Smashing Pumpkins: Life After Death
"To destroy is always the first step in any creation," wrote the late American poet e.e. cummings. For Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan, destruction and creation are a way of life.
"A good artist is willing to die many times over," Corgan says during a recent phone interview. "What's funny is, I've died so many times."
Each "death," however, has ignited a resulting rebirth. From 1988 to 2000, Corgan headed one of alternative rock's reigning bands — one that endured years-long obstacles like emotional dysfunction, personal conflict, drug addiction, and even death.
But even those obstacles couldn't keep Corgan from pursuing the band he still adores, as we've witnessed in the six years since he regrouped Smashing Pumpkins with a wholly new lineup. Only Corgan himself can best describe his personal ups and downs through it all, the births and rebirths, the destruction and resulting creation.
"I've had the rise and the fall, and these years since then have been a clusterfuck," he admits.
Corgan is now the Pumpkins' only remaining original member, though it seems these days he is growing used to that isolation.
The lead Pumpkin was home alone on a Saturday afternoon, speaking from his home in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Highland Park. He was wordy and well-spoken; most notably, however, he was open. No topic was off-limits, Corgan informed us. The conversation's only pauses were brief moments when he tossed toys to his cats.
"Sometimes, I'll interview with a journalist who's obviously just not a fan, and they just look at me, like, 'Wow, you're still fucking here!'" Corgan says. "No one's quite sure what we are anymore, or why we're still here — but we are — and we're still headlining festivals and kicking ass."
Nowadays, the "we" Corgan refers to is his new Pumpkins: guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Nicole Fiorentino, and drummer Mike Byrne. Last year, the group released Oceania, the first Pumpkins album since 2007's Zeitgeist.
Oceania is, according to Corgan, an album of "isolation and love," two themes that seem to rule his life. And while it's been much better received than the critically battered Zeitgeist, it still lacks the luster of those "Siamese Dream-sounding songs" Corgan claims he isn't interested in rewriting.
"Those songs came from an organic feeling, from the drugs I was doing in that moment, whatever," he says. "But once that's done, its gone.
"It's like trying to recreate a fuck," he crudely compares. "It's still pretty good, but it's not going to be as good."
Corgan likens himself to befuddling '70s comic Andy Kaufman in this situation.
"I remember being a kid in the '70s, and watching Kaufman do that conga routine on Saturday Night Live," he says. "But I'd be bummed out because I wanted him to do Mighty Mouse! So I know that feeling. Like, everyone asks me, 'Can't you go back to being the screaming, angry guy?'"
But Corgan is simply not interested. Siamese Dream was released two decades ago; it seems impractical to expect a songwriter like him to remain stagnant in his craft. Those hypercritical comparisons persist, but Corgan hasn't let the criticism affect his self-perception over time.
"When you're riding the wave of a cultural zeitgeist and you're on MTV every five seconds," he says, referring to those '90s-era power-Pumpkins, "It's a lot easier to get your dick hard about stuff. People try to put me in this box of, 'You were powerful [in the '90s], but now you're not.' As far as I'm concerned, I've been powerful all along."
And although Corgan is often lauded as one of rock's savviest businessmen, his personal definition of power has nothing to do with money, record sales or public perception.
"Any spiritual life practice — Guru, Jesus, Buddha, whoever — tells you that true power has nothing to do with material power," he says. "It has everything to do with passion and consistency. Those are the hallmarks I've set my eyes on in my life."
"Consistency" might not come to mind when looking at the big picture. The Pumpkins' checkered history includes their indie/underground origins, multiplatinum mid-'90s heyday, messy breakup, and hit-and-miss reunion with the subsequent lineup shuffle. At the center remains the man who withstood it all, Corgan himself.
It's clear that Corgan's "consistency" is his passion, through the ups and downs and irreparable relationships he's stomached. The front man has endured the turbulence for one sole purpose: to continue living his life with passion, in the best way he knows, through music.
"To re-embrace what I once loved about my work has been a warming process for me," he says of Oceania. "Because it's a good, earned feeling now. The difference with Oceania is, I've found harmony again — and when [band members] actually like each other, it translates to the music."
The praise for his current bandmates is quite the contrast to the rollercoaster of bitter emotion Corgan exudes when the conversation shifts to his former bandmates.
"My relations with the old band are so piss-poor," he says, definitively. "But the issues of a band are so complex; they're politically, socially and financially involved. Like, what am I supposed to say when Jimmy [former drummer Chamberlin] leaves the band and immediately writes a blog saying he won't play for money again? You're talking about the drummer who ODed three times, you know?"
The topic clearly opens a Pandora's box crammed full of lingering resentment and pain.
"There's no way to properly convey what it was like to be in that band," Corgan states. "And the fucked-up stuff is ten times more fucked-up than what the world even knows — but that's the mystery and magic of the band.
"How could we have these incredible acts of betrayal happening," he asks, "yet turn around and be able to surmount this impossible mountain — and, for a brief time, stand there unchallenged? Then of course implode in our own hubris and greed, but that's what makes it a fascinating tale."
He's quick to drop his gloves when dissing his former bandmates, yet Corgan can't mask the deep bond they once shared.
"I was in love with the Smashing Pumpkins," he says wistfully. "I really believed in what we were doing. But I idealized the band [members], which, of course, overlooked their incredibly flawed human personas, and which now bites me in the ass as they rear their heads for lawsuits."
His tone turns from emotive longing to bitter resentment in just a few seconds, as he speaks of the former group he once so "loved."
As our conversation wraps, Corgan becomes reflective. A guy known for his tough talk, he suddenly seems defenseless, candid about the memories our conversation stirred — memories of great success, and the greater demise of the longest and most intense love affair of his life: his band.
"It's been a long, weird journey," he muses. "If somebody would have told me 15 years ago that at 45 I'd be living in a big house with two dogs and two cats, with no wife and no girlfriend, I wouldn't have believed them.
"My life did not turn out the way I'd planned it," he reveals, emphatically. "Not even close."
For, admittedly, the first time ever, it's possible to see Corgan as unequivocally human, as Oceania's themes of "isolation and love" suddenly make perfect sense.
"But being healthy, humbled by God, musically engaged, and surrounded by good people," Corgan offers, "those are the moments I'm okay with, because maybe this was the way it was meant to be all along."
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