Not Just the Ticket — #26, Smashing Pumpkins, December 17, 1991

Smashing Pumpkins, Whisky

Then-current album: Gish

Opening act: Hole

Back of ticket ad: “Play California Lottery Your Ticket to Fun” — if you say so.

The price of this one really knocks me for a loop. $10! Amazing. Guess I got lucky.

And given the band in question, guess I got really lucky.

As there will be a lot — a LOT — of Smashing Pumpkins show reports to come (not double digits but even so), I don’t want to say everything I could about them right now, that would be a touch unnecessary. Of course, plenty of friends have long told me any words about one Billy Corgan and his muse are unnecessary, and I do think it’s a bit funny that he still inspires so much sheer reflexive ARRRGH among so many people. Not that I don’t see why — often (maybe all too clearly) I do, and I think his worst step was one of his most recent ones, reactivating the Smashing Pumpkins name. Had he kept at things under the solo guise or in another band project, I’d probably think a little more kindly of him now, whatever else is going on with him.

But I’ve never hid the fact that I was a massive, massive Pumpkins fan for most of the nineties, have just about every last thing they recorded in studio and officially released, plenty of unofficial releases as well, more bootlegs and live shows than any other act, I could go on. For a simple reason — they were absolutely fantastic, just breathtaking at their best, and they put together all the pieces of my own sonic experience into a form I could never have assembled, I was far too impatient. I remember an after-the-fact review of their debut Gish saying it was an example of a musician spending all their time in the eighties reading every last guitar magazine there ever was and then actually doing something memorable with all the tech talk and gear discussion and yank-em/crank-em hoohah they churned out. A couple of years after this show, when I read a list of what Corgan named as his key bands when growing up and starting the band — among them: Cheap Trick, Depeche Mode, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Cure, Joy Division, Van Halen, My Bloody Valentine, Jane’s Addiction — I realized “Well no WONDER I like them!” This was all stuff I had adored one way or another; he went ahead and put it all together and sold it back to me and I ate it up.

At the time all I knew about them and Gish was that it was their debut and it got a fair amount of US and UK music press attention and it sounded like something that would be up my alley. I think there was a Melody Maker piece that in September 1991 or so that talked about how they would be the next thing to watch out for if you liked Jane’s Addiction given that they had split, and more than a few people and friends made similar comparisons at the time. I probably thought of it as well; given time and distance I can see the difference between the two bands far more clearly than the similarities, sometimes textural, sometimes just down to the fact that Corgan never gave up on pop songs, however much he sometimes hid the progressions or twisted the structures, where Jane’s seemed to create them by accident rather than intent. There’s more to it than that but whatever the thoughts and reasons: I picked up Gish and had played it pretty well to death by the time of this show, their second visit to LA that year.

It was actually a two night stand and the opening act was a band I’d seen not that long before, a labelmate of the Smashing Pumpkins. I wasn’t fully cognizant of the entire, strangely tangled history of Corgan and Courtney Love at that point — I think I’d heard something about how they were an item but by that time she and Cobain were living it up so I kept wondering if I was getting stories crossed. (I’m trying to imagine how that would have all played out on Twitter, now that I type this all out.) Pretty sure it was Steve M. and I who went to this one but Kris C. might have come along as well — in checking the date I’m mildly surprised that I wasn’t already home for Christmas vacation at that point but either finals must have still been going on or I had decided to hang out further specifically to catch this show, both of which could have applied. Either way I had to have been excited as hell.

But what I remember — or rather, can’t quite pin down the full details of remembering — is initially a problem. This hasn’t ever been a common thing with me but every so often you see a show or set that doesn’t work because there’s no way it’s going to work from the start — it’s almost better if it had never happened to begin with. This wasn’t the case with the Pumpkins but this was definitely the case with Hole. Based on the show I’d seen a couple of months previously at Rock for Choice and a cursory listen to the album, combined with random press I was seeing here and there (primarily via Everett True’s pieces in Melody Maker, not surprising given he was one of her biggest boosters), my own feelings were a bit mixed; that earlier show had had moments but I wasn’t a raving fan nor a rabid loather. I might have been a bit impatient just because I wasn’t there to see them but that was probably the extent of it.

Still, something more was off and I can’t remember why. I remember strange pauses between songs, band members looking less at each other than trying to avoid catching gazes; Eric Erlandson seemed to be the most comfortable just because he was tucked away behind the drums. Courtney was…not quite wild-eyed but wide-eyed and not in a friendly way. The crowd wasn’t helping and I’m sure some dumbass shit was said by less than polite and thoughtful souls, but I don’t remember it being a constant thing. I just remember the show finally falling apart, Courtney leaving the stage in anger and frustration, lots of sparring between her and at least a couple of hecklers, following performances that were, again, just off somehow. Perhaps I’m completely blanking on some big obvious thing that went down but it was all very odd and is odder now that I type it out. Still have never seen Hole or Courtney Love perform since then.

The Pumpkins went down rather differently, which probably explains why I became such a big fan over time — it was a hell of a show. I didn’t know at that point that Corgan had written several albums worth of songs in and before the Pumpkins, nor had I fully appreciated that they had already built up a slew of performances over the years — it wasn’t like they were spring chickens, though then again I’m not sure I would have thought of them as such anyway. But a lot of what was interesting about the show was something more obvious in retrospect, especially given all the other times I’ve seen Corgan over the years. I can trace a slew of common threads throughout all those shows that weren’t at this one when it came to Corgan in particular.

First off, even though the Pumpkins were always ‘his’ band in the end — primary songwriter, primary vocalist, etc. — he didn’t seem to be as much the frontman as he was part of a full unit here. The crowd was going nuts throughout and the band’s performance was strong as hell but I get this image in my head best defined by a kind of withdrawal into the music and the performance on his part — I almost feel like he was even sitting down for much of the show, but that doesn’t seem right, must just be a trick of the mind. Related to that was that in place of the sometimes endless banter and comments and things that he often liked to throw in — and nobody believes me, but Corgan and James Iha together can be two of the driest guys on the planet when it comes to comedic delivery and timing — Corgan seemed to be in a place of almost preternatural calm in this show.

Again, no banter, but also none of the crazed rants and screams and whatever the hell else defined a lot of his shows in the mid-nineties — given the often serene and stately crunch of Gish, even at its loudest, it seems perfectly appropriate. He was still rocking the long hair at this point as well — as in shoulder-length and beyond — and I remember his face being set in a position of near meditation. Iha, D’arcy and Jimmy Chamberlain were all living it up in their own ways, all a bit of a counterbalance to Corgan perhaps, and everybody was pretty much just on it throughout the show.

Maybe I just caught them on an unexpected night, maybe there were more shows like that that I ever realized. Maybe success going to his head explains all the changes, maybe it was other things, maybe he took more stuff later, maybe he was taking more stuff then. But his getting lost in the music to a near complete degree — and Love’s explosion and rejection of it entirely earlier — are the two most carefully held impressions from this show. An odd, but powerful, balance.