Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, The First Spark

by Erik Bailey ~ April 12th, 2010. Filed under: Student Posts, Uncategorized.

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It’s simple really.  I was 10, they were the biggest band in the world, they were on the Simpsons,  I liked them.  Even though they’re not my favorite band and this isn’t their strongest record Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness has its own little table reserved in my heart.  It will always be associated with a certain little time and place.   They were the first band, rock or any other form, that I embraced.

Before the Smashing Pumpkins there was nothing.  My dad had me on his typical orchestral kicks which I couldn’t really appreciate at the time, and in fact, was bored to tears by it.  I had no idea, at the time at least,  why he would even listen to such boring crap. You just can’t force classical music on a small child.  Later I would relent and come to enjoy it, but at the time I hated it.  We went to Best Buy one day and my dad was getting a new radio, with a new CD player,  so he was feeling generous I suppose and told me to pick out a CD.  Somehow, I remember it was a toss-up between Alanis Morrissette and the Smashing Pumpkins Zero EP.  My dad, ever the repressed liberal, helped me land on Zero (which had a parental warning),  and so my descent into the world of pop culture began.  Listening to it, I felt a sort of excitement or urgency in music that I hadn’t encountered before.  My little mind was blowing and reforming, shaping around this but I just didn’t know it yet.  Listening to the album now, it seems really negative and very 90s, probably because it sort of helped define the times, but it’s still not something I’d buy for a little kid.  There’s a song on it called “God,” which isn’t ideally Christian with that famous line from Zero itself, “…And God is empty, just like me.”  There were lines that weren’t necessarily appropriate for a growing catholic.  Basically, it seemed kind of hardcore, or taboo and I thought it was kind of cool.  I wasn’t totally impressed with the EP, a bit confused with it really, but the seed had been planted.

Next, the video for “Tonight, Tonight” came out.   It was a very popular video, considered one of MTV’s “Break Through” Videos, when they still played videos.  I still wasn’t too impressed.  All that changed when I heard “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.”  I dunno what it was, but something about the guitars got me, and I was hooked.  Suddenly, it all clicked, and the Zero EP began to make sense,  Billy Corgan’s annoyingly boyish but soaring vocals sounding  yearning and passionate.  I sang along to every little lyric just like a tiny rock fan.  I asked my parents if I could get Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and for my birthday I finally got my hands on a copy.  The double disc package amazed me.  I studied every inch of the little booklet with its outlandish, Elizabethan pictures.  It seems a little pretentious now, but it still makes me nostalgic for the time when people generally owned CDs or a physical copy of whatever music they had.  The package deal really drove it home for me.  It’s a convention that’s quickly fading, if not already gone, from music today.

That being said, Mellon Collie isn’t my favorite album, by any stretch.  In fact I find it somewhat goofy at times, and melodramatic.  It is the first album I bought and really started to listen to, and so it holds a definitive place in my heart and brain.  It is a very pop album, either intentionally or simply because of it’s popularity, it sort of became a standard for the 90’s.  As an album, The music itself seemed a little bloated even then.  Billy Corgan’s wail seemed untamed and strange, some of the songs too soft or boring.  Now some of those songs seem lush, others goofy, some haunting, some still classic, and some unlistenable.  It also seems to suffer from the 90’s LOUDquietLOUD dynamic of quiet verses and very loud choruses, or simply 90’s droning grunge guitars.  Still, out of 24 songs, it’s hard to get them all right, and browsing through the b-sides from that era, there’s a surprising amount of material that could have fit right in with the other songs.  The album’s full of  heavy, very distorted guitars, searing vocals, strings, strange, seemingly unedited lyrics.  Pretty much everything you’d expect from a rockstar’s excess.  The sing-along singles that made the album so popular are all there, of course.  Some of those songs are among my all-time favorites.  Every album I listen to has to hold up or is compared to the ”Pumpkin Litmus Test,” the foundations of my tastes were born here, forever fused in my mind.

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The furor surrounding the CD also seemed very exciting to me, like pop itself.  Some vague idea or notion that can be shared and enjoyed by many, collectively.  Sort of like a common vocabulary that one can understand appreciate with others.  The idea, or image, of a rockstar is still seductive to me.  Somebody who just plain…rocks out, or emanates this aura of coolness (at that particular time).  The idea or image of someone who sort of transcends day to day normality still captivates me just like it did then.  It’s something missing from music today, massive cults of personality who tower over  the genre and just create scandalous tabloid stories, doing unknown things behind very exclusive doors.  All this got to me then and I was devoted to the idea of this, this was something like what music should be, and I’m glad I got into it when I did, although I wonder how my tastes would’ve been if I had been a bit older and Nirvana was the first band I ever loved.

Growing up, I would eventually see the folly of this particular rockstar’s excess, from the challenging and somewhat baffling electronic follow-up  Adore, or their return to form with their final album, Machina/The Machines of God (both albums I prefer to Mellon Collie).  I remained a fan, always secretly hoping those droning, overdubbed guitars would come back.  Unfortunately in 2006, they did, and the results were simply forced or dated.  Nowadays, Billy Corgan seems to want to destroy his career, with his grandiose and eccentric behavior.   Even Trent Reznor has been keeping it together, and he seemed to be one of the most hateful people in an era of drug addicted, dejected, and depressing musicians.  Even though I prefer bands like Radiohead, Interpol, SIgur Ros, or the Smiths: The pumpkins hold a very special place in my heart.  They were simply the first band that made me love music.  I’m pretty glad it was them.

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Buzz it!

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