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Inside the Smashing Pumpkins' Double-Platinum Soap Opera

Rehab, therapy and rock & roll: On the road with the dysfunctional Chicago crew

April 21, 1994
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The Smashing Pumpkins on the cover of 'Rolling Stone.'
Glen Luchford

A whole lotta therapy bills have gone toward making this moment possible.

Welcome to the Aragon Ballroom, in Chicago. The price of your ticket is helping to make the last year and a half in the life of Smashing Pumpkins all worth it. It's a bitterly cold Friday night, and the Pumpkins – rock's dysfunctional royal family and, more important, this fair city's best-selling alliance since Survivor released "Eye of the Tiger" – are holding court for a fawning congregation of 5,000 disciples currently being baptized in a steady drizzle of beer, spit and sweat. Take a good look. In just a few short hours, when all this is history, lead singer Billy Corgan will offer some weighty reflection.

"To be in my hometown onstage in front of 5,000 people and rock the way I wanted to rock, that was a religious satisfaction," Corgan will say about this precise moment in the collective unconscious. "We were nobody. Nobody said we'd be the next big thing. And somehow between cunning and manipulation, motivation, belief and faith, we made it work. I came and [singing like Sinatra] 'I did it my way.' "

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Siamese Dream

He'll be right. For Smashing Pumpkins, there's no time like the present, if only because no one would be crazy enough to want to relive their past. For those of you unfamiliar with this particular prime-time soap opera, meet the cast:

• Billy Corgan, 26 (singer, guitarist, songwriter): Revered for his almost operatic ability to convey emotion in his songs and feared for his manic mood swings, Corgan vacillates between hero and villain. He is the axis around which all Pumpkin triumph and tragedy rotates.

• James Iha, 25 (guitarist): Former self-acknowledged "shy guy who wanted to be a rock guy," Iha is gentle and personable. He has spent the last year honing his songwriting skills. But will he always play second fiddle?

• Jimmy Chamberlin, 29 (drummer): A working-class kid from Joliet, Ill., he left home at the age of 15 and has not spoken to his father (a jazz clarinetist) in seven years. Although he respects his lead singer, he refuses to coddle him. "I relate to him man to man, and that's it," Chamberlin says. "I'm not the type of guy to say, 'Oh, you've had such a rough life,' because nobody says that to me, and my life has been plenty rough."

• D'Arcy (last name Wretsky), 26 (bassist): She met Corgan when the two began arguing outside a rock club (Corgan's first words to her were "You're full of shit"). If she possesses the Pumpkins' secrets, she's not telling.

Now, in case you're tuning into the program late, please take a deep breath. We offer a summary.

In the beginning, just over five years ago, there was little more than Corgan's convoluted vision of Bauhaus-style Goth, arena-rock slickness and punk-rock assault.

All four members grew up in the Midwest (Corgan, Iha and Chamberlin in the Chicago area and D'Arcy in South Haven, Mich.) and shared what Chamberlin calls "the same kind of upbringing, total white trash," but little else. Iha, a Japanese American and the most middle-class of the band members, grew up in a suburban environment where he says he "learned to deal early on with being a minority, being called names." He got average grades in high school, attended a junior college where he received high marks and continued on to study graphic arts at Loyola University (he later dropped out to spend time working on the band).

Chamberlin had left home to escape his family life. "It was highly dysfunctional," he says. "My father was really abusive. I decided early on that I didn't want to be like him." So, after graduating from Northern Illinois, Chamberlin returned to Chicago and was simultaneously playing in jazz bands and working as a union carpenter. Meanwhile, D'Arcy, the middle child of three sisters, was subsisting in a punk-rock household, having moved to Chicago after being stuck in O'Hare airport with no money and no real destination.

Somehow, the four melded into one, and with Corgan serving as undisputed resident genius and self-confessed control freak, Smashing Pumpkins released the independent album Gish in 1991 (the major-label deal for the second album was already in place), which promptly sold an indie-astounding 300,000 plus. Next came a high-profile slot on the Singles soundtrack. Finally, Siamese Dream, the major-label debut that has made the band members stars. It entered the Billboard charts at No. 10. It has gone double platinum. Shows are selling out (a second one was added in Chicago after the first night's tickets went in 12 minutes). It all sounds dreamy. Yeah, and Love Canal seemed like a great little place to raise a family.

The 100 Best Albums of the Nineties: Siamese Dream

For Smashing Pumpkins, tabloid catch phrases circle like vultures. There's romantic catastrophe: Iha and D'Arcy, a couple since the early stages of the band, uncoupled during the tour for Gish. "It was really shitty," says Iha. "All the normal stuff that would happen between a boyfriend and girlfriend who had broken up after a long time was happening, only we were stuck together. Under normal circumstances we probably would have said, 'Fuck you, I'll never see you again,' but since we were forced to be together, we eventually got over it. I still feel pretty close to her."

There's the requisite drug addiction: During production of Siamese Dream, Chamberlin underwent rehab for alcohol and heroin addiction (his sponsor is former Jane's Addiction and current Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Dave Navarro). "I went to the band and said, 'I'm sure it's obvious to you at this point that I have a problem,'" says Chamberlin. "They were afraid to come to me and tell me my life was a mess. And now, for me, I've done an amazing job of staying clean. I'd gotten high in every city in this country and probably half the cities in Europe."

Still, some days are better than others. Backstage in Chicago, as the band waited to sound check, reports began floating in that Chamberlin – who was spotted the night before in a bar – had fallen off the wagon. A search party was sent out. D'Arcy stared at her feet and said tersely, "This used to be funny. It's just not anymore," while Iha managed to smile and say, "Welcome to bad rock cliché No. 68." Eventually, long after sound check had ended, the drummer was located. "Coming home to Chicago was certainly not a good thing for me," he will say over a cup of coffee the next day. "But that shit happens. You have to fall down once in a while to realize you're standing up."

And finally, there's Corgan's nervous breakdown: Coping with a laundry list of unresolved issues from childhood (a tale soon to be spelled out), the breakup of a seven-year commitment with his girlfriend (who, after much relationship repair, is now his wife) and a grueling bout with writer's block, Corgan hit bottom just prior to production of Siamese Dream. The song "Today" (lyrics: "Today is the greatest day I've ever known") was written when Corgan was nearly suicidal and, ironically, helped break through the dam that had been blocking his creative flow. Heavy therapy and much writing ensued.

"To compile all my therapy into one sentence: As a child I learned that it was more advantageous to be this creation than it was to be who I really am," says Corgan. "But my personality is so strong that it kind of bubbled out from underneath, and it was tough to distinguish who was the faker and who was real. I remember the first five or six times we did the song 'Disarm' live, it was completely overwhelming because it was like standing onstage and saying: 'This is who I really am. Faker.' I expected people to throw rocks."

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