“A child is who I was,
a child is who I will die
with soot in my hair
and stars in my hands”
I finally took the bait. A full year after its release, I bought the latest album by the The Smashing Pumpkins, Monuments To An Elegy.
Like other hardcore fans who were kids in the 90’s, I’ve listened to the classic lineup with varying amounts of dedication. It depends on what happens in my life, but it usually begins with an immersion of emotion; a state of vulnerability that sends me running to the fertile soundscape of Pumpkinland.
In order to understand why the newer music is such a disappointment, you have to understand the power of the original Smashing Pumpkins. Let me begin by delving into the experience of listening to the original band:
“Blast (Fuzz Version)” is a previously unreleased song from 2013’s deluxe reissue of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. This song illustrates a few basic ingredients that make The Pumpkins legendary.
This is the theme song for a graduation ceremony honoring the high rulers of a new galaxy. You are on the way to this ceremony, and you are one of the honorees. Your transport is a rocket ship with “Victory!” painted on the side in blue letters. The rocket launches into the atmosphere, diving up and down, doing barrel rolls above the earth.
The rocket is fueled by pure electric ecstasy, shaking and unsteady in its course. You’re ready to come apart at any moment. You’re burning up inside a screeching metallic inferno as the rocket nearly drops into chaos. It pulls up and ascends from danger just in time. Meteorites fly at you from all directions, missing by mere inches. Streaks of blue, white and silver form a kaleidoscope above your head.
The sound defies gravity with every movement, every wild and meandering note. Clouds fly past at an impossible speed. The moon and the stars spin around.
Now we are back on Earth. We are children at that perfect moment on a swing set – the moment when it’s time to jump. The swing lurches forward. Now or never. We feel the force of gravity. This is it. Now!
All of the early songs are this good. Whether soft and dreamy or sonic metal assault, each song weaves a layered tapestry of emotion, and there is a song for every mood and phase of your life. This is why the original Smashing Pumpkins are widely considered to be the last great rock band.
From the hard driving rock of Gish, to the jaw dropping power of Siamese Dream, to the existential Mellon Collie, all the way through the mournful beauty of Adore, this is a band that consistently delivered a trove of flawless gems.
Like clockwork, every album was better than the last. Every album was a powerful, unspeakable experience. Billy Corgan’s songwriting intertwined gothic rage with swirling, expansive dreamscapes. The songs were loaded with vivid widescreen imagery.
Siamese Dream delivered sunshine and eternal blue skies; green hills stretching every way to the horizon. It delivered dangerous jungles where blades of grass turned into knives. It delivered a sweet, gentle moon over clear nights and the white picket fences of childhood. It delivered the shadowy backyard of childhood abuse behind so many fences.
Mellon Collie delivered rivers of disillusionment; bending mirrors of perception. It delivered a circus of lost dreams, moments of breathless optimism, and an intense longing for love. It delivered park benches under the stars, first loves, battlefields full of wounded soldiers, church steeples, and antique shops. It delivered black storm clouds rolling away to reveal an evening sun rippling on water. Mellon Collie delivered sounds and images that I could never describe.
Even more remarkably, Billy Corgan could sit down at a piano and convey quaint moments of Vaudeville theater inspired by the 1920’s. The same guy who wrote the heavy metal thrasher “Tales of a Scorched Earth” could sit down at a piano and cover the 1928 song “My Blue Heaven” with flawless charm. He could throw in a touch of electronica here and there. He could bathe you in soothing whimsy and then turn around and rock your face off.
If he so pleased, he could step away from guitars entirely and take his electronica all the way into a full-blown album. He could release an entire boxed set of b-sides that were just as amazing as the album cuts.
It was during this time that The Smashing Pumpkins became unstoppable. There came a point where fans dropped to their knees, hands on head in disbelief. How could anything be this good? Moments of ecstatic bliss, agony, and struggle were shaped into a beautiful extended rock opera starring the drama of our own psyche. In the center of it all stood the irresistible ringmaster himself, Billy Corgan, and his ongoing drama. The real Ziggy Stardust had emerged – and he was pissed.
Not only did we have the music itself (and the award-winning MTV music videos), we had Corgan’s magazine interviews. It quickly became apparent that this was a different kind of rock star. He was insanely intelligent and articulate. His open nature was equally as present in magazine interviews as it was in his music. In lengthy interviews, he talked about his childhood and his band’s struggle to fit into the Chicago scene.
He went on motivational tangents about how you can achieve anything through hard work if you really have faith in yourself. He spoke directly to us and related his past struggles to our own. He was a creative genius and a visionary. He was The American Dream. He spoke openly about his ongoing struggles. He was authentic, for better or worse. He knew that he was a creative genius. He could be a jerk. The media loved to hate him.
Interviewers painted him as arrogant and whiny, while at the same time taking advantage of his compelling articulations. Indeed, he was (and still is) sometimes combative and arrogant to the point of insanity. We didn’t care. We were insane and moody too – we were awkward, nerdy teenagers, and Billy Corgan was God. Warts and all.
Not a damn thing compares to Billy Corgan playing guitar on a live stage in the 1990’s. He stood poised for attack, bathed in violet stage lights. Neon colors swirled all around him while sweat poured down the side of his porcelain face. He stood in silence for a moment, staring ahead in stern concentration. He waited. His fierce eyes changed color as the violet light passed over them. Suddenly, he jumped forward and attacked his guitar. A wild, otherworldly cascade of notes screamed into the atmosphere – a raw torrent of sonic fury. The audience screamed for their lives. We were assaulted. We were found. We were rescued from the chasm of boredom and hopelessness.
Corgan wrote most of the songs and held the spotlight, but the other members of the original Pumpkins were equally fascinating. James Iha wrote songs that were every bit as strange and compelling as Corgan’s. His songs were full of tender, ghostly angels and prayers to Jesus. His songs were hilly fields of purple grain. His songs were strands of blonde hair mixed with sunlight on a morning bed. D’arcy Wretsky was quiet, but her stage presence was intense and haunting. Her voice was pleasantly weird, a perfect harmony to Corgan’s. Jimmy Chamberlin’s thunderous drumming lifted the songs into jungle madness. He was the greatest drummer in rock music. Corgan called Jimmy a “drumming savant”. Their stage banter was full of dorky humor. They were all weird. They were a perfect representation of alternative music. They were a perfect representation of us.
Fast forward to now – many years later and only one original member.
Monuments to an Elegy was hyped by the media and by Corgan himself. I didn’t go for the hype, having been duped before. Many fans claimed to enjoy 2011’s Oceania, but it’s a snoozefest for me. Everyone was excited about the 2007 comeback album, Zeitgeist. I bought it and listened. It was so strange – the pounding drums and edgy guitars were there, but some fundamental element of the early Pumpkins sound was not. The magic was gone.
I’ve listened to Monuments, and it’s the same. The guitar and keys are lacking in character. Gone are the sweeping melodies, orgasmic solos, and the weird little tonal quirks that made the early music so grand. Some fans like the new album. Many do not. People say that they have listened a few times trying to “get it”. They’re looking for the magic.
We also grew up. The God in our minds became a highly talented man; a creative visionary who worked insanely hard at his craft and was also business-savvy. He was rewarded handsomely for his brilliance, all of which he deserved. The early music has become a tear-inducing session of nostalgia for most fans. It’s a bubble that we go into when we have the need.
At the end of the day, that particular divide between then and now is what this is really about: Is the newer music really that bad, or did we just grow up? Is the truth somewhere in the middle? We did grow up. But, the music changed as well.
The song “Soot and Stars” was written prior to 2001. I didn’t hear this song until 2009, way past the Pumpkins golden period. I was completely floored. The artistry of Billy’s best songwriting is there. When Mellon Collie was re-issued in 2013, I heard several instrumentals that I hadn’t heard before. These are “new” songs for me. I love them all.
We grew and changed. Corgan also changed. He began singing and writing differently.
The shifting sands of time are upon us. But the old magic is always there; ready to be re-visited.
We’re like the kids who were in high school when The Beatles emerged. They’re still listening to the Beatles of the 1960’s. That’s how we’ll be. We’ll keep buying the new Pumpkins albums even if we think the last one was shitty. We’ll go to every single concert in our town on every single tour.
Billy Corgan can say we’re a bunch of assholes stuck in the past if we don’t like the new studio albums.
If he does, we’ll still love him anyway.
“And in my mind as I was floating
Far above the clouds
Some children laughed, I’d fall for certain
For thinking that I’d last forever
But I knew exactly where I was
And I knew the meaning of it all
And I knew…
The distance to the sun
The echo that is love
The secrets in your spires
The emptiness of youth
The solitude of heart
The murmurs of the soul
And I knew
The Silence of The World”
The Smashing Pumpkins