May 19, 2023, 06:29AM

Paul & Meredith & Elliott & Billy

Rooster follows the teenagers through Virgin Megastore as they debate the merits of Billy Corgan, Elliott Smith, and Julian Plenti, January 1996.

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It was quiet outside that night, but even with no shoppers, the Virgin Megastore in Union Square was pumping “Galaxie” by Blind Melon, the lead single from their 1995 sophomore album Soup. Lead singer Shannon Hoon died of a cocaine overdose two months after its release, and the record went nowhere, especially without an instant classic single like “No Rain.” Later in 1996, The Presidents of the United States of America would emerge as replacements for the spot vacated by Blind Melon: a decent alternative rock band with one or two good or great pop songs. I never liked “Peaches,” but it was a hit; “Lump,” on the other hand, may not be as blissed out as “No Rain,” but it’s a catchy motherfucker.

None of these songs, none of these bands, and none of these people came up in conversation between Paul and Meredith that night. I heard Soup, but all they heard was each other. As I made my way back upstairs into the rock section, Paul held up a copy of Siamese Dream by the Smashing Pumpkins: “Billy Corgan woke up one day and decided to kill himself. Must’ve been around 1992—he dated Courtney Love for a while, and she left him and went right for Kurt Cobain, right when Nirvana was breaking through. This was October 1991. Now, keep in mind, Gish came out in 1991, and it was the best-selling independent record of all time—but that didn’t mean shit once Nirvana pushed Michael Jackson off the Billboard 100.

“So not only did Billy lose his soulmate, he lost her to his only real rival, the only other musician his age that could even approach his level of talent. And I’m sure he knew it. He knew he wasn’t as photogenic as Kurt, and he knew the Pumpkins were never going to be a pop punk band like Nirvana or Green Day. He wasn’t going to sacrifice his guitar solos for sales. But he wrote these two songs, simple pop songs, and he wrote them in less than an hour. Less than an hour. Woke up thinking he was going to jump out a window, ended up writing two of the most famous songs of the 1990s. How anyone can doubt this man… let alone criticize him for his ‘arrogance’… he may arrogant, but he’s not wrong…”

Meredith was polite. Probably to a fault. One thing I learned for sure that night was that Meredith often spoke with her face. She’d listen to Paul, sometimes intently, sometimes looking off into the distance, but he never noticed, caught up in his own monologuing or drifting off himself and staring at her. So as Paul waxed rhapsodic about Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins (who gives a shit? Seriously…), I watched Meredith roll her eyes over and over. She waited for Paul to finish so she could begin her sermon on Elliott Smith and… Julian Plenti.

“Have you heard of Heatmiser?”

Surprisingly, Paul had. Their major label debut, Mic City Sons, wouldn’t be out until that fall, and although they’d break up shortly thereafter, Paul had a copy of their 1994 album Cop and Speeder. “My mom took me to Seattle a couple years ago, it was right after Kurt died,” and he got the Heatmiser CD on a recommendation “from a girl.” Meredith looked up. “What did she look like?” Paul looked down. “Redhead. Red lipstick.” She squinted. “Do you like the record.” A long pause. “…it’s okay I guess.” And then she bent down, and asked in a mock whisper, “Sooooo what do you think of Elliott Smith?” Paul said he hadn’t heard any. “I’ll make you a tape. He only has two now but they’re sooooo good. When I saw him last year he played a bunch of new songs, and some Heatmiser stuff. You should come see him with me in the Village in April.”

They kept walking through the Rock section, ending up in “P.” Meredith turned to Paul. “I know he doesn’t have a CD yet, but I really like this guy Julian Plenti. I saw him at the Knitting Factory last month. He’s not as good a guitar player as Elliott Smith—not even close—but he’s a lot more…. uh, handsome… also he’s got style. Elliott is doing the whole Kurt thing. I guess this guy Julian is sort of like Billy.” Paul perked up. “Really? How? Does he like Boston? ELO?” Meredith put up one finger. “No. I just mean he cares about performance and presentation. When I saw Julian Plenti, he was singing and playing an acoustic guitar—in a three piece suit. I saw him do an in-store at Other Music and he was wearing wool slacks, a dress shirt, tie, sweater, and white loafers. This was in June!

Paul got as much information about Julian Plenti as he could out of Meredith. Yes, they’d go to the Knitting Factory soon and see him play. Why not? After all, Paul had never been—he never knew any of the acts that played there. All of his favorite bands always seemed to play the clubs right before he found out about them. Of course he had no idea that Julian Plenti was a stage name for Paul Banks, who would breakthrough in 2002 fronting the band Interpol. And no, he didn’t like Elliott Smith or Heatmiser that much—he had heard “Needle in the Hay” and hated the lo-fi way it was recorded—but he promised to go see Julian Plenti look cool, play guitar, and sing if it meant one more night with Meredith like this, one night in New York City, January 1996.

—Follow Rooster Quibbits on Twitter: @RoosterQuibbits


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