As I looked through our final yearly lists that make up this `Best of the ’90s,’ I realized that there was a distinct difference between the albums that I can appreciate now in hindsight, and the albums that were of dire importance to me at the time. Among the latter category, there was no album that had more of an impact on me than Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. The year was 1993. I had just gone through a breakup with a long time girlfriend and moved into an apartment with four other newly made bachelors. Music was a refuge for all of us, whether the Violent Femmes, the Grateful Dead, the Madchester scene or Crowded House, all of which I remember as being particular favorites of my four roommates. But I made a connection with Billy Corgan that summer and fall that was more intense than most other connections I’ve made to any other musician; so much so that I feel I can’t separate myself from it to be objective. For that reason, Siamese Dream will forever be one of the single most impactful albums in my lifetime.
Siamese Dream was and still is an astounding album for more than just one reason. It has emotional resonance, consisted of an incredible sound collage that might possibly never be repeated, and carries with it a legacy that is both the stuff of lore and both praised and derided.
There were times in listening to Siamese Dream that I alternately felt as if Billy Corgan were writing songs just for me, or just about me. I was mired in a deep depression and the music of the Pumpkins was, if not my ladder out, at least my companion through the darkness. I had already been a fan of Gish, a blend of Zeppelin-esque riffs, unearthly drums and psychedelic washes of guitar. Yet, with Siamese Dream, Corgan and his band vaulted way beyond the usually crushing expectations that come along with a sophomore album and created one of the more relevant and lasting pieces of music of a generation. (Aside: I’ve always felt that the best bands are often those in which you can name every member. The Beatles, R.E.M., The Smiths, U2, Joy Division and New Order act as perfect examples. So too the Pumpkins, at least their original incarnation.) Nearly every song on the album is tied to Corgan’s personal experiences including the suicidal lullaby of “Today,” the parental difficulties of “Disarm,” the failed relationship of “Soma” and the plight of a half-brother in “Spaceboy.” As Bart Simpson said of the Pumpkins’ music, “Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel,” but their music went beyond the mere drone of a goth band.
You can fairly easily break down the various and sundry cogs that make up the Smashing Pumpkins. Like pieces out of a Jenga pile, you can pull the shoegaze stick, as Siamese Dream owes huge debts of gratitude to My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Slowdive. But, you must not ignore that piece made out of heavy metal, and not just one kind. Corgan explored the psychedelic proto-metal trips of bands like Blue Cheer or Cream, the new breed of drone metal from Judas Priest and Black Sabbath, and later speed and thrash metal from such bands as Slayer. Corgan once said his favorite guitarist was “Dimebag” Darrell of Pantera. Add to those styles distinct melodies, a layered and grandiose sound to fill arenas and the alternately fey whispers and high-pitched growls of Corgan and you’ve got what turned out to be one hell of a record, but ultimately one that’s never been duplicated since, even by the band themselves. If one were to take these pieces separately, then try to combine them, only an unlistenable mess would come out most of the time. Many, including one-time bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, have stated that the Pumpkins are essentially Jimmy Chamberlain and Billy Corgan. So, the departures of D’Arcy Wretzky and James Iha should have left no ill effects. So, maybe it was the time and effort put into this one particular album that made it such a heavyweight?
The lore behind the making of Siamese Dream is nearly as well known as the album itself. Corgan was going through a bad bout of writers block to go along with depression, a breakup, heightened expectations of a second album and weight gain. All of these factors somehow informed his eventual writing, some songs written in the parking garage of his building. To paraphrase Julian Schnabel, who paraphrased someone who told him, “you don’t have to suffer to make art, but if you do suffer, you must incorporate it into that art.” Billy admittedly became a studio tyrant, going over budget and over time, agonizing over particular songs. Well, the proof is in the pudding, as it became an album whose every whistle, tweak and wail rewarded repeat listens. Accounts vary, but both Corgan and producer Butch Vig have stated that in some songs, there are 40 to 100 different guitar tracks all overlapping. Now, that’s a wall of noise to be reckoned with.
A friend once asked if I could eliminate any one movie out of the canon for all time, which would it be. I answered Jaws. Before you go apeshit, let me explain. It has nothing to do with the quality of the film itself. Jaws kicks ass. But that movie, nearly in and of itself, created what is now one of the worst aspects of the movie industry, the inane summer blockbuster. Eliminating Jaws is like trying to go back and prevent the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Wipe out Jaws and we are possibly spared Transformers, Van Helsing and the latest Indy movie. The same theories hold true for Siamese Dream as eliminating it could possibly save us from a thousand terrible emo bands. But, like Jaws, I just couldn’t bear to part with it. I’d rather live in a world where Siamese Dream existed despite the suffering caused by My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy and Hawthorne Heights.
As I prepared my lists for this ’90s retrospective, I went back and listened to a majority of the music I have from that decade. Again, it seemed that Smashing Pumpkins resonated with me more than nearly everything else. With his second album, Billy Corgan found a way to be both true to himself and to connect with the masses in need of something more than marble-mouthed yelping. And through that summer and fall of 1993, you could hear the distinct sounds of the new era of alternative music. You could hear the drum roll intro of “Cherub Rock,” the opening sing-sing guitar lick of “Today” and the crunching escalation of noise of “Soma.” It could rock with dazzling solos, thrashing riffs and rapid-fire drums that seem superhuman. But it could also soothe with lush string arrangements, introspective lyrics and ambient textures. It was, and is Siamese Dream, my personal choice for the best album of 1993, and a top ten favorite for the decade as voted by Treble writers.