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November 7th, 2008


by John Coakley

Billy Pumpkin, as they call him across the pond.

When I first saw the Smashing Pumpkins at the Roseland in the fall of 1991, they were second on the bill—before the Red Hot Chili Peppers but after this obscure Northwestern band called Pearl Jam. They were doing their version of the loud/quiet rock thing—as powerful as Nirvana but with a more sinuous, feline grace. Billy goaded the largely frat-boy audience by telling them that the crowd in Philly rocked way harder than they did. He was a petulant, ego-maniacal jerk but his band rocked so well that it didn’t matter. What was odd was seeing a band that was underground a year before play to an audience that resembled the people who kicked the band’s ass when they were in high school. It was a little disheartening. But then I saw one beefy dude in a ‘CUSE! baseball hat stop knocking skinny alterna-boys to the floor when Siva slowed down. As if floating on the gossamer chord’s of Billy’s guitar, the pride of Syracuse University closed his eyes and sang along:

Sprinkle all my kisses on your head
Stars full of wishes fill our beds

Then the song roared back into overdrive and I got out of his way.

Last night I saw the Pumpkins play a show at Washington Heights’ United Palace, a 3,800 seat church that also hosts concerts. Nice venue—good sound, good sightlines. Just don’t get an aisle seat or you’ll be distracted by Security’s flashlights being shone in your eyes all night. There was no opening band. The show started with Jimmy Chamberlain playing a decent drum solo that led into Do You Like Rock and Roll Music; a 50’s cover, I’m assuming. The rest of the band, including horns and keyboards, came on the stage and joined in. Billy Corrigan came on last, wearing a white, puffy gown and what can only be described as a giant white fan on his head. They bopped through the pleasant little ditty, a roadie removed the fan and the gown (revealing a far more sensible straight white gown underneath) and the tone was set: this show was going to be a) a hoot and b) defined by the capricious whims of its leader.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Corrigan gets a lot of flak—for launching a 20th anniversary tour without two of the original members (he offered, they refused), for playing the songs he wants to play instead of the songs the audience wants to hear, for replacing one Hot Female Bassist with another Hot Female Bassist (it should be noted that the current HFB is a lot more talented than original FHB D’Arcy) and for mocking the audience. This was all in evidence last night, right from the ridiculous opening. But then the band settled in for a powerful 90 minutes or so of great rock music. Yes, a lot of hits were left behind, but they were replaced by worthy B-Sides like Transformer and Mayonnaise, brilliant songs that wouldn’t have had a chance if “all the songs you lost your virginity to,” as Billy put it, were played instead. The keyboards and horns came and went as needed, and they always worked to the song’s benefit. So far, so good.

Then they switched gears and played Heavy Metal Machine, a sprawling epic 15 minutes that culminated in bits of Rush classics Tom Sawyer and YYZ. Weird, but good; the band clearly had fun paying homage to their less than hip influences and the enthusiasm was contagious. Then they settled into a slow, meandering psychedelic groove that confounded the hell out of the couple behind me. How do I know? BECAUSE THEY WOULDN’T SHUT UP ABOUT IT! Folks, if you don’t like a song, don’t stand around screaming over the music to discuss how much it sucks. Especially if you have reserved seats; just go to the lobby, get a beer, and come back when the music changes to your liking. Don’t ruin it for those of us who might want to give unfamiliar music a chance. Any way, the jam turned into a 20 minute cover of Pink Floyd’s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, and it would have been eerily beautiful had it not been ruined by what was probably the same frat-boy from ’91 and his wife.

The encore was the already twee We Only Come Out at Night, made even more obnoxious by the whole band playing kazoos. Then another cover: 70’s touchy-feely classic Everything Is Beautiful, was also drawn out so Billy could tell jokes, sometimes at our expense. But he was kind of like that one friend who always gives you a hard time but does it with a smile on his face and you somehow trust that he doesn’t really mean it. It all supported the idea that rock shows are supposed to be fun above all else, and that even egomaniacs can be in on the joke of their own reputation. Billy was making fun of himself as much as anyone else, something that a lot of folks seemed to miss. Maybe they were just angry that they didn’t get to hear 1979. Me, I had a blast. The Smashing Pumpkins have been making great music for 20 years—if they want to get silly, I say they’ve earned it.

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