You Talkin' to Me?: Smashing Pumpkins

You are young and famous, rich beyond all reasonable expectation, sought after, catered to and drooled over. So why doesn't it make you happy? Is it because it's not cool to be content? Is it because you're an artist, man -- like Van Gogh, like Beaudelaire, like Kurt, even -- and those guys suffered for their art, so you're going to be just as agonized as they were, or die trying? Or maybe you're just acting the part of despondent, angry rebel. Could it be that all your tortured lividity is just a goof? That deep inside you're giggling madly since you know damn well that you've got the world on a string like your own personal glittery yo-yo? But that's a smiley face you only show people you trust, which does not include reporters, your fans or other strangers. At the very least, it's an interesting exercise to wonder about such things. An outsider invited in to peek at what being a rock and roll star means -- the limos, the after-parties, the record company-sponsored dinners, the hotel rooms with fluffy robes, the screaming followers -- tends to think stuff like, "Wow. A person could really get used to this." But outside of crashing the charts yourself, there's no way of really knowing how it feels to wake up everyday, look in the mirror and see a face that haunts the sweaty dreams of people you've never even met. Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor does such a good job of playing the tormented artiste that it's near blasphemy to suggest that he just might be faking it. There's little doubt that he's at the top of the alternative heap; witness his wildly successful current tour, opening for David Bowie. On stage, Reznor effortlessly swipes the crown away from the once revered, often reinvented Bowie. The baton has clearly been passed, and even Bowie realizes it. Why else would Bowie forego the traditional break between acts, and morph himself onto the stage while dark messiah Trent is still in mid-flail? Most likely it's to stop an exodus of NIN fans to the parking lots when their anguished hero leaves the stage. This way they think that just maybe he'll be back for a little more of their adoration. And Bowie, well, he's just some old guy who used to be cool, hardly worth more than polite interest. But with the flick of a finger, Trent Reznor inspires legions of black-clad young fans to worship his angst -- although he's more likely to scream obscenities at the audience he seems to despise, to undulate his body like a sex-deprived serpent while simulating intercourse with the nearest mike stand or hapless band member. He's their dark prince with lyrics as raw as freshly peeled flesh, howling ditties about evisceration, pain, death and the sheer hopelessness of everything he can think of. He's also a spoiled brat. Reznor throws tantrums on stage, flings water and vitriol at photographers who are only there because someone asked them to come and do their job -- which is capturing an image of Trent Reznor so that he can be more famous. He berates the very audience that made it possible for him to be in the center of such a large spotlight with so many large-scale toys, calling them lame, stupid, assuring them that he doesn't care about them or their city. But they don't care that he doesn't. His supplicants yell their adoration to the abusive object of their love even louder when he berates them. They know they deserve his contempt, for he is the one in the spotlight, and they're the anonymous ones in the dark. So he gives it to them. Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan has also made quite a fine career out of being embittered; his new album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, finds him perhaps more depressed and hopeless than ever. Grueling lyrics ("living makes me sick/ so sick I wish I'd die") and self-indulgent bouts of grandiosity ("cleanliness is godliness/ and God is empty just like me") abound for the double album's entire two-hour plus length. In conversation, Corgan tends to be just as bleak, sighing frequently, alluding to unnamed peers that have disappointed him, flatly refusing to discuss specific songs. But finally, he grudgingly allows that there are still some parts of being a wildly successful rock star that he finds fulfilling: "Writing and recording. The two essential elements to being a musician -- the creative process and the actual playing of the music -- are still very satisfying. But everything that goes around that I do not like." And he sighs, clearly wishing that this discussion would hurry up and end. Just another spoiled brat with too much success much too early? Well, no. Because on stage, at a free show in Chicago the day before the record is to be released, it turns out that Corgan was holding out. There's a part of the what-does-it-take-to-make-me-happy equation that he left out. When he plays live, he can't hide the fact that he's having the time of his life. And all the anguish that goes into making the art is just a warm-up for this moment, when, even after a fuse blows and the room is plunged in darkness for a full 10 minutes, even when the lights won't work, and the sound is bare-bones, Corgan looks exactly like a happy man.

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