As endlessly sacrilegious and just plain wrong as this will sound, it’s arguable no alternative-rock founding father deserves more respect than Billy Corgan. You know who’s currently on the road headlining hockey rinks? That would be the Smashing Pumpkins.
You know who isn’t? All the bands Corgan was up against when Lollapalooza was looking for headliners back in the travelling freak-show glory days.
Let’s start with his main competition when everyone was young and ugly-beautiful. Assuming you happily answer to the greeting “Hey Boomer!”, the drug-addled twosome of Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley are best remembered today for making Neil Young sorry he ever wrote the line “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”.
Sticking with Seattle, the late Chris Cornell made the greatest pure-grunge record ever—1991’s relentlessly punishing and fantastically weird Badmotorfinger—and then promptly became more interested in chasing money than making art. (Looking at your super-commercial Superunknown, super-unnecessary Audioslave, super-totally-unneeded 2010 reunion, and super-disappointing King Animal.)
As for Eddie Vedder, what kind of “alternative” icon marries an elite fashion model, has a couple of no doubt well-adjusted kids, and then starts making fucking ukulele music in his spare time? There’s a reason why Pearl Jam was always the favourite “grunge” band of those who never got the appeal of Anarchy High cheerleaders with tattoo sleeves and combat boots, and who still secretly enjoyed the pink-Spandex riot-ponce pleasures of Poison, Skid Row, and Cinderella.
So, in 2022, we’ve got three of those sadly departed giants playing in a Mudhoney cover band at Heaven’s version of Belltown’s Frontier Room. Here on Earth, Vedder seems, impossibly, even more of a normaloid than he was in the ’90s.
And that brings us to the last original alternative-nation man standing. That would be old Baldheaded Billy, who’s still larger than life (6’2” compared to Vedder’s Short Round-like 5’5”), still making new music, and, most importantly of all, still every bit as weird as he was in his 20s.
That last one is important.
As your great-grandparents will confirm, there was no weirder time for mainstream music than the post-Nirvana ’90s. For that, we can thank underground-spawned, cardigan-clad anti-hero Cobain, who used overnight superstardom to drag the freaks and weirdos he loved into the major label spotlight. Go back and listen to the early records of the Butthole Surfers, Jesus Lizard, Meat Puppets, and Flaming Lips, and ask yourself how any of those bands ended up on Warner and Sony.
The same could be said of the Smashing Pumpkins. The band might have called Chicago home, but Corgan and company, initially at least, seemed more spiritually aligned with the Emerald City—and not just because they were right there with Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, and Mother Love Bone on the essential Singles soundtrack. Look at the early video for “I Am One” and marvel at the way that the luxuriously long-haired Corgan looks like someone who spent his weekends hanging with Jeff Ament, Andrew Wood, and the Conner brothers at Linda’s Tavern just off Capitol Hill.
But where Seattle’s grunge-lords mostly seemed to get the joke—the hilarity of the "losers" taking over the asylum—Corgan most definitely didn’t.
When an on-their-way-up Smashing Pumpkins headlined Vancouver’s the Rage, circa ’93, one of the most interesting moments of the set came halfway through, when someone screeched “You’re a freak Billy!” Had someone yelled that at Tad Doyle or Mark Arm, the response would have been something along the lines of “No fucking shit, Sherlock.” Corgan, on the other hand, ended up being what would be described today as “massively triggered”.
What followed at the Rage, for a good five minutes, was something you’d see on a bad day in pre-school: 60 seconds of slowburn wounded silence, angry foot-stomping followed by a sullen death stare, more foot-stomping, a humourless tirade about the finer points of freakdom and why freaks make the world go round, and more slowburn silence (during which someone should have yelled “Cut the shit and get playing,” but no one dared.)
You know how Corgan spent almost the entire early ’90s in silver pants and a shirt that read “Zero”? Clearly, there was more than a bit of self-flagellation on that front.
As the years since then have rolled on by, Corgan has turned being the alt-nation’s weirdest character into an art form. If you need a short list, start with dating Jessica Simpson, launching his own pro-wrestling company, founding a boutique tea shop, dating Courtney Love, doing furniture commercials, putting the Smashing Pumpkins back together with almost zero original members, outing himself as card-carrying conservative on The Alex Jones Show, dating Tila Tequila, dressing like a man whose all-time fashion icon is Pinhead from Hellraiser, and continuing to call himself Billy well into his 50s.
Occasionally, there have been records: Machina/The Machines of God, Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music, Monuments to an Elegy, Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun, and the upcoming (and wildly anticipated by no one) Atum: A Rock Opera in Three Acts.
That’s right, a rock opera—like something we might have expected from Rick Fucking Wakeman back in the King Arthur and the Round Table on ice skates days.
What do all those above records have in common? That’s easy: No one, with the possible exception of Billy Corgan, can name a single song off them. Which—knock the weirdo all you want—can’t be said of the hits (“1979”, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, “Cherub Rock”, “Disarm”, “I Am One”) from ’90s-era gold-standard outings like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Gish, and Siamese Dream.
And here’s the thing: despite having spent the better part of the past quarter-century doing his best to torpedo the band’s undeniably rich legacy, Corgan is not only back on the road, but headlining NHL hockey rinks with the Smashing Pumpkins. Which isn’t the case, for obvious and profoundly sad reasons, for Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, or Nirvana. (Sorry—for all the reasons above, Pearl Jam doesn’t count).
Respect, especially since no one in the front row is going to be standing there screaming for new non-hits like “The Canary Trainer”, “That Which Animates the Spirit”, or “Hooray!”? Totally. The man has shown himself to be nothing if not a survivor, even if his hair follicles can't say the same thing.
So don’t forget to pick up your Zero shirt at the merch table. If Billy has taught you anything, it’s that, just because it’s deep-down true, there’s still no shame in wearing it. Especially when you've written songs as epically great as this......