"In you I taste God," is a lyric from one of the new songs that Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan sang
during a rare solo, acoustic appearance at L.A.'s Viper Room Thursday night. It's a
line that many in the crowd could likely relate to. For Smashing Pumpkins
fans, this was a special show -- one that delivered more than
promised when Pumpkin guitarist James Iha preceded Corgan on the stage with
his own acoustic mini-set. Unfortunately for Iha, the anticipation for Corgan was so high that the guitarist didn't get the props he was due for debuting four lullaby-like ditties -- including "Be Strong
Now" and "Country Girl" -- off his upcoming album, Let It Come Down (Feb. 10). "This is the first time I've played any of these songs for
anyone," Iha confessed halfway through his set. "It's a bit scary."
But the audience, which included his Pumpkins bandmate D'Arcy, producer/label head Rick Rubin, producer and Black Grape member Danny
Saber and Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson, were there to see Corgan. "People were talking,
ignoring James like it was an open mic night," said Jed the Fish, a DJ at the modern-rock radio station, KROQ, that promoted the show. "You could tell he was a bit
discouraged, he was real nervous."
It was king Pumpkin Billy Corgan they wanted. And, after Iha, it was
Corgan they finally got. Well after midnight, Corgan walked onto the stage wearing a black sweater and jeans. He took a seat on a stool and, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, delivered a thoroughly sincere and at times transcendent set of all-new
material, which he capped off with one encore -- the anthemic 1995 hit,
"1979." "These days you can't smoke in the bars," Corgan said during one of the few times that he spoke to the crowd. "I'm surprised you can drink, I know
you can't curse."
Consisting of primarily gentle ballads ("All love songs about falling in love, breaking up, and
special relationships," said Jed the Fish), Corgan's 45-minute, 10-song set had an almost
innocent quality to it. The acoustic setting allowed Corgan's voice -- and the hard honesty of the new lyrics -- to come through loud and clear. And in a venue as small as the Viper
Room, Corgan was able to create an intimacy that is impossible at the arenas where the Pumpkins typically perform. He opened with a new song that Jed the Fish thinks "will be a hit no matter what form it takes [on the album]."
Spartan, but atmospheric, the new material, which will be released on the
Pumpkin's upcoming album, reveals a songwriter who's grown considerably since
1995's Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness. Songs such as the dynamically
rich "Falling" and the beautifully circular "Shame" are sure signs that Corgan
is getting better with age.
Yet the crowd was a difficult one to please. And when you deliver a set of songs that your audience has never heard before, you're asking a lot. Even of hard-core fans. "The crowd was less rude during Billy's set, but it [their restlessness] was a testament to how hard it is to break in new
material, even if you're Billy Corgan," said Jed the Fish. "I mean, you'll probably never hear all-new Smashing Pumpkins songs all in a row in a small club like the Viper Room again."
Midway through his set, Corgan tried to get the crowd to quiet down. "You might want to
listen to this, it's a rare moment in my life," he said, before beginning a song that included the lyrics "you love him, love him for yourself, can't resist."
First announced on KROQ Wednesday afternoon, this was a show
for fans; there was no guest (well, clearly a few VIPs did get in through the back door, so to speak) or media list. You made it inside if you were
lucky enough to call in and answer a Pumpkin trivia question correctly and therefore score
one of KROQ's 14 tickets, or if you were willing to wait in line for a
long time and buy a $7 one from the Viper Room.
Those left to the latter got there early -- though no one earlier than
23-year-old diehard George Cervantes, who showed up at the club shortly after
it closed Wednesday night, right around 3 a.m. He was joined about 10 hours
later by some less ambitious followers -- there was a line outside the club all day Thursday. When it started to rain on the fans, Viper Room employees
came out and offered coffee, tea and umbrellas. By 8 p.m., the line had spread
from the venue's side-entrance up to Sunset Boulevard, where it turned west and
proceeded to the next block.
(ATN's Senior Writer Gil Kaufman contributed to this story.) [Fri., Jan. 16, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]