Jeff Fusco, Getty The music and entertainment industry is starting to come…
- Posted on Nov 29th 2011 12:30PM by Michael Hogan
It was 1991 -- the year punk broke! -- and I was a 16-year-old stranded, as I saw it then, in the cultural wasteland of suburban New Jersey. It had been less than a year since I'd been turned on to the wonders of alternative music via a single mixtape given to me by my girlfriend, who never bothered to hide her animal lust for the dapper men of Depeche Mode, and I had embraced the new sound with all the fervor of a teenage convert.
One night, during a mandatory session in front of MTV's '120 Minutes,' the alternative show hosted at that time by a slithering Brit named Dave Kendall, I found myself gawping with a mixture of awe and incomprehension at a video featuring a group of androgynous rockers carrying out some kind of demonic hippie seance. It wasn't goth, per se -- more like art punk, as imagined by Kenneth Anger. I took note of the band's strange name, as one did in those pre-Internet days, as well as the strange names of the song and the album from which it came. Smashing Pumpkins, 'Siva,' 'Gish.' I sure hoped there was more where that came from.
There was. An entire album (or cassette, in my case) of mind-blowingly inventive compositions that transported the listener from the opium den to the mosh pit (well, not literally, as I would soon discover) and back again. The Smashing Pumpkins made the most of their obvious strengths: the killer rhythm section of D'Arcy and Jimmy Chamberlin and the sibling-rival guitars of James Iha and Billy Corgan. And they converted what could have been their most obvious weakness -- Billy Corgan's unmelodious screech -- into a signature, scrawled in blood and rat s--- and submerged down low in the mix.
But I was going to tell you about the show. I must have read about it in the Village Voice, since that was the only way to find out what was happening in those days. It was at Maxwell's in Hoboken, a 40-minute drive away, and I went with my brother and the only other people from our town who wouldn't have laughed in my face if I'd invited them: Two sisters who, like us, had come to rely on the free-form radio station WFMU for proof that there was indeed intelligent life out there, somewhere.
We arrived early, as you do when you're a kid and have way more time than money, and during the opening act my brother stood next to James Iha, not that we had any clue who we was before he ascended the (two-foot-tall) stage and strapped on his guitar. Corgan had billowing red hair in those days and I spent some time sincerely trying to determine if he was male or female until he opened his mouth and let the truth be known.
Paul Natkin, Getty Images
I remember three specifics about the show itself. One was D'Arcy: I was in love with her, simple as that, as any young male in my position would have been. The second was the way Corgan reared back and then violently attacked the mic when the music went fast and loud -- I will never hear that little "yeah" he shouts before the last chorus of 'Siva' without imagining the way he looked that day. And I remember trying to mosh -- something I had become quite fond of in recent months -- only to be rebuffed by the older, cooler crowd. At the time, I concluded that slam-dancing was "over," but it would live on, probably still does. I was getting my first taste of what it's like to hang with the industry crowd.
'Gish' and its follow-up, 'Siamese Dream,' which are being re-released today (Nov. 29) in deluxe repackaged anniversary editions, sound as good to me today as they did when they were released. They capture an era that was enormously exciting for those of us who were lucky to be music-mad kids at the time. I thought then, and I sometimes still think, that the Pumpkins were the biggest victims of Nirvana's success. If Kurt and the boys hadn't come along, Billy, James, D'Arcy, and Jimmy might have gotten the credit for unleashing that colossal wave of pent-up energy which, in truth, was going to erupt one way or another. The music on the radio was just so unspeakably bad, and the music on vinyl, and on tiny little stages everywhere, was far too good to be ignored.
Unfortunately, like Nirvana, the Pumpkins weren't exactly equipped to handle success. Billy went from hungry upstart to overpaid jerk in record time, and the next time I saw them, at Lollapalooza in 1994, was my last. I stood there in the crowd, watching this paranoid rock star whine to no one in particular that he would never stop writing love songs no matter how many people didn't like it, and thought to myself, "How did this go so wrong so fast?" But my real complaint had to do with the sound of the records. Someone had convinced Billy -- unless he had convinced himself -- that his voice was the band's best feature, so he cranked the vocals way up in the mix. Maybe that's what you had to do to get radio play and a seat at the Grammys, but it sounded terrible to me. The signature had become something closer to a blot.
But why dwell on the negative? How many bands produce two great, era-defining albums in the course of their careers? How many produce even one? Today, when I hear 'Gish,' I can smell the record stores I frequented in those days. I can see the idealistic, needlessly angry kids we all were. And I am reminded that we once shared a moment that mattered, even if you could squeeze all the people it mattered to into one not very large room.