Last fall marked the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind. As watershed moments in music history go it was surely one well worth noting. But in terms of my own continued enjoyment of the record, not so much. But I did like the idea – the idea of reflecting on a big album by a big band (read: ‘zeitgeist significant’) that was released during my teenage years and was also turning twenty. And what bigger band than that of the alt.rock zenith that was Smashing Pumpkins? As coincidence would have it I had just recently dusted off group’s debut, Gish, probably for the first time since high school, and, unlike Nevermind, found it surprisingly enjoyable, bombast and all. So – in the spirit of revisiting the past I recruited three other AD contributors and asked them to indulge in reflecting on the LP with me. Below you will find each of our scattered thoughts, recollections, personal narratives and opinions of the album. Four different perspectives spanning two coasts, and as our collective age-range spans almost ten years so does the point in our lives in which each of us first encountered the album (two of us upon its original release, one after Siamese Dream and one a mere two weeks ago). I’ll kick off after the jump…
I originally came across Smashing Pumpkins’ debut, Gish, the old fashioned way — through a trade, a trade I made twenty years ago with my best friend at the time. The deal, conducted at one of our lockers after school, was an exchange of cassettes; my copy of Nine Inch Nails Pretty Hate Machine for his newly acquired Gish. This was the early Fall of 1991 in a leafy suburb of Atlanta, GA. It’s important to remember that by ’91, ‘alternative rock’ – in all its various forms and machinations – was no longer bubbling towards the surface, it was overflowing. That summer had just witnessed the launch of the inaugural Lollapalooza tour which was how many of my friends and I first heard hallowed names like “Henry Rollins” and the aforementioned Nine Inch Nails. Much later I would learn that a group of documentary filmmakers declared this as “the year punk broke.” And while I didn’t know anything about that, I was keenly aware that there was something in there air. **It was undeniable.
Unlike the hoopla that surrounded the twentieth anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind, revisiting Gish today still sounds as good as it did two decades ago piping out of the shitty tape deck of my first car. And I say this though I’m keenly aware that I’ve got the heaviest of blinders on, as when I press play the music is bathed in pure, unadulterated, unrepentant teenage nostalgia. That opening bassline to “Rhinoceros“? Yeah, that’s my friends and I smoking Camel lights, stoned, laying on the roof at 2am with a speaker precariously wedged in the windowsill. “Siva” is drinking Busch tall boys hanging out in a cul-de-sac on a Friday afternoon after school, while “Crush” reminds me of (redacted). And that’s the thing…I really have no critical perspective of this album. None. It’s all tied to the past, gooey and bittersweet. It is full of ghosts and in its own damaged way it is perfect. There is something rare (and magical) in that.
I remember thinking there was something spooky and kind of witchy about Gish — mysterious. Certainly not goth, but something. Who were these guys? What’s happening on the album cover? Who was D’arcy?? This was pre-Internet, we often had fill in the blanks. All this was of course aided by the video for “Siva,” which came off as darkly psychedelic. Shot in a dimly lit space, it consisted of the band thrashing about amidst scattered images of bone, glyphs, candles, pagan ephemera and death masks. Consisting of varying degrees of psychedelia and heavy stoner-rock (with vaguely metal undertones left over from the previous decade) Gish was a heady brew. I was into it. But it wasn’t to last – the band (Corgan) would abandon this sound almost immediately afterwards.
In retrospect my relationship with band was a relatively short one. But time is malleable, it’s different when you’re a teenager. When I was in it, I was in it. Hooked at Gish, I sought out the Lull ep on cassette after hearing “Blue,” bought the “Cherub Rock” single at Wuxtry Records in Decatur and Siamese Dream on CD the summer before my senior year of high school. After that? I was done. The records that followed Siamese Dream might be amazing, but I couldn’t tell you. I’ve never heard them. – AD
**Underground culture, or whatever you want to call it, was very different back then. It was word of mouth. For example, one of the ways I used to discover new bands at 15/16 was this: I would mentally take notes of the various band names strewn across the t-shirts of our high school’s more “interesting” (to me anyway) upper classmen. It was a system, a rough system, sure, but it worked. Thinking back, I would say there are about 6 guys whose choice of t-shirts unknowingly shaped what I was was seeking out during weekend trips to the, then, newly opened Criminal Records in the Little Five Points neighborhood of Atlanta. Off the top of my head those t-shirts led to my seeking out: Government Issue, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, The Jesus Lizard, Rapeman, Urge Overkill, Slint, Steel Pole Bathtub and Dinosaur Jr. All of which immediately rendered 90% of what I had been listening to prior obsolete, save the Pixies and a few other bands in my collection I deemed ‘worthy.’ It was also in the Fall of 1991 that I discovered a band that would change how I both listened to and thought about music, Fugazi. But that’s a tale for another time.
Walking out of a Moby Disc record store at the end of 1991 in Torrance, CA., I held in both arms three very significant releases of that year: Primus’ Sailing the Seas of Cheese, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish. This was a holiday shopping spree for myself, and the first time I had ever actually bought a compact disc. Remember those cardstock, air-filled monoliths that felt somewhat tangible and more expensive than the $15.99 price tag led you to believe? The format that would revolutionize music, right? Not really, but Smashing Pumpkins’ debut album certainly made an impression on a lot of people while defining what the term “Alternative Rock” meant for an entire generation. Guess which one of those three albums I don’t listen to anymore.
Gish is an album that unified so many different music fans and musicians. At that time in Los Angeles you could hear them almost everywhere at once: underground clubs, MTV, college rock radio stations like KXLU and the mighty mainstream juggernaut KROQ — a station that was in excellent form during the time and highly influential. Smashing Pumpkins were booming in popularity. This was a band that played small venues like the Whiskey a Go-Go and toured the planet with indie acts like Hole and Medicine yet we all saw them as leaders of a movement at a time when music was moving in so many directions.
Everyone praised Smashing Pumpkins for their heady mixture of searing riffs, psychedelic atmosphere, choppy chord progressions and the fire-cracking, insane drumming of Jimmy Chamberlain. You could pinpoint early metal, classic rock and 60’s psych in their songs, but unlike the rest of the burgeoning alternative rock wave that dominated music culture the Smashing Pumpkins sounded so skilled and clever, and they were masters at producing texture and space (see “Rhinoceros”). Nobody else was doing that at the time, and even the shoegaze kids were on board. Find me a group that can tap into so many conscious, angry, young minds and audiences across continents, they simply don’t exist anymore.
Where do you stand with Gish? Are you the restless type who head-bangs to “I Am One” and “Bury Me”? The introspective musician who studies the guitar lines from “Crush”? Or, do you identify with the heavy metal worship of “Siva”? I couldn’t pick one song. This album’s legacy is too great and magnificent to be reduced by fractions. It represents a time when music was the most important and influential thing in my life. Everything I listened to or bought was significant and measurable. In 1991, and for years to come, you couldn’t have a discussion about one single album that was so equally loved and respected than Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish. words/ s. mcdonald
I came to Smashing Pumpkins in the era of Siamese Dream. My first memory of the band was hearing “Disarm” played on American Top 40. I was in middle school at the time, first becoming concerned with the ever important issues of authenticity and ‘sell-outs’ and ‘poseurs’ and the like. Smashing Pumpkins seemed like something out of sync with the rest of the time. Kurt Cobain eventually killed himself in part because of his struggles with being a genuine person in his art, and yet here was Billy Corgan clearly aiming for massive arenas, bombast and torturous angst being part and parcel of that goal. And if Siamese Dream didn’t point that out enough, the double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness drilled the point home so that no one could miss it.
I don’t remember how long after purchasing Siamese Dream that I first heard Gish, but I remember being somewhat underwhelmed. It was murkier than its follow-up and the songs didn’t always jump out quite as sharply. “I Am One” has one of those memorable opening bass lines and “Siva” just seems to pile on guitar tracks during its opening, but it just wasn’t the same. Gish is the warm-up, Siamese Dream the perfection, Mellon Collie.. the final implosion of the whole process. Oasis did the same thing between Definitely Maybe and Be Here Now, playing for the arena rafters the same way Billy did. So what?
After drummer Jimmy Chamberlin’s first departure from the band after the o.d. death of touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, the whole thing became just a little too unhip. I saw the video for “Ava Adore” on MTV and snickered a bit. And I think that was the last attention I gave to Billy Corgan for a long time. Sure, I knew that the band called it quits and yes, I heard about the Zwan album and no, I never heard any of Corgan’s solo record.
Somewhere along the line, however, I started listening again, and whether it was the mellowing of age when it came to hard and fast judgments of artistic integrity or simply a wider and deeper appreciation of rock’s past, the Pumpkins made a very different set of sense to me. Siamese Dream now ranks in my mind as one of the great rock and roll records of the past 20 years and possibly beyond, so when it was announced that the inevitable slew of reissues would start taking place for the 20th anniversary of Gish, I decided to give it a fresh listen.
The fact that Corgan orchestrated the album’s release on Caroline Records as a cover for the band’s already inked contract with major label Virgin is one of the more egregious examples of Corgan clearly manipulating ideas of indie-cool (ones he gleefully spit at later on in “Cherub Rock“) in order to not turn off the audience he was aiming for. But the album holds a clear debt to everything from Queen to My Bloody Valentine, and so what if it seemed bombastic and full of itself? Gish was the opening salvo of a band that was, in many ways, the antithesis of the 90s slacker culture with which it was so readily aligned. It just seemed so wrong to actively chase that level of success. I hate to come back to Cobain again, but really, when we talk about early 90s rock and roll, how can you avoid him? Nirvana actively attempted to chase away chunks of their listeners with Nevermind‘s follow-up, In Utero. In doing so they created, in my opinion, their finest studio hour. Corgan chased wretchedly excessive success and Cobain chased it away. Both created masterworks and both became even more famous and successful. Cobain’s death and Corgan’s more recent actions play no small part in this, but one is remembered as a tortured genius and the other as a petulant opportunist and despite the fact that I know better, it still affects how I think of Billy Corgan and Gish. Gish is a really solid and excellent debut, but there’s a part of me that still feels guilty for liking this band as much as I do. words/ j. neas
For most of my adult life, I’ve believed that I’m about three weeks too young to fully appreciate Smashing Pumpkins. Along with 311’s self-titled record, the two discs of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness formed the pillars of my then-nascent CD collection. Like most kids my age, I owned well-worn copies of Green Day’s Dookie and The Offspring’s Smash that I’d somehow acquired in fourth grade. In retrospect, Dookie and Smash seem much more subversive than 311 and Mellon Collie, but being sprinkled in with Jock Jams and the Space Jam soundtrack muted their potential; if anything, Billie Joe Armstrong’s blue hair assured me that I was much too young to participate in whatever was going on in 1994. But by November of 1997, at the height of their popularity–and, not coincidentally, the saturation point of Generation X as a pop cultural meme–The Smashing Pumpkins finally played the Cajundome in my hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, and I didn’t go. I’m not sure whether I was even aware that it was happening, though I had to have known. I was in seventh grade: maybe it never occurred to me that I might be a part of something that the older kids were doing. For whatever reason, I wasn’t there, and at times I’ve felt as though I’m on the outside of the entire alt-rock movement as a result. And then, shortly after they played with Cajundome, bored with the guitar rock that I was only then discovering, the group started wearing leather dresses and making electronic music, and so that was that. I moved on and my record collection grew in questionable directions. And for me, Smashing Pumpkins and all that they stood for in my mind only ever existed for about two years in the late mid-nineties.
In the lead-up to this post, I mentioned to Justin the possibility of my writing about the video for Mellon Collie’s “Tonight, Tonight,” which still ranks among my favorites in the genre. “Man, I honestly HATE that song,” wrote our fearless leader. “Is it an irrational hate? Yes, most likely. It’s born out of those Monday Night Football ads and an–at the time–childish sense that ‘this isn’t MY band anymore.’”
Now that I’m older, and have watched any number of beloved bands leave me behind for larger audiences, I can sympathize. But the very moment that Smashing Pumpkins ceased to be the band of the generation just before me is the very moment that they became my band. And while I’ve learned to appreciate Siamese Dream, my Smashing Pumpkins will always be the group that put out the double-disc, whose videos were both sweetly nostalgic and deeply unsettling, and who stood at the forefront of a movement that didn’t make sense to me so much as it intrigued me. I like my Corgans bald and wrapped up in a Zero t-shirt and just the wrong side of cocky.
Until two weeks ago, I had never listened to Gish. Not a note. Note once. In my mind, it was the missing piece of the Pumpkins’ discography, the one that nobody I knew ever really talked about, and so it had never struck me as compulsory listening. Having now listened to it, I’m hoping you’ll forgive me if I say that I think my generation got the better deal. It’s not that there aren’t great moments scattered throughout Gish–there most certainly are. But it’s at its best when it’s pointing at the seed of a sound that would find its fruition on later records. Corgan would rightly be heralded for his flipped-out, Technicolor guitar work later in the decade, but to my ears “I Am One” and “Siva” are generic note-splatter, a shade more interesting and melancholy than the work being done by his contemporaries in the Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction. They briefly flirt with dream-pop in both songs, but those moments are shoved aside by more guitar squeal, almost as if Corgan were ashamed of his latent sensitivity. The creeping bass intro to “Bury Me” seems like it would have been a good fit on Tool’s Opiate EP (released the following year), and the stripped shoegaze in the chorus of “Suffer” is nearly ruined for me by the Voodoo Lounge vibe of its verses. Though I intellectually recognize the differences between the two records, much of what I hear on Gish reminds me of what I now hear in Pearl Jam’s Ten: lots of sound and fury about being ontologically different from the bands that came before, but at the end of the day only a note or two removed from classic rock radio.
To write off the Pumpkins–and Gish–so neatly misses what set this group and this record apart from the other successes of early 1991. There’s a placeless, restless quality here that’s especially apparent on “Rhinoceros” and its counter-ballad, “Snail.” With those songs, Corgan drafted a blueprint that he would consult again and again over his career: a breathy vocal, a dash of languid guitar, and a slowly-built bridge that explodes into Big Muff squalls. It’s the genesis of a sound that I’ve always associated with The Smashing Pumpkins, a kind of intense vulnerability. Corgan is clearly experimenting on Gish, trying to discover his abilities as a songwriter and guitarist. Sometimes it fails, but sometimes he walks right into the sound that he would eventually perfect–the marmalade solos and Link Wray posturing of “Window Paine,” for instance, or the sweet strumming of “Daydream.” The whole thing makes Gish something of a frustrating listen for me: since I know where things are going, it’s tempting for me to want to steer them there, to put on The Smashing Pumpkins of Gish the burden of being who I want them to be.
I finally did get to see them, when the reunited band headlined the second day New Orleans’ Voodoo Fest in 2007. I was in my last semester of college, and in a few months I’d move to L.A. to begin writing for this blog. The magazine I worked for at the time had secured VIP passes to the festival, and I went, in part to see Wilco and in part because I could. Rage Against the Machine–themselves recently reunited–had played the night before, and the hot rumor was that a few small fights had broken out during their set, as if those who hadn’t seem them the first time around had been itching to get in on the action. I don’t remember much about The Pumpkins’ show (aside from their covering “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”), but I do remember sitting in the cordoned-off bleachers by myself, watching the crowd froth and bounce and generally go nuts. I headed back to the VIP area after only a few songs, and played a video game on a large TV, and spent the next week complaining about how few good bands Voodoo had booked. I later learned that that year’s festival had broken all previous attendance records.
Shockingly early in their career–long before even the most casual fan would say it was warranted–Smashing Pumpkins were dissed by Pavement and Steve Albini for being what they saw as overly-marketed and specially-tooled for suburban audiences, as if only the college kids deserved to have their voice heard, or as if the makeup of the audience corresponds to the quality of the band. They later claimed that their comments weren’t directed at the group’s work, but rather at their packaging. To a certain extent, though they were right the first time: there is something distinctly suburban about The Smashing Pumpkins. But far from a detriment, it’s the group’s greatest quality, and you can hear it on Gish. The gorgeous sadness that pops up on this record–and that sits as the center of their next two–is a crystallization of suburban frustration. Though the band eventually served as a totem of postmodern irony and disaffection, it’s hard to deny their core sincerity. Like the rest of their catalogue (and much of the college rock of the early nineties), Gish can be big, heavy, and beautiful, but it’s tempered by a very palpable sense of dissatisfaction. It’s as if the music knows that the things it really wants–the things it really thinks are cool–are elsewhere, just out of their reach, and that knowledge taints the present; it’s the suburban teenaged mindset coaxed out of guitars. I imagine that’s the way my then-teenaged Gen-X friends felt when they first heard Gish, and though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, it’s the very thing I wondered at when I first heard Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness as a seventh-grader: What is it that made all the older kids so sad? words/ m. garner
We have a few copies of the vinyl reissue of Gish to give away AD readers. To enter, leave a comment with your name and some sort of thought, story, etc. related to the album. Winners notified via email by the 18th.