"Live" Magazine - 1996
leader Billy Corgan has a whole five days off from rock stardom. Between
endless touring and recording, he's returned to his century-old home in
Chicago, where ancient wood beams lace the living room ceiling, built-in wood
cabinets line the walls and an intricately molded fireplace adorns the dining
room. A long window of curved glass sheds opaque light across a baby grand
piano, the one Corgan used to kick off the Pumpkins' most recent album, Mellon
Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and gives the rest of the room's antique
furniture a warm glow. A framed snapshot of Corgan and his wife, Chris Fabian,
during their long-haired-rocker phase, is displayed on a hall bureau amid a
collection of prewar photos, while the couple's two black cats, Thelonious and
Lily, play on flowery throw rugs. Even the steam heaters in this five-bedroom
house are beautifully ornate.
But Corgan's not relaxing on the silky, pale-green couch, or even shuffling across the polished wood floors to the pantry for Fritos. Instead, he has ascended the creaky, winding staircase to the dingiest room in the house, his studio. In contrast, it looks like the sad back lot of a lush movie set-complete with '70s-style burnt-sienna carpet, dreary floral curtains and beige walls. Discarded bubble wrap litters the floor. The 6'3" singer sits hunched over an acoustic guitar on a stool in the
middle of the room. He's wearing the same clothes he had on yesterday-black pants, black polyester shirt and a pair of saggy black socks-and is working on an eerily sad song. The studio equipment surrounding him registers the guitar strums in a series of lights and twitching needles, which cease when Corgan interrupts the dreamy melodies with a frustrated "F---!"
"All this equipment, and I still can't think of anything to write," says Corgan, who spills the phrase as if it were a familiar one. After all, it is here that the lanky and often awkward 29-year-old transforms his own battles with ugliness and beauty into the stuff that makes the Smashing Pumpkins' songs fly. But for music fans, it's the exploration of these two extremes that has transformed Corgan and the Pumpkins-guitarist James Iha, bassist D'arcy Wretzky (who goes by her first name professionally) and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin-from alternative-rock outcasts into rulers of the rock world.
"Looking back on my 20s, which is basically what the Pumpkins have consumed, I'm really happy I did what my heart wanted to do," says Corgan, whose pale studio sheen is offset by the patchy, fine razor stubble associated with puberty. "My whole thing up until this point was to take what I liked about rock and put my '91- '96 spin on it, whatever that constitutes...this generation, whatever. It's not really been rocket science beyond that. I just wanted to kick people's asses on stage, hear my song on the radio and feel my blood race from the intensity of it. Despite all my sophisticated ramblings, I just wanted to rock."
Corgan achieved his goal. It's nearly impossible to escape the band's video for the song "1979," off of Mellon Collie, or to miss hearing singles like "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" blaring out of teenage-manned radios everywhere. But back when Guns N' Roses still ruled the charts, Smashing Pumpkins was just making ripples with its independent debut, Gish, a swirling collection of decadent FM grooves, amazing guitar work and raw emotion. It proved that guitar rock didn't have to be brainless while indie music didn't have to cop an attitude. The album's follow-up, Siamese Dream, blew those same sounds and sentiments up to stadium size and made the Smashing Pumpkins stars who would go on to headline the Lollapalooza festival and release a multiplatinum double album. It seemed
the Pumpkins conquered every problem they faced.
But through it all, Corgan and company struggled to keep the music's volume cranked higher than the talk about their personal calamities. The band battled romantic breakups (D'arcy and Iha) drug addictions (Chamberlain) and nervous breakdowns (Corgan), all under the scrutiny of adoring fans and probing reporters. Corgan's quest for perfection, coupled with his thin skin (and there was plenty of criticism, from early comments on his music's derivativeness to accounts of his dictator-like behavior), turned music-making into a one-man battle against a seemingly cruel world. At times, it seemed the world was winning.
But now, with the continued success of Mellon Collie and the Pumpkins, Corgan conveys the sense that he's finally proved himself. "I feel a lot happier than I have in the past," says Corgan, who speaks in quiet tones and lets out such subdued laughs, they sound like sighs. "All those doubts I had about myself along the way-like maybe I'm crazy, maybe the world is right, maybe I don't have integrity-have not been crazed, but now I think I'm not so bad, and the Pumpkins have done a lot. Even bigger than that is that these four people who were complete strangers came together for that one idea, hung together for more than nine years and really made something of it. We've achieved a lot for being poor people from the Midwest."
Corgan now lives in the neighborhood of Wrigleyville, an hour south of his childhood home in the working-class suburb of Glendale Heights and just half a mile from baseball's Wrigley Field. It's also mere blocks from the club circuit where the Pumpkins initially converged-Iha coming from the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove, Chamberlin from the small town of Joliet and D'arcy from South Haven, Michigan, a suburb of Kalamazoo. Ironically, the Pumpkins' music is now most popular in these very environments they sought to escape.
"I came from suburban boredom," explains Corgan, whose big blue eyes rarely make contact. "I wasn't attractive, I didn't have an exciting life. So instead of taking the 'I'm cool, I hope you adore me' path [with my music], I chose the path of how to connect. I think that's the reason a lot of people feel a deeper connection with our band than other bands, and I also feel that's why people polarize on us. If you don't get it, it seems preposterous; if you do get it, it's really heavy-it has a weight to it. It's like if you get a card from someone you really like and it says, 'You have beautiful eyes. I love you,' it means something, but if it comes from someone you don't like, it doesn't mean much."
While songs like "Geek U.S.A." from Siamese Dream and railing lyrics like "Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage" from Mellon Collie connect with fans, Corgan and his music are not all sweetly sad and angst-ridden. It's a mesh of emotions that makes the Pumpkins' music three-dimensional. Clues to other parts of Corgan's personality may be found in the glimmering idealism of grandiose songs like "Today" or in the bursts of pompous noise and grating abrasiveness throughout all three albums. "There's a really a cold, cold side to my personality that I'm not really comfortable with," he says. "I'm constantly dealing with that side of my personality versus my overly sentimental side. It's a constant battle with trying and not check out, I guess. There's just a side that's a real motherf---er side;
it's nothing I want to admit or even look at. It's where a lot of my strength lies. It's been the part of me that's been able to steel my spine against situations that probably would have broken a lot of people, or caused them to jump off the Loop.'
William Patrick Corgan's childhood was a tumultuous one. His parents had him when they were 19, his father, a blues-rock musician, was on the road for most of Billy's childhood. His mother, a housewife, ended up giving her three-year-old son to his great-grandmother, who eventually shuffled him over to his paternal grandmother, who soon passed him off on his other grandmother. He was finally deposited back with his father, who had since divorced and remarried. Billy lived with the couple until they divorced two years later and, remarkably, ended up staying with his stepmother for much of his youth, even though both his natural parents lived within a one-mile radius. (He did have one younger brother and two stepbrothers, the youngest of whom was born with a disability; Corgan wrote Siamese Dream's ultrasweet 'Spaceboy' for him.)
Corgan told Rolling Stone last year that his childhood definitely distorted his concept of what love is. "I grew up with my stepmother. My parents were nowhere to be found. There's no getting around that. It definitely makes you go, 'What is love?' They say they love me; love me means don't live with me. I don't understand.
As for music, he grew up listening to his step mom's albums by the Temptations, the Yardbirds, and Stevie Wonder while simultaneously listening to Top 40 bands like Chicago's own Cheap Trick and Earth, Wind, & Fire. He later discovered Black Sabbath, which he notes as one of his biggest influences. The shy Corgan stayed home a lot and read before discovering guitar at age 15. After practicing to become the 'world's best guitarist,' the honor student opted for a career in rock 'n' roll over college.
"I used music as an excuse [not to go to college], but the biggest factor was that I absolutely hated high school," he says. "I absolutely hated it. I thought it was this weird biosphere of envy and meanness and jealousy. I went to visit a couple of friends at the University of Illinois. I looked around and thought it's high school times 10. It was also around the time when I started getting weird haircuts and thought I was Mr. Alternative. I thought, I cannot handle this. There's no way."
Corgan began practicing guitar every night, inspired by the brilliance of Jimi Hendrix and supported by his earnings as a -delivery boy. "When I graduated high school, I thought I'd take on the world, be famous in two years, and next thing you know I was, like 'Sorry your pizza's cold, Mr. Johnson." He started his first real band, the Marked (named after the long birthmark on his right arm and hand), in 1986, relocated the band to Florida, came back to Chicago 20 gigs later and broke it up.
After two years of heavy-duty practicing, Corgan started the Pumpkins with Iha, whom he met through the local club scene. He found D'arcy and Chamberlin shortly thereafter. The band played around in small places like Avalon and Cabaret Metro and by its fourth show landed a spot opening for Jane's Addiction. The Pumpkins went on to release "Tristessa" in 1990 on the independent Seattle label Sub Pop, early home of Soundgarden and Nirvana, a bit of history that would later cause numerous Cobain vs. Corgan comparisons. The scratchy piece of acid rock led to a contract with the larger indie label Caroline and also sparked a major-label interest.
By the time the band released Gish in 1991, it was already contracted to put its next album out on major label Virgin Records, which caused murmurs of sellout throughout the more puritanical factions of the indie world and gave Corgan his first taste of real criticism. It would also contribute to the nervous breakdown he experienced between albums, one that he felt was caused by the high expectations the band was saddled with. Despite turmoil within Corgan and the band, the Pumpkins managed to contribute the song "Drown" to the Singles soundtrack alongside Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and former Replacements front man Paul Westerberg before finally releasing Siamese Dream in the summer of '93. The album made it into Billboard's top 10, and the mainstream success proved both overwhelming and validating for Corgan. The following year the Pumpkins released Pisces Iscariot, a less polished collection of rare B sides and singles, then played Lollapalooza that summer before releasing Mellon Collie in 1995.
Corgan has taken a break from the studio and is sitting inside a quaint coffee-house just a few blocks from his home. He sits in the window like a display, and though the waiter and a few pedestrians obviously recognize him, they try their best not to let on. Huddled over a bowl of French onion soup-minus the cheese and bread-he makes the little table look like a tea set. Corgan says he's eating light today so as not to spoil dinner with his mom later in the day.
The singer is using much of his five days off to visit with his family, who still live in the area. Though closer than ever to his father and mother, the effects of his unstable childhood still shadow their relations and even spill over into his music. Lyrics from Mellon Collie such as "Bastard son of a bastard son" reflect the paternal disconnection Corgan still feels, while other lines- "Intoxicated with the madness, I'm in love with my sadness" - reveal the all-around emptiness his life has often consisted of.
"I've thought many times, 'I can't write this,' but on my own little planet I found the courage to write it because it was true," says Corgan. "I put aside fear of Father being angry with me. It's hard though; the world pales in comparison with the stature of a parent. In some small-consolation way, my parents feel I'm helping people by giving them something to identify with. They feel proud in a sort of reverse way. My mom's proud of the fact that lots of kids look up to me."
Lollapalooza was a good example of the loyalty and adoration fans feel for the Pumpkins. Most stayed the entire 10-hour festival in sweltering heat to watch the headlining band. But it turned out to be a frustrating experience for Corgan: While the Pumpkins had become infamous for good sets, Corgan had become notorious for telling chattering audience members to shut up and even for walking off stage. "It's that other beast," explains Corgan. "I've had to learn how to control the beast, my everyday life versus my personality on-stage. On-stage: more masculine, more aggressive, more sexual, more stupid. The only way I can describe it is imagine tremendous, sustained adrenaline for, like, an hour and a half. I walk off stage sometimes and I could punch a hole in somebody. There are weird moments of clarity, though, where I'm on-stage and think, 'Oh my God. All of these people are looking at me,' but 95 percent of the time, I'm not thinking that. It's the other way around. 'These people should be looking at us.' You need that weird superpower thing to make it work."
Just then a nervous fan spots Corgan from the street outside and sheepishly approaches to ask for an autograph. Corgan obliges and strikes up a conversation with the guest, who is too busy apologizing for his interruption to hear what the singer is saying. Corgan smiles as the fan leaves, "Now you have it on record for posterity."
"So do I want to go out there and battle it out with fakers? Though we're only talking about 1992, four years ago I was battling it out with people I really respected. There was certainly a bickering kind of aspect, but I was competing against elements I respected. It was like, 'Can I keep up with big game?' Now I know I can. I don't mean to sound snotty but it's like picking up a copy of Frampton Comes Alive and thinking, 'How come I never listen to this anymore?' I think a lot of those records are gonna elicit the same response 20 years from now."
Corgan needs a new challenge. His remedy is to take an entirely different direction in music, leaving guitar rock for the still wide-open field of electronic music.
"A lot of people are taking this as the end of the Smashing Pumpkins, but that's not what I'm trying to say," he explains. "They don't understand the subtlety of it. I think all bands, especially the successful ones, reach a point where you have to go in a different direction.
The climate around the Pumpkins has changed drastically since its inception. The band started in a time when groups like Nirvana would never have had a chance to crack the mainstream, let alone become the decade's biggest band. Now every other band co-opts the Nirvana sound to make it big.
To Corgan it's like resurrecting a body without the soul. "It's hard when I see people openly embrace imitative forms of music that only three or four years ago were pure forms of music or you just end up watering down what was initially a good idea. I've been working toward the same goal for seven years.
Having reached it, I need new goals. I can't continue to break down the doors of rock n' roll when I don't really care too much anymore."
Corgan takes a dainty purple tin from his pocket and plucks out a lavender pastille candy. "So much has happened in such a short period of time," he says. "It makes me feel old, and I'm not that old. There are so many paths and decisions. I look forward to trying to carve out new ground. We thought 'Break up the band,' 'Change the name,' blah, blah, blah. But it will always be the Smashing Pumpkins. Maybe it'll piss off the first batch of fans, but we'll just get new ones. The Pumpkins have always walked on rock. I'm happy to now veer off in another direction and to live or die by it."