Billy Corgan Gives The People Of New Jersey What They Want And Then Some
As I trudged to the train station, the resentment bubbled.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this. I can’t believe that Billy Corgan couldn’t just make it work with D’arcy and is doing a ‘reunion tour’ without her. He couldn’t just give the fans what they really wanted, the Real Smashing Pumpkins. I can’t believe I’m old enough to see a ‘reunion’ tour of a band I liked in high school. Billy is only doing this because he realizes everyone is well and truly sick of his shit, no one cares about the solo albums he tries to pass off as Smashing Pumpkins albums, and this is all a ploy to join the lucrative Aging Gen X Nostalgia Market. Whine whine whine, bitch bitch bitch. Sigh. Time is a goon.”
“And I really can’t believe I’m going to Jersey to see this thing. Like, real Jersey. It’s going to take me forever to get home.”
I’d like to clarify a few points before we go any further, and let’s go from the bottom up.
First off: I live in Hoboken, New Jersey, a quaint small town right next to New York. I love it. I love New Jersey. Me? Very pro-Jersey. The people of New Jersey are generally down to earth and nice, it’s a lot cheaper and quieter here and it’s going to be really funny to watch New York City (which I also love) have a complete existential breakdown when our state legalizes cannabis later this year, well before our cooler big brother state gets it together.
So all that said, when it was announced earlier this week that to celebrate their 30 years as a band (give or take) the Smashing Pumpkins would bring out a cavalcade of special guests and friends for their performance at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey, I couldn’t help but think “Why are they doing this in New Jersey, when they will literally be playing Madison Square Garden the night before, and their first ever show was in July, 1988 and not August? Why must Billy Corgan be so Billy Corgan about everything?”
But I have long ago accepted that to try to understand the capricious mind of Billy Corgan is a fool’s errand indeed. Everyone who unfortunately has a deep emotional attachment to this band — who credits this band for Getting Them Through Some Stuff, for expanding their young understanding of how music could sound and feel — has come to accept that Billy Corgan will never, ever make it easier for them. But sometimes he will make it worth it.
The set began with a one-two punch of “Rocket” and “Siva.” It’s stuff I’ve seen various configurations of the current live band — drum god Jimmy Chamberlin, guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Jack Bates, and keyboardist Katie Cole — perform before. I’ve seen some of the post-prime tours — telling myself “Well, maybe they’ll play ‘Hummer’ and it will be worth it,” only kidding myself with rationale — but I had to admit that the presence of James Iha and the three-guitar interplay helped those songs sound more majestic than I was anticipating.
I could feel my guard starting to drop. And because I am an easy mark, once we got to part where the guitars just absolutely exploded into a phantasmic smear of LSD clouds right at the “and she knows” part of “Rhinoceros,” most of my reservations started to fade away. (Though if the band insists on playing material from Machina/The Machines of God, there are better songs on there than “The Everlasting Gaze.”)
Billy Corgan is the most famous wrestling fan in alternative rock, and a former part owner in the indie league National Wrestling Alliance. Ever since he started using the Smashing Pumpkins name again in 2007, he’s made a series of aggressive heel turns, from touring without the original members, to chewing out crowds on a 20th anniversary tour and subjecting them to formless, half-hour long jam sessions, to ranting about political correctness culture run amok with Alex Jones.
Despite the passive-aggressive connotation of calling your tour Shiny And Oh So Bright and his inability to make it work with D’Arcy, Corgan getting James Iha back in the fold and playing the hits is his first serious attempt to go babyface in a while. Ever since the Smashing Pumpkins disbanded in 2000, Corgan has never stopped releasing music, and some of it has been quite good. He’s plainly always wanted to stay relevant, and in interviews it clearly bothers him that his latter-day albums haven’t landed as warmly as new releases from ’90s contemporaries Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails have. On some level, it’s kind of disheartening to see this wildly defiant artist — for better and for worse, often at the same time — give in and play the nostalgia game.
But I have to admit, as a longtime fan, I’ve never really been under the delusion that the Smashing Pumpkins were a band of friends or even a band of people who got along all that well. But watching Iha (who has aged in reverse and looked quite dapper in his black suit) and Corgan (wearing that alien cult leader robe get-up he so favors) lean on each other for a bit during a frankly beautiful run through of “Thirty-Three” or give each other a smile while Billy made gestures about chord changes right before “Mayonaise” kind of got to me. And the way that song swells, glides, and turns back around on itself in their hands got to me as well. Those years can’t be given back, but sometimes you can make up for lost time.
If Corgan has been deciding to just make people happy and remind everyone why they used to sort of like or at least begrudge him, he went overboard last night by inviting a Lollapalooza’s worth of special guests out. And as for why Holmdel? I’m guessing Corgan didn’t want to share the spotlight with anyone during their apparently sold-out and quite triumphant Madison Square Garden show. He will always be a born contrarian, kicking against the cool kids and their charcoal teeth. Onstage, he said it was because “New Jersey was one of the first places to support the Smashing Pumpkins, and New Jersey rocks hard.” OK.
The first special guest was, per Corgan, “A young man I’ve had my eye on for quite some time,” Deftones frontman Chino Moreno. Moreno has never been shy about crediting the Pumpkins’ blend of shoegaze beauty and heavy metal brutality as an influence on his own band, and he fit in perfectly while singing on the feral squall of “Bodies” and the skyward uplift of “Snail.” (These were the only two deep cuts played in the set beside the immortal “Soma,” and bless Moreno for getting this band to deviate from the set list they’ve stuck to all summer.)
Next there were a few more hits and that cover of “Stairway To Heaven” they’ve been performing all tour. Corgan even threw in the “does anyone remember laughter” line from The Song Remains The Same, which is probably one of the earliest doofy rock memes, but they acquitted themselves well with that guitar break. Afterwards, Killers members Dave Keuning and Mark Stoermer (who have both stopped touring with their band and have their own experience dealing with a preening narcissist), joined for the super-obvious-but-don’t-overthink-it one-two of “Cherub Rock” and “1979.” The former somehow reached a new level of opulence and prettiness when performed via four guitarists, which is just a ridiculous number of guitarists.
Then things started to get just straight-up wacky.
Even though the list of special guests had made the rounds a few days prior, if you grew up with ’90s alt-rock there’s simply no way you could prepare yourself for the spectacle of watching Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath sing a bar-band cover of “Fly,” a song I didn’t like then and don’t like now. This is a guy whose band’s late ’90s sunny SoCal aesthetic represented the alt-backlash to the Pumpkins widescreen angst (or, per Corgan: “A man I’ve thought about, a man I’ve dreamed about many a time”), but “Fly” had the crowd chirping along to every word. Schroeder’s “seen it all” bemusement at least made this tolerable. (I’m not a hater, by the way. “Every Morning” is a jam.) And then they did a fairly serviceable cover of Judas Priest’s “Breaking The Law,” and McGrath bowed down on his knees and, like the suck-up talk show host he is, thanked “the greatest band in the world” and “the Brian Wilson of my generation for letting me be part of this night.”
And then Courtney Love — introduced as “someone I’ve made love to, someone I’ve fought with, but we’re back together now” — came out. This show! Wearing a tiara, she thanked “my nemesis, protector and maker of career” (which doesn’t seem factually accurate), and talked about their long history together. She then sang “Celebrity Skin,” a song she says she didn’t even like when Corgan first presented her the riff.
It sounded as gloriously trashy as ever. And if her years away from the stage were apparent — she came in too early a few times — she can summon that fuck-the-world sneer from the depth of her soul at any time. She made the “love is gonna break your heart” refrain on “Malibu” sting and brought wrath of the gods fury to the chorus of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.” Her “put the boot on a monitor and dare someone to come at me” stance is non pareil.
And there was still more to come! Of course there was. Overdoing it is Corgan’s whole thing. He brought out former Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook — whose son is now holding down the low end in the fake D’Arcy role for the Pumpkins — for “Age of Consent.” And if I regret to report that Hook wore cargo shorts and couldn’t capture the wistfulness of Bernard Sumner, then I can confirm that no one can make basslines tremble and slither quite like him.
Then Corgan doubled down on post-punk, inviting AFI frontman Davey Havok (wearing what I can only describe as goth yoga pants) for a cover of Joy Divison’s “Transmission.” And, goddamn, Havok’s Ian Curtis impression is straight-up eerie. I know he’s also an actor so I shouldn’t be surprised at how well he can embody a character, but still, this was uncanny, and I’ve heard a lot of frontmen try to channel Curtis. Then Love came back out on stage and joined Havok and Hook for “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which might very well be my favorite song of all time, because I am a basic alt-bitch. There’s no way I can objectively describe those three minutes onstage so I won’t even try.
Then Corgan did one more costume change, dressing up like the ringmaster from Dumbo for the dour new single “Solara.” (I’m sure there will be at least a few quite good songs on the upcoming Iha-ified EP, as Corgan rarely whiffs it entirely, but boy do I wish this single was better.) It all ended with a charming, goofy cover of “Baby Mine.” After the Joy Division and the Courtney Love of it all, this was undeniably a letdown, Corgan meekly trying to insist that there might be more to his future than serving up the past.
We’ll see. Yes, there is a bit of “the aging Alt Nation enters the Vegas years” aspect of a once innovative and world-beating arena act bringing out their friends and dazzling the crowd with some of the most basic covers one can imagine. And that is at least a little sad. I saw Radiohead in Philadelphia earlier this week, and there’s no way they would ever do anything like what I saw the Pumpkins do. They don’t need to.
People have fun in Vegas, and I had fun last night. Billy Corgan wants the world to love him again, at least for now. I’m sure in the near future he will go back on the despicable Alex Jones show, fire Iha or feud with, like, Deafheaven or take a photo with Jordan Peterson or do something aggravating and squander the goodwill he worked so hard to win back. But he once worked his ass off to be one of the best songwriters in the world and last night he worked his ass off to make me like him again. And for a few hours, he got there.
Although that jerk didn’t play “Hummer.”
05 “The Everlasting Gaze”
06 “Stand Inside Your Love”
10 “Blew Away”
12 “Bodies” (Feat. Chino Moreno)
13 “Snail” (Feat. Chino Moreno)
14 “Tonight, Tonight”
15 “Stairway To Heaven” (Led Zeppelin cover)
16 “Cherub Rock” (Feat. Dave Keuning & Mark Stoermer)
17 “1979” (Feat. Dave Keuning & Mark Stoermer)
18 “Fly” (Sugar Ray cover feat. Mark McGrath)
19 “Breaking The Law” (Judas Priest cover feat. Mark McGrath)
21 “Celebrity Skin” (Feat. Courtney Love)
22 “Malibu (Feat. Courtney Love)
23 “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” (Feat. Courtney Love)
24 “Age Of Consent” (New Order cover feat. Peter Hook)
25 “Transmission” (Joy Division cover feat. Peter Hook & Davey Hook)
26 “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Feat. Peter Hook & Davey Hook)
28 “Baby Mine” (Betty Noyes cover)