ATN Toronto correspondent Peter Howell (a staff writer for
the Toronto Star reports: It's 5 p.m. (on Jan. 4), and the audience
earlybirds shivering outside the Phoenix Concert Theatre are getting a thrill:
the members of Chicago's Smashing Pumpkins showing up for a pre-concert sound
check. The fans press close to the vehicle carrying the band, their small flash
cameras popping souvenir shots, while band member Billy Corgan, Jimmy
Chamberlain, James Iha and D'Arcy shyly smile and slip into the building,
anxious to prepare for the second of two sold-out shows.
The Pumpkins seem
embarrassed by the attention, and they don't look like rock stars, with the
exception of bassist D'Arcy, the glamour doll of the group in her styled blonde
hair and shiny leather pants.
Backstage in the dressing room, which is
stocked with such rock 'n' roll essentials as champagne and such whimsical
requests as Skippy peanut butter and Pez candy dispensers (D'Arcy's personal
favorite), Corgan and Chamberlain seem even less like the nouveau rock royalty
they've become. For one thing, Corgan is wrapped in a big winter coat and
toque, snuffling away at a cold. "Right now, I'm on codeine, echinacea,
cortisone, antibiotics ... I don't even know what I'm taking. I'm just like
Elvis," he quips.
A viral infection for the lead singer/guitarist at the
start of a world tour would be a nail-biting concern for many bands. But it
doesn't seem to worry this extremely focused group, which gives the impression
of having thought out every move so well, no explanation or justification bears
mention. But Corgan, 28, and drummer Chamberlain, 31, are happy to at least try
to explain it all, including the band's decision to begin its Phoenix shows
with a sit-down acoustic set, rather than straight balls-out rock 'n'
The Smashing Pumpkins, after all, are a hot, hot ticket, having sold
out the 1,100-person Phoenix twice over, for a show that would have done
healthy business at Maple Leaf Gardens hockey arena or even the SkyDome
stadium. And the band is currently at the top of the alternative rock heap,
with an audacious double album, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness,
that has sold 300,000 units -- triple platinum -- in Canada alone since its
So why the take-it-easy show start? The simple answer is
they won't be able to do much acoustic playing this summer, when they return to
Toronto for a big outdoor show on another leg of the tour aimed at
amphitheaters and stadiums. "We know we could come here and play to
how-many-other people, but that's not what we're interested in," Corgan says.
Adds Chamberlain, who often intuitively finishes Corgan's sentences: "This
is as much for us as it is for everybody else."
"We have one eye on being
entertaining, and another eye on satisfying our own need to go out and fully
enjoy the material that we worked so hard to present," Corgan continues.
"Because the fact of the matter is, it's exactly what you're saying: the moment
we do go into those big places, we'll never play most of the stuff that you
heard last night."
Toronto is one of only a handful of cities where the
Pumpkins are doing small club shows to warm up for their one-to-two-year global
trek. It's in recognition of the fact that Canada, and Toronto in particular,
is one of the best markets in the world for the Smashing Pumpkins, Corgan says.
It's some change from 1991, when the Pumpkins were the opening act on an
amazing bill at the old Concert Hall, that included the Red Hot Chili Peppers
and the local debut of Pearl Jam. At that show, Corgan became angry with the
crowd for something he now can't recall, and showered the audience with verbal
abuse. He admits he's mellowed a lot since then, both towards Toronto -- he
judged Tuesday's first-night crowd "excellent" -- and his audiences in general.
"My basic negative reactions were to apathy or bad attitude," he says, "so I
would respond to it in kind."
Corgan has since learned to be patient, which
is why he didn't fly off the handle when the punkers in his Phoenix audience
screamed for ear-bending rock during the acoustic phase of the show. He and his
bandmates have together learned to work together more and to hold their ground,
putting on the show they want to do. "We're not asking for tolerance," Corgan
says. "We're basically saying, 'Here's what we are, all facets of it,' and if
people don't like certain facets of it, well, there's not much we can do about
The "all facets" philosophy explains why Mellon Collie has 28
tracks and two discs. Corgan and Chamberlain both say there was exactly one
band meeting to decide whether to put out another single-CD album of rock, like
1993's ground-breaking Siamese Dream, or to push the band's limits with
what became Mellon Collie, a sprawling monument to creativity with its
rock, classical, jazz and pop mix, and acoustic/electric dual personality. "And
we never looked back," Corgan says, a satisfied smile on his face.
Mellon Collie show all sides of the band? Chamberlain, for one, thinks
so: "I think it's about as close as we can get, really, without either killing
ourselves or having to quit."
But Corgan seemed unconvinced: "I think this
is the crowning achievement of Smashing Pumpkins as people would know it, but I
think we're still capable of making a universal album. "We're still capable of
making an album that would appeal to your grandma and a 15-year-old kid, and
which nobody would have a problem with -- the kind of album R.E.M. and U2
A brash claim, but anyone who has followed the Smashing Pumpkins on
their seven-year odyssey would know better than to disbelieve