The Smashing Pumpkins – If All Goes Wrong [DVD]
Coming Home Media (11/11/08)
’90s acts have never been able to handle their own popularity. From the extreme example of Kurt Cobain’s suicide to the whimpering out of Soundgarden, Clinton-era bands that rode the alternative bubble until it burst could never seem to get comfortable with the idea that they appealed to a mass audience; and that some of the people in that audience might be the same people that used to beat them up in high school. This happened because the underground (or college) scene in the ’80s that spawned some of the ’90s most popular bands was an “us vs. them” reaction to the bloated Reagan-era commercialism and lowest-common-denominator pandering that defined the popular hair-metal scene at the time.
Odd, then, that Smashing Pumpkins would fall in that same category.
Billy Corgan is an unabashed fan of ’80s cheese metal, an influence that many a discerning ear have heard in the Pumpkins music (even before they glammed up and toured with Marilyn Manson). Corgan was once quoted as saying something to the effect that Van Halen were more important than a band like Sonic Youth, because Van Halen made music for everybody.
But of course, Smashing Pumpkins have always been positioned as an artistic, outsider band. Their raging success during their prime took its toll on the band, permanently fracturing the relationship between Corgan and fellow core Pumpkins D’arcy Wretzky and James Iha. 2007 saw the reformation of the Pumpkins with original drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Ginger Reyes and keyboardist Lisa Harriton. While the album Zeitgeist was critically praised, it seems that everyone expected The Smashing Pumpkins to fall flat on their face, and somehow they’ve become a “classic rock” type act. The problem is, a lot of people just want to hear “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” again and trip out on some nostalgia. The Smashing Pumpkins, however, are ready to move onward and upward in the second phase of their career.
If All Goes Wrong chronicles this struggle over the course of two nine-date residencies. Rather than attempt a full-scale US tour to support the new album, the new Pumpkins wanted to warm up to a live setting and test out their new material in front of a regular crowd. The first disc on this DVD set is a documentary of these shows. The real highlight of this set is all the time the camera spends with Corgan—interacting with fans (where you see an amicable side to him you’d think didn’t exist if you believed in his public image), talking to and playing for the camera in his hotel room (where he reflects on a lot of his ideals and comes up with some songs from scratch, as part of the idea of the residencies was to generate some new material), and backstage at the shows themselves. (Where you see what some could read as rock star prima-donna behavior: berating the sound crew, interband arguments. It just feels to me like a reaction to some bad reviews and general workplace tension that you just as likely feel towards your co-workers, but what do I know.)
Intercut are some voice-overs from Corgan and interviews with a few unremarkable people, and one remarkable one—Pete Townshend. The Who, if you’ll remember, did something similar in the ’70s called Lifehouse, which spawned what would become “Baba O’Riley”. The full interview with Townshend (a shockingly informed Pumpkins fan) is included in the disc’s extras, and it illuminates what it feels like for a band to age and their fans to become less and less interested in hearing anything new from them and start to just want to hear the old hits again and again, ad infinitum.
No, don’t expect to hear any of your favorite Pumpkins songs from yesteryear here, beyond a throwaway cut of the crowd taking over the vocals to “Today” and a brief montage set to “Disarm”. Here’s where the two residencies went off the rails:
The crowd at the first residency was a small audience at a modest venue in Asheville, N.C.—an enclave of artists and hippies who are perfectly willing to groove on whatever Corgan & Co. wanted to toss their way (the most negative comment from a fan’s perspective was a dude noting that some of the songs written that day sounded like it).
The second residency, which generated the material shown on the second disc of the set, was at San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore Auditorium. While maybe at one point in history San Francisco was a legendary artistic hippie enclave, now it’s just another trendy urban cesspool. The first night at the Fillmore was played to a dead crowd, and a lot of fans skipped out during the half-hour-plus, indulgent, improvised “Gossamer”. Negative reviews plagued the first night of the show, and it seems to shake the band to their core. A song called “Peace + Love” was written pretty much directly about this night, pointing out how the ideals that people would like to associate with San Francisco are pretty much dead due to cynicism and the shifting sands of culture. A lot of the best performance material is just Billy on his hotel bed jamming with an acoustic guitar, but the actual performance has some glimmers of greatness. “Superchrist” was originally written to be a wake-up call to a dead audience, and it certainly works as that here, but what’s better is that it’s the Pumpkins at their most metal. The riff flutters and drones and Corgan’s signature whine hardens to a screech. In a similar vein is the lithe and energetic “Heavy Metal Machine” and the aforementioned “Gossamer”—the latter a ’70s-style improv jam based around the kind of discordance that would have sent Page & Plant running back to their jet.
Most of the new material is a more gentle, acoustic Pumpkins. “Peace + Love” sets off with some Dylan-style harmonicas and seems to go over the heads of the very San Francisco crowd at which it’s directed. “The Rose March” opens up the set, and is an odd choice for a funereal dirge with a lilting melody but still a highlight nonetheless. The new “99 Floors” captures much of the same vibe, as a spaced-out desolation jam. Also included are “Zeitgeist”, “Starla”, “The Crying Tree of Mercury” and a flock of other songs you probably never heard on MTV.
At one point Corgan resignedly claims “maybe tonight it’s time to play the hits show.” Whether they did or not is unclear (a number of the hit Smashing Pumpkins songs flashes by in addition to a number of the newer or lesser-known ones, which I take is an overall track list from the Fillmore residency, but that’s never made a hundred percent clear). Tensions from the dead crowd are shown taking their toll on new guitarist Schroeder, who is caught on camera in a guitar-throwing temper tantrum. It’s odd to see, after that scene, Billy Corgan trying to be an ingratiating and calming influence to a band member. The stereotype around Billy is that he’s the eternal antagonist, but this moment shows him trying to keep his new band together. The documentary ends without an over-arching resolution, although the last show seems to be a lot more crowd-pleasing on the Pumpkins’ terms. The most entertaining aspect is the simple act of watching Billy be Billy, but the idea that an artist like him that clearly has so much more to say has been resigned to the nostalgia file is as depressing as some of the Pumpkins’ most downbeat music.
Billy Corgan, see, has always been known as a raging control freak. Early on in the doc he mentions how his therapist told him that abused children (of course, famously, Corgan being one) lose their concept of boundaries at a young age and they don’t develop them properly as adults. That’s the kind of thing I think Billy Corgan could really stand to think about. Certain facets of the artistic world seem to think that the idea of tailoring their product to the audience that is going to receive it is a cheap copout; its what always separated the underground artists of the ’80s that became the mainstream artists of the ’90s from their cock-rock peers. If Corgan is OK with the idea that Van Halen were for everybody, why can’t he accept that sometimes his music is not for everybody? I agree with him that it’s a pretty grim idea that the audience is ready to bury his band while they’re still alive and just revel in their past glory, but there’s a fine line between being true to yourself and just insulting your audience. I’m not sure which side of that line Corgan is on.
The whole idea behind these residencies seemed to be that Corgan could exert a little more control over his audience, that he could create a regular crowd of dedicated fans who would be receptive to his new material. The fact that even the hippest of hip urban trendies at the Fillmore shows was still probably more interested in hearing “Cherub Rock” than new material doesn’t mean that no one cares what Corgan has to say anymore. I think it means that Corgan doesn’t just want to write music, he wants it to be received in a certain way. Just as Cobain was tortured by the fact that hyper-masculine rednecks were bouncing around to “Teen Spirit”, Corgan doesn’t seem to get that being a Smashing Pumpkins fan doesn’t mean the same thing now as it did in 1995. There is no shame in the quality of his back catalog—the Pumpkins’ best songs were not by any means their worst or not indicative of the rest of their body of work, so really the only problem I can comprehend that they might have with playing them would be that they belong to an audience that Corgan doesn’t want anymore.
Whether he likes it or not, if there are any “Smashing Pumpkins fanatics” walking around right now, a lot of them are at the shows because they blasted “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” on their pickup’s cassette player every day in ’95, or they lost their virginity to “1979”. That is part and parcel of being a band that is still touring after a two-decade career. If Corgan wasn’t looking to appeal to the average Pumpkins fan he should have called this project a new incarnation of Zwan or gave it a new name altogether. The only way that Corgan was going to achieve what he wanted with these residencies was to keep in mind that for every two people who just wanted to hear the old hits, there were a few young (or old) fans who still cared, and play the hell out of the new songs for them and them only. It goes back to the thing about boundaries. You can’t make music with an audience in mind without your goal being to please that audience. Sorry, dude. You can’t control us any more than you could the rest of your band.