Mike Love may be a good rock ‘n roll heel, but Billy Corgan is an actual heel. The longtime wrestling fan and eventual promoter and on-air authority figure made a conscious decision, from the beginning, to be the bad guy. “In the early years of the Smashing Pumpkins, I saw that I was going to be treated as an outsider,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. “So rather than play along, which is what you’re supposed to do, I decided to play heel, in wrestling parlance, and have fun with it… I’d rather be that heel than the babyface who goes along to get along.”
He did a great job. Despite his obvious talent (the Pumpkins singer and lead guitarist wrote almost all of the songs and played, pretty much, everything except for drums on the band’s first two albums), Corgan became one of the least likable people in music. He tossed off arrogant quotes to the music press more easily than Ted DiBiase threw his money around to move to the front of the line at an emergency room, close down a public pool or buy himself a championship belt because he was upset he couldn’t win the actual one. He treated his bandmates like employees, hiring and firing them at will or blaming them for breaking up the band when he was always on the one in charge. And he certainly wasn’t humble. “Do I belong in the conversation about the best artists in the world? My answer is yes, I do,” he said to Rolling Stone in 2010.
So like watching the hated heel get his comeuppance, there was quite a bit of schadenfreude in seeing Corgan fail. And with 1998’s Adore, Corgan did so in spectacular fashion, bringing his band’s momentum to a screeching halt and ending its run as one of the biggest and most popular alternative rock bands in the world.
In music, as with life, it’s not always possible to pinpoint the exact moment in time an artist’s fortunes start to take a turn for the worse. But for the Smashing Pumpkins, it was July 12, 1996.
The previous night, the band had played at Madison Square Garden — the latest stop on its triumphant world tour supporting the blockbuster 1995 double album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Throughout the preceding eight years, the Chicago-based band had developed a devoted following while releasing several popular and acclaimed albums, including the much-beloved 1993 album Siamese Dream. With Nirvana’s demise and Pearl Jam’s retreat from the spotlight, the Smashing Pumpkins were, arguably, the biggest alternative rock band in the world at that moment. And as they took the stage at MSG, they seemed poised to take the next step and take their place alongside the likes of R.E.M. and U2 in the pantheon of pop-rock superstardom.
But then touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin and Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin filled a couple of syringes with a dangerous amount of heroin and shot up together. It wasn’t their first time doing either – shooting up together or using a dangerous amount. It would later come out that there had been overdoses in Thailand and Lisbon, the latter involving adrenaline needles to the heart a la Pulp Fiction, according to Corgan.
Unlike the movie, however, the early morning hours of July 12, 1996 would bring fatal consequences. Melvoin, a multi-instrumentalist from a well-known musical family (his father, Mike, had played keyboards for the famous Wrecking Crew, while his sisters Wendy and Susannah, had been members of The Revolution), died of an apparent overdose. Chamberlin, who had long struggled with substance abuse, would be fired from the band and arrested for drug possession. He eventually pled guilty to disorderly conduct and underwent court-mandated rehab.
The shell-shocked remains of the band, Corgan, rhythm guitarist James Iha and bassist D’arcy Wretzky, soldiered on and continued the tour with replacements. They even found time to record a couple of soundtrack songs: “Eye” from Lost Highway and “The End is the Beginning is the End,” the theme song for Batman & Robin that earned the band a Grammy (it might have been the only award the movie won – not counting Razzies, of course). Both songs had an electronic-influenced sound and represented a major departure for the band. With the grunge/alternative scene starting to fizzle out, the decision to update its sound seemed like a smart move. Radiohead had just released OK Computer to massive acclaim; surely, the Pumpkins could successfully reinvent themselves, too. “It’s probably like what you would expect from us in the future,” Corgan told MTV about “The End.” “It’s such a large leap from the last album that people will be surprised. It’s the sound I’ve had mulling around in my head for a year.”
Corgan may have had that sound in his head for a while, but it when it came time to record an entire album based on it, he found himself facing numerous challenges and obstacles. For one thing, Chamberlin had been more than just the drummer. He had served as Corgan’s muse and sounding board, and the two had often spent long hours in the studio together without the other members, jamming and bringing Corgan’s songs to life. As Corgan later recounted, most of the Pumpkins albums, from their 1991 debut Gish to 2007’s Zeitgeist, were primarily recorded by him and Chamberlin.
But obviously not Adore. Corgan has since stated that not having Chamberlin severely hampered the album. In fact, the band never really replaced Chamberlin at all. After giving things a go with Matt Walker (who had replaced Chamberlin for the remainder of the Mellon Collie tour), Corgan parted ways with the former Filter drummer midway through the Adore sessions. He then brought in other session drummers, including Matt Cameron, formerly of Soundgarden, and Joey Waronker of Beck’s band. Neither of those two stuck — although they both immediately found new jobs, with Cameron joining Pearl Jam and Waronker being hired by R.E.M. On some songs, the band simply uses a drum machine, which harkened back to their pre-Chamberlin days.
Meanwhile, relations between the remaining bandmembers was at an all-time low. Iha was starting to withdraw from the group, concentrating on his solo album, Let it Come Down, which came out a few months before Adore. He usually wrote or co-wrote one or two songs per album — Adore marked the first time he didn’t have any writing credits on a Pumpkins album. Iha wasn’t just isolating himself musically. Corgan had come up with an idea to have them live together in a house in the Hollywood Hills as a means of team building and bonding, only for Iha to flatly refuse to do so. Meanwhile, Wretzky had never been much of a songwriter or creative force within the band — and Corgan not so subtly accuses her of not being in the best state of mind during the recording of Adore.
But band instability wasn’t the only thing that was weighing on Corgan as he set out to write the album:
After the mind numbing blast that was the Mellon Collie tour (playing to well over a million people, death, destruction, controversy, infinite sorrows, tears, the ultimate success, the most simple failures), I am completely, utterly drained… from Jimmy’s firing (and the loss of my best friend and musical soul mate in the band), to my separation from my wife, the untimely death of my mother, and musical burnout (writing and recording over 50+ songs in such a short time, not to mention all the shows around the world), I had built a highway over these traumas and planned to just keep on moving (it had been a effective strategy for the past 10 years, so why not now?)Billy Corgan, Livejournal, April 12, 2005.
Things were also going south with the band’s record label. Virgin Records, which had released Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie, expected more of the same and were taken aback by the band’s decision to change up its sound. The band had recorded “Let Me Give The World to You” with famed producer Rick Rubin, a catchy pop-rock song that wasn’t representative of Adore. Fearing that the album was too uncommercial, the label wanted to release it as a lead single, only for Corgan to react angrily and omit it from Adore completely.
Indeed, the upbeat song would have stuck out like a sore thumb on this album. Many critics and fans have called this a “mourning album” or a “loss album,” and the lyrics on Adore definitely reflect that. The title, itself, is indicative of Corgan’s love of irony and sarcasm (apparently, it’s based on an old joke: “When is a door not a door? When it is ajar”). Actually, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness would have been a much more appropriate title for this record, given the subject matter.
Perhaps with that in mind, much of Adore is quiet, acoustic-driven and understated. Gone are the crunching guitars and pulsating drums that drove much of the first three albums. Instead, there are lots of keyboards on this record (presumably, Melvoin, who Billy really liked and considered a friend, would have played them had July 12 not happened, adding another depressive layer onto things). As for the much ballyhooed electronic sound, there are some effects here and there (particularly, on lead single “Ava Adore”), but those elements are toned down and there are only a few songs that really sound like “The End is the Beginning is the End” or “Eye.”
Things start off strongly with the beautiful “For Sheila,” a melancholy (or is it “mellon collie”?) near-solo acoustic ballad that sets the tone for the rest of the album. The plaintive, subdued and seemingly sincere lyrics (it’s always hard to tell with Corgan) serve as a major departure from his usual sarcasm and irony-laden fare. According to Corgan, this was the first song he wrote for the album and represented a break from the past and set the stage for what was the come — both in terms of what the album would sound like and where the troubled band was heading. The song has become a favorite with fans, and understandably so.
The next two songs on the album are the two singles: “Ava Adore” and “Perfect.” I’ve always liked both songs and felt they were a bit underrated compared to their more successful singles. “Perfect,” in particular, has long been one of my favorite Pumpkins’ songs. The spiritual successor to “1979,” (the videos even have the same actors and characters) “Perfect” has that same nostalgic flavor to it albeit from the other side of the coin. Rather than being a wistful, happy tune about carefree days gone by, “Perfect” is a darker song that looks at how nostalgia can cause people to idealize past relationships. It makes sense given where he was at the time, no doubt looking back at his marriage and the breakdown of his relationship with Chamberlin.
His mother’s death also weighs heavily on the album. The somber eight-minute epic “For Martha,” a piano driven ballad featuring understated drum work from from Matt Cameron, is dedicated to his mom and contains some truly heartfelt lyrics such as: “If you have to go don’t say goodbye/ If you have to go don’t you cry/ If you have to go I will get by/ Someday I’ll follow you and see you on the other side.” Meanwhile, on “Once Upon a Time,” he sings: “Mother, I hope you know/ That I miss you so/ Time has ravaged on my soul/ To wipe a mother’s tears grown cold.”
Other songs deal more generally with loss. On “Tear,” one of the standout tracks on the record, Corgan seemingly makes up a tale about a person who dies by suicide in a car crash, but the words could easily apply to Chamberlin or Melvoin (“I sing the songs/ To watch you numb/ … Heaven seemed insane/ ‘Cause heaven is to blame/ For taking you away”). “Crestfallen,” which had been planned as the third single but ended up not being released due to poor album sales, takes an interesting introspective look at how loss affects people and the feeling of selfishness that creeps in when you want or need love and support and the person you had always depended on is gone. “Who am I to need you now?/ To ask you why?/ To tell you no?/ To deserve your love and sympathy?/ You were never meant to belong to me.”
In light of his marital problems, several songs deal with failing relationships. “Blank Page” is specifically about his marriage ending, while other songs utilize symbols and made up characters to convey his feelings of loss. For instance, “Behold! The Night-Mare” is ostensibly about a horse but is really about how hard it is to move forward after someone you love dies. “The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete” is a made up tale about a man who kills his female lover and ends up being haunted by her for eternity, but is actually a parable for how you can never really get rid of people you are close to — even if you want to. As Corgan, himself, has said: “What this says about the state of my romantic life circa 1997, I’ll leave you to decide.” Meanwhile, “Annie-Dog” is a particularly disturbing song about a made up woman who is so submissive and docile to her controlling, abusive mate that she is almost like a pet. Another dog-related song, “Pug,” (Corgan is known to be a cat person, so take that for what it’s worth) talks about the difficulties of being in a relationship while on the road.
When I first listened to the album years ago, I hated it. Listening to it again, after more than a year of loss and emotional turmoil, caused me to appreciate it more. The lyrics, in particular, really resonated and I was able to identify with some of what Corgan was going through. I also liked some of the production on the album — an over-the-top electronic sound like on U2’s Pop or Radiohead’s OK Computer probably wouldn’t have been appropriate for Adore, given the subject matter and feel of the record. Upon re-evaluation, I can say that I thought the album was moving and poignant- even beautiful in some places. I don’t know if I agree with some of the retrospective reviews calling it an under-appreciated masterpiece. For one thing, it’s definitely a bit long (as most albums were from that era, but the Pumpkins were a particular offender in that regard) and self-indulgent. But it’s a good record that shouldn’t have killed off the band’s commercial appeal and set the stage for its first breakup.
And yet, that’s exactly what happened. Obviously, the behind-the-scenes turmoil didn’t help, but the cold reception to the album — even by Pumpkins’ fans — doomed Adore. While it ended up being certified platinum by the RIAA, Adore ended up doing about 10% of what Mellon Collie did (that album sold 5 million copies, but since it was a double album, it was certified for 10 million). Singles wise, the album failed to produce a hit on the scale of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” or “1979,” as both “Ava Adore” and “Perfect” missed the Top 40 (although the former came close, hitting #42).
Corgan didn’t do himself or his band any favors by blaming the fans for not embracing Adore, telling CNN: “At this point, they should have enough faith and confidence in us just like I have faith and confidence in the bands that I admire. And if they don’t, then they’re not fans.” Later on, he backtracked, admitting he may have set Adore up to fail by saying it was going to be a “techno album” instead of what it turned out to be: a predominantly acoustic record. He even argued that it was the band’s next album, 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God, along with changing musical tastes that actually killed off the Pumpkins. “Adore didn’t alienate the audience, they were just sort of like, ‘Oh, it’s not the record I want,'” Corgan said. “[Machina] alienated people.”
Or maybe there was nothing that could have saved the band at that point. In the liner notes to the 2014 six CD/DVD box set re-release for Adore, Rolling Stone’s David Wild calls the album “the surprisingly beautiful sound of a great band falling apart.”
That pretty much nails it. After concluding their world tour supporting Adore (which included a 15-show U.S. leg where 100% of the proceeds went to charity), Corgan made a couple of major decisions. First, he brought a rehabbed Chamberlin back to the band. Then he decided that the band would do one last album and tour before breaking up. Wretzky quit during the Machina sessions and the band did their farewell tour with Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur filling in. Corgan and Chamberlin then formed Zwan in 2001 and released a well-received album before the band flamed out under even uglier circumstances than the Pumpkins did.
Maybe that experience caused Corgan to become nostalgic for the Pumpkins — albeit on his terms. As such, in 2007, he and Chamberlin decided to re-form their original band, only with two new musicians taking Iha’s and Wretzky’s places. The band has had a revolving door since (Tommy Lee even played drums on one album) with various musicians entering and exiting the band, including Chamberlin. Currently, both Chamberlin and Iha are back in the band and seem to be getting along well with Corgan (Wretkzy remains estranged and, depending on who you believe, was either unfit to return or got screwed by the lead singer once again). The quasi-reunited band has released multiple albums and undertaken a couple of tours and seems to be in a good place right now.
But as Corgan the wrestling promoter will tell you: The card is always subject to change. If the Pumpkins frontman were to dump the others overboard tomorrow and replace them with Dave Navarro, Steven Adler and a bass-playing Hulk Hogan, then that would hardly be the biggest screwjob we’ve ever seen…