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Remembering Billy

In February of 1989, Billy Corgan gave me a copy of a self-titled, eight-track mini-release Smashing Pumpkins had just put out in Chicago. I was in a Champaign, Illinois-based band called Stark at the time, and we played with the Pumpkins occasionally.

Smashing Pumpkins was a cheesy-looking cassette with hand-drawn flowers by Corgan on the cover of a flimsy insert, and a copyright symbol scribbled under a line of text crediting Schwa Productions (a.k.a. someone's home studio) with producing the six-song tape. Corgan said they'd only made about 600 copies.

The early songs on the tape have never appeared on any other Pumpkins release, including the collection of odds and ends assembled for 1994's Pisces Iscariot. Its mood is brisk, but haunted by Corgan's reverb-tinged vocals lamenting the complexities of love. Corgan's obsession with traumas of the head and heart is already apparent, as is his search for metaphysical guidance and antisocial tendencies. On "Nothing and Everything," the singer comes off trapped and disgusted: "I hide behind my hair today/Wishing I was far away/Standing with you mannequins/I try to hold my breath."

The band's melodramatic impulses--including the lines "Walking in the sun I know that I never feel alive/Walking in the sun I never feel"--are checked by James Iha's and Corgan's killer guitar chops and less indulgent lyrics. The mix of chiming melodies and psychedelic outbursts is intriguing, as though Jimi Hendrix and the Sisters of Mercy (sans the swank production values) were tied together at the tail and trying to run in opposite directions, only to keep slamming into one another.

On one live cut titled "She," Iha's hoarse back-up vocals fight to keep pace with Corgan as both guitarists are locked in a duel of solos. Despite the blistering licks Corgan claimed he learned at Juilliard, Iha is better, creating aural washes so visceral they pool at your feet. The track ends with about five people applauding weakly.

By the time Corgan gave me that tape, I'd known the Smashing Pumpkins for several months, since Stark had teamed up with them for a spate of shows in cultural hotbeds like Champaign-Urbana and Carbondale, Illinois. Most of our gigs were in clubs no bigger than a basement, and about as inviting. One dive on the Southern Illinois University campus called 601 was typical: a pizza parlor run by a Chinese couple who paid us in pepperoni slices and lemonade. No stage, no PA, nowhere to run if the firetrap went up in flames. The pizza sucked, too.

At the time, the Pumpkins had already developed a reputation in the Chicago underground as a band to watch, but the hot-button issue in alternative music circles at the time was whether any band from the Second City could get signed to a major deal. Urge Overkill were the cult faves, having just released Jesus Urge Superstar on Touch and Go, but they were light-years from a mainstream breakthrough. The Didjits had a devoted following, but appeared content to remain big fish in a (relatively) small pond. Singer/guitarist Rick Didjit even refused to give up his day job in a record store so the band could tour extensively. The scene's doormat, more often than not, was Material Issue, a pop trio that wasn't as lame as everyone said it was.

Fans closed ranks, typically choosing one Chicago band over all others to be "their" band, and throwing serious attitude at anyone who didn't. From the start, Corgan wanted to go for a broader appeal. He tossed candy to crowds from a plastic orange trick-or-treat pumpkin bucket. He grew his hair like a Cure refugee and affected a coy, little-boy-next-door image, which he alternated with the more ferocious demeanor that accompanied his reckless guitar solos. People in Chicago were starting to pay attention to him, but in 1989 Corgan still had to take his Tootsie Rolls on the road and suffer through the crappy bars with the rest of us.

It was at one of the 601 shows that D'arcy, still reluctant to venture far from the root on her bass, screwed up a couple of Corgan's songs. She missed a transition to the bridge in one and thudded to a stop two beats after the rest of the band on the other, drawing a glare from Corgan, who voiced his displeasure by launching into a cacophonous, 30-second solo.

After the show, Corgan was distraught over what he considered a poor performance (everyone else in the bar was raving about the set). He confided that he had been thinking about getting rid of D'arcy and hiring another, more technically proficient bassist to replace her. A pitcher of beer later, Corgan became more tractable, and said he'd hook D'arcy up with a few music lessons, which apparently worked.

The animal restlessness of the band, and especially of Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain (jettisoned earlier this year after a heroin bust), was evident in early 1989. The Pumpkins were still bouncing around the Land of Lincoln, playing college towns or scamming a spot on the Wednesday bill at the Metro (Chicago's alternative mecca, frequented by bitter kids in boots with hallucinogens swimming through their brains). After a late gig in Champaign with Stark one night, the Pumpkins came back to our house--10 minutes from the club--to crash. Or so we thought.

Chamberlain and Corgan threw their more valuable equipment in our living room and left the rest in the van. Then Chamberlain asked where he could score some cocaine and groupies. He used those words specifically. We told Chamberlain we couldn't help him out, and he and Corgan had little use for us after that. The two hovered anxiously, Corgan checking the clock and flipping his purple permed hair out of his eyes. He looked like he was afraid the night would pass without something dangerous happening. They slipped out sometime after everyone else went to sleep. They were AWOL for a day and a half, and when they returned from their misadventures, if you asked them what they'd been up to, they would only giggle like sorority girls.

The last time I talked with any of the Pumpkins was five years ago, when I ran into Iha at a resale boutique in Chicago. He was even paler than usual, and looked like he'd just lost 20 pounds he couldn't afford to. Had the Smashing Pumpkins guitarist worn a placard that read "rock 'n' roll has kicked my ass," the sentiment would have suited the figure picking lethargically through a rack of Ziggy Stardust pants that once belonged to someone else.

Iha looked pretty sad for a guy whose band was quickly gaining big-time momentum. When I congratulated him on his band's blossoming success and told him I'd seen him on MTV, Iha looked embarrassed. Pressed to describe what it felt like to be a real rock star, he smiled wanly and shrugged: "It's okay." Pause. "I guess."

Okay? Gish was scaling the alternative charts, and the Pumpkins had just completed a tour of Europe most of their Windy City compatriots, myself included, could only imagine. On top of that, the guitarist was romantically linked to the band's bassist, D'arcy, an indie-rock ice queen whose looks helped you ignore her merely passable playing. Iha made it all sound like drudgery.

He said he was already disillusioned with the music industry that had swept up the Pumpkins only a year earlier, and that tour life was anything but glamorous, even with roadies. Being trundled from one interview to the next and then having to endure some inane MTV fete was grating on Iha. He said he felt like life was definitely spiraling out of his control. Privacy was unattainable on the road, and six months of incessant touring had damaged his relationship with D'arcy. Iha was starting to feel dehumanized, and used words like "product, not a person." Last year, I saw the Pumpkins as cartoon characters for the "Homerpalooza" Simpsons episode, and something Iha had told me near the end of our conversation sprang to mind. He had grinned and wondered aloud if the record company didn't have a secret ray gun it would someday turn on the band to shrink the Pumpkins down and animate it, "just like Josie and the Pussycats."

The Smashing Pumpkins are scheduled to perform on Saturday, December 7, at America West Arena, with Garbage. Showtime is 8 p.m.


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