Inside the Smashing Pumpkins’ Double-Platinum Soap Opera
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.’ ”
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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.
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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.”
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.”
Corgan also learned about fatherhood (although he doesn’t want children, because, he says, “I think I’d pass on too much bullshit”). The oldest of four boys, Corgan was left with the task of being de facto guardian to his youngest brother, who was born with a genetic disorder and to whom he wrote the song “Spaceboy,” on Siamese Dream. “When he was born, we were told that he would never walk, talk or function, and he’s about to graduate from high school,” says Corgan. “When I get really fucked up and jaded, it reminds me what life’s really about. He’s an amazing, amazing person.”
Yes, here is Corgan at home, living for the first time what he has dubbed “a real life with real substance.” He talks to what he calls his three parents at least once a week. He is happily married. The grilled-cheese sandwich in his left hand is perfectly toasted, not too burned, not too soggy. Still, despite all these outward signs of contentment, you don’t have to scratch very deeply beneath the surface to elicit a fair amount of, well, “absolute fucking rage.”
“That’s what’s at the base of all this,” says Corgan. “I feel like I was fucked over. Why the fuck did you have me if you didn’t want me? Why the fuck did you have me if you weren’t going to take care of me? Why the fuck did you raise me to be a fucking squirrel? Why was I raised to lose? Why wasn’t I given the skills necessary to lead a successful, happy, productive, loving life? Why has it been impossible for me to maintain a relationship?”
It is a series of questions that aren’t easily answered. Not even by his father, Bill Corgan Sr.
“Billy has far surpassed any expectations of what a father could think, almost to the point of being unworthy,” says the elder Corgan. “He was robbed of a lot of childhood. I didn’t do a lot of things that a father would do, play ball and all that stuff. I didn’t know how to raise boys. I just did the best I could. And I thought I did a great job, but I guess I didn’t. Now we’ve talked a lot about it. I didn’t realize he was hurtin’ like he was.”
It’s the final night of the tour, and Smashing Pumpkins have invaded (or is that “rock invaded”?) Cincinnati. Now, with a few hours to spare before showtime, Iha – in search of that elusive “sad country feel” – is braving the arctic conditions to pop into a record store and snag a used CD of the Eagles‘ greatest hits. He also purchases Boston’s first album, but it is clearly the California suburban cowboys that are giving him the most pleasure. Between speaking of his now-waning penchant for sleeping until midafternoon every day (“I just really like to sleep”), his incessant list making (“Sometimes I write lists that say: 1. Work on band songs. 2. Work on James’ songs”) and the fact that his father, an engineer, designed the Chamberlain garage-door opener, he speaks of the difficulty involved in walking in Don Henley and Glenn Frey’s shoes (although because he says he would love to meet them someday, it is clear he is speaking metaphorically).
“I just want some positive vibes,” explains Iha, who seems to be doing his part for the cause by substituting the phrase cool beans for any and all affirmative answers (sample question: “Hey, James, wanna get a cup of coffee?” Answer: “Cool beans”). “I’d rather read about old bands than ones today,” Iha says. “I wish all these bands with the great indie attitude would just write songs. I don’t get anything from them sometimes but attitude. Alternative music just bums me out in general.”
Which brings us to a critical juncture. Turnabout being fair play, the alternative community has spent years being bummed out by Smashing Pumpkins. Even the new album by the uber-indie stars Pavement takes a swipe at the Pumpkins (“I don’t understand what they mean,” Pavement sing. “And I could really give a fuck”).
“A lot of them probably don’t like what Billy has to say,” says Iha of Corgan’s unrepentant and very verbal criticism of his peers’ cliquishness. Iha pauses and laughs. “And a lot of them probably don’t like the music.”
Not even Corgan’s current close friendship and past romantic affair with Courtney Love (predating her relationship with Kurt Cobain by the narrowest of margins) brought Smashing Pumpkins closer to the indie inner circle. Which may just cause a problem or two when the Pumpkins spend their summer vacation hanging out with the popular kids from the indie-rock school of thought. Of course, Lollapalooza is supposed to be about the melting and marriage of all different sounds and attitudes. And sure, this year’s roster featuring the Pumpkins, Nirvana, the Beastie Boys, the Breeders and a slew of other groups is arguably the best lineup yet. But when Corgan addresses the alternative scene – “I think there’s plenty of bands with amazingly talented people who will never reach fruition because they attach themselves to a persona and try to keep up some public posture” – it’s obvious that Lollapalooza ’94 might not necessarily be a feel-good-fest.
Then again, pose this quandary to anyone in the Cincinnati mob now clamoring for the Pumpkins’ brand of alternative melodrama, and it’s a safe bet no one cares one lousy bit.
Problem is – even though Corgan admits, “I know the mentality. I used to sit around and argue about who was a better guitar player in Judas Priest, K.K. or Glenn. That’s where I come from” – he also constantly contradicts himself when speaking of his connection with his fan base. First, there is the Billy Corgan who, quite correctly, is a self-confessed “pretty nice, considerate guy with a good heart.” This Billy Corgan looks out at the crowd and says: “It just brings back that flood of memories. To know what it meant to be on that floor, what it was like to be 15 and unsure and awkward. It’s powerful to me.”
Then there’s the other Billy Corgan – one who, we are sure, shares the identical DNA with the first – who utters the following: “My whole life has been about trying to establish some dignity and some independence and autonomy from what’s been put on me. So just because I step onstage, does that mean I have to be your monkey? Does that mean I have to jump like you want me to jump and play the songs you want to hear? To me, it’s that sentiment that gives me the power that made me do it in the first place.”
It’s no wonder that Iha is on a quest for “Peaceful Easy Feeling”; or that Chamberlin is hoping to get a Tuesday-evening jazz combo together; or that D’Arcy, because she has nothing nice to say, is not saying anything at all. Backstage in Cincinnati, the final show of the tour looming, quite literally, just overhead, Smashing Pumpkins show absolutely no animosity toward one another. On the contrary, there is a warm, upbeat atmosphere. There is, however, very little interaction of any kind. Band members glide around each other like relatives putting aside their differences for the sake of a holiday celebration.
“They’re such weird people,” Corgan says with a laugh, when asked to assess each of his Pumpkin siblings. “D’Arcy is one of the hardest people to understand. I just do not understand how her mind works. But she really understands the artistic side of it. I feel really aligned with her on why we go to such great lengths to be artistic. With James, our friendship has gone through some really weird times over the last few years. I feel like his component is to bring some other element of music because he’s really the only other musical contributor. And Jimmy just has the ability to translate his human energy into raw, physical power. I don’t even think he understands it. I can do anything I want to do dynamically because I have him.”
Corgan pauses, and his voice gets slower, more methodical. It sounds, for a split second, as if he were choking back tears.
“I don’t like the notion that people automatically think the band is stupid because I do a lot,” Corgan says. “Some people in the band just aren’t as driven as me. D’Arcy’s point is that she doesn’t need that. She’s comfortable in her life. But people automatically assume that they’re stupid or I’m controlling them. They are not stupid people. We’re not a stupid band.”
He stops again.
“For a long time it was ‘You don’t understand, fuck you,'” Corgan says. “It’s not really like that anymore. But then again, I don’t leave a lot of stuff out for debate. I’m really ultimately defensive about the inner workings of the band because I have done the bulk of the work, and that can’t be taken away from me. I don’t want to defend why I did what I did. The Pumpkins wouldn’t be if I hadn’t been a fucking ass at times. But maybe now we’re older and have some confidence, and maybe that’ll create a different situation.”
And with that, Corgan stands, walks down a long hallway and climbs the stage stairs for two and a half hours of musical apology.
This story is from the April 21st, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.
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