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Inside the Smashing Pumpkins' Double-Platinum Soap Opera

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Which, of course, is silly. As Smashing Pumpkins scholars well know, if anyone was going to cast the first stone, it certainly would have been Corgan's band mates. Corgan – warm, articulate and soft-spoken in conversation – is also notorious for his dictatorial management style. He plays virtually all the guitar and bass parts on the band's albums, a fact that leaves Iha (who wrote the music to two outstanding tunes, "Soma" and "Mayonnaise," on Siamese Dream) and D'Arcy not only out in the cold but also more than just a tad defensive. "If James and D'Arcy are a little more defensive, maybe it's because they have a little more to defend," says Chamberlin, who himself entered Pumpkindom trained as a jazz drummer. "I can see where they're coming from to a certain extent. But you obviously have to deal with it at some point. If you want something done, do it yourself. Everyone has had the same opportunities in this band to elevate themselves or take a back seat."

For his part, Corgan – the cherub-faced, alleged Simon Legree of Smashing Pumpkins – is philosophical.

"My reputation as a tyrant, Svengali, asshole, there's truth in that," says Corgan. "Where the discrepancies come in is why. I took a drummer who didn't even know what alternative music was and took two people 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. Maybe I pushed people, maybe I was a dick, maybe I said, 'Let me play this part,' but it worked. If I hadn't done that, it wouldn't even be a point of contention, because there would be no Smashing Pumpkins."

D'Arcy is more succinct. She simply refuses to be interviewed. As the band hovers in the dressing room after a show, she gazes upon the scene, puts on her coat and offers her insight into this particular peek at the Smashing Pumpkins. "My mom always told me," she says, by way of explanation, "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." Of course, she says this with a smile. Which is a plus. When she was unhappy about an article claiming she appeared more interested in applying makeup than offering input into the band's recording process, she eventually tracked down the reporter and made a Zorro-style slash across his face with her lipstick.

But we digress. There is, after all, a show going on.

Not just any show, mind you. Back in the Aragon Ballroom, it's Smashing Pumpkins, the Rock Invasion Tour. Yes, Rock Invasion.

The prodigal sons and daughter have returned to exorcise a few demons and offer a good old-fashioned rock show. The kind of show Boston might have played. Or if all goes well, the type of gig that Judas Priest (mentioned, incidentally, by band members 11 times in a three-day period) would have offered in the days before their leather started to fray.

"All these alternative bands today are so high up on their punk-rock horse that they're in denial about being huge and playing big shows," says Corgan. "Not only do we respect the cliches, we see the truth in them. So we simultaneously make fun of them and embrace them."

So far so good. Tonight's show is a dramatic display of musical innocence and demonic release. And better yet, everything is working. Midway through "Cherub Rock," Corgan's pointed fuck-you to the indie-band community that deemed his group outsiders, he raises his arm – half-seriously, half Spinal Tap – to scream, "Rock power!" The crowd, in turn, erupts in a nonironic roar. The beautiful sway of "Soma" leaves swarms of shirtless slam dancers standing, mouths agape. "I Am One," Gish's defining anthem, follows a quieter moment like a fit of violence after uneasy submission.

Even live, minus the never-ending layers of studio symphonics, Smashing Pumpkins punctuate their singular catharsis with a deafening buzz and lulls of eerie, dramatic quiet. Corgan's voice is at one moment an understated whisper, the next a high-octave nod to glamrockers past and finally a growl fit for a late-night horror flick.

The lyrics, meanwhile, are perpetual psychosis in motion. Whether Corgan is letting you know that he'll "disarm you with a smile and cut you like you want me to" ("Disarm") or simply confessing, "I'm all by myself, as I've always felt" ("Soma"), he is continually twisting, every movement revealing another open wound. Midway through "Hummer," when he describes the pain of fighting through his brief writer's block and lifelong insecurity ("Shame my tongue/Fat with promise all along"), he begins to swim toward the light. Suddenly, out of the stillness of the music, his voice lifts. "But when I woke up from that sleep," he sings, "I was happier than I'd ever been." And a wall of sound crashes down upon the listener.

Crowd and band continue moving together in a state of nervous exhaustion. Meanwhile, in the back of the ballroom, unbeknown to the band at the moment, a fan lies registered as legally dead before paramedics bring him back to life. It is, when the night ends, the kind of evening that resonates with the same roller-coaster ride of emotions, tempos and stark confessions that make Smashing Pumpkins one of the country's truly inspired groups in the first place. Spent and ecstatic, the band members mill about the venue after the show with friends and family. Right now, in the serenity of the Aragon Ballroom, all the bullshit seems worth it.

"People just think in terms of arguments and drug abuse and mental breakdown and therapy," says Chamberlin, trying to make some sense out of his day job. "The last thing they look at is the songs. We play beautiful music together every day. If that's the way we apologize to each other, then that's the way we do it."

If the Pumpkin peace accord fails and the rocks start flying, we should be safe. We are currently a little more than a stone's throw from the Aragon, not far from Wrigley Field, at the house recently purchased by Corgan and his wife, Chris Fabian. This fact is worth mentioning not because the home is destined to turn up on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous – it is a modest, comfortable abode whose beautiful woodwork and old-fashioned, homey charm are interrupted only by a zebra-stripe couch and a television the size of a Buick – but simply because it exists at all. It represents, for the first time in Corgan's life, stability. This is where his next album will be written. His wedding was held in the living room. It is a sanctuary for a man who was pushed out of the nest early in life.

Survey the scene. It's about as far from "rock power" as you can get and remain in the same area code. In a few hours, Corgan will take the stage. At the moment, however, he is sitting, cardigan resting on his shoulders, hunched over a bowl of tomato soup and clutching a grilled-cheese sandwich. "As long as I can remember, since I was a little kid, I wanted to be famous," he is saying between spoonfuls of soup. "It was the mythological means of escape. My myth was rock-god-dom. I saw that as a means to become one who has no pain."

Meet Billy Corgan. Ambitious and obsessive enough to have deconstructed every aspect of his own life in minute detail; intelligent enough to be right on the money. He can waver from frail insecurity to overbearing confidence, often in the same sentence. It is a trait that can make his band mates guarded ("Most articles you just hear Billy talking, so, of course, it makes the rest of us totally defensive," says Iha. "Does anyone want to talk to anyone in the Cure besides Robert Smith?"). At the same time, the Pumpkins are Corgan's vision, and his self-evaluation helps give a glimpse of the boy whose parents were divorced early in his life and who lived in five different homes (with his parents, grandmother, mother, great-grandmother and, finally, his father and stepmother) before he was 5 years old. When his stepmother and father – a guitarist who spent most of Corgan's childhood on the road with various small tours – split up, Billy continued to live with his stepmother, despite the fact that both his natural parents were within a one-hour radius. "If they were dead, I think that would have been easier," says Corgan. "The fact that they were an hour away was a living rejection."

Insecure about his home life as well as being too big for his age and the fact that he has a large, red birthmark running up one arm (for which Corgan's first band, the Marked, was named), Corgan learned early about isolation and, evidently, self-analysis. "If I had been accepted, I never would have been as independent as I am," he says now. "I wish from Day 1, people would have looked at me and said, 'You're all right, come on, join the team,' but it's never been that way with me. I don't know why. Maybe I'm a dick, maybe it shows. I don't know."

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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