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Quarantining The Past: Smashing Pumpkins' 'Gish'

If you look up articles on Billy Corgan, you're likely to find miles of scorched earth behind him. Dude likes to pick fights, hold grudges, and air grievances whenever possible. Sometimes it's at other past-their-prime musicians, sometimes it at his own fans, sometimes it's at, um, the treatment of viruses. Point is, Corgan has grown increasingly eccentric and disgruntled, and that's saying something for guy who was pretty stand-offish and self-important from jump.

I've long wondered (more than I should) why. Unlike Kurt Cobain, who railed against his fan base and the alt-culture because it reflected his own personal troubles and insecurities, Corgan seems to rail against all things alternative out of some self-gratifying persecution complex. He thinks we're all out to get him, and he's secretly pleased about it. This is all to say that his bile is hard to understand, since he and the Pumpkins are heroes of a certain brand of rock music and we've basically canonized 1993's Siamese Dream and, to a lesser extent, 1991's Gish.

But go back to Gish, because if you're wondering what's bugging Corgan, you might find your answer back at the beginning.

For all his fragile genius persona, here's the secret: Corgan didn't want to be your geek-rock idol -- he wanted to be a superstar. He didn't want the Pumpkins to be the next Nirvana (or Pixies, or whoever you'd like to backtrack to), he wanted to be the next Guns 'n Roses.

Don't think so? Check out the start of Gish, the similarities are staggering. The chugging guitars on "I Am One" sound nearly identical to parts of "Paradise City." The second song, "Siva," deals in the same kind of hard-rock crunch with tumbling riffs and Mountain-Dew-fueled guitar solos. They are downright rock heroes in these moments. This isn't art-driven subtlety, this is dude rock, all blunt force and inertia. And it totally kills. Even Corgan's voice sounds like Axl early on, with a slight growl leaking into his trademark shrill howl.

The riffs are heavy and drenched in overdrive and built for arenas. Corgan may be getting his brood on, but his wailing is more about immediate impact, the feeling of his voice more than the words. Gish was, in these moments, a big goddamn rock record, the kind of thing destined for locker-room boomboxes and the stereos of IROC-Zs. And time has taken it and made it into one of those weird major-label releases we deem an indie-rock classic. It's got character; it's weird; it can't be just some mainstream muscle flexing because it's too intricate.

This is not what Billy Corgan wanted.

But let's not beat ourselves up for missing the point, because Corgan and company get in their own way. His holier-than-thou stance against the indie world (almost certainly some romantic denial at being made one of its prominent figures) neglects the two-sided nature of his band. They were a forceful hard-rock band, to be taken seriously for their furious noise, but they were also space-pop oddballs. When Gish isn't punishing us with riffs, it slips into the watery dreamworld of the Smashing Pumpkins. "Rhinoceros" -- the finest of the band's songs not on Siamese Dream -- sways like a Galaxie 500 tune. Even if it builds at a glacial pace to rock heights, it's all about the gossamer layers of sound. "Crush" sways on acoustic guitars and lilting guitars. Closer "Daydream," sung by bassist D'Arcy, is a fey pop antidote to the rest of the thundering record, made all the more stark by following the mammoth sound of "Window Paine."

These are the moments where things get tricky, where the gap between what Corgan thinks his band is and what it actually is widens. But what made the band fascinating was this dichotomy. The band was complex enough to make them a "serious" band that got plenty of attention, but not the kind to be lauded purely for their riffage. The most interesting thing about the whole Pumpkins-as-Roses angle is how, in the end, they're not far off, yet they subvert the dude rock image in great ways.

It starts with D'Arcy. The diminutive female bassist in the group acts as our first introduction. The rumbling line she plays to kick off the record sets us up for a record full of powerful low end. For all of James Iha and Corgan's distorted guitar interplay, it's D'Arcy's bass that finally sells Gish. It makes the shift to more fragile moments more jarring and, as a result, satisfying, and gives the rock moments that quake-in-your-belly growl. Behind her, Jimmy Chamberlain provides a leaner take on arena-rock drumming. He doesn't need 40 cymbals here, he just punishes the kit he's got. His move from syncopated shuffle to straight-on crash on "Snail," the brilliantly huge solos he runs down in the same song, his tom work that opens "Tristessa," -- these are the most dynamic moments on the record.

So Corgan clearly knew the strengths of his band, of his songs. He just misread them. In the end, he couldn't fight his muse, and Gish ends up as much a dream-pop record as it is a hard-rock gem. What's really unfortunate about Corgan's hemming and hawing over the band's legacy is that it ignores the important point: Gish is a great record. It doesn't give us a new Guns 'n Roses (or insert your favorite hard-rock band), but what it does is introduce us to a music stuck in limbo, between a sound steeped in commerce and one steeped in art. The mixture of soft dream and hard edge would blur into the trademark brilliance of Siamese Dream, but Gish is a curious first document that can be just as satisfying. It's as raw as it is intricate, each song as strong as the last, and just as fresh 20 years later as it was at release. No, it wasn't what Corgan wanted it to be. It was something better.

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