I’m struggling with something Billy Corgan’s never known: a chronic case of writer’s block. I don’t have a buddy to drum me into shape. I don’t have a file of B-side reviews. I’m not so confident (read: megalomaniacal) to name this comeback article Zeitgeist, as if it’s ‘95 again and melancholy rules. My style hasn’t influenced hungry young writers to pick up their laptops and cite me as their hero. (Are any My Chemical Romance fans reading this?) I never had a Zwan, just a bunch of solo projects, works that meant the world to me but everyone else ignored. Despite all my rage, I’m basically a blogger. Emptiness is loneliness and loneliness is cleanliness and cleanliness is my alphabetized CD collection.
Probably the best partial year of my life. I slept a lot and ate a lot and women called me cute. When the decade ended, so did my innocence, or at least the carefree part of me that liked to watch mobiles. Born the same year as a Billy Corgan memory, it seemed I was born to rock the fuck out. Even though the Pumpkins wouldn’t smash till I was twelve, I’d already mastered the screams of their genre. I’d also mastered the smell of grunge.
Blinking With Fists
Sixteenth summer. Parents’ car. Everything hot and oppressive as hell. The radio played my new favorite songs, including some tracks from this one upcoming album – a double CD with six distinct singles – as well as the same band’s Fleetwood Mac cover. The band’s old hits had never stopped playing, their noise and their speed in sync with the car, louder, faster, zooming onward, somehow never falling apart. I wasn’t sure what they meant, but I got them, gleaning their truths from daily repetition. They sounded like lessons I needed to hear. They felt like memories I needed to keep.
As the Smashing Pumpkins rattled the windows, frivolous pop was an object in the mirror. Ahead of the car, my life stretched out, full of questions and glimpses of answers, blurry directional signs and lights, from dawn to dusk, from twilight to starlight, the greatest days I’d ever known, scenes I’d try to re-create later, minus the pain of being a boy, plus the pain of being an adult, listening, writing, never slowing down, wondering now if I took the right path, mixing my words like vanity poetry.
They might not have been the world’s biggest band, but they were the biggest band in my world.
But even back then, I was old in my shoes.
I’m somewhat old now, damn near thirty, and most of my idols are peddling nostalgia. Rage Against The Machine is back, raging against your last sixty dollars. Pearl Jam headlined Lollapalooza, playing songs with riffs again. Velvet Revolver is a teenage boy’s dream team, or really a bloated old-timer’s game. Get up, get, get, get down, Flavor Flav’s job is a joke in your town. (Chuck D, bless him, is lecturing at colleges.) At least ol’ Tupac’s still making records.
And half of the Smashing Pumpkins are back, the only two band mates who ever really mattered: Billy, of course, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, a.k.a. Billy’s best friend forever, Billy’s partner for all his projects (except for Adore, when Billy kicked him out), and perhaps the only person in the world Billy likes.
Here’s how the credits of their new album read, typographical quirks intact:
songs by WILLIAM PATRICK CORGAN
performed artfully by
JIMMY CHAMBERLIN: DRUMS / BILLY CORGAN: ALL THE REST
So basically, yeah, it’s your typical Billy project.
This comeback of sorts – because Billy never left – seems to pose questions for a self-indulgent essay: Can this band capture the Zeitgeist again? Can a former teenager still rock out, now that he’s living as a twenty-something drone? Why the hell is “Tarantula” called that, other than the fact that tarantulas are scary? Did I ever really care about Billy’s deep thoughts, especially those on the state of the union? Good or bad, kick-ass or shitty, how will this album affect the band’s legacy? How do I judge it – against what criteria – Siamese Dream or someone else’s album? Do I really prefer the Stone Temple Pilots, a more collective songwriting team, equally ambitious and occasionally maligned, whose body of work contains less filler – but also less of everything else? Am I actually damning Billy’s productivity? Why the hell do I listen to music? What do I even get from it anyway? If someone honestly wanted to know – “What does music mean to you now? Why does it remain such a force in your life?” – would playing this band’s greatest hits be acceptable? Is it possible today to love them like I used to, back in the days when everything was new, before I became so critical and boring? Does the fact that Billy sounds like himself – after he tried to sound like the Cure – make him consistent or merely repetitive? Does this make Zeitgeist rad, or a failure? Really, isn’t it better than Gish? That unmistakable voice – do I hate it?
What would I think, if I were sixteen?
Holy fucking shit, this rocks. Loud and fast and heavy and hard and kinda like “Zero” thirteen times over. Actually, no, it’s more like disc two, or maybe a bunch of Mellon Collie B-sides, any of which could really be singles, compared to some of the shit on the radio. I bet I’m gonna play this album a lot. I bet it’ll sound really cool on the highway. How the hell does Billy do it? Does he simply wake up, eat breakfast, and write? I can’t wait till 1997!
At twenty-eight, I crave more variety. I miss the occasional piano-based ballads, or maybe just songs without so much distortion, or anything else to save me from the pummeling. I also would prefer some prettier melodies, or something as perfect as “Disarm” or, well, “Perfect.”
“Tarantula,” though, is monstrously rad, and so are the songs with these words in their titles: “Doomsday,” “Black,” and “Bleeding the Orchid.” “United States,” whatever it’s about, also rocks my ramparts off. With or without my gratuitous profanity, the album does, as the kids say, rock. I give it at least a thousand words, some of which, hopefully, won’t be rock. Maybe I’ll drop a couple of rads.
Zeitgeist isn’t as great as I hoped. It clearly falls short of capturing its title. You can’t go back to 1995. But thankfully, it’s not as bad as I feared. In fact, it isn’t bad at all. Judged against anyone other than Billy, it’s the best rock album I’ve heard this afternoon.
It’s good to know nostalgia isn’t always false, and some things – old friends, music, writing – are not so different from what I remember. Despite my old age, I’m still the same Matt on the page.
And songs that sound like “Zero” rule.