Unless you count what he's done to his career, Billy Corgan has never attempted suicide. Until recently, there were plenty of mornings when he'd wake up to a stark choice: "Go eat breakfast, or go kill yourself." But it's fortunate he never tried it, because the Smashing Pumpkins founder was always the least slacker-y of Nineties alt-rock heroes: He would've gotten it right the first time. "I never got close enough to actually try," Corgan says, with flat assurance. "Because trying would have said, 'I'm going to die.' Not 'It's a cry for help.' "
In a way, the Pumpkins' entire catalog was one long, loud cry for help, broadcasting Corgan's leftover pain from a childhood filled with abuse and neglect. He wasn't kidding with all that "God is empty just like me" stuff. But then the Nineties ended, the Pumpkins broke up and his life got much worse. He was still grieving his mother's 1997 death, he was stuck in a tortured relationship with a longtime girlfriend, and his band had imploded in a dark, druggy soap opera. Corgan fell "under the waves" into a bottomless depression and endured debilitating panic attacks. Then, Corgan — whose band made the era-defining Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness — found that the new decade's music scene had no place for him. He released three albums, each a contradictory attempt to redefine himself — and they all flopped.
One sunny Beverly Hills morning in mid-February, Corgan is sitting in a friend's pool-house-turned-recording-studio, pondering these troubles, when he begins to laugh. "This is all funny," he says in his nasal, resonant voice. "Where does the happy story start here?" He may be about to find out. Corgan has started to fight for his legacy — as the sole remaining member of the Smashing Pumpkins, he's once again making music that's worthy of the band name. He's also begun work on a book about his journey into the idiosyncratic New Age spirituality that he believes saved his life and his sanity. "Once everything was smashed to bits, all that was left to do was to turn to God and say, 'Help me organize this,' " Corgan says. "I started to pray. I was desperate, I didn't want to die, and I realized that Jesus and Mary and Buddha had been there the whole time."
At the same time, he's had his first brush with mainstream, TMZ-level fame in years, via a friendship (or maybe romance) with Jessica Simpson. Corgan is amused by the increased attention, but he spends enough time on the Internet to be well aware that Gen-Y bloggers treat him as a punch line, a relic. "Do I belong in the conversation about the best artists in the world? My answer is yes, I do," he says. "I've been too productive for too long, and despite what anybody wants to strip away from me, I am influential. I am. You can hear echoes of my music right now. So all the Pitchforks in the world can try to strip me of every ounce of dignity, but I belong."
Corgan has covered his shiny, slightly oversize head (he jokes that he's learned how to say "bald" in most of the world's languages by looking at his press clips) with a floppy hat, and he's tied an incongruously jaunty red scarf around his neck. "That's been the challenge for the last 10 years of my life — just to survive," he says, sounding weary, "not go crazy, and rebuild my life, rebuild my career, rebuild those things one brick at a time — knowing that in a lot of those cases, it's probably a lost cause, but putting my faith in God that good things are meant to still happen. There's a lot of days that I don't have any evidence of that. There's a lot of days where you feel forgotten."
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