In 1994, the very first CD I purchased was Green Day’s “Dookie.” I carried it everywhere with me, much the same way my contemporaries carried around tubes of pogs (the essential but pointless mid-90s trend-game). This was unusual for a couple of reasons. For one, I was a girl. For another, I was 10 years old. Most cars that were more than a few years old at that point still only had tape decks, so I listened to it on my CD “Walkman” (heh…remember those?) without much fear of my mom realizing that the F-word and “masturbation” appeared in one of the hit singles off that album. Not that it was something new to me. Just a year prior, when Nine Inch Nails’ first release in five years, “The Downward Spiral” began receiving radio play, I learned to use the “last” button on our TV remote. That way, I could snap back and forth as needed between something family friendly like “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” and the “Closer” video that was practically playing on a loop on MTV. It wasn’t even that I liked the harsh, totally-inappropriate-for-a-fourth-grader-to-be-listening-to chorus of “I wanna f— you like an animal.” That was SO bad, and I knew it, but the music itself had this gritty, abrasive quality that I absolutely loved. And the imagery of the video was out-of-this-world dark and weird, themes that I was finding didn’t scare me much, at a point when most of my friends still wore pink and shopped at Limited Too (another blast from the past).
Man, I think I just realized that if you’re reading this at work and they block YouTube, you are going to haaaaaaaaaaaaate me. Sorry?
It was the first time I realized that maybe I wasn’t really going to make much sense. I knew it was weird for an all-American, religious, caucasian, suburban girl to be that into the rebellious, dark, shocking music that presented the even weirder themes in these songs. Let’s see: BDSM…drug abuse…disjointedness from the normal world at large…anxiety…solitude. I mean the list pretty much could go on and on and never get any less worrisome. But here’s the ray of sunshine: It really wasn’t about the dirty themes. This was before I became a lyrics-focused listener. This was when it was just about the elementary awesomeness of a certain guitar riff, or the way the music came together in layers over a pair of new headphones. I guess I just needed something more complex than whatever was playing on the local country or Top 40 stations. But whatever that “something” was would not be satisfied by a mere foray into the hip-hop music my mother so deeply detested. Nope. I was skipping straight past that.
Before I had a son named Russ, I think I knew a few different people named Russell. A couple of guys I worked with, maybe one guy from my college Anatomy lab, and this guy from way back in middle school. Russ is not actually named after any of them, but rather because I always liked the name and really needed something that started with an R in order for him to have the same initials as me and my late grandfather. But that guy from middle school? It’s actually kind of a funny story.
Rusty was this guy I had a huge crush on. Actually, come to think of it, he’s on my Facebook and there is a pretty good chance he’s going to read this, so let me just say “Sorry, dude.” It’s all in the interest of my musical autobiography, right? Moving on…so I had a crush. I mean, really, a HUGE crush. But naturally, he didn’t know I was alive. Until this one day – and I cannot remember how it all happened – he somehow got my number and called me. I literally cannot remember if I gave it to him (which would’ve required ginormous lady-balls that I really didn’t have back then) or if someone jokingly gave him my number because they thought it was funny how pathetic I was (a much more likely scenario). But anyways, he called me one night and I sat and twirled my hair and giggled while he gushed about his favorite band, Smashing Pumpkins. This is literally the highlight of that conversation. A band synonymous with mindlessly destroying gourds. But as many 7th grade girls would do in such a situation, I decided I simply had to check out these Smashing Pumpkins people. All I knew about them was “1979,” which was on pretty heavy radio rotation at the time – but clearly there had to be more, considering I also had about 20 (older, cooler, wiser 15-year old) friends who were constantly blathering on about the greatness of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
I’m fairly certain after that single phone conversation I pretty much never heard from Rusty again. Wait, that is until sometime in 1999, when he showed up with the guy I was (by then) crushing on, at my house, following a hurricane, to go “surfing” in my flooded front yard. I think he also got whacked in the head by the seat of the rope swing in our backyard (gravity is a helluva thing). It’s a random life. Oh, and then there was this other time in my early 20s when I was sitting in a cubicle, at my job, at an engineering firm, all the way across the freaking state, and up walks guess who? Too strange for words. The worst part? I may have actually said to him “Oh my gosh, you’re the Smashing Pumpkins guy!” So yeah. Yeup. Did that.
Anyway, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I don’t care what my self-assured college boyfriend had to say about Billy Corgan’s voice, or even the fact that Corgan later hooked up with Jessica Simpson after her split from Nick Lachey (really, probably the weirdest part of this entire story). Why don’t I care? Because MCATIS is just freaking amazing. No, not every song (I hate the James Iha ones, I’m sorry – James, I tried, I just can’t get into it, but I do dig your haircut). But I love the “balls out” quality of the whole thing, for starters. It’s 28 songs, in dual CDs, with an uber-dramatic celestial theme, packaged up with all the self-assurance and conviction that they are creating art for the ages (even if its just poppy rock). But really, the marketing and packaging means nothing.
I won’t pay much attention to all the stuff you heard on the radio from this album (“Zero,” “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” “Tonight, Tonight,” “1979,” etc.). You’ve heard all those. It’s all about the stuff that you only heard when you went to Kmart and begged your mom for the album (that totally didn’t happen), took it home, popped it in that stupid CD Walkman (the second of ten you wore out before MP3 players were invented). It’s the stuff you picked up falling asleep to this album, long after you stopped waiting for silly ol’ whats-his-face to call. One of my favorite songs of all time is a mostly unknown little gem from the album called “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” (from the Dawn to Dusk side). Porcelina is representative of the album as a whole, I think. It’s grandiose, with a two minute intro to a song that lasts a total of 8.5 minutes. It is rambling and overly emotional and sexy and desperate and weird – a pretty heady combination. It was recorded in segments, all at different times, using different instruments and recording setups (okay, I stole that from Wikipedia). It’s basically what happens when one part garage band jam session is combined with two parts whiskey, one part nasty cocaine habit, and three parts heartbreak. It’s flipping amazing.
Another one I really loved was “By Starlight” (from the Twilight to Starlight side). I remember sitting and damn near crying tears of joy (and estrogen) while nine months pregnant with Russ, when I stumbled across the “Rockabye Baby” line of modern rock songs converted into lullabies for babies – and there was “By Starlight.” Downloaded that mess faster than you can say “Time to push.” Oh, and I loved “Where Boys Fear to Tread.” Oh hell, I loved pretty much all of them. Except Iha’s stuff. Sorry, Iha.
Alan Moulder, one of the producers on this album, has worked with Trent Reznor on a variety of projects including (but not limited to) Nine Inch Nails. Oh, and Foo Fighters. And about 15 other meccas of awesomeness. So not a coincidence. And even though I usually say “The Grammys can suck it!” I will say that this album won 7 of those suckers, back before they started giving them to people like Nelly (Ugh…*shivers*).
Even as recently as this spring, I was using songs from this album for sprints in the gym. And please listen to this album in its entirety and tell me that you don’t have mad respect for the drumming excellence that is Jimmy Chamberlin. He really is amazing. It’s too bad that Smashing Pumpkins has had so much drama fueled by drug addiction and band discord over the years, but then again that may be the very root of how they are able to produce such tortured, angsty music. This album, for me, is middle school in a nutshell (and granted, middle school was gawdawful). But more importantly, it captures the desperation of youth, the confusion and frustration of it, the rage that you can’t explain at times, and the desire to just tell everyone to go screw themselves. So it’s one of those things that even now, years later, still resonates with me. ‘Cause don’t we all have days like that?