06-06-2006, 11:34 AM
Billy Corgan just might be a ghost. Not only does he appear otherworldly but his best lyrics penetrate a spectral world. Of course, you never expect to meet a ghost, and what would happen if you did? Maybe a hand would pass through him or a penny would float up the wall, seemingly at its own accord.
He shakes hands like a human being, laughs and uses stairs to walk, just like the rest of us. And, like us, there is something in him that is greater than the sum of its flesh and bone parts.
What makes him may be unknowable a hard-wired sensor in he brain that pick up images and words and happy [for us] accident of childhood that turned him away from a promising baseball career, back to books and music that gave him the confidence to bring what’s on the inside out.
The photo shoot, that began in the studio, moves to the roof, and Billy stands before the Chicago skyline. He has been in the studio recording a solo album, and it is not surprising that he is singing between shots. Gooch, Billy's manager of 10 years, is standing next to me. He claims that Billy's new songs are "the best he's ever done," and that he [Gooch] goes to bed and awakes singing them.
For all of the cameras that he must have faced in his career, Billy Corgan does not seem to enjoy having his picture taken. He is cooperative to a point, but his words to our photographer--"I'm over this"--signal that he will not sit still for many more shots today. To be fair, this remark followed two weeks of 12-hour days in a recording studio, all spoken without detectable anger while carrying the weight of assurance that the visual portion of our program has concluded.
My notes say that Billy Corgan's first band was called The Marked, a veiled reference to the birthmark on his arm and that of one of the band's other cofounders. He used to have long, dark hair and he made it big with a group that *******d D'Arcy Wretzky, James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin. They called themselves The Smashing Pumpkins, explaining that smashing was an adjective (think British) and not a verb. Like many rock bands, The Pumpkins had major drug problems, something that led to the death of their keyboardist, Jonathan Melvoin. The Smashing Pumpkins broke up in 2000. Corgan's subsequent band, Zwan, was formed in 2001 and disbanded two years later.
Billy Corgan is six feet four inches tall. He loves baseball, especially the Chicago Cubs. He has one of rock's most distinctive faces, but with a hat and sunglasses can walk the streets without being noticed.
He introduces himself politely, unnecessarily saying that his name is Billy while offering a conventional and sturdy handshake. While he is smiling, I realize that I have never seen a photo of him that way. He normally looks younger than his 37 years, and smiling makes him look younger still. Not smiling makes him look like a genius, which many fans believe he is. Beyond the cameras, he looks you in the eye and smiles frequently. He has a good laugh and a quiet, calm voice that speaks and sings words people pay a lot of money to hear. We, the staff at Risen Magazine would like to thank you, Billy Corgan, for not carrying a cell phone during this interview.
Risen Magazine: Do you think that writers are just good liars?
Billy Corgan: We're all liars. [Laughter] I mean, what is a persona if not a lie, you know.
RM: Did you ever feel that you would join Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and be dead at 27?
BC: No. I mean, I thought about killing myself many times, but I didn't think that I had reached a place where anybody would care. I knew Michael Hutchence of INXS. He died way too young, and I remember it was dismissed a sort of a pop fact. He was written about as someone who had sort of had his day. That really bothered me. The fact that death is viewed as something proportionate to your success is really a sad testament to humanity. In that case, when I felt like killing myself, I didn't think anyone would care.
RM: Did it contribute to you wanting to kill yourself?
BC: Um, That certainly fed into it, and it fed into my own megalomania and any other delusions of grandeur I had, but they weren't the delusions of grandeur that people thought they were, they were different types. [Laughter]
RM: What makes you?
BC: I think, uh, I have a relentless will to learn and to grow and at the end of the day I really don't give a shit what anybody thinks about that part of it. I care about what people think and I am certainly interested in their experience as far as it pertains to me and my art, but if you showed me the truth...Let's say we were looking at two roads and you said "At the of this road there's a truth." and "At the end of this road is not a truth." You could see that the road that led to truth was difficult, but I would take that road every time.
RM: Would you rather be blissfully ignorant or have knowledge and be a little grumpy?
BC: The other day I was looking at my cats, and they were blissfully being cats, chasing a bug or something, and I thought, God, I'm going to have to bury these guys some day. That's the beauty of life; you can't really appreciate the depth of your love for something unless you're willing to embrace the sorrow that exists as the expression of life. It's there. If you want to stay in the moment of Oh, that's cute, the cats are playing; I don't think you can get to the depth of how amazing it is that these two little creatures are programmed to chase a bug.
RM: So, do you think that all joy has pain programmed into it?
BC: No, I think that the real embrace of life is to embrace all of it. I think unless you can really see all of it, what are you seeing? If you take a false impression of a positive and the true reality of the negative and add them together, that is life. So, what is it to pretend? You know when you look at a woman and see the fake teeth, the fake nose, fake boobs, she may look beautiful but what does that mean? It doesn't mean anything. So to go through life like Don't touch me, don't let the dark waters lap at my feet, that's almost disrespectful to what life really means.
RM: Did you ever play baseball?
BC: Yeah, I did. Baseball was my true passion. I still dream about it.
RM: Were you a good player?
BC: Decent, yeah. I was actually talking to someone the other day and they said, "What was your talent?" and I said, "I was probably good enough to be a pitcher, but I blew my arm out when I was 15 years old." It's still messed up, it still goes [rotates shoulder and makes cracking sound]. I had about a 75-mile-an-hour fastball when I was about 14. No control though. I threw a slider that moved away from right-handers. When left-handers came up, they were knocked at their knees, cuz I threw the ball right down the middle and it would come right at their hip.
RM: Do you have any learning disabilities?
BC: No, but what do they say, the definition of idiocy is knowing that something doesn't work and to keep doing it. If I have any learning disability, it's that I'm an idiot. [Laughter]
RM: What do you do that doesn't work?
BC: A lot of things. I mean, I'm really unsuccessful with love-type relationships. And, I've had a fundamental problem of taking on way too much, of doing things I'm not asked to do and then getting upset that nobody appreciates all that I'm doing for whomever.
RM: When was the last time you cried?
BC: [Sigh] Oh, um, actually it was pretty interesting, I went to a sort of spiritual retreat to Hawaii with some friends of mine. I felt sort of detached the first three or four days. About the fifth day something just wore down in me and I cried for about four days straight. The last time that I cried we were standing on this sort of mountaintop. It was the end of the whole retreat or whatever, we were holding hands, and my friend said something. She was sort of giving like a final end of the road kind of talk. Something she said out of the blue triggered this mourning about The Pumpkins, my band. That I had never really mourned the death of the band. [Near tears] You know, I treated it as like, this is something that must end [snaps fingers] and then we move on. Out of the blue this feeling hit me, and it was just devastating, cuz I'd never really properly mourned this thing that truly transformed my life. It's easy to kind of dismiss things, but that was a transformative experience and it just hit me. It was so crazy.
RM: Are obscure lyrics...
RM: Why are you laughing?
BC: I just like the setup to the question; I don't know what's coming, but I like the beginning. It's like, A horse walks into a bar... [Laughter]
RM: Are obscure lyrics an attempt to hide pain?
BC: No. In fact I think a lot of times I'm really searching desperately for a way to define what I'm experiencing. Just saying this fucking hurts doesn't do it. It's like a collision need to happen.
RM: Norman Mailer said that you really only reach six people.
BC: God bless 'em. We're doing a lot of work for six people. I'm really killin' myself for you six people, I hope you appreciate what I'm doing. [Laughter]
RM: The fantasy writer George McDonald said,”If my dog can't sit up and bark, I won't sit up and bark for him."
BC: Yeah, I have a saying: If you have to explain a joke, it's probably not funny.
RM: Were you ever a nerd?
BC: I think I still am. I don't think I've ever been cool by the cultural definition. I've been popular, I've been successful, but I've never been cool. I've always wondered what it feels like. I'm very envious of people like Beck. It seems like everything Beck touches is cool. It's like if he scratches his face he does it in a way...I never had that. How do you do that?
RM: Have you had any of the same friends since childhood?
BC: No, I have almost no friends from the past.
RM: What do you look for in a friend?
BC: That they won't leave; they really won't leave. I can't say that about too many people. We all have our issues, you know. If someone could peer into our darkest recess, would they still love us? Like when you hear about somebody killing somebody and somebody marries them. There's something that touches me that somebody cares about somebody so much that even the most heinous of things doesn't drive them away, that they're still committed to the human being. If I lost it and chopped up somebody with an axe, they'd say, well, I know you're still a good person, I just lost it and chopped up somebody with an axe. [Chuckle] You know what I mean? I can't say that I've had that in too many people and I don't know that I'll ever find out. [Laughter]
RM: What would you punch somebody for?
BC: Um, I've come close many times and it's always disrespect. I've been disrespected many ways as an artist, like Your music sucks and that sort of stuff. But when it crosses the line and they enter into your sphere of sacred space--I don't think that anyone has the right to come into your being. Sometimes people just insist upon it. I attract psychos. I attract psychos who don't even know who I am. I think there's something to be said for positive attracting negative. Some people feel that they have every right to vampire off you. That's the closest I've come to violence, because that's the same as death to me.
RM: What would you go to war for?
BC: I would defend our country if I felt that our country needed to be defended. I don't have any doubt about that. I'm not a pacifist in the sense that I wouldn't pick up a gun for any reason. If someone were on the shore down there, I'd go down there right now.
RM: Do you think that life is pain?
BC: I mean love is painful. It's what you do with it.
RM: Is there a way out?
BC: Yeah, but the way out is right back in. [Chuckle] Love is commitment. My spirituality is not sit-on-a-mountaintop type of spirituality; it's active. So, to get out is to go right back in.
RM: Is rap interesting to you?
BC: No, I think there's a tremendous amount of work, but it's inherently a negative expression in my eyes. It values skills that aren't necessary at the end of the day. I think it's done a lot of damage. I think it will be looked upon someday as a sort of embarrassment. I know that's very unpopular.
RM: Music can be powerful; did it ever scare you that people might base their lives upon your lyrics?
BC: No, because I don't buy into the projection of things. I've had an instance where a kid killed some other kid and claimed he'd been listening to my songs. So, I've experienced that; it's a very hard thing to hear. I've received probably a thousand letters saying, because you wrote this I didn't jump off the roof, kill my girlfriend or whatever. I'm just a tangent in another long line of tangents. I'm glad that I was there at that particular moment, flattered, but it's not me. I didn't beat 'em for 20 years like their mom did.
RM: You don't seem like anyone would jump on a trend.
BC: Like I said to someone yesterday, The Pumpkins were the reaction against the reaction. I saw through alternative music's fakeness and it made me want to be more real than all of them and it caused a lot of problems because we just wouldn't go along with the program. It was very reactionary, but there's an imprisonment in being reactionary. You're just a counterpuncher waiting to get punched first.
RM: Is there anything you feel that you say too often?
BC: Cool. I feel like I'm stuck in the '80s. It's kind of embarrassing. And fuck, I say fuck way too much.
RM: Are there any words you don't feel you say enough?
BC: No, I never shut up. I never shut up, ever.
RM: People spend 20 years building a name and then think, What have I done? Do you ever get that?
BC: No, but I've had stalkers, I've had the whole thing.
RM: Are you comfortable with fame?
BC: I am but not for the reasons it would seem. I see fame as the justification for the strength of my work. I don't see it as an ego necessity to somehow fuel what I do. I see it as a by-product of what I do.
RM: Is fame an addiction?
BC: Oh yeah. It's a total adrenaline, especially if you're insecure. If you're the insecure guy who couldn't get a date at 15 and suddenly you're on the cover of every magazine...
RM: Were you that guy?
RM: Does fame make you mistrustful?
BC: Totally, absolutely. One of the lowest points of my being famous was when my mom died of cancer. It was one of those things where she got sick and in five months she was dead. We were turning to leave for the funeral home and the funeral director introduced himself and said "Sorry about your mom." I said thanks. He reached into his pocket and pulled out an album and said "Can I have an autograph?" And I thought, This is fucked up, even here. Why not just have me sign the fucking casket? That's what I mean by disrespect, there's an unspoken line.
RM: Did you sign it?
BC: No, I told him to fuck off. Of course he thought I was a jerk. Maybe to answer your question better, it's disrespect to humanity. Like when someone's on the street begging, you don't have to respond. You don't have to pull five dollars out because you feel guilty, but do not disrespect that person. Say a prayer, leave it alone, but do not disrespect that person. That makes me so mad, and that's everything in our culture right now; it's all about disrespect. Change your body; you're not good enough. If you smile right and act right, you win and get the guy or the girl. It's ultimately a humanity issue. It's literally saying it's not good enough.
RM: The culture seems to be no culture.
BC: It's a celebration of our decay, and I think it's kind of a strange thing.
RM: Does it scare you?
BC: It frightens me because I think that we're entering into territory that's totally unprecedented. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this is just the iPod version of it, but just the same shit.
RM: We produce things and want people to buy them, so we can buy new things. Does there come a point where people have far too many things.
BC: Sure, but I don't see that as a problem. I have tons of stuff, I love it. It's what you do to get it. Whose skull do you smash to get there? At some point there is a receipt for that, you just see it coming and maybe culturally, collectively we're headed for that too.
RM: Do you have any recurring dreams?
BC: There's on in particular; I don't have it very often but whenever I do it's like I've been here before. It's sort of like this desolate, concrete land. It's like the whole city is grey concrete, a sad place. It's all very familiar, like when I'm in the dream, it's like, oh yeah. And parts of the dream will repeat. And I told my...she was my girlfriend at the time, and she said, I have a similar kind of dream of a similar place. I'm pretty good at dream interpretation, but I don't know what that is.
RM: Do you ever have nightmares?
BC: Oh yeah, all the time, all the time.
RM: Wake up screaming?
BC: In a cold sweat.
RM: What are your nightmares?
BC: I've had them all. My favorite was of my dad chasing me with a shotgun. I called my dad [after that] and I was like, I had this really bad dream that you were chasing me with a shotgun. He's like Yeah? I'm like, Can't you give me some sympathy? And he's like, It's not like I chased you with a shotgun. And I said, Yeah, but you did in my dream. He goes, Well, if it makes you feel any better, I'd never chase you with a shotgun. [Laughter]
RM: Do you like the blues?
BC: Love it. Used to think it was shit. Used to think it was stupid repetitive music; who cared? Now, I'm actually in awe of it, totally in awe.
RM: What changed?
BC: It's a long story, but to keep it short--most western music is predicated on the idea that you write the song, you learn the song, you play the song and maybe change the inflection. The blues is literally a living conversation. To understand that and to under that it documents the moment they were in, a true postcard of where they were standing, then you get really blown away. I'm a huge, huge fan.
RM: Where do you shop?
BC: Where don't I? If it's expensive, I'm there.
Interviewer takes a note passed from an unseen hand
BC: What does it say?
RM: Get into controversial Britney Spears type stuff. [Laughter]
BC: I actually met Britney Spears. I actually shook the Britney hand.
RM: You never wash it again.
BC: I haven't; if you want to touch it, it's all still there.
RM: does it scare you that pop turns people into products?
BC: Yeah, to me, I can laugh like everybody else, but ultimately it's pain. I think Britney's in pain; I think the audience is in pain, everybody's in pain. It seems like a real Faustian deal that everybody's making. Like there was this cover of a magazine this week. It was obviously a paparazzi shot of Britney on the beach. It was like a close-up and it had an arrow and it said, Britney, Cellulite at 22. And you could see the cellulite ripples in her leg, It's on the cover of this magazine, so Britney's already locked into anything less than where that line is. The audience feels they need to care about that. It's pain. I feel for everybody. I mean, ultimately they get what they deserve.
RM: You must have suffered some of that.
BC: Yeah, of course. I've had people say to me, I wish you'd go back to being depressed cuz I like your music better. It's important to me that you're sad, so I get from you what I want. That's a sad testament.
RM: How would you describe God?
BC: [Inhales deeply.] Well, I don't think they're kidding around when they talk about infinite and omnipotent and...
BC: Sure, I think that's what they mean when they say we're created in God's image. I don't think they mean a nose and a penis. I think they mean like creator, an active participant.
RM: When did your search begin?
BC: It's always been there. I think you sense a continuity in the universe but you don't know how to define it. In my particular case, I came to the conclusion that there's just too much going on to pretend that there's not some sort of consciousness holding this together. It's not some weird Martian spore that landed on earth a hundred million years ago. I think it's interesting; I've read some interviews with quantum physicists who say that when they got down to this sub-atomic level it gets even more strange. We're looking for order; we find divinity. Guys who were agnostic their whole lives are becoming spiritual because they see the presence of God at the atomic level. I'll take their word for it. I don't think it's important to define it. I think it's important to have a sense that something's going on.
RM: Do you pray?
BC: All the time.
RM: What would be a typical prayer for you?
BC: There's this beautiful prayer that someone taught me recently. It's um -- I am as God created me, I cannot change my dwelling place. I'm now releasing and surrendering to God any imperfection that I've experienced or will experience. Jesus Christ is my light, my life, my love, my peace, my health, my joy, my vitality, my purity, my unity, my perfection and my freedom. That's a very powerful prayer to me, because I'm constantly unhappy about my imperfections.
RM: Have you read Isaiah 53?
BC: I don't really read the Bible.
RM: If you read it, keep in mind that it was written hundreds of years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem
RM: How would God describe you?
BC: Pain in the ass. He sent me here to be a pain in the ass. I'm on a mission.
RM: Where do you see yourself in 10,000 years?
BC: Hopefully not being a pain in the ass; I'm tired of this job, you know.