Misery For the Masses

Nothing more than feelings: Billy Corgan channels teenage angst

LATELY I'VE BEEN treated to countless car-radio samples of "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," the latest hit from The Smashing Pumpkins. It's always the part where Billy Corgan, with an attempted snarl that comes off like a needly whine, laments that "deSPITE all my rage I am sti-ill just a rat in a cage!" It reminds me of a similar car-radio phase a couple years ago, where I kept hearing him moan, "what I choose is my choice"--which seemed obvious enough to me--and "the killer in me is the killer in you."

Granted, dumb lyrics are often what makes a song a hit, and clearly Billy's struck a chord with the caged rat line in the same way Trent "Nine Inch Nails" Reznor did with "I wanna fuck you like an animal." Perhaps I betray my age (and some cynicism) in saying that my first impulse is to laugh at such angsty words--though I'm equally amused by the woman whoscreams rock & rollishly about Passion in hawking Mazdas to the upwardly mobile. But never mind Billy's claim that "Words can't define what I feel inside/Who needs them?" ("Geek U.S.A.," from Siamese Dream). Obviously they're darn important, to judge from that CD's elaborately arty lyrics booklet, and now the 30-page, quaintly illustrated, fairy tale-ish book that accompanies Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (get it?). These words beg to be not just heard but pored over and screamed along to. So when it comes to music for hormone-addled teens, if the Pumpkins are the Journey of the '90s (as a friend claims), what are Billy Corgan's thematic counterparts to Steve Perry's cheesy love-and-sex anthems?

For starters, there's this feeling of being trapped, or more accurately, entrapped: the rat-in-a-cage imagery, all the "let me out"s howled on the hit "Cherub Rock," the sense that "I'll burn my eyes out/Before I get out... I'll tear my heart out/Before I get out" on the equally popular "Today." "I ain't free," Billy contends on "Hummer" (in which it's observed that "Life's a bummer when you're a hummer/Life's a drag," making me think that a hummer must be something more than one who hums). There's also a general enchantment with evil and sin ("Sweet sweet sweet little agony/I don't know just where you've been/But I'll take all that you have for me in sin"), and even a castigation of anything that seems good: "Faith lies in the ways of sin/I chased the charmed but I don't want them anymore/And in their eyes I was alive--a fool's disguise."

Now you might think a double CD for such a young band heralds a fruitful new era (though I would point you to G'N'R and Use Your Illusion--which I've heard is one of Billy's creative touchstones--or G'N'R and the Use Your Illusions). Still, on Mellon Collie, Billy has matured lyrically in making every single letter lower-case. But despite the plentiful love songs (one called "love"), he's still got that bilious edge and a sense of all-around wretchedness; he's still "intoxicated with the madness... in love with my sadness," as he puts it on "zero." Take the song "fuck you (an ode to no one)," and the worldview on "jellybelly": "welcome to nowhere fast/nothing here ever lasts/nothing but memories/of what never was/... living makes me sick/so sick i wish i'd die/down in the belly of the beast" (so would this be the jellybelly of the title?).

"I give in to my disease," Billy rants on a song from Siamese Dream. Judging from his lyrics, I'd diagnose him with a severe humor deficiency, as well as a bad case of extended adolescence. Which of course explains the Pumpkins's popularity: Billy Corgan is every American teen's poet, and don't think he doesn't know it. As he told Rolling Stone, "I still spend a lot of time thinking about what a 15-year-old must be thinking right now. Because that is the predominant audience that you're going to be relating to."


A YEAR BACK, the good folks at Prospective/ Ultramodern Records attempted to create a so-called dream-pop scene based around three local bands: Shapeshifter, Colfax Abbey, and February. But apart from a few cosmetic similarities, each band works with a distinctly different philosophy, and the scene-dreams soon dissolved. "Dream-pop" is problematic anyway: These bands all display a tendency toward "dreamy" treble guitar noise, but "pop" has hooks, and these bands are more spacy and textural than melodic. Last year I met a teenage guitarist from the northern suburbs who called it, appropriately I think, "texture music," since the guitars are essentially discordant atmospherics, while the rhythm section usually dictates the shape of the songs.

Since then, Shapeshifter took a small hiatus, February independently launched its Even the Night Can't Tell You From a Star EP, and numerous newer bands like Overblue, Summer Holiday, and Nectar have further fragmented the pseudo-genre. Colfax Abbey, the retro heartthrobs of the pack, now offer the first local full-length on the subject--their CD debut, Drop (Prospective/TRG).

An elaborate, triumphant recording, Drop highlights the Abbey's textural strengths and testifies to the power of a good producer. Half of the disc was masterfully recorded at the Playground in Chicago with coproducer Keith Cleversley, highly esteemed for his work with Spiritualized and The Flaming Lips; the other half was knobbed by Ed Ackerson, no slouch himself. I'd go so far as to say the production weaves a sonic complexity into Colfax Abbey's music of which the alone weren't always fully capable. As bands go, the hardworking, road-ready Colfax is a stimulating work in progress. Feel it for yourself at Friday's CD release party at 7th St. Entry. Openers include Dwindle (who have just released the five-song Present General Conditions) along with the reconfigured Overblue and Nectar. 8 p.m. doors; $5. Call 338-8388.

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