This is going to be a pretty long piece, so get ready. But it’s about music, so it’s not so bad. Promise.
Regular readers of this blog know I harbour deep, long-running hatreds for certain things in life: weakness, pettiness, oppression, hypocrisy, and Bono being among them.
But my hatred for that preening jackass aside, the one thing I genuinely love is music. I’ve had a long and healthy love affair with music of all genres quite literally since the womb.
You name it: my CD collection (ho ho, dating myself, aren’t I?) runs the gamut from jazz to funk to opera to rap, rock and country (yes, country) and punk and everything in between – even the occasional pop album. I have always believed that if you love music like I do, you’ll find at least one artist in every genre you can get into. (Editorial aside: to those posers who only claim to love “all” music – unless you’re willing to drive very slowly down a crowded street, unabashedly blasting it from your speakers without feeling embarrassed, you don’t love it. Go back to your Chamillionaire and Akon singles, you liars.)
But as much as I love music, there are always clouds to cover the silver lining. In the music industry there are lots of clouds, one of which has managed to steal my proverbial goat in a big way today.
In a word? Musicians.
Now before you get all bent out of shape over such an obviously-overreaching statement and rake me over the coals for it (especially if you happen to be my father – and yeah, I’m looking at you, Dad) let me explain.
I think on some level a lot of musicians are driven by ego. It’s almost unavoidable – as a successful performer you’re met with the adoration of the masses (whether that means ten people crammed into your friend’s front room listening to you cover “Harvest Moon”, or ten thousand people crammed into some stadium listening to you play your own stuff), and it’s pretty hard to avoid the swelled head that comes with that kind of recognition. I can definitely understand this because I fall prey to it myself (I base my self-worth on two things: my blog stats, and the number of swooning women in the audience when I play).
But the best musicians I’ve known – the ones I’ve been lucky enough to play with over the years and the ones who’ve influenced what I do – are very good at mitigating their egos. These are players who genuinely appreciate “fans”; the type of people who are welcome at any jam or recording session because a) they’re really good and b) they’re really respectful and cool to be around (read: you can fit their heads through the door). Yeah, I guess you could argue that you need a bit of ego to get ahead in this business, but generally speaking these performers shine on and off stage precisely because they aren’t raging narcissists.
Unfortunately, it seems to me they’re the exception that proves the rule.
An example: when I was a young teen, my friends and I existed in a music-culture dearth. We’d just missed the boat on the whole Seattle grunge movement (I was ten when Cobain died) and all we got on the radio and on MuchMusic was a never-ending shit parade of patently bad techno DJs, boy and girl dance-pop outfits, the first inklings of commercialized hip-hop (as opposed to rap, which was actually good) and the beginnings of that obnoxious post-punk pabulum in which all the bands referenced arbitrary numbers in their names.
Thankfully I grew up in a musical household where I got exposed to lots of different music, but as far as the music of “my generation” went, there was precious little out there I could grab hold of and relate to.
That changed in 1995 when I heard the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness for the first time. I’d not heard much of Corgan and the gang prior to that outside of one or two major anthems from the previous album, so listening to Billy’s whiny vocals paired to a conglomerate of catchy alt-rock and experimental acoustic/multi-instrument/lyric-driven…something…well, I finally felt like someone was speaking to me directly. I distinctly remember the first time I heard Billy sing “I fear that I am ordinary / just like everyone” on a track called “Muzzle” – it was like somebody switched on a light in my head. It was probably the first time I’d ever listened to lyrics where I could confidently stand up and say “Me too!”
My Pumpkins fetish extended backwards from there – in fact, our own Jim Fairthorne was instrumental in introducing me to the rest of their catalogue. We’d sit around his room listening over and over to Siamese Dream, Gish, Pisces Iscariot and a host of B-sides and rarities Jim happened upon over the years. With every new song, every poetic lyric, my teenage fascination grew. I’d read articles in guitar magazines and other music rags detailing how difficult Billy was to work with; how the rest of the band resented his micromanagement and power tripping, but I dismissed it in that characteristically youthful, idealistic way: surely the man who wrote “I’ll tear my heart out / before I get out” was just incredibly dedicated to his music, not some megalomaniacal dictator bending the band to his will.
Yeah. Then Adore came out.
Okay, everybody gets a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to making a bad record. You can’t please everybody all the time, and to be fair, Jimmy Chamberlain was in rehab at the time, so the band was already fragmented. But refusing to play anything but your new stuff at live shows? Cramming your failed attempt at “going in a new direction” down the throats of your fan base when all they want from you is what you’re actually good at? And then having the gall to say you’re giving up the ghost because you can’t compete with the Britney Spears generation?
Oh, come on Billy. Did you consider the possibility you might have alienated every fan you had with antics like that? I know I was disenchanted in a big way, and I was far from the only one. By the time Machina was released (and to be fair, that was a pretty good album) it was too late. Nobody cared anymore. And things were already so bad between band members (Iha and D’Arcy’s failed relationship, to start, as well as Jimmy’s continued drug problems and the fact that everyone hated Billy) that the band rapidly went the way of the woolly mammoth – extinct, and that’s where it should have stayed.
But Billy Corgan’s ego is massive enough to generate its own gravity, so instead of gracefully retiring into obscurity he launched Zwan – which might as well have been a Pumpkins’ tribute act circa 1993, because upon hearing it I remember thinking “gee, this is pretty good, but I liked it better when it was called Siamese Dream”. It was great, in a darkly ironic way – Corgan doing the singer/guitarist thing, Jimmy on drums, some hipster girl on bass and an Iha clone playing guitar. It was like Bizarro Pumpkins – too weird to survive, thankfully.
And then there was Zeitgeist. A friend and fellow Pumpkins fan from back in the day sent me the single, and I got halfway through it before I threw up a little in my mouth and deleted it from my computer. Again, I wasn’t alone. The response to Zeitgeist (ranking #2 in “most pretentious reunion title ever”, just behind Chinese Democracy) was so poor, I figured even Billy would have to hang up his appropriately-named Born to Lose guitar and go back to Illinois. I mean, check out this juvenile display of him arguing with a fan in New York – isn’t it time to hang it up when you’re fighting with your few remaining fans? Nice comeback by the way, Billy. Clever stuff.
Sadly, not even his fans telling him he sucks was enough to shut him up. March 2009 saw yet another reunion attempt, except this time the only guy to show up was Corgan himself. Even Jimmy Chamberlain had better things to do (one assumes he’s found a hobby other than divesting Asia of all its poppies). According to Corgan, the new songs “sound like spring”, whatever the fuck that means. I’m willing to bet they sound more like an over-the-hill irrelevant former rock icon clinging desperately to a franchise name that once brought him fame and fortune but now rouses nothing but pathos and mild irritation.
I guess I didn’t mention that part – he’s releasing this crap under the Smashing Pumpkins name, despite the fact he’s the only original member left. Oh, and he called D’Arcy a “mean-spirited drug addict” and blamed James Iha for breaking up the band. Apparently Jimmy Chamberlain seems to think it’s Corgan’s “right” to continue under the Pumpkins’ name, but frankly if I were D’Arcy or James, I would be either a) right pissed off at him for running off with the name of something I’d been a major part of creating, or b) running as fast as I could into obscurity to get as far away from this inevitable train wreck as I possibly could. I don’t know about you, but at no point in the last ten years would I have wanted my name and Billy Corgan’s listed in the same place unless the context involved the phrases “broken bottle”, “Corgan’s larynx” and “found innocent – jury applauds public service”.
Ultimately, the whole thing is upsetting to me, because like I said at the beginning of that hate-fest, I was once a devout Pumpkinhead. I respected their integrity – everybody told them releasing a double-disc concept album in 1995 would be career suicide, but they did it anyway, and went on to create what remains to be my favourite modern rock album of that era. But the level of egotism that probably drove Billy to succeed to begin with has led to his utterly laughable downfall. This shit was over years ago, and it’s high time somebody took Old Yeller Corgan out behind the woodshed to tearfully but mercifully end his career at the business end of a twelve-gauge.
Come to think of it, maybe Kurt Cobain had the right idea after all – he left the scene (albeit violently and melodramatically) at the height of his popularity; since then his band has shit roses all over the annals of music history and the former members have gone on to be successful musicians in their own right (most notably Dave Grohl), instead of slowly declining into the vaguely amusing shades of a bygone era represented by the ex-Pumpkins.
But the fact that Corgan is still, to this day, dragging the once-proud Pumpkins name through the mud genuinely pisses me off. The idea of a band continuing on without key members isn’t new – witness Roger Waters suing David Gilmour over the rights to the lucrative Pink Floyd name, or Jim Kale getting ownership of the Guess Who name once Bachman and Cummings left (though that situation was resolved amicably). Even today, members of hard-rock band Fear Factory face a similar conundrum – former enemies Burton (singer) and Dino (lead guitar) reconciled after a lengthy feud ending in the disbanding of the original foursome, only to go back out on tour under the Fear Factory name – much to the chagrin of the two ousted members.
Ego? Money? What fuels these sorts of feuds? Probably it’s a little of both. Certainly there’s a lot of cash tied up in the Smashing Pumpkins name, just as there would have been in the cases of Floyd, Guess Who and Fear Factory. So why did Waters sue when Cummings and Bachman gave their blessing – and why aren’t the former Pumpkins taking legal action against a guy they don’t particularly like to begin with?
And then there’s the ego – yeah, Corgan started the Pumpkins, and I guess based on that logic you could agree with Jimmy Chamberlain that it’s his “right” to do what he likes with the name. But to me, a band is more than the sum of its front man. The Pumpkins’ sound wasn’t just about Billy’s nasally vocals – Iha’s guitar style is singularly distinctive, as is Chamberlain’s frenetic drumming – if I played you a Pumpkins song right now, you’d recognize it because it all fits in a recognizable way. This archetypal Pumpkins song shows what I mean.
I see it this way: I play in a two-man acoustic band called Nerds With Guitars – I came up with the name and I guess you could call me the “front man”, but it just wouldn’t be Nerds With Guitars if I played with anybody other than “Guitar” Sean May. He’s just as much the band as I am; he’s talented as hell; and in my estimation he’s irreplaceable.
Maybe I’m just sentimental because there are only two guys in the band, and it’s not as though I’m not opposed to the idea of a band changing its lineup, but I feel like there should be an amicable agreement about these sorts of things between everyone who helped make a band what it is. To me, the Smashing Pumpkins were a four-piece revolutionary rock outfit borne of a very specific time and place in history by four very unique and talented individuals. Maybe it’s idealistic, but the Pumpkins were, are and always will be Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlain, D’Arcy Wretsky and James Iha – any other band won’t be the same no matter what they call themselves.
I guess my point in all of this is that, even though music is an industry and a commodity, even though it’s about money and marketing and a host of other decidedly non-artistic goals, some part of it still has to be about the music for its own sake. It has to be – otherwise, what the hell are you doing with that guitar? Ego can fuel art, but it also gets in art’s way. And when that happens, the art suffers.
My final word? Quit raping the corpse of your career, Billy Corgan. Let us remember you and your band the way you once were – an eclectic powerhouse that changed the way my generation thought about rock music. Leave the pumpkin where it smashed and move on with your life.