Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Why Smashing Pumpkins Matter: Looking Back at Siamese Dream 15 Years Later

Fifteen years ago from this week, when “grunge” music was skyrocketing in popularity (even though it was already in decline as an art form), Smashing Pumpkins released Siamese Dream; their follow-up to their successful debut Gish. They were lumped in with the other huge grunge bands of the era, but you didn’t have to listen to them for more than a minute to realize they didn’t belong in that category. More than any other album, Siamese Dream bridged the gap between my 14-year-old self and the music I now find so exceedingly important. This was the first album that taught me that exploring new music, unlike my then floundering baseball card collection, was going to be a life-long endeavor. I have no idea if history and people will forget this band or album. I just know that they shouldn’t.

Siamese Dream was a big deal to me back in 1993. For awhile I played it every day after school. I sent a letter requesting the lyrics from the album. They soon came in the mail and were studied intensely (my original lyrical interpretation of “Geek U.S.A.” was way off). “Consume my love, devour my hate/Only powers my escape” might sound slightly sheepish now but when you’re in high school it constitutes locker material. I seem to remember that also included with the lyrics was a note stating that lyrics for Gish were not available because only “…Billy knew them for sure.” Riiiiiight.

Such outlandish and sometimes pretentious foolery would soon become the norm in the world of Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin, James Iha, and D’arcy Wretzky. However, not once did I let that impact my affections for Siamese Dream or Smashing Pumpkins. In fact, if anything, I was always fiercely loyal and defensive about the band. And I probably still am in a way. But along the way, those loyalties were tested as the band spoon-fed fodder to plenty of haters eager to tear them down, expose them, or simply cast them aside as ultimately insignificant to the musical landscape.

These were the normal knocks against the band at the time: They were interlopers on the Chicago scene. They hadn’t paid their dues. Joe Shanahan (owner of the Metro) merely propped them up for success. And Billy was a whiner. All of this may be true. And all of this I couldn’t give the slightest damn about. Not then, not now. And by “then” I speak of a time before the Internet, before Pitchfork Media, and before satellite radio. Today, someone who lives in Missoula, Montana, has nearly as much access to the independent music scene as someone living in New York City. It wasn’t like that in 1993. Growing up in Central Illinois, bands like Guided by Voices and Pavement meant nothing to me. They weren’t on the radio, weren’t being written about in Rolling Stone, and they didn’t have videos on MTV (Pavement did actually have videos. I remember those hoodlums Beavis and Butthead taking in “Cut Your Hair.” But they were very sparce. Same goes for Guided by Voices, if they actually had any videos.) Those bands mean something to me now, but I’ll never have a connection with them like I might have if I could actually remember what I was doing when Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was released. And that’s what some people who never lived outside the bubble of a huge city with a thriving underground music scene will ever understand. There was once a segment of the population who needed good music to be accessible if they ever wanted to hear it. And this is where the Pumpkins came in.

Simply stated, Smashing Pumpkins made good music and it wasn’t hard to find. They were on the radio and you could purchase their albums at Wal-Mart. (Although if I recall, the Wal-Mart version of Siamese Dream doesn’t have the tracklist on the back sleeve because of song 11 “Silverfuck.” Warrants mentioning.) With multiple layered guitars, they thumbed their noses (whether intentionally or not) at lo-fi and proved that good music and mass appeal don’t have to be mutually exclusive. They not only made music videos, but they made awesome music videos. Their videos were like movies, rather than just some footage of a band playing in their attic. Billy gave countless interviews and was labeled a “rock star,” all the while embracing the designation. I know it’s not kosher, but I liked this. I liked that my favorite band was (gulp) popular and that I didn’t have to drive out of town to some record store to dig through a cardboard box of used CD’s to find their LP’s. Or subscribe to some unknown fanzine that was published in some dork’s mom’s basement just to read a blurb about my favorite band. But most importantly, the music and songs on Siamese Dream could stand alone from all the other bullshit. It was just too good, which is why criticism of the band usually had to fall back on the manufactured turmoil. It rarely involved the music. At least, it didn’t early on.

Then, the band committed the ultimate sin and continued to make music. Had they stopped right there, All Tomorrow’s Parties would have booked them by now to play Siamese Dream in its entirety, while the same fans that now like to hurl insults their way would emerge in droves and speak loudly about how unfortunate it is that Smashing Pumpkins only had a shelf life of two albums.

Of course, that nearly happened. Even most casual fans know the back stories behind the recording of the album and the tension and turmoil that surrounded the band at the time. In a nutshell (and what reads like it comes almost directly from the rock and roll cliché handbook), Billy was dealing with depression that led to a nervous breakdown, Jimmy was battling heroin addiction and was often times missing and unaccounted for, Billy and co-producer Butch Vig would spend an entire day trying to get a ten second hook exactly right, James and D’arcy were increasingly feeling alienated from the band, and the (persistent) rumor had it that Billy eventually lost patience with those two and relieved them of their duties and played their parts during the recording session—while in turn forever branding himself with the “control freak” label. That’s enough crap for a band to endure for a lifetime, let along one recording session. As for the rumor that Billy played James and D’arcy’s parts on the album, I’m pretty convinced from what I’ve read that that actually happened. Maybe not to the extent that it has been reported, but something along those lines definitely occurred and I think I’ve even read somewhere that D’arcy said as much.

In one of the greatest ironies of the 120 Minutes generation, the same people that reveled in keeping this rumor afloat to denigrate the makeup of the band are the same ones now faking outrage that Smashing Pumpkins have recently made an album and toured without the services of James and D’arcy. Listen, I love James and D’arcy. To me, they will always be a part of the band. I wish they were still in the band. And I hate that they have resorted to suing. But for the sake of rationality, let’s all at least be honest. This has always been Billy and Jimmy’s show (with an exception of the Adore album, but that’s for another day). As stated, I wish there hadn’t been a nasty divorce but everyone needs to quit making more out of the situation than what is there. Let’s just say it’s not exactly Rush making an album without Neil Peart. Anytime I've read an article on Pitchfork concerning the band they seem to whine about James and Darcy's absence. I guess it’s really breaking Ryan Schreiber’s balls that he doesn’t get to see Smashing Pumpkins in concert and bask in the glow of D’arcy screwing up her basslines.

All that aside, this is supposed to be a celebration of the album. And now that I have thrown the defensive gauntlet down, let’s get down to business. Although I now listen to it sparingly at best, ask me in ten years and Siamese Dream will still be on my desert island top five. So, to celebrate this dubious momentous occasion, I thought I’d give the album another spin and track my thoughts song by song. Here we go:

Cherub Rock Drum roll, please. Hey, thanks Jimmy. Right on cue is Billy with the guitar lead in, followed again by Billy, ahem, I mean D’arcy on bass and at the 0:21 mark the trademark heavy layered guitars that define the album bust through, and we’re off with the first track and first single from the album. Wow, I have to say, it really is just like old times…I feel like I’m 5’1 and 85 lbs. all over again. With an exception of a few opening lyrics and later when Billy howls “Tell me all of your secrets…” I was completely lyrically lost until the sent-away-for lyrics arrived. But this song is a call to arms against the snobbish and exclusive indie scene at the time. Count me in. And I’m going to stop typing in a second because there is a face-melting guitar solo coming up and I don’t want to miss it. Hold up…here it comes…(guitar solo)………..yes! Soon after the album was released the band was on Saturday Night Live and played this song (along with “Today”). Immediately after seeing it, I recall thinking: I have a new favorite band.

Quiet With guitars coming at me in every direction this song literally picks up right where the last one left off. And in all my times seeing the band, I’m not sure I ever heard them play this song live. I could be wrong, though. As for the lyrics, again, who the hell knows. I wish I knew what I did with that lyric sheet. And I wonder if PO Box 578010, Chicago, IL 60657 is still a valid address, maybe I can send away for them again. Wait, what’s this? Another ridiculous guitar solo? Another one?! Alright, if you say so. I’m a fan of every track on this album but this tune was always in the lower tier. There was something about Billy’s echoing vocals at the end that always kind of bothered me. And I thought it never deviated away from “Cherub Rock” enough. I’ll still take it over any song on Wowee Zowee though. Yeah, I said it. (Thousands of heads in Wicker Park just exploded.)

Today This song is instantly recognizable by the opening plucking guitar riff. And most people remember the video, after which, two things forever changed:

1. Smashing Pumpkins were officially huge alternative rock stars.
2. No one would ever look at James Iha the same way again.

Once Billy starts singing about today being the greatest day he’s ever known, the song seems to have such an upbeat feel, despite slightly perverse lyrics written at a time when Billy was supposedly contemplating suicide. Thankfully, that never happened. Those seven of you who can’t live without The Future Embrace record can now breathe a sigh of relief. (For full disclosure purposes, and being ever the loyalist, that album is currently sitting on my CD shelf somewhere.) “I tried so hard/to cleanse these regrets.” I always loved those lyrics back in the day; it was as if he was trying to convince himself that whatever he had done wrong was in the past, but for whatever reason his mind just wouldn’t let go of it. He really is an outstanding songwriter. Towards the end is a brief jam out session that serves as a reminder that Jimmy hasn’t quit pounding away on the snare since this album began. He’s the best.

Hummer This song is one of the deep cuts that gives the record its alternative muscle. And it’s also the first time on Siamese Dream that the Pumpkins reveal their frail and gentle side. “Hummer” is also an early example of a “sneaky-long” Smashing Pumpkins song. A “sneaky-long” Pumpkins song is one in which you really enjoy but before you know it the song is over. Then you look at your watch and realize that said song took nearly 9 minutes, or something. (“Thru the Eyes of Ruby” from Mellon Collie and “Rhinoceros” from Gish are other examples of this.) The lyrics are also somewhat discernible and I always thought this was one of the better written Pumpkin songs, both lyrically and musically. “When I woke up from that sleep/I was happier than I’ve ever been” and “Yeah, I want something new/But what am I supposed to do about, about you.” sound much more melodic than they read. Trust me. The song then winds down in tempo before kicking back up again as Billy sings out “Life’s a bummer/when you’re a hummer”. Whatever that means. Hey, no one’s perfect all the time. But now the song really does wind down with a simple bass chord and Billy singing “Ask yourself a question, anyone but me/I ain’t free”. I saw them play this song back in October and they absolutely nailed it.

Rocket The last, and least celebrated single from the album. I love the guitar lead in on this song, love the simple 70s rock guitar solo in the middle, and I love the lyrics. “Bleed in your own light/Dream of your own life”…you show me someone who didn’t have that written on their physics folder and I’ll show you someone who never got their ass kicked in high school. You know what else I loved about this song? The video. Remember that one? The one with the kids building the rocket to fly into space while the parents just casually ignored them while eating their lunch? Yeah, that one. I loved that video and kind of always wished the band had kept going in that playful direction. Somewhere along the way I think they kind of lost their sense of humor.

Disarm If “Today” turned Smashing Pumpkins into huge alternative rock stars, then “Disarm” turned them into a band that had mass appeal. I noticed in its aftermath, any time a band added strings to a song it was often remarked that such-and-such person was reaching into his “inner Corgan”. I’m pretty sure this song wasn’t the first of its era to include a string arrangement but it might have had a bigger influence than any of the others. Funny thing, this song doesn’t even sound like it belongs on the album, but in a way it absolutely does. Siamese Dream would have been incomplete without it. And I always had this album on CD, so I have no idea how the tracks worked on a tape, but in my mind I always cut up Siamese Dream into three pieces:

1. the songs before “Disarm”
2. “Disarm”
3. the songs after “Disarm.”

It kind of felt that way didn’t it? As I believe the story goes, the band had the toughest time laying down this track in the studio. The song was supposed to sound like more of a conventional rock song, as they often play it live, but for whatever reason they couldn’t get it to sound as they wanted. Frustrated, Billy eventually just picked up an acoustic guitar and went into the other room and started playing. Vig liked what he had heard, had some other ideas, and the version that eventually appeared on the album was born. The song is going to end in about 20 seconds, but real quick, how come Corgan and Vig never work together again? They were a great team. Can anyone provide a decent answer to this?

Soma This has always been my least favorite track on the album, but some people absolutely adore it. The beginning is too soft. I can barely hear Billy singing. And what I can hear is almost too depressing, even for Smashing Pumpkins’ standards. I missed two minutes in the middle because I ran to the bathroom. (This album is over an hour long.) I got back just as the guitars picked up. I think I’ve read somewhere that they used an ungodly amount of layered guitars for this track. Something like 43. Or maybe 433. One of those. Whatever the case, still a pretty decent guitar solo towards the end of the track that continues while Billy sings directly over it “So let the sadness come again…” and eventually culminates back into a soft ballad and fades out. The good news is we are more than half way done. I'm slightly relieved. Listening to an album and trying to type as it goes along is not as much fun as I thought it would be.

Geek U.S.A. This song starts off with some drumming from Jimmy, which is appropriate because nowhere are his skills on finer display than this track. I’ve always told people if you don’t like Smashing Pumpkins after listening to “Geek U.S.A.” a couple times then they’re just not for you, which is completely fine, they’re not for everybody. But they’re for me, even if for the longest time I thought Billy was speaking an entirely different language while singing this song. Here’s my favorite part of the song: “The disappointed disappear/Like they were never hear” (I understood that), cut to a slowdown a la the end of “Hummer” and Billy singing “In a dream/We are connected/Siamese twins/At the wrist” and then cut right back to loud and heavy again. After more incomprehensible lyrics, Jimmy and the guitar solos are turned loose and it sounds like you’re being pummeled with drums from every angle. I love it. I’m not going to type anymore because I just want to listen to the last 45 seconds without this stupid idea of a column ruining it.

Mayonaise Another incredible track. And that red squiggly line just appeared under the word “Mayonaise.” Apparently it’s correctly spelled with two “n’s.” Did you know that? I didn’t. “Fool enough to almost be it/Cool enough to not quite see it. Doomed.” I have no idea what this means. But I have no idea what any of the lines from “The Raven” mean either so who am I to judge. I just know this song is fantastic and I was always surprised that it was never a single. It’s probably the most listenable deep cut on the album and has a pace that I think encompasses Smashing Pumpkins’ sound more than any song in their discography. As I listen to it for well over the 100th time, I'm still somewhat amazed by the subtle soothing aura this song has.

Spaceboy We’re back to an acoustic guitar leading into a spacey buildup right at the chorus. I believe “Spaceboy” was written for Billy’s brother with a physical disability, although it’s not entirely clear. None of their lyrics were entirely clear in their early life, and I mean that in the most endearing way possible. If I can't convince the same person from earlier who didn't like "Geek U.S.A." to like the Pumpkins after listening to this song then there is simply no hope for him/her. I've always felt this song was a good example of the band's alter ego from "Geek U.S.A." type tracks. I don’t have much else to say about this song. There’s some incoherent muttering after it ends but I don’t quite remember what is being said. Good song, though.

Silverfuck Track 11 and the last rocker on the album. My iTunes tells me this track has a length of 8:43, but is by no means sneaky-long. It's just long. “I hear what you want/And I feel no pain” is the common theme. Jimmy nearly rivals his drumming display from “Geek U.S.A.” at different spots. At around the 3:00 mark the song comes to an almost eerie silence; eerie because it immediately follows a rather loud and hyper rock crescendo. Whenever they would play this song live, James would always get out some toy ray gun and shoot it into the speaker for a pretty cool psychedelic feel. Billy is now singing “Bang bang you’re dead/Hole in your head”, which isn’t exactly setting the lyrical bar very high but it serves as a pretty good setup for the encore of screaming vocals, ritalin-fueled drumming, and three or four more than necessary ending guitar chords. It’s grandiose, beautiful, and obnoxious all at the same time. And I think that kind of sums up the Pumpkins. After the song, if you listen closely you can hear Billy say in reference to a mistake that was made, “I don’t give a fuck.” For once.

Sweet Sweet Ahh, “Sweet Sweet.” Short, beautiful, and sweet with perfect brevity. Unlike this column. I’d apologize if I thought anyone was still reading.

Luna Luna is the Latin name of the Earth’s moon as well as the name of the Roman goddess. I think at one point Smashing Pumpkin fans resorted to calling themselves “Moon Kids.” I did not. Even I have standards. “Luna” is also the last track on this nearly perfect 90s alternative album. For an album that was so monumental and crafted with such loud and stylized guitars, I always thought it was interesting that they decided to sign off Siamese Dream with this track. It was a good decision. The song is gentle and focuses on the simple theme of “love” which we would see the band tackle a few more times in the years that followed. Perhaps they were signaling things to come. Or perhaps they just wanted fans to yearn for earlier stuff like “Cherub Rock” in hopes that they would listen to the entire album again from the beginning. I know I did that several times. Whatever the reason was, it was a good one.

Sixty-two plus minutes have passed with a strange "this is your life" feel. That was a bigger endeavor than I realized and if given the choice, I probably would not do it again. But for an album that has given me so much joy these past 15 years, particularly the years of my youth, I owe it that much. And I think I realized that I don’t really care if this band or album is left out whenever that particular history book is written. Everyone has their own personal version of past rock history. And I know my present and future musical identity is much brighter because of this album and because of this band.



Jim P. said...

Replace "Smashing Pumpkins" with "Oasis" and "Siamese Dream" with "Whats the Story (Morning Glory)" and that write up pretty much describes how I discovered good music too.

audrey said...

Replace "Smashing Pumpkins" with "Radiohead" and "Siamese Dream" with "Pablo Honey" and find out that I never really listened to it pretty much describes how I discovered I was a poser.

lil' elF said...

Replace What's the Story and Pablo Honey back with Siamese Dream, silly fools. Nice breakdown. Perhaps I will have a listen right this instant. You seriously sent a letter for the lyrics? WhaWhaWeeWa, nice work Lexi!

Travis said...

1. I think your article and the comments underscore the fact that our subset of our generation (the near 30ers) came into the age of musical enlightenment at a good time. Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Smashing Pumpkins/Nine Inch Nails all received a lot of airplay/videoplay, and were for all intents and purposes in the mainstream. More than just 'gateway' bands, they were part of an atmosphere that encouraged kids to dig deeper, and if you did, just a few inches down you'd find bands like Pavement, Liz Phair, Sonic Youth, and trails to the Pixies, The Replacements, Fugazi, and the like. I wish I could find some of the mixtapes I recorded of the RADIO when I was in middle school and high school. Quality stuff, even to this day.
2. Siamese Dream (and Gish for that matter) went on my shelf for a couple of years there, but have been back in my playing rotation with a vengence. I think I always took the greatness of these albums for granted, until recently.
3. That said...Wicker Park? As much as I love SD, my head exploded on that Quiet vs. Wowee Zowee comment. Brighten the Corners? Maybe just a nosebleed. Terror Twilight, though? Wouldn't flinch. (Slanted or Crooked btw? More head exploding action than the entire Scanners Trilogy.
4. For the record, ,my replace w/ replace is Tool and Undertow.

lil' elF said...

T-100: I like your blogger spot. That looks like a handsome, young bloke I know. You should be ashamed, Seamus.

Alex said...


1. Probably true. We were lucky to have been in high school at that time. Too bad the pendulum swung in the other direction by the time we hit college.

2. Gish is a great, great record. It's like murderer's row until you get to the last track that D'arcy sings on.

3. I'm going to stand firm by that statement. Although, I'm listening to "We Dance" right now and my knees are buckling just a little.

4. What was the big hit called again on Undertow? Track 3, I believe? Whatever it is, I remember the first time a friend of mine played that for me in high school. Had never heard anything like it, it was haunting and awesome.

Jim P. said...

I agree with Travis and think that we (or, at least, I) were lucky that we weren't heavily into bands like the Pixies and Pavement in high school. That shit is much better to get into during college when taste is more developed. If I heard Slanted or Doolittle when I was 14 or 15, I wouldn't have gotten it or liked it. I have a feeling that people our age who were really into indie bands and dismissed bands like SP, PJ, etc. in the early to mid '90s are probably the same people who think that all recent music sucks and only listen to jazz. There's a 62% chance I'm wrong about this though.

brnichol said...

Actually, I think Mayonaise was a single; it may not have had an official release as one, but it is definitely a song I heard on the radio in Denver in the mid 90s many a time.

Nice write-up. If it wasn't so late, I'd pop that album in again myself. Tomorrow, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

great write up, alex. (it's dave..the (apparently) overly harsh guy from the 'mix tape' blog) enjoyed the 'say hi' interview also. siamese dream is also one of my desert island albums.
and since we're divulging, at the age you all were discovering pavement and SP, I was trying to decide which was better, 'paid in full' by eric B and Rakim, or 'the great adventures of slick rick'....then I found public enemy and was forever changed.

Alex said...

Mayonaise was definitely not an official single but it did get radio play from time to time just because of the blissfulness of the song. Same with "Drown" from the Singles Soundtrack.

And when you were making that erik b. and rakim and slick rick decision, I don't know what I was doing. But Sesame Street was probably somehow involved.

Bree Davies said...

I have been sitting here, attempting to write about how and why I feel what I feel for the Smashing Pumpkins, and Siamese Dream. And then you sent me this post, and it summed every feeling up that I've ever had about them.

I wrote to the fan club too. I have the same lyrics sheet (is yours purple?) I have photo-copied pictures of their merch from Laurie the merch girl peddling that spaceboy shirt, and the baseball hat. I have it all. I felt it all.

And I am 120 Minutes kid too, hanging on every video I saw and every interview I taped, buying Lush, Tripping Daisy, and Elastica records because of it. (I also gained a healthy obsession with Possum Dixon because I discovered them on that show, and a pilgrimage to LA this summer let me to meeting their lead singer, Rob Zabrecky, a man who also changed my life by shaping my literary work.)

I got a lot out of Beavis and Butthead too, even if that wasn't their intention. I discovered Henry Rollins and Lou Reed that way. But I digress...

Thanks for reading my mind. And then writing about it because I've never taken the care to do so.

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