Billy Corgan

Smashing Presumptions

Music Features Billy Corgan
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Billy Corgan

In the big book of Rock Star career templates, there’s a special entry for the middle-aged artist who finds himself standing in the wreckage of the band that made his name, shading his eyes from the harsh glare of public attention, looking for a trail that bypasses the wilderness of VH1-trivia purgatory. On this page you’ll find an advisory checklist of actions said rock star should most definitely avoid, a minefield inventory of pitfalls and rock clichés proven through decades of music history to be the quickest way for an artist to slide headfirst into obsolescence. The text’s skull-and-crossbones header reads: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, for ye shall be playing your greatest hits at state fairs in no time.”

In the four years since Smashing Pumpkins hung up their alterna-goth jerseys and went their separate ways, Billy Corgan appears to be following this cautionary blueprint like he’s carrying a well-worn copy in his wallet. As devoted fans and casual observers watch in respective worry and scorn, Corgan has seemingly made every eye-rolling move in the book, traveling from Zwan’s rapid flame-out through a poetry collection (2004’s Blinking With Fists) and, recently, venomous Internet blogging, only to land on the inevitable solo career. To the delight of pigeonholers everywhere, it looks like he’s made the expectedly smooth segue from eccentric, prolific, megalomaniac genius to pretentious, bitter celebrity on a downward trajectory.

And yet something about this portrayal doesn’t feel right; it seems too easy. While Corgan’s post-Pumpkins activities have followed a familiar five-step program of recovery from breakup trauma, his attitude in every endeavor appears laced with a shrewd perspective on exactly what he’s doing, a confrontational spirit that undermines the potential caricature his actions threaten to draw.

“At points when I do say to myself things like ‘I’m going to do a poetry book,’ there’s a voice that crops up in my head that says ‘you’re probably going to take shit for this,’” Corgan explains, “‘but you wouldn’t be the walking cliché that you are if you ultimately cared what people think.’ Yes, the facts present these very cogent pictures of ambition, crass decisions, public pronouncements, but it’s the process that forces you into that. As a musician you just want to do what you want to do.”

The artist who deftly soundtracked countless teenagers’ tortured ’90s survival, spent approximately two years wearing a shirt proclaiming him a “ZERO,” and made perhaps the most notorious symbolic hairstyle change in alternative-rock history, now sits across from me in an absurdly incongruous setting—an old-fashioned pancake house in the bricks-and-Borders suburbia of Highland Park, Ill. He’s even more translucently pale than his MTV history suggests, but Corgan in the flesh is nowhere near the ghoul you’d expect from the footage—his floppy Cubs hat immediately unravels 15 years of Vampire King image-making.

Befitting the sleepy charm of the fairly ritzy northern Chicago burg where we chat, Corgan comes off as a man at peace with his surroundings, even when bristling at public suppositions that have nagged him for years and presumptuous interviewers who misinterpret the musical focus of his upcoming solo debut, TheFutureEmbrace. “When I was 25 I felt I had nothing to lose and I made some pretty good art. Now I think I’m back to that point, but it’s a different kind of nothing to lose. Back then it was nothing to lose because I was a piece of shit and nobody cared about me, so what did it matter if I died in a bloody heap of pedals and cords and wires. Now I have nothing to lose because my life does matter, I’m not going to go with the program any more, it’s not interesting to me.”

Though Corgan is still prone to launch a trademark flurry of verbal punches at his favorite targets—former bandmates, uncooperative record labels and the marketing machines of contemporary music—each rant is delivered in an even tone, with a slight grin belying his awareness that he’s giving the tape recorder what it craves. “You have to understand that literally everything I’ve done publicly has caused some sort of lightning-rod reaction,” he confides, and though he repeatedly denies worrying about the public perception of his actions, he doesn’t shy away from opportunities to set the record straight. It’s clear that if the mid-career checklist is indeed buried in his pocket, he’s not just unwittingly checking boxes but actively subverting expectations.

1. Hastily form a post-breakup band.
From the moment the last distorted note of the Smashing Pumpkins’ career trailed off at the end of the band’s marathon 2003 farewell show at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago, the countdown clock began ticking toward what everyone thought would be a fast start to the Billy Corgan solo career. After all, Corgan had long been regarded a solo artist in band’s clothing, reportedly tracking the lion’s share of guitar and bass parts himself while handling 99 percent of songwriting duties. To lock himself in a studio and begin work on The Billy Corgan Experience seemed the next logical step.

Instead, Corgan juked everyone by recruiting a new set of collaborators: “I’ve never really wanted to make a solo record,” he says now, impending releases aside. “I never felt it was necessary. I liked playing in a band; I think that was shown by the fact that I formed another band right after the Pumpkins.” Debuting almost exactly a year after the Pumpkins split, Zwan hit the scene as a supergroup for members of the Sub Pop Singles Club, featuring indie-rock Hall of Famers Matt Sweeney (Chavez) and David Pajo (Slint, Tortoise, Papa M) alongside Corgan’s loyal drummer Jimmy Chamberlin.

While the alternative all-star lineup was reminiscent of certain classic-rock predecessors’ attempts to delay going solo—Clapton & Blind Faith, Crosby & CSN, et al—Corgan insists it wasn’t a conscious effort to draft musicians with history, describing it as more of a domino process of indie-rock networking. Ultimately, however, it was the underground loyalties of Zwan’s component parts that broke up the band, according to an obviously still-miffed Corgan.

“They proved me right, which is that the whole indie thing is just a pose. I can’t say that about everybody, but our general feeling in the Pumpkins always was that people took the indie route because deep down they knew they didn’t have the talent to make it on the mainstream level. And those people proved to me, that deep down they know they don’t have the talent, or the focus, or the true love of people to want to really get out there and try and connect with people. It’s really about them. And fundamentally Jimmy and I disagreed with them.

“If you’re going to play music at a high level to a large audience, it can’t really be about you. You have to make it seem like it’s about you, but it has to really be about others, it’s really about sharing. And their indie-cred mentality really is about, ‘What’s it got to do with me?’ and ‘Can I find people who agree with me, who think like me, who dress like me, smoke pot like me?’ They’re just assholes. It’s simple. I could go on with a thousand stories, but you can put that in big capital letters: THEY’RE JUST ASSHOLES. They really didn’t care. They didn’t really care about the music, they didn’t really care about the fans … They really just want to live like pieces of shit and live their little weird creepy lives. End of story.”

Then again, Corgan’s fanbase was hardly clamoring for Zwan to have a run as lengthy as the Pumpkins’. Zwan’s Mary, Star of the Sea sold disappointingly despite a strong MTV and rock-radio push, and critically it was considered less than a complete return to form. With a three-guitar attack and a sunnier tone to Corgan’s songwriting, Zwan seemed less a fresh new project than a reaction to the popularity-shedding latter days of Smashing Pumpkins, which found the band exploring increasingly dark territory and Corgan incorporating more and more electronic textures.

Today Corgan admits regretting the Zwan era. “I’m glad that people got something out of it, but it was a total waste of my time. But maybe it was something I needed to do, to figure out there were things I cared about, or to appreciate the band that I was in.” Over in less than a year, Zwan dissolved when bassist Paz Lenchantin left with Pajo to return to his Papa M projects. Once again, Billy Corgan had lost his band.

2. Commence solo career!
There’s one thing Billy Corgan and I agree on regarding TheFutureEmbrace; namely that it returns to a set of formative influences mostly lacking in the Pumpkins’ sound. “I was very into ’80s New Wave and all that. … Certain things come back around, and that feeling has just come back around. In some ways the Pumpkins’ wall of guitars was a betrayal of what we originally were—the sort of more Cure-ish, gothy thing. We went with the rock and it worked out fine, but this is really closer to the sound that I like.”

That sound was occasionally hinted at in the Smashing Pumpkins catalog: “1979,” the self-described “total rip-off of New Order,” and Adore’s keyboard and programming dalliances. But never has Corgan engulfed his music so deeply in the sound of his high-school years, emulating bands that defined the intersection of New Wave and synth-pop like Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen and Depeche Mode. Listening to the album, it struck me as his least guitar-oriented work to date.

BILLY: “I totally disagree.”
ME: “Well, certainly you’re taking a different approach to guitar with this record …”
BILLY: “Well, yeah, there’s only one guitar. I’m trying to make one guitar sound as good as one guitar needs to sound. … I think the guitar is the centerpiece of the album.”
ME: “Okay then, you can at least grant me that TheFutureEmbrace contains more keyboards than usual …”
BILLY: “Honestly, it’s the same amount of keyboards. There were plenty of keyboards on the Zwan album, but people wouldn’t know that because I hid them.”
ME: “So the keyboards are more of a focus on the solo record than on the Zwan album?”
BILLY: “I don’t think so.”

So don’t take my word for it, but TheFutureEmbrace sounds to me like the album Corgan wanted to make with Adore, a love letter to the groups that defined college rock in the ’80s. Whether starring guitars or keyboards, it finds Corgan relying less on the arena-rock dynamics of the Pumpkins and Zwan and concentrating more on atmospherics and a subtle melancholy—what he describes as “this cold, grey, steely thing.” For the first time, Corgan’s music even sounds close to dance-floor compatible, the lack of a live drummer pushing him toward more kinetic beats on songs like “Mina Loy (M.O.H)” and “A100.”

“I think I’ve matured to the point where I’m really not thinking about what other people are doing,” Corgan responds when asked how the album reflects his current influences. “I’m lucky enough to have enough talent to fake certain things, and there are certain times in my life when I faked my way through a feeling or a sound because it was something I wanted, but it wasn’t necessarily how I felt or who I was. This [album] is a more accurate representation of who I am, vis-a-vis the sound and the songs I’m singing.”

But, remembering LL Cool J’s timeless request, don’t call it a comeback.

“That’s kind of a rude question. … I see people ask this of other artists, and they generally have the same stock answer: ‘I never left.’ I mean, I’ve consistently put out music pretty much every two years for the last 15 years, not to mention all the extra work, b-sides and things like that. Comebacks occur because artists make great work. I could very easily look back and be pissy and say—and I did at the time—‘Oh, the fans didn’t get my Adore album; the fans didn’t embrace my arty-rock version of the band with MACHINA.’ But when you look back, the best work sold, and it sold in great quantities. I don’t feel I have anything to prove. I proved that I could do it; [then] I proved that I couldn’t handle it. Having gone through all of that, I’m just going to do my thing, and hopefully be able to do it as much as I want, and there will be room for me. And if I don’t make good enough music they’ll squeeze me out.”

3. Get crotchety about the past.
Here’s a point on which Corgan’s already got a head-start, since throughout his career he’s almost become as well-known for his venomous rants as for his music. As the above comments regarding Zwan’s less than amicable breakup illustrate—age, perspective and the chamomile tea he sipped during our conversation have done little to blunt Corgan’s serrated analysis of those who’ve wronged him along the way.

“I kind of have to ask myself what my karma is, because I see other artists that get a free pass. They don’t get the critical judgment and the questioning that I do. I’ve kind of come to enjoy it; I don’t feel the need to be confrontational. But at the same time, I’m not going to bend because someone has a weaker concept of life than me.”

This attitude fuels Corgan’s disgust with the music industry, whose capitalist machinations he seems to disdain as much as he does the money-phobic underground. “I think we need to accept that rock in and of itself has been taken over by pop thinking. If a young band is getting high rotation on MTV, chances are they’re not an underground phenomenon, they’re a marketing moment. It’s more a statement of our culture than it is about our musical culture. We’ve moved away from a substantive desire to have real things, and seem to be more interested in some sort of Reality TV version of reality. The impression of reality is more important than reality.”

Corgan is reluctant to play a role in this game, brushing aside questions about sales and promotions by saying, “I’m not a marketing vision. Look at me! No hair, crooked teeth, bad attitude—that’s not supposed to work. … You couldn’t dream me up.” But clearly the wounds from the Pumpkins’ final days at Virgin Records still haven’t completely scabbed over.

“My motivation for leaking MACHINA was that the record company had basically given up on the band for good and considered us dead and gone,” Corgan remembers about the free Internet distribution of the group’s final album. “I thought there was an opportunity, because the band was doing so well on tour, to go ahead and bring this other work out. But [Virgin] was so emotionally over the band that they didn’t even want another record that could’ve sold 500,000 copies. … It was literally punitive.”

But despite all the lingering angst and sore feelings, Corgan seems only mildly perturbed as he airs these fervent opinions. Rather than sounding like a scorned artist lashing out at the compulsory business end of his chosen profession, Corgan’s complaints appear to be less the result of personal injury, and more the blunt viewpoint of someone who’s sold enough records to afford the luxury of staying above the fray. The notion that his outspokenness is coming from a place of honesty, rather than bitterness, is supported by an endearing tendency to shine an equally harsh light on himself.

“I’ve completely wiped out and been brave enough to admit I wiped out, where most people would sort of airbrush themselves, sail through it, and pretend they don’t know what you’re talking about.”

4. Start writing poetry.
As part of the confessional process, Corgan has made one of the most dreaded rock-star moves: the crossover to the written word. Ever since Bob Dylan scored a book contract and threw together the unreadable Tarantula, musicians have accepted the flattering overtures of eager publishers with dollar signs in their eyes, attempting to expand their lyric sheets into hardcover material. Awaiting such releases is an almost knee-jerk critical assault, as self-appointed literary protectors histrionically attempt to guard their turf against the presumptuous invader.

Corgan’s poetry book, Blinking with Fists, was greeted with just such a reaction after its release last fall. Reviewing Corgan’s live reading at the Chicago Poetry Center, Chicagopoetry.com editor C.J. Laity called the work “forced, sophomoric attempts at creating what he must have thought poetry is supposed to sound like.” But other observers disagreed, such as Jeff Vrabel of the Chicago Sun-Times praising the poems as being “full of the regretful melancholy of his music and the rhythmic, angular wordplay of his best Pumpkins lyrics.”

Certainly, Corgan’s fans responded to his jump across media boundaries, pushing Blinking with Fists to a high debut on the New York Times bestseller list. For his own part, Corgan has let the snipes and tomatoes roll off his back, and seems more determined than ever to moonlight in typing. Now serializing on an Internet near you: The Billy Corgan Autobiography.

“I’ve never really told my own story,” Corgan says of the project. “I’ve told a lot of stories, but I’ve never told The Story. And I’m sure I’ll leave things out, and forget things, but for the most part you’re going to get The Story, what I actually think happened to me.”

Already underway on his website (www.billycorgan.com), the first entries are somewhat scattershot, non-linear remembrances jump-cutting from playing shows with his first band, The Marked, to the troubled circumstances recording Adore, to his earliest memory of playing with a children’s record player while his parents fought. In talking about the crooked timelines, Corgan makes the project sound both meticulously planned and without-a-net spontaneous.

“It’ll all make sense in the end,” he promises. “I know where the destination point is, but I’m not sure how I’ll get there. I’m literally writing these, editing them and putting them on the Internet immediately, so I’m winging it.”

I ask if it scares him.

“Yeah, it totally scares me. I’m in new territory here.”

What’s definitely known is that toes will be stepped on, as Corgan has previously used his website to blame the Pumpkins’ demise on guitarist James Iha and called his former bassist D’arcy Wretzky a “mean-spirited drug addict who refused to get help.” But when asked about the project’s potential fallout, Corgan assures, “The intention is not to be malicious or cause harm at all. I’m constantly making sure that it strikes me as true. [Sometimes] I’d really rather tell another story, and I’d like you to believe that I’m the genius behind everything that ever happened, but it’s not true. I have to give credit where credit is due.”

Corgan’s literary aspirations don’t stop at poetry and non-fiction, either. Following up the tantalizing book-flap tidbit from Blinking with Fists, Corgan also has a “spacey” novel on the (distant) horizon. “Writing’s the same as music—you have to find your own voice,” he says. “I feel like I’m halfway there. It’s one thing to write poetry—you can ‘miss’ a poem. You can have a poem B-side. But as far as a novel, it can’t be a B-side. It has to be an A-side, and it has to be an A-side for like 300 pages.”

5. Get born-again.
First of all, for the record, Billy says, “I was raised a Christian, but I wouldn’t call myself a Christian now.” But there’s no denying that the tone of Corgan’s Biblical imagery has shifted from the tormented music of Smashing Pumpkins to the considerably more optimistic tenor of Zwan and TheFutureEmbrace. It’s a long way from “God is empty / Just like me” to covering the hymn “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken,” and from declaring, “The world is a vampire” to promising, “We can change the world,” but Corgan sees it all as a logical continuum.

“I think when I was younger it was easier to focus on the negative, nihilist vision,” Corgan says, “Zeroes and black death. This is sort of picking up on the other half of the body, which is God and white light. I saw somebody wrote online that ‘he’s found Jesus,’ but no, I didn’t find Jesus. He’s been there the whole time.”

But Corgan’s faith doesn’t ?t easily into the mold of the Christian rocker or the caricature of the celebrity grasping at a shortcut to spiritualism. “My version, of course, is not this flag-waving, let’s all get on the Jesus train and ride out of Hell. I’m not that kind of guy. It’s an embrace that life is good, worth living and yeah, it’s not easy, but there are more pluses than minuses.”

The backlash against rockers daring to discuss issues of religion is well-documented—from the turned-up noses of certain indie factions against everything from the within-the-church criticism of artists like Pedro the Lion and Sufjan Stevens, to the mockery of stars like Korn guitarist Head who undergo deep conversions from rock hedonism to a pious lifestyle. As usual, Billy Corgan doesn’t care much about any potential fan aversion and doesn’t mince words in talking about it. “I’m not going to just get with the Paris Hilton program of ‘let’s pretend we’re all gonna live forever.’ If I’m accused of anything, what are you accusing me of? Thinking positively? Sorry, f---ing kill me.”

For those who still can’t reconcile a peaceful, suburban, spiritual Billy with the angst-driven poster child for Infinite Sadness, he recommends looking back at the subtext of his earlier work. “It wasn’t a demonstrable need to say, ‘I’m so miserable, look at me.’ It was, ‘look at me, I’m miserable, but I’m trying to figure out a way to get out of the hole.’ That, even in and of itself, has a positivity to it because it’s hopeful, it’s not death, it isn’t nihilism. There’s actually a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe now, I’m just further along towards the end of the tunnel. I don’t feel lost, I never felt lost.”

So if you’re keeping score at home, Billy Corgan is not making a comeback. He didn’t form Zwan to surround himself with celebrities or to delay the inevitable solo album. TheFutureEmbrace is not a statement of independence from his former groups, but an attempt to get at a true musical representation of himself. Billy Corgan isn’t growing crotchety with age, he’s just holding steady to the same brutal honesty he’s always maintained. He’s going to write poetry, and he doesn’t care what you think. And if you can’t handle hearing him address themes of religious faith and personal optimism, he’s not interested in your backlash either.

The characteristics that have made Billy Corgan a musical luminary to many are the same features that fuel other listeners’ obsessive dislike: endless confidence and a willingness to speak his mind. At this pivotal point in his career, Corgan is relying on both of these traits to protect him from the clichéd booby traps that have claimed so many others in his position. Faced with a junction that leads one way to a career of extended vitality, and the other to the classic-rock bin, he’s just trying to turn off his second-guessing machinery and get back to the unconscious mind.

“It’s the spark you’re obsessed with, how did I create this thing that still has energy? How do I get back to the spark? How do I recreate the spark so it keeps firing? There was a point in my life where everything that came out of me was like ‘boom boom boom boom’—I didn’t even think about it. And now I look back and say, ‘how did I do that?’ I once read an interview with Bob Dylan where he said ‘I had to go back in the ’70s to relearn what I used to do without thinking,’ and that’s the point I felt I was at. I knew how to make that sound, but I didn’t know how to feel it anymore where it just came out of me. It was a conscious thing, so I had to walk away from it.”

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