburb, he discovered rock'n'roll through television. He and his brother became fascinated with this iconic Elvis package being hawked on TV, and pleaded with their parents to buy it for them. The parents bought an album, but by some snafu Iha remains unable to account for, the album was Sweetheart Of The Rodeo by The Byrds. James thought it sucked.
Talking about the band's stylistic uniqueness, James recalls the process of auditioning new drummers. "We set aside two days, and gave everybody the same four songs. We picked a handful of people we had known, and the other half were 'pros', who everybody would probably know All the drummers we met seemed like good people. No major psychopaths, at least that we could detect.
"It was a revelation when we started playing with them. We played our four songs and, sure, the drumming was a bit different, but it still basically sounded like the Pumpkins. I'd never really played with another drummer. Let's face it, Jimmy was probably the best musician in the band, but the three of us found out that we'd played together for so long that the chemistry was there. It just sounds like us.
"You know, it could just as easily have been Jimmy who died rather than Jonathan. Had that happened, we would have definitely broken up."
Iha is extremely soft-spoken, but his words harden when he mentions Chris Robinson's comments in Rolling Stone. "He's quoted as saying we don't know what we're talking about when it comes to drugs. Well, he's right. I've never taken hard drugs like heroin or cocaine, so maybe I don't know But I certainly know what it does. I know what it did to us personally and professionally. The subject gets so romanticized in rock'n'roll - the 'elegantly wasted' thing - but it's a totally disastrous, selfish thing to do. We just couldn't go on that way, trying to work around this. Basically, Jimmy overdosed every time we went on the road. What were we supposed to do, lock him in his room every night? We tried almost everything else. It's really important to us to play these shows so that we don't go out as just another casualty of rock excess. It seems totally justified to me."
Like Billy Corgan, James Iha chooses to lose himself in the musical future, both the band's and his own. It probably also explains his growing respect for the singer/songwriter idiom. Asked to name his current faves, the first name he offers is Gram Parsons. I shoot him a quizzical look and he throws up his hands: "I know I know I know Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, right?" And laughs.
"When I first met Billy," D'arcy Wretzky Brown recalls, "I went around to his house because he said he was looking for people to write with. But he said, 'Before we can write together you have to learn these songs.' And he handed me a tape of 40 or 50 songs. Of his. 'We'll start writing when you learn these.' But every week there'd be 10 more new songs. I'm thinking This is completely insane, but I really loved the music!
"He always seemed to have these formulas in his head for what was right or wrong, good or bad, and sometimes he expected us to read his mind. I never could think that way or see things that way. It's interesting because now I think I understand a lot more about it, while at the same time he's struggling to break out of that. Because we're both moving toward each other, in a way; the new places we find ourselves in should be good for both of us.
"To be able to change himself as much as he has, in such a positive way, and grow as quickly as he has. Billy has really accomplished amazing things, and not only as a musician but as a person. I'm proud of him. "
"Take me down James!" Shouts an adolescent voice somewhere in the darkness as the band walk toward the tour bus, a reference to the composition they'd thrown in tonight. On the bus, Dennis and Jimmy Fleming have prepared a special treat. The brothers have been a band called The Frogs for 15 years now with an album, 1988's "gay supremacist"-themed It's Only Right And Natural, to prove it. There will soon be another; on the Scratchie label. Dennis is playing keyboards on the tour; and though guitarist Jimmy makes a cameo stage appearance, he seems to be here for no other reason than The Frogs are inseparable. "Have you two ever lived apart?" Billy asks. "We tried it once for seven months," Jimmy replies dryly "Didn't work out."
Tonight they're showcasing a treasure from their vast library of self-produced art films. It is one of their earliest, from 1980, "so it shouldn't be judged on production values," Dennis intones. In this crude home movie, dolls are manipulated around the back yard 'set' by hands plainly visible, and interact with all sorts of home and garden tools in ways no ratings board would ever approve, dialogue improvised to the strains of bad cocktail jazz. It is hilarious, albeit politically incorrect stuff, it has the band and crew literally rolling in the aisle, It's easy to see what the brothers Frog bring to this enterprise.
This seems like an appropriate juncture to put an ugly rumor to sleep. UK gossip has it that their former drummer was not the only Smashing Pumpkin to enjoy narcotic dalliance, but that Chamberlin was merely the one who fucked up. Utterly false. I have a highly trained eye for such things, and I detected the influence of nothing more powerful than imported beer. It was so clean under this bigtop that I couldn't even score a joint.
After the Frogfest, D'Arcy produces a tape of the most recent X Files episode but Billy quickly pre-empts her: "No, I don't wanna watch that." She rolls her eyes like an indulgent sister and heads for the TV at the other end of the bus. Soon everyone else has joined her; finding The X Files preferable to watching Billy Corgan converse with the man from MOJO.
I ask him how he'd spent the unanticipated break, and he just smiled and reminded me of his no-break style. During that time he'd cut a new Pumpkins song for a film soundtrack, recorded new material and remixed all the tracks for the new B-side box set The Aeroplane Flies High, and composed some electronic score music for a forthcoming Ron Howard film. I wonder if the latter has whetted his appetite for the band's brave new world we talked about in June.
"Well the soundtrack work is very kind of junior techno/progressive shit," he says. "I'm just beginning to get my feet wet. The basic idea as I see it now is to start from the atmospherics of electronic music; people like The Orb who are geniuses at that sort of thing. I want to write really excellent songs and apply them to that process and just keep on applying them until they cease to resemble what anybody else is doing.
"It will mean a complete rethink of the concert thing too. I'm looking forward to some kind of well co-ordinated Floyd future, perhaps even a floating pig of our own. We joked at one point that we were gonna have an inflatable version of James's dog to float around the arena. Somewhere there's an actual blueprint for a 75 by 35ft inflatable dog, with all the costs. But you look at it and go, Maybe not. This is a bit much."
The concept of 'a bit much' somehow leads to the subject of Kiss. "I've gotten to talk to Gene Simmons a couple of times," Corgan tells me. "I really respect the man's mind. Whether you like Kiss or not, you can't deny the vision. Strictly from a PT Barnum point of view, the guy has managed the virtually impossible. And he's a pleasure to talk to. There isn't an ounce of bullshit in the guy.
"It was interesting, but I actually had lunch with Gene on the day we fired Jimmy I also got to talk to Paul Stanley a bit; those guys were so great to me. Gene just cut to the chase on it: 'It may seem like a heavy thing right now, but when you get out from under this black cloud and the air clears, you'll feel better. You will feel better'. "Paul Stanley told me - and I don't think I'm betraying any confidences here - about a time when they had to make some similar hard decisions. He then remembered being on-stage one night and realizing there was nothing wrong. It suddenly dawned on him that there were no outside problems to distract him from being in that moment. He said that even though it might have hurt the band publicly, he was happier as a person to be in that situation and not the other.
"Being able to talk to people who've been through that was such a help to me. God has a strange way of delivering you into the hands of the right people when you need to hear certain things."
I've always had a pretty good artistic vision about what's coming," Billy had vouchsafed back in June. "Long before Nirvana sold records I said to industry people that there was an untapped audience out there. At that point a hit alternative album only sold 200,000 copies, but you could feel it bubbling under. You didn't have to be Nostradamus; if you were paying attention you knew it was around the corner somewhere.
"I can feel a similar situation coming up. In its current context, rock is basically redundant. The difference in reaction viscerally as opposed to five years ago - no comparison. We used to launch into something like this atomic release of energy, and because most of the people had never seen anything like it, you would just steamroll them. Now that they've seen it from 20 wannabe bands, yours included, it ceases to have that release. The second time you take a drug it's not gonna be like the first. We're now in the fourth or fifth time of taking that drug, and I'm ready to move on.
"I think there's a futuristic music right around the corner. Always with the spirit of rock'n'roll; I don't think that ever changes. But we're headed towards something different and weird and exciting again..."
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