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Billy Corgan: The Talk Regarding Alt-Rock, Nirvana, Courtney, Frances Bean and God

Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came on the radio and on MTV 20 years ago, and just like that (like the snap of the fingers), Guns ‘N Roses, Michael Jackson and Hammer all went away. Poof. It was like a magic trick.


I remember seeing “Teen Spirit” for the first time on MTV (there was no YouTube yet, or mobile phone stores, or public Internet), and I knew immediately everything was about to change. (But everyone knew that. It was obvious.)

What followed was a golden age, the best rock era since David Bowie and Queen glammed up the 1970s.

There were, of course, grunge bands other than Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins (who perform an all-ages show Saturday at the Cosmopolitan pool; $55-$80.)

There was also the ascent of Nine Inch Nails, STP, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Blur, Pulp, Alanis Morissette, No Doubt, Radiohead and gobs more.

The early and mid-1990s was a time (impossible to believe now) when you could turn on the radio and hear females Liz Phair, Bjork, PJ Harvey, Portishead, Poe, The Cranberries, Hole, Veruca Salt, Tori Amos and even Sarah McLachlan singing about sex and death in complex musical tones while performing intellectually, emotionally and politically energizing/draining lyrics.

That Nirvana year, 1991, Smashing Pumpkins put out the album “Gish.” It did not make a splash like Nirvana’s “Nevermind” did. But two years later came the Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream,” and in 1995 brought “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.”


Pumpkins singer Billy Corgan, 44, looks back this way:

“I felt it was a special time, but maybe everybody thinks everything is a special time,” he tells me.

“We were all there (in the early days) — playing to 50 people. I saw Nirvana play at the Metro in front of 500 people. We played with Nirvana one time in Boston. I think it was 1,000 people: Pumpkins, Nirvana and Bullet LaVolta.”

That was in September 1991.

“What’s so beautiful about alternative music was it was sort of the land of lost toys. It was a place where people like me, Courtney (Love), Kurt (Cobain), Trent Reznor – people like us could go there and find our own voice and our own power, without kneeling in front of the big corporate music god.

“The funny thing is we actually manifested enough personal power to become corporate, which is the great irony, because much great art tends to come from that perspective — where someone says, ‘I don’t care, I’m just gonna do it my way.’

“If you do it well enough, suddenly somebody wants to make some money off it.

“What was exciting was, it was a time where very honest and emotional music was in the center of the mainstream consciousness, which is very, very rare,” Corgan says.

“It hadn’t really happened since the late ‘60s. That was a cool thing to be a part of.

“Of course, when it’s happening, you think it’ll go on and on and on. But those things never last.”

The alt-rock phase would continue in full effect until somewhere around 1998, when Semisonic’s "Closing Time" symbolically hit the radio (similar to when Donna Summer’s aptly titled “Last Dance” shut the door on disco).

Although, it was really the uprising of Metallica and hardcore screaming that killed the commercial viability of alt-rock — along with the rise of Britney Spears on pop radio, plus the deteriorating quality of soft alt-rock coming out of record labels.


The next question I pose to Corgan is this: If the Beatles had a so-called “Fifth Beatle” (Brian Epstein or George Martin, depending on your Beatlemania), wasn’t Butch Vig the Fifth Beatle of the alt-rock movement?

You see, Vig produced “Nevermind,” changing Nirvana’s vibe from scratchy, distorted punk rockers to sleeker, more accessible punk rockers. (We can call Nirvana “alt-rock” all we want; it’s still punk in essence.)

Vig also produced “Gish” and “Siamese Dream.”

Corgan says this is an interesting question and ponders it aloud, rather than answering authoritatively.

“I think Butch did an incredible job of making the best Nirvana record. And I think he did a great job of making what many people would argue is the best Smashing Pumpkins record.

“What Butch is really good at is not necessarily imposing his vision on you, but figuring out what your vision is, and making it sound the best it can — in a very clear way. I give Butch a lot of credit for that.

“At the time, I wanted it to be dirtier, darker and stranger. But I really appreciate that Butch made something that can last a long time.”

My take: What was so impressive about Vig is just how perfect he could make a record sound. I remember listening to “Nevermind” on a high-end CD player, and on a crappy cassette tape player in a Ford Escort factory stereo. And in both methods, “Nevermind” never distorted when played at full blast. That was astonishing.

I tell Corgan that, and he knows exactly what I’m talking about.

“He’s a great engineer. That sort of gets lost in him being a producer, but he’s an incredible engineer. He’s pretty much self-taught, which says a lot. The Butch Vig drum sound alone is always fantastic.”

Vig went on to produce Sonic Youth’s “Dirty” and “Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star,” plus L7’s “Bricks Are Heavy” and, uh, Soul Asylum’s “Let Your Dim Light Shine.”

But honestly, Vig’s next big act was producing and performing in his own band, Garbage. This means he produced “Teen Spirit,” Sonic Youth’s “Bull in the Heather” and his own alt-rock hit “I’m Only Happy When It Rains.” Incredible.


Anyway, it all went away. Kurt Cobain exercised his Second Amendment Rights on his head. Seattle bands packed up and moved back to Athens (as one comedy alt-rock song claimed). Britney and Metallica had their way with people’s ears. And Creed was right around the corner. (Although, so were the Deftones.)

Smashing Pumpkins is still in action, despite oh so much drama. And now, with a current lineup of musicians, Corgan has a new Pumpkins album in the can and ready to spring on the world in the next two or three months, he hopes.

“Less than 10 people have heard the record, and the three women who have heard it burst into tears. So I think that’s a good sign,” Corgan says and laughs.

He’s in a very easygoing, good mood. So he keeps the joke alive:

“That’s my market research: You will burst into tears if you listen to this record. You will burst into tears or your money back!”

He laughs again.

By the way, if you’re old enough to remember “Nevermind” coming out, that will make you feel old. But do you know what will make you feel decrepit?

Cobain’s daughter with Love, Frances Bean Cobain, is 19 years old. She’s on Twitter. She has tattoo photos on her Facebook page. Yes, she does.

More than a year ago, Love and Corgan even got into a public argument on Twitter when Frances Bean was breaking away from Courtney.

At the time, if you read through Corgan’s older Tweets, you would have seen him Tweeting back and forth with Frances Bean.

So the obvious question to ask him now is: Does he see himself as Frances Bean’s sort of honorary uncle?

“I wouldn’t call it that,” he tells me. “I feel like she’s somebody I watch out for. It’s sort of an in-the-family kind of thing. I first met her when she was a little baby, basically. So it’s like any time a little thing comes into the world, you connect with them at that age, and you want to keep an eye on them.

“Although, she’s an incredible person — very well-put-together. She doesn’t need me watching out for her. I certainly care for what happens to her in the world, and I’m glad to see she’s making her own way.”

I tell Corgan I don’t feel like rehashing the Courtney Love drama in today’s interview. He laughs.

“There’s plenty (of stories) out there already,” he says. “Those stories have been written so many times, I don’t think there’s much left. You can take a book from 20 years ago and plug in the name, and the stories are going to be relatively the same. I think it’s time to explore other things.”


As for the musical legacy of alt-rock (or grunge, or whatever, nevermind), he says: “I’m writing a book. Courtney is writing a book. It’ll be interesting to see everybody’s bad memory on the thing.”

But no matter what Love writes in her memoir, Corgan says his own book is a spiritual memoir that will examine his personal life, outlook and, naturally, the Pumpkins.

“Life is spiritual. It took me a while to understand personally. I don’t think it’s separate. I don’t see God as something separate as I am. I see God as a part of me, and me as a part of God. So everything that happens is a part of God.

“Once you start looking at life that way, you start thinking of everything as holy in its own way, including adversity.”

And this is the part of the interview where I bring up Sixpence None The Richer, because Sixpence was a phenomenal band with an incredible singer, an amazing finger-picking rock guitarist and one classic album, 2002’s “Divine Discontent.”

But Sixpence was pegged as a God band, and so they were totally disregarded by the media, radio and every alternative-rock fan I know except for two women I convinced to go see them open for Sarah McLachlan.

Corgan says he remembers a really good song by Sixpence. But more to my point, he says that dealing with people who view him oddly as a God rocker is something he doesn’t need to worry about. If someone doesn’t like it that he’s spiritual, it’s really not his problem.

What’s more important is internal.

“There are good things about me, and some not so good things about me, but I don’t want to walk around feeling ashamed about who I am,” Corgan says.

“Being famous has its positive and negative spiritual aspects. Many would probably argue it’s ultimately a negative spiritual experience, but I’ve tried to do some good with it.”


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