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November 2, 1996, 11:00 pm

Source: The Sunday Patriot

Greg Kot. The Sunday Patriot - News. Harrisburg, Pa.: Nov 3, 1996. pg. E.1

NEW YORK it should have been a year of triumph, but instead it's turned into a soap opera.

Only difference is, this is a soap opera populated not with second-rate actors but with the four musicians in the Smashing Pumpkins who had worked eight years to achieve a level of success most rock bands can only dream about.

They had sold more than 7 million copies of their 1995 release "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" the most commercially successful double CD in rock history and then watched it all nearly come apart on a summer morning in New York City.

Instead of falling apart, however, the Pumpkins came together. On their newly resurrected North American tour the Pumpkins are reaffirming that they are still a mighty rock band, and their bittersweet music resonates with new meaning because of the price that was paid to keep on playing it.

That North American tour will bring the resurrected Pumpkins to State College's Bryce Jordan Center Friday at 7:30 p.m. for a sold-out show with special guest Garbage.

Backstage at Madison Square Garden several weeks ago in the Pumpkins' paisley-draped dressing room, singer-guitarist Billy Corgan and bassist D'Arcy find themselves back in the place they should have been on July 12 and the memory still haunts.

"We were extremely excited about playing here the first time around," says the shaven-headed Corgan, dressed in brown pants and a black knit shirt a few hours before changing into his stage outfit. "But today, I have to admit that it feels slightly ominous."

Corgan, normally not a man short for words, lets the conversation fade into silence as he sips from a bottle of mineral water, his eyes drilling holes in the carpet.

D'Arcy shivers. She drapes a zebra-striped jacket over her slender, bare shoulders, and adds quietly, "I'm a bit paranoid about coming back to this place."

It has been slightly more than two months since the Pumpkins stood on the precipice of what should have been a landmark night in their career by playing the first of two sold-out shows at the Garden. Instead, the morning of the concert Corgan, D'Arcy and guitarist James Iha found themselves awakened by shocking news: Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin had overdosed on heroin in their Manhattan hotel room, and Melvoin was dead.

Instead of marching onstage at Madison Square Garden, the Pumpkins were marched down to a nearby police station for questioning. Police quickly established that the rest of the band had nothing to do with what had happened in Chamberlin's room that morning in the Regency Hotel in midtown Manhattan, but Chamberlin spent 10 hours in a cell and eventually was charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance, a misdemeanor. Three days later, Melvoin's body was buried. Five days later, the Pumpkins fired Chamberlin.

Corgan had hinted in interviews months earlier that he saw the "Mellon Collie" album and tour as the end of a cycle for the Pumpkins, a last hurrah around the arenas of the world for the rock band before it entered its next phase. Little did he and the rest of the band know that their hand would be forced so quickly in determining what that next phase might be.

Though Melvoin's death cast a pall, it wasn't a fatal blow to the band. The Pumpkins had known the 34-year-old keyboardist for less than a year and he had not become an integral part of the sound. Losing the 32-year-old Chamberlin, however, was like losing family. Suddenly the Pumpkins were without their most accomplished musician, the man who put the protean drive in their music with the pistonlike power and jazz-inflected invention of his drumming.

"When I first found out, my first thought was, `It's over,' " D'Arcy says. "I thought there is no way we could keep it going. I was wondering how could we possibly move forward after this. How could we move forward without him in the band? Because I never thought of the band without him."

But D'Arcy, Corgan and Iha finally came to a conclusion they now say they should have reached months or even years before: that the band was not equipped to deal with Chamberlin's problems. In past years, the drummer had tried to deal with his alcohol and other drug addictions by entering rehab clinics, but he continued to shoot heroin on the '96 tour and hide it from the rest of the band.

"We had a meeting with Jimmy literally two days before this {the July 12 overdose} happened where I said, `Something's wrong. You're not acting normal, and you need to tell me what's going on,' " Corgan says. "And he said, `There's absolutely nothing wrong. You're seeing ghosts, you're paranoid and don't worry about it. Everything's fine.' The three of us are in our late 20s and Jimmy's in his early 30s what are we gonna do? Send him to his room? . . . We were willing to put this man's life ahead of everything, as we told him personally. But unfortunately he didn't put his life ahead of everything."

The decision to fire Chamberlin was not made lightly.

"Some people think it's so terrible of us to turn our backs on him because he has a drug problem, but the drug problem was a symptom of other problems," D'Arcy says. "That was just one facet of the problems we had with him and that he has with himself. Say God comes down and says, `Jimmy will never do drugs again, you have my word,' that wouldn't be good enough for me. On a tour of this size, there's already so much that can go wrong and does go wrong, you don't need to have something around that you know is going to go wrong. With Jimmy, it was not a matter of if, but when when is that bomb going to explode?"

Corgan nods in agreement. " `Gooch' {tour manager Tim Lougee} still speaks to Jimmy often and Jimmy's basically communicated back through Gooch that he's thankful he got kicked out of the band and that it was necessary."

Chamberlin, who was facing a court date in New York on the misdemeanor drug possession charge, could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Richard Schaeffer, has indicated that Chamberlin's sense of remorse has been profound. "A friend passed away, and it has affected his life in a significant way," says Schaeffer, who adds that his client has once again entered a rehab program.

Chamberlin's replacement, Matt Walker of the industrial rock band Filter, was hired after three days of auditions in Chicago in early August. He's not so flashy as Chamberlin who often approached the drums like a lead instrument but he's a powerhouse whose style is well-suited to the relentless hard rock the Pumpkins have been playing on their current arena tour, sometimes at the expense of their quieter material.

Less than three weeks after hiring Walker and a new backing keyboardist, Dennis Flemion of snide Milwaukee rock band the Frogs, the Pumpkins were back on the road to finish out the remainder of a tour that runs until Feb. 1.

"Candidly, nobody wanted to be on tour," Corgan says. "But we felt a sense of duty to finish the album cycle, to play for the people that want to see us. We feel a deep sense of humility in that, considering everything that's happened."

As the shows progressed, a bond began to form with the new musicians, and the three remaining Pumpkins began to feel somehow renewed. Their conviction had been tested many times before by the scorn of a jealous local scene in the early '90s, the interband squabbling that nearly turned the 1993 "Siamese Dream" album into a Corgan solo project, the ongoing drama of Chamberlin's addictions and each time they have risen to the occasion by funneling the turbulence into breathtaking music.

"I think we're probably the most willful people in a band that you'd ever want to meet," Corgan says. "And we have sacrificed every personal thing that we could possibly have sacrificed to make better music. We gave up a lot of family time, home time, all basically to pursue the Pumpkin dream, whatever you want to call it. The things that have happened to us that most people would construe as negative have put us up against this thing: Is this important enough, is the music important enough for us to overcome whatever we're facing? And can we take solace and comfort and strength in the music? Every time we've managed to do that."

As seen in two shows in New York, the band plays an opening set of such crushing force that when Corgan sings lines such as "The world is a vampire" and "God is empty just like me," they take on a new, flesh-and-blood conviction. And there is a poignancy when he sings in "Tonight, Tonight," "Believe in me, as I believe in you," as though finding in the music a balm for a summer of turmoil.

There are also moments of weird, dark humor, as when Iha, looking out at a vast sea of black in the sold-out arena, says in a deadpan voice, "Could we put on some lights, 'cause we feel like we're the band of doom." And there is Corgan cracking up in the middle of his vocal during "1979" as various guests from backstage shimmy to the new-wave dance groove. The Pumpkins aren't bringing a morbid wake to their shows, but a brute of a rave-up bristling with life.

"We almost lost everything," D'Arcy says. "We took it for granted before and now . . . I just try to appreciate everything that we've got."

Credit: Of The Chicago Tribune

Credit: Greg Kot