Germ Warfare Newsweek - October 14, 1996
In the past year, Smashing Pumpkins has become the rock world's premier crisis management team. Everything you'd think would derail their career hasn't. Last fall lead singer Billy Corgan released his third opus, "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," a two-hour, 28-track song cycle about youth, love and lost of innocence that many critics declared as pompous indulgent and overblown. It went straight to number 1 on the pop charts and is now the top selling double album of the decade.
In July, touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died of a heroin overdose and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was arrested for drug possession. How did Corgan respond? He fired Chamberlin, hired replacement drummer (Matt Walker of Filter), went back on the road and earned rave reviews. Now it seems like the Pumpkins can do no wrong. In September, it swept the MTV Music Video Awards. Next month it will release "The Aeroplane Flies High," a 5-CD box set of "Mellon Collie" single and B-sides. Corgan even bounced back from a less life threatening but still potentially devastating move: He shaved his head. He told Interview Magazine he wanted to curve his vanity. How many rock stars get to conquer MTV looking like Uncle Fester?
The fact is Smashing Pumpkins rules alternative rock in 1996. And that's a strange place for alternative rock to be. Ever since the genre broke through commercially in 1991 Corgan has been kind of runner-up hero. In the tortured "I hate myself, I want to die" category, he just couldn't compete with Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, who did die, and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, who complained so tiresomly about his fame that 1 band, Oasis, publicly wished he'd die.
Musically, Corgan always lacked punk rock clout: though the Pumpkins poured on the distortion and rage at times, it also included noodley guitar solos, grandios pop flourishes, lyrics out of punk rock rails. Worst of all, Corgan actively courted success in a calculated bid for credibility, the Pumpkins, 1991 debut, "Gish," was released on an independent label, Caroline, even though the band had already secured a major-label contract with Virgin. Hard-core indie rockers labeled them fakers and never forgave them. For all their success, Smashing Pumpkins have never been cool.
Alternative rock was founded on the reverse principle: coolness, good music and an attitude meant a lot more than selling records. Two new records serve as potent evidence of that pre-1991 sensibility: Nirvana's "From the muddy band of the Wishkah," an assortment of live tracks from 1989-1994, and "Germs (Tribute): A small Circle of Friends; a homage to the racious late '70s L.A. punk band by members of Hole, Sonic Youth, Firehose, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dinosaur Jr and others. Both albums are pure labors of love.
Punk's club mentality is fine if you're invited. But the cool vs. not-cool rift has left a lot of bands on the defensive-especially Corgan. "We hopped on this long before it was a gravy train," he says. "You didn't get into Alternative music in 1989 because you were going to sell a million records, you got into it because you wanted to rock." But Smashing Pumpkins have more in common with Nirvana than you might think. All three helped turn adolescent rage into a art form; all three took the classic rock riffs of the '70s and spit them out in wildly refurbished forms.
What really sets the Pumpkins apart is their attitude toward success. They like it. Accepting the MTV award for Best Alternative Video, Corgan sounded positively happy. "We're very proud to be an alternative band," he said. "The fact of the matter is it's what we came from." A gracious attitude might to be punk rock, but its always cool.
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