Smashing Pumpkins should have been in high spirits heading into the making of their second LP. But according to Billy Corgan, the lead-up to Siamese Dream was one of the darkest chapters in the band’s history. “We were on tour, selling out everywhere we go,” the singer told Rolling Stone in 1995 of the period following their 1991 debut, Gish. “Everything went cool, fine, dandy. Suddenly, boom: Nirvana. We went from being seen as future stars almost to has-beens, people saying, ‘Well, if you were so good, this would have happened to you.’ “
According to Corgan, by the time they got around to writing and recording Siamese Dream, those insecurities were stacking up. “And couple that with my severe depression,” he added. “I don’t mean to make light of it, but I was really in a bad way.”
Surprisingly, the album turned out to be a revelation — a technicolor take on grunge that offered moments of delicacy and even euphoria amid gigantically thick riffs. Siamese Dream cracked the Top 10 in the U.S. and the U.K., earned two Grammy nominations and went on to go four-times-platinum. As Rolling Stone put it at the time, the album confirmed “that Smashing Pumpkins are neither sellouts nor one-offs.” Siamese Dream would subsequently come in at number 362 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.
Given the strain that surrounded Siamese Dream, it’s not surprising that years of acrimony and feuding would follow its release. The group became, in the words of RS‘s David Fricke, “the poster band for dysfunctional America.”
A quarter-century later, the tension still lingers. Three-fourths of the Siamese Dream lineup are currently on tour — a reunion announced via a video starring the album’s child cover stars, now grown up — but without classic-era bassist D’arcy Wretzky. Not surprisingly, songs from the 1993 album make up a healthy portion of the set. What better moment, then, for 10 tantalizing facts you might not know about this expectation-defying classic?
1. A nervous breakdown and an intraband breakup set the stage for the album.
Corgan had a nervous breakdown just before making Siamese Dream. “If you’re a desperate person, an insecure person, and go to such great lengths as to have a rock band to satiate those insecurities, something is not right,” he told RS in 1995. Speaking to Amy Jo Martin for her Why Not Now? podcast in 2017, he recalled how desperate he’d felt, saying, “I’d even gotten to the point where . . . they say it’s very troubling in suicide land, if you start giving away your possessions. I’d already been through all those stages, I was giving away stuff and planning my eulogy, and all sorts of weird, self-absorbed things.”
Further complicating the band’s dynamic, Wretzky and guitarist James Iha broke up as a couple during the grueling tour behind Gish. They’d been dating since 1988, and split just before the band’s gig at the 1992 Reading Festival (the same year that Nirvana headlined and Kurt Cobain was famously brought onstage in a wheelchair). Adding even more dysfunction to the mix was wild-card drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, whose lifestyle would have especially serious consequences.
2. Corgan & Co. recorded the album in Georgia, in part to keep Chamberlin away from drugs.
The band chose to record at Triclops Sound Studios in Marietta, Georgia, partly in order to “keep [Chamberlin] isolated from these types of temptations and stay focused,” as Corgan once wrote in a blog post that openly detailed the singer’s struggles with addiction. It didn’t work. “Like some hidden clockwork,” Corgan continued, “a ‘friend’ will suddenly appear at the studio to take him into ‘Hot-lanta’ for a night on the town, and he’s gone, quicker than you can say ‘wait.’ ”
The group would later fire Chamberlin following the death of live keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin (the son of Wrecking Crew musician Mike Melvoin and the brother of Prince associates Wendy and Susannah). Just 34, Melvoin died from a heroin overdose in a New York hotel during the 1996 Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness tour. Chamberlin was with him when the incident occurred, and was subsequently charged with possession of the drug. He would rejoin in 1999, after completing rehab.
3. Corgan’s obsessiveness — and the all-analog recording sessions — pushed Butch Vig to the limit.
Butch Vig produced Siamese Dream, having helmed Gish (and Nirvana’s Nevermind) two years prior. “Billy was a mad scientist with the guitars,” Vig told Tape Op‘s Jake Brown. “A lot of times I would have to draw out a map, literally, of the song for his guitars with all these arrows, going, ‘OK, this one goes to track 14 for the clean guitar through the second verse.’ For instance, on ‘Soma,’ that was one of the biggest guitar maps I ever had. That was epic. I remember having to flip over the back of the track sheet and continue the map.”
Recording Siamese Dream was an all-analog process. “Nowadays, in Pro Tools, it’s so easy to slide things around to edit, cut and paste,” Vig said. “Sometimes I would do razor-blade tape editing between takes. I had never really done a record of that sonic scope. I remember it almost killed me, but was an immense achievement for me personally.”
4. Corgan played most of the album’s guitar and bass parts himself.
According to engineer Jeff Tomei, the explanation as to why Corgan assumed his bandmates’ duties is actually pretty straightforward — and reasonable: “My opinion as to why is that Billy knew pretty much what he wanted. In all fairness to James and D’arcy, there is no way to get inside someone else’s head and play exactly what they envision. I also don’t think that they were as prepared for the record as Billy.”
Unsurprisingly, though, this decision went down poorly with Iha and Wretzky. Corgan later expressed regret over the issue. “Musicianship and technical vision are fine and good,” he told Rolling Stone, “but at some point you cross a line. No matter how good an album you’ve got, you’ve cut away the gut of your band.”
5. “Today” captured Corgan’s essence as a self-described “corny boy from fucking Chicago,”
“I’d reached a point where there was a direct conflict between what I was trying to be and who I really was,” Corgan told RS, recalling the song’s genesis. “I was trying to be this person who is cool, eternally rocking,” Corgan reflected. “Yet here I was, writing a dumb song like ‘Today.’ I’d reached a fork in the road. Do I throw this in the garbage and try to pursue some kind of ideal that I can’t live up to or accept what I am, which is a corny boy from fucking Chicago? In a weird way, accepting myself on that level has made my life all that more powerful. The song resonates from a place of truth.”
He elaborated on his mental state to Amy Jo Martin. “I reached this kind of morning in my life where it was like I’m either going to jump out a window or I was going to change my life,” he said. “I know that sounds very dramatic, but that’s literally what happened. I woke up one morning, and I kind of stared out the window and thought, ‘OK, well, if you’re not going to jump out the window, you better do whatever it is you need to do.’ That morning I wrote . . . ‘Today.’ ”
6. Corgan penned “Spaceboy” about his younger brother, Jesse Andersen.
Corgan’s brother Jesse was born with mild cerebral palsy and Tourette’s syndrome, among other ailments. “The best way I explain it is that he’s like a Rain Man type of character,” Corgan told The Huffington Post of Jesse in 2012. “He’s got certain things probably greater than someone else and he’s lacking in a few things that most of us just take for granted. . . . He was raised to be a normal boy, but, of course, not everyone in the world sees him as a normal boy. Hence my song ‘Spaceboy,’ on Siamese Dream, because here’s this kind of kid who comes from some other planet and he’s had to figure it out for himself as he’s gotten to be a man.”
Nearly a decade later, Corgan invited Jesse to step into the ring at an event for his pro-wrestling organization Resistance. “He loved it,” Corgan said. “He had three things that he had to pull off: He had to be endearing, he had to be naïve and then, ultimately, he had to be the bad guy. He hit every note that he had to hit and even improvised a bit.”
7. According to Courtney Love, all the songs are about her.
The Hole singer dated Corgan before her marriage to Cobain, and she talked to the BBC about her influence on Smashing Pumpkins’ second album: “There’s one on Siamese Dream called ‘Spaceboy’ — that’s about his brother, but the rest are all pretty much about me.” Love said that the song “Today” was inspired by their relationship — despair, suicidal feelings and all. Corgan, however, told Guitar World that the songs were largely inspired by his then-girlfriend, Chris Fabian; the couple had broken up, temporarily, at the time he wrote the songs. They subsequently married in 1993, separated in 1996 and divorced in 1997.
Those looking for further gossip about Love and Corgan were treated to reflections about the pair by Kim Gordon via a somewhat scathing paragraph in her memoir, Girl in a Band. “Courtney asked us for advice about her ‘secret affair’ with Billy Corgan,” she wrote. “I thought, ‘Ewwww,’ at even the mention of Billy Corgan, whom nobody liked because he was such a crybaby, and Smashing Pumpkins took themselves way too seriously and were in no way punk rock.”
8. Pavement took a dig at the band, post–Siamese Dream success, on “Range Life.” It was not well-received.
On the country-tinged “Range Life,” from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Stephen Malkmus sings, “Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins/Nature kids/They don’t have no function/I don’t understand what they mean/And I could really give a fuck.”
“I think it’s rooted in jealousy,” Corgan told Rolling Stone of the snide reference, “the kind where someone is looking at a picture and saying, ‘This is where I belong, and I don’t understand why I’m not there.’ It shows true pettiness. . . . It’s like high school all over again. You have the football team, except the football team is the guys in Pavement and Mudhoney. And they’re all patting themselves on the back for how cool they are instead of healthily challenging themselves to greater heights.” As a result, Corgan supposedly told Lollapalooza organizers that the Pumpkins would pull out of headlining the fest that same year unless Pavement were dropped from the bill.
Malkmus seemed less perturbed by the supposed beef, telling NY Rock magazine in 1999, “I only laughed about the band name, because it does sound kind of silly. . . . I like their songs — well, most of their songs, anyway. . . . I just dissed their status. I never really cared for the rock & roll lifestyle or being indie.” In 2008, Malkmus even suggested to Blender that, to his awareness, “Billy’s gotten over it.” But the hatchet was far from buried. In 2010, Corgan was dismayed to discover that his band was due to play a show with Pavement in Brazil. He tweeted his ire: “Just found out SP is playing with Pavement in Brazil. It’s gonna be 1 of those New Orleans type funerals… I say that because they represent the death of the alternative dream, and we follow with the affirmation of life part… funny how those who pointed the big finger of ’sell out’ are the biggest offenders now…yawn. they have no love… by the way, we’ll be the band up there playing NEW songs because we have the love xx.”
9. Corgan grew weary of having to explain the title for “Mayonaise.”
This fuzz-bathed Siamese Dream ballad won RS‘s Best Smashing Pumpkins Songs Readers’ Poll “by a significant margin.” That “Mayonaise” is so compelling is thanks in no small part to the high-pitched feedback that punctuates its refrains. Corgan explained that “the squealing high note” comes from a $65 Kimberly guitar that made the noise whenever he stopped playing it — so the bandmates decided to use it to their advantage. As Corgan told Guitar World in 1997, Iha had been messing around with different tunings and he came up with the chord progression that underpins the song; Corgan then wrote the vocal melody and lyrics.
But as for that misspelled title, the origins are murkier. In 1996, an exasperated Corgan said during an online chat in Dublin, “You know how I got the title ‘Mayonaise’? I looked in my refrigerator.” He also told a Colombian radio station that it’s actually a phonetic way of writing “my own eyes.” A 1996 interview with KROQ is probably the closest we’ll get to a real insight on the title. “Sometimes you just gotta open up your brain and just see what comes in,” he said. “’Mayonaise’ was like one of those. James said, ‘What are we going to call this song?’ And I just said, ‘Mayonaise.’ And that was the end of it. I spend more time explaining ‘Mayonaise’ then we actually spent writing it, recording it and playing it.”
10. The two little girls on the cover of Siamese Dream weren’t really twins, and their true identity was shrouded in mystery for years.
The cover art for Siamese Dream was ubiquitous in 1993, and given the name of the album and the lyrics to “Geek U.S.A.” (“In a dream/We are connected/Siamese twins/At the wrist”), it was widely assumed that the girls might themselves have been conjoined, or at least related. No explanation relating to who the girls were was shared at the time, however.
When Smashing Pumpkins reunited in 2007, Corgan put out a call saying he was seeking the girls from the shoot: “As you all know, they were quite young when the photo was taken,” he said. “They are not conjoined anymore, as far as we know.” Things then took a turn for the strange in 2011, when Corgan tweeted, “Just found out the weirdest news: our bass player Nicole just admitted she is one of the girls on the cover of Siamese Dream.” Mathematically astute onlookers deduced that Nicole Fiorentino, then the band’s touring bassist, would in fact have been too old to be one of the girls in the picture.
The story went quiet again until this year, when the girls were reunited at a shoot for a video announcing the Pumpkins’ Shiny and Oh So Bright tour. Corgan wrote about the shoot on Instagram, describing the Siamese Dream cover as an iconic image in rock history. “What’s amazing is their chemistry with one another still leaps through the camera to this day, and yet if memory serves they’d never met before that Siamese shoot.”
The truth, then? The girls were child models named Ali Laenger and Lysandra Roberts, based in California. The shoot for Siamese Dream was “the ultimate childhood dream day” for the pair. “We ate Lemonheads and enjoyed rocket popsicles from the ice cream truck that happened to pass by during the shoot,” Laenger told Setlist.fm this year, “all while being dressed up in a cute dress with angel wings. Of course any seven-year-old would love that.”