Rewind. I press the cassette tape deck button in my ’89 Honda Civic. “Where the hell am I gonna park?” I mumble, squinting at parking signs like I’m doing the S.A.T. verbal. My sense of direction sucks. I know I’ll eventually squeeze my car somewhere, and get lost trying to find it on the way back. It’s a wonder I even find the stage at the comedy club. Even though I’ve been living in Boston my whole life, I’ve just started to decipher its downtown maze, which houses the theater district, Chinatown, and Combat Zone. I land on track three of Mellon Collie’s Dawn to Dusk. My hands pound the steering wheel like snares. I almost sideswipe a mailbox as I rock some air guitar. Jellybelly pumps me up before a show! The warp-speed James Iha guitar, Darcy Wretzky’s pulsing bass, Jimmy Chamberlin’s lightning beats, Billy Corgan’s ethereal screams —
Stop. That was 1995. I was a naive 23yr old North Ender with a goofy smile on the cusp of an underwhelming entertainment career that would surprisingly span the rest of my life. It was also the beginning of a lifelong affinity for the psychedelic stylings of a certain Chicago alternative rock group. A good friend of mine, a sous chef named Tony, offhandedly gave me a recommendation a few years before, as he blew smoke out of the side of his mouth. “You should check out the Pumpkins,” a grain of salt in a sea of memories I can still taste decades later. That third track, Jellybelly, ritualistically fueled my pre-performance warmups until I left for Los Angeles a couple years later in January ‘97.
Fast forward. July 2020. Quarantine month four, sheltered in my San Fernando Valley house with my wife, two 5yr old sons, earbuds, laptop, and a never ending sampling of music on YouTube. I used to blast tunes out of cabinet-sized speakers. Now I don’t even own a radio. Sadly, I listen on the computer these days. When the kids finally fall asleep, I dive deep into the Pumpkins library. It’s a nostalgia massage. The full albums are there — Gish, Pisces Iscariot, Mellon Collie — sweet, sweet spots for me to land. I usually let Farewell & Goodnight or Daydream be the encore before hitting my pillow. But I can’t stop listening to Siamese Dream, skimming video comments for lyrics. Billy’s not one to enunciate. It’s a “shoegazing” thing, a music craze begun in the late 80’s. Loud, dreamy, indecipherable. Like finding my way out of a paper bag, identifying lyrics is something I can’t do. I can memorize an entire Shanley play, but for years, I thought Billy was shouting “I will be brave!” over and over on again on Rocket. How did I miss Cherub Rock’s sarcastic second verse opening, “Hipsters unite?” I was positive it was “It’s tough. You and I.”
Play. There’s a low-res version on YouTube of the group’s first TV appearance from 1988 on a local Chicago cable show called The Pulse. Chamberlin had just joined the fold. They hadn’t found their signature sound yet, instead going all out Cure. It wasn’t the right direction, until the power of their new drummer helped steer their sound off the sad-goth surface streets, onto the heavy metal highway. Jimmy’s beats, paired with Billy’s roaring lead guitar, were thunderous. I’d never realized how important Chamberlin was until recently. When you watch a different drummer playing the same songs, they rock, but they’re not the same. He’d been a jazz drummer when he first met Corgan, so maybe that’s why his ingredient, added to the group’s soup, makes it so delicious. Anyway, I’m grateful Chamberlin brought the heavy cream. Darcy’s four strings definitely give them a flavorful stock. Billy and James added the mushrooms, and before you knew it, Gish was served hot. I’m a big fan of the Black Sabbath inspired stuff, but I’m drawn mostly to Corgan’s soft, Dead-esque mellow tunes. It’s no surprise Rhinoceros is my favorite here. “And she knows, she knows, she knows.”
What the group cultivated on Gish, they painstakingly refined on Siamese Dream, guided by producer Butch Vig. These tracks make you float through the clouds, slam against headwinds, then swoop down gracefully into calm seas. That cassette with the Shining-like twins on its cover was my treasure chest, the syrupy, weepy, raspy rock songs, emotional gold. I was in my early twenties. Brawls, booze, and breakups. Feelin’ all the feels. The Pumpkins, along with Radiohead, Pearl Jam, and Dave Matthews, defined my taste in music. Before them, it was R&B, heavily influenced by my Dad’s love of doo-wop, and local Boston bands like New Edition. When I embarked on the journey west to Los Angeles, thinking it would be a temporary stop, alternative rock became my genre of choice. Siamese Dream, the standard.
Pisces Iscariot is a bucket of B-sides most bands would kill for, the perfect bridge to Infinite Sadness. You can hear how tracks like the incredibly breezy Whir would eventually morph into 1979, and the celestial Starla would inspire Porcelina. Mellon Collie took everything the band learned and blended it into a tasty jambalaya. It’s an extended cruise, combining Corgan’s maniacal navigation, Iha and Wretzky’s sails, and Chamberlin’s anchor, docking the ship into 28 diverse harbors. It’s hard to think of a more whimsically gorgeous song than Thirty-Three. Take Me Down, sung by a mesmerizing Iha, might be the song I want played at my funeral. Bullet with Butterfly Wings and Zero are arena anthems. Angry Billy Corgan is great. Romantic Billy may be even better, but I really dig Dreamy Billy. Combine all three into one Super Billy, and Siamese Dream is born.
From the opening guitar riff on Cherub Rock, you know something legendary is happening. The band was poised to outgrow their humble Midwest beginnings. Billy’s “Let me out!” made it official. Today is arguably their most catchy, can be sung most easily by the masses, along with Disarm. Mayonaise is a teen-angst classic, their signature sound rolled into a ballad like deep fried sushi. I love Mayonaise, but I need a slightly heavier serving of Angry Billy, a dash less romance. Silverf*ck frickin’ rocks. It’s the video du jour to stream when my kids and I have a mini mosh pit in the living room, but too filling to label my fave. Remember, I need a combination of the Billys to take the prize. Which brings me to the leaders who are neck and neck down the stretch in my horse race: Rocket and Hummer.
Rocket brightens my soul. My kids love the imaginative music video, directed by the brilliant duo Dayton-Faris (their first collaboration), colorfully launching a bunch of kids to another planet to see a Smashing show. The song has all the ingredients that make the Pumpkins great. The opening riff preps you for takeoff. Romantic Billy echoes the first word — “Love.” The drawn out dreamy lyrics, angry declarations (“No more lies!”), and perhaps my favorite Corgan line delivery in all their catalog (“I torched my soul, to show the world that I am pure, deep inside my heart.”) It’s a scrumptious stew.
Hummer has a broth with similar herbs and spices. It begins with Darcy’s fingers, Billy and James’ strings, and when Jimmy slams the skins, whoa mama, you know it’s gonna be a journey. Hummer has some of Corgan’s best lyrics that combine the yin and yang of his psyche — deep depression/inescapable optimism. “Happiness will make you wonder. Will I feel ok? It scares the disenchanted, far, away.” The classic Corgan mantra, “Life’s a bummer, when you’re a hummer,” leads into the line that sums up the entire 90’s grunge scene — “Life’s a drag!” I like that it takes us on a longer ride than Rocket, never having the benefit of being one of Siamese’s four single releases: Today, Disarm, Cherub Rock, Rocket. But what makes Hummer stand out for me is the epic shift at 4:29. Just as we’re nestled in our covers comfortably, the transition sinks us deeper into the cushions. It’s here Corgan lets us decide if we leave the theater happy or sad. “Do you feel…love is real?” This question is the throughline to the entire Pumpkins discography. Billy shows his hand in one concert I found, actually giving a reply to himself mid-song — “I do.”
Shuffle. The live concerts from the early 90’s, Pumpkins not yet ripe, are fun to explore. You can’t duplicate the energy of those audiences now. We’ll never get back to that sort of vibe, will we? No cell phones, no social media, no distractions. Just youthful exuberance, total engagement, benign chaos. You see young Corgan smiling, especially at the Metro gigs in Chicago. Those shows were his home. The crowd surfing was awesome. The set they did there in Fall 1990 for Gish was special, but the 1993 show, celebrating the release of Siamese Dream, is their most exuberant. They’d gone through the turmoil of producing the album, and made it out alive. They were on the cusp of overwhelming stardom. Billy’s joy really shines through. Fittingly enough, he wore the Superman t-shirt. Super Billy. In early ’94, they played the entire Siamese Dream album with supreme confidence, in front of arms raised, bouncing heads in Munich. The Pumpkins soup was simmering.
Eject. It’s a lot to digest, but I get it now. Life isn’t such a drag after all. Love is real. Without a shadow of doubt, the best Pumpkins song of all time…is Hummer!
Or maybe Muzzle. I forgot about that one.