Band shuns 'tragic' label

USA Today Feb 1997 - By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY

(Sent to us by Joshua Hoffman)

NEW YORK - Despite a backlog of stunning achievements, the Smashing Pumpkins can't escape notoriety as rock's dysfunctional poster children, marinating in misery and dogged by misfortune. For rock mythologists who equate tragedy with trendiness, the band's reputation may seem desirable, even contrived. That's not how the Pumpkins see it.

"We are a success story," stresses Billy Corgan, sipping hot tea with his girlfriend at the bohemian Pink Pony downtown. "We succeeded on our own terms despite tragedy. Yet while we were on tour, the headline in every city was: 'Tragedy-filled Pumpkins roll into town.' I constantly meet fans who are puzzled by the way the band is portrayed."

The singer/songwriter, 29, may be mercurial, controlling, cocky and dangerously candid, but he's no tortured slacker, in spite of setbacks. The latest was the 1996 firing of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin after a heroin arrest and the drug death of guest keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin. The Pumpkins canceled shows but soon resumed a 100-date tour with interim replacements.

Corgan and his band mates, bassist D'Arcy and guitarist James Iha, feel triumphant, not defeated, as they head to the 39th Grammy Awards, 8 p.m. ET/PT Wednesday night on CBS. Their seven nominations are the culmination of a steady, determined climb since the 1995 release of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The 28-track set (still on Billboard's chart after 69 weeks) yielded five hit singles and sold more than 8 million copies. With a fraction of the hype and marketing clout, it easily eclipsed Michael Jackson's HIStory to become the best-selling double album of the '90s.

Little wonder that the Pumpkins were dubbed 1996's artist of the year by Rolling Stone and best band by Spin. Last fall, they captured seven MTV awards and sold out the initial shipment (200,000) of The Aeroplane Flies High, a boxed set of 33 singles, covers and B-sides. Do these sound like the accomplishments of fashionably depressed misfits?

"I don't see how a dysfunctional band could release 80 songs in five years," Corgan says, adding slyly, "For a 6-foot-3 guy with no hair and a whiny voice, I've done all right."

Mellon Collie impressed critics with its sprawling ornate pop, balladry, stinging rock and lush symphonics, overlaid by Corgan's confessional lyrics.

"Even people who think the band is full of itself or that Billy is a little bratty have to acknowledge that the Smashing Pumpkins know how to write a song and take chances," says Philadelphia Inquirer music critic Tom Moon, who compares the Pumpkins' recent creative outpouring to Stevie Wonder's flowering in the early '70s. "Billy generated a ton of music on Mellon Collie, and the outtakes (in Aeroplane) are every bit as strong.

"But he's always looking ahead. In his mind, he's moved on. He's expressed interest in Beck, collage stuff and dance rhythms, music not organized by chordal guitar playing."

If there is a black cloud hovering overhead, it's their image as jinxed victims. Corgan's brooding songs of suburban ennui and youthful frustration fed that notion, as did widely publicized incidents of personal turmoil and band infighting.

The capper was the nightmarish drug scandal on the eve of the Pumpkins' two sold-out shows in Madison Square Garden. In the predawn hours of July 12, Melvoin was found dead of a heroin overdose after he and Chamberlin, a chronic drug and alcohol abuser, had injected a potent strain called Red Rum. Chamberlin was arrested for heroin possession and later fired, a decision the band termed "devastating" but unavoidable.

"We fired the guy to save his life," Corgan says. "We could not continue thinking, 'Hmmm, maybe he'll get better.' We were criticized for being intolerant and not helping Jimmy when he needed us most. Believe me, the guy couldn't have had any more chances. He used up all his chances plus five. For everyone's safety and mental health stability, we had to part company."

Chamberlin, who pleaded guilty Oct. 8 to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct, completed drug rehab in December and began playing in the Last Hard Men with the Breeders' Kelley Deal and Skid Row's Sebastian Bach.

Jimmy "worked hard and just blew it all," Corgan says. "He was the only drummer we ever played with. He knew what the band meant and should have known what he was toying with and sacrificing. He didn't make a gracious exit, and he opened our lives to more scrutiny. He did a great disservice to us and the fans.

"But that's an angry reaction," he adds wearily. He and Chamberlin have not spoken since July. "It would be pointless. The only thing that matters is that Jonathan died and Jimmy almost died. Thank God he's alive."

Melvoin's death reignited debate about how to combat drugs in the rock world. The traditionally apolitical Pumpkins declined to take a position.

"Drug use is not a rock 'n' roll problem," Corgan says. "It's an American problem, like homelessness and AIDS."

The Pumpkins enlisted Filter drummer Matt Walker to complete the tour but are undecided about hiring him, or anyone, permanently.

"Matt is a good fit, probably better than our old drummer," Corgan says. "We're just very cautious. We want to be sure we know what we're doing, and he knows what he's getting into. Joining the Pumpkins is a life-changing decision."

And ever-changing. The band ended its recent tour in New Orleans by retiring signature tunes like Disarm and Today because time has diminished their emotional punch. It's another brave shift for a band whose unpredictability has thrilled and vexed fans.

After forming in 1988, the Chicago-based Pumpkins emerged with the crude sonic textures of 1991 debut Gish, then radically detoured into quirky pop on 1993's Siamese Dream. The sweeping Mellon Collie visited several genres and hinted at a fresh direction in the simmering 1979. New song Eye, the radio-favored track on the Lost Highway soundtrack, signals the Pumpkins' move toward electronica.

"The idea is to reconfigure the focus and get away from the classic guitars-bass-drum rock format," Corgan says. "We're in our late 20s; we've done our rock 'n' roll thing. We want to be innovators and stay on the vanguard. That's why the band was formed, to always be out front on a dangerous edge, taking chances."

That stance has risked fan loyalty. Corgan says he feels indebted to longtime fans who fueled his confidence, but he owes his public only integrity and quality, not nostalgia and comforting redundancy.

"I've definitely tested their patience, but that's the idea," he says. "If you're not offending someone, you're making a mistake."

The boredom and pain Corgan funnels into songs like Zero ("Intoxicated with the madness/ I'm in love with my sadness") and Muzzle ("I fear that I am ordinary") clearly stir Gen-X listeners, even those who wonder what a rich rock star has to complain about.

"Money doesn't hold my hand when someone passes away," says Corgan, distraught over his mother's death recently. "Success has nothing to do with my opinions as a human being. We connect because we're not writing from some mount. We're not in some whiskey daze. We're from the suburbs, OK?"

Weaned on '70s bands like Cheap Trick and the Cars, Corgan admits he's less excited about music than he was in his garage-band teens.

"The kiddie rush is not the same, but my respect for the music is tenfold," he says. "Wisdom replaced naivete. Do I believe rock 'n' roll will save the world? Absolutely not."

Yet his devotion to music borders on religious zeal. He has completed demos for the Batman soundtrack and recorded eight songs for two albums the band will construct simultaneously: one acoustic, the other electronic-charged rock. He's also planning a side project with Marilyn Manson and former Nine Inch Nails drummer Chris Vrenna. And he'll produce records by friends Ric Ocasek and Stevie Nicks. Already carving their place in the next millennium, the Pumpkins are plotting four albums over five years.

"I don't think I've ever been this busy," Corgan says. "Music is 99% of my life. But I know I need a break. Besides, if you give people too much, they start to not want it. We need to restrain ourselves."

Indeed, unstoppable success might puncture the Pumpkins' dark myth. Tragic, isn't it?

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