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Remember When We Used to Smash Pumpkins?

Some time in early March (maybe April…it could’ve been May) Alia and I sat with friends talking about bands scheduled to pass through Indianapolis over the summer. We’d just purchased tickets to go see Counting Crows and Matchbox Twenty at Deer Creek, or whatever corporate entity has its name at the gate these days. In searching for other shows, we stumbled on the reunion tour for The Smashing Pumpkins: “The Shiny and Oh So Bright” tour. They were scheduled to appear in Indianapolis mid-August. In honor of the thirty-year anniversary of the formation of the band, this tour was to reunite original members: Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin and James Iha. I was disappointed to hear D’Arcy Wretzky, the original bass player, would not reprise her role. Nevertheless, we purchased tickets with nostalgic enthusiasm. They arrived, the physical tickets, in the mail just a week later. After that, the summer took hold and I put it out of my mind.

Around mid-July I found myself digging out old CDs, and creating streaming playlists built out of Smashing Pumpkins hits. With favorite music comes favorite memories. Songs conjure feelings the way that only a quick whiff of pipe tobacco or freshly cut grass can. For a few weeks I relived a very set time of my life, whether I wanted to or not.

I didn’t really need the reminder of how emotionally tumultuous my high school years were.  Twenty-five years ago (oh my god, twenty-five?!) I was an absolute wreck. Like generations of teenagers before me I relied on a for-the-most-part safe outlet of my angsty rebellion in music. When I was feeling like high school was just a right of passage with no real purpose, Billy Corgan and his furious lyrics in “Siva” were there for me:

Way down deep within my heart
Lies a soul that’s torn apart
Tell me, tell me, what you’re after
I just want to get there faster

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Having an unusually good day? Billy had a song for that:

Today is the greatest
Day I’ve ever known
Can’t live for tomorrow
Tomorrow’s much too long

And who could forget the pull of religious idealism against the inherent desire for freedom that made us all feel like rats in cages:

Tell me I’m the only one
Tell me there’s no other one
Jesus was the only son, yeah
Tell me I’m the chosen one
Jesus was the only son for you

The genius that was Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was beyond any of our young minds. At the time, Corgan called it “The Wall for Generation X.” Meant to be listened to all at once, the double album was, and still is, a cyclical journey through life’s experiences. As their third album, it was the peak achievement of the original group. It represented their place among trending music of the time.

In many ways, the story of The Smashing Pumpkins was the story of their fans trying to find their own identity in a world that only wanted to label them in a box. As the band struggled to distance themselves from labels such as the “new Nirvana” or “new Pearl Jam”, Corgan sought to maintain a certain level of consistency by playing most of the instruments on their recordings. And, as many rock bands before them, members of the group fought drug addictions. Chamberlin overdosed on heroin while they were on tour in 1996, and was fired from the band. Wretzky and Iha ended their relationship somewhere around the same time.

By the time they released Adore in 1998, their sound had changed completely. Without Chamberlin’s drums, they left behind heavy guitar and bass lines in exchange for electronic sound. Both Billy and James claimed it was the future of music, that rock had become boring. But it’s hard to ignore the fact when the original band was playing in the early nineties, they were using a drum machine, not a live drummer, and their sound was pretty terrible. In Chamberlin’s absence they were almost forced to go another direction. Corgan seemed to take a deep dive back into his early goth influences of the eighties. The band’s look even went black, literally. The record was a much more surreal endeavor that included songs like “For Martha”. A track on Adore that was a tribute to Corgan’s mother’s passing in 1996. It rang heavy for some of us at Greencastle High School who had lost a close friend that same year.

Long horses we are born
Creatures more than torn
Mourning our way home
If you have to go, don’t say goodbye.

When they released Machina/The Machines of God in 2000, a rehabilitated Chamberlin completed the needed structure of the foursome. The band went back to their heavy metal roots. The album was actually celebrated as the band’s best work, but was overshadowed by radio conglomerates that played the music favored by the record companies that owned them. Pop music had stolen the scene. Simple lyrics and looped keyboard arrangements were all the rage. No one wanted to hear the longing pleas of “Try, Try, Try”; an ode to Corgan’s bandmates, and probably himself, while they struggled against the afflictions of drug use and depression. The tired story of Alternative nineties music was out.

In an interview with Joe Rogan in November of 2017, a seemingly more self-aware Corgan admitted the band never argued musically. Music was the thing that united them. It was the world around them that pulled the four original members away from each other. The Smashing Pumpkins put on a farewell show at the end of 2000 in Chicago, vowing never to return. Like them, I thought they were finished. I moved on, repeating their classics and really paying no mind to the next iterations of the band, Corgan’s solo album, or records like Zeitgeist. I grew up, graduated from college, got lost, found myself and then settled back into my being, choosing to keep the old parts of me that mattered and discarding the pieces I knew I no longer needed.

I listened to that song with my older ears and was amazed at how words have the power to say the same thing, but take on two entirely different meanings when separated by time.

As it turns out, The Smashing Pumpkins did the same thing. Despite my fandom, I never saw them live. So when I heard Corgan was going to get the band back together, and they had plans to drop a new album, I was excited. I use that word, “excited”, but I did not know what level of that word I felt. I wanted the chance to go scream the angry lyrics I remembered, to burn out any feelings I might have carried over in my own transitions.

But, listening to that music again, in my new years of marriage and fatherhood, there was something different about the lyrics to “Zero” and “Perfect”. Evidently, for Corgan, there was something different about those songs for him too. In that same 2017 interview with Rogan, Billy discussed not needing past songs any longer, personally. That as an artist and a human being he had evolved through experience. But he wanted to get The Smashing Pumpkins back together, which meant revisiting the band’s past. And, ultimately, appeasing fans that felt abandoned eighteen years ago. He had to learn the importance of responsibility to a generational memory.

The “Shiny and Oh So Bright” tour was exactly that. A not so subtle homage to a generational memory. At age 51, Billy went back on stage. Standing there, solo, in front of a giant screen flashing images from his childhood, Corgan opened with “Disarm”. James, Jimmy and the rest of the band joined in and a celebration of their entire library ensued. From “Rhinoceros” to a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” to “Stand Inside Your Love”, I sang every word to every song with emotion I hadn’t felt in decades. But when they played “Thirty-Three”, something went wrong. My eyes started to leak, I held my wife’s hand a little tighter, and I choked through:

The earth laughs beneath my heavy feet
At the blasphemy in my old jangly walk
Steeple guide me to my heart and home
I know I’ll make it, love can last forever

I listened to that song with my older ears and was amazed at how words have the power to say the same thing, but take on two entirely different meanings when separated by time. In the weeks leading up to the concert, playing through the entire library of The Smashing Pumpkins, my friends and I reminisced on the days we first heard those songs. Not a single one of us admitted any feeling of different interpretation. It dawned on me that in some respect, we were still those emotional teenagers, afraid to trust others with our present emotions.

Corgan claimed years ago that “Thirty-Three” was written to express the changes he was feeling as an individual in his new-found stardom. Considering he wrote most of Mellon Collie while he was living in a parking garage, I imagine it was a challenging time. Shifting away from artistic intent to artistic interpretation, that song used to mean to me, that everyone has moments of realizing sometimes you have to pull your collar up, keep your head down, and walk your own path. Turns out I was missing half the song because I was listening to it with teenage memories. This wiser (ahem) version of me heard:

I’ve journeyed here and there and back again
But in the same old haunts I still find my friends
Mysteries not ready to reveal
Sympathies I’m ready to return

For three hours, The Smashing Pumpkins took the audience in Bankers Life Fieldhouse on a journey as epic as Mellon Collie ever was. It’s also worth pointing out most musicians these days can hardly fill an hour of play. So for a band of artists in an age group that is typically beginning the conversation about retirement to be instead discussing their new beginning, it was impressive. Maybe my favorite part was finally getting the opportunity to see Corgan wale on a guitar, because he is an amazing musician, not just a lyricist. It was a performance that focused on the music, not on the special effects.

Photo by Christian Shuck
Photo by Christian Shuck

Without a doubt, the show was a celebration, but also a goodbye to days past. It was a launch into a rebirth, and a new era for a band that, for many people, was there for them through every range of emotion imaginable. Clearly, this was an ask of their fan base to come along to the next phase. The music to come will be interesting. Corgan has publicly supported controversial personalities like Alex Jones. A stance one would believe does not resonate with the band’s original fan base. His evolved perspective on the world will undoubtedly influence the deep lyrics fans used to rely on. The drama between Corgan and Wretzky continues, as they argue about whether or not she is welcome back to the group. He has not left the goth parts of himself behind, but rather embraced the demeanor completely. Lyrics from their new single “Solara” hint the religious exploration continues:

I am nothing but a body in my mind
I feel that something ain’t right
No fear but reasons that I can’t cite
Tear down the sun

This reunion also begs the question: Is there room in the modern music scene for a band which relies on a fan base that has grown out of the metal phase of their lives? Sitting in the second level of the fieldhouse, I looked down at the concert goers occupying the floor. They stood for the entire show, but that was about it. No one really danced, or even bobbed their head. The people sitting around us barely moved the whole time. If the old hits can’t induce an emotional reaction strong enough to make die-hard fans get out of their seats, what can the newly reformed band provide to their older, desensitized crowd?

If you’ve followed the indie music scene, even just a little, you’ll know The Smashing Pumpkins influenced more modern alternative bands, such as Silversun Pickups and My Chemical Romance. The former is certainly a calmer influence while the latter embraced a more harsh metal feel. The similarities in sound are undeniable, but what about the similarities in listeners? Can we, like Corgan, honor the collective generational memory of the nineties music rebellion, while still allowing for artistic change? Or do we expect the rebel to conform, to be lost in the mix of an ever-changing music scene?

Perhaps there are clues overlooked in the past we can use to glimpse, at least, a version of the future of such a generation-defining rock band. For instance, the closing stanza from “United States”:

Let me be something good
Let me prove something real like I should
Let me embrace every single living thing
Let me be every single moment I ever misunderstood

About Christian Shuck

Christian Shuck is a Greencastle native and Hope College alumnus who works in higher education as a major gift officer. Besides his contributions here, he also writes for his own blog cmshuckstories.com.  He currently lives in Terre Haute.

Featured Image Credits: The Smashing Pumpkins w/ Metric by John Feinberg is permitted thanks to the Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License.

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