At a San Francisco Smashing Pumpkins VIP pre-show last month, Billy Corgan spoke about evolving in music and expectations, citing David Bowie’s career as an example. Alternative Nation has transcribed part of Corgan’s answer, where he discusses the challenges David Bowie faces in the 90’s as he continued to evolve as a musician.
“I don’t remember what year it was…it could have been ‘93, it could have been ‘95, but I remember Courtney Love saying to me, ‘There’s only about 200,000 alternative fans in the world…and the rest are just posers.’ I think there’s more hipsters than ever and there’s more people listening to… ‘pick your cool band’ but realistically, people who are truly alternative music fans or fans of any band, they’re actually a smaller number than they seem. The people who listen to every release and try to understand everything about them. Most people are just passengers. They come through, like a couple albums and move on. It’s very, very difficult to sustain interest, so at the end of the day… I don’t care what artist you are, you have to negotiate all levels of it.
I got to know David Bowie a bit in the ‘90s. We were on the same label, we would cross paths here and there. He was treated horribly in the ‘90s. It was really hard to watch. As he tried to find, and he did, eventually by taking that journey into whatever he needed to do. Towards the end of the ‘90s, he started dialing back into this other thing, let’s call it the third version of himself…When you’re David Bowie and you’ve had incredible critical and commercial success through the first phase of your career, and don’t forget he had 12 or 13 failed singles before ‘Space Oddity’ became a hit song. He was considered a nobody then he was a somebody. He was somebody through a very interesting period, then at the end of the ‘70s [Bowie recorded] Low and Lodger, went very arty…I might be telling this story wrong but from what I understand he was basically broke at the beginning of the ‘80s and that’s what brought on Let’s Dance. ‘I’m gonna back to the larger than life’ and you know, he was playing stadiums, he was massive again. So, that’s ‘Phase One’ and ‘Phase Two’.
So when you go through that, you can’t just go, ‘Hey, I’m gonna pick up an acoustic guitar!’ The expectations and the weight of your legacy is so immense, this is my own interpretation…[that] struggling very publicly to find a new voice in relation to the old one or find this sort of balance between things, he was treated very, very horribly. What I’m trying to say in my own language is that he wasn’t treated with the respect he was due. It’s one thing to say, ‘I don’t like it,’ but people treated him poorly like they forgot the guy who he was. So it was amazing he was able to go through that and persevere towards the end of his life and make this great music. [To] draw people back to him to where they started realizing, ‘Oh my God, he really is that fucking guy’ and unfortunately that was the end of the story or as much as we know now. Thank God he wound back to it, I can’t imagine what people would say.
What I’m trying to say…let me it in a magic way: If somebody pulls the right card one time, that’s pretty amazing. If they pull the right card 20 times, 30 times, that’s unbelievable. So just because they didn’t pull the thirty-first doesn’t mean they’ve lost something. The dialectic between a voice: a writer, an actor, a musician…it’s so tenuous. Sometimes it really is about right place, right time. It’s about age, it’s our generational values…one year this is the big comedian and then ten years later, you know, it’s a different kind of comedy. Things just move and they morph. This city [San Francisco] is very dynamic, every time I come here it’s like a different city…When you have the interview as an artist of what that relationship is, as someone who is watching an artist well loved and respected like David, I never lost sight. When I saw him struggling, if you can use that word, I saw the struggle as ‘that’s what a great artist does.'”