Billy Corgan was destined to fail, eventually. But the greater tragedy is that the world was destined to fail Billy Corgan. “There’s definitely the moment where you go, ‘What happened?’” the Smashing Pumpkins frontman and alt-rock supervillain told Rolling Stone in late 1998. “You have this feeling of desertion: Maybe they don’t love you anymore.” The piece’s headline was “Billy Corgan Blasts the Critics,” but by they, of course, he meant his fans. On June 2, 1998, the band had put out their fourth album, the murky and hobbled and vaguely electronic Adore. It flopped. Corgan took it badly. Taking things badly has always been his thing.
For much of the ’90s, operatic rock-star pissiness was a fantastically lucrative field. Smashing Pumpkins — with a core lineup of Corgan, second guitarist James Iha, bassist D’arcy Wretzky, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin — hailed from Chicago and blew up with their second album, 1993’s Siamese Dream, a colossus of snarling guitar-god ambition and bleating sad-goth vulnerability. (God bless the crunchy neon-melodrama anthem “Today,” and its iconic “let’s paint an ice-cream truck” video.) Very few ’90s rock records — Nirvana’s Nevermind, in fact, might be the only one — were bigger, or better, or more melodramatically beloved.
The Pumpkins followed it up in 1995 with the double-disc Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a gigantic flex from the title on down, indulging Corgan’s every whim, from prog wizardry to gentle balladry to emo acrimony. The RIAA eventually certified it Diamond, meaning 10 million copies sold. (Well, 5 million copies of a double album, but that’s arguably more impressive, given that back then the CD version cost more than $20.) And then it all went to shit, just as Corgan’s flamboyantly dour lyrics had long foretold.
In July 1996, during the luxe Mellon Collie world tour, touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died of an apparent heroin overdose; drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was arrested for drug possession, and kicked out of the band soon thereafter. He’d be back, but not soon enough to save Adore, which was further psychologically burdened by Corgan’s imminent divorce and the death of his mother, Martha. By 1998, alternative rock was already fracturing, supplanted in the critical imagination by “electronica” — 1997 was the year of “Firestarter,” and “Block Rockin’ Beats,” and “Trip Like I Do” — and Chamberlin’s absence, and thus the Pumpkins’ newfound reliance on drum machines, rankled purists. Moreover, Corgan, long a full-fledged heel and punching bag, brash and imperious and bald and deathly pale and spectacularly pompous, was due for the ultimate heat check. Get a load of the sleeves on this guy.
As lead singles go, “Ava Adore” foretold great things for Adore, actually: The band’s candy-coated rock-radio crunch was still intact, and the nervous shifts of the overlapping drum machines provided their own sort of momentum and melodrama. But for millions of the band’s devotees, much of the rest of the record fell flat, caught somewhere between electronic and acoustic and orchestral, casting the band’s usual bouts of poetic self-pity in an uncharacteristically spare and unflattering light.
Corgan’s response to the world’s response did him, and the record, no favors. Adore hadn’t yet sold even a million copies by the time of his December ’98 chat with Rolling Stone, which consequently had the feel of an autopsy. Corgan conceded that he’d pissed off his own fans by going on Howard Stern and announcing that they’d disappointed him by not embracing (or at least buying) Adore; he mused that “maybe it’s like a Lou Reed, Berlin kind of record, where it’s got to sit for a while, be digested and maybe get away from the politic of a certain time.” (In his defense, the record did eventually somehow justify a seven-disc box set.)
He also semi-gracefully answered the question, “Is rock dead? If so, does it matter?” just to give you an idea of even Rolling Stone’s sense of the universe, even in 1998. And most impressively, he seemed capable of self-reflection, if only in short bursts. “At the end of the day, if people do not connect with Adore, that is my responsibility,” Corgan allowed. “But in fifteen years, if somebody pulls me over and says, ‘Adore is the best record you ever did,’ I’m gonna fall over laughing.”
It is 20 years later, and Adore is not the best record Corgan ever did. In July, a mostly reunited Smashing Pumpkins will embark on a blockbuster arena nostalgia tour, announced by sad-eyed ladies wearing angel wings and wielding a flamethrower, because that’s how this band rolls.
This is thrilling news for long-suffering Corgan apologists who’ve tolerated years of tumultuous side projects (shouts to Zwan) and wan solo albums and iffy Smashing Pumpkins records churned out by whichever musicians Corgan could tolerate (and vice versa) at the time. Even this imminent tour’s myriad bursts of schadenfreude — ticket sales have been slow, and bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, after a messy and very public series of arguments, is no longer onboard — feel like a genuine homage to the band’s glory years. But for most, those glory years amount to Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and little else. Maybe a few Adore singles will sneak onto the set lists; if Corgan’s feeling ornery (which, as always, is likely), he’ll cram in a few deep cuts, too, as a sort of delayed fan retaliation.
But Adore is worth revisiting precisely because it’s not a triumph, or a hidden gem in retrospect. It’s a low moment for a band that lifted the very notion of low moments to dizzying heights; it’s a monument to peak vulnerability for a band that made its vulnerability seem almost bulletproof. In 1998, at the twilight of the rock-god era, it’s not so much that Smashing Pumpkins were too big to fail, as Smashing Pumpkins were so big that failure was inevitable.
By 1998, Corgan was brash and imperious and — unlike most of his fellow tortured alt-rock brethren, from Eddie Vedder to Trent Reznor to Kurt Cobain himself — unwilling to disguise his naked ambition. He was hellbent on letting his control-freak flag fly. He wanted to be a ’70s-style Rock God, far too huge to concern himself with mere coolness. He once described Siamese Dream as his “middle finger to the indie world” (Pavement famously clowned the Pumpkins on 1994’s ultra-indie battle hymn “Range Life”), and claimed to have played most of the guitar and bass parts himself, his bandmates proving another endless fount of disappointment.
As a teenager who somehow loved both “Range Life” and Siamese Dream’s grandiose “Mayonaise,” I was forever scarred by another Rolling Stone interview, this one from 1995, that opens with a scene of Corgan and his coproducer, Flood, recording the super-pissy Mellon Collie jam “Zero.” Specifically, they are stitching together the lead vocals word by word, cutting between multiple takes, with Corgan holding a piece of paper and scrawling a little check mark next to each syllable. “’I know it looks anal,” Corgan concedes. Few rock stars of that or any era would cop to that level of fussy studio artifice, whether they took advantage of it or not.
It’s not that drum machines never entered this equation: Mellon Collie’s “1979,” one of the band’s biggest and best singles ever, has a robotic pulse and a relatively relaxed and mechanical air. Adore’s best moments strive for that sort of simplicity. “Perfect,” from the video on down, is presented as a “1979” sequel, and Corgan re-creates that sense of suburban-malaise wistfulness almost too well: “We are / Reasons so unreal / We can’t help but feel / That something has been lost.” Get a load of the cowboy hat on this guy.
But given that Corgan was both mourning his mother and recovering from public splits with both his drummer and his wife, much of Adore struggles beneath its own psychic weight, even for a band famous for manipulating psychic weight with a virtuoso’s touch. No one track is an unbearable slog: Even the eight-minute piano ballad “For Martha” gets jolted by an austere but startling guitar solo, one of the record’s few. (A shame, given that Corgan could be virtuosic in that realm, too.) There’s a recognizable stadium-goth enormity to songs like “Tear” or “Daphne Descends”; even the more mechanical stuff, like the woozy My Bloody Valentine churn of “Appels + Oranjes,” expands the band’s palate without betraying its core principles. (Smashing Pumpkins fans quickly learn to make their peace with stupid song titles.)
But there is a listlessness to the whole package, a stubborn refusal to stoop to the lighter-waving, hook-filled theatrics of yore. It gets tiresome; Track 13 is titled, “Behold! The Night Mare.” This is the sort of self-consciously difficult record where people liked the bright, immediate, Rick Rubin–produced track “Let Me Give the World to You” so much that Corgan cut it from Adore entirely, rather than let his record label release it as, to his mind, an unrepresentative single. U2’s 1997 flop Pop pairs up well with Adore, unfortunately, in that both albums water down top-tier arena rock bands with electronics and lugubriousness, though Corgan’s problem here was excessive earnestness, not overblown irony. You could only tell how hard he was working when the results stopped working.
Track 12 on Adore is called “Shame.” At this point on the album all but the most devout Corgan worshipers are flagging at least a little, and the song doesn’t much perk things up: It’s slow and funereal and almost seven minutes long, and our rattled antihero is not at his most lyrically astute. (“Love is good and love is kind / Love is good and love is blind.”) But I am struck now, rereading Corgan’s old LiveJournal (no, really), by how raw he still sounds, recounting that one song’s recording process in a 2005 post, eight years or so later. He complains that the band rented a house in the Hollywood Hills for solidarity purposes, but Iha refused to live there; he concedes that he should’ve forgiven Chamberlin and brought him back into the band sooner. And as for the process of recording “Shame” — with just him, Iha, Wretzky, and a drum machine — he offers this:
I am singing for my life, so raw is my being now that goose bumps cover my whole body…it is fear and ecstasy all rolled together, and it engulfs me…the band of 3 feel unified, molten, rides the vision slow…this is the sound you can only get when you have played for so many years together that you play a sort of “in time, out of time” feel…if you were to isolate each instrument on it’s own, you would probably say that no one is playing particularly well at all…but somehow together, we create a flying alchemical sound of transformation, and we think little of it as this magic trick has happened so many times…
Corgan knows it’s not a great song, but he also knows that the most meaningful songs of any given era sometimes aren’t.
the lyrics are a sketch, scrawled on a piece of loose paper, and I am not even sure what I am singing about as I voice them, but I reach for each word like a prayer… it is like a watching a movie that you have created but you do not know how it will all end…the music, the song seems to go on forever, and you hope silently that you do not make a mistake that will break the spell…and then, fade, it’s over…there is uncomfortable silence between us as the ghost leaves the room…everyone unknowingly returns to the role they are supposed to play in this story…but in that moment gone, we are one…
“We are one” is not exactly the Smashing Pumpkins creed. (The early single “I Am One” is way more appropriate.) Soon Chamberlin would be back, but Corgan’s other two bandmates would be gone, in Wretzky’s case seemingly for good. Many far worse albums, some under the band’s name, would follow, and Adore looks much better in retrospect only by comparison. But it’s an important part of the Smashing Pumpkins legacy regardless, the first major crack in a facade that was never terribly convincing in the first place, and soon doomed to crumble entirely. I hope the band plays “Shame” on this new stadium tour, though, even if it drives much of the audience to the bathroom, or the concession stand. That will disappoint Corgan anew, of course. But two-way disappointment is part of the band’s legacy, too.