Odes to No One
Nine ways of looking at Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness on its twenty-fifth anniversary.
1. “I’d like to play that theme piece”
If Billy Corgan knows how to do anything, it’s how to start an album.
Gish’s “I Am One” is the alt-rock equivalent of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s “The Intro & The Outro.” It’s a band introducing itself — it starts with a pounding, steady drum beat, followed by a sturdy snake of a bass line, followed by sea of fuzzed out guitars, followed by a guitar solo that absolutely shouts “wow, I finally get to make a record all my own.” Ladies and Gentlemen— Billy Corgan, on the rise.
Siamese Dream goes in a similar direction, but it’s a little angrier, and a little more ornate. While most of “Cherub Rock” is a sort of “call to arms” for the alternative nation, it’s also an “oh yeah? You want us to rock? Then how about this!” It follows the “I Am One” pattern of build-up: drums give way to a clean guitar with a light flanging, joined by bass; an explosion into the over-over-over-dubbed swath of Big Muff’d guitars that made Siamese Dream so infamous. But the key here is where it really starts — two drum rolls, as if to introduce the beginning of a touring big top circus act.
Rock and Roll has always been a circus, and the frenzy of getting invited to MTV’s particular big top started to drill holes into Billy Corgan’s head. He’s talked at length on the fact that in the early days the band was unloved in their hometown scene. A nation starting to listen probably felt like a joke after spending years getting laughed at. Coupling that with how genuinely ridiculous the media coverage of the bourgeoning grunge scene was (and how the Pumpkins got shoved into it, despite Gish being far more of a psychedelic record than anything Kurt was doing) is just the elephant balanced on top of the ball. Billy Corgan got what he wanted, and it turned out to be a punchline. He was just one of a thousand clowns pouring out of the car.
Well, if you’re going to be clown, why not put on your own rubber nose?
Billy Corgan knew people thought he was pretentious, that his band was a joke, that their name was stupid. The press had already started to cast him as a jerk, so he decided to play along, albeit more impishly this time. He’d name his next project something so outlandish that it would force everyone’s hand — yes, the name is silly, now they’d have to write about something else.
“It couldn’t be any worse than the name of the band!”
— D’arcy, 1995.
Here we have a man following up an incredibly ambitious album with the apogee of ambition: the double concept album. It’s easy to forget over time and the that Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness is a concept album, but before its release and after, Billy’s gone right out and said it’s an album made to soundtrack a day in the life of a teenager. Even without knowing what it’s theoretically about, Mellon Collie has all the trappings of the most bloated of concept albums. It has two discs with separate titles, “Dawn to Dusk” and “Twilight to Starlight” (or, if you have the original vinyl pressing: “Dawn,” “Tea Time,” “Dusk,” “Twilight,” “Midnight,” and “Starlight”). It has song titles like “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans,” “Tales of a Scorched Earth,” “Where Boys Fear to Tread,” and, uh, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.”
And it even has a theme song.
Which, of course, is where we begin. It’s an abrupt shift from how the previous two Smashing Pumpkins albums began. Those songs were all muscle and posture. They were the band showing off.
Here, we start with quiet piano. It’s not a call to arms, it’s a rooster’s cry. This is the first song on a CD entitled “Dawn to Dusk,” and here is the Dawn. The song is orchestrated like the early morning’s beginning. The piano plays an entire chord progression, a verse and chorus, in isolation. It’s the first tendrils of light in the sky, the first flicking of dawn’s eyelids. Mellotron fades in for the start of the second repetition, a conscious invoking of other times, bled through our parents’ youths. The mellotron is the coming fingers of bright pink across the sky.
The second repetition of the sequence introduces other sounds, other settings on the mellotron, a flute, the strings, some clean, some phased. The different players awake as the sun finally rises, as we come to the bridge, triumphant. It’s not devoid of melancholy — after all, the dawn is an interruption of the night, and the night is the teenager’s domain, their church, their everything — this is an interruption of the dream. There’s a last repetition of the main theme where everything is pared back, save for a lone remaining string-synth. The day’s begun, we’re in our rooms. It’s bright enough to see without the light on. Time to go to school.
Is this silly? Sure! But let’s be honest. We’re listening to a song called “Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness” for goodness’ sake. It’s an overture to an alternative rock album released in 1995. So yeah, we’ve got pomp. We’ve got circumstance, too. It’s welcoming our overbearing silliness.
This song is just as much of a “fuck you” as “Cherub Rock” was supposed to be. But it’s an infinitely more eloquent “fuck you” than we’d expect from Billy Corgan in 1995. Sure, Siamese Dream ended with “Luna,” and the “Landslide” single was an unexpected hit, but the MTV narrative was all about the scorched earth children of grunge.
That’s fine. At the start of the mid-90s, that’ll still sell records (records will still sell). But Billy Corgan had something to prove (he will always have something to prove). He was still smarting from everyone telling him that “Spaceboy” was the worst song on Siamese Dream. He wanted to show everyone that there was something to all those Pink Floyd and Rainbow LPs he had in his purple-painted Lakeview Mansion. Because as soft and pretty as “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” is, it’s also defiant — Billy Corgan’s started the next Smashing Pumpkins album with a lush song he unmistakably recorded all on his own.
It’s an intro that did the job at the time of making you question what’s going to come next — which, of course, is where the album pulls its next trick.
2. Marvel in the Sound
“Tonight, Tonight” is a response to the success of “Disarm.” Not entirely, of course. But it isn’t hard to imagine Billy Corgan watching swarms of teens swooning to an alt-rock hit with bells and gentle cellos and wanting to up the ante. That’s what the Smashing Pumpkins are all about. Alternative Escalation. So a string quartet, you say? Let’s get a full orchestra next time.
And so they did. And once again, he got what he wanted. Now, “Disarm” and “Tonight, Tonight,” when boiled down to their un-orchestrated cores, are much the same song. Yet “Disarm” and its bare strings work to highlight the raw confessional that the song details.
“Tonight, Tonight” is vague instead of raw, devoid of specifics (outside of its reference to “the city by the lake,” a description of Chicago that does the city more favors than it probably deserves). Which isn’t a criticism — “believe in me as I believe in you” is one of those rock lyrics that doesn’t need explanation, same with “the impossible is possible tonight.” It’s a single that allows any interpretation of it, which only led to a wider audience making a deeper connection. Everyone can find themselves in nothing.
Instead, its strings wind up doing the dirty work. Underneath the strings, “Tonight, Tonight” isn’t too far removed from a typical 90s single — verses with plucked, open strings; louder, strummed chorus. If you ran a Big Muff over the choruses, it would have blended in with any contemporaneous alternative radio song. The fact that it didn’t fit in but still got the airplay is evidence of a fact that often gets ignored about the Smashing Pumpkins — they were an incredible singles band.
Which sounds wild, considering we’re talking about a double album, that totemic ode to the statement of intent, a whole piece of media meant to be consumed all at once. And yet, while Mellon Collie is a great album that is at least 3/4ths listenable all the way through (though the fact that no one can agree which 1/4th is the drag speaks well of the album), it’s still best known for its singles, which turned out to be, in their own distinct ways, perfect lenses for understanding the Smashing Pumpkins.
3. Can you fake it?
I once asked “how did Billy Corgan get away with such a dumb lyric.” A friend answered, “because it wasn’t dumb.”
The answer to this is “yes.” The opening line of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” is so dumb it spins all the way around the good/bad circle multiple times before stopping at “good,” but it definitely started at bad! And yet, it’s one of those songs, those instant thrillers, those lines that make you stop what you’re doing for at least a moment, because like it or not, you’ve got to contend with it—
“Bullet with Butterfly Wings” is the peak of a certain corner of the 90s. It’s the furthest point that Alternative went before retreating all the way into the man cave cocoon that Nu Metal would chrysalize out of. Alternative Rock, at least as the “first run of Lollapalooza” variant the Smashing Pumpkins were a part of, wasn’t as wildly dudely as the Big Hair Rock of the 80s was, let alone the rock of today.
What suffused it with a charge of difference was the softness that was allowed to come out to temper the rage. It was the “Jane Says” instead of the “Mountain Song,” the “Daughter” instead of the “Even Flow,” your “No Excuses” instead of your “Man in the Box,” your “Lady Picture Show” instead of your “Sex Type Thing,” and, of course, your “Disarm” instead of your “Cherub Rock.” You could get away with a little tenderness. Could Nickelback (which like it or not are still a major money mover in Modern Rock) get away with putting a little sweetness into their music now? No! They’ve got to write “Something in Your Mouth” and buy another house.
I am not saying that “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” is a soft and tender tune. But it is tender-adjacent, and that’s why “the world is a vampire, sent to drain” works. “Bullet” does the character work of laying out the ground floor of this sad boy before he starts kicking his feet and throwing a temper tantrum in the chorus.
Which is, of course, the real trick “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” pulls. It has not one “so dumb it owns” lyrics, but two. “Bullet” is incredible because it contains within it the title fight for the defining lyric of Billy Corgan’s career, the two lyrics that more than any other, are going to be the ones in the headlines when he goes. And sure, the winner of that fight might well be “the world is a vampire,” but that lyric is pointing outwards, giving lip to the universe. You can’t use it to sum up a man’s career. It’s the chorus that, whether he liked it or not, defined him forever.
Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.
It’s the perfect mix of everything the disaffected youth had to complain about. It’s not just that you’re angry, it’s that you can’t do anything about it. You’ve got all this energy, but it’s all potential; there’s no release, no way to use that rage. The rage becomes less than useless. “Nothing but an animal,” yes, but he’s “naked,” too — he’s vulnerable.
This, again, is the difference between early 90s Alt-Rock and the later Nu Metal — Nu Metal was the rats let out of their cage, with nothing to temper the fury. “Bullet” can be loud, and it may have a scream so harsh it has literally knocked Billy out, but the anger is more at the anger itself, not at any particular source. That gives it a universality and a staying power that a lot of other giant hits of the time didn’t quite have.
And that’s important — “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” is definitely a radio song. It still works best in this context. It is a perfect song to scream in your car; it is even better to shred your lungs out at karaoke. “Bullet” is the Pumpkins at the top of the game. In terms of the world they came up in, the 90s alt-rock miasma, the major label MTV-baiting game they played (whether they wanted it or not) — outside of literally Nirvana, nobody did it better. It’s true that today I partially mean “better” in the sense that it is easier to meme. But there is, sadly, few better ways to measure longevity in the year of our lord 2020.
4. To Dust, I Guess
“I was about eighteen years old, and I was driving down the road near my home. … And I remember just sitting at a traffic light — and that’s the memory. … A feeling of waiting for something to happen, and not being quite there yet, but it’s just around the corner.”
He laughs after telling the story, he knows it isn’t enough. Anyone who wants to learn “the story behind ‘1979’” would be disappointed by that wisp of a memory. But that’s just it — it’s that constant feeling of disappointment, of not being enough, that’s the feeling. The single image of sitting at the stoplight — that stasis, that moment of forever, that’s “1979.” It’s a song that does more with less than any other song Billy Corgan ever wrote. It’s his best song, if not ever, then certainly on Mellon Collie.
It also barely made it onto the record.
He brought his home demo in the day before they were supposed to finish the record. Flood, Mellon Collie’s producer, told him he had 24 hours to make it happen. It wasn’t the first time a dare had given the album a great song — “We Only Come Out At Night” was written after the other members of the band laughed at him for buying an autoharp — but this time it certainly pushed him harder than it ever had before. He knew he had something, and he didn’t want to let it go.
Billy’s said that Mellon Collie is a vague concept album of a day in the life of a teenager. He succeeds in that in the same way “1979” succeeds as a song. It may never say it outright, but it feels right. Think about that memory of his, just sitting at a stoplight. Let’s imagine that this feeling was all he had to go on, furiously writing the lyrics he had to sing the next day. “1979” is a song of pure adrenaline, despite fitting into the chiller swath of songs on the record. It’s the intensity of restlessness that bursts through the words, the street heat and skipping like a stone and the freaks and ghouls. It’s a song built out of abstracts, that gets power out of its lack of direct meaning.
Yet I can’t help but shake the feeling that I’m only saying all this because of the other side of “1979” that makes me yell about its status as a masterpiece — the music video. It’s a small set of perfect moments that grasp at capturing the feeling of youth. You could call it “iconic,” sure — the shot of the group of friends sitting on a hill, one of them triumphantly flipping off their suburban home (“the land of a thousand guilts and poured cement”) is an indelible a 90s image as the baby in the pool.
But it’s in the quieter bits of specificity, the silence in the car as they drive, the shot of the skull keychain bopping imperfectly to the beat, the kids making out in the shower, the two friends sharing a quick kiss in the pool. It’s in the way the last moment of the video, the two girls driving away and leaving their male friends to the whims of the law after their convenience store rampage, isn’t framed as malicious. It looks like a whim, another part of the joke; just something else that came to them, sitting in the car, waiting.
It’s these monumental moments of wasted time that the song “1979” evokes. It’s those times when everything you do feels like the most important thing you’ll ever do, even if you know deep down it’s meaningless. That’s what the “1979” video evokes, and that evocation drips back down to the song itself. That’s kind of how it worked then, at least more so than it does now — the music video was an extension of the song, more than just a part of the machinery that fed it to you. That’s why “Tonight, Tonight” broke the band out of just being for 90s bros. But it’s also why “1979” is the reason it’s still hard to completely write Billy Corgan off.
For just this one time, he described adolescence so fully and richly there was no choice but to believe him. “1979” is an incantation to transport the heart back in time to high school for four and a half minutes. I don’t know what’s more terrifying about that — is it that someone would ever want to do that in the first place? Or that the spell actually worked?
It’s the chorus that spells it out the best —
And we don’t know just where our bones will rest
To dust, I guess.
It’s one of the only times I can think of that Billy uses a qualifier like that: “to dust, I guess.” It’s the memory of the times you wondered where you’d end up. Sitting in the car with your best friends, not really giving it a lot of thought, because in that moment you know you’ll live forever.
You won’t, of course — and you certainly know that now, listening to the song after you know your little guess was right; that we all wind up forgotten and absorbed into the earth below. But in that moment, you remember what it felt like not to know it all. Where the present moment is all you really need; sitting at the stoplight, waiting for the light to change.
5. Bullshit Fakers
One of the many ways people love to clown on Billy Corgan is by clowning on his love of professional wrestling. For starters, this is a low blow — while the business end of professional wrestling is ugly and corrupt and run by negligent money-grubbing dorks whose corner-cutting could occasionally be tantamount to literal murder, the actual sport is an intricate theater piece of acrobatic commitment by genuine athletes that adore the role they play. It owns! I won’t begrudge a single soul for loving it, not even Billy Corgan.
Amongst the many terms real Wrestling Heads know are “face” and “heel.” A Face is effectively the good guy — the one the crowd is supposed to root for, the shining star of the league. The Heel, then, is the bad guy, the dastardly bastard to have a comeuppance earned upon him. Of course, it’s not that cut and dry — it’s more often true that the heels are more engaging to watch (for instance, The Rock was a heel when he first showed up). I couldn’t even actually recall a good face to give as an example. The bad boys of wrestling are always the most fun, going all the way back to Gorgeous George.
Billy Corgan’s public face when the band first started getting press was genially shy, and he wasn’t super prickly outside of a couple of snipes at the Chicago music scene. The Smashing Pumpkins of Gish were a psychedelic-leaning rock band. More important, they were more considered a band. It wasn’t really until Siamese Dream positively exploded in popularity that the focus started to go more directly to Billy Corgan. Which was okay, for the most part — this is definitely when people started to call him “gloomy” and “moody.” But then the moment came where the entire world decided he was a megalomaniac because of the article that implied he played all the instruments on Siamese Dream because the rest of the band couldn’t keep up. When that narrative took over, he decided to commit to the role. He’d be the bad boy, the problem child, the one the whole world was against. He became the heel of alternative rock.
In the original waning days of the band, Billy put up an explainer for his semi-realized concept album (and, as of 2020, officially recognized as the sequel to Mellon Collie) MACHINA: The Machines of God. In this explainer, he gives us some backstory about the main character of the album, Glass, a Catholic Ziggy Stardust:
“…you see, GLASS used to be named zero, and his band the smashing pumpkins”
MACHINA, in its convoluted way, is Billy Corgan giving backstory to his heel character. It’s a character plays to this day, whether or not he gives it a name. That “up on the cross” attitude, that “holier than thou” spirit, suffused with a serious boomer-rock vibe. That’s your zero, now.
But it began as a more desperate move, or at least a more earnest one, in response to the way the music press started to label him. It was one thing for them to call him a bossy control freak, that wasn’t even untrue. But they kept going for his looks, too — SPIN called him “shlumpy,” others started to call out his balding pattern, his snaggleteeth, his lanky body. And everyone, I mean everyone, called his voice whiny. It was a grim callback to schoolyard bullies who hexed him for his port-wine stain birthmark.
The early press photos for Mellon Collie and the band’s look in the “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” video had dipped a toe into a 90s version of glam rock fashion. Billy’s look echoed Raw Power-era Iggy Pop than anyone else. Which was probably the point — two midwesterner dorks lashing out at their bodies. Iggy Pop did it physically, of course, while Billy’s goal was more of a personal negation. He wanted to erase his self from the equation.
His stated plan was to “blank himself” in front of your eyes, to remove his being from the equation. Which was a noble intention, though obviously impossible for someone in the spotlight. Sure, he shaved his head and became the “zero,” but he also made a mascot; the trademark black shirt with the silver null emblazoned and the shiny pants to match. He’s making the void look cool. The spell worked, though not quite how he expected — he was still the butt of the joke, but Zero shirts flew off the shelves (they still do). Billy Corgan made a Superhero out of a bullied child turning the tables on the bully. What down-trodden teen couldn’t relate to that?
The problem was that he didn’t know when to quit turning those tables. The press kept making fun of him anyways, so what was the use? He tried to become less, but they wouldn’t let him. So he kept leaning into being worse, he kept playing the heel, all throughout the band’s original lifetime. Most of MACHINA is a final rage against his perceived slights from the machines of MTV. “If I were dead, would my records sell? Could you even tell?” was supposed to be a joke about the fickleness of rock and roll fame, but people took him seriously because he never gave them any reason to do otherwise.
Once the band came back, he pushed even harder. But the ploys stopped working — more people remember him saying “I’ll piss on fuckin’ Radiohead” than they do him releasing Zeitgeist at this point (if they even remember that). Doubly so for when he went on fucking InfoWars (the one thing I genuinely can’t forgive him for) and talked about his disdain for SJWs. By the time he recorded a Smashing Pumpkins record with Tommy Lee on drums, no one was paying attention enough to notice he was whining about getting three star reviews.
So it was nice when 3/4ths of the original band got back together and did the patented “play a bunch of hits every night and make a billion dollars” game. Sure, it was ridiculously called the “Shiny and Oh So Bright” tour, but it was… good. Billy looked more like Uncle Fester than ever, but he looked confident. His whole body was a part of the costume, the character he was playing. His public persona softened, he talked more about his tea shop and his children, and he started to finally look like he was having fun.
He’s not perfect — every now and then he’ll still say something mean about Kim Gordon for whatever reason — but he’s better. I’m not trying to redeem him, or apologize for him. I wouldn’t know where to begin. That would be antithetical to the entire performance he’s been running for almost thirty years now — love him or hate him, we’re just along for the ride.
He’s Zero, the Heel; the one and only.
6. Stuck in Vain
“Tonight, Tonight” invented Tumblr.
We’ve talked already about “Tonight, Tonight” as a song. But the song had a secondary, perhaps superior, life as a music video. It was a totem of the last glory days of the music video, that heyday where their budgets were skyrocketing, where wild ideas would not only be funded, but allowed to blossom — like, say, shooting a big budget video with hand cranked film cameras.
Which is getting at what I mean when I say “Tonight, Tonight” invented Tumblr. It is that genuine line drawn from discovery of an artist to a collaborative effort to learn everything about them to the creation of absolutely genuine fan art that gets shared by far more people than you had imagined.
“Tonight, Tonight”’s video is, of course, professional fan art of Georges Mélliès’ “A Trip to the Moon.” It’s an exceedingly loving recreation, with surprisingly few liberties taken (it’s slightly less visually busy, and obviously quicker-paced). The aforementioned hand-cranked cameras complete the look, and made sure it would look like nothing else on TV.
Maybe it was a risk at the time, maybe it wasn’t. Either way it paid off huge — the kind of cultural touchstone that spread far beyond its intended fanbase. “The host at the restaurant” would bring it up, Billy’s said; it’s that kind of video. Its conscious reconstruction of a past we knew of but never saw spoke to so many people. It’s a sweet video, too, a work made by directors who were serious in their admiration of the source material. Even if it wasn’t even their biggest hit, it made for a crossover for the band they’d never quite reach again.
What’s funny is that Billy Corgan never really stopped trying to recreate it. Not obviously, and not directly either. But he’s always been enamored of that vintage look, what I’m going to broadly describe as an art nouveau-adjacent aesthetic. It’s hovering under the surface of “Ava Adore,” sure, and MACHINA’s “Stand Inside Your Love” has a video in total hock to Aubrey Beardsley. But even this year’s “CYR” video isn’t too far off from this — it’s got the what-we-imagine-are-20s hairstyles, the focus on sharp aesthetics (plus, uh, more latex).
What’s changed more is how we see it. “CYR” comes off a little silly, a little embarrassing, where “Tonight, Tonight” is more conscious of what it’s trying to do, so it has an easier cool to buy into. A lot of this is how that kind of aesthetic gained and waned in popularity over the twenty-five years between the two. The internet, as always, is to blame — that art nouveau-adjacent style was hugely popular on Tumblr, fan art made in the style was always present, no matter what fandom you were in.
And for the most part, that was fine — it wasn’t my cup of tea, but it was never aggressive, it was just one thing out of a million. What really soured it in the public eye was its offshoot — steampunk. Even if you understand where Billy Corgan actual underlying interests are — Mélliès, Beardsley, he’s still come out on the wrong side of the steampunk tracks (just take a look at the video for his single “Walking Shade”). The thing about steampunk is that part of the reason became such a laughed-at aesthetic is that it’s rarely ever presented to us as well as the video for “Tonight, Tonight” was. Steampunk, as encountered in the middle-Internet era that Tumblr birthed, was nearly always photographed poorly, on unforgiving digital cameras (as was everything, but as an aesthetic based on careful and intricate construction, it was always going to be particularly susceptible to this).
Still camera or otherwise, the genre isn’t served by the cold vagueness of early digital media. Which is a shame regardless of anything else you could say about it — it was always created just as genuinely as any other self-consciously retro self-made creation; much as how the video for “Tonight, Tonight” was created, it’s always an act of love. It just got shoved into the “it’s okay to make fun of this” because its digital documentation brought out the flaws in its construction; it made it look cheap, and it made its creators look like suckers for believing in it.
This gets at the reason “CYR” feels like Billy posting cringe. It’s a little bit of the inverse of why the middle-internet spoiled steampunk — this time it’s the modern sneaking into the old that creates the disconnect from cool (also, uh, the latex). But “CYR” is also cringe because it feels like it exists in a world without the internet, which is a pitfall of a lot of older Gen-X artists have — it didn’t do the homework on what kids accept as cool, what’s already gone through the wringer.
Billy Corgan never used Tumblr. He never got involved with the people who discovered the same things he once discovered (not that he ever would), he never sought out the things they made inspired by Mélliès or Beardsley. And he never learned how people received those things, he never knew he needed to approach them from a different angle.
So when something like “CYR” or the (apparently deleted) “Run2Me” video come out and fall flat, it’s partially because they’re ignoring the cultural fandoms that sprung up out of the same niches he once loved. They try to exist in a vacuum, but wind up looking desperate to be seen and admired. Which only winds up cementing the saddest and easiest dig to make at late-Smashing Pumpkins — he’s just trying too hard to be cool. It’s why Billy’s “Goth Boyfriend” look, as it has changed into “Goth Uncle,” isn’t served as well as it was in the Adore era — it’s slipped into looking more like hashtag Etsy Witch than anything else because he just doesn’t know any better.
The other crucial thing he missed is how he himself was folded into history. The 90s are an aesthetic to be mined by a future generation, and as much as he tries to fight it, he’s a part of the 90s to be mined. One of the ways “CYR” succeeds as a song is that it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to sound like what people want the Smashing Pumpkins to sound like. Where the video falls short is that it just looks like a 90s artist’s idea of what a “modern” video would look like.
The one fun moment in “CYR” is realizing that the one member of the band who survives the ravages of time’s assault on cool is Jimmy Chamberlin, who somehow manages to surpass James Iha (the King of “I’m Above This”) with how above this he looks.
The funny thing about that is that Jimmy and James effectively perform the same way in the “Tonight, Tonight” video. Billy’s the only one trying to make a performance out of it in both cases. The rest of the band looks on unbothered, doing their jobs, sure, but unfettered by the need to be perceived; the same need that’s cursed Billy Corgan for over thirty years.
7. The Distance to the Sun
Why wasn’t “Muzzle” a single?
The answer is that it basically was. Not in the sense that it had a video, or B-Sides, and it wasn’t collected with The Aeroplane Flies High. But it had a promo release, and you could hear it on the radio every now and then. Mellon Collie was a huge album for a long time — doubly impressive for a double album. But the steam was running out long before “Thirty Three” was released, and not just because it was getting harder and harder to maintain the public’s attention.
The band was falling apart — their touring keyboardist was dead, their drummer was fired, and the tour’s end was still a year off. The train had to keep rolling, the giant machine of the album, and all the money behind it, couldn’t be stopped. So “Muzzle” goes out to the radio stations, and the band performs it on Conan with their new-hire drummer. It doesn’t get a video, but the machine is sated. And the band marches on.
Which, even disregarding the mountains of tragedy that befell the band by the end of 1996, is a disservice to the song. “Muzzle” deserved better than getting shoved onto the radio and generally forgotten as a single, even if it sticks out on the record it lives on.
Billy Corgan has said that Siamese Dream was a record made to capture the ideal, platonic version of the Smashing Pumpkins — a band with no bad days; likewise, he’s said that Mellon Collie was meant to be the opposite, the band’s ugly, true face, all the pox and spit and anger that was always there. In this way, “Muzzle” is an outlier on its album— it feels, more than any other song, that it was meant to be on a different, sunnier record. It’s just so 90s, upbeat in that downer way. It opens with the only line on the album to rival “the world is a vampire” for sheer adolescent gall:
I fear that I am ordinary, just like everyone.
“Muzzle” is a question. The second half of the song is running through all the potential answers, all the data amassed through a life half-lived. So what’s the answer? There’s none — we shouted at the heavens, found only silence. It’s a song that reveals a lot about how Billy Corgan thinks he fits into the world. But it’s not selfish, not like the impotent rage of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” If anything, “Muzzle” is Billy Corgan’s most generous song.
Because sure, “the silence of the world” sounds scary, but in context of the song, it’s presented as something to defy. Look how the second half of the song winds itself around this sublime couplet:
and the world so hard to understand
is the world you can’t live without
Yes, the world is confusing. Yes, it’s scary. But equally: yes, you need it. And the answer to that comes earlier in the song — “I know that I am meant for this world.” The song ends up a circle of doubt and resolution. Doubt is a part of life, but to prove doubt wrong makes you stronger. And “Muzzle” is undoubtedly a song of strength. Sure, it couches itself in “ends” — great loves part, all things end. It’s worth pointing forward a little bit, to another of everyone’s favorite punching-bag, Billy’s 2005 solo album TheFutureEmbrace, and look at the opening lines of “All Things Change”—
all things change
never rest, never sure
what is worth fighting on for
The sentiment is the same as “Muzzle;” the feeling never goes away. So yes, the world changes every day. You wake up, and the rug’s pulled out from under. Every day is another chance to ask yourself “why do I keep going?” Why bother? “All Things Change” gives its answer in a willfully naive quotation: “we can change the world.” “Muzzle” doubles down on the self. “Muzzle” is about the high-wire act of convincing yourself that you are meant for this world.
The triumph of “Muzzle” is that it’s right — it’s true — you are. You really are meant to exist. You might ask the universe for help, and it will tell you nothing. But instead of the emptiness being a thing of terror, it is a thing of power. It means that you are all you have, and that is awesome. All our lives are extraordinary, all the time. So fuck the world, fuck its silence. Stay alive. It’s what you’re meant to do.
The band plays “Muzzle.” It’s exciting, even if you know the order of the setlist already. Like so many recent Pumpkins tours, the setlist does not change from night to night.
“Muzzle” wasn’t played very often outside of the first year of the reunion. “The Other Side of the Kaleidyscope” is a powerhouse of a tour. Because while it’s amazing to hear “Muzzle,” it’s almost dwarfed by the triumphant return of “Geek U.S.A.,” which itself (at least for me) is completely dwarfed by “Starla.” As I said after the show, “wow, it’s like I wrote that setlist.” (I literally used to put “Frail and Bedazzled” next to “Silverfuck” when I made Pumpkins playlists using SoundJam.)
But “Muzzle” was different that night. “Muzzle” had a strange power. It surprised everyone, you could feel the crowd shift. It was a side of Billy Corgan you don’t often see anymore — it was a weird window back in time. It was a moment divorced from the antics of “Old Man Corgan” that dominate the news these days. There was something different in the performance — you can almost see it in the video that exists from the show, it’s still a little electric, but wow, if you were in that room…
“It’s in the words, I’ve been singing in THESE SONGS!”
And he flails around, like he did in Vieuphoria! Like the Billy you remember! But it’s not just a hollow recap of ’94. It’s fresh. The emotions feel real. It was like he was invested in what he was singing again. Like he cared — like he wanted us to care, and thought, for one more second, that if he sang like he never could again, we’d care too. These words, in these songs.
But all things surely have to end.
8. Topple to the Earth
Despite it not being the end of the band, despite it being only their third album, despite it being (at this point) pretty early in their career, or at least the halfway point of the band’s original run, Mellon Collie winds up being the end of an era. It’s the last time it’s inarguable the band made an essential album, sure. But it’s also the last album before the band turns into a VH1 special cliché — it’s the last full classic lineup album (D’arcy left the band before most of MACHINA was recorded). The last time the publicly agreed-upon image of The Smashing Pumpkins made a record. Those things hold weight, and it’s lucky Mellon Collie is strong enough to shoulder them.
One of the parts of the “33” music video that can hurt if you think about it too much is that only three of the band members appear in it. By the time “33” was released, Jimmy Chamberlin was gone, and the band was exhausted. The song takes on this wake-like vibe in his absence. The gothic grandeur of “Tonight, Tonight” has rotted into a fading ghost. Even more than “Tonight,” it feels like a silent movie.
If there’s a joke here in all this darkness, it’s that “33” was actually the first song Billy wrote for the album. The first song written back at home, after the circus tent for Siamese Dream was finally taken down. And then, two years later, after another, wilder, darker, horrible circus, “33” winds up as the last single released off of Mellon Collie.
Maybe you don’t equate “33” and its video with everything that was yet to happen to the band. On most days I don’t either. But “33” is the song that I always think of when I’m thinking of the Smashing Pumpkins because to me it’s their most curious single. I understand the thinking behind every other release of theirs (like why“Bullet with Butterfly Wings” was the right choice over “Jellybelly”). But “33” is the outlier in their singles discography. It doesn’t sound like anything else they tried to put on the radio.
The Smashing Pumpkins had a reputation for making depressing gloomer jams. It’s funny to look back on reviews and TV spots from the time and realize that people talked about the Pumpkins the same way they wound up talking about Radiohead — “music to cut your wrists to” goes the wild descriptor of “No Surprises” as shown in Meeting People is Easy. It was much the same for the Pumpkins. Kurt Loder introduces “Gloomy Billy Corgan” during a segment on MTV. I have distinct memories of family members angrily hating on the band for only writing songs about death. “I hate that,” one said, pointing at the cover of MACHINA. “It’s just two dead people.” I watch the video for “33” and agree, but then I listen to the song and emphatically disagree.
This is why I think of the song so often and feel, well, melancholy. I love this about it, of course. It’s that swaying between day and night that gives the song its autumnal magic. And it is magic, and its magic is why I adore it as a single. I’m happy that it’s “33” and not “Muzzle” that rides Mellon Collie out into the sunset. I’m happy they chose to make radio listeners contend with this song. Which isn’t to say “33” is an aggressive song that needs to be contended with. If anything, it’s their most welcoming song.
It’s a song that I’m sure I could divine a full meaning out of if I studied it long enough, but I don’t want to. “Mysteries not ready to reveal,” and all. Much like “1979,” the song gets away with its abstracts. It’s all about the feel here, the texture — the trick of tuning five guitars to one note each to make those circling, wide open chords (what an arduous task that sounds so simple on record!) makes the song the strange thing it is. Those chords do more than the melody, for me. They lay a setting for a lyric like “graceful swans of never topple to the Earth” to make sense in. It’s a miracle of arrangement— of vibe, if I’m being cheeky.
But listen to the words in that bridge — “for a moment I lose myself / wrapped up in the pleasures of the world.” And then, “in the same old haunts I still find my friends.” Those cluttered streets will meet him once again, but there’s comfort in that familiarity. He might not understand everything, but that’s okay. He’s ready to give back to the world — the “sympathies I’m ready to return.” Which is followed by one of my favorite moments of any song, Billy or no:
I’ll make the effort
Love can last forever
Those tomorrows at an excuse’s length aren’t something to be feared. There’s such hope in this song, such a feeling of happily greeting the next day (and the next and another). To me, this song gets at that feeling of a city being a friend, a feeling so soft and warm coming from asphalt and brick, full of strangers and shadows. It’s scary to pull your collar up and face the cold on your own in all that. To me, “33” is the joy that comes from trying, from letting something as silly as “love” last forever. It’s our choice, we can choose it. Let that seductive voice inside you that whispers “never” topple to the Earth, and live.
“33” is one of those songs I love thinking about. I love living in it, I love listening to this quiet song loud. I love letting it in and I love imagining a world built around it. I love to imagine that I live by what it’s trying to tell me, even if I may never really understand it. I hope I don’t understand it. I want it to keep me guessing.
If the band didn’t make it past this song, a part of me feels like that would have been okay. It would have been nice to leave it here, with such a simple song. They didn’t, of course, and I am truly glad there’s more to this story. But even as I like to imagine the kinder world implied within “33,” I also like to imagine the potential cheek of it; to end a loud and occasionally obnoxious career with a simple lullaby.
9. The Sun Shines, But I Don’t
A truly great album should feel like a satisfying ending for the band. I’m moved by a band’s sunset song, knowing a song is the last time the band was in a room. This is all fantasy, of course — it’s rare that a band knows they’re writing their last song, that this show will be their last. And Mellon Collie obviously isn’t the last Smashing Pumpkins album; their story keeps going, for better or worse.
But it’s easy to close your eyes, and listen to “Farewell and Goodnight,” and believe that this is how they chose to go out. Not with some great rock and roll gesture, but with a teenager’s lullaby. It’s played as straight as can be — a quiet, hushed song the whole band takes turns singing on.
It’s easy to ignore the lyrics, which I supposed is part of the point of a bedtime song; you’re supposed to fall asleep by the end, after all. But to take a look at them reveals a song sweeter than anything else Billy Corgan ever wrote.
May it hold you through the winter of a long night
And keep you from the loneliness of yourself
Heart strung, is your heart frayed and empty?
’Cause it’s hard luck when no one understands your love.
It’s a song to sing the heartsick to sleep. Two people, each full of care and terror for the other. One sings to the other, but doesn’t listen to their own advice.“The sun shines,” they sing, “but I don’t.” It’s the one joke in the song, but it rings true. It’s why it’s so sweet that the whole band comes together, gently making their way through the song. This record has spent the last two hours reminding you of every little thing that hurts you in your life, but it chooses to end with the simple thought of “…but it’s alright.” They made this for you, so you wouldn’t feel alone. It’s the kindest gift.
And with this, Mellon Collie ends with starlight moving back to dawn. The piano that’s kept to itself, nestled in the left channel, takes center stage, the band fading into the distance. It starts to dance around its keys, before twinkling up the piano to form a nod to “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” the album’s theme song, by this point a distant memory; two whole disc lengths away.
It’s a reminder that even after the endless emotional onslaught of a single day, another day follows. But you aren’t alone this time, you know you have friends, you know there’s someone else out there, who feels like you do, who knows how you are, how you’ll be, how you feel. You are seen, you are loved.
Goodnight, always, to all that’s pure, that’s in your heart.
Mellon Collie isn’t a record about how awful it is to be a teenager. It’s how, once upon a time, we were all teenagers. No one who was the perfect age to hear Mellon Collie for the first time could understand that, and that tension of unknowing is what’s given the record its power over the years. The days may keep coming at you, over and over, but it’s not forever.
That life can change, that you’re not stuck in vain.
You’re not alone, or you won’t be forever. It’s what every single teenager on the face of the Earth needs to hear; it’s the one thing they can never understand until it’s too late.