Who does the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan think he is--Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder?
Just when everybody had pretty much narrowed the race for most compelling young rocker of the '90s to the Nirvana and Pearl Jam leaders, Corgan has thrown his guitar in the ring with an album, "Siamese Dream," that captures the alienation and crucially, the melancholia of youth as well as anyone in years.
And Corgan, whose soft, delicate features make him look as if he's in his teens rather than his mid-20s, showed Thursday night at the sold-out Hollywood Palladium that he's just as capable of maintaining his alternative rock independence and integrity in face of mainstream acceptance as his more publicized rivals.
In fact, Corgan was so sensitive at times--trying to hush the noisier elements in the crowd--that someone ought to consider putting a "Temperamental Artist at Work" sign on stage the next time the Pumpkins come to town.
"Why anybody comes to a show to talk doesn't make any sense to me," he said about a third of the way into the 90-minute set.
Scolding the crowd has long been a no-no in mainstream rock. The theory is the audience pays its way in, so anything goes.
At the same time, audiences--especially in the new rock world of the '90s--want their heroes to express real emotions on stage, not just be an extension of the carefully packaged tradition of so many mainstream '70s and '80s stars.
And you could certainly understand Corgan's frustration at the Palladium.
One of the reasons the Pumpkins are so smashing is that Corgan is a guitarist who can lead the Chicago quartet through glorious sonic assaults that combine some of the sophistication of Hendrix and the brute force of Black Sabbath.
Yet the most prized element in his music is a tender, confessional side that reminds you of such lonely but lovely Brian Wilson compositions as "God Only Knows" and "In My Room."
But the hundreds of would-be gymnasts practiced their skills on one another's shoulders in ritualistic, mosh-pit fashion near the front of the stage just as intensely during delicate tunes as the high-energy ones--a sign that's somebody's not listening. So, Corgan called them on it, an indication that he is concerned with more than just selling out the house.
After opening sets by Medicine and Shudder to Think, the Pumpkins--which also includes guitarist James Iha, bassist D'Arcy and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin--came on stage and Corgan teased the audience with a couple of quick, aggressive guitar runs.
Anticipating more energy, the crowd down front began its frantic antics. But Corgan opened instead with "Disarm," a dreamy, trance-line number whose anxious lyrics reflect the youthful questioning and search for self-identity that underlies so much of his music.
For the rest of the set, the Pumpkins--whose tour continues tonight at UC Santa Barbara and Tuesday at Del Mar's Crosby Hall--went back and forth between moments of peak adrenaline and captivating introspection.
Even with his admonitions between songs, Corgan never got everyone to notice the difference between the moments of alienation and the moments of yearning, but the struggle alone marked him as a musician on a valuable mission.