The Great Pumpkins

Unlike their peers, Billy Corgan & Co. survived success. They're back with the moody 'Adore.'

By N'Gai Croal

Is Billy Corgan the Micheal Jordon of pop music? Like his fellow Chicagoan, there seems to be nothing that the front man of The Smashing Pumpkins can't do. Grunge, industrial, acoustic ballads, arena anthems, moody art-rock, Day-Glo pop- each is just another style that Corgan deploys as effortlessly as MJ's patented pump fakes and slam dunks.

The Smashing Pumpkins may be a band (James Iha on guitar and D'Arcy on bass), but it's unquestionably The Corgan Show. The fact that he wrote and sang all the songs on their 1993 breakthrough record, "Siamese Dream" wasn't unusual, be he also replaced his band mate's guitar parts with his own when he decided that theirs weren't up to snuff. Corgan's next release, the sprawling "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," was a bid to dominate the game of rock: at 4.5 million copies sold, it's the most successful double album of the '90s.

In person, the black-clad Corgan- looking much like Ethan Hawke as drawn by Charles Adams- seems more humble than his rep. "I don't think I'm good enoough to be Jordan," he tells guitarist Iha as they sit in the green room of the Metro. It's the Chicago nightclub where the Smashing Pumpkins played their first gig 10 years ago; this night, they're doing a live performance of their new album, "Adore." He continues: "I'd have to go with Pippen. I've got all-around game." Cogan's right: his notorious whiny voice doesn't have the blues-man wail of Kurt Cobain or the sonorous roar of Eddie Vedder or Chris Cornellm be he knows how to weild it to great advantage. And when it's combined with his gloomy lyrics, bombastic production and the furious guitar assault of Iha and D'Arcy, he perfectly captures the mood of today's low-self-esteem, latchkey-kid generation.

It's that all-around game, along with a James Brown work ethic, that has pushed thee Pumpkins to the top. They were a bit late to the alternative-rock party: Nirvana arrived first, followed by Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. But with Kurt Cobain's suicide, Soundgarden's breakup and Pearl Jam's angsting itself into near obscurity. The Smashing Pumpkins is the last band standing, because it doesn;t take its audience for granted. While Vedder took on Ticketmaster, Corgan's group toured relentlessly (it's currently on a whirwind European tour, to be followed by jaunts to Australia and Japan, plus a series of concerts for charity in the United States). Pearl Jam refused to make videos, but the Pumpkins produced numerous award-winning clips like the surreal homage to silent film in "Tonight, Tonight." They work hard for the money.

They also fight as hard as they work: each Pumpkins record has been accompanied by controversy and discord. D'Arcy and James Iha's relationship ended during the grueling tour for the band's 1991 debut, "Gish." During the "Mellon Collie" tour, the keyboardist they hired for their stage show, Jonathan Melvoin, died of an overdose while shooting heroin with the Pumpkins' founding drummer, Jimmy Chamberlin. "Adore" has also had a difficult birth: the band replaced producer Brad Wood (best known for his work with Liz Phair) and tried to get out of the contract with Virgin (the Pumpkins say the case has been settled). What's more the album comes after a string of high-profile rock records by the likes of R.E.M., U2, and Pearl Jam, have underperformed. In a Puff Daddy-Spice Girls world, can the Pumpkins save rock?

That's a mission they choose not to accept. "We felt [indie] rock was kind of played out," says Corgan. Ex-girlfriend Courtney Love and pal Marilyn Manson asked his to produce their new records, but he declined in order to focus on "Adore." These days, Corgan says he's more likely to bob his head to Missy Elliott than to Beck. "You know how once a year you see something and say, 'what the f--- was that?' "he enthuses. "That's what happened when I saw her video." Early reviews are calling "Adore" a departure from the previous records, but anyone who's heard the B-sides in their boxed set "The Aeroplane Flies High" won's be surprised. The moody mèlange of industrial and trip-hop that flavors the record can't hide the telltale heart- these children of Cheap Trick, Led Zeppelin and the Pixies wanna rock. And a few hours later, when the Pumpkins finally take the Metro stage in front of a oacked house, they crank the volume and let it rip.

Source: Newsweek