In keeping with the Ziggy Stardust theme of their final two albums, the Smashing Pumpkins pulled a rock and roll suicide Saturday night. "Bang bang, you're dead/Put a hole right through your head," singer Billy Corgan deadpanned as the band prepared to leave the stage of the Metro nearly 13 years after its live debut.
In a four-and-a-half hour, 36-song extravaganza that featured friends, family, clowns and prayers, the Chicago rock band that helped put the city on the musical map in the early '90s called it quits with an exhaustive run through its catalog, colored by leader Billy Corgan's stable of tragic heroes and their broken dreams.
"Welcome to the last gasp of the Smashing Pumpkins," Corgan said after the group opened the show with a snarling take on its 1993 song "Rocket." Dressed as an androgynous space boy, in a silver tunic over a black shimmery dress and black turtleneck, Corgan looked as if he'd been beamed down from a planet ruled by 6-foot rock and roll drag queens.
Heavy on the group's patented mix of prog-rock bombast laced with melodic pop and heavy-metal riffing, the show was a crowd-pleasing greatest-hits showcase from a band that rarely followed convention — even if, Corgan admitted during a five-hour rehearsal the night before, that single-mindedness ultimately fueled the band's destruction.
The band, guitarist James Iha — dressed in a vintage red cowboy suit with multicolored, spangled flowers at his ankles — touring bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, was creative to the last, rearranging songs less than 24 hours before Saturday's gig.
The ballad "To Sheila" featured soaring gospel harmonies from Chicago singer Linda Rowberry, whom Corgan invited to join the band on a whim midway through the Friday night rehearsal.
Other chestnuts got thoroughly worked over in the 1,100-capacity club Corgan has called the group's "psychic home." The new-wave-y ballad "I of the Mourning," from the band's penultimate album, MACHINA/the machines of God, mutated into a ferocious, speed-metal blur.
The already acid-tinged classic "Siva," from their 1991 debut, Gish, was blown out into a flurry of heavy-metal psychedelic thunder, driven by Chamberlin's aggressive drumming and Corgan's slashing guitar playing. Keyboardists Mike Garson (David Bowie) and local pop singer Chris Holmes fleshed out the band's rock arrangements with new-wave synths and classical piano fills.
After six albums that sold more than 22 million copies, Corgan announced in May that the group would be breaking up. In a subdued mood the night before the finale, he swore he would never play the songs again.
For the fans who traveled from as far away as Japan for the concert, lyrics Corgan had been singing nightly for the past decade suddenly took on fresh, poignant meanings as they shared their last hours with the group. "Can I fake it, for just one more show?" Corgan wailed during a double-time, hardcore version of the band's 1995 hit "Bullet With Butterfly Wings."
When he crooned "Today is the greatest day I've ever known," to open an acoustic take on one of the band's biggest hits, "Today," from the Pumpkins' 1993 breakthrough album, Siamese Dream, the crowd erupted into knowing applause.
Intended as a gift to fans and the city that nurtured the group, Corgan said the show was also a chance to thank musical heroes and inspirations. "I ripped this song off from him," Corgan said while introducing hometown legend and Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen. The goateed rocker joined the group for a thundering encore of one of the Pumpkins' breakthrough hits, "Cherub Rock."
Corgan brought out longtime friends Jimmy and Dennis Flemion of bizarro Milwaukee rock duo the Frogs for a pair of songs early in the show. Wearing his signature spangly green bat wings, lanky band leader Jimmy Flemion warbled his way through a country-ish reading of the ballad "Bliss & Gone" as Corgan swayed, smiled and acted uncharacteristically goofy, swinging his arms and mugging for the crowd. "I had myself/ I had my band," the head Pumpkin mooned, hands on hips, rolling his eyes like a petulant child.
Injecting a moment of gravity into the emotional celebration, Corgan came out for an encore later in the show and lit a candle, thanking God for "giving the band their time on Earth" and, in one last jab at detractors, the Pumpkins' enemies for pushing them to try harder.
"He's cool, he's bald, he's my father," he then said, introducing jazz guitarist William Corgan Sr., who took the stage for a few songs, trading licks with his son and adding bluesy, falsetto vocals to the Adore ballad "For Martha."
The elder Corgan, sporting black leather pants, then took center stage for a thrashing rendition of the blues standard "Born Under a Bad Sign." Cradling a flying-V guitar, Corgan's father told the crowd that his famous son was only 3 years old when he purchased the classic rock instrument. "And sometimes me and my boy Billy don't see eye-to-eye," rapped the elder Corgan over a blues breakdown, "but there's one thing we agree on, both of us were probably born under a bad sign."
One of the few lulls in the show came during an unplugged set in the second hour. While roadies rearranged the stage, a clown walked out bearing a sign that would prove prophetic: "Part II — The Shambling Orchestra Will Play," the cue card read. The midshow acoustic set sapped the energy from the tightly packed crowd, who stood politely through nearly an hour of melancholy, ethereal takes on such songs as "Muzzle," "Stand Inside Your Love" and "Perfect."
Appropriately, Corgan explained that "This Time" was one of the last tracks he wrote for the MACHINA albums. (A free, online-only sequel to MACHINA, titled MACHINA II/ friends and enemies of modern music, was released in September.) "I've got to sing my song while I still can," Corgan crooned as Iha squeezed sitarlike notes from his acoustic guitar. The spaced-out guitarist then took a rare spot in the forefront as he performed the whispery song "Go," getting in on the prescient lyrical action. "Go, leave if you must," he warbled from beneath his veil of black hair.
With seemingly nothing left to say, the band took the stage a final time just before midnight for a scorched-earth reading of their sure-fire show-stopper, "Silverfuck." The 35-minute jam, which ranged from psychedelic noodling to heavy-metal guitar wars and every combination in between, featured a series of sermons from Corgan to his mostly teenage crowd. "I feel no pain, I feel no pain, I feel no pain," he shouted, then sneering, "We have the answer to your question/ The answer to your guess is that we never f---ing left!"
After a series of paint-peeling screams and more false endings than a Lynyrd Skynyrd live album, Corgan left the crowd with one final thought: "Ladies and gentlemen, there is nowhere left to go. God bless the Smashing Pumpkins."
The exhausted crowd shouted "thank you" in unison as Corgan stood center stage, alone, beaming and teary-eyed, having played his life's work a final time. Attendees were given a commemorative CD of the Pumpkins' Metro debut from October 5, 1988, as they walked into the cold night.
An hour later, as a decade-old performance of "Silverf---" unspooled on a movie screen during the private after-show party, an Italian fan laden with CDs and posters approached Corgan. "I wish I could remember that moment in my life," the singer said to no one in particular as he watched the younger, long-haired, dress-wearing version of himself on the screen.
The fan asked Corgan, now wearing an elegant three-button brown suit, a question about the Pumpkins.
Corgan laughed, paused and gave a sweet, thoroughly contented smile.
"I'm not in the Smashing Pumpkins anymore," he said. "I'm just Billy."
Full setlist of final Smashing Pumpkins show:
"I Am One"
"Porcelina of the Vast Oceans"
"The Everlasting Gaze"
"Bullet With Butterfly Wings"
"Thru the Eyes of Ruby"
"Bliss & Gone"
"I of the Mourning"
"Stand Inside Your Love"
"The Last Song"
"Age of Innocence"
"F--- You (An Ode to No One) "
"If There Is a God"
"Cash Car Star"
"Rock On/Heavy Metal Machine"
"Born Under a Bad Sign"