So let's go back to the beginning. I had been running Metro, a rock club in Chicago, for seven years when I first heard the music of The Smashing Pumpkins. It was the Summer of 1988. The bass player, D'arcy, would serve me my wake-up cup of coffee at a java joint down the street. The guitar player, James Iha, would ride his motocross bike everywhere - to practice, up the steps of my club, onto the stage, and perform little riding tricks. And the singer and guitar player, Billy Corgan, would work at a used record store a few blocks away and try to figure out ways to get a show at my club. They sent me a tape. It was Goth-tinged, but with a Doberman's bite, Bauhaus meets Led Zeppelin, a cool British sound crossed with Midwestern hard rock. I asked them to send me some more songs and told them they could have a show if they ever found a drummer. Billy sent me a new tape for the gig, and said they'd found a drummer - or so I was led to believe.
I gave them the show, which was October 5, 1988. Only later did I find out that they didn't have a drummer yet. Billy just knew he could find this drummer before the gig. Did he lie to me? No. Was he convinced and ambitious and confident that he was going to find the right guy? Yes. Just in time, a musician in a local band hooked them up with Jimmy Chamberlin, a kid from Joliet who was playing in a lounge band, but who was a monster player with jazz training. He was the guy they showed up with on October 5. They were one of three bands on a Wednesday night bill - three bands for three bucks. And they made $50.
From that night on they paid dues likes no band I've seen. The Pumpkins used to sprinkle in covers in their set that their friends enjoyed, the loyal handful of 50 to 100 or so. Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla," UFO's "Light's Out." Classic hard-rock anthems. Billy had hair past his shoulders, paisley pullover shirts and a bit of eye makeup. James would wave the devil's horns to these cool hipsters in the crowd, who wouldn't know how to react. The Pumpkins were having fun and they could play. I kept thinking, "How can this kid Billy be this good at this age?" Then I found out his father was an accomplished jazz musician and clearly he put this kid in a room with a guitar at a very young age and said, "Practice."
The band never lost that work ethic. They rehearsed in an unheated, unairconditioned space within shouting distance of Wrigley Field, where the Cubs play. And they were writing songs at a prolific rate. Their fourth show ever was at Metro in November 1988, opening for Jane's Addiction. What I liked is that even though nobody knew them, they came prepared. They had a circle of friends that helped them with their gear. They had a sound engineer who brought a reel to reel tape recorder to gigs, so they could tape their shows and learn from them. They took themselves seriously even when no one else did.
I started getting these homemade tapes from Billy, in his handwriting. Pink cassette packages, with flowers and a profile of this androgynous girl drawn on them. He was writing songs with titles like "Spiteface," "Screaming," "Bleed," "Armed to the Teeth." It was flowery and psychedelic, but also hard, metallic, angry. I passed a few tapes around to record companies and the rejection letters came in. I've got some great ones from very important members of the record industry saying, "This band will never amount to anything," and "They have no commercial potential whatsoever." The band felt rejected by the local community, as well. The Chicago sound was defined by underground punk bands like Naked Raygun, and Big Black, and Rights Of The Accused. They thought The Pumpkins were a bunch of poseurs, but what The Pumpkins were doing right along was blowing the genre trappings sky high. The ambition, the work ethic were there, and Billy had this idea that maybe rock had been done wrong for a while. That maybe we do need rock heroes again, but ones who are a little more real, fallible, human. Ones who had their eyes open and weren't going to fall into the traps of excess and drug abuse. He was a white, middle-class kid from the suburbs trying to stand up straight and blow the rock pretension right out the window.
In 1989 and '90, they're still playing gigs for $100, $200, as headliners and as the opening act for everyone from Camper Van Beethoven to My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, and they're selling out every time they play Chicago. They start to travel out of town, and I'd get calls at 2 in the morning: "The van is breaking down and we're stuck somewhere on the way to Detroit," "There are four of us in a hotel room and we have no money." People are starting to come at them with deals, but they keep their heads down, and become a great working band. Their rehearsals are something to watch. They're playing songs over and over until they get it right. Billy micromanaged everything, maybe to a fault. He drove them hard, he drove himself hard. Jimmy Chamberlin was very much in sync with that. He was cocky and a great musician. He and Billy mounted this racehorse and forced James and D'arcy to keep up, and they did. Billy, from the start, had this vision for the band that they would appeal not just to a certain genre or niche, but to everyone, an everyman sort of group. They kept their ticket prices under 10 bucks, because they knew what it was like to work at a record store or a coffee shop and not have a lot of money for concert tickets.
They play a showcase at Lounge Ax in July 1990. The labels fly in. It was hot and sweaty and reckless. Billy says to me beforehand, "We're going to rock so hard they won't know what hit 'em, and if they don't get it, fuck 'em." They were playing a set as hard and fast and driven and loud as they would at Metro, at a club one-fourth of the size. It made you take a step back just to breathe. If you couldn't feel it, you were probably dead. They get signed to Caroline, and they go up to Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, to make gish with Butch Vig. On April 11, 12 and 13, 1991, they stay up continually to finish the record. Billy comes with Butch into my office with the finished record. Butch listens to the whole record with us, then goes downstairs and plays at the club with his band, Spooner.
Late '91, The Pumpkins tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam. In March of '92, Pearl Jam headlines at Metro, and Eddie Vedder is climbing the rafters. Billy comes out in a dress and joins them for the encore. People are still trying to figure out The Pumpkins, and here comes hard-rocker Billy in a dress, trying to break down some more classifications. A few months later, they play an acoustic show at Metro. Only they put the audience on the stage, and the band on the floor. Classic Corgan, classic Pumpkins: Spur of the moment, unconventional, unexpected.
August 1992. They play the Rosemont Horizon, a big arena, opening for Guns 'N' Roses. They put the full rock act on. There was nothing pretty about it. No ballads. Axl and Slash are quite the darlings at this point, and Billy and The Pumpkins want to make damn sure they don't get slam dunked. Here's this "underground psychedelic alternative act" opening up for the big rock gods. Billy bashed up the stage with his guitar. There was a little bit of hatred. Anger. Not too many years later he sold out the Horizon three straight nights. But this was the night he first got their attention.
1993. Siamese Dream is recorded in Georgia, again with Butch Vig. I remember hearing "Disarm" and telling Billy, "This is your rock anthem, your lighter song - a million Bics!" The band was ready to break up when they came out of the studio because the recording process was so intense. Jimmy starts playing hooky, falling into bad habits. Billy finishes the record pretty much on his own, with James and D'arcy's help.
Lollapalooza 1994. Billy's playing basketball backstage with the Beastie Boys, these scrappy New York street ball guys in gym shoes, shorts, and Billy is in his work boots and black jeans. Billy is playing hard nosed, playing to win. Like he always does, with everything. He pushed himself on the court in the same way he pushes his band, his record company, management, producers. He calls it getting on The Pumpkins rollercoaster. Once you get on it, you're in for a real ride, so hold on.
1995. They make Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. They're at the top of their game. They're about to headline Madison Square Garden, the pantheon, in the Summer of 1996. Then, Jonathan Melvoin, their tour keyboardist, dies of a heroin overdose. Jimmy Chamberlin gets kicked out of the band for drug abuse. They make the decision to carry on. Matt Walker takes over on drums, and they rally around the cause, and they finally play their sold-out shows at The Garden.
The tour ends. Billy writes. They regroup to make Adore. They could have redone the best four or five songs off Mellon Collie and been assured of another hit, but instead they turn off into this other area. This is the first record without Jimmy Chamberlin. Matt plays some drum parts, and leaves the band to concentrate on his other musical projects. Joey Waronker and Matt Cameron help out a bit. Bon Harris of Nitzer Ebb adds some loops. Brad Wood coproduces a few tracks. But when it's all said and done, it's down to James, D'arcy, Billy and a drum machine. Full circle but with new twists.
When they started out, they had to throw the rock down hard to get noticed. It had to be in your face. Now there's room for quirky songs like "The Tale Of Dusty And Pistol Pete," which has the feel of something from the Beatles' White Album. And "Annie-Dog," which has a quality like Lou Reed on Berlin. Now they've stripped away some of the noise and the anger. The lyrics are more direct. The music more intimate. It's a crystal clear windowpane and you can see straight through into who they are.
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