Walking into a Smashing Pumpkins show in 2018 requires all sorts of mental acrobatics on behalf of the viewer. With Pearl Jam, they are one of the few remaining hard rock bands of substance from the early 90s with most of the original members intact. But not only that, they were good. Never receiving as much play as Nirvana, nor having the steady career and fans like Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins are the overlooked geniuses of generation x. If Nirvana was the Beatles, and Pearl Jam was the Stones, then TSP would surely be the Kinks. But that’s all behind them. They haven’t put out an album of note in forever, 25 years removed from their greatest feats. The question would be could they fake it for just one more tour?
If the idea that this tour was a cash grab seems callous, it’s not. Billy Corgan nearly admitted as much in a tense exchange with former bassist D’arcy Wretzky, the only original member not to make the tour (finding the text exchange is not difficult if you’re interested in why). Cashing in on nostalgia is a time honored tradition amongst the aging, falling into two categories: a national fair circuit, or selling out stadiums. TSP seems to have fallen on the latter, a much more lucrative slot, and they provide the show to justify it.
The set dressing includes no less than eight giant moving screens, which play movies nearly entirely through the set, some more dramatic than others. They hit heavy on the nostalgia factor, playing snippets of old videos and showing childhood pictures of Corgan. In addition are snippets of film meant to arouse borrowed nostalgia for the greats of the silent era (featuring models in makeup reminiscent of Lillian Gish), musicals of the 40s (you might be more familiar with the “Just Dropped In” scene in The Big Lebowski), and even spoken word intros by Mark McGrath a la James Whale’s intro to Frankenstein. There was even a ritualistic altar walked around the arena to a rousing cover of “Stairway to Heaven,” a la Bergman’s Seventh Seal. And I’m pretty sure there was a slight nod to 2001 A Space Odyssey during a touching tribute to Bowie with a cover of “Space Oddity.” After all, This is the band that used an early 1900s film as the basis for their most famous music video. (I think Corgan is a movie buff.)
Despite sparing no expense in giving the crowd a show, fans were here for The Smashing Pumpkins. And that was not lost on Corgan who opened the show solo with “Disarm.” There he stood, vulnerable, wearing some combination of dress, pants, hoodie, and maybe tunic (for a layered look), and he burst into “I used to be a little boy, so old in my shoes” with the force of history bearing down upon him. He was in his mid-20s when he wrote the song, and here he was at 51 singing the same song. Could the words have the same meaning? If you can’t step in the same river twice, could you sing the same song twice?
I was seven years old when I first heard “Disarm,” “Today,” and then just a bit older when Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness came out. They are memories I have of watching MTV. I remember vividly the “1979” music video, watching it before I had even reached double-digits, and having it form part of my idea of reckless youth. That every childhood deserves some sort of rebellion. Corgan would have been 12 that year, and I like to think I’d lived up to the call when I hits that age, a june bug skipping like a stone, hanging out with the freaks and ghouls. I’m 31 now, and that song has huge emotional value, as if my childhood has been superimposed with the Smashing Pumpkins laid over it like the soundtrack to a Cameron Crowe movie of my life.
And the reminiscence hits hard when they pull out their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” It’s one of the few covers of that song that does Stevie Nicks any justice. Corgan and her have about the same control over their voices, and maybe Corgan just gets the song. “Even children get older, I’m getting older too,” he sings, knowing that there is no grasp of time. Time is inevitable. As a fan, I note that Billy Corgan would have been the same age listening to Bowie, Zeppelin, and Fleetwood Mac that I was when I first heard The Smashing Pumpkins.
So much of his music concerns an appreciation of time and its limitations, appreciation for time that came before, and the inescapable urgency of now. There is no new album to tour behind (yet), there is only nostalgia. That is what you sat in the seats for. In seeing this tour that there is nostalgia for the thing that is currently happening, a sense that one is being given a guided tour of the past in the present. And you have to ask yourself what you came here for. Is he faking this for just one more show? Are they faking this for the money? I don’t know, I don’t think so. I think Billy Corgan is a great (underrated) artist, he does this because that’s all he knows. My heart wells up at the thought of 7 year old me looking up at the screen and watching the Smashing Pumpkins, thinking about what the future might hold, never realizing that one day it will all be a part of the past.
Article: Christopher Gilson