Smash or trash?

"I'm a martyr. It's part of my insanity."
--Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan in the December 1994 Spin

Billy Corgan is not the average, anonymous and faceless Rock Star. His offstage persona can't be separated from his music because who he is in "real life" informs who he is on album--a fuck-up who spends hours in therapy each week, a self-described lunatic who obsesses over each song and each note to the point where he claims to have considered suicide once or twice or a thousand times during recording sessions, a former Chicago club kid who craved and finally got the sort of fame he knew he deserved, a Rock Star given to shit-fits on stage and known to curse out his band and alienate his audience with each unapologetic temper tantrum.

For this--and for his unabashed "careerism," as Corgan himself and self-appointed indie-rock gatekeeper Steve Albini have described young Billy--he has been the subject of so much scorn, hatred, and jealousy among his peers. Pavement's "Range Life" contains one of the most overt, most comical bitchslaps in all of rock and roll history as Stephen Malkmus sings that the Pumpkins "don't have no function" because "I don't understand what they mean and I could really give a fuck."

Not that Pavement doesn't have a point: Billy Corgan's the James Taylor of the Alternative Nation, a confessional songwriter who bares his soul and demands his audience understand him, identify with him, sympathize with him; he wants you to feel his pain, as another Bill C. would say, and for that he's a hero to some and a laughingstock to others. Songwriters who use the medium as a confessional, who pour every bit of themselves into their lyrics and excise not even the most mundane thought, take the greatest chances and sometimes reap the fewest rewards. They assume their audience sympathizes with their pain and plights, and needs to plug into the songwriters' life in order to understand and deal with their own; they believe the songwriters' words contain the profound wisdoms, their experiences reveal the profound revelations, their music unlocks the mysteries to a life unfulfilled.

This may or not be true when you look at all the kids who plug into the Internet to gossip about Billy Corgan's life, whiling away the wee hours of the morning dissecting and discussing lyrics and what Billy really meant when he wrote, "Today is the greatest day I've ever known." To the converted, Corgan's lyrics are life lessons ("The more you change the less you feel"); to the non-believers, they're sad bullshit and poseur poetry ("I'm in love with my sadness"). More likely, they're somewhere in between--like journal entries you'd find from a precious, heartbroken kid for whom you feel vague pity, or the semi-sincere confessions of a boy who wants you to love him for just one night.

Which brings us to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a brilliant, ambitious, arrogant, confused mess--epic in scope and narrow in vision, not so different from its predecessors Gish or Siamese Dream but somehow more fleshed out and dense, more revealing but less obvious. It's rarely fun to listen to, too exhausting and repetitive to take in one complete sitting unless it's turned all the way down, and more often than not resembles Boston's cold and sterile radio-rock and the Moody Blues' prog-art-rock done up for the alternative crowd (though Corgan compares it to Sgt. Pepper's and Pet Sounds, that arrogant sumbitch).

It's the double album of a band (more accurately, a single man) that knew it could get away with the length, justifications be damned, and came up with something halfway toward wonderful simply because of its audacity. Mellon Collie is not the work of a cynical careerist by any stretch--it demands too much patience from an audience in search of the quick fix, asks too much from a crowd unwilling to give much of itself--but the creation of an egomaniac unwilling to trim an ounce of fat from his masterpiece.

Corgan, you see, considers himself the absolute loser whose fame is fleeting, accidental, inevitable; he portrays himself in his music and in interviews as a victim of those who don't, can't, understand him--like Pavement, like Albini, like those who booed them at Lollapalooza last year. He complains on "Jellybelly" that "living makes me sick/so sick I wish I'd die," but he also knows he's too smart to give in to that alleged sickness; he wants to "live for always and forever," as he sings at the end of the song, presumably through a woman but more likely through his music--his one big contribution to this world, his statement so important it can't be contained on a single disc.

Divided into two "chapters"--"Dawn to Dusk" for Disc One, "Twilight to Starlight" for Disc Two--Mellon Collie opens with a piano-and-synth instrumental right out of the Pete Townshend (or is that John Tesh?) songbook; it's an overture, of sorts, the title track that leads into a series of songs ("Tonight, Tonight," "Jellybelly," and "Zero") that grow louder and louder until the album finally settles into a groove that bounces back and forth between the two kinds of songs Corgan writes and the Pumpkins perform--that is, the fast and loud guitar-driven art-rock songs and the slow and soft guitar-driven art-rock songs. Corgan may have a lot of problems, but he doesn't have much range, merely subtle variations on the theme.

The music itself on Mellon Collie is nothing particularly new to Smashing Pumpkins fans or even those who merely caught them in constant rotation on MTV, at least until you reach the second half of "Twilight to Starlight"; it serves only to wash over Corgan's lyrics, to provide them with a context--that is, the defiant and strong songs rock like metal (such as "Fuck You," thanks very much, and the Metallica-derivative "X.Y.U.," in which Corgan growls that he's a "mother fuck...the forgotten child") and the sad and defeated songs weep and moan ("Tonight, Tonight" and "Take Me Down"). This is for the kids who don't read lyric sheets, little reminders about how you're supposed to feel when you hear the songs if you can't follow the words.

The album plays itself out like one long suicide note from a guy who likes himself too much to actually kill himself. It reeks of despair and self-loathing, hopelessness and loss, confusion and emptiness. "There's no connection to myself," Corgan sings in "Zero," the anthem of the lonely loser who believes he can find love and redemption in the arms of a woman who will love him despite his pathetic flaws; "emptiness is loneliness," he goes on, "and loneliness is cleanliness, and cleanliness is godliness, and God is empty just like me." Several times throughout Mellon Collie, in fact, Corgan repeats the theme almost verbatim: I'm no good by myself, baby, and I need you bad. Barry White and Isaac Hayes felt the same way.

Mellon Collie is thick with references to sleep as a metaphor for death--or, at the very least, as a brief escape from life. Corgan begs for peace "In the Arms of Sleep" that he might rest his "lonely heart"; he wants you to "let me die inside" because "fuck it, I don't care" ("Tales of a Scorched Earth"). On "To Forgive," Corgan goes on to say that "nothing is important to me," that "I knew my loss before I even learned to speak." But how about sing?

In the end, Corgan may present his words through a "frowning smile," but it's a smile nonetheless because the music is often too self-contained to be cathartic, too derivative to be anything other than an echo of a memory. Corgan's neurosis and madness fuel his art, they are his art for better or worse, but such is his lot in life. He's "king of doom," as he sings on "Here is No Why," "forever doomed...lost inside the dreams of teen machines." As a result, he seems to be reminding himself: "You're a star," which makes the bad seem pretty damned good.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky