Adieu, Smashing Pumpkins, Adieu

By Jim DeRogatis

And so it ended pretty much where it had begun: onstage at Metro.

With a marathon four-and-a-half-hour set on Saturday night, one of the most successful rock bands Chicago ever produced put an end to a career that spanned 13 years and six studio albums with 22 million copies sold.

The Smashing Pumpkins will forever stand as a cornerstone band of the alternative-rock era, but the zeitgeist has changed since their mid-’90s heyday. Alternative has given way to sickly-sweet teen-pop and testosterone-crazed rap-rock, and the cynical, angst-ridden Generation X has yielded to the cheerfully consumerist Generation Y.

Always an astute student of rock history, 33-year-old band leader Billy Corgan well knows that it’s better to burn out than to fade away. Thankfully, he did not define that well-worn rock cliche like his peer Kurt Cobain of Nirvana.

Instead, the Great Pumpkin decided to pull the plug on the band that was his life before it could live on past its prime. In so doing, the Pumpkins made history again, becoming one of the rare rock groups with the fortitude to retire while it was still at its artistic prime.

“Sorting through the ashes of the Smashing Pumpkins, there’s a lot of beautiful stuff there, and that’s the most important thing,” the guitarist-vocalist said toward the end of a night designed to make that case.

Divided into three “acts” and including a middle acoustic set, the 38-song performance spanned the group’s career, touching on every aspect of its complicated legacy: the laser-focused, ultra-melodic hard rock and the self-indulgent, artsy noodling; the petulant, self-obsessed whining and the poetic outpourings of heartfelt emotion; the great, the awful, and pretty much everything in between.

It was as if the Pumpkins decided to play the entirety of their inevitable box set. But the friends, family members, industry insiders, and lucky fans didn’t mind, nor did the approximately 500 faithful without tickets who sat in the cold outside Metro. (They were accommodated with speakers that broadcast a portion of the show, which was also recorded for a potential live album.)

The highlights were numerous. Chief among them: a duet by Billy Corgan and his father on the breathtakingly beautiful “For Martha,” an elegy that Billy Jr. wrote after the death of his mother from cancer.

Corgan and James Iha’s guitars never sounded better than on the roaring versions of “Siva” (from their debut album “Gish”) and “Starla” (a rarity included on the “Pisces Iscariot” collection). Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was as always an astounding force of nature; the crowd singalongs on “The Everlasting Gaze,” “Today,” and “1979” were inspiring, and the moving hometown homage in “Tonight, Tonight” (“And your embers never fade in the city by the lake”) was never more poignant.

On the flip side, however, were numerous stretches of merciless bombast of the sort that gave ’70s rock a bad name and prompted punk to rise up in opposition. The nadir was the last song of the night, an endless, 20-minute-plus version of “Silverf---,” Corgan’s epic meditation on love and pain. It found the artist erasing the new levels of musical and lyrical maturity that he reached with the “Adore” and “Machina” albums and reverting to the insufferable mode of the tortured soul who loves to be miserable. Ugh.

Before the rosy glow of nostalgia sets in, it also needs to be said that minus the emotion and history of the occasion, there have been many more memorable Pumpkins shows. Among those that I witnessed: the “Siamese Dream” record release gigs at Metro, the Lollapalooza tour, the pre-“Mellon Collie” show at the Double Door, and the “Adore” show at the New World Music Theatre.

Despite the rampant pre-show speculation, there were no real surprises Saturday. Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen and former touring drummer Matt Walker came out for cameo appearances, but founding bassist D’Arcy Wretsky did not. Corgan did offer her a heartfelt thanks, as well thanking just about everybody else who’d helped in his career, including his enemies--“for pushing us to try harder and be better.”

When the music stopped, the band members filed off one by one, tossing guitar picks to the fans as they left. (Concertgoers also got a commemorative CD of the Pumpkins’ first show at Metro in October, 1988.) When the mighty Chamberlin tried to toss a drum stick up to the balcony, it actually lodged in the ceiling above the dance floor, where it will no doubt stay forever as a testament to the evening.

At the very end, Corgan stood onstage alone, looking awkward in his silver and black outerspace priest outfit. He basked in the adulation of his Chicago fans, took their hands, made the “I love you” sign from his heart, and finally broke down in tears.

And so it ended pretty much where it had begun--the climax of a week that witnessed more farewell hoopla since Michael Jordan retired for the first time.

Remember, though, that Jordan came back. And so, too, will Billy Corgan.

Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times