Music News

He's a Happy Rat Now

As we at last rejoin Billy Corgan, he seems pretty much where we left him when the Pumpkins smashed their last corroded power chord against pop culture's uncaring cliffs.

The chrome-domed, dark guitar deity is standing at the lip of New York's Hammerstein Ballroom stage -- feet together, arms outstretched in a Christ pose. Before him, about 4,000 rabid followers -- mosh-pit sweaty and hoarse from singing along with his every nasal utterance of the past hour -- await additional lyrical commandments sure to be incoming. Rewind back to the Mellon Collie thought that Kurt died for somebody's sins -- but not this guy's.

Unexpectedly, this Kodak moment of wanna-be-martyrdom passes within seconds. The dark deity recedes behind the monitors and NASA control room's worth of effects pedals to rejoin the other four musicians in the ongoing shredding of an anthem. And then something strange happens: There is reservation in the deity's eyes (is it the war?), a look rarely if ever spotted during his more righteous moments, marching out front of the Lollapalooza Revolution rallies.

Behind him, Zwan, the latest vessel loaded to convey the deity's wisdom, is melting the music's bombast into a pure alloy, equal parts classic-rock ferocity (three guitars, yo!) and melodic grandeur. The deity glances immediately stage right where scruffy Matt Sweeney, formerly of cult-fave math-rock professors Chavez, is using his hollow-body black Gibson to sew pentatonic scales onto the anthem's torso. Off to the left, there's Paz Lenchantin, a brown-haired, model-shaped enchantress in pumps and a mini-skirt thumping the bass guitar like she does in Maynard James Keenan's A Perfect Circle. She eggs on Jimmy Chamberlin, who's obviously gained a couple of stone since his days behind the Pumpkins drum kit yet looks ever more the part of jazzbo heavy hitter. And plays the part, too.

Deep left is Zwan's quiet prince and secret weapon: Dave Pajo. He's spent the last decade-plus reinventing the sound of the underground -- first with Slint, a post-hard-core quartet that helped birth emo and so-called "post-rock"; and then again with electronic jazzheads Tortoise. Now he makes palatial and bonnie folk records as Papa M (check out 2001's Whatever, Mortal). If it weren't for his blindingly bright white sneakers, you'd be hard-pressed to notice him leaning over his SG, playing harmony licks that add dynamics to the deity's explosiveness.

Together, they're a fierce combo -- almost a supergroup, depending on which circles you wandered in the early '90s -- good enough to twist firsthand memories of those far-gone heydays, giving the illusion that the era did indeed change the musical landscape, turning history into a liar. The jam continues -- in fact, it builds.

As his hands absent-mindedly choke high-neck squalls from his instrument, the guitar god surveys the multitudes. Why are they here? These kids -- young men mostly, approximately 97 percent white, of drinking age and eager to party (they'll be gathered around Andrew W.K. in an anti-punk half-fawn of drool after the show) -- gather in an apparent effort to uphold a myth they haven't necessarily witnessed firsthand. The myth is of a time when the talented and the angry walked a tight, often overbearing line, at once denying and accepting their self-indulgent powers of creation, screaming at the tops of their lungs about the tragedy of the world. In other words, it is a time completely foreign to the Good Charlotte/Kid Rock epoch.

Corgan, the guitar wunderkind from Chicago, the one whom the greenback-spending public designated to fill the shoes of St. Cobain with tales of woe made popular, jumped before he could be pushed. Documentarians of American dream-weaving thought it insane for him to abandon the Smashing Pumpkins' semi-charmed life of 15-times-platinum to go wandering the earth co-producing mediocre Hole albums, and playing guitar for teenage heroes like New Order and Cheap Trick. The additional verses added to the book of Billy all seemed subject to a fine print. Of course, few of those documentarians will admit they only know a fraction of the narrative. And since the deity is granting no interviews at the moment, who knows when the rest of the tale will become public.

Told or untold, somewhere along the line the dark god of alt-rock guitar began pouring his soul into the building of a new myth, creating with parts similar to those of his previous endeavors. You can glean classic Pumpkinalia from all over Zwan's debut, an alt-rock mega-lith titled Mary Star of the Sea -- the multi-track symphonic strains of overdubbed six-strings playing a galley of major chords, the blaring 21st-century Steinman epics sharing space with disarmed pop songs. Chamberlin continues to power what could be simple 4x4s into Moon-like runaway trains. Just as the writer inside the guitar deity rarely settles for verse-chorus-verse snacks when 12-course arrangements are possible. Often he's right -- hear how much Paz's crosscut vocal on "Lyric" makes the whole thing lift off. The main musical reference point remains '70s rock radio, with a post-punk spirit. So on a single glance only a few names and faces in the supporting cast have changed.

Yet look twice at Geoff McFetridge's symbolic designs, all rainbows, guitars and blackbirds escaping the dead of night, or at the song titles that yearn for "El Sol," for an "Endless Summer" or ask the baby to rock.

Are they the images of one whose magic number was once "Zero"?

Back at Hammerstein, the arena rock lights are throwing their deep-into-the-show spotlight on the mosh-pit fraternity that once again throws its weight around. The jam winds, and after a head-nod cue from their chrome-domed leader, the guitarists all step up to their respective mikes. In their grandiose harmonies, they sound like a glam-rock version of the psychedelicized Beach Boys. And Lord only knows that the words spilling out of their mouths, words that the dark deity wrote for Zwan, are sentiments from another time and place, ones most of his audience wouldn't previously believe he could express:

"Maybe we were born to love/Maybe we were born to love/Maybe we were born to love . . . each other!" The song is called "Declarations of Faith," and if gloomy alt-rock gods are afforded second acts in American lives, well, here's one for you.

The set-ender and should-be-a-radio-hit "Settle Down" gets revved up. Recognizing a favorite, the crowd reacts predictably. As Corgan falls back to his shredding adventures amongst Sweeney, Pajo, Paz and Chamberlin, he looks back at the masses and smiles. And suddenly the difference between where he was and where he is becomes abundantly clear. The guitar deity isn't so dark anymore.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Piotr Orlov