Who Are the Smashing Pumpkins?
The Smashing Pumpkins
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was released in 1995 with a fanfare of singles, and the first, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” represents perfectly what’s great about and wrong with the Smashing Pumpkins and, specifically, Billy Corgan’s songwriting. Though it’s possible to get over the lyric that opens the song—“The world is a vampire, sent to drain”—it’s much more difficult to keep from snickering at the refrain: “despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.” But then there’s the music, terrific music, angry and high energy, taking odd, smart turns, and the rest of the lyrics, they’re quite good, not about teenage rebellion or corporate oppression but about damnation, real, honest-to-goodness, damnation:
Jesus was an only son
tell me I’m the chosen one
Jesus was an only son for you
despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage
and I still believe that I cannot be saved.
Thus ends the song. And so to open the song with blood and the notion of a world designed to endlessly trap its inhabitants makes sense, and its only too bad Corgan chose such a goofy expression for this complex idea, just as it’s too bad he chose to use the awkward “despite” and the rage / cage rhyme and the unimaginative image of man as a rat. Here, Corgan’s great solemnity switched off his internal critic.
Whereas “Thirty-Three,” the last of the Mellon Collie singles, is perfect, a lovely, sad and eerie song. After writing a very negative (and silly) review of Mellon Collie for my college paper, I finally heard “Thirty-Three” and was in the right (dark) mental place for it. And then—
And then I dreamed that Billy Corgan and I were out for a walk together, on our way to a gig, having an enjoyable conversation. (Contrary to Corgan’s public persona, he’s a pleasure.) So, finding myself in astral contact with Corgan and completely taken with “Thirty-Three,” I went out and (sheepishly) bought a copy of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (my review copy stolen), and I listened to the album, and I found that ultimately, it’s an excellent album. Which is remarkable, if only because with twenty-eight tracks (or thirty, if you purchased the album on vinyl) there’s room for filler and yet there isn’t any.
Shortly after the release of Mellon Collie a box set of Mellon Collie EPs called The Aeroplane Flies High was released. This set added fifteen Corgan-penned tracks to the Mellon Collie oeuvre, all album worthy, with a few—the title track, for example, being as good as the best of The Smashing Pumpkins.
Jimmy Chamberlin, the drummer, was fired from the group before the single “Thirty-Three” was released, a decision made after he and touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin overdosed on heroin (Melvoin died, Chamberlin was arrested). This left James Iha, guitarist and songwriter (overshadowed but not really underappreciated), D’arcy Wretzky, the bassist, and Corgan to carry on as The Smashing Pumpkins.
Corgan has written songs with melodies Paul McCartney might admire, he’s written guitar riffs as powerful and air-guitar-able as the best by Led Zepplin, his singing is weird, in the way Ozzy Osbourne’s was in the early days of Black Sabbath—though his singing is much, much better than Ozzy, and Crogan’s lyrics—when they aren’t silly—which mostly they aren’t—serve the music and steadfastly, solemnly, explore Corgan’s preoccupations (his sadness, his anger, loss, and his relationship with God). The only other member of the Pumpkins who matters as much to the sound of the band is Chamberlin. His drumming is powerful and complex. Once you notice his drumming, you hear it all the time.
The Smashing Pumpkins as internally troubled is part of the band’s persona. Apparently, everyone got along just fine during the making of Gish, their first album. Wretzky contributed vocals and Iha is given co-writing credit for “I Am One.” Their next album, Siamese Dream, comes with the story that Corgan rerecorded Wretsky and Iha’s parts. This story is told to illustrate either that Corgan is The Smashing Pumpkins and/or that Corgan is an egomaniac. The story may be true, it could be true, and true to form, Corgan doesn’t ever really say when asked. Probably it’s partially true. Or maybe not. Pumpkins fans like that story, they like the idea of a band that fights and fights and fights, and then cuts a great track in the studio, and then goes back to fighting. Pumpkins fans like their band to be miserable.
Between Mellon Collie and the next album, Adore, the remaining Pumpkins released a number of excellent singles. “Eye” from the Lost Highway soundtrack, is built on an electronic beat; the song diptych “The End is the Beginning is the End” and “The Beginning is the End is the Beginning” from the Batman and Robin soundtrack, features session drummer Matt Walker. Both releases represented successful ways to deal with Chamberlin’s absence; both drum machines and Matt Walker feature on Adore.
In spite of its flaws, or likely because of them, and because of the moments that are perfect, of which there are many, Adore is my favorite Pumpkins album, or at least I’d say so if you asked, which is not necessarily to recommend it ahead of any of the other albums.
Adore is a sullen, misfit Pumpkins album. Even the anger that’s potently a part of Adore is muted. The first single, “Ava Adore,” works on a similar electronic beat as “Eye,” and, though it is a seething song, it never rocks the way “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” rocks (and “Bullet…” isn’t even the hardest track on Mellon Collie). On Adore, Corgan runs into trouble as a songwriter because no matter how ironic his pose—the t-shirt with “Zero” written across the chest—there’s no irony in his writing. He doesn’t write tricky lyrics, either, or witty or oddball. He has a sense of humor, but that only manifests itself as whimsy (such as the song “Lily” from Mellon Collie, which is a sweet pastiche of the kind of song my grandparents might have played on a phonograph, like The Beatles’ “Honey Pie.” Again, his lyrics are serious all of the time and sometimes he’s so engrossed in his seriousness he doesn’t realize when he’s taken himself too seriously. Generally speaking, this seriousness works on Adore. Generally speaking, the lyrics on Adore are among Corgan’s best. From “Ava Adore”:
drinking mercury to the mystery
of all that you should ever seek to find
lovely girl you’re the murder in my world
dressing coffins for the souls I’ve left behind….
And here, from “Blank Page”:
Blank page was all the rage
never meant to say anything
in bed I was half dead
tired of dreaming of rest….
Mind, these are song lyrics, not lines of poetry; they are incomplete until coupled with music and voice, and that music and voice is Corgan’s. And I get the sense that Adore is a solo album, in a way Siamese Dream couldn’t be, even if Corgan did rerecord the bass and guitar parts.
And so the question who is The Smashing Pumpkins arises again. After Adore, Chamberlin rejoined the band. The marketing campaign for Machina: the Machines of God made a lot of this reunion, The Smashing Pumpkins are whole again! and Machina sounds more like a Pumpkins album than Adore, but only sort of, in fact, not much like a Pumpkins album at all. Louder than Adore, absolutely, and perhaps that’s what fooled people, but it’s kinda sloggy, and, in spite of some heavy tracks, more like Adore than Mellon Collie.
Upon the release of Machina, Wretsky quit the band, and so once again The Smashing Pumpkins were a trio.
And then the band announced that the Machina tour was it, their Greatest Hits was released, and that was the end of The Smashing Pumpkins.
Zeitgeist is the new Smashing Pumpkins album, and The Smashing Pumpkins are Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin. Prior to the release of Zeitgeist, there was some wishful talk about Iha and Wretsky being involved, and when they declined, some talk of other musicians being recruited to fill in for them but, instead, the liner notes for Zeitgeist read, “songs by William Patrick Corgan performed artfully by Jimmy Chamberlin, drums, Billy Corgan, all the rest.”
Disk two of Greatest Hits opens with “Lucky 13,” a B-side from an unreleased single from the unreleased Machina: the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music (the story behind these unreleased songs is elaborate and wonderful, involving a wicked record company (Virgin), a spited Billy Corgan, a pressing of just 25 copies of the unreleased songs, and dutiful fans using the Internet as a means of distribution). “Lucky 13” begins with Chamberlin pummeling the drums, joined by Corgan’s heavy guitar riff, and that’s exactly how “Doomsday Clock,” the first track on Zeitgeist, begins. An excellent, pleasing opener. The fear that Zeitgeist would fail began to melt, and beneath that goo, which was why did they have to call themselves The Smashing Pumpkins, was that this Smashing Pumpkins was gonna be all right.
Between Machina and Zeitgeist, Corgan wrote songs with Chamberlin and three others (David Pajo, Matt Sweeney, and Paz Lenchantin) under the name Zwan. Mary Star of the Sea, Zwan’s only album, doesn’t sound like a Smashing Pumpkins album; writing for Zwan clearly freed Corgan to try something un-Pumpkin-like. The music is generally upbeat, and even though many of the lyrics are dark, many are sweet or playfull, such as “What ever I can do I will / ‘cause I’m good like that” a line from “Settle Down” or this, the opening verse from “Baby, Let’s Rock”:
Baby, I’m the greatest thing you’ve got
in a good way I suppose
exactly where you are is where I’m not
so from a lead balloon inside your room
I’ll drop sparks
you can kick, you can cry, you can fuss
but let’s rock.
I was sorry when Zwan imploaded (it was as if they decided to fit a decade’s worth of in-fighting into a year, or, more likely, Corgan ran from what he forsaw as another decade’s worth of in-fighting). Mary Star of the Sea is an excellent album, and you should rescue it from the bargain bin it so unjustly resides in, and you should hope that the other dozen or more songs Corgan wrote for Zwan will surface in one form or another.
After Zwan, Corgan recorded The Future Embrace, a solo album that’s hard to like, not because it’s bad—it isn’t—but because it’s unrelentingly down. Strongly influenced by The Cure circa Pornography (and featuring Robert Smith’s vocals on “To Love Somebody”), the album lacks the passion that makes Pornography such a success. Individually, most of the songs do work well, especially “To Love Somebody” and “Now (And Then),” but taken as a whole, the album’s a bit of a bore.
Zeitgeist picks up where Machina left off, advances those musical ideas and—to the album’s benefit—incorporates what Corgan developed with Zwan and for The Future Embrace.
The songs that offer the most immediate satisfaction are those that rock the hardest: “Doomsday Clock,” “Shades of Black,” “Tarantula,” “United States,” etc. These songs are as heavy as the Pumpkins get, and show how much Corgan learned obsessing over his Black Sabbath records. In fact, “United States” could be a Black Sabbath song, is strongly reminicent of “War Pigs,” though Corgan’s lyrics are slightly (ahem) more sophisticated. Tracks such as “(Come On) Let’s Go!” and “That’s the Way (My Love Is)” would have fit nicely on Mary Star of the Sea. “Starz” is an odd track worth mention; it features some especially spectacular drumming by Chamberlin and goes from hard rock verses to a weird march-like chorus. But the most unique (and a favorite) track on the album is the last. With “Pomp and Circumstances,” built on the best songwriting ideas from The Future Embrace, Corgan has written a song worthy of The Cure, but has added to the mix guitar work reminicent of Prince.
Song titles such as “United States” and “For God and Country,” along with the cover art (by Shepard Fairey, best known for his “Obey” posters) and the booklet photos (Death, scythe in hand, behind a podium with the Presidential Seal; Paris Hilton posing, a soldier, etc.), suggested that Zeitgeist would be a strongly political album, but—to my relief—it’s not. At least, not in a way specific to 2007; the song lyrics are general enough to stay relevant, even after we either save the Earth from melting or move off this festering planet and terraform Mars.
Cynics have called Corgan’s use of the name The Smashing Pumpkins an attempt to cash in on a marketable brand, having failed at his solo bid, but Zeitgeist has too much integrity to be so dismissed. We’ll know for sure just how sincere Corgan is when there’s another new Smashing Pumpkins album, and there will be. Corgan is writing like mad, as he always does. Already, YouTube bootleg videos of new songs are in the world—the 20 minute “Gossamer,” for example—and a half dozen b-sides and bonus tracks have been released too.
Shortly after the release of Zeitgeist, touring musicians Ginger Reyes (bass), Jeff Schroeder (guiter) and Lisa Harriton (keyboard) were officially made members of the band, answering, at least in a literal sense, who The Smashing Pumpkins are. This will make the liner notes easier to write, but doesn’t really answer the question. Next time I see Corgan in a dream, I’ll ask him, but till then, here’s my answer: The Smashing Pumpkins is the pen name Corgan is most comfortable with, it’s a way for Corgan to not write as William Patrick Corgan, but as something larger, that carries with it expectatrions which serve to guide and to generate frission. So long as this leads to good music, The Smashing Pumpkins can be whatever.
Adam Golaski is a regular contributor of critical essays to All Hallows. His essay “Remembering Charles L. Grant and Shadows” will appear in the upcoming issue of Supernatural Tales, and his reviews have appeared online at cutbankpoetry.blogspot.com and wordforword.info. His fiction and poetry have been published in a number of journals, including: Lit, American Letters & Commentary, Web Conjunctions, and McSweeney’s. He edits New Genre, a journal of science and horror fiction, and edits for Flim Forum, a press devoted to publishing experimental contemporary poetry. He teaches American literature at St. Joseph College in Hartford, CT.