In no way is this any kind of definitive history...just a bit on my personal history with a band. After recently spending a conflicting evening watching Billy Corgan and a band he calls The Smashing Pumpkins close out a tour in support of Oceania at The Barclays Center in Brooklyn, I felt compelled to reflect on a band that once meant everything to me, a band I can now say I know little to nothing about, except that what is currently being billed as The Smashing Pumpkins is a razor-thin shell of its former self.
First off, this is The Pumpkins...this is the band I was once in awe of, albeit it at the tender age of 14.
Take a look at them. Four somewhat mysterious midwesterners, making a massive mark on what the 90s would sound like for a teenager in rural Pennsylvania. Siamese Dream was surreally ambitious, emotionally affecting rock music. It was pop, yet somehow colored by goth, metal, psychedelia, and wispy shoe-gazey stuff well before I had any idea what that term meant. It looked and sounded something like this:
At 14 I of course had no hope of ever seeing Billy, James, D'arcy, and Jimmy in person...no cool older brother who might sneak me away to the original, touring version of Lollapalooza or anything like that. Instead, my encounters came via MTV and repeated viewings of Viuphoria, the band's rather excellent live collection that the video above was lifted from, on VHS. On weekends my friends and I would scour the internet in search of guitar tabs so that we might one day sound something like our idols. We wouldn't, of course, especially after evolving into the behemoth of a band that their epic, double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness would make them.
Oh, and their look would change a bit as well.
By 1996 The Pumpkins were the most bizarre looking band on MTV; bald and beautiful aliens sent from Chicago to rock harder than any grunge band ever could, yet capable of churning out some of the most exquisite sounds of the 90s. Remember this?
With the band's new status came bigger arenas, including a stop about two hours away in State College, Pa. A couple of my best friends and I thought we might have to find a way to borrow a parent's car, scheme some elaborate excuse as to why we were out all night, and drive ourselves to the show. Whatever punishment awaited us upon our triumphant return would easily be worth it. Turns out all we really had to do was ask my friend's dad to take us. Turns out he was pretty damn cool like that - sitting outside a Rage Against The Machine/Wu Tang Show a few years later that just happened be in Pittsburgh the same night we were visiting for a tour of that city's colleges.
It was around this time that the unraveling of my favorite band had begun. The night before the most important concert of my life the band cancelled the gig because Billy came down with laryngitis. It would be several months before they would make it back to State College, and by then they had been marred by tragedy. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlain and Jonathan Melvoin, the band's touring keyboard player, had overdosed on heroin. Melvoin lost his life and Chamberlain lost his job. The original line-up would never play together on the same stage again.
Still the show would be the biggest of my childhood. An absolutely mind boggling, I-can't-believe-I-am-actually-here-albeit-in-the-last-row-of-this-damn-arena experiencing what is surely the most important musical moment of my lifetime. My friends and I even bootlegged the show so we could listen to the terribly chintzy recording whenever we wanted (and trade it for other equally chintzy recordings on the internet).
Of course I'm a lot older now. The band's stop in Brooklyn would never live up to the allure of that show so long ago. Still, I was banking on a little of that old excitement. At the very least, a dose of feel good sentiment that might send me home to blow the dust off all those old CDs for a few days.
Instead, Barclays got a band that now looked like this:
A band whose stand-in D'arcy is so damn young she was recently rumored to be one of the little girls on this album cover (It was a hoax):
Instead, the band's show at Barclays felt tired, disappointingly undramatic, and worse yet, overly defiant. Billy and the band churned through all of Oceania before throwing a few "classic" scraps to the half empty arena. In fairness, it is an album that's sold over 100K records and is surprisingly ambitious at this point in the band's career (it's part of a 44-song collection The Pumpkins have been doling out over the last year or so). It even sounds like something Butch Vig, the band's producer on all those old albums, might have put his production stamp on (he didn't). But by the time the band got to songs like "Tonight, Tonight" and "Disarm," well...I was spent, exhausted and frustrated. My girlfriend had left early, my mate just as bored with the show as I was. It was just too much for a now casual Pumpkins fan searching for nothing but a little nostalgia to get him through the night.
In the end, Billy thanked us for sticking by him all these years (I haven't, obviously...). It was a nice touch, but I can't help combing through the words he wrote in The Chicago Tribune and Sun Times on the occasion of the release of his solo album, The Future Embrace, back in 2005.
"For a year now I have walked around with a secret, a secret I chose to keep. But now I want you to be among the first to know that I have made plans to renew and revive The Smashing Pumpkins. I want my band back, and my songs, and my dreams. In this desire I feel I have come home again."
It's just disappointing that his future embrace ended up looking and sounding like this, something I'm not sure a lot of old Pumpkins fans will ever feel at home with.