Billy Corgan stands straight and still at his microphone, in a black, long-sleeved top with an image of a Hindu elephant deity on it. It is only four songs into Corgan’s show with his new band, Zwan, at the Docks, a dance hall on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, Germany. But he can’t wait to testify.
“Jesus, I’ve taken my cross/All to leave and follow thee,” Corgan prays in a kind of choked chant over the bubbling-lava guitars of Matt Sweeney and David Pajo. The words are adapted from an antique volume of folk and gospel songs, published in 1899, that Corgan acquired a few years ago, and he sings them over and over, locked in bliss. Then drummer Jimmy Chamberlin jumps in with a violent thump, and Zwan’s three guitars, Corgan’s included, blow up in fifteen minutes of fuzz-box hosanna, until Corgan bawls his lungs raw in a final psychedelic rush: “Reborn, reborn, yeeeaaah!”
“Jesus, I” is the peak of Zwan’s debut album, Mary Star of the Sea, half of a medley with the title track. In Hamburg, “Jesus, I” is a long hot bath of ecstasy by itself: as heavy in force as anything Corgan wrote or played with the Pumpkins, but brighter in spirit. The song — and Zwan — are the sound of a burden lifted and left behind.
“Faith is the great energy — as long as one has faith, you’re willing to try, to take another chance,” Corgan says the day before the show, in a Hamburg hotel room. He doesn’t have a name for his faith. When Corgan was a boy, his father — William Sr., a guitarist — told Billy that God did not exist: “He said if God existed, the world wouldn’t be so cruel. My stepmom was very Catholic. I went to church until I was eight. I turned to her one day and said, ‘I don’t want to come anymore.’
“I had a conversation recently with a fan about this,” Corgan goes on. “I said, ‘I don’t think God really cares how you do it, just that you’re willing to do it. This is not ice skating.”‘ Corgan takes a gulp of bottled water. “God wants you to amble toward the right spot on the horizon. You might fuck up, but the idea is that you’re willing to get up and keep moving toward that light.”
Corgan, 36, did that for thirteen years with the Pumpkins, pushing them through cycles of triumph (more than 25 million albums sold) and crisis: the fatal overdose of touring member Jonathan Melvoin and Chamberlin’s temporary firing in 1996; the clouded exit of bassist D’Arcy Wretzky in 1999. Except for a wisp of beard, Corgan looks just as he did when we last spoke, the day of the Pumpkins’ final show, in Chicago in December 2000 — shaven head, black turtleneck sweater, baggy brown pants.
But there is a new cheer in Corgan’s voice. “I’m the spy who came in from the cold,” he cracks. His leap from the anxious density of the Pumpkins’ 1999 goodbye, Machina/The Machines of God, to the meaty swing and triple-guitar rain of Zwan songs such as “Honestly” is, he claims, “the difference between head and heart. Let a song be a song. It doesn’t have to move mountains.”
The Pumpkins are, he says, “a dead issue. It’s like what they do with nuclear waste: bury it underground in a concrete bunker.” Zwan — Corgan, Chamberlin, Sweeney, Pajo and bassist Paz Lenchantin — do not play Pumpkins songs in concert. “Even in rehearsal,” Chamberlin says, “I can’t remember a time when we fucked with a Pumpkins riff. We put it to bed. And we meant it.”