Smashing Pumpkins

Initially contemporaries of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Billy Corgan’s Smashing Pumpkins outgrew and outlived the grunge scene with hugely acclaimed commercial triumphs like Siamese Dream, which legitimised heavy metal, and number one album Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness. Unlike many of their contemporaries, the Pumpkins were able to withstand internal problems and keep selling records, emerging as the longest-lasting and most successful alternative band of the early ’90s. Though drugs and other problems led to the band’s final demise, Corgan’s recent return with Zwan is a reminder of how awesome the Pumpkins were in their prime. Delaware-based Hanson has followed the band for years and this is the first in-depth biography of their rise and fall.


A great pioneer spirit, leading so that others may follow. Wheat fields and fallow ground, great swathes of land painted in water coloured words in the pages of the Great American Novel. That is the beginning to this story. Novelist Willa Cather captured the spirit of the early heartland, and so did Theodore Dreiser, except he pulled from the sordid affairs of the inner city. William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald furthered the heady tales of the disillusioned and the passionate, of the haves and have-nots in America. Ernest Hemingway took his people out of their homeland, out of their comfort zone, and put them on completely foreign soil to plumb the depths of the soul. Jack Kerouac brought the beat home, and then William Burroughs filled it with junk. And Raymond Carver taught us all about love.

Set to words, the rise and rot of this country, of the United States of America, unfolds in a rich tapestry – a cautionary tale, filled with sorrow, filled with triumph, filled with vainglorious alchemy. And somewhere in the middle of all those great things lies the truth. That small nugget, overlooked and often forlorn, that rich nut which is the crux of any history, pokes its tough husk through leaves of pages of all those great authors’ books.

People’s lives, too, can be a mirror and those tomes become a metaphor, for experience, for fortitude, for pushing hard against the grain to prise the very essence of life out of the lives we all lead. The Smashing Pumpkins are all of those things. They rose up in obscurity, peddling a sonic revolution that was just a whisper ahead of its time. They fought for their ideals and for their vision. They rose with raucous glory to place crowns upon their heads. And when those crowns turned to thorns they continued to fight the good fight regardless.

Translate their songs, those melodies and slashes of guitar feedback, and the band’s rise and fall into words, and then put those words into the pages of a book, bound with the sweat and blood of their very being to create a story, a history, a mythology – a cautionary tale of the evolution of superstardom, of how the Smashing Pumpkins became their own Great American Novel.

It is the story of how the Smashing Pumpkins came to be, how they placed themselves in the middle of the highway that sped away from the parochial scene of their Chicago hometown, at precisely the same time as the American underground was stretching its limbs and flexing its muscles, and preparing to lift itself, at last, out of the countless weird hybrids that had plugged College radio stations for the past half-a-decade, and accepted a future that actually looked into the future, rather than at the gristly bones of the past.

It had been an awkward half-decade, after all; a span in which the promise of Punk and the compromise of New Wave were so swiftly co-opted by the MTV mainstream that the options for an alternative grew thinner and less palatable with every fresh turn. The one-chord noisemakers and the dissonant dissidents of the late 1980s, the Sonic Youths and Big Blacks and Swans, did not exist, after all, because they necessarily wanted to; they existed because they had to; because it was only by existing that they could stand aside from the crowds of cloying clones that played ‘Simon Says’ with the Cocteau Twins and the Smiths, and prove there was more to music than simply playing a tune.

There was no form to these ragged insurgents, no single solid shape into which their disparate brands of aural terrorism could be scooped to say, ‘now, here is a scene.’ Step back from the brutal iconoclasm that, by nature, each of these bands came to share, and it was leakage, not lineage, that lured, from every point of the American compass, the talents that would come to shape the decade that still lay ahead.

From the inner city sprawls of the Atlantic seaboard and the primordial rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, from the deserts of California and the vast, empty plains of the heartland, ideas and ideals slimed like snails’ trails into the psyche, to merge with the ghosts of heroes past and the hopes of heroes to come, to create a landscape in which there were no heroes at all, just a porcupine mass of discontent that would tear down the plastic structure that was erected all around.

Jane’s Addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Pixies, REM, Soul Asylum, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Ween… the barbarians poised at the gates of a breakthrough in 1989 were those that would indeed breakthrough before 1992, to sweep away the sweet sensations that had jerked to their industry puppet masters for a long, dry decade beforehand. And it was a sign of just how suddenly the walls caved in and the ceiling fell down that the pace-setting taste-makers of the establishment itself didn’t even have a chance to slap a label on the uprising. No prettily-packaged Punks or pigeon-holed Power-Poppers, no gaggles of Goths nor flocks of seagulls – in posing an alternative to all of that, the only conceivable summary was just that, ‘Alternative.’ And, when you asked what it was an alternative to, the answer came back loud and clear. Everything. That was the universe that the Smashing Pumpkins dove into; that was the landscape that they themselves would disfigure.

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