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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Melancholy, Baby

Smashing Pumpkins Showcase Themes of Emptiness, Loneliness at the Palace

February 05, 1996|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hero or zero?

Billy Corgan opened the Smashing Pumpkins' concert at the Palace on Friday with "Tonight, Tonight," a sweet ballad in which he invites his listeners to "believe in me as I believe in you."

That's an enduring rock-hero function--to provide a solid source of reassurance in a world beset by forces that isolate.

But Corgan is also drawn to the void, where belief--and everything else--doesn't really matter. At the Palace, he wore a shirt emblazoned "ZERO," and the song of that name came along early in the show: "Emptiness is loneliness, and loneliness is cleanliness and cleanliness is godliness, and god is empty just like me."

The contending impulses that Corgan and his band embody have taken a deep hold on an audience that lives with the same kind of conflicts--longing for meaning and connection, but confronted by paralyzing obstacles. The Pumpkins' current "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" has been in the Top 10 of the sales charts since it came out in October, and the group is pretty much the defining force in alternative-rock right now.

*

The three-night Palace engagement, part of a special tour of small halls preceding a conventional tour, had a built-in special-event atmosphere, and the 45-minute acoustic set that opened the show was a nice way to establish an unusual intimacy. Musically, though, it was problematic, leaving too much emphasis on Corgan's wobbly whine and lacking the dynamism that makes his music compelling.

There would be plenty of that in the bulk of the show, which, like the two-CD "Mellon Collie," sprawled and meandered but managed to make its points. Conciseness and restraint aren't Corgan's chief virtues, and he tells us more than we need to know about the psychological sources of his malaise.

More relevant is his response to those pressures and pain: to make music rich enough to provide a refuge and powerful enough to forge that bond with his listeners.

Independent and ambitious, erratic and eccentric, Corgan and his group--guitarist James Iha, bassist D'Arcy and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin--have forged a progressive/psychedelic/metal blend that can endow the moment with power and immediacy. "Cherub Rock," from the Pumpkins' 1993 breakthrough album "Siamese Dream," hit a pinnacle of hurtling, whipsaw rock 'n' roll Friday, its main hook battling to keep its shape amid a withering instrumental storm.

But the exhilaration of moments like that is always tempered. Corgan's reassuring voice alternates with a mocking one, and he applies subversive postscripts to the classic gestures of supplication and embrace--an oddly childlike shrug or a wry smile that suggests his own ambivalence. Out of phase, the emotional signal wobbles.

Corgan's ambiguity finds expressive form in a vulnerability that makes him endearing and gives his complaints some emotional resonance. But does it let him be strong enough to carry all the weight he's asking for? He's so good at squirming around that you never really get to find out.

Hero or zero? Might as well be both.

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