PATCHIN' IT BACK TOGETHER
By Jayne Keedle for the Advocate
If rock star status can be defined by drugs, death and best-selling albums, then the Smashing Pumpkins achieved it bigtime in 1996. The group's first concept album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, became the biggest selling double CD of all time. With success came the tragedies that have made the band's current tour--which will bring the Pumpkins to Hartford this week--one of the most disaster-prone in recent memory.
On May 11, during a concert in Dublin, 17-year-old Bernadette O'Brien was crushed to death in an overcrowded mosh pit. Band members sensed that the concert was getting out of hand, and after trying unsuccessfully to calm the crowd, ended the set early. But it was too late for O'Brien, who died the next day from internal injuries.
For music fans with long memories, it seemed that the band was reliving the experiences of The Who. In fact, the Pumpkins' Cincinnati gig was canceled in August because city officials feared a replay of the 1979 Who concert at its Riverfront Coliseum, in which 11 people were crushed to death by the crowd.
Not long after O'Brien's death, a second headline-grabbing event drew attention to yet another problem that seems to go hand-in-hand with rock 'n' roll. Touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died on July 12 from a heroin overdose. He wasn't the first alternative rocker to struggle with smack, but his death became the clarion call for the rock industry to clean up its act.
Smashing Pumpkins, meanwhile, took the opportunity to clean house. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin had been shooting up bags of Red Rum heroin with Melvoin that night. He awakened the next morning to discover his bandmate dead. Chamberlin was charged with heroin possession, a misdemeanor. But for Smashing Pumpkins, it was the last straw.
Often described as the one closest to bandleader Billy Corgan, Chamberlin had struggled with a heroin addiction for several years. Other band members tried the tough love approach, telling him he had to quit using horse or quit the band. He would always promise to stay clean, but in the end he became adept at hiding his habit, lying to his bandmates when they confronted him directly with their suspicions. The day Melvoin died, however, he could no longer conceal it.
A few days after Melvoin's death, the band released a statement ending their relationship with Chamberlin: "Today we are very sorry to tell our friends and fans that we have decided to sever our relationship with our friend and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. This may come as a shock to some and to others perhaps not, but to us it's devastating. For nine years we've battled with Jimmy's struggles with the insidious disease of drug and alcohol addiction and it's nearly destroyed everything we are and stand for. So we have decided to carry on without him and wish him the best we have to offer."
In many ways, Smashing Pumpkins is a bellwether of alternative rock. Since the death of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain moved the Pumpkins into the 1994 headliner's slot for Lollapalooza, the band has been out front as one of the biggest-selling, most talked-about groups on the scene. Their exalted position is arguably one that only Pearl Jam could challenge, but that group is largely inaccessible to the media, refuses to record videos and is touring on only a limited basis after a three-year hiatus.
Pearl Jam's intentionally low profile is, perhaps, understandable in light of the kind of headlines Smashing Pumpkins has been making this year. Being a rock group of global reach certainly has its downside. But the band has weathered serious setbacks before--and in some ways, earlier problems may have been more threatening to the band's continued existence. Corgan's deep depression and serious writing block in between recording Gish in 1990 and Siamese Dream in 1993, as well as his often stormy relationship with guitarist James Iha and bassist D'Arcy Wretzky, brought the band close to breaking up more than once. The band's stability was tested once again when Iha and Wretzky ended their romantic relationship.
Corgan has said the current tour will be the last the group will do for a while. That has little to do with relationships between the band members, however. If anything, the group is tighter musically and personally than ever before. Corgan's reasons have more to do with resolving the dilemma of having achieved rock star status. The group, he's said, just no longer want to "play slave to the soundtrack that people jump up and down to. It's just come to the point where rock music has ceased to be what rock music is meant to be."
For the Pumpkins, rock music isn't about being on every magazine cover as the poster children for heroin addiction and mosh pit violence. It's not about playing the same songs night after night. It's about writing music that has meaning and playing for the joy of it. And that isn't easy now that the band they began in Chicago back in 1988 has been turned into a multinational corporation by Virgin Records. It does, however, explain why Wretzky and Iha co-founded Scratchie Records in Chicago last year.
Originally, the two had planned to start their own label as a vehicle for side projects. It was the underground world of independent record labels, after all, that gave the group its start. The label began over dinner one evening just over a year ago with Wretzky's husband Kerry Brown, drummer for the band Catherine, and her brother-in-law, Jeremy Freeman. The four discovered they shared the same dream of starting their own label, and for very similar reasons.
"People are more flexible and experimental than most record companies give them credit for," says D'Arcy. "Go to any party and you'll hear a Black Sabbath song segue into something like Tribe Called Quest. The days of musical division are over--most people just want to hear good music and that's what Scratchie is all about."
They brought on board Freeman's longtime friend Adam Schlesinger of New York group Ivy, and Jamie Stewart, producer of November Record's Dancehall Massive, and last summer the label was launched. So far, Scratchie has nine groups: Belltower, Blaze, Chainsaw Kittens, Freak Magnet, The Frogs, Fulflej, Ivy, Lenky Don, Phoenix Thunder-stone and Pancho Kryztal. There are five rock-oriented bands, one spoken word hip-hop artist and three Jamaican dancehall acts.
It's an eclectic combination that no major label would ever dream of putting together. And that's the point. But the musicians' aim was also to spare groups the kind of problems the Pumpkins experienced on the rocky road to fame.
"There's a spate of artist-owned labels," says Freeman. "They still want to be involved with the underground and they don't want people to have to go through all the horrible things they went through. They have this perspective that they want to help other artists."
A number of the groups have been discovered by Wretzky while on tour. The Chainsaw Kittens had been a longtime favorite of the Pumpkins. FulFlej, which will be coming to Hartford on Nov. 25, opening for Better Than Ezra, was discovered by Wretzky and Brown when the group opened for Catherine in Richmond, Va. According the Freeman, both Wretzky and Iha have "incredible ears" for good music. Both musicians are now actively involved in producing albums, beginning with the recently released Fulflej CD Wack-ass Tuba Riff, which came out in October.
"I think it keeps them grounded," says Freeman. "They're smart people and if everything goes well, this is a lifelong commitment. It could be something that lasts for another hundred years. In a band you know you have a lifespan. Even though the Rolling Stones are still out there and there's the whole grandfathers of rock thing, there's something deeply embarrassing about it. I think they definitely do see this as a viable business, perhaps after their band thing runs its course. I think for James and D'Arcy, there's the pleasure of being able to run a label instead of being a one-dimensional person. Here we are with a bunch of bands and we're able to make really interesting music."
The Pumpkins' musical tastes are nothing if not eclectic. Corgan is a huge fan of Cheap Trick, and rumor has it the band is even considering a tribute album. The group's next release, The Aeroplane Flies High, set to hit record stores on Nov. 26, offers still more examples of the group's diverse influences.
The special 5-CD box set contains all five released singles from Mellon Collie, plus the B sides, some of which have previously only been available on imports. The set also includes five previously unreleased cover songs, "You're All I've Got Tonight" by The Cars; "Destination Unknown" by Missing Persons; "Dreaming" by Blondie; "A Night Like This" by The Cure and "Clones (We're All)" by Alice Cooper, bringing the total number of songs to 33.
The new release offers yet another clue to the band's past. The set is packaged in a "retro" style 45-rpm carrying case, a nod to the band's beginnings. Like nearly every alternative band out there, the Pumpkins grew out of the underground world of independent record labels. The band's first single "I Am One"--which would later find its way onto the band's first album Gish--was released on the local Chicago label Limited Potential. A second 7-inch, "Tristessa," came out on Sub Pop, the indie label that brought the world grunge with groups like Nirvana.
From the start, Smashing Pumpkins have been committed to independent labels. Rather than sign a major record deal, in 1990 the group decided to produce its first album, Gish, for Caroline Records. It was named debut album of the year by CMJ after holding the number one spot on the college music charts and selling more than 1 million copies worldwide. The album spawned two singles "Siva" and "Rhinoceros."
"I felt we'd really hit on something," says Corgan. "When we toured, the band became ultra-aggressive. By early 1992, we'd become this lean, mean, on-the-edge, completely rocking machine. With a little bit of wizardry and a little sheer will, we were either blowing people's minds or they hated us."
Judging from record sales since, more people love the Pumpkins than hate them. Lull, an EP released in October, 1991, was the band's final recording on Caroline before Virgin Records--which, in the cross-pollinated world of music, was affiliated with Caroline--signed the band. In July of 1993, Siamese Dream came out and went triple platinum, earning a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album. Pisces Iscariot, which followed in October, 1994, also went platinum.
For Smashing Pumpkins, however, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was the milestone. Since its release in October of last year, it has gone platinum seven times in the United States, making it the best-selling double CD of all time. Time magazine named it Album of the Year, as did readers of Rolling Stone and Request and the videos for "Tonight, Tonight" and "1979" just took seven MTV Music Video Awards.
The Pumpkins' began recording Mellon Collie shortly after coming off Lollapalooza in 1994. For 10 months, the group spent 12 hours a day in recording studios in Chicago and L.A., laying down the 28 tracks. Half of them were composed on guitar, the other half on the piano, an instrument that Corgan only had started playing the year before. But unlike earlier efforts Siamese Dream and Gish--on which, rumor has it, Corgan played every instrument--this was a group effort. Corgan, never one to give up control completely, produced it along with Flood, who produces U2 and Nine Inch Nails, and Alan Moulder, the engineer who mixed Siamese Dream.
The resulting album is full of surprises. Not the least of them is the inclusion of pedal and lap steel guitar and string parts, composed by Corgan on computer and played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Certainly, it is more multitextured than previous Pumpkin releases. Corgan declared that he wanted it to be for this generation what Pink Floyd's The Wall was back in 1979.
If Corgan's ambitions are global, Wretzky and Iha have more modest goals for their independent label. For them, Scratchie keeps their creative juices flowing. It also has helped keep the band going. When it came to finding replacements for both Chamberlin and Melvoin, the band turned back to the underground indie scene. Matt Walker, touring drummer of Filter, took Chamberlin's seat and Dennis Flemion, founding member and drummer of the Frogs, took over on keyboards. The Pumpkins didn't have to look far to find Flemion; Scratchie had recently signed The Frogs.
Clearly, having their own label has its advantages. And since Scratchie signed a joint venture agreement with Mercury this summer, the major label will handle distribution and provide backing for video and album re-cording, giving Scratchie the chance to make sure its artists get into record stores.
The joint venture, however, has caused more than a few people to accuse the label of selling out. But Freeman says going through independent record distributors has not been a good experience. Records weren't being delivered to stores and often bands weren't being paid royalties on time and sometimes not at all.
"If we do something with Mercury, our bands will at least have a shot. The thing that attracted us about Mercury was Danny Goldberg. He was president of Warner Brothers and resigned over the rap thing," says Freeman, referring to the record industry giant's decision to pull rap CDs off store shelves following the controversy over the song "Cop Killer." "He thought it was racist and ridiculous, an attack on free speech. I really felt like he was someone you could really have a relationship with."
Interestingly, the major labels need the independents at least as much as the small labels need the big players for distribution and backing. For big labels, the indies become talent scouts of a sort, a proving ground for up-and-coming artists. Moreover, they give new acts a certain credibility.
"When we started up, we had about 300 calls from various major labels sending us their bands, asking "could you put out a 7-inch of our band? We want your credibility and we want you to put our band on your label,'" says Freeman, adding that all such overtures were rejected. "We felt we would not be a farm label for their acts."
Scratchie Records does not have to do anything it doesn't want to do. With the Pumpkins behind it, the label certainly has a good deal of credibility and has managed to get a decent amount of recognition for start-up indie barely a year old. But the fact that the label even exists may be a sign of things to come. At last the incestuous alternative rock scene is finally expanding. And once again, the genre that forced radio formatters to change to accommodate the new sound with "modern rock" stations, is back in the driver's seat steering music in whole new directions.
For Wretzky and Iha, being part of Scratchie Records gives them a chance to explore other areas of music and stretch themselves. Playing in Smashing Pumpkins, at this point, is a bit like being part of a giant corporation and Corgan is definitely the CEO, despite the fact that he has loosened his sometimes despotic grip on creative control in recent years. But with Scratchie, the two musicians have the chance to break away and experiment in ways that Pumpkins fans, already locked into a set of expectations about the band, will not allow them to do.
Being part of the Pumpkins, of course, means that Wretzky and Iha don't need to worry about paying the rent. But expanding beyond their day jobs is a savvy move for both of them. They are diversifying with an eye to the future. The band may be getting headlines for all the same rock star misadventures that The Who experienced, but Wretzky and Iha apparently don't wish to follow in that supergroup's footsteps and tour into their 50s. With Scratchie they are building long-term job security.
As musicians, they are in a good position to nurture other artists. The bottom line is that they've seen how the major labels handle new groups and they think they can do it better. Scratchie Records is bullish about giving its roster of bands the kind of creative freedom that a larger label might not. Meanwhile, Wretzky and Iha continue to hold onto both credibility and creative freedom for themselves in the underground world of independent labels. Staying in touch with that scene keeps them grounded, reminding them of where they came from and why they got into the business to begin with. Ultimately, it all comes down to making good music.
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