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.”
Though he has a house in Chicago, Corgan spends much of his time here at the pool house, crashing on the property of a friend, producer and drummer Kerry Brown — who happens to be former Pumpkins bassist D’Arcy Wretzky’s ex-husband (neither Corgan nor Brown has talked to her since the late Nineties). Corgan is practically a member of the family: Brown’s kids call him Uncle Billy. “It’s a stable situation,” says Corgan. He goes to their basketball games, and they found his presence way more impressive after his avatar appeared in Guitar Hero. At the moment, Corgan is staring at a white board leaning against a bookshelf, where he’s written 50 or so song titles in all-caps: “The Dauphine,” “As Rome Burns,” “Blurricane,” “Fate the Lonely Actor.” He composed and demo’ed all of these songs in the past few months, and has recorded and released two so far as free downloads: the epically Zeppelin-esque “A Song for a Son” and the baroque, liltingly poppy “Widow Wake My Mind.”
Corgan has decided the traditional album is dead, so he’s putting out a massive 44-song collection — Teargarden by Kaleidyscope — one track at a time online. Whenever he completes a set of four songs, he’s releasing them on his own label as ornately packaged EPs, with the first due this spring. “I feel like I have probably 10 to 15 songs that are super-top-level,” he says. “I originally thought I’d string those songs like little diamonds amongst the other good songs, but now I’m going to have to push those up to the front of the line. And I’ll just have to write more.”
As is his habit, Corgan got up around 7 a.m. in his little loft bedroom by the pool. He ate a frittata for breakfast, leaving the yolks in, even though he wants to lose some weight. A couple of years ago he was downright gaunt, but he’s returned to his baby-face Nineties look — except for the wispy, graying full beard he’s got going today, he looks more or less exactly as he did in the video for “1979.” “I’m actually fat right now, although don’t use that word, because a lot of my friends are women and they get upset with me,” he says.
While he has steered clear of Western medicine (and recreational drugs) for a decade, Corgan says he suffers from an array of health complaints, including mercury, arsenic and lead poisoning. He believes that his lungs were damaged when he lived in Lower Manhattan after 9/11. He is “chronically, medically” dehydrated, allergic to alcohol and has weak ankles, which he protects with high-top Air Jordans.
Corgan recently built a gearhead’s dream of a private studio in Chicago, with equipment from Motown studios and the kind of mixing boards used by Pink Floyd and the Beatles. To pay for it, he mortgaged his past, accepting a sum that can safely be assumed to be in the millions to sell the rights to “Today” — the Pumpkins’ first hit — for a Visa ad. He is unapologetic about the sale of a song he calls “sacred,” arguing that it completes his independence from the major-label system. “As I stood there with the white flag on indie island, everybody else blew by me, including all the indie bands that were licensing their music,” he says. “I realized I was living in the Nineties, still living up to those old codes. Pete Townshend basically told me, ‘Who gives a shit? Who gives a shit if Mary Lou lost her virginity in the back of a car to the song? What’s the difference between whether you sell it on iTunes or a CD through a commercial?’ ”
Corgan’s blue-gray eyes are glowing with indignation now, his voice rising. “I turned around and took that money and built a studio, and now it gives me the opportunity to give away my music for free,” he says. “If I had gotten the accolades that I deserved, if I wasn’t treated like some sort of pariah by my own musical country, if I wasn’t sort of caught between pop land and alternative land, if I had a country, then maybe I would have a greater confidence in those systems supporting me, but they haven’t. So at some point, I have to go in business for myself.”
In several past lives, Billy Corgan was a monk, or so psychics have told him. The idea makes sense to him — he deals with problems through solitary work, and he’s even made attempts at celibacy. In addition to writing the book about his beliefs, which seem to center on a highly personal New Age version of Christianity — he has barely read the Bible, recommending a 1907 book called The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ instead — he runs what amounts to a virtual ministry on a new website called Everything From Here to There. Recently, he posted a five-part series on “How to Put Your Good Anger to Use.”
Corgan subscribes to the fashionable idea that we’re building to a cataclysm, or at least a major vibrational shift, in 2012; he wonders what was really in the H1N1 vaccine; he fears that the United States is headed toward a Soviet Union-style economic collapse. If you get him started, he unleashes lengthy monologues along these lines, using the word “system” a lot as he traces patterns in the air with his gigantic hands — but when pressed on details, he backs off: “I don’t want to be a dead hero,” he says.
Corgan has spent a lot of time working with psychics and healers. “I went to see a shaman,” he says. “He put his hands on me, and I cried like a baby for an hour. It was like at a funeral or something, where the grief is so immense that it feels like it’s coming up through your feet. He was identifying things that needed to be mourned. He even brought up my dog from when I was a kid — he knew what he looked like.”
As a boy, Corgan had an unnervingly intense gaze, staring so hard at adults that they complained to his parents. As Corgan sees it, that was the first sign of what he believes to be his spiritual abilities. “I was psychically reading them — I just didn’t know what that was,” he says. “I was gathering information, whether I was watching their body language or reading through them. I thought everybody was like that.”
Corgan was a lonely, traumatized kid, born into a world of dysfunction and addiction. His father, William Corgan, was a heroin-addicted blues and R&B guitarist; his mother had a breakdown and abandoned him before he was five years old. Later, while his father was on the road, Corgan says, he endured physical abuse from a stepmother.
His past has a way of reaching into his present: On January 1st, 2008, police in Tampa, Florida, found his 60-year-old father unconscious in his car, a heroin needle in his left forearm. Not for the first time, Billy stepped in to help his dad, bailing him out of jail and paying for rehab. “Billy saved my life so many times,” says Corgan Sr. “I’ve been given more than my fair share of chances to be a human, and I’ve blown it a few times. I grew up in a house of no love or emotion — it kind of sticks with you. You end up passing it on to your kids, and we’re hoping that we maybe broke the chain.”
Corgan has spent enough time in therapy to know it’s no accident he created a new dysfunctional family in the Pumpkins. He surrounded himself with addicts, from Wretzky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin to former lover and collaborator Courtney Love. He’s tried to sever every one of those relationships. “If I love somebody, I’ll look the other way,” says Corgan, “and stand there and walk them through their addiction. Maybe because of my father I learned how to do this at a young age.”
He worked with Love on songs for her new album, but he wants nothing to do with her now — and if she releases the songs, as it appears she will, “it would be a real big problem, because I haven’t given my permission,” Corgan says. “I have no interest in supporting her in any way, shape or form. You can’t throw enough things down the abyss with a person like that.”
Corgan is a regular at the Polo Lounge, a classic old-Hollywood spot nestled inside the bright-pink Beverly Hills Hotel, and when we meet for lunch there the next day, he gets a prime booth and a “good to see you again, sir” from the maitre d’. He’s shaved his beard and ditched the hat, though he’s still got the red scarf on. He’s in a better mood today. “It’s amazing who I’ve seen in here,” he says with guileless enthusiasm. “I came in here for a meeting once about my book, and it was, like, Katie Holmes, Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Kidman.”
Corgan arrives with the 61-year-old who played bass on his recent demos — Mark Tulin, from the Sixties garage band the Electric Prunes. With the departure of Chamberlin last March, the Pumpkins became a concept rather than a band, leaving Corgan to play with whomever he wants. He found his new drummer, Mike Byrne, who’s 20 and looks 12, through an audition. Tulin and Byrne have become close, with the drummer turning a man old enough to be his grandfather on to indie rock that their boss can’t stand — Corgan says the words “Animal Collective” as if they taste bad on his tongue.
Corgan met Tulin after the frontman got involved with a group even he calls a cult, the Source Family, who in the Seventies lived communally in a Hollywood Hills house and spawned their own psychedelic band, Ya Ho Wa 13. After reading a book about the group, whose beliefs are loosely based on Kabbalah, among other sources, Brown invited one of its members — Sky Saxon, frontman for garage-rock legends the Seeds, who died last year — to come down to the studio. “He came with the Family members, and the whole spiritual circus came and moved in,” Brown says.
He and Corgan were adopted into the group, which gave them new names: Brown is Stargate Aquarian, Corgan is Samuel Aquarian. The pair learned the group’s meditative exercises, though they didn’t necessarily embrace the part about sex without orgasm. “That’s for the hardcore,” says Brown. Hours of recordings of Corgan jamming with Ya Ho Wa 13 exist, and Brown is trying to figure out how to release them.
Tulin never joined the group himself, but one of his drummers did, so he ended up in Brown’s studio one day — his first musical project with Corgan was Spirits in the Sky, a band formed to play tribute shows for Saxon. Tulin’s Dude-like presence clearly relaxes Corgan, who cracks up as the bass player tells a story about once getting so high before a gig that he didn’t realize he never played a note. Corgan starts sharing his own drug tales. “When I would take LSD, I’d listen to Sabbath and Ry Cooder — Sabbath to come up, Ry Cooder to come down,” he says. “The Pumpkins used to take LSD onstage, all four members. Not good. The music was really complicated and fast, and you were playing prog-rock, tripping your brains out.”
The conversation turns to band dynamics. “I think a band as an entity is, if not impossible, very difficult to maintain,” says Tulin, who has a Ph.D in psychology. “It’s an artificial relationship with people you may not have anything else in common with.” Corgan nods, emphatically.
By the late nineties, the Pumpkins had been reduced to Corgan plus “two drug addicts and one guy who hated me, and I hated him.” The non-drug addict was guitarist James Iha — the only Pumpkin other than Corgan to get songwriting credits on the band’s albums. As Corgan tells it, Iha got deep under his skin by acting hostile and then insisting nothing was wrong. Bassist Wretzky — who seemed to be around more for her cool vibe and good taste than any particular musical talent — had already left the band by the time Corgan broke it up. He now wishes he’d handled the whole thing differently. “Rather than break up the band, what I should have done is chuck James out,” Corgan says. “I should have just said to Jimmy [Chamberlin], ‘You go to rehab, and we’ll continue, and James, get the fuck out of here.’ Instead, I fell on my sword for James, for what I thought was a friend.” (“In our band there were always four divergent opinions and perspectives,” Iha says in an e-mail. “I choose to remember the good times.”)
When Corgan revived the group in 2006, the lineup was Corgan, Chamberlin and some hired hands. They recorded a relentlessly heavy album called Zeitgeist, which focused only on the most metallic, brutal aspects of the Pumpkins’ sound — it was as if Corgan was punishing fans for wanting the band back. “Some of the songs we didn’t use for Zeitgeist sound like classic Smashing Pumpkins — they’re ballad-y, big rock-anthem things,” he says now. “I hear them and I’m like, ‘What the fuck was I doing?’ ”
When Chamberlin and Corgan hit the road on a so-called 20th-anniversary tour in late 2008, fans started asking the same question. Dressed in long, shiny robes, Corgan played sets that were nearly four hours long, padded by a 25-minute cover of Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” spiced with electronic bird calls. Fans walked out as Corgan berated them from the stage. “It was like burning a bridge, and I’m really good at burning bridges,” Corgan says, smiling. “It was crazy — violent like I haven’t seen in a long time. The dialogues with fans, they got contentious.”
Afterward, Corgan fired Chamberlin — though the drummer halfheartedly suggests that he might have quit. Until he had his first child seven years ago, Chamberlin was a heroin addict — Corgan first fired him in 1996 after touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died while partying with him on tour one night. Chamberlin is sober now, but Corgan is convinced that his character hasn’t changed, that he is fundamentally “unhealthy.” “Jimmy is a destructive human being, and people who are destructive break things,” Corgan says. “I don’t see me reaching the highest levels of my creativity if I’m unhealthy and if I have unhealthy people around me. Every time Jimmy didn’t show up for a week in the studio, I made it about me. Any time James Iha was off in a corner somewhere not paying any fucking attention, I made it about me.” After Corgan told Chamberlin he was out, the drummer “unloaded” on Corgan, unleashing 20 years worth of pent-up insults. “So I was like, ‘Fuck you,’ ” Corgan recalls. “ ’Go ride around in a white van for the rest of your life.’ ”
Chamberlin becomes apoplectic when he hears Corgan’s account. “In the middle of the last tour, Billy said it was the agent’s fault, then it was the band’s fault, then it was the fans’ fault,” the drummer says. “Yes, in the past, I was a destructive human being. I was a complete drug addict and a complete loose cannon, but I’ve taken responsibility for my life.
“In the grand scheme of things,” he adds, “it doesn’t really move the needle that much anymore. It’s a few gold records and a bunch of money. Who cares? I have a wife and kids, I’m completely happy.” He has started a new band, called This, and he doesn’t see the point of spending months painstakingly recording music anymore. “Music is such a small part of people’s lives now,” he says. “People don’t sit around like they did in the Nineties and stare at album covers and think about Kurt and Billy. I fucking hated the Nineties.”
So it’s just Corgan now, and he doesn’t wince when his situation is compared to Axl Rose’s. “I’m a fan, and maybe Chinese Democracy wasn’t as great of a record as I would hope for, but it also gave me greater appreciation for what he actually does,” says Corgan. “I’m in a different situation, I’m in total control of my world. If you listen to any Smashing Pumpkins song, if you minus the drums, 99 percent of the time you are listening to me” — meaning he played almost all the guitar and bass parts in the studio. “I still have all of my old equipment — I could make the Siamese Dream sound. I could do anything I needed to do or wanted to do, but the question is, why would I want to do it?”
One afternoon this winter, Corgan was curled on a couch with porn star Sasha Grey and her husband, watching the NFL playoffs. Grey is just one of the beautiful famous women Corgan has drawn into his life. “He’s smooth,” Grey says with a laugh.
Jessica Simpson lives a couple of houses down from Brown, and she met Corgan when he invited her to a Spirits in the Sky show. From there, if you believe the tabloids, they began a now-concluded romance; Corgan, who also helped Simpson record a song for her new TV show at Brown’s studio, half-jokes about ending the interview when her name comes up. He then becomes verbose, if slippery, on the subject. “If I go, ‘Oh, we’re just friends,’ then it’s like, ‘Did they go out, did he dump her or she dump him, what happened?’ It has nothing to do with any of that. Sometimes people just like being around each other, and good things come out of that. My goal in life is to love whoever I think is worth loving, and I think if people knew her like I knew her, they would love her like I do. It’s really simple.”
Another of Corgan’s relationships, with reality star Tila Tequila, may be more complex. Corgan says they never dated, adding that their on-again, off-again friendship is in the “off” position. But Tequila insists that after five years of a friendship that began after he contacted her on MySpace, they started a romance — and, according to Tequila, they frequently spoke of marriage. “He learned from me to love people as they are and not to try to change them,” Tequila says. “And he learned that he pushes away people that love him and care about him. We’d have these disgusting, horrible, horrible fights that were really hurtful, but then you have the best make-up.”
Tequila thinks Corgan is contradicting his spiritual beliefs. “He’ll teach me about all this unconditional love, blah, blah, blah . . . but then I’m here, the one not afraid,” she says, sounding sad. “I know he really wants to have children, so I told him a long time ago I’m ready to have a baby. If he was ready, I’m ready. He better get it before he loses that chance.”
A lifelong insomniac, Corgan rarely sleeps more than six hours a night. But he has constant vivid dreams. “I had this incredible dream about a month ago, and I was in this massive cathedral,” he says. “I was looking at an angelic light choir, and it was a beautiful scene of light and color, but I was on the outside watching it. They were singing a song, and it was something about joy. I recorded the line, and I still may use it.”
It seems significant that in the dream Corgan was on the outside, watching: For all his questing, he is still unhappy “about half the time.” “Look, when your mother goes crazy and disappears when you’re three and a half, four years old, and then you end up in a home with an abusive situation, it just fucks your head,” he says. “I haven’t met anybody who’s had similar circumstances to me whose head didn’t get fucked up. I’ve had 25 years to figure it out, and I still haven’t figured it out.”
Corgan doesn’t go into much more detail about his spiritual adventures — he’s saving that for his book, where he hopes he can put them into proper context. Pushed to elaborate on his claim of psychic abilities, he snaps, “I can levitate to Jessica Simpson’s house, isn’t that enough?” Mostly, he says, “I believe in constant meditative thought. You have to practice self-love — and forgiveness.”
This kind of talk opens him up to more mockery, I point out — people might call him a flaky, aging rock star who embraced New Age quackery after moving to L.A. He shrugs. “If it’s a new opportunity to poke into me, what are they poking into me? There’s nothing there to poke into. I’m not attached to any of those systems anymore. Five years ago I was thinking, ‘Beck Hansen got the better end of the deal’ — he’s cute and he got good reviews — but it’s actually the same deal. Because they discard all of us when they don’t need us anymore, they just throw us in the garbage and bring us back out to wring us out one more time for another war story.”
Corgan pauses for breath. “But if you want to pick one thing that I’m weak on, I want my work placed where it belongs,” he says. “That’s one thing that my ego won’t let go of. I want my just desserts. I don’t want to be on the outside looking in.”