Steven Hyden’s Look At Billy Corgan

I don’t agree with all of Hyden’s conclusions in this piece (and I’m certainly no Rush expert), but isn’t this a fantastic piece of writing?:

Resentment was very good to Corgan when he invented the original incarnation of Smashing Pumpkins and made it the biggest band of alt-rock’s last, lurching stand in the mid-’90s. It grew — as only the purest, most potent reservoirs of resentment do — from out of the Midwest, festering inside the pinched heart of a nerdy metal kid who knew he would never be accepted by the Thurston Moores and Stephen Malkmuses of the world, with their stupidly perfect mussed hairdos and mysteriously crucial connections to skateboard culture and world-class noise-rock collections. To them, no matter how fast he shredded or how high his choruses soared, Billy would always have sweaty palms and pockmarks and a ruthlessly flowing mullet. Guys like that can just smell the hayseed on you, even through your paisley-colored rock-star clothes, and they’ll never let you forget your place.

I also love this Corgan quote, which Hyden thinks is Billy talking about Billy:

“I can’t think of any people outside of Weird Al Yankovic who have both embraced and pissed on rock more than I have. Obviously there’s a level of reverence, but there’s also a level of intelligence to even know what to piss on. ‘Cause I’m not pissing on Rainbow. I’m not pissing on Deep Purple. But I’ll piss on fuckin’ Radiohead, because of all this pomposity. This value system that says Jonny Greenwood is more valuable than Ritchie Blackmore. Not in the world I grew up in, buddy. Not in the world I grew up in.”

Says Hyden:

If you’ve been following Corgan for these last 20 years, and know how to parse the cogent thoughts from his thatches of twisty-turny grandiosity, you might understand that he’s not talking at all about Radiohead here, and only a little bit about Weird Al and perhaps slightly more about Ritchie Blackmore. That Billy Corgan quote is mainly about Billy Corgan; Al and Ritchie are manifestations of how Corgan sees himself and his place in rock music. He is criticizing the value system that says fashionable and arbitrarily acclaimed (in his view) bands are considered more valuable than he is. Unfortunately, this is the world you grew up in, buddy. Corgan’s feelings of persecution at the hands of a vast, underground, oppressively aloof hip-stapo have been central to his music since at least “Cherub Rock,” one of the few golden-era Smashing Pumpkins oldies that Corgan never seems to tire of playing.

He’s right, of course, that this really isn’t about Radiohead.  And hey, I remember when Adore and all that came out and we couldn’t give it away at BestBuy.  It must have hurt that Semisonic and The Flys where outselling the Pumpkins’ follow-up to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and it must have hurt more that no one who listened to the record seemed to like it.   I remember Corgan saying he was being punished for being ahead of his time, and I remember thinking it was all an ill-informed load of crap.  But Corgan’s right, isn’t he, about the value system of Whoever It Is that makes tastes and foments critical opinion?  Yes and no, of course.  But if you’re like me, the yes has found you really pissed off about these hierarchies on more than one occasion…typically when your heroes are passed over for reasons that seem to have nothing to do with merit or talent or art.

Billy Corgan was never a hero of mine the way, say, Noel Gallagher was/is, but I was 15 when Mellon Collie came out and I had all those thoughts.  Maybe Corgan’s talking about himself and maybe he’s not, or maybe we just don’t expect this kind of angst about authenticity from people in their 40s.  (Of course we don’t.  Maybe we should.)

Hyden’s right, anyway, about the Mellon Collie Corgan being a Brill Building of his own.  A Baxter Building, even.  Listen to “1979” and don’t feel amazing about some sliver of your youth.  Go right ahead.  Listen to “Tonight, Tonight” and don’t feel like the un-vindicated sixteen-year-old you were.  Not in the world I grew up in, buddy.

And so this post ends up not being about Steven Hyden and only a little bit about Billy Corgan.  And that’s what great writing, like Hyden’s, and great art, like Corgan’s, find us doing.  Sorting out our own histories and narratives and hard-won feelings. It’s why Mellon Collie soared and Adore didn’t.  It’s why I share and quote from pieces like these in the first place.  Buddy.

5 thoughts on “Steven Hyden’s Look At Billy Corgan

  1. Eh, the thing is, Corgan is a hell of a lot more like Greenwood than he is like Blackmore to my ears and memory. (And I agree with him that that would be a bad thing.) I ignored the Whoever It Is that thought I should like Mellon Collie twenty years ago and OK Computer ten years ago. I’ve never been pissed off about it, but I have no skin in the game of who sells the most records.

  2. Is Corgan comparing himself to Blackmore or is he geeking out as a fan and as One With Good Taste? Obviously, he’s saying he knows what to piss on and what not to, and you don’t do that without wanting to say you know better. But that’s Billy.

    Mellon Collie landed in the right place at the right time for me. Nirvana didn’t…though they did for a lot of my peers. Nothing landed better than Oasis. Rush and the Blackmore projects landed that way for Corgan. Kurt Cobain bought is first multi-track devise with money raised by selling his Journey and Foreigner albums. And so it goes.

    I don’t feel like one who has skin in the game about record sales, but Corgan doesn’t have any real skin in the game over who people like more (Radiohead or Blackmore), but there’s that mental, emotional skin of wanting the general population to get it “right.” In that way, I’m a lot like Billy, even if I don’t go on about it (yeah, I guess I do. Hence.)

  3. Hyden thinks Corgan sees himself as Blackmore, and I’m inclined to agree. I question why someone who felt that way about Rush and Deep Purple / Rainbow would write “1979” and “Tonight, Tonight”. I mean, I enjoy a variety of styles of music, but if I had the time and talent the songs I would write would be strongly reminiscent of the bands that landed that way for me. I’ve got strong opinions and enjoy sharing them with anyone who will listen, but I could not care less about the public consensus. The Rush comparison seemed tangential to the main topics of discussion, so I decided to let it go.

  4. Well, I suppose that Deep Purple et al land for Corgan the same way lots of other things do. I understand you saying “I’d write like Rainbow if I could,” but being a hug fand a band or a sound doesn’t mean that’s what you’ll bring to the creative table, necessarily. The Stones owe everything to the blues, but they were covering “Poison Ivy” in their teens and some of their greatest stuff has nothing more to do with the blues than a three chord skeleton. So I think a lot goes into it. Then you have guys like Noel, who make no bones about their influences. And yet I wouldn’t even say his most Beatle-esque songs sound “like” the Beatles. They sound like Oasis. “About A Girl” by Nirvana sounds more like a Beatles song than just about anything.

    I also think there’s a difference between being vexed that a certain artist doesn’t get her due and caring about public consensus. I know, semantically, such a difference is impossible. But not spiritually. One way of caring about what the world thinks is only liking what the world does or only feeling confident in liking something because the world does. Another way, and this is what I think Corgan is saying and what I mean, is wishing certain artists got more credit. Now, maybe Billy wishes he got more credit. That’s been an arrow in his quiver before, and so, in sense, what does it matter that he does it now? I know you’re not saying it does.

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