By Jennie Orton
CALGARY — In the tumultuous years since ’95, the world has experienced violent, humiliating, innovative, humbling and ultimately inspiring events. Anyone who has lived through the last 19 years has evolved and changed whether they like it or not; bands are not untouched by this grand cycle. Consider Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the two-disc behemoth by the Smashing Pumpkins. This album crystallized not only the mid-90s but also the existential growth cycle of those travelling through them. Billy Corgan is the man who made it all happen. For those of us who clung to the album through the arduous task of coming-of-age as the last members of the over-wrought Generation X, Mellon Collie… was our version of The Wall (1979). Every one of its 28 hemorrhaging tracks gave us a place to put the very real angst and exhaust of developing freedom for ourselves while we grew up.
The lyrics put gravitas to the very real weight of the decade and sonically, the music was multi-layered and large. The decade felt very much like it was the precipice of great change, and Mellon Collie… was the soundtrack to our evolution; ripe with impossible amounts of guitar tracks, string arrangements, and rich production that surrounds you like apocalyptic lava. Sound overwrought? Well, you had to be there. However, the man behind the road map got caught in its wake and what was a foursome of souls has become, after many violent roster changes, Corgan and sole confirmed member, Jeff Schroeder. The December 9th release of Monuments to an Elegy, the 10th studio offering by the Smashing Pumpkins, is Corgan’s latest attempt at keeping the Pumpkins dream alive. But is he succeeding?
Corgan is a polarizing monster of a creative personality. When speaking to a former Smashing Pumpkins fan page administrator in the heyday, he expressed both sympathy and frustration about Corgan.
“He had rock paragon status when [Mellon Collie…] came out…. The music that was capturing a generation in time and he was part of that. So it’s easy to let that go to your head.”
But like many huge fans, Corgan’s apparent tyranny and creative “wrong-turns” have led people, like the aforementioned, to step off the train.
In a loathsome 2012 Sirius interview, Corgan’s bravado-laden megalomania is baited and rewarded with facetious false sycophancy by Howard Stern. He repeatedly strips original band mates of their rightful due and contributions, lauding himself as the sole reason for the Pumpkins’ influence and scope.
“If we don’t last 25 years, we’re fucking idiots,” Corgan recalls saying to the band during their earliest (extremely) hard times.
This belief causes the insistence, despite short departures for solo projects and spin-off groups, of keeping the Smashing Pumpkins moniker despite the long-time absence of the remaining founding members. In contrast, when former Pink Floyd tyrant and overall mastermind Roger Waters tours with his swan song The Wall, he calls it Roger Waters’ The Wall, not Pink Floyd.
In Waters’ words: “I had to make the choice of staying on the treadmill or making the braver decision to travel a more difficult path alone.”
So why keep the Pumpkins name?
In the aforementioned Sirius interview, Corgan responds with, “’Cause it irritates people. It’s a way to stick it back in their eye.”
But is that really it? That defensive flailing is belied by his earnest attempts to recapture the large dose of meaning and catharsis that was Mellon Collie… over the last few years.
In 2009, Corgan announced the lofty ambition of creating a 44-song concept album dubbed Teargarden by Kaleidyscope. The project has since been unveiled as a series of chapters. Vol. 1: Songs for a Sailor and Vol. 2: The Solstice Bare were released in 2009 and 2010. The favourably received Oceania followed in 2012, and then in 2014 Corgan announced the upcoming release of the final two chapters of the Teargarden… saga: Monuments to an Elegy and Day for Night, the latter to be released in 2015.
In these releases you can hear him grasping to regain the richness and attention to detail that made The Smashing Pumpkins a stand-alone entity in the ‘90s. Unlike the general misfire that was 2006’s Zeitgeist, Corgan no longer sounds like he is trying to prove his relevance. Instead, he returns to what he does best by creating a large piece of work around a journey, in the case, the Fool’s Journey from the Tarot. The result is that the Teargarden… albums, particularly the material from Monuments…, is more compressed and less lovingly crafted, more accessible and less operatic. When a track on Mellon Collie… would sound its first notes, it was impossible to guess where the song would ultimately go. Even solid rock numbers like “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” would come in and go out expertly but would hit your emotions in ways you wouldn’t expect. The Monuments …material, though ambitious in theory, fails to surprise you. Sound-wise the tracks are fairly predictable and digestible, and lyrically they fail to take you anywhere new; though this music is well made, it lacks the bravery of the Pumpkins’ greatest works. The quality mostly lies in the fact that, format-wise, it is large and requires investing in the whole product. Rather than laying out his thesis in 140 characters, Corgan favours the long form. Essentially that is what Corgan, and ultimately the Smashing Pumpkins, are all about: the fact that there is no quick fix for the road rash of life’s big ride.
Waters once said, “I’m in competition with myself and I’m losing.” Many could argue that’s also Corgan’s biggest failing. Maybe it is true; maybe Billy Corgan has made himself an island where he can wage war on his own people (i.e., himself and his music) in a constant struggle to stay at the big table until his last breath, ultimately creating a legacy he will never be able to live up to in his own mind.
On the Smashing Pumpkins blog, Corgan put it this way:
“There’s a certain sweating going on in my world visa vie how to best market the MTAE record in the American market. But isn’t that every artist’s dilemma, from T Swift on down? What to ‘give up’ in exchange for: a listen, a chance, all that. BUT the cool thing about SP going forward is we have learned the hard way that many of those opportunities (so called) aren’t worth it. So what does that mean (to you)? It means we’re gonna trust (in many instances) ‘the music’ as made. ‘Cause it got it done the first time, and no amount of marketing, hype, or poor critical review has changed it pro or con in the long run. And as long as I’ve got this catalog of 400 songs (and growing still), there’s a million cool things to be done.”
Buy Monuments to an Elegy on December 9th from Martha’s Music/BMG.AB, Alberta, Billy Corgan, Monuments to an Elegy, The Smashing Pumpkins