Siamese Dream (1993)

Siamese Dream (1993)

The first minute of Siamese Dream is one of the most perfect things that exists in rock music. That clean guitar rhythm comes in, and you immediately know it’s a feint, a suspicion confirmed when that ungodly wall of distortion drops down for the first time. It’d seem that you already went from point A to point B, the stutter of that intro giving way to the deliberate stomp of what will become the verse. But the riff hasn’t actually come in yet. First you get eighteen seconds of just this noise that’s ratcheting up tension in a way where you can’t really picture exactly how it could be alleviated. Then, at around the thirty-eight second mark, Corgan defies the assumption that all of alt-rock is unsexy and somber and kicks into that riff. I am talking about the obliterated but defiant swagger that is “Cherub Rock.” I am talking about one of the best guitar lines of the ’90s (or, well, maybe ever), one of those immortal riffs that you put on to get amped up or to cure yourself. That you put on when you wake up and it’s just one of those mornings and as you walk or drive to work you need the kind of insurmountable distortion that trumps anything else in your way. I’m talking about one of the most perfectly calibrated minutes of music that I can think of, and I’m talking about the moment where Corgan finally enters at the fifty-seven second mark and it’s not a scream or a growl, but a coo.

The reason I’m fixating on “Cherub Rock” is because I’ll submit that it’s one of the best openers ever, period, but also for two other reasons. First, it might still be the best, most quintessential Smashing Pumpkins song out there. It’s guitar-heroic in that typical ’90s way of being anti-guitar-heroic, so overdriven as to hardly sound like an instrument anymore. But then it’s traditionally guitar-heroic, too, because there’s a big anthemic solo dropped in the middle. It rails against outside forces, but it also seems like a deep interrogation of Corgan’s psyche. In five minutes — a brief sprint, considering the verbosity they’d later develop — it seems to sum up everything that was engaging and exciting about this band. It welcomes you into the world of the Smashing Pumpkins, and it does it in a way that’s open enough for you to derive whatever you need from it. I didn’t even know it was about Corgan’s problematic relationship with the rest of the early ’90s indie world until this week.

These kinds of albums don’t come easily. Siamese Dream was the sum total of a lot of bad stuff for a young band to have already gone through : Chamberlin’s drug abuse was already in full bloom, Iha and Wretzky had gone through a tempestuous breakup but both remained in the band, Corgan was struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts and locking himself in the studio to cope. It was maybe the genesis point for Corgan’s reputation as a megalomaniacal control freak, once reports trickled out that his intense perfectionism had caused him to record much of the bass and guitar parts himself. Of course, there’s something romantic about that tortured genius archetype, and I think there’s something inherent to American culture that draws us to a visionary. It’s only later, when the products diminish but the ego doesn’t, when we turn on them, and that’s happened with Corgan over the years, when his arrogance seemed wholly out of touch with how uneven his legacy has become. You know what, though? I don’t even care. Even if (or maybe especially if) the Smashing Pumpkins had only recorded Gish and Siamese Dream, this album would probably still be legendary, and they would’ve already given us more than we deserve.

Like many classic albums, Siamese Dream is more or less perfect, near-impossible to imagine with anything else added or subtracted. The other reason I fixate on “Cherub Rock” is that it happens to be my perfect moment on Siamese Dream, but I would totally accept someone else going off about some other minute in the depths of the album. Those last thirty seconds of “Today,” those are also perfect. The whole last minute of “Rocket,” once Corgan starts saying “I shall be free,” that part slays me. The serene segue of “Sweet Sweet,” that can be perfect, too. For me, though, the other twin pillar of everything there is to the Smashing Pumpkins will forever be “Soma,” a song I find so overwhelming that I hardly have words for it. Many other fans would cite “Mayonnaise,” and they’d be totally right, too. What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that Siamese Dream is one of those albums that you can’t help but feel once it has its grip on you. It’s vicarious catharsis, it’s a place to belong. But maybe most importantly, it’s shelter. More so than an album you listen to, it’s an album you turn to. Whatever the reasons were, you’ll forget them by the end of that first minute.

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