Throughout their peak years, the Smashing Pumpkins were often as belittled as they were beloved. The Chicago quartet, led by the ambitious and troubled Billy Corgan, made their first album in 1991, the same year that saw the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. But while the Pumpkins were contemporaneous with the grunge-rock movement, they always had a bit of a street-cred problem with alt-rock purists. The ready-for-prime-time debut Gish had arena-rock production values and betrayed an affinity for pyschedelia and Sabbath, an approach that used just as much luster as grit. The formula was refined on the blockbuster Siamese Dream and, with the help of some memorable videos, cemented their popularity and fixed their darkish image for the general rock public. Never afraid to aim high, Corgan and Co. had rocketed to fame with grandiose personal statements where the vivid peaks and valleys of their music were as emotionally charged as their leader’s lyrics. “Despite all my rage/I’m still just a rat in a cage” was a (sometimes mocked) catchphrase for the decade and the refrain of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, as blistering a chunk of speed grunge as you’d ever want to hear. It was the lead single when Corgan went widescreen in 1995, spearheading the band in this two-hour collection of songs that found him at his restlessly creative peak.
The exceedingly earnest catharsis of many of these tracks struck a chord with millions of young people in Generations X, Y and Z. In a skeptical age, it also left Corgan open to detractors, who could point first at the album’s overwrought title, with its limp play on words. The curtain does open with the titular prelude (thankfully “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” turns out to be an instrumental) and this piano-and-mellotron introduction gives way to a sudden surging crescendo and the dramatic plea for personal connection that is “Tonight, Tonight,” one of the Pumpkins’ most elegant showpieces. (The group seemed to have this thing with silent movies: the first album was named after Lillian Gish and the video for this song was heavily inspired by early French filmmaker/fantasist George Melies, as was the handsome cover art).
But much of the first disc (titled “Dawn to Dusk”) is a lot harsher, with metallic riffing predominant and Corgan plumbing the depths of his inner torment. This domineering a frontman usually overshadows his colleagues and the band was long known for its internal vexations. In the obsessive pursuit of sonic perfection, Corgan had often played the parts of second guitarist James Iha and bassist D’arcy Wretzky in the studio. The group was also known for its constant infighting and drug problems, especially those of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. Mellon Collie benefited by a shift in strategy suggested by co-producer Mark “Flood” Ellis (Alan Moulder and Corgan were also at the controls) that had the group hashing out material in rehearsals beforehand, making for a looser sound than on some of their earlier airtight productions. They also employed two studio rooms concurrently—while Corgan honed his vision in one space, the others could be working out the foundation of the next number. Iha and Corgan team up for some soaring guitar passages here and Wretzky’ bass along with Chamberlin’s thunderous drumming stoke the fires underneath a long line of emotionally fraught songs. This is generational angst music and, especially for those outside the realm, the effect can seem oppressive. But there’s plenty of room for the Pumpkins to show their spaced-out side as well. The first CD ends with the nine-minute dream voyage “Porcelina of the Vast Ocean” and Iha’s acoustic “Take Me Down”, both reminiscent of the underappreciated Meddle-era Pink Floyd of the early Seventies.
But we’re never far from the notion that these 28 songs serve as a platform for Billy Corgan to properly exorcise all his demons. As a child, he was abandoned by his mother and ill-served by his substance-abusing father (he bailed out his incorrigible dad on a drug bust as late as New Year’s Day 2008). Corgan also asserts he was physically abused by his stepmother. His battle with depression was fated to be long lasting. For every reflective gem like “Thirty-Three” there are a few others where Corgan’s adenoidal wail cuts through the wall-of-noise with lines like “I never let on that I was down”, “Peace will not come to this lonely heart”, “I’m in love with my sadness” and even “Love is suicide.” The band’s image, crafted by their leader, also became more complex: the promo shoot for the scorching single “Zero” was one of the first showing Corgan’s famously shaved head and newly feral visage, before long he was appearing in videos as Nosferatu. But it was a diverse look rounded off by the Japanese-American Iha, Wretsky’s goth-chick allure and the quarterback good looks of Chamberlin (intact despite the heavy heroin use). The four come together to take turns singing on the concluding “Farewell and Good Night”—comparable to the Beatles’ soft landing for the “White Album”—a quiet coda for this stormy testament to an era of self-regarding uneasiness.
The Pumpkins’ young and innocent days? From left: Darcy, James Iha, Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin
Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness debuted as a Billboard #1 and would go nine times platinum. The Smashing Pumpkins did not see this high a mountaintop again, either in terms of artistic scope or popular success. Touring behind this album, their supplementary keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died of an overdose after an all-night drug binge with Jimmy Chamberlin. The drummer survived but was fired (he later returned) and the band’s next couple of records never struck the same chord with fans. Since disbanding in 2000, Billy Corgan has had little to do with Iha and Wretsky, becoming estranged, as it were, from his second dysfunctional family. When he revived the S.P. name in 2006 in a fitful comeback attempt, only Chamberlin was back from the original lineup. While still trying to discover a new winning formula in early 2010, Corgan, in a Rolling Stone article called “Rock Star, Interrupted”, said “Do I belong in the conversation about the best artists in the world? Yes, I do.” There are many who would beg to differ—one could imagine the reaction of former Big Black leader (and fellow Chicagoan) Steve Albini, who once said the Pumpkins were about as alternative as REO Speedwagon.
In an age of a million ironic hipsters, where musical integrity is seen to be in direct proportion to its obscurity, Corgan was bound to be the whipping boy of certain factions. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness reaches heights that most modern bands wouldn’t even bother looking up at (“an Icarus with wings that worked” said Time magazine, naming it top album of 1995) but its best quality may end up being Corgan’s knack for seeing life’s smaller defining moments and merging it with the panorama. The shimmering “1979”, modestly tucked away in the middle of the second disc (“Twilight to Starlight” for those keeping score at home), turned out to be the record’s biggest hit song and one of the great singles of the Nineties. In thirty lines of nearly uninterrupted verse, Corgan paints an impressionistic portrait of his generation as they see life spread out before them, all the way to its inevitable passing (“With the headlights pointed at the dawn/We were sure we’d never see an end to it all”). In a Middle America of diminished expectations, these carousing young teens, living “beneath the sound of hope”, are nonetheless touched with a grace that can’t be negated even “in the land of a thousand guilts.” As fitting to its era as Kerouac’s On the Road was to baby boomers, the Samshing Pumpkins’ “1979” is one of those works where the intimate and the universal co-mingle as one—which is about as epic as it gets.