Twenty years ago. 1991. I was going to be 15 that August. It was amazing how much happened to alter the face of American culture that year. August saw the release of Pearl Jam’s TEN. September was the one that changed things in a major way, which was Nirvana’s NEVERMIND. However, the one that changed MY life came out on May 28, 1991. I’m speaking, of course, of the Smashing Pumpkins’ debut album GISH. In a weird way though, the impact this day had on my life didn’t come until much later. Naturally, I will explain.
The first time I ever heard of the Pumpkins was on 120 Minutes when I caught the tail end of the video for “Rhinoceros.” After the video Billy Corgan and D’arcy were sitting on a couch talking to the host Dave Kendall. Dave asked Billy what the song was about, and Billy said he wrote lyrics that had to do more with feelings, so it was hard for him to say, “Well one day I was walking down the street and I thought…” Then D’arcy said, “We don’t want to tell you what to think. We’re here to say, ‘Think for yourself.'” I don’t know what it was, but something about the way she said that really turned me off. I was like, “Oh God, like that hasn’t been said a million times before!” So in an ironic revelation (well, ironic to those who know me anyway), I actually started out HATING the Smashing Pumpkins!
Then came the summer of 1993. I saw the premier of the video for “Cherub Rock.” When I saw that name come on the screen, I sighed heavily. But then that main riff kicked in…and man, I was transported to another world. Years before that I had tried and given up on learning guitar because I had no idea where I wanted to go with music. I mean, at the time I would listen to something abrasive like Nine Inch Nails one day and then something ultra mellow like Cat Stevens the next. (Little did I know, one listen to SIAMESE DREAM would show me these two musical extremes could exist side by side.) When I heard the main guitar part from “Cherub Rock,” all I knew was I wanted to learn that damn part!
I owned SIAMESE DREAM before GISH, and taking a step backward that way was kind of hard because DREAM is a more accomplished album. So one week I purposely left SIAMESE DREAM home and brought in GISH to play on my walkman all day: on the bus ride to and from school, on my walks in between classes, and so on. (My favorite thing used to be to put the TV on mute while I played Phantasy Star 2 on the Sega Genesis and play music in the background. GISH became the soundtrack to many a 16-bit game for me.)
So anyway, what can I say about GISH and the Pumpkins in general? They got me through a lot of hard times. Billy Corgan wrote lyrics that made me feel like he knew the exact same emotions going through my head at that time. I never once thought of the adjectives “whiny” or “nasally” when I heard his voice. To me he just sounded like a guy who was hurting, and he was crying out in frustration because no one seemed to hear or understand him. (I find it ironic that so many singers that came after him like the ultra-whineass Justin Davis from Korn are so highly praised by the same people who mocked Corgan. Take one listen to “Falling Away from Me” or “Freak on a Leash,” people. THAT is a whiny voice in action.)
The guitars were a revelation back in those “grunge” days. A lot of guitarists favored sludgy power chord riffs and played solos where they basically played the notes that they sang. (Check out the solo during “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”) Not Corgan. He was never any slouch in that department. He could layer guitars like Hendrix or Brian May. In fact, a lot of his solos reminded me of Hendrix, especially on GISH (which is when the Pumpkins were still in their psychedelic stage). At first I was a hard rock kid so I couldn’t hang too well with songs like “Crush” and “Suffer” or even “Window Paine.” (That last one does get loud and rock, but it is a SLOW rock, and I was all about fast tempo back then.) After a while though, I was able to wrap my head around those songs too, and I came to appreciate Corgan’s songwriting as a whole; genre no longer mattered to me.
And the drumming of Jimmy Chamberlain! If there is one thing that makes the Pumpkins rock head and shoulders above every other bands from the ’90s, it’s the way his chops compliment Billy’s riffs. Aside from the greats like Keith Moon and John Bonham, I don’t think I’ve heard a more expressive rock drummer in my life.
GISH opened up a whole new world to me. This was an album where Sabbath-like riffs sat beside dream pop ballads, where maniacal guitar solos gave way to passages of eerie quiet, where vocals went from raging snarl to aching and vulnerable. It was an album where anything was possible…and still is. To this day I can still hear new things in the mix that I didn’t hear when I was 14 going on 15. TWENTY YEARS DOWN THE ROAD I STILL HEAR NEW THINGS ON THIS ALBUM!!!!
And that, my friends, is what I think defines a classic.