Billy's wild ride
The latest chapter in Billy Corgan's rollercoaster life and career is a page-turner carefully scripted by the post-Pumpkin
Billy Corgan has stopped caring. Not about his work, which is obvious given the book of poetry he published last year (Blinking With Fists, Faber and Faber), his autobiography-in-progress that appears in a nonlinear serial format at www.myspace.com/billycorgan, and, hitting stores this week, his first solo album, TheFutureEmbrace, an ambitious record that reaches for the same grand heights of his most epic work with a leaner, more intimate sound. The record's lyrics are rife with themes of hope and spiritual longing that seem like a 180-degree turn from the eyeliner-caked Tortured Artist persona Corgan crafted as frontman for the Smashing Pumpkins. It seems like he cares more about the world around him than ever before. Maybe he even cares about you. He just doesn't care what you think about him.
"I know what people want me to do," Corgan says, his blue eyes taking on the look of a man about to impart a hard-earned truth. "I just want to do what I want to do."
When Billy Corgan found God, his spiritual awakening became grist for the music-media mill. It was after the Pumpkins had collapsed under the combined weight of interpersonal squabbling, drug troubles and their own heavy fame, around the time when Corgan's follow-up indie supergroup Zwan exploded on the launch pad. It was then that references to God and spiritual meditations on flowers started popping up on his blog next to offhandedly scathing disses directed at his ex-bandmates.
"I realized that God was in my life in a stronger way than I had ever given credit to," he says. "It wasn't that I woke up and said, 'I'm a Christian,' or 'I'm a Buddhist.' It was more like, 'Oh, this makes sense.' "
Corgan is a man on a mission these days, embarking on a career as a man of letters. "I was a poet before I was a rocker," he says. "I let that dream die, but somewhere down the road I realized I didn't have to." Blinking With Fists made the highest debut on The New York Times best-seller list of any poetry book in more than a decade, affirming that dream, and chapter by chapter his online autobiography cements his dedication to writing. His literary ambitions fulfilled, Corgan turns now to define his place in the rock canon. "For someone coming from grunge, there's no path laid out for how to succeed in your thirties, or even your forties, in the music business. There's no formula there. Where do you go with that?"
While the rest of Chicago's Alternative Class of '94 has faded into obscurity, Corgan is stepping outside the lines, navigating a path off the rock-star maps. He says he doesn't fit neatly into either the pre-fab mass entertainment mold or its alternate universe, populated by doomsday poseurs preaching alienation and Armageddon. "There's two worlds: There's your 'American Idol' and your 'Are you down?', and I'm not even a part of those."
And yet TheFutureEmbrace sounds like it belongs to both worlds. Featuring Filter alumnus Brian Liesegang, Filter and Smashing Pumpkins member Matt Walker and longtime Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, the album pulls from the same '70s glam and '80s new wave that have lent modern rock radio its retro-cool vibe lately. Those influences, fused with Corgan's alt-platinum songwriting skills, synthy keyboard flourishes and a guest appearance by The Cure's Robert Smith, permeate the entire album. While the Smith cameo and assistance from Nitzer Ebb's Bon Harris suggest Corgan's more in touch with his inner goth kid than ever, the album overflows with messages of hope. The new Billy is a far cry from the nihilistic prophet who converted millions of angst-infected high schoolers into Pumpkin heads for more than a decade.
TheFutureEmbrace may not change the world, or rocket its creator back into the Top Ten, but those scenarios don't matter much to him. The man on a mission from God to make the best Billy Corgan album ever leans back, eyes radiating defiance, and shrugs. "The media's not going to understand, the fans aren't going to understand, and if they do, it almost makes me suspicious," he says. "Maybe it's not dangerous enough." But he must know that the masses of the faithful will be there, whether they get it or not, for the latest chapter in the life of rock's premier messiah and martyr, listening as he plays for an audience of one.
TheFutureEmbrace is out June 21. Billy Corgan plays the Vic Theatre July 5 and 6.
Words to rock by
Oprah doesn't understand you? Take a walk on the wilder side with Billy's recommended summer reads:
Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin. This classic 1820 Gothic novel profiles a tormented scholar who comes to regret selling his soul to the devil for more time on earth and infinite wisdom.
VALIS, by Philip K. Dick. God communicates with a sci-fi writer via satellite-guided laser beams in Dick's 1981 novel, which heavily influenced the writing of the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness.
Chronicles, Vol. 1, by Bob Dylan. The folk-rocker's illuminating 2004 memoir eschews by-the-numbers chronology for pensive, meandering musings on significant periods in his life.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald's crowning achievement, a landmark of 20th century fiction, lays bare the dark underbelly of the Jazz Age.
Desolation Angels, by Jack Kerouac. The beaten-down Beat author pulls off the road to reevaluate his downward-spiraling life while living on a mountaintop in Washington State in 1965.
The Soft Machine, by William S. Burroughs. Part sci-fi novel, part abstract poetry, Burroughs's 1961 experimental pastiche muses on sexuality as a means of social control.