If there were to be a patron saint of Pyrrhic victories, Billy Corgan’s name should be on the short list for canonization. Few popular figures better embody the concept of triumphant self-defeat — the kind of victory one can’t savor because it comes at too steep a cost. Corgan has enough Ws on his scorecard that he should be hailed as one of the all-time greats, but the man seems pathologically incapable of not taking an L every couple of months.
Just look at the litany of gaffes he’s committed over the past few years. Being an Alex Jones regular, peppering his interviews with conservative dog-whistles like “fake news,” and “virtue signaling,” and “left-leaning groupthink,” talking about seeing shapeshifters (and maybe even having sex with one), doing eight-hour synth Siddhartha jams … Corgan seems hellbent on eradicating every last bit of goodwill he’s carried over into the 21st century.
We can see this dynamic at work in the reaction to the Smashing Pumpkins’ big reunion tour.
The Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour was supposed to be a victory lap, an opportunity for the original core lineup of Corgan, drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, guitarist James Iha, and bassist D’arcy Wretzky to play sets packed with fan favorites (i.e. nothing that’s been recorded post-Machina). While it may be the kind of naked cash grab anniversary tour that Corgan used to bemoan (in 2010, Corgan compared Pavement’s reunion shows to “New Orleans-type funerals … they represent the death of the alternative dream”), it was still an exciting prospect: the chance to see an iconic ’90s band go back to doing what they do best.
And then the ol’ Corgan Luck kicked in.
Corgan became embroiled in a he said/she said spate with Wretzky, who opted out of the tour. The tour announcement was overshadowed by band drama and reports of underwhelming ticket sales. Thanks to their dispute, the one major selling point of the tour as an Original Lineup Reunion was gone. And with Jack Bates drafted in to play bass instead of OG D’arcy replacement Melissa Auf der Maur, Corgan also closed the door on making this tour a Smashing Pumpkins circa Machina reunion.
It shouldn’t be this way. A classic Pumpkins tour should be a ticker-tape parade, not a smoking train wreck.
Consider the Smashing Pumpkins’ “golden age.” From 1991’s Gish through 1998’s Adore, Corgan released a peerless series of albums (and with a bit of creative editing, you could combine the two Machina releases into a strong swan song for Original Flavor Smashing Pumpkins). Each record built on the sound and ideas of their predecessors, expanding the group’s repertoire, and taking them into new stylistic directions: the flower power of Gish blossoming into the widescreen shoegaze of Siamese Dream (perhaps the only U.S. guitar record to give Loveless a run for its money); the epic scope on Dream spiraling out to encompass orchestral pop, raging pseudo-metal arena rock, and lushly romantic ballads on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness; Sadness’s electro-pop experiments like “1979” laying the groundwork for the band’s embrace of goth and New Wave textures on Adore.
Not content to just release stellar LPs, Corgan also put out enough one-off singles and B-sides to fill up several albums in their own right. For most of the '90s, Billy Corgan was almost at Prince-levels of prolificacy as a songwriter, and his batting average was pretty high. If anyone deserves to be considered king of ’90s alternative rock, Corgan had the track record to make a serious claim for the throne.
But alas! To take a page from Game of Thrones: Billy is more of a Stannis Baratheon type, the legitimate contender that people just don’t vibe with. Maybe it was the leather kimonos and Nosferatu cosplay. Or maybe he just wanted the job too badly.
This was the ’90s, after all, when concepts like selling out and pretending not to care still had cultural currency. Kurt Cobain went out of his way to express his disgust and discomfort with being a pop star, while Billy Corgan always gave off the impression that he’s the kind of gent who’d punt a puppy off the top of the Empire State Building if that’s what it took to be a star. Corgan never masked his ambition to be as big as his idols; he was a savvy artist, packing his work with evocative imagery and earworm hooks, but he didn’t know how to keep from giving off off-putting Pinky and the Brain vibes:
“Gee, Billy, what do you want to do tonight?”
“The same thing we do every night, Jimmy — try to take over the world!”
Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil recalled an interesting encounter with Smashing Pumpkins in 1994. Hearing Corgan bemoan that he always gets stuck in the back when photographers shoot his band, Thayil loses his shit: “You write all the songs, and you do all the interviews. You play the instruments on the album. You control the band to the extent that most people think of Smashing Pumpkins as the Billy Corgan Experience, and all you care about is some photography?” Corgan’s answer is illuminating: “But I hate it. It means they don’t think I’m the cute one.”
Billy has the misfortune of being the least cool member of his own band. James Iha and D’arcy Wretzky were indie rock pinups, while Chamberlain filled the Joey Fatone slot by being the older brother type. Corgan would never top the list of any teen girl’s Trapper Keeper Smashing Pumpkins “dreamboat” list (unless that girl was really into silver pants and Georges Melies movies).
Ultimately, none of this should really matter. Corgan won. Sure, Pavement threw shade at him on “Range Life” and Steve Albini may have compared the Pumpkins to REO Speedwagon, but Corgan got the last laugh. He’s literally outlived most of his ’90s rivals. He’s one of the few alt-rock icons of his stature left standing. He could choose not to record another note and the body of work he’s already put out there would secure his legacy.
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Perhaps he should have taken a page from his arch-nemesis Malkmus’s playbook. In this day and age, it’s hard to imagine anyone throwing a stink if Stephen put out new albums under the Pavement name. But he hasn’t. He records with his Jicks and tours the new stuff, leaving the old albums alone for fans to enjoy.
Billy tried going down that route with Zwan and cutting albums as William Patrick Corgan, but he couldn’t help but dust off the Pumpkins name. Rather than leaving a perfect run of albums alone, he had to put out new Pumpkins LPs that were a shadow of his former glory. And now he’s getting the band together and trying to rekindle the magic with promises of new material. But it’s too little, too late. If you lie down with Alex Jones, you get up with the kind of fleas that no Infowars supplement could get rid of.
In the parlance of Corgan’s beloved wrestling: He’s been playing the heel for too long. Nobody will buy a face turn now.
The Smashing Pumpkins are playing on Thursday, July 12, at Gila River Arena in Glendale. Tickets start at $44, at arenaglendale.com.