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Where Boys Fear to Tread: Unlocking your feminine side with Billy Corgan

Camaraderie
It may seem a concept both hokey and archaic in this age of the diversified arts and the War Against Cliché, but it’s sure as beans been an underlying force in every worthwhile life experience I’ve ever had, be it personal, communal, or in this case, musical.

I was sitting in the nose-bleed section of the University of Illinois Assembly Hall back in October of 1996, attempting to somehow shield my eyes from an obnoxiously blinding red light that seemed to be conveniently shining solely on our row while still managing to retain full view of the stage. It wasn’t an easy task, but if you cocked your head at the correct angle, the red light reflected off Billy Corgan’s bald head and shiny silver pants in a manner that flattered him a duality of both Glorified King of Rock and Big Bald Angel of Death. But them’s details; it was our first concert, and having to participate in a little cornea endurance test was the least we could do to pay our entry fee into the world of rock and roll.

When Corgan hit the chorus to “To Forgive” (“I forget to forget/Nothing is important/Holding back the fool again”), I recall very distinctly wanting to turn to my friends Jeff and Frank and give them hugs. It was this bizarre, indescribable surge of empathy that just shot through my entire body, something that I’ve come to experience time and time again at concerts, and has largely become the reason I bother to attend them at all. These moments of power are rare but not impossibly rare; the same thing happened in 2000 during the searing guitar break to “Baba O’ Riley” at a Who concert, where three generations of slackers congregated to experience the remnants of Teenage Wasteland; again, in 2003, when I stood with my brother and listened to Pearl Jam soar through the second chorus of “Given to Fly” (“He still gives his love/He just gives it away” – chills, chills, and more chills); it happened as recently as last week at a Death Cab for Cutie show, as the drummer hi-hatted the off-kilter introduction to “A Movie Script Ending,” which the band gracefully slid into like a tired day-shifter into a warm bath.

It’s not just a feeling of musical enormity, but also the knowledge that the person standing next to you is feeling some variant of the exact same thing, that they are experiencing some incarnation of the same immense musical presence that you are. It allows for an unprecedented connection between the music, the listener, and those around him or her, one that ain’t gonna happen listening to records, it’s rare enough as it is even at concerts. I don’t know about everyone else, maybe I’m just a sissy and everyone else just goes to shows to get their rocks off, but I’ve found it’s some level of this camaraderie that separates the enjoyable musical experiences from the immortal ones, and the Smashing Pumpkins, as a whole, were my first immortal musical experience. They were immortal for all of us: the concert, the Pumpkins themselves, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the real subject of this piece, changed our lives, at least temporarily if not semi-permanently (though, perhaps needless to say, I chose not to hug my friends in this particular instance, taking into consideration that we were in eighth grade, and that the response to such an action probably would have fallen along the lines of, “Get off me, homo.” I suspect this because I would have said the same thing).

***

This month marks the ten-year anniversary of the release of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the Smashing Pumpkins’ double-disc piece de resistance and simultaneous heartfelt adieu to alternative rock. It was also a gin-yoo-wine milestone in the musical life of this particular rat in a cage, what with the autumn of 1995 being an epoch of such monumental revelation (and revolution) for the hoodlum constituency at Father Sweeney School in Peoria, Illinois.

Yep, us rapscallions were all of about twelve years old, and we were just coming to discover this big bad world of ours through this crazy little thing called rock and roll, which meant a lot of us were staying up all hours of the night watching MTV with the sound turned down (MTV was an American parenting crisis back then, understand; between the increasing nationwide paranoia of children possibly catching a glimpse of Jenny McCarthy cleavage on Singled Out and Beavis and Butt-head hypothesizing ruminative theories on the Mystery of Morning Wood, ’twas a whole lot of tots that weren’t allowed to so much as mention MTV at the dinner table without getting their pie-holes washed out with soap.

So I’d mute the television and watch 120 Minutes and Alternative Nation late at night, thumbs firmly stationed on the remote control in case Ma came sneaking up the stairs with clean sheets for the closet, at which point I’d switch the station over to ESPN, and ashamedly answer that yes, this is the same episode of Sportscenter that they’ve been showing all day, and yes, I am watching it for yet a fourth time. Better she think that you’re an easily amused halfwit than know that you’re reveling in a silent Sodom and Gomorrah being broadcast into your bedroom via satellite) and getting, if not a genuine appreciation for the music being played in said videos, then at least a thorough education of names and albums to check out with our allowance money, or to look up on the Internet (another new toy) during our one hour a week of time in our school’s new computer lab.

Confession
If you think the ensuing block of text is going to be – or has already taken the first steps towards being – a gushing nostalgia piece, then go get yourself a celebratory donut, because you are largely correct.

However, for you darned purists, we’ll go ahead and sprinkle it with a hint of journalistic merit via a little ten-years-after-the-fact critiquing: for all intents and purposes, Mellon Collie is not a perfect record. It’s not perfect because, for my $24.99 anyway, it’s horrendously sequenced, which isn’t surprising, given that even the most obsessive-compulsive perfectionist would likely give him- or herself an aneurysm trying to organize such a sprawling batch of songs with any semblance of order. It’s not perfect because “Take Me Down” could well be the worst Smashing Pumpkins song ever (go figure, Billy Corgan assembles one of the most mammoth musical programs of his time, then he goes and gives James Iha clearance to sing one of the songs). It’s not perfect because the lyrics to songs like “Here is No Why” and “Fuck You (An Ode to No One)” read like the rambling verse of a pseudo-depressed teenage boy cut loose on an internet blog with a few gothic poetry anthologies and a book of Rock-n-Roll Mad Libs. It’s not perfect because it’s a swirling, seemingly bottomless whirlpool of despondency and melodrama (seriously, Billy – twenty-eight songs, almost all of which are about alienation and despair? Hell, even “Lily, My One and Only,” the album’s brilliant moment of levity, is only so because we allow ourselves to find humor in the mental image of a starry-eyed window peeper getting pulled out of his peepin’ tree and dragged away by the police. I mean, the poor guy’s just trying to keep tabs on the love of his life, right?); everything from the woe-is-me looking dame popping out of that hideous table decoration on the album cover, to the title itself (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness – anyone up for taking bets on who urinated in Billy’s Cheerios that morning?) which sounds like it might very well be the title of a former high school poetry contest submission from the aforementioned cover girl – which is to say, every last bit of it screams drama queen.

The reason I say these things without reserve is because:
a) no one really gives much of a rat’s arse what I think about this album.
b) even if someone did, there’s no way that any amount of ten-years-after-the-fact criticism will tarnish the legacy of this record, or alter the fact that it changed more lives than Studio 54 and The Wonder Years combined, and,
c) it’s largely because of these inconsistencies, these quirks, that Mellon Collie is the record that it is.

So it’s overblown and unchecked – so what? I’ve always hated the term “imperfect masterpiece” (which just sounds like rock critic nonsense), but the more I consider the nature of the phrase, the more I come to understand that not only does it apply to an album like Mellon Collie, but at the end of the day, it’s really the only phrase fit to describe it.

The night I first saw the video for “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” – at one in the morning with my television on mute – I thought Billy Corgan looked like a superhero (read: normal looking Joe with a fuck-you demeanor and a stupid-ass costume). Kids learn at a very young age to put their heroes in context; I knew by age twelve that rock and roll music was going to be my life, and as such, I chose rock musicians as my heroes. Several years prior, when I went through the obligatory childhood period of planning my adult life around the $65 million salary that I was surely going to be receiving from the payroll of a well-known NBA franchise, I selected my heroes much differently, though no less passionately (for some reason, I really liked Charles Barkley, which again most likely had to do with a no-nonsense attitude and a dumb costume – remember that ridiculous archaeologist outfit he used to wear on those deodorant commercials? “Anything else would be uncivilized,” said the man. Yeah, right). I reckon it was sometime during the era of alternative rock that I started attending alternate vocational seminars, and it was guys like Billy Corgan who sent me the invitations in the mail.

Among other things, The Smashing Pumpkins made it abundantly clear that it was okay for rock music to have a feminine side. In this Age of Enlightenment and Equality that may seem like a given, but for a short bus full of hormonally raging adolescent seventh-grade males, rock music was nothing if not a place to send your testosterone when nobody else wanted it. No bones about it, rock-n-roll had it all – yelling, banging around, cuss words, throwing things, breaking things, burning things, sometimes the more edgy stuff even had artificially attractive girls made of plastic gallivanting about in teeny little swimmin’ suits – hold it not against my person, ladies, it was surface over substance in those days, and now that we live in an era of unconditional taste and integrity, I’d appreciate it if we could just put those little superficial gaffes behind us).

I loved the Smashing Pumpkins because I was always the kid who was secretly, if not in touch with, than at least aware of that aforementioned feminine side (though I’m sure the other kids were too, even though they, like me, never admitted it). I was always the kid who favored the obligatory slow song on the rock record above all the other songs, and who got little tears in his little eyes at the sappy parts of PG-rated movies (to hell with reputation, anyone who didn’t clam up at the end of Free Willy deserves whatever eternal flames may come). When listening to Nirvana’s Nevermind, it was cool to play all the fast songs and skip “Polly” – but in my own company, I’d listen to “Polly” in depth, bathing myself in its music and lyric, trying endlessly to connect myself to the emotional pit in which Kurt Cobain found the song’s subject. It’s not that I was a morose child; I wasn’t, but I knew from the moment that music first changed my life that it was about something more than just “rocking out,” more than a beat, more than crunching guitars, even more than words and their infinitely many meanings. I didn’t know what it was about, necessarily, but I knew it was something, and it was something I desperately wanted to understand.

***

The suspense was unbearable.

There we sat in eighth grade afternoon homeroom, rocking awkwardly back and forth in our chairs, tapping pencils and pens on desktops, monitoring the clock on the wall like malnourished nighthawks preying on a picnic of unsuspecting field mice, waiting impatiently for the little hand to settle firmly over the eight, thus ending our school day and, at long last, loosing us out into the mean alleys of downtown. A little anticipatory restlessness was always expected in school once the two o’clock hour rolled around, but on this particular day, the glorious tolling of the 2:40 bell meant piling into the Radosevich family conversion van and rolling on down the ol’ Interstate 74 from Peoria to Champaign, where at the University of Illinois Assembly Hall, we would actually sit in the same room as Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins while they actually played a real live concert before our very eyes. Believe me when I say I’ve had shots in open wounds that were more pleasurable than those last ten minutes of school.

For all we knew, it was an event as historically pivotal as the assassination of JFK or the fall of the Berlin Wall. None of us had ever been to a real rock concert before – sure, some of us might have seen a Beach Boys reunion tour or two with our parents when we were little ‘uns, and I for one recall being taken by my aunt to a concert given at our local fairground by 1980’s teeny-pop idol Tiffany (“Mom, take us home, we want to play with our Ninja Turtles,” retorted my cousin Alex, five years old and full of fire), but never anything of this magnitude. Sheesh brother, this wasn’t a rock concert; it was an outright pilgrimage, by golly, and when a vanload of parochial school students gets to cross the great divide and make a missionary journey to the Holy Land, they gotta do what any group of self-respecting expeditionaries would do: rub it in everyone else’s faces.

Not that it required much rubbing. The Smashing Pumpkins concert took place exactly one year and one day after the release of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and by the record’s first birthday it had become the musical staple of even the smallest of CD collections at our humblest of Father Sweeney Schools. Even parents were finding things to like about this rich and varied musical offering (mused Noah’s mom: “At least that piano song doesn’t have that guy’s annoying voice in it.”), and our music teacher permitted us on occasion to use her room for our lunch/recess period, where we’d sit on bean bag chairs with our sack lunches, passing around Luke Carignan’s unamplified electric guitar and clumsily attempting to play along to “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” and “Zero” (our music teach’ was also highly tolerant of “that piano song,” – we’re talkin’ bout the fish-out-of-water title track here – even though I seem to recall her observing once that, “it’s just the same thing over and over,” and furthermore she found it just delightful that this music was inspiring all her little apprentices to pick up musical instruments and teach themselves how to strum along to their favorite ditties, even if said ditties weren’t necessarily vehicles for a nice religious message). I won’t formally burden any of my former authority figures with the stigma of having once liked the Smashing Pumpkins, but it’s beyond doubt that come 1996 this record was positively omnipresent, getting regular if not exclusive rotation from everyone from artsy nerd-rockers to teenage girls with boyfriend problems to the nobly still-standing Last of the Flannel-Clad (which, in our naiveté, we all wore proudly, disheveled butt-cuts and all), in fact, nobody with even the most marginal connection to the musical pipeline was going to avoid being exposed to it, in one way or another.

The snob factor: I recall, the afternoon of the show, playing football in PE class, where Jeff proclaimed that the teams for the day were to be determined as follows: those who were going to the Smashing Pumpkins concert vs. those who weren’t. Elitist? You betch’yer favorite pair of Superman undies it was, elitist like a film noire critic at a Star Trek convention. Do eighth graders get offended by elitism? Maybe the kids on the other team did – it was really a pretty dickheaded thing to do, after all – but ultimately the situation at hand was this: those concert tickets represented a rite of passage (one that we thought was fairly major), a movement from the vantage point of an observer to that of a participant, in turn taking a world we’d known only by watching it on television, by reading about it in magazines, by hearing about it on the radio, and in due course becoming as much of a corporeal part of it as anyone else. The eight seats that we were going to be physically occupying at that concert were eight seats that no one else had, and probably dozens of others wanted. That meant something, and I can only speak for myself (though I presume it holds true for everyone involved – we were, after all, grade schoolers), but I was certainly down with everyone being a little jealous about it.

If elitism stems from a desire to feel as though there is something noteworthy and special about yourself that sets you apart from everyone else – and I believe it does – I don’t think it’s always an entirely callous or victim-directed mechanism. Don’t get me wrong; we’re all guilty of it at times, but in most cases I’d be among the first in line to kick a music snob in the red zone; still, WE ADORED THE SMASHING PUMPKINS and wanted to experience their music on the most gargantuan level possible. Making sure everyone else knew what they were missing was all part of the validation that this was indeed an event of importance.

***

I asserted in half-jest earlier that almost all of Mellon Collie’s twenty-eight songs were about alienation and despair, and that’s probably not entirely accurate. Alienation and despair are undoubtedly pervading moods and themes throughout these songs (be honest, would you feel like you got your money’s worth from an album called Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness if you didn’t get to wallow in at least a little of your own misery?), but it doesn’t end there. The album is rife with essential moments, but to me the real essence of this record can be defined by this passage in “Muzzle,” one of Mellon Collie’s, and the Pumpkins’, very best songs:

And in my mind as I was floating
Far above the clouds
Some children laughed I’d fall for certain
For thinking that I’d last forever

And then all the instruments cut out, and we get Billy, over a solitary electric guitar, offering this:

But I knew exactly where I was
And I knew the meaning of it all
And I knew the echo that is love
And I knew the distance to the sun
And I knew the secrets in your spires
And I knew the emptiness of youth
And I knew the solitude of heart
And I knew the murmurs of the soul

I get a chill just typing it, hearing in my head the band slowly creeping back in with each subsequent lyric, Corgan’s voice becoming slightly more urgent from one line to the next. His enunciation on the first phrase – “But I knew, exactly WHERE. I. WAS.” – is positively brilliant; just ten seconds prior he had us “floating far above the clouds,” and at the drop of a dime he has us right back on the ground, perfectly in tune with our surroundings, knowing exactly where we are. This is what Mellon Collie, insofar as one can attach a singular meaning to it, is about to me; it’s about finding your footing in spite of the million things the world does to make you lose it. In the end, it doesn’t matter to Corgan what those kids think about him as he’s floating around up there; in knowing all these things (“the meaning of it all,” “the emptiness of youth,” “the distance to the sun”) he’s able to assess the situation at face value, able to understand exactly where he’s going, the qualifications of those from whom his jeers are coming, and a host of other situational factors, all of which are encompassed by the stanza’s first line: “I knew exactly where I was.” What else to say?

If Mellon Collie is a record about finding your footing, then while we may not have had a damn clue growing up what these songs were really talking about, I don’t think it’s any accident that these songs were so largely appealing to a group of kids going through major transitions, to many groups of kids going through similar transitions, and to a generation of rock music fans whose headmaster had just one year prior shot his corpus callosum all over the walls of the family greenhouse. Of course, the songs aren’t all as surefooted as “Muzzle”; quite the contrary, most of the songs are just as lost as the people who were likely listening to them. Take this little bit from “Zero” for example; certainly the Billy Corgan of 2005 would forgive me for rolling my eyes at this:

Emptiness is loneliness
And loneliness is cleanliness
And cleanliness is godliness
And God is empty just like me

*shudder* If there’s a passage more ridiculously overdone in the Pumpkins’ catalog, I’m yet to find it (the tape recording of that therapy session dropped pointlessly in the middle of “Glass and the Ghost Children” doesn’t count; some Pumpkins fans have gone as far as having frontal lobotomies to forget that ever happened). And what about “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”? It’s a good thing that was as anthemic of a song as it was, because man, get a load of this:

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The world is a vampire, sent to drain
Secret destroyers hold you up to the flames
And what do I get for my pain?
Betrayed desires and a piece of the game

Can you say “Lithium”? Then, of course, it descends into that business about the rat in the cage, which I needn’t cite. I remember my mother used to walk around the house singing that chorus in a mockingly shrill voice; I said to her one day, “Mom, do you like that song!” Little did I know that our pre-teen angst was a running joke among our parents. “No,” she replied, “but it is pretty funny.”

Like I said before, imperfect masterpiece. Mellon Collie isn’t a brilliant album because it’s artistically flawless; it’s a brilliant album because thousands upon thousands of people related to it, and if your goal as an artist is to create something with which people can establish a connection, and you do that, then hell’s bells you’ve created a successful piece of art, regardless of what critical analyses of the work reveal. As the album illustrates, once you’ve found your footing, don’t nothin’ else matter. However, one can hardly find one’s footing without once having been without it, and that’s why these predictably angsty gloom-rockers like “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” and “Zero” are just as essential to the whole of this record as the more enlightened pieces like “Muzzle,” “1979,” and “Thirty-Three.”

For my top dollar, “1979” and “Thirty-Three” are the two greatest songs on Mellon Collie, and on a cursory mental run-through, probably the two best songs the Pumpkins have done (though the vintage fan in me would find it difficult to vote against “Today” in a proper poll). The phenomenal thing about “1979” is the way it plays with nostalgia; other than the lines “We were sure we’d never see an end to it all,” and “Justine never knew the rules/Hung down with the freaks and ghouls,” the song is written entirely in the present tense. It might be assumed that a song so clearly about the time and place where, and the people with whom, the songwriter grew up (this point is even more evident if you see the music video) would be a total remember-when! affair, but it’s not. Still, the song drips with a homesickness for the days of yore, and that’s largely because we place it there, not because of the song’s actual content but because hearing the music reminds us of our days of yore. It’s a song that was designed, probably unintentionally, to be appreciated ten years later.

“Thirty-Three” is even more impressive. It’s an incontestably gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous song with a melody to either kill or die for, and a tranquility not known in the Pumpkins’ oeuvre before or since (its B-side “The Last Song,” whose exclusion from Mellon Collie, for this fan, borders on criminal, is the only thing that gives it a run for its money). It’s a song for the end of the day when you’re on your own; it’s been a shitty day and you’re not sure tomorrow’s going to be much better, but still you’re at absolute peace with the world at large, though you’re not particularly sure why. I’m going to quote some of the lyrics because they’re genius:

Speak to me in a language I can hear
And humor me before I have to go
Deep in thought I forgive everyone
As the cluttered streets greet me once again
I know I can’t be late
Supper’s waiting on the table
Tomorrow’s just an excuse away
So I pull my collar up and face the cold
On my own

There’s an epic sympathy contained in those words. Forgiveness is the ultimate of mankind’s virtues, as it’s the hardest one to possess at all times; Mellon Collie containing as much lashing out as it does, it’s both important and emotionally poignant to hear Billy Corgan forgive. It brings the record around full circle lyrically.

The second verse is the poetic apex of the record, displaying a lyrical prowess that is, in these eyes, on par with anything Dylan or Costello or Waits or any other musical poet has ever ventured to offer us. The whole of “Thirty-Three” in general is mature beyond its years and certainly beyond that which stands around it, but this verse is resplendently exquisite simply in terms of imagery alone:

The earth laughs beneath my heavy feet
At the blasphemy in my old jangly walk
Steeple guide me to my heart and home
The sun is out and up and down again
I know I’ll make it, love can last forever
Graceful swans of never topple to the earth

Feminine side, baby, feminine side. Kurt Cobain never would have used a phrase like “graceful swans of never,” nor would Chris Cornell or Eddie Vedder, not back in 1995 anyway. Scott Weiland might have, but not on purpose. To hear that as an adolescent male made me feel downright uncomfortable, because it was so inherently feminine (am I alone in finding swan imagery to be without exception reminiscent of ballets?), and yet here I was reacting to it as enthusiastically as I was reacting to “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.” Emotions? Feelings? Feminine Sides? These weren’t things you mentioned in the locker room after basketball practice; they had names for guys who did. Was it normal, acceptable even, to be responding to these things?

If not, the song’s final verse was something undeniably universal:

For a moment I lose myself, wrapped up in the pleasures of the world
I’ve journeyed here and there and back again
But in the same old haunts I still find my friends
Mysteries not ready to reveal
Sympathies I’m ready to return

“I’ve journeyed here and there and back again, but in the same old haunts I still find my friends,” and we’ve found our footing again. And more camaraderie. “Sympathies I’m ready to return”: forgiveness. “Thirty-Three” remains the only song on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness that still affects me today as it did ten years ago; all its other songs function on different though not necessarily less powerful levels than they did in their heyday. But “Thirty-Three” is what it is; it’s brilliantly beautiful, its thoughts universal and its sentiments timeless. I wish I would have written it.

***

Camaraderie
It may seem a concept both hokey and archaic in this age of the diversified arts and the War Against Cliché, but it’s sure as beans been an underlying force in every worthwhile life experience I’ve ever had, and make no mistake, the Smashing Pumpkins were just that – an experience, in the most all-inclusive sense of the term. Universality in musical taste does not exist, ever, but I can declare with as much certainty as possible that the individuals of my generation will never again unite on anything subjective as we did on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. If it’s indeed true that time is never time at all, and that you can never ever leave without leaving a piece of youth, then it’s with that that I thank Billy Corgan for leaving a piece of his with us, to help us learn how to shape ours. Mellon Collie is not the most important record I’ve encountered in my lifetime, nor is it the best, nor is it even my personal favorite; it was, however, the first one to open my mind, heart, and ears to so many things pertinent to both music and life itself.

Cheers to you, Mr. Corgan, for speaking to me in a language I could hear.

© 2005-2019 Rockbeatstone Magazine

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