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Rocking Their World

Fans mourn announcement that Smashing Pumpkins plan to break up at the end of this year, while the band delivers an engaging concert.

May 25, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"We stick our knife in the fat . . . gut of America," declaimed Billy Corgan in a lengthy, pounding coda to "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" toward the end of the Smashing Pumpkins' show Tuesday at the Universal Amphitheatre--just hours after he shocked Pumpkins fans with an afternoon radio announcement that the band will break up at the end of the year.

"That's right," he said in the song. "I'm still angry. Can you feel it?"

That's the kind of strong expression that has made Corgan, 33, one of rock's key figures of the past decade. He has forged a tight bond with fans who looked to him for emotional catharsis and guidance.

But neither those lyrics, nor anything else in the concert, shed any light on the news he made earlier in the day during an interview with DJ Tami Heide on KROQ-FM (106.7).

It was an announcement that followed months of rumors over the status of the band and years of drama.

Corgan told Heide that he was tired of "fighting the good fight against the Britneys of the world" for attention. The band's sales have shrunk from a peak of 4.4 million for 1995's two-CD set "Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness" to just 440,000 for the new "MACHINA/the machines of Gods" since its February release.

With rock's commercial and cultural presence diminishing, Corgan has been looked to by many as someone who would carry on anyway. But with his announcement Tuesday, he seemed to be giving up, with no real explanation other than saying on KROQ that as rock's last hope, "We didn't do a very good job."

If it's quality he wants rather than quantity, however, he's done a terrific job, as evidenced by the sorrow expressed by fans at the breakup news.

In the Universal's lobby before the show, Michael Finn was shellshocked to hear that the rumors she'd heard were true.

Dressed in a shirt reading "Zero," like one Corgan regularly wore a few years ago, and bearing a temporary tattoo on her throat with the band's name, the Simi Valley 16-year-old turned to her friend Kari Stein.

"Kari! It's true," said Finn, as tears smudged her black makeup and glitter.

"The Pumpkins have helped me through a lot," she said. "Their music has always been there. [Corgan] just totally relates to me. There's a song for everything I've been through. Recently my dad told me he was getting married and I listened to [the song] 'Crestfallen' over and over."

Is that not good enough for Corgan? It would be typical. After all, never being satisfied, with no strong reason behind the feeling, is more or less the theme of his American Goth. On Tuesday he made no explicit allusion to the breakup announcement, but there was talk of "revolution" and wanting to change the world.

Corgan, who eagerly embraced the role of rock star in the grunge years when Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder rejected it, Tuesday acted as if even that wasn't enough, almost as if he wants the role of religious or political leader. With his shiny black smock/dress, black turtleneck and shaven pate, the tall singer even looked like a sort of futuristic cult priest.

It all mirrors the grand confusions and malaise of youth, which is why the fans relate so well. But at times it seemed to be just drama manufactured for the show, with Corgan appearing to be able to turn his anger on and off at will. Certainly there was power in the music at times, with new bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur (who brings some much-needed animated presence to the usually stiff band) and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin teaming to anchor a massive, monolithic sound. And the guitar tandem of Corgan and James Iha made for some intricate and dynamic interplay, notably on a version of "1979."

Tellingly, Corgan seemed most engaging and open when alone and when the music was more subdued. In a solo acoustic moment, he bantered with the crowd, smiled readily and seemed not the least bit angry. Later, introducing the final song, he came off as actually humble and appreciative of the fans, a feeling accented by his staying alone on stage at show's end to collect teddy bears and flowers from the fans, a big, blissful smile on his face.

The latest drama surrounding the band was the exit of founding bassist D'Arcy, following the recording of "MACHINA."

This show marked the L.A. Pumpkins debut of her replacement Auf Der Maur, an alumna of the always-dramatic world of Courtney Love's Hole. The new album also featured the return of Chamberlin, who had been fired in 1996 due to his drug addiction and his role in the drug overdose death of touring keyboard player Jonathan Melvoin.

Perhaps Corgan is more suited to a solo life. But if sales are the key, what are the prospects?

"He's a brilliant songwriter, so he can do whatever he wants," KROQ's Heide said backstage before the show. "But when other successful bands have broken up and the frontman has gone on, it's often a difficult road to travel. It's a lot about building a brand name with a band."

In the lobby, teenager Finn tried to contemplate life without the Pumpkins.

"Their music has always been there," she said. "I wish [new Pumpkins songs] could constantly come out."

Stein shook her head when asked if it could be the same with Corgan solo. "Not really," she said, glumly.

But Finn found some solace: "The lyrics will be the same."

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