America West Arena
December 7, 1996
Billy Corgan's legs were slack in his shiny silver pants as he smiled for the first time all night. "I feel no pain," the great Pumpkin informed a near capacity crowd at America West Arena. "I feel no pain." Seven minutes earlier, Corgan had walked offstage after his band's second of three encores. He had moved fast, with purpose, drawing a towel over his head like an Egyptian headpiece to shield his face from the fans who rushed to the edge of the aisles overlooking the side stage walkway, calling out the name of their idol and waving for his attention. "Billy! Fuck yeah, man, you rule!" And Billy had ruled that night. He and the Pumpkins. They put their reputation as a flawed live band in a blender, pushed puree, and poured out two hours of the sweetest, angriest, tightest, most precise and exquisite modern rock ambrosia you could ever hope to taste. James Iha and Corgan played the hell out of their guitars. Corgan's voice, whiny as always, was the beauty-mark blemish on a supermodel's face, and therefore forgivable. D'Arcy even nailed her bass parts. The Pumpkins drew most of their set from the double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, winnowing that overindulgent release down to its essential seven or eight songs, including killer renderings of "Tonight, Tonight," "1979," "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" and "Zero," whose razor-wire guitar lead cracked like a whip over the accelerated live version, driving it faster, faster. There were a couple songs off Gish, and three from Siamese Dream (Billy only got high-school-thespian-in-a-Cure-shirt on us once, introducing "Today" as "one of the few happy Smashing Pumpkins songs, and probably the last ever"). Every song was faster and harder live. In sum, the Pumpkins rocked straight through the second encore. Then they went backstage, and something bad happened, something that spun out the show so dramatically that Pumpkins fans should fear for their band, especially its leader. The Billy Corgan who disappeared behind the backstage curtain, with the glorious white noise of a frenzied arena behind him, was not the same Billy Corgan who reappeared a few minutes later for the last encore. The new Billy had lost the purpose in his step. He needed help from a handler to get from the backstage door to the stage stairs. He looked exhausted, tripping over things that weren't there. But once he got onstage, he also looked happy. Finally. "I feel no pain." Unfortunately, when Corgan is feeling no pain, he sucks. So does Iha. The two of them dragged their band into a meandering, vapid guitar jam that lasted about 15 minutes before it finally sputtered to a halt. D'Arcy bailed about halfway through. She just took off her bass and walked away, so Corgan directed Iha to pick it up and keep going. Billy was gracious to the end, thanking the crowd for staying and blowing kisses. And he was still smiling. But watching the third encore at last Saturday's Smashing Pumpkins concert was like seeing a beautiful Porsche perfectly navigate a race course for hours, then careen out of control and crash in slow motion on the very last lap. It was a dramatic, unexpected finish, but it was a goddamned shame.
Post-Pumpkins revelry took me way out east to the Goldfield Ghost Town, a tourist trap in Apache Junction where a new rave promotions collective, the Milk E Way experience (get it?), was holding its debut party. It was a bust. When I arrived just before two in the morning, the speakers in the main area were blown out, so bass lines were all crackle and fuzz. Instant buzzkill. And the lighting was poor, so everyone was tripping into one another moving between dance areas. Speaking of dance areas--one of them was on a slope. Hey, what a bad idea. Milk E Way gets fat redemption points for the fire pit and free hot chocolate, water and candy (I like the philosophy--once you're inside the party, everything is free). Bottom line, though: There were exceptional DJs from out of town spinning records through cut-rate sound systems. Where's the logic there? Not of this earth.
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