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Music

Smashing Pumpkins: Zeitgeist

What Zeitgeist is really about, what all Pumpkins albums are really about, is Billy Corgan.


Smashing Pumpkins

Zeitgeist

Contributors: Roy Thomas Baker
Label: Reprise
US Release Date: 2007-07-10
UK Release Date: 2007-07-09
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Billy Corgan is, on Zeitgeist, back to being a walking, living, breathing contradiction. For this, we should be grateful.

The Smashing Pumpkins were, of course, one of the defining bands of the so-called "Alternative Revolution" of the mid-'90s, a band blanketed in controversy, a band able to succeed despite it all. Corgan was always the driving force, one moment a de facto dictator (that would be Siamese Dream), the next moment revelling in the power of four separate forces coming together to create some wondrous musical achievements (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness); one moment kicking his best friend and bandmate Jimmy Chamberlin out of the band (Adore), the next moment proclaiming him the glue that holds the band together (Machina: The Machines of God).

As the Head Pumpkin, Corgan could go from tremendously generous acts of selflessness like an entire tour whose proceeds were donated to charity to some of the most inward, self-flagellating moments on record, as in tape-recorded therapy sessions integrated into songs. Twice. Perhaps the thing that infuriates those who would dismiss the entire Pumpkins catalog as a whole is the sheer impossibility of putting a finger on their driving force. As a Smashing Pumpkin, he was unpredictable to a fault, which, of course, was a large part of his charm to those indoctrinated into the cult of Corgan.

And then the Pumpkins died. D'Arcy Wretzky left first, but she was replaced by Melissa Auf der Maur, so nobody really cared. If anything, it was an upgrade. But then, James Iha said "screw you!," and Corgan said "screw you too!," and that was that. After that, Corgan tried to convince us he was happy, like really, really happy, and he put together Zwan, and he made happy music, and everyone was happy. So, of course, they broke up. Then Billy got all emo on us and took really odd pictures of himself in bad lighting and made the Depeche Mode album he's been threatening to make since he put "Eye" on the Lost Highway soundtrack. Again, like the Zwan experiment, it was a linear, one-dimensional persona with no contradictions or complications. This, however, was a persona that failed even as it got off the ground; Corgan's famous newspaper ad, proclaiming his desire to re-unite the Pumpkins, appeared the day TheFutureEmbrace, that ill-fated solo album, was released.

"I want my band back," he said, and with those five little words, the contradictions that make him the fascinating personality he is came rushing back. Even as he had devoted himself to his solo project, he wasn't fulfilled by it; even as he was finding strength in going it alone, he realized that his most successful creative moments were as a Pumpkin. It was clear what he had to do.

And so it goes, that even the release of the album is couched in his Pumpkin-inspired contradictions. The man who once insisted on releasing a double-album's worth of material for free on the internet was now offering not two, not three, but four different versions of his newest album depending on whether you buy it at Target, Best Buy, iTunes, or "other". Maybe he's doing it for the money. Who would we be to say?

The music, of course, is couched in the same sorts of infuriating contradictions. On one listen, it sounds like the prototypical Smashing Pumpkins album, a Smashing Pumpkins album that is designed to be a Smashing Pumpkins album, genetically engineered to sound exactly as one would expect the Smashing Pumpkins to sound. It doesn't really matter that James and D'Arcy aren't around, because everyone knows that Billy pretty much recorded Siamese Dream by himself, so it makes sense that Corgan and Chamberlin would make a record with the same basic sound. The huge driving guitars of "Doomsday Clock" immediately bring you into familiar territory, "Tarantula" combines the crunch of "Zero" with the tunefulness of "1979", anyone who enjoyed Pisces Iscariot's quiet little standout "Plume" will find something to love in the dirge-like "Bleeding the Orchid", there's a ten-ish-minute track that meanders in the middle before finding its way home, and so on. The elements are there. Chamberlin plays drums like he's hoping evolution will grant him an extra arm before he's dead. When Corgan says a line that looks on paper as cheesy as, say, "We are stars", or "let's fill these hours and kill desire", or even the constant repetition of the word "revolution", the fact that you know he means every word he says with every fiber of his being mitigates the cheese.

And yet despite all of this, Zeitgeist does manage to occasionally bust out of the old Pumpkin patch, a development due in no small part to the presence of Roy Thomas Baker, best known for his work with Queen. The sort of vocal layering Freddy Mercury would be proud of, chord progressions that convey triumph as often as they do disenchantment, and the use of marimbas and orchestras (and is that a gong in "Pomp and Circumstance"?) all indicate a willingness to go beyond the formula even as they spend most of their time sticking to it like glue.

From all of this is the frustrating (for the critic, at least) conclusion that we can glean basically nothing from the music as a whole. As such, we must look to the epic: "United States", a beastly number plopped right in the middle of the album.

The history of Smashing Pumpkins' epic-length material is a relatively short one: there's basically one great big bit of extended wankery punctuated by sharp songwriting on each album, and often, those bits define the albums that they inhabit. Adore wouldn't be half the album it is if not for "For Martha", the loving ode to Corgan's departed mother, and gosh, "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans" is an incredible song, isn't it? Still, those epics can be just as indicative of when Corgan's heart isn't in it -- "Silverfuck", despite being written at the height of Corgan's pop songwriting prowess, displayed a lack of soul that mars the album it inhabits to this day, while "Glass and the Ghost Children" mirrored "Silverfuck's" lack of focus by tying together two songs with shoelaces and scotch tape and tossing some therapy-speak in there to connect them. It was a pathetic attempt at a big statement, dragging the otherwise underappreciated Machina down into a near-insurmountable depth of conceit and hopelessness.

"United States" is every bit the classic "big moment" that a Pumpkins album truly needs to succeed on the most visceral of levels -- the guitar wankery actually sounds like it's leading toward something, it sounds like a whole piece, and every movement has its build, its development, and its climax -- by the time Corgan asks his detractors "Do you wanna watch me DIE" with all the venom he can muster on that final syllable, the listener's ears perk up, the hairs on the back of that listener's neck stand at attention, and the rest of the album suddenly sounds a little bit better.

Ostensibly, Zeitgeist is about our government, it's about our culture, it's about our fixation with the wrong things; there's a reason Paris Hilton adorns the cover for the "Tarantula" single, and it's not because Corgan and Chamberlin are big fans. There are plenty of swipes at the current American administration, and the title of "Doomsday Clock" should tell you all you need to know about where Corgan thinks we're headed should the current state of things be allowed to continue unabated. What Zeitgeist is really about, what all Pumpkins albums are really about, however, is Billy Corgan, and in a way, it seems Corgan himself has accepted that, and is now starting to revel in it. And as he revels in it, he loathes himself a little bit for doing so.

And it's one more contradiction -- One more beautiful, beautiful contradiction.

8
Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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