The world is a vampire, sent to drain… Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage
Billy Corgan + The Crimea + Doris Henson
27 Jun 2005: Webster Hall New York
Words to soothe sinister spirits: a welcome interlude before the ominous entry of disturbing dreams. Pained banshee wails set against the grind of steel strings, these sentiments ring the truths of a generation of disaffected, introspective teens
Or, I mean, they did. But you know, everyone grows up…. right?
Wounded souls/ full of rage/ nowhere to go/ consequences be they may/ I resolve to never change
Indeed. Ten years later the words to Billy Corgan’s “Mina Loy (M.O.H.)” echo the emotion of Smashing Pumpkins hit “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” not with lessened force but, instead, even greater resolve. Billy Corgan is the Goth Peter Pan: Instead of a youthful, nymph-like spirit, he possesses a bottomless well-spring of teenage angst. And, of course, his tights are black, not green, distinguishing him as an emblem of decidedly drearier youth.
I suppose I’m not one to be critical about clinging to the past: I am engaging song lyrics many years after the words were written. Of course I’ve grown up a bit since 1994, moving from crayons to computers while, from the look of things, Corgan continues to pen exclusively with quill and parchment.
But then, not all share my cynicism about the eternally pale-skinned Corgan. Roars emerge as each piece of his minimalist set is put into place and again as the techs dim the room to test the spotlights. There’s energy in the thick crowd, strange given the largely half-hearted response to Corgan’s new solo effort, The Future Embrace. Perhaps these people haven’t come to hear the songs at all. Perhaps, like me, they’ve come to reconnect, to pay homage, to an emblem of their mopey youth.
I, for one, am deep in reminiscences. Set behind and on each side of the stage are large ceramic walls made of small white, square tiles. It’s strikingly similar to what my middle-school shower room would have looked like if it were recreated for the spring musical. Stationed in front of the walls, broken up by wide, barren spaces are silvery, metallic stands flowing in vine-like patterns across the frames of a solitary keyboard, an electronic drum kit, and two microphones. It’s creepy and cool but I can’t shake the locker room association and the thought that the instruments were placed there as some artsy prank on my bull-necked gym teacher.
Corgan pops his head out as the lights go low, to rapturous applause. He quickly realizes that his role is to bring a crescendo and dips back behind the stage to let his bandmates take their places first. Thirty seconds later the former-Pumpkin appears wearing, of course, all black and lightly tipping the brim of his cap to the throngs of doting twenty-somethings. I have to admit, as I digest the imagery a wash of excitement passes through me.
Picking up his guitar, Corgan strums the initial chords as his “drummer” mightily beats two flat synth pads. The “shower room” bursts to life, a sudden array of projected, segmented colors. The tiles become the flattened panels of a gigantic disco ball beaming shapes in all the glory of a psychedelic screensaver. Enveloping the band, the lights slink along the tiles, changing direction and shape in time with the sounds. As electronic beats meet quickly strummed distortion, the lights seem stunning, as if the stage is immersed in the production of some high concept techno video.
With the emergence of the saddened superstar and the surrounding theatrics it’s easy to lose the actual music in the mix. Perhaps this is a good thing. Corgan’s nasal voice scrapes across the electro beats and similarly synthetic, and stilted, space-age atmospherics. The fey emotion of the Pumpkins is there, but it’s wrapped in a far less pleasing package.
But it’s not about the music; it’s about the man. So what if Corgan has been allowed too become painfully self-indulgent? So what if the tunes are woefully underdeveloped? Corgan is a superstar to his very bones, squawking the notes and bouncing his eternally teary face. Watching him is not fun, exactly, but its not painful either. Its like flipping through a book of high-school pictures, a mix of pleasant remembrances broken by periodic moments of horror: “I really wore that shirt?”
Songs segue into one another with little discernable difference save the ecstatic array of lights and colors. An hour passes but my attention remains rapt; I bask in the presence of Corgan’s delicate, soul-bearing wails. It’s not that they’re very good, more that the whole thing is striking. It’s oddly exciting to see in the flesh a man that, many years ago, sadly sang me to sleep.
Corgan emerges for the obligatory encore, bathed in blue light, and sings a slow, mournful number before allowing the return of his noisy compatriots. The song, like the man, is strikingly beautiful in its bold insecurity. It’s worth appreciating for what it means to me, if not for how it actually sounds.
After weathering the rise and fall of the Smashing Pumpkins, and ‘90s alt-rock for that mater, Corgan has nothing to prove. His hand-picked openers, however, were a different story.
Doris Henson, not a person but a band, played opener, straying from Corgan’s depraved electro currents. A fairly straight-laced quartet, the band warmed the large crowd of early gatherers with solid garage rock, thankfully interspersing a few clever twists. Their record has its ups and downs but the live delivery is infinitely more striking, characterized by pristine hooks and melodies broken and contorted by the interspersal of truly bracing, ruckus guitar distortion. The use of simple trombone parts adds a particularly powerful edge to the mix. These boys don’t stray to far from formula, but their occasional forays are enough to add a distinct edge. I’m later told that Corgan himself waded through a sea of demos, plucking these boys out of the pack. A good choice indeed. Perhaps Corgan has a better sense of new music than his new music foretells.
Or maybe not. What to say about middle act the Crimea? Well, ummm the peninsula from which they take their name was, in the mid-nineteenth century, home to the Crimean War, a conflict between English, French, and Turkish troops. These countries united to eventually win out over the Russians.
I mention these delightful factoids only because the underscored history lesson of the namesake is infinitely more interesting than the band. Hailing from the UK—not Crimea I’m sad to report - the band emerged promisingly to haunting vocal loops only to deliver boring, cocky tunes fed through an array of strikingly pretentious rock star poses. If ever there was a band where the image matched the music this is the one - both would fall under the category of “overwrought”. Unlike Doris Henson, these guys don’t realize that they got lucky - they think they deserve to tour the legend circuit. They don’t, end of story.
Well, not quite… According to dictionary.com the country did not change hands but rather “became an autonomous Russian republic in 1921 and a Ukrainian oblast in 1954.” For those of you who were wondering an oblast is “an administrative territorial division within Russia and other former Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.”
Why’s that important? Because even if what’s happening now is far less interesting then something that happened before, and even if a contemporary image is painful to swallow, we can at least use it to wistfully reminisce