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The Smashing Pumpkins Reunion Tour Raises A Simple Question

Billy Corgan, performing in Den Bosch, Netherlands in February 18, 2008.
Robin Utrecht
AFP/Getty Images
Billy Corgan, performing in Den Bosch, Netherlands in February 18, 2008.

The Smashing Pumpkins has announced an extensive North American arena tour under the title Shiny and Oh So Bright. Its three dozen dates will begin on July 12 in Glendale, Ariz. and end Sept. 7 in Boise, Idaho.

As with most of the tours, reunions, albums and other assorted ephemera surrounding this, one of alt-rock's greatest acts, what might have simply been a greatest hits lap for a band that parted ways nearly two decades ago has turned into a bit of a referendum on its legacy.

Shiny and Oh So Bright will feature three of the four original members of the band — Billy Corgan, guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin — playing their best work.

At its best, The Smashing Pumpkins created some of the most indelible rock in history; some of its most resonant ballads; some of the form's best minimalism, driven by Corgan's rage, his deep sensitivity and that singular, adenoidal sneer. The band's best work (take your pick of any pre-Adorealbums) was done, inarguably, through its original lineup, which began to fray somewhere around the turn of the century before unraveling completely by the end of 2000.

The Smashing Pumpkins has been remarkably prolific for a band that's not together anymore. There was Machinain 2000 (a failed-concept album recorded amidst the Pumpkins' dissolution), the poorly recorded Zeitgeistin 2007 (with just Corgan and Chamberlin), the intimate American Gothic EP in 2008 (similarly, only featuring Corgan and Chamberlin), the sometimes lovely and conceptually scattered Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project in 2009 (with only Corgan), the worthy Oceania in 2012 and Monuments to an Elegy in 2014 (the latter two albums ostensibly/apparently falling under the Teargardenbanner and also only with Corgan). There was also Zwan, a project with Corgan, Chamberlin and guitarist Matt Sweeney, which released Mary Star of the Seain 2003. On his own, Corgan released the albums TheFutureEmbrace in 2005 and Ogilala in the fall of last year.

That abundance, and the revolving door element to the band's personnel, outlines a terribly kept secret: Smashing Pumpkins has always been, in sickness and in health, largely a container for the music of Billy Corgan. (With some extremely notable exceptions.) Butch Vig, the producer of the Pumpkins' breakout album Siamese Dream, noted in a 2012 interview that Corgan and the stormy Chamberlin were the creative heart of the band, with Corgan having done "90 percent of the overdubs."

As a result, the very idea of Smashing Pumpkins has been, is and will always be subject to the contradictory, sensitive, insecure and touching whims of Billy Corgan. Without being close to him, the best we can do is cast a wide net over his public history to illustrate how impossible it is to triangulate his intentions and hope to arrive at a sense of how his band mates must have felt.

Last January, six days into a loosely conceived tour of the U.S. in which he spoke of a hope to rediscover some ineffable spirit of the country, Corgan spoke to his iPhone-mounted camera: "When I was 6 or 7, they tested me for 12-year-old reading." He went on toexplain that, on a different test, he received "the best score in the history of Illinois for music," but that his dad didn't agree he should be instructed in it. So many years later, his eyes still communicate pride, anger and amusement. You wonder how many times he's told the story. In an interview with Spin to promote Ogilala last October, he was contrite about his failures as a bandleader: "I wish during the best times of my life, personally and musically, I had been more grateful. I wish I had been kinder to the people around me."

Even in the moments when the Pumpkins was at the top of the alt-rock world, Corgan's actuating force was mercurial. In the middle of a 1994 profile of Soundgarden (also for Spin), that band's guitarist, Kim Thayil, tried to coach the young star, telling him: "You're this incredibly talented guy. People like your music. You have a good band. You sell a lot of records. You don't need all this... stuff." Corgan replied by asking Thayil his astrological sign. Corgan's capricious personality has followed him into the digital era, where he's been the subject of lighthearted memes and confounding statements. In a 2016 appearance (not his first) on Infowars — the far-right, conspiracy-espousing show hosted by Alex Jones — Corgan attempted to lend a measure of empathy to the host's theories of a societal breakdown engineered by what's referred to as the "deep state." Leaving aside the decision to appear on the program in the first place, Corgan — to his credit — did try and ground the conversation in a semblance of reality. The moving target of Corgan is even reflected in the opinion of the bassist he has been publicly sparring with for almost a month; this Wednesday morning, in a wildly veering interview — her first in over 15 years — Wretzky says she "really enjoyed" her friendship with Corgan. She also calls him "insufferable."

The dispute between D'arcy and Corgan that has subsumed much of the conversation around bringing together the Pumpkins' close-enough-to-original-to-tour lineup actually goes all the way back to her removal around the turn of the century, blamed by Corgan after the fact on a drug addiction. The pair reconnected in 2017, again according to Corgan. That detente wasn't in advance of any reunion — at least that she would be a part of; Chamberlin, Iha and Corgan performed together that year — but around their friendship. Then, about a month ago, a picture of Corgan, Iha and Chamberlin in the studio set off speculation of another Wretzky-less reconciliation. She later confirmed that she wouldn't take part, saying she'd been disingenuously invited to participate by Corgan. After that, an official statement from a publicist representing the band countered Wretzky's account, saying the Pumpkins had attempted and failed to recruit her for various appearances, jams and how-do-you-dos since her exit. "We wish her all the best, and look forward to reconnecting with you all very soon," it concluded, primly.

On July 17, 1998, almost exactly ten years after it formed, The Smashing Pumpkins played a free show in Minneapolis, Minn., drawing over 100,000 people to the city's downtown for a two-hour-long concert. The band was at the apex of its popularity at the time, but played a set largely pulled from Adore, a poorly received album (one that holds up much better in retrospect) which had been released a month before. Audience members received three hits — the band's most unforgettable; "Tonight, Tonight," "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" and "1979" — during the concert. Palpable 20 years later, even viewed through a stationary camera, is the spirit in which fans' connection to the group was fused. Four misfits, making dorky jokes while annihilating one-third of major city's population with tender, unrelenting diary entries. It's easy to understand the impulse.

Now, twenty years later, we have a reunion tour that will deliver presence but likely little relevance — another chance to bask in the '90s sun and reinvigorate that fading t-shirt collection. What happens when it's done is Billy's to guess.

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