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Smashed pumpkin
Billy Corgan moves ahead on his own
Related Links

Billy Corgan's official Web site

Sean Richardson reviews Billy Corgan's band called Zwan

"Drown" was an unlikely introduction for one of the most important rock bands of the í90s. A long, swirling mini-symphony of guitars awash with carefully manipulated feedback cradling lyrics that flirted with suicide, it should not have been a candidate for heavy rotation. Yet the tune broke out from the Singles (Sony) soundtrack in 1992 and made Smashing Pumpkins stars.

Over the next six years, the Pumpkins and leader Billy Corgan ó whoís just released his first solo album, and whoíll headline Avalon next Thursday ó didnít stray, building ornate sand castles of sound from layered guitars, samples, and keyboards. The only instrument more distinctive than Corganís hyper-amplified and chorused six-string growl was his voice: part bray, part bark, part whine. He could sing bratty or vulnerable with total conviction, generating an aural snarl in "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" or ringing out hope in "Tonight, Tonight."

But at some point, the hope got lost. Was it with hired keyboardist Jonathan Melvoinís death and Jimmy Chamberlainís overdose during 1995ís Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Virgin) tour? Or simply the inevitable implosion of the enmeshed lives of Corgan, DíArcy Wretzky, and James Iha? It was clear that by 1998 and Adore (Virgin), the grains of those beautiful sand castles were blowing away. Visitors to Corganís Web site, www.billycorgan.com, are finding out what went awry. Under a heading called "confessions," heís been penning the Smashing Pumpkins story, beginning with some harrowing stuff from his own childhood.

"The level of dysfunctionality that was attributed to the band in public was nothing compared to the dysfunctionality that actually went on," he tells me over the phone from Belgium. "But the story is how these four klutzes made this great band that by hook or crook actually managed to do something. How particular situations arrived and how mistakes were made . . . well, itís helpful for me to maybe dig up those skeletons and rebury them. I plan to write novels, and this is good practice. Itís an easy story to write because Iím not making it up, but the subject matter is killing me."

To judge by TheFutureEmbrace (Warner Bros.), heís found a new lease on life. After his brief post-Pumpkins helming of Zwan, which ended in a crimson slash of animosity, Corganís solo debut finds him if not exactly content, then at least working his way in that direction. "All Things Change," "Iím Ready," "Walking Shade," and "Strayz" are underpinned by feelings that run from confusion to realization to calm. Itís an arc reflected in the run-together title TheFutureEmbrace, which signals a positive outlook ó a metaphor for a journey toward peace.

"Thatís fairly accurate," Corgan confirms. "Thereís a double-edged sword to sensitivity. As you become more sensitive with who you are and with other human beings and with nature, the downside is that thereís too much information. Every time I hear about people dying or global warming causing snow in Somalia for the first time, the pollution, the terrorism, Fox News . . . the wires in my brain want to melt. A part of me wants to retreat, but then I need to turn around to fight for something real ó for the most positive way a life in the middle of all this can work. At the same time, you have the backdrop of the ending of a long-term relationship with my girlfriend. Somehow all of that combined to make sense in these songs. Thatís why getting Robert Smith to sing on a Bee Gees song is perfect. Itís like upside-down world."

Transposed to a minor key for Corganís brooding vocal delivery and the Cure frontmanís distinctive back-up singing, the Bee Geesí "To Love Somebody" is a perverse highlight. But the best thing about the album is that even if the arrangements and the pace of the disc are subtler than classic Smashing Pumpkins, Corgan is building those sonic sand castles again, though with more temperance. "My primary sonic influence on guitar was Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath. I first heard Black Sabbath when I was eight, and the sound was so immense that in my mind it instilled a pursuit of a similar massive sound. As I grew older, everything from Phil Spectorís production to Jimi Hendrixís production with [engineer] Eddie Kramer to Robert Smith, for how to use effects, congealed into a textural wall."

He also cites David Bowieís Brian EnoĖproduced Low (RCA). "Low was a turning point in alternative culture, with its influence on the Cure, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, and all the bands they spawned. I was playing in that style until the Pumpkins got going in í88. What Iím doing now is in some ways a return, but with Hendrix as a big reference point, because thereís usually only one guitar on his songs. I spent a lot of time in the studio programming effects to get a big sound with one guitar, and the guys I was working with thought I was insane. They said, ĎYouíre really good at overdubbing. Why not just do what you do?í So a lot of the songs were written without playing and singing [at the same time] in mind. When I started to rehearse for the tour, I discovered that the guitar parts are ridiculously hard. Often the guitar parts and the vocals are in different cadences, so going out to play every night feels like a real challenge."

Besides, Corganís the only guitarist in the live line-up thatíll hit Avalon. He wonít be playing any Pumpkin (or Zwan) numbers ó hardly a surprise given his musical and personal evolution. You might think that preparing the entire Smashing Pumpkins catalogue ó some 200 songs and 24 remixes ó for digital release on March 29 might have been a kind of exorcism, but he says it was more a validation. "Iíve talked for years about how I futzed up albums and songs and how certain songs should have been on albums and others shouldnít. But when I went through the recordings, I discovered that for the most part the albums were pretty much right where they belonged no matter what was going on in the band."

Billy Corgan | June 30 | Avalon, 15 Lansdowne St, Boston|617.228.6000

Issue Date: June 24 - 30, 2005
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