Pumpkin James Iha: A Smashing Success May 6, 1994

SAN FRANCISCO -- As he sauntered onto the stage at the newly-renovated and legendary Fillmore Theater on the night of April 27 to claim his rightful place -- stage right -- James Iha must have been mentally and physically drained. The Japanese American strapped on his guitar and, for the next hour and a half, did his best to distance himself from an audience which had waited in anticipation and exasperation -- for a good three and a half hours since the start of this grand reopening gala -- for Iha and the rest of the Smashing Pumpkins to exorcise their demons.

Catharsis is the Smashing Pumpkins' middle name. The alternative rock foursome -- considerably unalternative since they've manage to turn double platinum (over 2 million copies sold) with their major-label album debut, the 1993 sonic pop-nightmare "Siamese Dream" -- is dysfunction incarnate. It is shocking yet marvelously rapturous to see and hear such joyful pyrotechnics emanating from a guitar-heavy band which has reached rock `n' roll heaven the hard way, and can now do pretty much whatever it pleases.

On that night at the Fillmore, however, the Pumpkins failed to reach their potential, churning out songs from their playlist as though it were a chore. The elation and power which were so evident during a tour date in San Francisco late last year were noticeably absent. The Smashing Pumpkins did not care, either -- this was their last show of an exhaustive world tour.

So what if they were the privileged artists chosen to usher in the latest chapter at the historic Fillmore, a place that Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead, among others helped shape into a San Francisco institution. These, after all, are the venerable Smashing Pumpkins, who sit inside the penthouse of the alternative music skyscraper. (They were actually selected after other artists, including Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, had conflicting schedules.)

It can be safely assumed that Iha and his band mates will be spending a good amount of time relaxing between now and the beginning of Lollapalooza '94, of which they will be headlining this summer at a suburb near you. The Pumpkins, including Iha, are currently not granting interviews with the media, perhaps partly in response to a tell-all cover story in a recent issue of Rolling Stone.

In that article, Iha, the youngest band member at 25, was portrayed as a shy Robin to Pumpkin ringleader Billy Corgan's Batman. Although little doubt exists that Smashing Pumpkins is primarily Corgan's outfit, Iha also performs songwriting duties ("Mayonnaise" and "Soma," the latter featuring R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills on piano, are testament to Iha's promise). Nevertheless, the crux of the Rolling Stone feature centers on Corgan, who comes off as a control freak.

"My reputation as a tyrant, Svengali, asshole, there's truth in that, " Corgan is quoted as saying. "Where the discrepancies come in is why. I took a drummer [Jimmy Chamberlain] who didn't even know what alternative music was and took two people [Iha and bassist D'Arcy] who could barely play their instruments and made a band. That's not to say they didn't do anything, but I created something beyond the sum of its parts."

The article goes on to paint Iha, who grew up in a middle-class suburban Chicago neighborhood, as a budding star waiting to bust out of his shell. "Sometimes I write lists that say: 1. Work on band songs. 2. Work on James' songs."

Tensions within the band are almost too obvious. The group virtually thrives on it. A definitive Pumpkin punk 'n' roll tune lulls the listener with its quiet grace before viciously slapping him or her with the rage and thunder of an electrical storm. It is this push-and-pull, soft-then-loud formula which provides Smashing Pumpkins its magic which sells millions.

At the Fillmore show, Corgan shared with the throng this not-so-secret revelation: "We only have one rule: we don't take requests. We are not a bar band."

Having alienated his audience, Corgan and crew then launched into yet another musical maelstrom. Judging by the riotous yet gleeful nature of the pit, the moshers were quick to forgive and forget.

The band's now-classic 1991 independent album "Gish" (on Caroline Records) has sold a remarkable 300,000-plus copies and counting. Before long, they were being hailed as "The Next Nirvana" and rock's greatest hope. With the death of Kurt Cobain and the runaway success of "Siamese Dream," they may assume that mantle sooner than they would have liked. That is, provided they can stay together.

The Smashing Pumpkins epitomize a band whose fabric is frayed at the edges. Corgan enjoys wielding his whip. Iha, who was romantically linked to D'Arcy during the early stages of the band, could infringe upon Corgan's authority at any given moment. Drummer Chamberlain, who takes no guff from anyone, has been known to fall off the wagon and recently completed alcohol treatment. If ever there was a band just waiting to break up, they're it.

Yet perseverance has proven a worthy trademark, and nowhere in time has Pumpkin fever hit so dramatically as the present. Angst and tension, showcased by both the band's conflicting personalities and their songs, make them stand out. Chances are we'll be hearing from Iha and the rest of Smashing Pumpkins for quite some time. Stay tuned.