Saturday, July 02, 2011

Corganwatch: A Big Fat Nothing

I started to cry, which started the whole world laughing
Oh, if only I'd seen that the joke was on me.

- Gibb/Gibb/Gibb, I Started a Joke
"God's joke" was how Billy Corgan famously described the origin of his band's name throughout the days of the original lineup: rather than new-wavers The Marked or synth-rockers Star Children[1], the band - operating under the assumption that this wouldn't last, thrashing out (excellent) Sabbath-meets-Reznor mechanistic psych-outs like Nothing and Everything for halfhearted audiences sporting no more confidence in the venture's lasting potential than Corgan/Iha themselves - figured if they were going to do something stupid, they might as well have a stupid name while they were about it. Thus, Smashing Pumpkins.

God, of course, was joking on the sly: if we can posit Billy Corgan as an incarnation of the two-faced god Janus (and let's see you tell me we can't), then one face must be that of the inspired genius, the other the dullard crippled by self-doubt and lashing out at anyone nearby: himself, Courtney Love, the press, fans, Courtney Love, Courtney Love. And so it was that Corgan's daemon became hoodwinked by his demons: the wind changed, and that shrugging, don't-worry-I-don't-mean-this jest would become frozen on his face for the next twenty years as "Smashing Pumpkins" became... Smashing Pumpkins.

Billy Corgan is at pains to establish that his thread winds inexorably through the tapestry of rock music in and after the 1990s; what he fails to acknowledge is that a large part of his influence is to add to rock's meme-pool one of the most generous infusions of that self-doubting essence. The oeuvre of Corgan at his peak may not have the visceral self-immolation of his most obvious counterpart, Kurt Cobain, but - in interviews and in tracks like Ugly or Tales of a Scorched Earth - it's tempered with a wry, almost twee brand of self-abasement that's less solipsistic than his contemporaries', and thus more engaging. The result is a deadly self-destructive streak with the cuddly, approachable palette of a Wes Anderson flick. And also probably Hinder's Better Than Me, thank you so very fucking much.

For years, Corgan would deny the literal interpretation of the name, accepting the appellation's sigilization of bittersweet divine mockery, its codifying of the universe's fickle silliness, even its connotations of Halloween boogedy-boo, toddling down the street in a Cool Britannia costume (this latter manifesting itself as the band became The Smashing Pumpkins, by which point the world was a vampire and Corgan a slapheaded superhero who only came out at night). But one thing the band did not go in for was the actual smashing of pumpkins: when one Australian fan asked Corgan during a radio phone-in whether any pumpkins were harmed during the making of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Corgan sneered, "that's the stupidest question ever asked. For asking that question you get a big fat nothing."

It is, of course, beneath Corganwatch to play the game of hoists and petards [2]. One day the literality of "Smashing Pumpkins" may be off-limits; the next it may be used to sell records. That is fine and good. A free pass from Corganwatch! However, it's worth noting that, in finally acknowledging after all this time that, you know what, the words "smashing pumpkins" do actually conjure the image of pumpkins being smashed, one might observe a resurgence of Corgan's long-dormant (and entirely unreasonably so, because holy fuck, have you seen this shit? There are no words) self-abasing urge.

If the new Smashing Pumpkins have an element of cut-up randomness to them - a desperation to be back in the zeitgeist, tempered by a welcome willingness to perform crazy experiments with unorthodox release techniques and music of tragicomically variable quality - then we might start to suspect the identity of the hand moving the planchette. The paradox is this: Billy Corgan is trying to free himself from the dull and dying machinations of a musical economy that patently has no use for him, nor him for it, and that is fine, because Billy Corgan is a gnostic and a mystic and he wants very much to get somewhere and that Neoplatonic form ain't gonna idealize itself, buddy. But in throwing the bones and letting onesself and one's image be swept wherever the current takes one, one encounters the risk (indeed, the probability) that the current sweeping one up will be the strongest one; and if there's only one force in the world stronger than what Billy Corgan thinks of himself, it's what people think of Billy Corgan. Meaning the stronger his attempts to put aside ego and do whatever he's moved to do, the more likely he'll just do whatever people have been assuming he's doing for years now, which is to say, fronting a band which is all about the violent pulverization of squash.

The part where the whole thing is presented by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, on the other hand, is obviously just Billy Corgan fucking with you.

[1] A nom de musique employed when the band were making the styles of music they'd swear didn't fit the brand of their day-job outfit, until The Chamberlin Incident forced an adoption of those exact styles: first for the extended mostly-covers version of the Bullet With Butterfly Wings EP, then with Adore and the sheepish, halfhearted pretense that this was where things were headed all along.

[2] During the Pumpkins' heyday, Metallica were widely quoted as having said they'd never do all the things they then turned around and did the shit out of; this in response to their release of the alt-inspired Load, unquestionably the best album of their career.

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