September 29, 2012

It's 2012 and I'm going to my first Smashing Pumpkins concert

Tonight I will see the Smashing Pumpkins perform at Rexall Place in Edmonton, AB. They were my favourite band from grade 7 to the beginning of university. Over the last year I've been rediscovering their early material, thanks to a series of excellent reissues that collect rare b-sides, demos, and concert footage. It's the both the best and the worst time to be a loyal Pumpkins fan. While the band's legacy is being repackaged and canonized for a new generation of listeners, Billy Corgan's current version of the band has begun a cross-Canada tour to promote its new album Oceania. He's given some remarkably even-handed interviews lately, but shortly after Oceana's release, Billy had this to say about the whole reunion tour thing, which is decidedly not what he's doing:
There are those bands that are essentially coming back only to make money — playing their old albums, and maybe somewhere in the back of their minds they’re thinking there might be a future. I am not in that business, obviously. I condemn anybody who’s in that business but doesn’t admit [he's] in that business. When Soundgarden came back and they just played their old songs, great. I was a fan of Soundgarden, but call it for what it is. They’re just out there to have one more round at the till; same with Pavement and these other bands.
Soundgarden has just announced an album of new material, and the dudes in Pavement never pretended that they weren't coming back to make money. Never mind that. Billy will always find someone to resent. He's had a rough go of it. When he released his one and only official solo album TheFutureEmbrace back in 2005, he also bought full page ads in the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune, where he revealed his desire to "renew and revive" the Smashing Pumpkins. Unsurprisingly, most of his former bandmates didn't take the bait. Jimmy Chamberlin, his former drummer, was the only ex-Pumpkin to answer the call. The immediate fruits of their lame reunion were displayed with pomp and grandeur on the epically bad Zeitgeist (2007), an album so forgettable that I'm just leave it there. Since then, Jimmy has abandoned ship and the group currently touring as the Smashing Pumpkins is about as far from resembling my favourite band as it's ever been. 

I became a Pumpkins fan during the last years of the 90s, and I was 12 years old when I finally got my hands on a tarnished copy of 1995's Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Unfortunately, I was a few years too late to see the band peak (both in terms of coolness and commercial success). At the time of Melon Collie's release I was in grade 3 and thought that Sting's solo material was about as good as you could get. But I adapted quickly, and by 1998 I was ready for Adore (the album which, for most critics and fans, was the band's biggest misstep and the beginning of the end). Despite the fact that the Pumpkins quickly became my teenage obsession, I never managed to see the band perform live. Pretty tragic, I know. That's kind of how it goes when the closest city to your small town is Winnipeg (not exactly a regular stop for most arena rock tours) and all your friends have either moved on to nu-metal (see Korn, Limp Bizkit, Slipknot, etc.) or don't really listen to "secular" rock music in the first place.

So here I am at 26, finally able to see my favourite band in the flesh and, as to be expected, I'm feeling pretty ambivalent about it. Most serious Pumpkins fans who've stuck with the band this long recognize that it hasn't always been the Billy Corgan show. Meanwhile a lot of casual fans and critics consider the band's original lineup -- D'arcy Wretzky, James Iha, and Jimmy Chamberlin -- to be fairly inconsequential. When reviews for the new Smashing Pumpkins album, Oceania, started rolling in, many were quick to point out how similar it sounds to the early Pumpkins. Such critics are, of course, completely wrong. While Oceania is not the heavy mess of guitar sludge that Zeitgeist proved to be, it's still overloaded with gaudy guitar layering and Billy's vocals are still too polished. For some reason, this is all that some critics need to draw a comparison between Oceania and Siamese Dream. Blasphemy, I say! Still, this kind of comparison to the band's glory days is probably what Billy was going for with Oceania (incidentally, it was also what he was going for with Zeitgeist, but we'll do him a favour and forget about it), so I'm glad he's been able to read some positive reviews. 

I'm of the opinion that the original lineup was actually quite unique and had a larger role in the band's sound than Billy has always claimed. Jimmy has often been compared to a gorilla behind a drum kit, but he has jazz training and probably more natural finesse than any of the other major drummers from the alt-rock era. James and D'arcy were also crucial pieces in the Pumpkin puzzle (even though, as Billy famously claimed, they rarely played their own instruments on Pumpkins recordings). D'arcy sang on Gish and Melon Collie and James wrote half a dozen quality songs that mostly appear as b-sides (if they appear at all); but, even if they didn't contribute directly to the music, their presence significantly improved the band's overall aesthetic. They were both unquestionably cool; cool in a way that Billy never could be. I'm also tempted to think that they had some editorial input. Billy may have called the shots -- he may have done it his way from start to finish -- but part of me thinks that their mere presence was enough to force Billy to rethink some of those first impulses. 

Presently, Billy is in complete control of his band, each of its highly skilled members handpicked (most notably, his current drummer won a try-out, despite being only 19 years old at the time) and the latest results aren't great. His guitarist Jeff Schroeder seems like a good fit, but he'll never stare you down like James, and I doubt that he ever really departs from Billy's artistic vision. No surprise, then, that Oceania is a heavily compressed mess of aimless riffing and spiritual platitudes: better than Zeitgeist, but still not as good as the Zwan's Mary Star of the Sea (2003). Billy may be embarrassed about Zwan (his attempt to form a cool indie rock band after the Pumpkins broke up), which had its own clash of egos, despite their initial appearance as a happy family (members included Paz Lenchantin, David Pajo, and Matt Sweeney). Presently, however, any strife on stage or in the studio is pure Billy, and I think his most recent material is all the worse for it. The Pumpkins in 2012 are a homogenous blob.

You can imagine my disappointment when I heard that the setlist for the Oceania tour would be made up of the entire album (this is the only reason I've been listening to Oceania) and would close with five or six classic songs from the band's golden era. Of course, these selections will probably be tracks that I don't much care for -- Bullet with Butterfly Wings, Disarm, XYU, Today, etc.  But I'm trying to keep an open mind and remember that this is probably the closest I will ever come to seeing my old, favourite band live, even if its members look and sound nothing like the band that I spent the better half of my life obsessing over. 

What I won't be expecting is anything from Adore. It polarized fans and drove casual listeners away. By the time Billy tried to advance his band's heavily textured sound on Machina: The Machines of God (2000), most people had stopped caring. But with Adore, the band was heading in the right direction. They were maturing. The claim may not be quite as contentious as I imagine, but I've always considered Adore as part of a near-perfect artistic progression that Billy ended up rejecting part-way through. The album remains consistent with what came before it: it showcases Billy's inward gaze, but this time, we see it at its most precarious and damaged; and unlike Siamese Dream it doesn't fall back on the booming electric guitars or the cheap irony that was everywhere in the early 90s. Aesthetically, it's the band's most cohesive release, with sparse arrangements and even sparser packaging. No colour, no egos. Just a bunch of acoustic/electronic meditations on Sex and Death. 

This is what I won't be expecting to see at Rexall Place tonight. Instead, it's going to be a working through of resentment and delusion (a few days ago, it was announced that Smashing Pumpkins show in Vancouver had been cancelled, probably due to a lack of ticket sales). But I will be there, basking in pale glow of Billy Corgan's newly energized ego, wearing my Smashing Pumpkins tshirt from the Adore era, gritting my teeth and hoping that someone else in the audience notices my hardcore loyalty to the old, fragile ideal of the band as I first knew them: pretentious as hell, but challenging and beautiful.


  1. Great article. I turned down free tickets to their tour-kick off Winnipeg show... I hear that wasn't much of a mistake.