The lights are off in the apartment. He sits at the edge of his bed brooding, a soft glow from the streetlights on Southport peeking in through the shades. He had just recorded a rough version of his song “Crush”, and was listening to the tape “thinking, I actually can do this, there is something here, you know?”
You can call him a musician, a poet, a celebrity, an asshole — he has been all of those things through the course of his career — but more than anything you have to call him driven. Thirty years after sitting in that apartment next door to the Music Box, Chicagoan William Patrick Corgan, Jr. is still recording and releasing music with his band, The Smashing Pumpkins.
Billy’s rise to fame was typical of a lot of the alternative rock stars with whom he shared the stage in the early 90s: a troubled childhood, awkward teens, an outlet in music, indie-label success, an impressive major label debut, band in-fighting, drugs, drama and money. For as much critical and sales success as the band had with albums like Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the Smashing Pumpkins eventually collapsed under their own weight. After ten years of recording and touring, egos got out of control and goals began to differ. With two Grammys and millions in record sales behind them, the band ended their story with a four-and-a-half hour, 36 song aural assault/farewell show at the Metro and called it quits.
So then what? Billy did what front-men do — he started a new band, Zwan, he recorded a solo album (TheFutureEmbrace), did soundtrack work for films, and released a book of poetry (Blinking With Fists). But it was never quite the same. Zwan imploded in a way that seemed to mirror the demise of the Pumpkins: drugs, disagreements on how much time needed to be spent in the studio, and a clash of too many different personalities. Corgan is nothing if not a perfectionist and a workaholic, and that attitude didn’t sit well with his new crew of laid-back indie-rock stars. “It’s hard when one of your guitar players thinks he can get out of bed at one, smoke a joint and then fuck the tour manager’s girlfriend before laying down his part.”
In 2005 Corgan took out a full page ad in the Chicago Tribune titled “A Message to Chicago from Billy Corgan” in which he declared “I want my band back.” Former Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin signed back on and the band was reborn, releasing Zeitgeist and headlining the Live Earth festival in 2007. Chamberlin has since left the group, and after a shuffle of bass players the current line-up has been touring the US, Japan and Europe, writing new songs and recording new albums.
At a show in Grand Rapids in July of 2010, Corgan admitted onstage to being “happier than he’s been in years, but a little pissed off too. And you all know we’re a better band when we’re a little pissed off.” For someone who lacks an imposing frame (he bears a striking resemblance to Jack Skellington from Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas) and doesn’t come off like a beer-swilling, UFC-watching macho man, Corgan walks through life with a Chicago-swagger, that Second-City chip on his shoulder. Perhaps that’s where his drive comes from. His latest seemingly impossible task? The Smashing Pumpkins are in the middle of recording a massive 44-song concept album, distributed for free on the bands’ website one song at a time. The five songs currently available demonstrate his wide range of influences, from soothing acoustic ballads to crunchy pop-rock and the occasional sitar twang.
Corgan has always dreamed larger than reality, as evidenced by his numerous triumphs and the many projects he’s abandoned over the years. One of the most interesting of those resurfaced early in the summer of 2010, when Corgan announced he would resume work on his ChicagoSongs cd and dvd, a series of songs inspired the city’s history: from the notorious murder of 14-year old Bobby Franks in 1924 to Riverview amusement park and the 1893 World’s Fair. When and if it ever sees the light of day is debatable, but there’s no doubt that Corgan is in a room somewhere working his ass off to make something happen.