An Excerpt from Milk It!

Carving up the Great Pumpkin & yelling boo to rock's Holy Ghosts

October 26, 2003



Editor's note: Sun-Times pop music critic Jim DeRogatis recently celebrated the publication of his third book, a collection of his work (including many pieces from this newspaper) chronicling the rise and fall of alternative rock in the '90s, focusing on artists such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Courtney Love, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt and Sinead O'Connor, among many others.

The following excerpt from Milk It! Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the '90s (Da Capo) comes from the chapter on Chicago's Smashing Pumpkins.

From 'Melancholy and the Pear-Shaped Boy'

Of all the memorable artists and characters that the alternative era produced, Smashing Pumpkins bandleader Billy Corgan was the most traditional rock star, with all of the good and bad traits that that implies. His sometimes imperious attitude and my reluctance to abide by it led to a bit of a tiff, though the version of events presented in FAQ files on fan Web sites doesn't really get things right:

"A Chicago Sun-Times reviewer, Jim DeRogatis, gave Smashing Pumpkins a few bad reviews, saying of 'Hummer,' for example, 'the lyrics are sophomoric, and the song is stupid.' This got him barred from attending the Double Door shows. Some of Billy's statements on this can be heard on the 'Drown' bootleg."

Um, not quite.

In the summer of 1993, shortly before the release of "Siamese Dream," I spent several hours with the Great Pumpkin in his living room in the beautiful Victorian house that had been purchased with his share of the advance from Virgin Records. I liked the parts of "Gish" and "Siamese Dream" that evoked the English shoegazer movement, but I had problems with the elements that were coming from the Cure's goth-pop and, even worse, classic-rock schlock like Journey.

Corgan felt that I'd "betrayed" him with some of my criticisms in the piece titled "Smashing Pumpkins Carve Out Their Niche" -- and a Virgin publicist subsequently told me that he'd never speak to me again, nor would I be welcome at future Pumpkins shows. At the Chicago gigs that followed, including one broadcast on live radio, Corgan endearingly referred to me from the stage as "that fat f--- from the Chicago Sun-Times," but I attended and reviewed the concerts nonetheless.

Some time later, I faxed Virgin requesting a "bury the hatchet" interview. Corgan faxed me back himself (one of several letters I wanted to include in the book in its entirety, but the publisher's lawyers nixed that idea). "must you continue to prove your nothing but a sniveling, jealous person," Corgan wrote, seemingly averse to capital letters and the rules of grammar. "i'm very sorry for you that you are fat and that your career choice (wire cover band) didn't work out. . . . please try to find a life for yourself, and attempt to reconcile the fact that some people actually like what we do. see you in hell. best wishes / go f--- yourself, billy c."

In February 1995, the band booked several nights at Chicago's relatively intimate Double Door night club to road-test its new material before recording "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness." I was indeed banned from these shows (along with all other Chicago journalists, unless they agreed not to review), but the Double Door's stage backs up against a large plate-glass window that borders Milwaukee Avenue, and I took a lawn chair, sat outside in the sub-zero chill, and heard better than if I'd been inside the hot, smoky club. I phoned in a report for the newspaper on deadline, and that notion that he could not control everything really got Herr Corgan mad.

Mind you, I was aware that this was becoming a sort of low-rent Lou Reed-Lester Bangs routine, and so was Corgan, I think, but he was always up for feeling aggrieved, misunderstood and set upon; for a while he seemed to think that it made for better art (shades of the high school outcast who took to his bedroom and found solace in his guitar). None of this was personal on my part -- I just disliked some of the melodrama and lyrical angst of the first three albums, which I will readily admit are the band's best-selling and the fans' favorites.

"Adore" and "Machina/The Machines of God" were a different story. Corgan made a huge leap forward as a lyricist after the death of his mother, a reconciliation with his father, the end of his first marriage, and the beginning of a meaningful new relationship. The whining and the self-pity disappeared, and the music, which had always been impressively crafted, became even more expansive as he extended his palette away from FM-radio cliches in favor of more electronic and experimental sounds. There weren't many critics who felt as I did, and I guess Corgan appreciated that. We started talking again -- in addition to the interview included here, he spent three hours with Greg Kot and me dissecting the band's career on our "Sound Opinions" weekly radio show shortly before the group broke up -- and I had no problem gaining entry to review the Pumpkins' final show at Metro.

A few months later, Corgan sent me another fax to thank me for sending him a copy of my second book, Let It Blurt, and this was a very different Billy (though he still didn't have much use for capital letters). "it made me think a lot about the tangled relationship--even love / hate relationship--between critic and artist," Corgan wrote of my biography of Lester Bangs. "as you are well aware this is something that has pained me unnecessarily over the years and reading the book brought a certain clarity to the way i feel and made me understand a bit more where you come from as a writer. in my older years i am becoming a bit more punk rock and am starting to agree with the basic manifestos that lester had written. i think if one can bring to bear the idea of a needed incandescence to recorded work without the negativity and cynicism that has become the nom de plume of most, i guess i am all for it."

This approach (and Corgan's new optimistic attitude) could be heard in the short-lived band that followed the Pumpkins -- though Zwan lasted only long enough to release one album, "Mary Star of the Sea," in early 2003. Hopefully it will continue as he prepares to embark on a solo career.

From 'Smashing Pumpkins carve out their niche'

Originally published July 18, 1993, in the Sun-Times

At 26, Billy Corgan seems to have it all. As the leader of Chicago's Smashing Pumpkins, he's poised to reach a massive audience with "Siamese Dream," the band's major-label debut. The group sold 350,000 copies of its first independent album, "Gish," and scored a million-selling hit with a song on the "Singles" soundtrack. But the introspective guitarist and vocalist dreads the trappings of the rock world. He describes recording "Siamese Dream" as a hellish ordeal, complains about the way he's portrayed in the media, and often thinks out loud about breaking up his "dysfunctional" band.

For somebody who's so successful, he sure is miserable.

"After 'Gish,' the last thing I wanted to do was go back into the recording studio," Corgan says. "Because it was like saying, 'Let's start this process all over again.' Let journalists beat me over the head, let people throw things at me in concert. And part of you doesn't want any part of it. I like the part about making records, and I like the part about playing. But all of the periphery is in your face."

Nevertheless, Corgan and the band entered Triclops Studio near Atlanta last fall. More than three months and $250,000 later, the result was the sophomore album, which will be released July 27 [1993] by Virgin Records. Produced by Butch Vig, whose credits include "Gish" and Nirvana's "Nevermind," "Siamese Dream" is a solid collection of swirling but tuneful guitar-rock epics. Like the English "shoegazer" bands Ride and My Bloody Valentine, the Pumpkins use guitars to create disorienting walls of noise. But like the super-successful Seattle grunge bands Nirvana and Pearl Jam, they add catchy, radio-friendly riffs and stomping heavy-metal rhythms.

"The minute you say 'psychedelic,' it conjures up hippies rolling in a muddy field," Corgan says. "I stopped using the word because people can't get beyond their own preconceptions. But the essence of 'psychedelic' in the true sense is exploring and trying to look for something different. I always had a problem with a lot of the punk ethic, because there's more of an art to the presentation. Maybe I'm just an art fag or something, but I like the idea of creating your own alternative universe: 'Welcome to Pumpkin Land, this is what it sounds like on Planet Pumpkin.'"

Tall, baby-faced and ghostly pale, Corgan is wearing an MC5 T-shirt and sitting in the stately Victorian home that he and his wife recently bought in Chicago's Lake View neighborhood, a few blocks from his beloved Wrigley Field. Most of the house is House & Garden-perfect. Sunlight filters through lacy curtains to fall on a grand piano in the living room, but Corgan seems most comfortable in the dining room, which has been converted into a sort of cluttered rock 'n' roll clubhouse. The room is lined with CDs, stereo equipment and guitars, and the platinum disc for "Singles" is framed and mounted on the wall. "It makes a great conversation piece at parties," Corgan says, smiling.

The musician's father, William Corgan Sr., was a jazz-rock guitarist who played with members of Rufus and Chicago back in the day. Born in west suburban Elk Grove Village, William Jr. grew up in Glendale Heights, listening to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. He discovered alternative music via the Smiths, Bauhaus and the Cure, and he started playing in bands when he attended Glenbard North High School. He moved to the city shortly after graduation and began gigging with the Pumpkins in 1988. Metro owner Joe Shanahan was an early fan.

"First and foremost it was the songs," Shanahan says. "There was a songwriting ability and a depth. And Billy was a guitar virtuoso; he could really play."

Shanahan booked the band into prime opening slots and gave its demo to record company talent scouts. Within two years, the Pumpkins were selling out Metro, but Shanahan's patronage and the band's success earned the scorn of jealous scenesters. As a result, the Smashing Pumpkins are both the most loved and most hated band in Chicago.

The group's appeal to alternative-music fans is obvious: It's weird enough to alienate parents, but tuneful enough to attract kids weaned on Depeche Mode and the Cure. Onstage Corgan recalls Robert Smith's non-threatening, regular geek stage presence. But the band has scores of detractors who dismiss its members as posers and wannabes, and Corgan readily admits that he's partly to blame. "A lot of it I think has to do with me -- the way that I carry myself or the way that I put myself across," he says.

Alternative rockers are rarely so self-analytical; Corgan often sounds like the grizzled rock geezers James Taylor or David Crosby rehashing his latest therapy sessions. He believes fans relate to his honesty and appreciate the fact that he doesn't adhere to the rock 'n' roll myth.

"When I was 15 years old, I had my Jimmy Page poster on the wall, and all I could see was, 'Fun, sex, rock 'n' roll' and that whole bit," he says. "I saw all the myths and bought into the whole thing. So I went along and met chump after chump and got treated like shit and paid nothing, and I started to realize this is all a big fake. When I started to see the inside and how rotten and bitchy and backbiting the whole thing is I said, 'F--- it.' At some point, I personally had to get over my own connection to rock mythology, and as I've grown up somewhat in public, I made a decision that I'm not going to perpetuate the myth. There's this weird resistance to somebody actually being a real person. But that's not my life. My life is I get up every day with the express purpose of writing music. That's all I care about."

When he's talking about the Pumpkins' music, Corgan vacillates between the pronouns "mine" and "ours." He writes the majority of the band's songs alone (11 of the 13 tunes on "Siamese Dream"), oversees recording and mixing, dominates the stage show, and gives most of the interviews. To many people, Billy Corgan is the Smashing Pumpkins. Guitarist James Iha, bassist D'Arcy Wretzky, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain are left in the shadows.

Corgan almost broke up the band before recording "Siamese Dream." Chamberlain was sidetracked by drug and alcohol problems (he has since been through treatment), and Corgan thought the others weren't contributing their share. But relations have improved since he issued an ultimatum. "When I finally decided that being unhappy and being totally displeased all the time were no longer worth the band, then suddenly the band got better," he says. "It was like drawing a line: 'This is where we stand, and you're either in or you're out.'"

Corgan and Vig have both been described as incurable perfectionists, so it isn't surprising that making "Siamese Dream" was an ordeal. Speaking from his studio in Madison, Wis., Vig describes the Smashing Pumpkins' sessions as "arduous." Recording lasted for more than three months, and the band and the producer often put in 15-hour days. By the time the project was finished, Vig and Corgan were too emotionally spent to mix it.

Corgan is a fan of My Bloody Valentine, and he suggested the hiring of Alan Moulder, staff engineer at England's Creation Records. Moulder made sense of tapes that sometimes included 50 or more guitar tracks, and he gave the album his trademark shimmering sound.

"We deliberately tried to push ourselves in terms of some of the things we were doing arrangement-wise," Vig says. "About half the songs were fairly finished when we came in; the band had been playing them, and there were really good arrangements. But a lot of it was worked out in the studio, especially some of the detailed things like guitar parts."

Both Vig and Corgan think the results were worth the angst and trouble. "There are some tracks on the record that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up because I remember when Billy was singing those songs how it affected me," Vig says.

For his part, Corgan describes making "Siamese Dream" as a learning process. "The person who made 'Gish' couldn't have made this record. That person wasn't capable of this kind of honesty and depth." Yet he still talks with some regularity about the possibility of disbanding the group, and he concedes that this topic makes his managers and Virgin executives extremely uneasy. "They don't like to hear it, but we've become a band that from here on out will be a band of the moment."

Whatever the future holds, it's hard to imagine Corgan quitting music. He's the archetypal rock nerd -- someone who's most comfortable facing the world from behind his record collection, his guitar and a multitrack recorder. "I've reached a point where I have confidence in what I do," he says.

"I was watching this thing on TV last night about baseball players, about how when you're a rookie, you're not quite sure if you belong. And at some point you decide, 'Not only do I belong, I deserve to be here.' That's the way I feel. I feel I've earned it, and I'm capable of continuing as long as I want to. If the Pumpkins can't do that, then that's the end of the Pumpkins, and I'll do something else. But I feel I can make viable music as long as I want to. I'm past the point of no return."

Nonfiction: MILK IT! BY JIM DEROGATIS Amistad/ HarperCollins. $24.95.