Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," goes the old adage. And no one knows this better than Billy Corgan, who climbed so high into the alt-rock stratosphere with his celebrated Smashing Pumpkins outfit that he nearly lost his moral compass. He's back down to Earth now, with the 44-track Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, a work in progress offered in free download installments as each song is completed. All because, he says, "I got to the point where I had to take an inventory of how I got where I got. For better or worse."
The process wasn't an easy one. The 43-year-old Corgan had to look back on his two-decade career for raw data, ranging from the rarified ups, like '93's definitive Siamese Dream, through to the disheartening downs, like the departures of founding members James Iha, D'Arcy Wretzky and finally Jimmy Chamberlin (who briefly rejoined him for an '06 comeback, Zeitgeist, before leaving again last year). So what did the principal Pumpkin discover? "Where everything has worked was always where I trusted myself, no matter what anybody around me thought or said," he's come to believe. "And every time it had not gone well was where I didn't listen to my instincts and betrayed even my own inner common sense. I realized that a lot of what was good in my life was more in alignment with basic spiritual principles, rather than basic material principles."
Who are you?
To illustrate his point, Corgan recalls a life-changing discussion he had with Pete Townshend. Several years back, he used to brag how he'd kept the Smashing Pumpkins catalog pure by never licensing any of it to greedy corporations. "But then I sold 'Today' to Visa, and the person who really changed my mind on that was Pete," he says. "He basically said 'Who gives a fuck if they lost their virginity in the back seat of a car to "My Generation"? I put it out there to be heard and sold, and I don't care how they fucking do it!' So I thought 'If my heroes aren't holding on to something, then why the fuck am I?'
"So I'm not saying God came down and said 'Sell your song to Visa.' I'm saying a person, a man, has to be OK with who he is," he continues. "And if you're OK with who you are, then you don't need anyone to tell you that you have value. Because God made you, you have value. So I found more solace, more peace, on every level — in my musical life, my personal life, my internal life — by subscribing to spiritual principles. And the more attention to that I paid, the better I felt, the less crazy I felt, the more my life made sense."
To that end, the guitarist launched his own zenlike website called Everything From Here to There, where he regularly discusses heady topics like mind/body/soul integration. With Claire Fercak, he's also penned a new Little Prince-style heartwarming book, Chants Magnetique. And he just staged a hospital-bill-paying benefit for Matthew Leone, uninsured bassist for Chicago group Madina Lake, who was beaten unconscious — and then underwent brain surgery — after attempting to stop a man from beating his wife.
So is he now the peace and love flower child for today's cynical rock scene? Corgan laughs. "I know it's a career killer. And I don't care. Because I think it's more punk rock to be righteously angry and spiritually forward than it is to continue to wear the leather jacket with the tattoos, as if that's somehow dangerous. They use those guys on commercials now — there's nothing dangerous about that. And as an artist, I'm attracted to the dangerous part, to where it's like 'Whoa! I don't know how I feel about this!'"
Fear not, longtime Pumpkinites. Corgan's latest band lineup — drummer Mike Byrne, bassist Nicole Fiorentino and guitarist Jeff Shroeder — is reproducing catalog classics with dead-on accuracy on tour. And the initial releases from Teargarden — "Freak," "Astral Planes," "A Stitch in Time," "A Song for a Son," and "Widow Wake My Mind" — feel like catalog classics, rife with the man's signature chiming guitar filigrees and patented emotive nasal drone. He started his intriguing self-released, mega-epic concept with 60 finished numbers.
"I may not end up using a lot of those songs," he says, "because I'm still writing new ones, based on how I feel today and what's exciting to go in and record."
Fan reaction to leadoff Teargarden cut "A Song for a Son" was overwhelmingly positive. "But part of that positivity was that it was familiar," Corgan stresses. "And then you have this other audience element, where it doesn't matter what I write, it'll never be as good as 'blank.' And going back to Pete Townshend, he said something else to me, that 'You have to understand that for one moment in their life, you said exactly what they wanted to hear. And unfortunately, they're just not interested in anything else you have to say. So get used to it.'"