An ego equal to his talent
By Sergio Ariza
Billy Corgan is a resounding egomaniac;
something that is an inconvenience if you have a personal relationship with
him, but not so much so if the only thing you're interested in is his music. It
was precisely that ego that led him to imagine things as fantastical and
magical as Mellon Collie And The Infinite
Sadness, possibly the culmination and, at the same time, the tomb of the short
reign of 90s alternative rock, of which he was one of the indispensable names.
Corgan was obsessed with music and that led him to treat it in a special way. Much
can be said about his personality, (let's not forget that in recent years he
has been heavily involved in the world of wrestling) but for him music has always
been something special, an art, and not a simple amusement for the masses.
William Patrick Corgan Jr. was born on 17 March 1967 in Chicago. His parents divorced when he was three years old and he moved to live with his father, who was a blues rock guitarist, and his new wife with whom he did not get along. Despite that, when his father divorced again, Corgan stayed with his stepmother and his two brothers, even though his parents lived less than an hour away. These traumatic childhood experiences would accompany him for life and would be reflected in his lyrics.
His decision to play the guitar came when during the visit to a friend's house he saw his Gibson Flying V. From that moment he knew what he wanted, he collected all his savings and gave them to his father to buy him the best guitar he could, which turned out to be an imitation of a Les Paul. However the fact that his son wanted to follow in his footsteps also failed to improve their personal relationship, and after his father recommended Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck to him, he again became absent from his life, leaving him to learn on his own.
Corgan’s influences were as varied as they were personal. His favourite bands ranged from the heavy of Black Sabbath, to the gothic The Cure or Bauhaus, to the glam of Bowie. He had clear that he wanted to create a band called The Smashing Pumpkins in which all these influences would fit, and more, from Queen and Rush to New Order and Echo & The Bunnymen. Corgan was light years away from the punk purist roots of most alternative groups. After passing through several bands, he left high school and went to Florida with a band called The Marked (which did not go anywhere).
After returning to Chicago, he decided that the time had come to find the right people to make his Smashing Pumpkins dream come true. The first to arrive was the guitarist James Iha, whom he met at a record store where both shared tastes such as Echo & The Bunnymen and Jefferson Airplane. The two began recording demos with Corgan songs, using a programmable drumming machine. The next to arrive was the bassist D'Arcy Wretzky. With her in the band they continued playing as a trio along with the programmed drums, until they came across the drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, who thought they sounded terrible but that Corgan's songs were very good. Thus closed the formation of the band, which would end up leading, for a brief period of time, rock in the 90s.
With the incorporation of Chamberlin on drums the band began to sound much more powerful. In this early period Corgan used a red Fender Jazzmaster but when Iha got a Les Paul Black Beauty he decided to buy what would become his best known guitar, a reissue of a Fender Stratocaster 57, that became known as Bat Strat. Thus the sound of the band came to be formed by the counter-position of the two most mythical models in history.
The Smashing Pumpkins made their first appearance on a compilation album of alternative Chicago bands, with a public that watched them askance, because of their long songs with guitar solos. In 1990 their first single appeared, I Am One, on which it is clear that Corgan admired Dimebag Darrell. In December of that year they began to record their debut, Gish, along with producer Butch Vig, someone with the same obsession for perfectionism as Corgan himself, which would lead to sessions full of tension in which Corgan would re-record several of Wretzky and Iha’s parts. But the final result would see a band and a composer with a promising future. Among the most outstanding songs is Siva, where you can see his love for Black Sabbath (the initial riff is pure Iommi) and wild solos, also Rhinoceros, a song in which the future of the band is seen and in which it could be said that Corgan finds himself as a composer and as an arranger, with 17 feedback tracks used for recording.
The album was successful within the parameters of the alternative scene; it sold a few thousand copies and was tremendously popular on university radio stations. The fact that they sold 100,000 copies in their first months was considered a success by their label, but everything was about to change. The world of music was going to live one of those episodes that would mark it forever. Two months after the Pumpkins had finished recording Gish, their producer, Butch Vig, was asked by a trio from Seattle called Nirvana to produce their second album. On 24 September 1991, they released Nevermind and in January 1992 the album ousted Michael Jackson's number 1, Dangerous, from the album charts. The 90s had arrived and alternative rock had become the new 'mainstream', guitars returned to roar on the charts.
In 1992 Billy Corgan was given the label as ‘the next Kurt Cobain’ and his group ‘the new Nirvana’. Corgan believed it and went to work to deliver the masterpiece that everyone was waiting for. However his drummer was a heroin addict, his guitarist and bassist had a huge bust up and were not talking, and Corgan was going through a severe depression in which he had ideation about his suicide. The stage was propitious, as you can see, for an unrepeatable album. Given the the task of making a titanic record, Corgan began to behave like a tyrant, recording all the guitars and bass of the record, and bringing his tremendous ego to bear. There are more than 40 'overdubs' of guitars on Soma and the sound of the album is closer to progressive rock than to the punk that the 'alternative nation' venerated. Corgan did not care, he knew that the 13 songs he had composed were up to scratch, and that Siamese Dream was going to be a defining record for the decade. He was right. Here are some of his best moments not only as a composer, but also as a guitarist. There are examples of great solos on Soma (chosen as the 24th best of all time by Rolling Stone) and Cherub Rock, in which he makes perfect use of all the power of his combo with his Stratocaster with three Fender Lace Sensor pickups and his Big Muff through his favourite amplifier, a Marshall JCM 800 84 of 100-watts. On the latter he also used a trick that he uses on a number of occasions, known as 'tape phasing', in which the solo is recorded and played at the same time but slightly out of sync with the first.
The Pumpkins had come to stay but they had also become the perfect target of the other alternative bands that did not take them seriously and criticized the airs of Corgan's greatness and star behaviour. This would be seen clearly when in the summer of '94 the band was part of the festival most related to Generation X, Lollapalooza. During those concerts there was continuous friction with the Breeders and with guests like Soundgarden; both bands that he admired. But his great sin was evident, he always wanted to be a rock star in a movement that despised rock stars. When Cobain committed suicide in April 1994, Corgan was seen as his clear successor, and the fact that Pisces Iscariot, (a compilation of B-sides and discarded tracks) could be found at number 4 in the US charts confirmed it. But few were prepared for what would come next.
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (the title is already representative) is one of the most ambitious albums ever made; and of course it is a record tailored to the ego of the one in charge. Musically it is an incredible achievement, confirming Corgan as one of the great composers of recent times. It is difficult to put a “but” to this majestic collection of songs divided into two records - one dedicated to the day and one to the night - that starts with the beautiful instrumental that gives the album its title and continues with the orchestral grandiosity of Tonight, where he uses a Gibson ES-335, and continues without taking prisoners with the quadruple attack of Jellybelly, Zero, Here Is No Why and Bullet With Butterfly Wings that make Corgan one of the best guitarists of his generation and the Smashing Pumpkins one of the most loudest groups of the 90s. The only problem of the album are its lyrics, best sum up by Homer Simpson: "thanks to you my children have stopped dreaming about a future that I can not provide them". Even so Mellon Collie triumphs thanks to the enormous musicality and ambition of Corgan who called it "The Wall of Generation X." There is something of that, with a second part where future scenarios are explored, as in the wonderful 1979, in debt to New Order, who had already advanced the Pumpkins’ flirtations with electronics, the acoustic beauty of 33, with a 12 string Gibson, or the trio formed by We Only Come Out at Night, Beautiful and Lily (My One and Only) where the guitars are replaced by other instruments, demonstrating the capacity of reinvention of Corgan and his team.
The album rose to number 1 in the charts and Corgan became for a brief moment the king of 90s rock. But that was never going to last long, and on 11 July 1996 the keyboard player who accompanied them live, Jonathan Melvoin, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin suffered an overdose; Melvoin died and Chamberlin was arrested for possession. Corgan decided to fire him from the band and continue the tour. Chamberlin was the only friend Corgan had and his absence would be much noticed in the future. Without the drummer the trio returned to their origins and the electronics began to gain ground to the rock. To top it off during the recording of the next album Corgan's mother died of cancer and he separated from his wife.
Adore was the result of all this, a record composed mostly of acoustic themes, composed with a Martin, with light electronic roots, in which Corgan tries to exorcise his demons. It was not what the world was expecting, but even so, it contained a few songs that showed that Corgan was still an excellent composer. Of course the album that ended his successful career was Machina / The Machines of God in which he worked again with Chamberlin. But at that point the relationships within the band were so bad that Wretzky abandoned the ship in the middle of the recording. The guitars and the rock returned but the inspiration seemed to have abandoned them.
The 21st century has seen Corgan indulge his eccentricities – such as wrestling, conspiracy theories, problems with other musicians - more than his musical side. Which is a shame because, as I said, at the beginning, Corgan is one of the leading composers of his generation. Now he has reunited the original Pumpkins for a tour and announced the release of two EP's with new music. All accompanied, how could it be otherwise, by a disagreeable exchange of views with D'Arcy Wretzky who in the end will not be part of the reunion. Even so Corgan has always worked better in difficult times; it may still that the music imposes itself to the character. Let's hope so.