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Beyond the Grunge

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

There may be an epidemic of reluctant stars in ‘90s rock, but Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins has no qualms about choosing a sidewalk table during a late morning interview rather than sitting inside to avoid being seen by fans passing along the busy street.

And, sure enough, the 6-foot-3 musician is barely finished ordering his ranchero omelet before someone spots him--which isn’t hard, given his trademark shaved head.

“Hey, Billy . . . Glenbard High School, right?” asks the fan, who is in his early 30s.

Corgan smiles and nods.

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“That’s what I thought,” the man says, reaching over the restaurant’s sidewalk rail to shake Corgan’s hand.

The Pumpkins star often runs into alumni from the school, which is in the suburbs just west of Chicago. He now lives in a house within blocks of Wrigley Field, home of his beloved Cubs.

“Someone sent me a copy recently of something I wrote in the school paper in 1984,” he says, smiling. “I did music reviews and in this one story, I said the three bands that I felt would be the future of rock ‘n’ roll are U2, R.E.M. and Metallica. . . . Not bad, eh?”

If some high school pundit were drafting a similar list today, the Smashing Pumpkins, whose two-disc 1995 album “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” sold more than 4 million copies, would surely be on it.

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Along with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails, the Pumpkins are one of the few quality American rock groups that have achieved superstardom this decade.

Its appeal is based on Corgan’s ability to step into both the dreams and nightmares of American teens--and to surround the tales with familiar pop-rock elements, from the tenderness of Brian Wilson to the sonic assault of metal, that are so emotionally grand they remind you of such masterful anthems of teen aspiration as David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

“Billy’s one of the most utterly determined people I’ve ever met, absolutely bullheaded,” says Courtney Love, whose band Hole is another of the great bands of the ‘90s. “Within 10 minutes of meeting him, you know that he’s someone who’s got it, . . . the gift of a true artist. He’s a monster talent in our culture and in our generation.”

Phil Quartararo, who worked with the Pumpkins at Virgin Records before being named president of Warner Bros. Records Inc. late last year, also cites Corgan’s determination and talent.

“Billy is the perfect juxtaposition of being connected to the marketplace and being able to read the culture, and at the same time, he’s got this genuine artistic side of him which makes him connect with audiences. He’s going to be a major figure in rock for a long time.”

Though all four of its ‘90s American rock peers got off to faster commercial starts, the Pumpkins have now pulled into the lead--partly because of the band’s musical accomplishments and partly because the other bands have fallen by the wayside. Those groups have either disbanded (Nirvana and Soundgarden), retreated from stardom’s demands (Pearl Jam) or simply sat on the sidelines for the last three years (Nine Inch Nails).

The point isn’t lost on Corgan, who seems as disillusioned with the state of ‘90s rock as many young fans. Though the Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails weren’t technically “grunge” bands, the term has become an accepted label to cover the early ‘90s school of independent rock groups.

“As a movement, we blew it,” he says after the fan moves down the street. “We dropped the ball. It’s like all these bands created this thirst in the early ‘90s for a new era of rock and then we didn’t finish it.

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“No one made it through to their ‘White Album.’ . . . I blame myself as well for what happened. It was all a little overwhelming. There were a lot of jealousies and internal politics and when the scene got bigger, it blew up.

“And fans got confused. They heard us complaining about how tough it is, . . . how it’s no fun to be a star, . . . how hard touring is or whatever and they thought, ‘What did I do wrong? Why are the bands treating us like this?’ ”

Corgan is interrupted by another fan, this one with a camera. Photos aren’t his favorite pastime and he begs off, noting that he is eating.

Besides, he’s caught up in a point that has been on his mind lately.

He continues: “If somewhere in 1992, me, Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain and Courtney [Love] could have all sat down and said, ‘We are all going through the same thing. Let’s get along and keep our backs covered,’ then we would still be in charge. . . .

“But’s that’s history. Bands are still trying to carry on that sound, but it’s time to move on . . . . That’s what we tried to do with the new record, . . . to reach for new ideas and new sounds. It’s us saying goodbye to the grunge era.”

Corgan’s shaved head isn’t the only reason some industry insiders speak teasingly of him as the Citizen Kane of rock.

Like Kane, the fictional newspaper titan in Orson Welles’ landmark 1941 film, Corgan has often been called a control freak whose obsessive drive, Pumpkins legend has it, once pushed him to a nervous breakdown during a siege of writer’s block. In the film, Kane ends up nearly bald, wandering aimlessly around his mansion.

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But maybe it’s Welles himself who is the more natural parallel. Like the director, who was also born in the Chicago area, Corgan is a man of extraordinary vision and ambition--someone who has been described by Rolling Stone magazine in terms once applied to the filmmaker: an auteur and a tortured genius.

The Pumpkins’ “Mellon Collie” was a sprawling, two-disc set that contained nearly 2 1/2 hours of music--and whose tone echoed the youthful melancholia of its title.

Eager to continue that album’s sales momentum during a time of great commercial uncertainty in rock, Corgan has been working around the clock for months on all the elements that are required of a major pop-rock attraction each time it steps out to face the public these days: videos, interviews, photo sessions, meetings with managers and agents to work out tour itinerary, and, oh yes, the new album itself.

To save time in this impossibly hectic schedule, Corgan suggested this breakfast interview at a bohemian-style cafe near his house.

The plan is to then go to a recording studio a few blocks away, where the other members of the group--guitarist James Iha and bassist D’Arcy (whose last name is Wretzky)--will join him in the interview before a final round of rehearsals for a European tour that is only days away.

Given all this, you don’t think twice when Corgan is a half-hour late for the 11 a.m. appointment.

What does surprise you when he arrives is seeing him arm-in-arm with a woman whom he introduces as his girlfriend. The only thing more unexpected would be seeing him holding hands with his old flame, Love, who later married Cobain.

“Sorry, we got a late start,” he says at the cafe entrance, wearing a stylishly long black leather jacket and gray slacks. “This is Yelena. Is it OK if she joins us?”

It’s a surprise seeing Corgan with his girlfriend of two years, photographer Yelena Yemchuk, because he has been notoriously private about his personal life, including his two-year marriage, which ended in 1997. In two Rolling Stone cover stories on the band, the number of words devoted to Corgan’s love life: zero.

But now he’s volunteering his feelings.

“What is amazing about this relationship is it exists on two very important levels,” he says eagerly, soon after he sits down. “We have a total love connection as a man and a woman, which is very deep. At the same time, because we are both artists, there is a total support and understanding for each other’s work.

“I don’t feel I have to explain my obsession. I don’t have to explain why I am in the studio for 16 hours a day. She understands. . . . My life has improved tenfold since meeting Yelena. My relationships with people, my enjoyment of my work, my appreciation of other artists. . . .”

The morning is damp and cold, but the musician’s mood is upbeat despite all the pressures surrounding him. He talks with the intensity and candor you’d expect from someone whose music is so emotionally charged.

Corgan’s relationship with Yemchuk seems symbolic of a new positiveness from the man who once seemed to be in a race with Cobain and Vedder to see who could descend furthest and fastest into depression. Not only did all three share troubled childhoods, but they each found it difficult to deal with sudden stardom.

Corgan, 31, now seems to accept the demands of rock stardom--including extensive touring and videos--that Pearl Jam and some other ‘90s rivals find distasteful. Rather than see the activities as some sort of commercial exploitation, he finds them an extension of the rock tradition that embraced everyone from the Beatles to U2.

It’s an attitude that could give the Pumpkins the best chance among the acclaimed U.S. ‘90s bands of maintaining its multi-platinum success into the next decade.

“There are so many demands on you today,” he says during the restaurant interview. “I sometimes wonder what it would have been like for Bob Dylan in 1965 if he had to make videos and deal with the kind of media there is today. . . . I wonder how it might have changed his career.

“Music is still the most important thing you do, but you are measured by all these other factors. People are judging your musical relevance by your videos, your photos, what you wear on stage, what you say in interviews. That’s why you have to pay attention to all of it. . . . It’s not megalomania to be concerned about it all, it’s survival.”

Corgan’s girlfriend isn’t the only reason for his more positive outlook these days. An assist also goes to Courtney Love.

“One of the best things that she ever said to me as a friend was that my problem is that I have no archetype, no identity, so it makes it hard for audiences to know how to relate to me,” he says, showing no signs of strain as he moves further into his personal life.

“She was referring to how there always needs to be your Madonnas and your [Marilyn] Mansons and your Leonardo DiCaprios. There is a human need to have certain buttons pushed.”

With that advice, Corgan says, he set out to become a more identifiable character. For the “Mellon Collie” tour, he not only shaved his head but also started wearing a costume--silver leather pants and a T-shirt with the word “ZERO” plastered across it.

“In a strange kind of way, people started reacting to me differently at that point,” he says. “It gave me an identity that I didn’t have. People suddenly felt they knew the bald-head guy with the Zero T-shirt on. I enjoy it now.

“For the first six or seven years in the band, my whole thing was to be this super real person who was exactly the same onstage and offstage, and the danger in that is you lose track of who you are and who the public thinks you are. Now, there’s a bit of distance between who I am onstage and off. Hopefully, we’re both happier.”

If Corgan has been reluctant until now to talk about his personal relationships, he is much more open about the childhood insecurities that fueled his rock ambition and, no doubt, his musical themes.

In fact, he’s told the story so many times that he’s now able to condense it into a 60-second sound bite.

‘To give you the quick summary,” says Corgan, who speaks rapidly and with confidence on most topics, “my mother and father never really stayed together. My father was a musician who was gone all the time. Around the age of 3 or 4, I was turned over to grandparents.

“Then I went to live with my father and his new wife. Then they split and I basically grew up with my stepmother . . . knowing all the time that my real mother and real father were living separately within a mile of me. I’d go and visit one and then the other.”

Getting into a band, he says, was the classic rock story of trying to find something that makes you feel good about yourself.

Corgan met Iha in 1988 and they began collaborating on some songs. D’Arcy and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin joined, and things began moving fast.

“Gish,” the band’s 1991 debut album on Caroline Records, caused enough of a stir in alt-rock circles to put the band into position for a huge mainstream explosion if they could deliver an equally impressive second album.

The pressure, however, almost tore the Pumpkins apart. Iha and D’Arcy, who began living together soon after the band started, broke up, causing tensions. Chamberlin went through alcohol and drug rehab and Corgan fell into a deep depression, caused in part by a severe case of writer’s block. About the time, he says now, “It was a stressful period and I once told someone that I must have been on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and somehow it ended up just ‘nervous breakdown.’ ”

Corgan battled the depression by throwing himself into his work, becoming so obsessed with the album that “Siamese Dream” ended up almost a one-man show. He not only wrote most of the songs, but he also played virtually all the guitar and bass parts. The latter contributed to Corgan’s image as an egomaniac who ran roughshod over his band members’ feelings.

In the end, the Pumpkins delivered a spectacular album in “Siamese Dream"--and the Virgin Records collection sold a whopping 4 million copies.

But there was more trouble ahead: the July 1996 night when Jonathan Melvoin, who was the band’s keyboardist for the “Mellon Collie” tour, overdosed in a New York hotel room and Chamberlin was subsequently arrested on drug possession charges. The Pumpkins later dismissed him from the band.

Corgan has moved now to the band’s rehearsal studio, where Iha and D’Arcy join in the interview. They are both shy, and it’s easy to see why Corgan, among the most articulate figures in rock, ends up dominating profiles on the band.

All this talk about a massive ego has apparently left him sensitive to the image of the band. So, he tries to give D’Arcy and Iha room to express themselves. He busies himself in the studio waiting room by reading a story on the Pumpkins in the new issue of the English rock magazine Q.

But he is upset by the article and inadvertently reclaims center stage.

“All they’re writing about [is] what happened in New York,” he barks, referring to the Melvoin and Chamberlin affair. “We spent almost the whole interview talking about the new album, and it’s just about drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s all a rehash.”

You understand why Corgan would like to forget that tragic night. Besides the horror of Melvoin’s death and the subsequent sadness of firing Chamberlin, the future of the Pumpkins was suddenly in question.

“The truth is, we were totally open to the possibility that there may be no audience for us anymore,” Corgan said after the first post-Chamberlin show in 1996. “We were together so long. We went from having to beg our families to come to the gig--to make sure there was someone there--to playing before thousands of people around the world.

“When you go through that as a unit, you start feeling you are part of some magic bubble or a magic spell. In your weird kind of fear, you start thinking that if you take one person out of that magic combo, it might just destroy the whole thing.”

As it turned out, the Pumpkins fans remained loyal, but the experience gave the band members some valuable perspective and made some of the old complaints about the pressures and demands of stardom seem minor.

“What happened [in New York] sort of opened your eyes and helped me focus on the good side of what we do,” D’Arcy says. “It showed us that something you think is always going to be there can be gone in a second.”

Even though the new album, titled “Adore” and due in stores Tuesday, has been finished for months, the band still seems drained by the process, which began early in 1997 and stretched over months in studios from Chicago to Los Angeles.

One reason was that Corgan was flying blind.

During the recording of “Mellon Collie,” he sensed he was nearing the end musically of a chapter in the band’s life. He felt he had gone as far as he could with what had become the trademark Pumpkins themes and guitar-driven musical patterns.

“The idea was to get away from rock as we knew it . . . to find something equally dynamic but fresher,” he says of his goal with the new album. “In the past, every time I felt something wasn’t working on a track, I’d just turn to something we knew . . . such as a crashing guitar part.”

Besides emphasizing the elegant, Brian Wilson side of his style over the guitar assault, Corgan has also made dramatic steps thematically, speaking more now as an adult rather than the perennial adolescent. The songs seem more personal and more vulnerable. Two were written after the death last year of his mother.

On the themes, Corgan, who normally is as reluctant to talk about lyrics as he is his personal life, says, “I think it’s obvious that the death of someone’s mother would have an effect on them. But there was a lot of loss recently. There was Jimmy leaving the band . . . me getting divorced. That’s all part of the ground I worked on. It’s kind of queasy material.”

It’s a daring departure and Corgan admits he’s anxious about the pop world’s reaction.

“On a strictly artistic level, I believe in the album and feel I did my best,” he says, when asked about the album’s chart potential.

“On a kind of career level, I know that if this album sells as much or more than the previous ones, it’ll be viewed as an artistic triumph. If it doesn’t, it’ll be viewed as Billy’s little art project that went awry.”

Peter Mensch, a partner in the management firm Q-Prime, which manages the Pumpkins, Metallica and Hole, thinks the album will be well received.

“There is growth in the album, but I don’t think the record is 180 degrees removed from what the band has done,” he says. “It may be a little bit poppier, but if you are a ‘1979' Pumpkins fan, it’s right in the pocket.”

Despite his own recording ordeal, Corgan found time to help Hole on its new album, which is due this fall.

“What Billy did for me that was invaluable was he sat me down for three weeks and he mentored me. . . . He taught me really sophisticated [expletive] that I needed to learn,” says Love. “He called me and said, ‘You have some really good songs, but you’re not there yet and you need me.’ My reaction was, ‘I don’t need you, I’m not going to have everyone think you wrote everything.’

“Then he said, ‘What would you rather have, . . . a magnificent, classic record or something where you almost made it to the shore and you didn’t?’ He insisted, ‘I am your friend and I am going to do this.’ And it was the smartest thing I ever did. He made [the band members] all better. He made me understand how to edit myself. He made me understand these Beatles-esque key changes that I never understood. He made me understand piano in a way I hadn’t before.”

The result: Corgan ended up co-writing about half the songs on the album.

It’s time for the rehearsal to start and aides are rushing around the studio waiting room. The energy of the tour cycle is already in motion.

After a few European dates, the band will return to the U.S. for a dozen or so summer benefit concerts in medium-sized halls before beginning another album. They’ll be joined on the tour by Kenny Aronoff, one of rock’s most respected drummers.

While he’s being interviewed, Corgan has sanctuary from all the aides hovering around with questions. Once the tape recorder is turned off, however, they spring forward and he’s under siege.

One item of business is a photo that MTV needs for promotional purposes--and photos, like everything else about the band, are serious business for Corgan.

Even after all that he has said about the importance of image in rock today, you still wonder why he spends so much time on something such as photos. Even for this article, the band tried to supply its own photos before finally relenting and agreeing to be shot.

“It is important,” Corgan replies when asked about the issue. “We took a lot of bad photos in the early days because we didn’t pay attention to photos. We’d take photos with someone who was a friend of the band, rather than a super, high-paid photographer, and then you don’t pay attention to what [the record company] sends out. You figure it’s no big deal.

“Then you see that same picture in every daily around the world and you go, ‘Oy vey. What have we done?’ That’s when you start to realize that the kid in Japan who is curious about us, . . . he might open his morning paper and see that photo and maybe in that split second, he decides, ‘Nah, they look stupid. I’m going to see Tony & the Tigers instead.’ It may sound silly, but it happens. In the videos and in the photos, you want to frame your music in a way that either reflects what you are doing or is at least interesting. . . . “

Despite the escalating activity, he seems for the moment calm.

“I think he’s working on it,” his companion Yemchuk said earlier at the restaurant when asked if Corgan has been able to ease up on his obsessiveness.

“A few times during the making of the album, he got so deep into what he was doing that you felt he had lost track of the rest of the world. I’ve worried about him a few times. But we talk a lot. That’s the cool thing about our relationship. He never just holds everything back. We talk about everything.

“I’m European and have a different way of living, and I’ve been trying to teach it to Billy. I think Americans have this tendency to concentrate so much on their work that they forget there is a life out there. In Europe, you live to live, . . . and I think Billy is beginning to understand that.”

Robert Hilburn, The Times’ pop music critic, can be reached by e-mail at robert.hilburn@latimes.com


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