The Smashing Pumpkins:
If All Goes Wrong (and How to Come Back When it Does)
—Review by Julie M. Tate

“As an artist it’s not my job to make you comfortable.”
— Jimmy Chamberlin, The Smashing Pumpkins (If All Goes Wrong, Coming Home Media, 2008) 

The classifieds of most writing magazines contain countless advertisements for artist retreats—from secluded log cabins in Vermont to villas in the French countryside. In exchange for rent you’re blessed with a distraction from life and the solitude to write. In many aspects that’s what If All Goes Wrong is about: the creative process and what goes on behind the scenes.

While ostensibly this is a documentary about the peculiar re-banding of Chicago’s most loved and hated musical export, The Smashing Pumpkins, and their subsequent residencies in Asheville, NC and San Francisco, CA, it also serves a higher purpose. It’s a 105-minute lesson in humility. Even if you’re not a fan—if you’re in a creative crisis, if your ego has gotten too high, too low or if you simply love art—buy a ticket for this ride.

As one of the juggernauts from the 90’s rock scene, The Pumpkins called it quits in 2000. Between that time and 2006 lead singer, songwriter and guitarist Billy Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin tried their hands a various projects, including a short-lived band, Zwan, and later solo careers, most of which were met with tepid reviews.

With Chamberlin and Corgan the only original members of the band to return, the goal of these residencies is to reanimate the creative process and polish the new cogs in the great Pumpkins machine: guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Ginger (Reyes) Pooley and keyboardist Lisa Harriton. Corgan’s maniacal creative drive keeps his crooked spine hunched over a piano or an acoustic guitar (later thrown across the room in frustration) for hours on end. Afterwards the new demos are unveiled at band practice and beta tested before an audience that evening.

Like the literary editing process, songs have shades of personality in their embryonic states but don’t have a chance to flesh out until you see the reactions they evoke. Corgan’s audience holds a thousand red pens prepared to mark his every move—and boy, do they mark (and boo, throw cups and walk out, mid-song).

While the goal of the reunion according to Chamberlin is “art for art’s sake,” their target audience—returning fans from the mid-90’s—can’t quite let go of their emotional attachments to the past. As Pete Townshed, guitarist for the legendary English band The Who, observes:

“(The audience says)…this Pumpkins song is where I am, it’s where I feel complete. Whip pan ahead ten years ahead and they don’t need that machinery anymore…they don’t want them to be anything other than what they were, they don’t care about the artist…we’re dreadfully hurt as artists when they say ‘we don’t want you to change.’ Because they can find someone else to fill that need. It’s very difficult to handle.”

Like any artist with an impressive body of work the minute the formula starts to change people become anxious. The documentary forces the audience into uncomfortable territory by confronting notions of what an artist “should be.” It’s a timeless battle to find the perfect balance between the needs of the artist and an audience’s demand.

It takes coloring outside the lines to begin the process of integration into the mainstream. For reference, the established literary world considered much of what Burroughs and Ginsberg wrote to be obscene fluff until an entire movement was created. Now history looks back on that time period as a much needed push against the boundaries of acceptability in the 1950’s.

Somewhere along the way however, that appreciation was lost, and as we head deeper into the 2000’s artists are faced with a rapidly diminishing attention span. In particular the American culture is “stuck on orgasm” according to Corgan. As an entirely results oriented generation rises to power, is there any hope left for the experimental artist? Other, less glamorized arts will undoubtedly suffer the same fate. (Corgan released a book of poetry entitled Blinking with Fists in 2004 to lukewarm reviews. He has since stated that the experience was “traumatizing” for him.)

Corgan isn’t bathed in a particularly favorable light but that’s what makes this documentary hold weight. He’s shown as a multi-faceted artist and visionary. His demands for performance and professionalism are often mistaken for insensitivity and callousness, but it’s his way of showing respect to his craft. Many of the interview questions seem to completely ignore his intent and in turn provoke reactions casting him as a musical svengali when in reality it’s warranted frustration. One grenade fans and reviewers continually throw his way (then take cover when answered) is: “Can the band ever again reach the successes of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness?” (MCIS was the band’s third studio album, a double-disk tour de force that went on to sell over 10 million copies worldwide.) The answer is, in essence, “who the fuck cares?” If you’re defining your current successes by your previous ones you’re running in circles.

There’s a particularly intense moment in Corgan’s hotel room where he’s asked why he doesn’t want to play songs like “Soma,” from their 1993 album Siamese Dream. With a hardened glare he launches into the song’s opening chords, barely breaking eye contact with the interviewer. In essence the question is: “Why are you embarking on this harsh journey when you have so many great songs written, and in fact could ride on until retirement?”

An artist, especially a contemporary artist, constantly struggles to say relevant. Artists that consistently rely on the past show signs of aging—fine lines around a poem’s eyes or the sagging skin of a novel written countless times before. Unless an artist is constantly pleasing their audience they might as well not exist. “Nostalgia” and “Now” seem to be keywords in the new millennium.

“I think there’s a time in every generation when the generation just moves on…its just to relive the memory, not to live in any sort of current energy.” – Billy Corgan

But Corgan can’t let go that easily. Ever the man with something to prove, he constantly searches for validation from the same audience that has alienated him. Whether verbally assaulting the crowd or “forcing them to listen” via atomic bomb riffs detonated on stage.

One song in particular, “Superchrist,” was machinated to do just that, engineered to be a firm hand on a child’s jaw in the wake of their disrespect. During one show in San Francisco Corgan stands front and center, face emotionless to the audience that doesn’t accept his new direction. They’ve suddenly become the enemy. He drowns them in the song’s sleazy and rough demeanor, and for the duration of the tune this apparently overwhelming foe are defeated by one man and his five-piece army.

But, will they care? Isn’t that the key to true victory? Corgan seems to think so. However it’s not the masses he’s necessarily trying to win over:

“You know you do something right when you’re able to take a difficult set of factors and distill them down to a simple point of revelation…(In the end) what will remain is the echo of beauty that can be created in moments like this. There are those stories that I’ve heard where you know the worst show we ever played…someone in the back of the room didn’t jump off a roof because of something I said or something we did or some song I played on that particular night…you get those conformations of faith. So this is my way of saying I know what my faith is and you’re not going to knock me off my block.”

That’s a lesson that any artist, regardless of their medium, would do well to learn.

The Smashing Pumpkins are currently in the studio recording their upcoming album, Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, which will release each of it’s 44 songs separately and for free, starting around Oct 31st, 2009. Check for full details.
Julie M. Tate is a freelance artist and journalist currently residing in Tulsa, OK though she considers Chicago home. Her poetry has been featured in numerous anthologies including The Great American Poetry Show and is the owner, author and editor of Gossip and the Devil, a creative/lifestyle blog focused on poetry, vicodin, jetsetting and boys with brown eyes.