Live Review: Smashing Pumpkins and separating the art from the artist


Is it possible to use a rock concert review to settle one of pop culture’s oldest debates? I dunno! Let’s find out!

So, regarding Grimes’ newfound vocation as an apologist for predatory capitalism, plus all the, ah, let’s call it unpleasantness concerning Kanye West earlier this year, plus every time Morrissey does an interview, lately, many have found themselves asking, “Can we separate the art from the artist?” The answer is no.

The only society any of us will ever know values celebrity way, waaay more than music or films or anything else that brings us joy directly. I did not make a conscious, deliberate choice to know who Demi Lovato is, nor did I make any specific effort to learn whether she has a drug problem. Society decided I needed to know these things. Society does not feel it is of equal importance that I recognize any of Demi Lovato’s songs. Observing Lovato’s music is optional, while observing her celebrity is mandatory.

So when Grimes or her famous boyfriend tweet something douchey, “Kill V. Maim” becomes less awesome in the macrocosmic scheme of things, which is ultimately much more pertinent than my individual opinion of “Kill V. Maim,” because society has already decided celebrity power couples are more important and influential than that song or any other song. I’m not saying I want it to be this way. I’m saying this is how it is, and we’re all stuck with it for the foreseeable future.

So then we have Billy Corgan, the auteur behind some of the greatest guitar band records from an era oft-considered a historic high point for guitar bands. Corgan’s also the kind of person who thinks of the acronym “SJW” as an insult, plus he’s made multiple appearances alongside conspiracy slinger and big sweaty phony Alex Jones on Infowars. Regardless of whether Corgan’s a sincere fascist or simply the kind of credulous rube Jones and his ilk prey upon routinely, it’s hard to take his politics seriously when he’s more recently claimed to have slept with Mystique from The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. And I guess he’s into Jesus now? Or not? As for Smashing Pumpkins’ resolute, expansive, and confounding concert at TD Garden on Tuesday night (July 31), Corgan emerged for the final encore dressed like a nutcracker doll with a cheese grater on his head.

What the fuck is this?

Why did it happen?

I can’t pretend to know, but I do think it means Siamese Dream isn’t as great as it was before Corgan decided wearing that particular hat in public was a good choice. As for the rest of this edition of The Shiny And Oh So Bright semi-reunion tour on the final night of July, it came exactly one D’arcy Wretzky short of pulling Smashing Pumpkins back out of the attention-sucking vacuum of their founder’s fame hole.

Much of the snarky whispering surrounding this tour suggests the organization booked rooms Smashing Pumpkins hasn’t had the buzz to fill since Melon Collie and The Infinite Sadness cemented their definitive status in 1995. Be that as it may, anybody who tells you Billy C. Smashing and the Pumpkins Gang played to a half-empty building on Tuesday is exaggerating. The nosebleeders looked pretty desolate, but the floor and lodge sections appeared more-or-less occupied throughout the bulk of goings-on. (I do not have the resources to confirm or refute rumors of discounted tickets, although $15 only sounds like a mega-bargain if you believe rock shows take place in sports arenas exclusively.)

Following an opening set from the always outstanding Canadian alt-rockers Metric, the gathering of, ah, I’m gonna ballpark it at 15,000 took in a masterfully-executed spectacle hampered by an unintuitive and overlong setlist, goofball strives towards gravitas, and frankly, an audience that only got hyped up for the radio hits. In fairness, there’s nothing any band — not even Corgan, plus original members James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin performing together for the first time since before the Y2K Virus destroyed all technology — can do to compensate for a shitty cluster of onlookers that’s mostly never listened to Gish.

But when the career-spanning collection of songs was already going to take up two-point-five hours all by itself, did we really need to hear “Space Oddity” by David Bowie, “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, or, jeezus, fucking “Stairway to Heaven?” What was the deal with the video of the creepy burlesque troupe who kept having the same religious epiphany and sobbing uncontrollably? What was Mark McGrath — of all fucking people — doing in a vaudeville get-up on the video screen yammering about The Machine co-opting a youth movement? Being a corporate rock band is perfectly okay, but you don’t get to be that and also claim any association with the genuine counter culture especially when you’re a literal game show host.

Okay, to a degree, you’ve gotta give Corgan a pass on some self-indulgent bullshit, like playing footage of his own mundane childhood while strumming and wailing out “Disarm.” Notoriously self-indulgent rock stars do self-indulgent shit, just as Santa Claus delivers presents for children at Christmastime and cats love to eat delicious tuna fish. It’s what we expect, it’s even what we want sometimes, and it’s fine. What was so maddening is whenever the stupid bullshit fell by the wayside, we were left with three quarters of arguably their generation’s greatest guitar band. Iha and Chamberlin’s instrumental wizardry has only snowballed throughout these post-grunge years and, somehow, Corgan appears still able to screamsing all the notes of his mid-’90s self. You’d think he’d have soggy penne for vocal chords by now, but nope, his throat box works perfectly spiffy.

Thing is when Corgan announced “30 years ago, we started this band,” metaphorically patted us all on the back for sticking with him/them, and launched into “Muzzle,” the moment felt like a deeply compromised version of what was originally intended.

That was supposed to be the happy ending, I’ll bet.

And I’ll also bet we would’ve gotten it if, before this tour, Corgan flew to D’arcy Wretzky’s house, dropped to his knees and elbows on her doorstep, begged forgiveness for whatever he did or whatever she thinks he did to piss her off, offered her double the money, debased and humiliated himself, whatever it took to get her to play bass in Smashing Pumpkins again.

Celebrities are more important than music, but maybe not always more powerful than abstract ideas, like, for instance, the legend of a band that functionally ceased to exist 20 years ago.

All photos by Barry Thompson; follow him on Twitter @barelytomson.