Billy Corgan is explaining how an English music paper decided that the most newsworthy thing about him was that he really wanted to be a girl. "People continue to make something of the fact that we have a girl in the band, which in our mind is completely negligible," he's saying, sipping iced tea in a Wrigleyville bar. "Now, in that context, I was trying to explain how there's this constant pressure on men in rock to, you know, rock."
"This idea where you can't be wimpy, you can't express anything other than this [overtly male] posture. You take anything from the typical Amphetamine Reptile or Touch and Go or Descendents type music, it's very masculine. I was talking about that, and I just mentioned about how at one point of my life I hated men so much and I hated what men stood for that I wanted to be a girl."
Thanks to the reporter's interpretation of Corgan's words, a hunk of the British record-buying public now gets the wrong impression if Corgan looks in a boutique window. This benign exploitation of his words pains Corgan, but it's just one of the slings and arrows that come with good fortune. His band, the Smashing Pumpkins, sold 300,000-plus of their first album, Gish--a serious number for a first album from an unhyped and unknown act. Now the group's got a new one, Siamese Dream, on major Virgin, which is already making inroads on MTV and the college radio charts. 1993 is definitely Chicago's year rockwise; but while a lot of people (including Hitsville) have been busy raving about Liz Phair and Urge Overkill, Siamese Dream may surprise everyone by becoming the first album from a Chicago rock band to go platinum in many a moon, particularly if press interest is any indication. Corgan's chat with Hitsville was by his reckoning the 80th interview he'd done in two months.
He was definitely feeling the pain. "At least before it was an open slate," he reflects. "Now I've got to deal with it all. 'Are you the next say-the-"N"-word? Has the band sold out?' Every time the band climbs one more rung up the ladder there's so much shit that comes with it that it's slowly killing my desire to play music."
The band's name, Corgan says, isn't meant as a violent image; that's "smashing" in the sense of "fabulous." Their sound is a psychedelic, swirling morass of layered guitars and Corgan's buried, mysterious singing. Those entrancing vocal tracks sound like the product of lots of electronic folderol, but Corgan insists that his vocals are left largely untouched.
"[Producer] Butch Vig is always amazed at how few vocal effects I want," he says. "That's the way I sing. But there is a weird thing that happens when I sing a certain way: a note comes out of my head an octave above the note I'm singing. We call it the ghost." ("There's a weird harmonic-type thing that comes out of him," Vig confirms.)
He grew up in the 'burbs, but it wasn't nice. "I feel silly talking about it," he says. "I had just had a really terrible childhood, and the things that happened to me in childhood continue to happen to me today. People consistently make me feel that there's something wrong with me. That I'm an incorrect person. Not a bad person, but an incorrect person. There's definitely something about that hole in my life that pushed me to need acceptance from a thousand people at a time."
Obviously a man in therapy, folks. How long've you been going, Billy?
"Not long enough."
Corgan's first band called themselves the Marked, after a large, reddish birthmark Corgan has on his hand and running up his arm. He spent some time in Florida with the Marked, learning, he says, what not to do. "You dream about your shows," he says seriously. "But you start playing and then like ten minutes into the show you see people start leaving and going to the bathroom." He came back to Chicago to form the Pumpkins on a rigidly adhered to theoretical foundation of ambition, dynamics, and discipline. As a consequence, Corgan has a reputation as something of a terror.
"Billy's a true genius, but he's also a fucking tyrant," says Mike Potential, who put out the group's first single. Corgan's response: "The first thing the guy said to me when I met him was, 'I'm a loser.' Completely prophetic! He said, 'I'm a weasel and a loser.' He is what he says he is." The other members of the band, he concedes, "might say I'm hard to work with. But they'd also say that they understand why I do what I do." He stops to collect his thoughts. "It's like this. I make no apologies for wanting to do great things. Why should I apologize for wanting to make the band great? I don't understand that."
It didn't help that he trashed the Chicago rock scene during an interview on 120 Minutes a year or two ago. "In hindsight it was not the wisest thing to do," he concedes. But he refuses to apologize: "In a rock 'n' roll way, it was me expressing my anger. My first shot, I took it; my first chance to punch them in the face, I did."
Now he's a fan of newer bands on the scene, Catharine and Red Red Meat among them. "The new guard, they're wonderful," he rhapsodizes. "They're so excited because they look at a band like Urge, or us, and they think, wow, we can actually do this: we can put out a record and go on TV. They're not a bunch of grisly hacks who've been in a bar too long. The more the old guard passes into the sunset the more I appreciate Chicago in general. I think there's a renewed energy."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Johnson.