|Spin artist of the year 1994|
|December 31, 1993, 11:00 pm|
Spin artist of the year [No Specific Date]
"Yes! Yes! Okay, move a little closer together!"
Photographer Danny Clinch is risking certain arrest for climbing up on a scaffolding in the broad late-afternoon daylight of Park Avenue. All four Smashing Pumpkins--drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, bassist D'Arcy, guitarist James Iha, and singer-guitarist Billy Corgan--lie sprawled on the sidewalk below him as a steady stream of uptight New Yorkers strides stiffly past, homeward bound. "This is so embarrassing," Iha says.
Iha may be embarrassed, but not embarrassed enough to forego the ride on which Corgan has taken the band, a ride that has brought the Smashing Pumpkins the distinction of being named SPIN's Artists of the Year. It's hard to imagine Corgan himself being embarrassed by any of the machinations of the starmaking system, much less by lying on a bustling Manhattan sidewalk--the Pumpkins' untrendy videos, over-the-top production values, fraught interviews, dubious fashion sense, and most of all, Corgan's soul-baring lyrics all completely bypass any semblance of cool.
In fact, Corgan is unashamed of being that most embarrassing of things: a rock star. Which is why the Pumpkins are in town to appear at the MTV Video Music Awards. With a nerdy blend of sarcasm and pride, Corgan remarks that their appearance is "just another piece of shameless hucksterism."
At rehearsals the day prior to the show, Corgan sports an eerily Aberdonian plaid lumber jacket, geeky flood-ready jeans, and regulation alt-rock clunky black shoes. Technicians and stage workers swarm the mammoth Radio City stage like ants, scurrying around the band as they run through "Disarm," a.k.a. the doorbell song. " 'Disarm' is about my childhood and how I turned into an asshole," Corgan later explains to a reporter.
Playing the VMAs and sharing the same stage as the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and Snoop Doggy Dogg is the grand finale in a big year for the Pumpkins: hitting the road for 14 of the past 15 months, headlining Lollapalooza, appearing on Saturday Night Live, and selling three million copies of their major-label debut, Siamese Dream. There's also the new B-sides and rarities collection, Pisces Iscariot, and a home video, Vieuphoria, to keep Pumpkinheads pacified until the next album.
Later that evening, Corgan sits sipping an orange juice at a table in the nearly deserted Four Seasons bar while D'Arcy and her husband, Catherine drummer Kerry Brown, R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, and members of the Pumpkins' management team yak it up nearby. Corgan is still wearing that lumber jacket. "I hate being cold," he explains. "It reminds me of when I got punished when I was a kid and got sent down to the basement."
Corgan is tall, pale, slightly hunched; his hair is thin but unruly. But his most striking feature is his strangely girlish face, luminous, like that of a silent film star. "In a way, he is like a child. He's a very innocent soul," says Jake Scott, the director of the "Disarm" video. "But then he's also a bit of an old man. He has an old spirit with a child's voice. It's very strange."
Corgan is a maddening combination of winning charm and the kind of self-confidence that seems like bravado in person, but reads like resounding arrogance. "I feel like my time on this earth is severely limited, and I'm going to exploit it for all it's worth," he says, explaining why he'll immediately begin writing songs for the next album instead of going on a well-earned vacation. "I'm a martyr," Corgan shrugs. "It's part of my insanity."
The thing is that the insanity seems to be letting up somewhat. "I think Billy is less and less motivated by fear these days," says Chamberlin. "I think fear probably ruled his life and a lot of our lives for the first two records." Fear of what? "Fear of failure," Chamberlin replies.
The band's squabbles, both in the press and in private, are well-known. But these days, strife is at a minimum. What changed? "Billy changed," D'Arcy says, laughing at the silly question. "I stopped trying to squeeze blood from the stone," says Corgan. He says he realized in therapy that he had been making unreasonable demands on his bandmates. "I was constantly setting people up for disappointment," he tells me. "So I stopped expecting things that, based on the first six years, have not happened. It's changed the dynamic of the band."
"I was really suspicious at first," says D'Arcy. " 'Why are you being so nice to me? What's going on? What are you planning?' But he's really been trying to turn over a new leaf. He calls it 'the new me.' "
Apparently Corgan still has a way to go. "He knows he's still upset about things underneath," D'Arcy continues. "You wish he at least had the capacity to talk about it with you so that you could get things resolved. But he is not capable of that, really. I think that's a lot of the reason why he's always opening up to the press. It's so much easier for him to talk about things with someone who is completely neutral, who can't judge the situation." Corgan is trying to change his art, as well. He now says the old-school professionalism of his father, a journeyman rock guitarist, led him to some artistic wrong turns. "I spent too much energy trying to make us a polished, professional kind of band," Corgan says. "I think I kind of missed the point." So this next record won't be nearly so finicky? "I'm not as hung up anymore about making everything perfect," Corgan says. "So we'll see."
And what will it be like? "Insane," answers Corgan. "It's going to be insane. Double CD. It'll be acoustic and totally slamming electric, instrumental, orchestral pieces. Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper, you name it, it's in the stew." Ultra-pretentious references are to be expected, and the phrase "concept album" has even been tossed around. But a double CD? I tell Corgan I'm going to say three words to him. "You're fucking crazy?" he says. No. Use Your Illusion.
Corgan cackles. "Are you trying to frighten me?"
But Corgan has an answer for everything. He figures each CD will clock in at a listenable 50 minutes, with one CD hard and the other soft. It's a lot of material, but the way Corgan sees it, he's practically done it once before--total up Siamese Dream's 13 songs, add on the various non-LP tracks from those sessions, and you've got a double CD.
"I really think I can pull it off," he claims. "And nobody's got the balls to do it. Nobody's got the balls to take the pretentious 'how dare you?' move. If I'm going to do it, now is the fucking time. I'm already starting to hear minor grumblings about mortgages and stuff. It won't be long before I start having children. Now is the fucking moment."
The success of the Smashing Pumpkins and their avowedly un-indie music has helped force the question of what exactly is "alternative"? No longer is it music that must, by some unspoken law, be based on punk and post punk staples like Husker Du and Big Black, that can only be recorded on a four track. Maybe it's just music that somehow reflects the concerns, experiences, and mass neuroses of a new-music consumer demographic. If so, the resolutely unpunk Pumpkins fit the bill to a tee.
There's a silent majority of kids who want a new music to call their own, yet are alienated by the indie scene. Corgan's loud rejection of indie-rock values played directly to those record buyers. Uncool and proud of it, Corgan is the hero and surrogate of a vast audience of kids who were either alienated from the indie network or just came to the party too late. The Pumpkins made music that was alternative and yet also embraced the classic rock they had been raised on. And that's why Smashing Pumpkins became the band it was hip to hate.
Or is it just that Corgan rubs some people the wrong way? "Dude, it always comes down to me, let's face it," he says. "It's been there my whole entire life. I'm sure certain psychological minds would say I fed into that and maybe I have. I call it the bad machine. If you tell me I'm great, I take the flattery and it makes me want to do good things. And if you tell me I suck, it goes into the same machine."
Corgan has always used rejection as psychic and creative fuel. But what will fuel him now that children by the millions cheer for Billy Pumpkin? How can he scream "Fuck you, I'll do what I want" at tens of thousand of people who adore his every move? "Oh, there's still plenty of negativity around me," he says bitterly. "But I realize it's kind of a lame motivational tool."
Backstage at the MTV awards show, Weiland from Stone Temple Pilots ambles into the Pumpkins' dressing room, bogarts some of their mediocre California cabernet, and installs himself on the couch. Iha walks over to me, smiles a little smile, and whispers in my ear, "Pavement would have a field day with this."
Pavement's "Range Life" dissed both the Stone Temple Pilots and the Pumpkins in the same verse, claiming the latter "don't have no function," with singer Stephen Malkmus adding, "I don't understand what they mean / And I could really give a fuck."
"It's very punk rock of them," says Iha with his usual gentle sarcasm. "And that's kind of cool."
But accusations flew that a miffed Corgan made sure Pavement was kept off the Lollapalooza main stage. "I recommended bands that I thought would be better," says Corgan. "The whole idea that I kept bands off the bill is absolutely, completely 100 percent false." And as for the indier-than-thou Steve Albini's accusation that the Pumpkins are careerists? "I've always said that I'm basically a careerist," Corgan says. "But no one can say that we sold ourselves down the river. No one can say we've done embarrassing things. You do not see us doing in-store autograph signings."
Malkmus and Albini aren't the only musicians to have taken a swipe at Corgan. Kim Deal called him "a self-important asshole" in print, and he was mocked by Soundgarden's Kim Thayil in SPIN. "I think I'm a really easy target because I wear my heart on my sleeve," Corgan says. "Take the criticisms by either Kim Deal or the guy from Pavement. Number one, Kim, genius that she is, does not write emotional, personal music. Pavement does not write emotional, personal music. See what I'm saying? The criticisms often come from people who hide behind the veneer of persona or coolness or an aesthetic of indieness. I'm not saying my point is any more valid, but when you see me, when you hear me, you're getting the warts and the beautiful. I'm not hiding anything."
Which is precisely Corgan's rationale for his infamous mid-song rants. At a recent Lollapalooza show, Corgan declared, "I don't believe in God. I don't believe in America. I don't believe in rock'n'roll. I believe in me." And he wonders why people pelt him with water bottles, sneakers, and spare change.
Sometimes the other band members crack jokes during Corgan's harangues, which rarely vary from night to night. One night, D'Arcy hula-hooped. "Stuff like that makes us feel better," she says. "It lightens the mood so that people stop throwing shoes at us for a moment or two."
Corgan's bluster reached its apogee during the Lollapalooza tour, when they played last, following the hyperactive Beastie Boys and their four albums' worth of crowd-pleasing jams. "And here we come," says Corgan, "the band of doom with two known songs, two gloomy songs." Reacting badly to the pressure, Corgan ranted longer and harder than ever, appearing like a spoiled rock star throwing pissy fits with no one brave enough to tell him he was alienating his audience and making an ass of himself.
Corgan, who had gone quite far by ignoring what other people thought, continued blathering even after the press, the fans, and everyone around him started grumbling about it. "I basically said, 'Look, I'm saying what I want to say, and if you don't fucking like it, too fucking bad. It's me, it comes from my heart, I'm not making it up, fuck off.' I think in the long run, that kind of honesty is more important than sacrificing your integrity to being Gerry and the Pacemakers and smiling and putting on a good show."
When Nirvana backed out of Lollapalooza in early April, the headlining spot became a hot potato. The Pumpkins adamantly refused to go on last, as did the Beasties. But when the Lollapalooza pooh-bahs approached the Pumpkins with more money, "We just looked at each other and said 'Fuck it, let's do it,' '' says Corgan, who admits the money helped. "But it was also 'Let's not be afraid, let's not be pussies.' In hindsight, it was a really good thing for us. It really kicked us in the ass."
Many felt that the ghost of Nirvana hung over the tour, although Corgan insists the ghost was only a media creation. But in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York, the ghost became almost palpable when Corgan's old flame, Courtney Love, played two songs before the Pumpkins' set. "She wanted to put in two or three appearances just so that people would know she was not strung out, out of her mind," Corgan says. "It's very important to her to go back out and have a career." Corgan says Lollapalooza initially resisted the idea, then told Love she could play if one of the bands on the bill gave up some of their set time. The Pumpkins obliged. Love sometimes traveled with the Pumpkins, and she and Corgan have become close friends again in the aftermath of her husband's death.
With Cobain gone, people are looking for a substitute voice of a generation, and many nominate William P. Corgan, Jr. "I just find it puzzling," Corgan says. "One, the job was filled. Two, I've never aspired to speak for anyone except your basic disaffected white suburban middle class, which I guess is who everyone's talking about, because that's who runs all the media anyway. I apologize for not representing you well enough."
Then I remember where I'd seen that lumber jacket before. Kurt used to wear it.
Backstage at the MTV awards, everything is hurry up and wait. The foursome is urgently summoned downstairs to the stage. "Smashing Pumpkins on next!" bellows a stage manager. Moments later: "Oh wait, never mind." The band spends the next 15 minutes gazing vacantly at a video monitor beaming a silent image of Cindy Crawford's talking head. Amid the backstage forest of amplifiers and drum sets, Corgan catches me taking notes and gives a little dictation: "Standing here backstage with absolutely nothing to do, it occurred to me how boring their lives really are."
The mood is generally relaxed and lighthearted, although when someone mentions that Kim Thayil, Natalie Merchant, and Chris Cornell are presenting an award, Corgan scowls and says, "Fuck Kim Thayil." In a lighter moment, Bruce Springsteen ambles over to Corgan in the wings. A hush falls over the backstage area as everyone strains to hear what these two men, musical giants of their respective generations, have to say to each other. "Hi, I think your band is real good," rasps the Boss. "Hey, thanks!" says Corgan, more than a little starstruck. Springsteen ambles away.
Later, after a dreadful performance of "Disarm" and his presentation of a Video Vanguard award to Tom Petty (Petty's daughter is a Pumpkins fan), Corgan heads to the press area downstairs with not one but two very attentive publicists in tow. He stands smirking for the photographers for perhaps ten seconds, half his face obscured by Bono-style bug sunglasses, then begins to leave. "Hey, don't you want your fucking picture taken?" one photographer snarls. Corgan jumps off the small stage and thrusts that overworked middle finger in the fellow's lens. He follows Corgan out and asks incredulously, "Why'd you do that?" Corgan replies, "Because I'm not a fucking whore like you," and strides quickly away.
Corgan seems to be working awfully hard on creating a persona, that magic combination of attitude, mystique, and self-caricature that the Jungian Courtney Love calls an "archetype." "He doesn't have an archetype," says Love, a strong supporter of Corgan's music despite her late husband's vigorous disdain for it. "People that Billy's jealous of, he's particularly vicious about because they have archetypes. And those are the only people he's jealous of, really--people that are successful, that have archetypes. He's faceless--he doesn't have a place. He thinks he's going to be Roger Waters, which is probably true.
"Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Smashing Pumpkins--Billy is the only one among them who can write a catchy song," Love says. "But what makes him so depressed is that he has no cultural significance."
Corgan doesn't necessarily share Love's complimentary view of his hit making ability. "If there's any question mark around my band or me, it's the ability to sum it all up in three minutes," he says. "I just think it's time for me to write one or two of those songs that, when it comes on in a club, makes everyone jump up and down." Corgan did uncork some fine singles from Siamese Dream, although they worked as such because they provided grand soundtracks for the band's videos.
Corgan realizes a certified pop gem would cement his career. "If we don't do that on the next record, we'll become like ELP or something--a big band that is just... around. And people will begin to shift their focus away."
One wonders what would happen to Corgan if there was no longer any audience for his public passages. "Honestly, I can't imagine," he says, a worried look crossing his face. "It's been such an integral part of my thinking, being, for so long that if it was taken away from me or it slipped away from me, I don't know. Honestly, not to sound completely melodramatic, I'd probably kill myself or something like that because I wouldn't know what to do with myself. There is no other alternative plan. I guess that's the poignancy of rock'n'roll."