I remember exactly where I was when I found out Kurt Cobain died.
I was in P.E. at Sandpiper Elementary, waiting for my turn to take a swing at the plate, when one of my classmates walked into our softball dugout. “Kurt Cobain’s dead,” he wailed. Everyone around me was stunned. I was the only one unmoved by the announcement: I had no idea who the fuck Kurt Cobain was.
When I was a kid, music was something other people cared about. I was too obsessed with Tolkien and paleontology to pay attention to pop music. My classmates would do presentations about how Biggie Smalls and D’arcy Wretzky were their personal heroes; I was the dweeb who picked Jack Horner, discoverer of Maisaura, as my role model. Sure, sometimes I heard songs that made me tap my toes or hum along, but none of it lingered. None of it marked me or molded me into someone else.
The Smashing Pumpkins changed all that.
Sitting in Gila River Arena, waiting for the Pumpkins’ Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour to kick off, I felt like I was about to meet an ex I still held a torch for. Would they be as good as I remembered? Would it be weird? Could their music still make me feel the way it did when I first heard them?
I stumbled onto the Pumpkins while I was spending the week at my older brother’s place in San Francisco. I was 14 and bored, bumming around an empty apartment, trying to find something to pass the time. I flicked on the stereo and put in a CD of Siamese Dream cause I liked the cover art. The music roaring out of the speakers hit me like a thunderbolt.
By the time it got to the one-two punch of “Geek U.S.A.” and “Mayonaise,” I was a convert to the Church of Music. I played the CD over and over again, turning up the volume a little louder each time until the neighbors complained. I wanted it so loud that it would break glass. I wanted the windows to burst and I wanted the music to crack me open like I was stained glass so the light and spirit inside me could finally come out.
I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.
I’ve loved other bands, but as they say: You always remember your first. And while their new records leave me cold and Billy Corgan’s offstage sound bytes and antics make me cringe, that run of albums from Gish to Machina is pure Godhead to me. I don't listen to them as much as I used to, but each one has left an indelible impression on me. So while the prospect of seeing reunion shows in general makes me wary, the thought of getting to see a stadium show of “Just Old Stuff, We Promise” from THIS band was too tempting to resist.
While waiting for the stage to transition from opener Metric’s setup to the Pumpkins’ stage, a friend of a friend swung by and said that the show was going to be three hours long. “The set list is like 30 songs,” he confided to us. On the one hand, that was shocking news: Three hours is venturing into Springsteen territory. That’s a goddamn marathon for any band to push through. But on the other hand, Corgan’s always been crazy generous to his fans. This is the guy who was dropping B-Side box sets and deep cut comps before Smashing Pumpkins Version 1.0 even broke up.
It was around 8:30 p.m. when they killed the lights and parted the curtains onstage, revealing a twinkling starry backdrop. A giant screen composed of six rotating towers flashed charming animations of the band’s album covers and iconography. Their unique mix of psychedelia and silent film aesthetics swirled by in a haze of beauties with Louise Brooks lips, smiling moons, Zero T-shirts, and the ice cream truck from the “Today” video.
Billy stepped out alone onstage to play “Disarm.” Dressed in black with silver sleeves, he was rocking the ol’ Machina look: the “What if Lex Luthor was in The Matrix?” aesthetic. His voice sounded undiminished by the passing of time: His singing and guitar-playing rang clear as a bell in the arena.
After Corgan finished playing “Disarm,” the rest of the band joined him onstage. Three out of four original Pumpkins, playing together for the first night of their reunion tour. They started off their reunion by tapping into their flower power past, playing a string of classic Gish and Siamese Dream songs.
Speaking of the missing fourth: D’arcy’s absence was most keenly felt in the video projections playing behind the band. They played a montage of Pumpkins’ music videos throughout “Rhinoceros,” showing everything from their early Chicago days to their Machina “Now we wear floor-length leather kimonos” videos. Absent in that supercut of Pumpkins videos was D’arcy; even replacement bassist Melissa Auf der Maur barely made an appearance. It’s as if they never existed. Images projected on stage throughout the night reiterated this editing decision: The Pumpkins have always been Corgan, Iha, and Chamberlain. We have always been at war with Eastasia.
The band’s set list had an excellent flow to it. They hopped back and forth across their classic albums, jumping from the blissed-out shoegaze of their early years straight into the angsty, rat-in-a-cage fury of songs like “Zero” and “The Everlasting Gaze.” A video of Corgan doing some excruciating spoken word signaled the transition from “Billy: The Hair Years” to “The Balden Age”. It was a strange moment: it was like watching Big Brother from the John Hurt version of 1984 doing slam poetry.
It wouldn’t be the only strange video of the night: Sugar Ray singer and Sharknado star Mark McGrath made two appearances. Heavily rouged and wearing a straw hat, McGrath popped on screen to give James Iha an intro before the coolest Pumpkin sang “Blew Away;” McGrath later appeared to intro the Pumpkins’ coolest song, “1979.” Who would have thought that “Mark McGrath dressed as a barbershop quartet hypeman would be a major recurring element in a Pumpkins reunion show?
But aside from the dystopian Button Poetry and Sugar Ray Barnum videos, most of the video projections were a great addition to the show: chorus lines of Clara Bow lookalikes wearing glittery star crowns doing Busby Berkeley numbers; baboons playing violins; tarot cards drawn up to look like Corgan; a redheaded ballet dancer leaving a crying child behind as she dances up a stairway to Heaven (which played during “For Martha,” Corgan’s tribute to his deceased mother).
Not content to just show a stairway to heaven, the band also played one. In their most audacious and bizarre cover of the night, they tore into a reverential cover of Zeppelin’s enduring anthem while a group of robed monks pushed an altar of Corgan as a saint around the arena. Much like their covers of “Landslide” and Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” it didn’t leave much of an impression: They weren’t covers that tried to make the songs their own. They were homages, not hijackings, and the best kinds of covers tend to be the ones that have their serial numbers filed off.
But the Zep cover highlights what makes the Pumpkins so great: Who else but Billy Corgan would have the audacity to do an un-ironic cover of “Stairway to Heaven"? Chris Cornell practically worshiped Robert Plant and he wouldn’t have been caught dead singing about bustles in your hedgerow. No one else in the alt-rock era would have been able to get past their humility (like Pearl Jam) or their reflexive hate of arena rock tropes (hi, Nirvana!) to do THAT song.
Time and time again over the course of three hours, the Pumpkins showed off their best side. It isn’t their “God is empty/just like me” rocker posturing; it’s their romanticism. How songs like “Muzzle” and “Hummer” seem to soar toward heaven, eager to transcend the bounds of everything else. It’s why metal groups like Deafheaven draw inspiration from records like Siamese Dream for their prettier moments: The Pumpkins knew how to merge overwhelming power and beauty better than anyone else in American alt-rock. They found a way to splice Jimmy Page and Robin Guthrie into one perfect six-string rock god.
It’s why I thought of them the way I’d think of an ex. So much of their music is about yearning, about desire, about wanting someone or something so much and not being able to contain yourself. The kind of feelings that are the death of cool if you say them out loud.
The Pumpkins are not cool. Cool people don’t stick Mark McGrath in a straw hat to cut a promo. Cool people do not cover “Stairway to Heaven” and mean that shit. Cool people don’t stick their faces on top of saints and Tarot cards and Hindu gods and drop weird poetry freestyles on camera while covered in runny eye makeup.
That’s why cool people are boring. That’s why Stephen Malkmus can crack a million jokes about “Nature kids” but will never write a song as achingly beautiful and over the top and ambitious as “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans.”’ You have to be willing to look like an idiot and fall flat on your face if you’re going to try and pluck the stars out of the sky.
Did Corgan and company faceplant a few times in Glendale? Yes. But for every embarrassment, there was a dozen triumphs. The three of them played together like old friends, cracking jokes and at ease in each other’s company. They even threw in a genuine curveball during their encore as Chamberlain picked up a mandolin and the band did a sweet, lilting cover of Alison Krauss’s “Baby Mine.” A moment of gentle bluegrass to cap off a night of gothic synth-pop and skyscraping guitars.
And if you’re wondering if I felt the way I did in San Francisco, if the magic with “my ex” is still there … Let’s just say I could feel a piece of me splinter and crack open when they started playing “Mayonaise.”
Last Night: The Smashing Pumpkins’ Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour at Gila River Arena in Glendale.
The Crowd: A horde of stoked Gen Xers, Millennials, and little kids losing their shit. I tried keeping a tally of how many Zero shirts I saw at the venue and lost track after Number 40.
Overhead: “Phoenix—I mean, Glendale! Why so hot?!” Few things are more obnoxious than touring artists devoting the brunt of their stage banter to “boy, it sure is hot” comments, but James Iha somehow makes it sound charming and self-effacing.
Random Notebook Dump: Aside from Corgan’s Charlie Brown vampire stylings, both Chamberlain and Iha had their own distinctive looks. Rocking a sleeveless silver jacket, the amiable Chamberlain had a Jetsons meets A Night At The Roxbury vibe going on. With his stylish mane and slick suit, James Iha looked like what would happen if you took an Asian Hall & Oates tribute band and rolled them into one person.
Also: I get that merch booths mark shit up, but charging $60 for a vinyl copy of Siamese Dream is bonkers.
Space Oddity (cover)
The Everlasting Gaze
Stand Inside Your Love
Porcelina of the Vast Oceans
Stairway to Heaven (cover)
Try, Try, Try
The Beginning is the End is the Beginning
Bullet With Butterfly Wings
Baby Mine (cover)