Why Billy Corgan Is Alternative Rock’s Greatest Icon

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Edited by Brett Buchanan

“The inscription on Billy Corgan’s gravestone will no doubt read ‘Amid grand sonic architecture he dared to rock.’”

Rip Magazine, 1996

Where would one start when writing an introduction to William Patrick Corgan, Jr.? He’s better known as Billy Corgan, founding member and frontman of The Smashing Pumpkins. A former record-store employee, part-time poet, Chicago sweetheart, father, and as of the last decade, a figure in and out of the world of professional wrestling, prominently marked by his brief presidency of TNA Impact Wrestling. As we celebrate his 50th birthday, it’s important to note that his birthday, March, 17, 1967, says a lot about him.

There’s no point in reproducing his whole natal chart (available here), but the Piscean themes of deep cosmic imagination, indecisiveness, and a sharp, sensitive intuition come together to form the emotively charged ambition that has fueled Corgan’s life and work. A Gemini Moon with a Virgo Rising strategically guides greater moods that are driven by artistic exploration and a lust for greater journeys to be curved and sharpened by an analytic side. The Virgo Rising will bring a tempered and tactically spiritual re-organization to the monkey mind of the Gemini Moon, but needless to say both these aspects can be nervous by nature. A man of a thousand projects, of which most are completed (I’m looking at you Machina reissue!), Corgan has made his rounds and earned his keep as the greatest icon of alternative rock with his eclectic catalog.

The Smashing Pumpkins emerged from a late ‘80s Chicago coming off the coattails of the Reagan era. James Iha met a young Billy Corgan around 1988, and from there, the duo began to write a body of work resembling some of the prominent alternative phases of ‘80s music like My Bloody Valentine, Bauhaus, and The Cure. D’arcy Wretzky, displaced from South Haven, Michigan, met Corgan outside of a Chicago club and joined the band. A drum machine was added to the mix, but fortunately quickly replaced by Jimmy Chamberlin, a Joliett, Illinois native and an experienced jazz drummer.

This classic line-up, spearheaded largely by Corgan’s titanic songwriting stamina, helped to drive alternative rock into the ‘90s. Still, James Iha has numerous songwriting (“Blew Away”, “Why Am I So Tired?”, “Take Me Down”) and guitar solo credits during the first phase of the Pumpkins. Chamberlin’s drumming and rhythmic sensibilities are also a key part of the band’s sound.

From the archives of the distinctive photography of Gilbert Blecken. Long hair, short hair, or no hair – WPC pulls it off.

 

All four studio albums of The Smashing Pumpkins’ career in the 1990’s, Gish, Siamese Dream, Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness, Adore reached at least platinum status. The band was initially grouped by music critics with the “Grunge”/Seattle scene. Sub Pop, in fact, tried to court the Pumpkins and even cut their first single, “Tristessa”.

“We had a chance to go with Sub Pop, and we just didn’t feel the vibe was right. I don’t think they were really into us as a band. They just saw us as a band that could sell some records, but I don’t think they loved us like they love Mudhoney or something,” recalled Corgan in a 1991 interview. 1991’s Gish, dubbed by Corgan to be a “spiritual” album, purported a heavily sonic psychedelic rock that had long since gone out of style, with tinges of dream pop and shoegaze that made the album inarguably ethereal. Gish, from 1991 to 1994, held the title of the highest selling independent record in the world during its first print with Caroline Records, produced by famed Nevermind producer Butch Vig.

Post-Gish Corgan suffered notoriously from writer’s block and depression, but 1993’s Siamese Dream would The Smashing Pumpkins straight to the top of the alternative rock scene, with hit singles “Today,” “Cherub Rock,” “Disarm,” and “Rocket.” With Butch Vig returning to the producer’s chair, they worked extensively on the album from winter 1992 through spring 1993 in the heart of Georgia. The Pumpkins’ exhaustive tour in support of the album peaked with a headlining slot on the Lollapalooza ‘94 tour after Nirvana dropped out of the lineup when Kurt Cobain was declared missing, and then subsequently found dead two days later. Corgan also married his long-time girlfriend, Chris Fabian, in 1993.

But with 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness came the greatest success that the Pumpkins would see. “Zero,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Tonight Tonight,” “Thirty Three,” and “1979” all became smash hit singles through 1995 and 1996, the latter of which also performed surprisingly well on the pop charts. The “Tonight Tonight” music video won six MTV Music Video Awards in 1996, and is lauded as one of modern music’s most iconic videos.

If you want to read more about the Pumpkins during this time period, checkout my thesis on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness here. Around this time, Corgan gained an audience with many of his artistic heroes. During the 1996 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards, he introduced Pink Floyd and played guitar on “Wish You Were Here” during the subsequent performance. His friendship with David Bowie earned him a coveted spot at Bowie’s 50th birthday party at Madison Square Garden, playing “All The Young Dudes” and “The Jean Genie” with David onstage. Mike Garson, David Bowie’s most notable pianist, would eventually go onto to tour with the Pumpkins during their late ‘90s tours. Billy Corgan also recorded a track, “Black Oblivion,” on Tony Iommi’s first solo album IOMMI, and apparently wrote several songs more with him. His collaborations, features, and songwriting credits spread over many artists and groups in the studio and live like Hole, Breaking Benjamin, New Order, Cheap Trick, and many more.  At some point though, it becomes redundant to tact and pin an artist based on the validation they receive from those they admire, or even their audience. What do artists truly accomplish? What has William Patrick Corgan, Jr. accomplished?

In late 1996, at the peak of artistic success, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was fired due to his heroin use, in light of the fatal overdose of touring keyboardist for the Mellon Collie tour, Jonathan Melvoin, who was using alongside Chamberlin in New York City right before a show at Madison Square Garden. With a core member of the band now gone, the Pumpkins continued as a trio for the next two and a half years, and their sound changed drastically.  Corgan re-invented not only himself, but his art. 1998’s Adore, which did go platinum, saw a change of format into more electronic soundscapes. Corgan and the Pumpkins dipped deeper back into gothic roots, which married the aesthetics of Nosferatu with semi-acoustic, semi-electronic hymns.

Corgan has always been unafraid to explore himself musically, and seems to repeat this with every project he takes on. However, it goes without saying you will always feel his presence on a track. There is no WPC project that does not sound straight from the (pale) horse’s mouth. Crispy, dirgy guitar tones, alternatively piercing and soothing vocals (with an underrated range), and the post-romantic, poetic sense of lyricism which invites inner demons to dance, while also telling them to fuck off. While you can relish in the ecstasy of “Soma,” you can also be drawn to tears at the eulogy of “Once Upon a Time,” and rock the hell out to “The Everlasting Gaze.”

Jimmy Chamberlin returned to the Smashing Pumpkins in 1999, but the band infamously broke up in 2000 after touring for Machina I.  The band played a farewell show at the Metro Cabaret, the venue in Chicago which had effectively jump started their career in 1988 with their first show with Jimmy Chamberlin. Immediately, Corgan jumped into another band with Chamberlin, Zwan. The band’s lone album, Mary Star of the Sea, sees a return to some of the spiritual themes from Gish. 2004 saw the release of Corgan’s first, and hopefully not last, collection of poetry, Blinking with Fists, published by Faber and Faber, who are associated widely with T.S. Eliot. 

Since The Smashing Pumpkins’ reformation in 2006, Corgan has gotten flack from the media and some fans for the various incarnations of the band . When bands reform or change, it’s a pretty typical media narrative to write off them as not as good as they previously were. But are artists not allowed to grow up? Like kids who are seen as cute one day and trouble the next as a teenager, the problem of expectations and attachments too often get in the way of how we see artists. William Patrick Corgan has grown to accomplish so much in his life, and the fetters of criticism have never really deterred him from where he intends to go, and he only proves stronger as time rolls on. From tea shops, to his upcoming solo album, to fatherhood, WPC’s future is looking bright, and he usually ends up being the best at what he sets his mind to. For his 50th birthday, and to his fulfilling life, one full of obstacles, both personally and professionally, we at Alternative Nation wish him a very, very happy birthday and many more to come.