Jul 16, 2010, 07:10AM

Billy Corgan's Nostalgia Act

The aging rocker, currently on a small club tour, seems intent on total mediocrity.

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"What year is it?" Billy Corgan asks a sellout crowd at Rams Head Live in downtown Baltimore. "It certainly isn't fucking 1993." His band The Smashing Pumpkins are in the middle of a small club tour, hitting cities like Columbus, OH; Grand Rapids, MI; Louisville, KY; and Baltimore, among others. But this isn't The Smashing Pumpkins as you may know them. Since reforming the band in 2007, Corgan has jettisoned the only other original member of the band (drummer Jimmy Chamberlin) and amassed a motley crew of recruits, including 20-year-old drummer Mike Byrne, who got the job through a YouTube audition. But it's not about the hired hands: this is Corgan's show, and he wants to make sure you know that.

Coming on stage a full 45 seconds after the rest of the band, Corgan greets the eager audience with arms outstretched, mimicking Christ. Throughout the set, Corgan continued these messianic stunts, gesturing for applause and recognition several times. It all seems very desperate, and he doesn't need to do it; the audience (mostly people approaching 40 and other aging bros) is eating it up. But in some ways, he needs it more than ever; the fanbase of The Smashing Pumpkins is nowhere near as large or diffuse as it once was, and with a horribly mismanaged Internet presence and poor creative output, they're losing fans every day. This desperation for relevancy manifested itself not only in the lack of ridiculous costumes (a welcome change from the Machina and Zeitgeist tours) but also the singles-heavy set list: of the Pumpkins' 17 singles, nine were played, including "Today," "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "Ava Adore," "Stand Inside Your Love," and "Cherub Rock."  

"Free isn't good enough any more," Corgan says to the audience, "soon we're gonna have to pay people to listen to our music." Typically combative and self-righteous, Corgan is on the offensive. Although not a contentious show by Pumpkins standards, Corgan can't help opening his loud mouth, and if he didn't offend anybody, he certainly made things a little more awkward and uncomfortable. "Look at the world around you, you obviously don't know what you want."

Hey, fuck you, asshole. I don't need this. You're lucky I even came. You haven't made anything amazing since Mellon Collie, and you haven't even made anything that's just good since Adore. I understand the artistic need to move on and forge brave new territory but you don't have to act like an ill-informed, snot-nosed egomaniac.

But this has always been Corgan's problem. Since exploding into public consciousness with Siamese Dream in 1993, Corgan’s been antagonistic and condescending with the press, and the running theme has always been his supremacy. According to Corgan, nothing is ever his fault. It's always the media, the mainstream, his bandmates, the music industry, his personal life, God...but never him.

But you only scan his career to see that he's made some big blunders. The Pumpkins no longer sell out giant arenas like some of their contemporaries still do (Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters), and his music isn't taken seriously by most critics or discerning music fans, and for good reason. 2000’s botched farewell album Machina/The Machines of God was bland and overproduced, 2007’s Zeitgeist was fraught with poor songwriting and questionable aesthetics and motivations, and the ongoing Teargarden by Kaleidyscope shows Corgan spiraling down into a self-delusional hole, convinced that he can still make amazing work and put it in half the effort. Of the five songs released so far for the project, he played four at this show, and the audience response ranged from indifferent to befuddlement. It’s that: The Smashing Pumpkins, and Billy Corgan, are unsuccessful not because of any great cultural shift or the collapsing music industry; they’re unsuccessful because they make shitty music. Plenty of bands of the 90s have proven they can make it in the Internet era, and they’ve done it not only through abundant Internet presences, but primarily through quality product. The Pumpkins haven’t made a good album since 1998, and they’re suffering for it now.

It’s a shame, because before Corgan drove his band into the ground, they were one of the most exciting and technically innovative bands of the 90s. Siamese Dream is still one of the best- produced albums in memory, and Mellon Collie's sheer vastness and scope still awes. Smashing Pumpkins 3.0 didn’t put on a bad show; it was musically competent, and honestly Corgan sounded more engaged in his vocal delivery than he has since 2000. But the passion is gone, as is the character and the familial scrappiness of the original quartet. He’s simply out of touch: while introducing the new band, Corgan referred to himself as “Dick Cheney,” proving that he’s six years behind culturally. What Corgan doesn’t realize that people don’t care about his new work because of the diffusion of listening habits or the indifference to rock music; nobody cares about Teargarden by Kaleidyscope because it sucks. The Smashing Pumpkins were a gargantuan rock and roll machine at their height; just look at this video of the band playing Mellon Collie’s “Zero” in early 1996:

People worshipped Corgan, and it made sense: he was an incredible performer, an amazingly talented guitarist and songwriter, and a true showman. The Pumpkins of 1996 were the biggest band in the world, but that band is long dead. It’s sad to see their legacy being tarnished by an egomaniac obsessed with recapturing the past.


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