It’s not as if I haven’t had things on my mindgrapes this past week (specifically the full-on revival of girl group rock and the end of the 2nd season of The Ultimate Coyote Ugly Search). Due to lots of work-related stuff and some technical difficulties*, I haven’t been blogging. Right now, my PC is in safe mode (throw ’em up, geeks!) as I type this, due to a busted video card. It’s like using a computer with no peripherals whose display is rendered by a sloppy child wielding a crayon. So it’s making blogging a less than enjoyable undertaking.
And much as it pains me, I’m not going to get up this week’s Oblivious Living post, which is a shame because it’s a really solid track, though sung by a band with a very unfortunate name.
Still, it’s been a solid week since new stuff went up here so I’m again posting a piece I wrote last year around this time.
This piece was written in June 2006 for a series of readings and events that fell under the banner of Music With Meaning, which was a fundraiser for Rape Victim Advocates and America’s Second Harvest. I was asked to read for this event by two of the Machine Media folks, and immediately agreed before I realized I had nothing to read that would fit the format. So over the course of a week (though mostly during a caffeine-fueled Friday night), I composed the following.
The piece deals with the often difficult relationship Chicago has with its rock star past, and specifically with Billy Corgan. I’ve been meaning to go back to it, and do some additional editing, but I’ve never quite gotten around to it. The last lines’s amusing considering what I wrote on TOC‘s blog last week, and it’s also a little dated now, what with the Smashing Pumpkins reunion/Zwan 2.0 relaunch. But I still think it’s worth it for the line about Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin running a series of bait shops.
Enjoy, and I promise more this week.
Where Have You Gone, Billy Corgan?
(A City Turns Its Lonely Eyes To You Then Proceeds To Give You The Finger)
For a long time, Chicago rock fans have been a lot like the guy in his mid 30s who won’t shut up about the year he made the game-winning catch in the Homecoming game then proceeded to take the hottest girl in school with him to Prom. That is to say, we’re having a really hard time getting over the year 1993—the last time Chicago was both a critical and commercial force in the music industry. But more than that, we’re having a hard time adjusting to life without Billy Corgan.
There’s no denying that Chicago is responsible for some of the best rock music of the last forty years, and Richard Marx. But in the summer of 1993, Veruca Salt, Urge Overkill, Liz Phair and the Smashing Pumpkins all released the albums that, for better or worse, defined their careers and created the last great movement in Chicago rock music: American Thighs, Saturation, Exile in Guyville and Siamese Dream.
Now in actuality, Veruca Salt’s American Thighs didn’t actually come out until October of 1994, but I think in the minds of most people who bother to care about such things, that release date got swapped with the August 1993 release date of its doppelganger, the Breeders’ Last Splash, because it makes for a much tidier story. So that’s what I’m going with here. Truth is important, but it doesn’t always make for good entertainment, which is why Lifetime movies based on real events, but starring Tori Spelling are so much more fun than that A&E show with Bill Kurtis.
Anyway, it’s probably unfair to expect a band to stay together for more than ten years but I can’t help but think most people in town are disappointed with the fact that the four great white hopes of the last Chicago rock movement have all fallen apart in one way or another. Both Veruca Salt and Urge Overkill followed up their breakthrough albums with solid, but underappreciated records that failed to build on their previous success.
This left Liz Phair and the Smashing Pumpkins to battle it out for the hearts and minds of the city of Chicago. Though Liz has outlasted the Pumpkins as a working artist and just about matched them in terms of output, if you asked most people in Chicago, “Which artist more accurately represents the city?”, they’d undoubtedly say the Smashing Pumpkins. Ask them which is the more influential artist and most people will still probably say the Smashing Pumpkins. Yet I don’t think this is the case outside of Chicago, at least in terms of the albums that launched each into national prominence.
While writing this piece, “Never Said” off of Exile came on Sirius’ “Left of Center” satellite radio channel. I swear this actually happened. I always thought writers made up bullshit coincidences like this just to make their work more organic or something while at the same time allowing them to prattle on about topics that wouldn’t fit anywhere else. And while the latter isn’t any less true, maybe those coincidences aren’t so bullshit after all.
But here’s the interesting thing. Not once have I heard a Smashing Pumpkins song on Left of Center. Not once. On the off-chance that I just wasn’t listening at the right times, I asked my roommate (who practically has Left of Center’s playlist jacked into his brain in the same way that Keanu Reeves learned kung-fu in The Matrix) how often he’s heard a Pumpkins song. “Maybe twice,” he replied. How often do they play Liz Phair? “All the time,” he said.
This makes absolutely no logical sense to me and probably most other Chicagoans. While “Never Said” is a fine enough song (though not near as good as two of her other singles: “Polyester Bride” and “Supernova”), the Pumpkins probably outsold her by at least 10 to 1 (I’m completely guessing here but that sounds about right, doesn’t it?). Plus, most people would argue that the Pumpkins albums all remained challenging, while Liz’s albums eventually got played on The Mix.
While judging an artist’s total accumulated sales is hardly a measure of influence, chart position at least indicates what audiences were willing to digest at the time. Exile’s highest chart position was 196, barely cracking the Billboard Top 200. Siamese Dream? #10. But really, this makes perfect sense. The alt rock revolution was in full swing by the time Siamese Dream came out so audiences were already primed for Corgan’s metal-meets-psychedelia breakthrough. A woman talking about being your blowjob queen? Not so much.
Critically speaking, the Smashing Pumpkins, as important as they were to the larger alternative rock movement, were really nothing more than an amalgam of other influences, while Liz Phair was a phenomenon that no one saw coming and is therefore more influential as a result.
Yet people in the city still identify more strongly with Corgan and the Pumpkins and are still wishin’, hopin’, and prayin’ for a Pumpkins reunion. For better or worse, we have decided that Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins represent the last time Chicago was a major musical touchstone. Despite the litany of great Chicago rock acts that are revitalizing the sound of this city, we continue to cling to him as our cultural ambassad
or. If the Pumpkins reunite, it means we as a city are relevant again and New York and the Strokes can both go and suck it.
How did this happen? How did a band that took a smattering of admittedly awesome but not exactly groundbreaking metal and rock influences become the symbolic White Knight? I’ve grown up in the Chicago area my whole life and the only explanation I can offer for this is that people are very particular about what gets chosen as the unique Chicago cultural experience. If it doesn’t reflect THEIR experience, then it isn’t REALLY Chicago and is derided as false. This is ridiculous, but it’s true. My Chicago experience is way different from yours and way different from some dude in Pilsen, Portage Park, Roseland, or Lakeview.
So why did we pick this guy, rather than say…Nash Kato? It’s very simple. I think it’s because he likes the Cubs. And he doesn’t just like the Cubs. He LOOOOOVES the Cubs. Do you think ‘XRT thought “Hey, let’s get Billy Corgan to do Cubs commentary for us?” Of course not. You and I both know Corgan talked himself into that job just like he did the time he subbed for a Chicago Tribune sports beat reporter. It’s almost as if one day in gym class, Corgan’s gym class was picking teams for baseball and he was picked last. And at that moment, little Billy knew he would never display enough athletic ability to play for the Chicago Cubs. So he figured the easiest way to get himself a spot in the Cubs organization would be to become a famous rock star and then they’d have to let him participate. The entire Gish album was essentially a request to start spring training and if there’s a song other than “Suffer” that better describes being a Cub fan then I haven’t heard it.
That’s a very Chicago kind of fandom. Think about it: Even if you yourself are not a Cubs fan, you’ve probably encountered people who are as ravenous about them as Billy. And because you’re probably a Sox fan, you can’t stand them (or at least that aspect of their personality). But this doesn’t take away from the fact that they are your people. Sox fans need Cub fans. We are the yin and the yang. We are Chicago. And therefore, Billy is Chicago. I am he and you are he and we are all together.
Oddly enough, I think we as a city were just about ready to take our Smashing Pumpkins albums out of our collective hope chests and move on until last summer when Billy Corgan started acting like a total rock tease. At that point, Corgan was like an emotionally distant ex-boyfriend. He had started dating somebody else (some slut named Zwan) and then decided he needed his space to find himself so he started working on a solo album.
Then all of a sudden he makes the equivalent of a drunken phone call to us 3 in the morning in the form of a full-age ad in the Trib and the Sun-Times. Not since Lloyd Dobler held a boom box under Diane Court’s window had a suitor made such a nakedly bold declaration of love. In the ad, he said, “I moved away to pursue a love I had, but got lost.” At first, we didn’t believe it. Did he still love us? Did he still care? He must have because he then he started leaving cryptic comments on his MySpace page. “The surprise I have in store for you all will be announced soon enough….hold on to your horses. After all, good things surely comes to those who wait….Don’t you just love the suspense?”
But we didn’t start getting wet until it was rumored that the Pumpkins would be reuniting, first at Coachella (which turned out to be false) and then Lollapalooza. The latter rumor was fueled by one line in an article from Billboard magazine that said “Chicago media reports have suggested a primary target for a headliner is Smashing Pumpkins.” Intrigued, I emailed the New York editor who wrote the piece and asked about his source. It turned out to be nothing more than an aside muttered by a Billboard intern who used to live here. And there it was. Chicagoans so wanted Corgan to reunite the Pumpkins that they were willing to furnish a reunion themselves in the same way that William Randolph Hearst helped fan the flames of the Spanish-American War.
The problem with all this now is that a reunited Smashing Pumpkins isn’t going to look anything like the Pumpkins of old. No, a reunited Pumpkins is going to end up looking more like a reunited Styx, which is really just a reunited Damn Yankees and holy shit, nobody wants that. Unless The Nuge is involved. Then maybe.
See, Corgan hasn’t spoken to D’arcy since 1999 and James Iha found out about the plans for the reunion the same way you and I did when the Tribune ad ran. Jimmy Chamberlain’s in, but you get the feeling that if Billy Corgan asked Jimmy Chamberlain to help him start a chain of bait shops in Northwestern Indiana then he’d probably do it. Essentially, our old flame has invited us over to his place to rekindle our passions over a romantic dinner, but once we arrive he’s had the game on, a couple of his buddies are passed out on the couch and someone is in the corner trying to get the dog drunk. Plus? While we were there? That skank Melissa Auf Der Mar called and left a message saying, “My services are there for him whenever he needs them.” Bitch.
So fine, Billy. You go. We’ve had our affections toyed with for the last time. You do your own thing with your fancy new friends. Anyway, we’re seeing someone else now. His name is Fall Out Boy and he’s young, and hot, and sends us naked pictures of himself over the Internet. And he’ll probably love us forever.