Why Smashing Pumpkins Should Play Gish in Concert

Billy Corgan of Smashing PumpkinsEXPAND
Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins

Controversial, ego-driven, demanding, and at times excessive, Billy Corgan has never ceased to do whatever the hell he wants. Recently, the Smashing Pumpkins frontman publicly lamented the fact that his career-long fans still "live in the past" because they want to hear music from Gish, the band's 1991 debut album. Is this for real?

To quell the urges of fandom, Corgan has hit on a novel approach and, in his eyes, a solution to his "problem" that is either selfish or hilarious: On his current tour, he's acknowledging the album as a three-minute acoustic medley focusing solely on each song's familiar riff.

Genius or arrogant prick? Let's put it this way: Would Pearl Jam get away with a rapid-fire medley of Ten (also released in 1991, coincidentally) played solo acoustic? Even if an über-cool Eddie Vedder mumbled along at top speed? Hell, no.

Arrogant prick, then. Face it, Billy — or William, as you prefer to be called these days, since you feel Billy sounds like a kid's name — your fans want to hear songs from Gish because the album is an alternative/grunge rock masterpiece. The timing for this album couldn't have been better. It not only introduced the Chicago-based band to the world, but it also helped reshape and give more direction to the blossoming alternative-rock scene.

As a record shop owner in 1991, I was present when Gish was being readied for mass consumption. Handed an advance copy by an astute label rep, I had the album in regular rotation at the store. Clearly, the Smashing Pumpkins sound — a dramatic, layered, soaring blend of prog, shoegazer, goth, psych, and grunge — would amount to something. Advance sales grew.

The band toured in advance of the release, and I took my future wife to a seedy, warehouse district venue in Denver to see the band. The Garage was a subterranean, sweaty, claustrophobic room. From the first guitar strum, the room was in motion. A mosh pit formed instantly. At full volume, the feeling was overwhelming — a really good feeling. Then, in a Matrix-like moment, everything went slow motion as a mosh pit tumbler in gray hoodie suddenly reached out and grabbed my girl. Full speed again and she pinballed through the swirling pit as the opening song segued smoothly to a rocker. When she bounced by in reach, the slo-mo returned and I pulled her to safety. Maybe this is why she married me (or at least was a good first date), maybe it's why, in part, I appreciate Gish so much (and, it was all they played that night). Maybe it was just a damn good record that still begs to be heard. The memories of that night flood back each time I hear something from the album.

However, I digress — that's just my take. Concert-goers ask for these songs because they mean something to them, too. Maybe it's nothing so personal — maybe more so — but Corgan as an entertainer must consider past songs during performance, no matter how deep or diverse the artist's catalogue. This is how the music world works for most touring artists.

"Playing music I wrote, produced, bled for is not nostalgia. It's called pride. And if I built it then I should have the right to define it," Corgan states on the Panopticon, the official Smashing Pumpkins blog.

He has a point — and the right to play Gish in three minutes. Yet Corgan has some duty to fans who've stuck with his indulgences, distractions, and revolving personnel through the years.

Then again, Smashing Pumpkins fans are a different lot. A three-minute Gish is cool for some. Such indulgences are what keep many fans enraptured with Corgan's every move. He, of course, was instrumental in the development of the band's first few albums, eschewing his band's abilities for his own. Corgan played almost all the bass and guitar parts on these albums. Music fans didn't begrudge him, however. The albums sold millions and spawned a series of iconic tracks ("Bullet with Butterfly Wings," "Thirty-Three," "Tonight, Tonight," and "Cherub Rock") that Corgan still (for now) plays in concert. Siamese Dream, Pisces Iscariot, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness were "traditional" rock albums, at least in the scope of instrumentation, but then Corgan embraced the nascent electronica movement.

Though many fans had disavowed the band by this point, core fans blithely followed the Smashing Pumpkins down the glowing electric rabbit hole. Adore left the guitar-driven sound behind for drum machines, dark imagery, and elements that drove the band's electronic dagger deep into rock fans' souls. Then he did an about-face — the electronic indulgence wearing thin.

His concept album about a fictional rock band (maybe the one Corgan always wished he was a part of), Machina/The Machines of God, brought back the guitar sound but kept a healthy dose of electronics. Fans could only wonder what was going on. The Smashing Pumpkins clearly suffered an identity crisis, and Corgan announced that after completing the follow-up album, the label-rejected Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music, the band was kaput.

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Corgan went on to other projects, to Zwan, which sounded not surprisingly similar to the Pumpkins. Then, to the surprise of many, Corgan announced via Chicago-area advertisements in 2005 that "I have made plans to renew and revive the Smashing Pumpkins. I want my band back, and my songs, and my dreams."

Perhaps Corgan was dreaming of the band in Machina, but he didn't seem to be getting what he wanted, regularly dropping hints that the band's future remained "kind of murky" or that he was "finally" pulling the plug. The ever-tenuous status has become a question he's repeatedly asked to corroborate. To that end, Corgan stated in early June on the Panopticon that, "The band, the brand, the institution that is the Smashing Pumpkins isn't going anywhere. Ever. End of story."

So, where are we now? December 2014 saw the favorable release of the more old school, guitar-heavy Monuments to an Elegy, part of the "Teargarden by Kaleidyscope" project that also spawned Oceania.

The direction of the late-2015/early-2016 album (initially called Day for Night, though rumors persist that title will change) may again challenge fans. "I think the new album we're making is very exciting," he told Loudwire. "It's very futuristic."

Well, Billy, the future should prove as interesting as the past. As to your claims that Monuments to an Elegy is purposely similar to early efforts: only a touch comforting. Still, don't forget to turn out of your own glare long enough to remember where it all began, back in venues like The Garage and similar dives. The people attending those gigs gave you your start. The least you can do is let them enjoy the past — more than three minutes' worth — even if you can't.

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