It is tough to watch people age, particularly if they are very close to you. It is common for one to watch his or her unreasonable expectations run, nose-first, into the brick wall of reality. To watch the strong father you thought would never diminish struggle to tie his shoes. To watch men and women of great virtue succumb to baser impulses. While less grave by many orders, this has been the case with The Smashing Pumpkins and me for well over a decade.
There was no band better-suited to a 15-year-old’s disposition than the Smashing Pumpkins. That was when I first saw them, performing “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” on Saturday Night Live (Quentin Tarantino hosted) in mid-November, 1995. For starters, their songs had names like “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Zero,” “Fuck You (An Ode to No One),” and “Tales of a Scorched Earth.” It was like they had been digging through my journal of maudlin, freshman-year poems.
But even beyond that, the Pumpkins were a musical juggernaut, driven by a Big Muff pedal, Billy Corgan’s piercing yowl, whatever James Iha did and Jimmy Chamberlain’s peerless drumming. That last item is no hyperbole. There was literally no one in popular rock and roll who could keep up with Chamberlain at the time. I was positive the Smashing Pumpkins were engineered in some basement in Siberia specifically for perennially unpopular adolescent boys with ear-length greasy hair and pimples who excelled at anything but coordination.
What happened? Well, Chamberlain and touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin shot up massive amounts of heroin and Melvoin died. Chamberlain was booted and the remaining Pumpkins re-tooled to release Adore in 1998, which I love now but was less than enthused when I was not quite 18. The songs were original, thematically dense and musically interesting, but the band’s venom had been bled out of the mix.
There is no need to parse out what followed: an official album, Machina, followed by an unofficial album, Machina II, followed by a December 2000 farewell show in Chicago that finished with something like three encore sets. Looking back, that exhaustive ethic should have been taken as the omen it was. But as far as I knew it was over and a musical career was in the books. It might not have ended well, but the band had given us two classic albums (Gish, Siamese Dream), one overly indulgent album that I overrated at the time but remains my favorite and a very solid rock album (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness) and one adventurous album that was bound to age well (Adore) and one last gasp (Machina) that we would all accept in light of the other material’s strength.
Only, like that foreboding “farewell” show, it was not over. In the summer of 2005, Corgan took out a desperate, full page ad in the Chicago Tribune essentially begging his band members to come back. It reminded me of Ben Affleck’s character, O’Bannion, in Dazed and Confused. O’Bannion just couldn’t get enough of senior year; Corgan just couldn’t get enough of “Alternative Rock,” even though they weren’t calling it that anymore.
Turns out James Iha was too mature for that kind of thing and love of my 16-year-old life, D’arcy, was literally too cracked out to do anything. Only Jimmy Chamberlain was willing to rejoin Corgan’s vanity project, which gave the notion of reuniting some momentum. In 2007, the band released Zeitgeist, in the vein of Machina’s unfocused bombast. Then, even rehabilitated Jimmy Chamberlain decided he had enough of Corgan’s megalomania and left the group in March of 2009. The Smashing Pumpkins had gone from this to this.
So when the Smashing Pumpkins release an album in 2012, the preceding is all of the baggage I carry into it. Oceania is actually receiving some lukewarm to warm reviews. And, admittedly, it starts off with a nice punch, incorporating a few tricks from the Siamese Dream days. And maybe some people hear that sound for the first time when they listen to Oceania, but what I hear is a paler, weaker version of something better.
So just how bad is Oceania? I liked the Zwan album better. Oceania quickly succumbs to the inertia that has characterized the new century Pumpkins. The album is a messy collage of past riffs, a Big Muff mishmash. The melodies are listless and dull. The synthy-er tracks sound like rejects from Corgan’s solo record. “Perfunctory” does not even begin to describe it. More like the twitchiness of a cockroach on its back.
I will always love the Smashing Pumpkins. They partly raised me. My music tastes would be drastically different if they never existed. That is what makes watching Corgan refuse to face reality so wrenching. What is that reality? That maybe songwriters do not operate off limitless stores of ideas. Some have more than others, but I suspect there is a definite quantity in each visionary. Corgan is tapped out and now we’re only getting hiccupping bursts of foam.
It makes me wonder, not just about the Smashing Pumpkings, but about other acts. What if the Smashing Pumpkins had stopped at Adore? What if U2 had quit after Achtung Baby? What if Jane’s addiction had shut down shop, like they promised, after Ritual de la Habitual? They would all be legends. We would be writing heroic epics about them and measuring everybody else by their standards.
But that never would happen. The qualities that make some of us fanatics of particular artists also make those same artists unable to quit at optimum moments. It is a packaged deal, and we have to live with it, just as each of us would stoop to tie our father’s shoe. So cue up “Tristessa” on your cassette player, gaze longingly at old photos of D’Arcy and just try to forget that Oceania exists.