I feel pretty comfortable walking away from these songs,” Billy Corgan says calmly. It is the afternoon of December 2nd, his last day as the singer, guitarist and songwriter of the Smashing Pumpkins. In a few hours, the band will play its final show for 1,100 adoring fans at Cabaret Metro, the Chicago club where the Pumpkins made their official debut on October 5th, 1988. But Corgan, 33, speaks with the certainty of someone who — after five studio albums and more than 25 million records sold worldwide — has had enough. “I couldn’t have gotten through these last two years,” he says in his hotel suite, “if I didn’t know it was going to come to some conclusion.”
That night, Corgan is a different man. At the Metro, the Pumpkins play a four-hour, thirty-five-song marathon covering the extremes of their canon: the epic swirl of the 1991 B side “Starla”; the punk sizzle of “Cash Car Star,” from the free Internet LP, Machina II/Friends and Enemies of Modern Music; a nine-song set of acoustic pathos. Special guests include pop-punk rascals the Frogs, Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen and Corgan’s father, guitarist William Corgan, who plays with his son on Billy’s memorial hymn for his late mother, “For Martha.”
But Corgan, wearing a long silver tunic that makes him look like a papal Ziggy Stardust, can’t bear to leave. He brings guitarist James Iha, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur back onstage for half an hour of “Silverfuck,” from 1993’s Siamese Dream. “Let’s rock one more time,” Corgan yells before the last crash of drums and guitars. “Not for you” — he beams at the crowd — “because you get it. Let’s rock one more time for all those people who don’t get it, who don’t understand that music overcomes all this fucking bullshit.”
As the other Pumpkins walk off, waving goodbye, Corgan stays to shake hands and bathe in the fans’ love. He bows, hands over his face. When he straightens up and pulls his hands away, the sweat pouring down from his shaven head is overrun with tears.
Chamberlin later says that he ran the gamut of emotions that night: “A myriad of everything the band is — the happiness, the sadness, all of the polar opposites of the heart.” The drummer, 36, also started crying when Iha publicly thanked absent bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, who co-founded the band with Corgan and Iha but who left under clouded circumstances in 1999.
“I just wanted to mention her,” Iha says a few days after the show. “Regardless of whether she’s not playing with us, she’s still with us. She was really important to the band.” Otherwise, Iha, 32, is not into the “mystification,” as he calls it, of the Pumpkins’ end. “It makes me self-conscious. I would have just announced it after the last concert. I would have sent out a fax: ‘To whom it may concern….'”
In his hotel suite, Corgan recalls the day, last May, near the end of a U.S. tour, when he decided to go public with the news on Los Angeles radio: “I called Kevin Weatherly, the program director at KROQ, and said, ‘I have a favor to ask. I want to come in tomorrow and announce the band is breaking up.’ He was like, ‘Can you repeat that?’
“It was two things,” Corgan goes on, running a hand thoughtfully over his clean white scalp. “The band was being judged by this idea that we were still trying to grasp the brass ring, which we knew we weren’t.” In fact, Corgan, Iha, Chamberlin and D’Arcy had agreed in late 1998 to disband after one more album, Machina/ The Machines of God, and a world tour. “And there were the constant rumors with kids. Every time I stepped out of a door, it was, ‘Are you guys breaking up?’ I’m not a good liar. It felt weird to look in a kid’s eyes and say no.”
When Corgan talks of the “slowly deteriorating state” of the Pumpkins, he is not referring only to public history: the 1996 fatal overdose of touring keyboard player Jonathan Melvoin; Chamberlin’s two years in exile for drug abuse; D’Arcy’s exit. There were, Corgan says, “many unresolved issues — mainly, for me, musical. Being this paternal figure doesn’t work. It’s like, ‘Now, class, please pay attention to this next chord sequence.’ And the band doesn’t rehearse as much as it used to. When we had no money, no nothing, there was nothing else to do but be grungy and be in a band. Now there are many other options: ‘I could be skiing.’
“I tried to take a progressive step with Adore,” he says, referring to the band’s 1998 album of gothic balladry, “and internally didn’t get the support I needed. I got the support on a conscientious level: ‘We’re behind you on this.’ But without Jimmy there, and James and D’Arcy not particularly motivated, for whatever reasons, we never got into that next complete musical agenda.”
Machina was to be the Pumpkins’ grand finale. Corgan wrote the songs on Machina and Machina II — forty tracks in all — as a “Ring Cycle” starring the Machines of God, a fictional band portrayed by the Pumpkins in much the same way that the Beatles played a marching orchestra on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Each Pumpkin was to have a tailormade character. “James would have been this superaloof rock guy in high heels and a cape,” Corgan says. “D’Arcy would have been this superspace queen. And it would have been 24/7” — not just onstage and on record but in “all of the interviews and language.” Corgan even drew a flow chart of the story’s seven stages, with connecting arrows to each song title.
“Unfortunately, the band didn’t completely follow through,” he says with a sour laugh. When D’Arcy quit, the project “became more about survival — internal spiritual survival.” (Auf Der Maur, formerly of Hole, replaced D’Arcy, knowing it would only be for a year of touring. “She’s learned in the vicinity of fifty or sixty songs,” Corgan says admiringly of Auf Der Maur. “She said that at the height of Hole, they knew fourteen songs.”)
The Pumpkins briefly considered issuing a double CD of Machina material, à la 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and then offered their label, Virgin, a two-for-one concept: Anyone who bought Machina would get Machina II as a free download. Virgin passed, so Corgan decided to put Machina II on the Internet for anyone who wanted it. “I’m thinking, ‘This is pretty fucking good, I want this music out,'” he says of the sequel. Twenty-five vinyl copies were pressed up as a limited-edition set — an LP and three EPs (“Technically the B sides,” Corgan says) — and given away to fans.
Looking back, Corgan believes some of the hard-pop songs on Machina II — such as “Real Love,” “Cash Car Star” and “Let Me Give the World to You” (first cut in a different version for Adore) — would have made Machina a more commercial record. According to SoundScan, Machina has sold 510,000 copies in the U.S., a precipitous drop in sales from Mellon Collie (4.5 million) and Adore (1.1 million). “It was like watching your kid flunking out of school after getting straight A’s for ten years,” Chamberlin says sadly.
But at the last Metro show, ticket holders received a free CD that showed just how far the Pumpkins had come in those years: a recording of the quartet’s first Metro gig, in 1988. The seven songs are rickety Cure-style indie rock with teasing hints of the double-guitar howl that would bloom on the Pumpkins’ 1991 debut album, Gish. Within six months of that Metro date, the band had dumped that material, and Corgan had written all-new songs.
By the mid-Nineties, the Pumpkins were the most consistent hitmakers of the alternative-rock explosion. Their December 2nd set list was packed with the evidence: “I Am One,” “Today,” “Disarm,” “Cherub Rock,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “1979.”
Corgan’s ambition “was a phenomenal thing,” says Metro owner Joe Shanahan, who booked that ’88 show and was an early supporter of the Pumpkins. “Billy took flak from a lot of locals, because it looked like he was egodriven. But he wanted something better for his band. He wanted to take it to the mountain.”
William Corgan, 53, can attest to that, saying, “From sixteen years old up, Billy knew exactly what he wanted to do, how he was going to do it.” William points out that Billy, an honor-roll student in high school, chose not to go to college even though his grandmother left him a small inheritance for tuition when she died. Billy used the money to finance the Pumpkins’ first single, a version of “I Am One” issued on the Limited Potential label in 1989.
“We had fights about it,” William admits. He now feels nothing but pride. “Billy is very hard to deal with. But he expects that level of excellence in others. If you’re not prepared to deal with that, there are going to be problems.”
The Pumpkins’ individual futures are up in the air. Chamberlin, an auto-racing enthusiast, has received an offer to race at the Sebring Grand Prix in Florida this year. But he has no plans to leap right back into rock drumming. Iha is opening a recording studio in New York with members of the bands Ivy and Fountains of Wayne. “I’ll probably do another solo album,” he says. His first, Let It Come Down, was released in 1998. “But I don’t feel the need to hit the careerist high road right now.”
Corgan insists he will take some time off: “I envision myself laying in a bed and not having to get up.” But he has already met with record labels about a solo deal and talks of working in a musical language different from that of the Pumpkins. He also expresses little remorse for the passing of alternative rock. “My mourning of that era is over,” he says. “Pick up the pieces and let’s make something new.”
Still, he could not resist one more fond goodbye to his first golden era. One night last year, before a European tour, Corgan wrote his final Pumpkins song, simply called “Untitled,” which the band recorded and sent to Chicago radio shortly before the December 2nd Metro show. Although not available as a commercial single, “Untitled” sounds like a lost hit from Siamese Dream — buzzing pop with thick layers of guitar and the soft-loud dynamics of classic alt-rock.
“I still believe in the Alternative Nation,” Corgan insists, “even if MTV doesn’t run the program anymore. I will stand for that, I will speak for that. If I’m your whipping boy or poster child, fine. But the one thing you can’t take away from me is I was there. Our band was there. We fucking lived it.”