Lately when I want music with some real TEETH, Pearl Jam hasn’t been doing it for me. I go to the great master Billy Corgan and Smashing Pumpkins’ 1993 sophomore edict Siamese Dream.
Now, this album has the rambunctious bite of a quintessential debut effort, as we all know. You might ask, then, why isn’t Gish considerably touted as their defining work?
The way I’d describe the difference between Gish and Siamese Dream is this: Siamese Dream is orchestrated from a higher plane. It sees the whole world. “Cherub Rock” just BELABORS, in a laborious world, with high stakes. The lyrics become more concrete and direct (“Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known”; “I wanna turn you on”), implying somebody who’s come to awesome realizations in life. Everything about it is more poignant and also the recording itself more tenacious: mixing alone is reported to have taken 36 days and “Corgan has stated that ‘Soma’ alone contains up to 40 overdubbed guitar parts” . The end result is something crushing on a sonic level, although ironically I’ve been COMING AROUND to the 2011 remaster available on Spotify. This is not to say it was necessarily needed.
The Pumpkins have gotten more mellow this decade for the albeit idyllic Oceania and Monuments to an Elegy (I’ll admit to having ignored Zeitgeist during my Battles/Deerhunter-laden indie craze of 2007), whereas obviously Siamese Dream stalks the earth as something crushing and fearsome on a sonic level. But it’s the psychological grit of it that really makes it an all-time great.
Recently I read a Consequence of Sound review of Cloud Nothings’ album Life without Sound which described the album as a successful “thesis statement.” In another review, Spin complained that Titus Andronicus’ Local Business “never comes close to resolving any of the issues it raises” , an indictment which would seem to indicate their need in rock music for the sort of front-to-back focus of an essay in English class. I personally tend to object to this requirement, as I don’t see rock and roll as something that’s going to save the world, more like something which is going to patch and band-aid it enough for my tastes, my FIX, as it were. So it’s definitely ironic that, actually, Siamese Dream IS a bona fide “thesis statement,” or at least can possibly be embraced as one. But then, this IS the absolute apex of alternative rock. Kurt Cobain said that lyrics don’t matter. C.O.S. and Spin seem to care about nothing BUT lyrics. Somewhere in between is the Smashing Pumpkins’ ultimate primal cry, Siamese Dream (Billy Corgan played all the instruments on the recording process, so it seems forgivable if the primary crux of meaning derives again from his specific contribution, the lyrics).
Spin harps on Titus for not “resolving issues,” but the issues they raise are so big-picture as to render it ridiculous to get on their case for not bringing them to closure: it would literally involve like absolutely saving the world. At the heart of this discussion, and why I get so offended when these rags want rock musicians to double as international social workers, is one primary question: at any point has humanity become OFFICIALLY doomed? That is what Titus’ Local Business is about. Humanity is officially doomed.
1993 was a far different time. Billy Corgan did not want to distance himself from, or denigrate, humanity: he wanted to ingratiate himself to it (again, “I wanna turn you on”; “Disarm you with a smile”). “I used to be a little boy”, he sings, and in a way, he still is that little boy, with words all over Dream which are incredibly self-centered and earnest, as if he hasn’t discovered metaphor or literary irony yet (whereas all Kurt Cobain seemed to know were metaphor and irony). With this being the case, with the issues Corgan is broaching being far more immediate and winnable, a “thesis statement” is far more practical. Also, a successful “conflict resolution” or whatever PTA-meeting type jargon you feel like employing would be a lot more plausible in 1993 in general, a time when rock music were much more vital.
With a lot of passable garage rock conducted in vivid accordance with had already been laid down by Nirvana, Billy Corgan and co. construct a paradigmatic statement on Dream with three distinct star points: the album’s title, “Hummer” and “Geek U.S.A.” The latter is one of those songs where they say the album title but it’s not CALLED the album title (“titled track” is the typical term for the latter type, like the song “Icky Thump,” et. al.) “In a dream / I connected Siamese twins / At the hip”, sings Corgan, and then “Hummer” brings us “When I woke up from that sleep / I was happier than I’d ever been”. In “Geek U.S.A.,” he continues, “And I knew we’d been forsaken / Expelled from paradise”. The expansion of this image, the “Siamese dream,” over several tracks, then, is a riveting element: it’s a legitimate “idee fixe,” in other words, “an idea that dominates one’s mind esp. for a prolonged period”. “Demon” would be the other applicable term, a demon then “exorcised,” or let out, by this formidable, battering-ram operation known as alternative rock, the LOUDEST alternative rock recorded to date, for that matter.
A couple weeks ago, a couple nights before my birthday, actually, I had a nightmare that this bomb-type thing went off right under my a** and I got a huge wound from it. That day, when I was going out by myself for my birthday, this girl at the bar gave me a really dismissive look, and in general I just sort of had a bad night. Dreams can prepare us for things like these. They can come in all types though: have you ever had one where you’re really ACTIVE, like you yell something at someone, despite obviously not having the cognitive impulse to yell, since you’re in a dream, or done something bizarre, like in Billy Corgan’s case connecting those Siamese twins? The dream was preparing him for looks he would get in the world: people were destined to look at him exactly as if he were responsible for the birth defect of Siamese. It’s sort of like Carl Newman of The New Pornographers and the song “The Fake Headlines”: it’s a tune all about how he’s responsible for lying to the mass public about relevant goings-on, hence constructive of an explanation for the way people look at him, when he’s going about his everyday business. This type of art is humor. Billy Corgan’s contribution, though, is in a way even more genuine: it’s a factual description of a dream, precipitative of an undeniably classic bundle of bleeding-ear rock music. Siamese Dream is an imposing aural figure, with ominous soundscapes which usher the listener into a reality perspective which is all the more ominous, then, by leaps and bounds.
Have you ever considered the heartbreaking level of anguish and confusion Darius Rucker must have gone through, as a young adult? For instance, he’s a black singer with essentially all white influences. In “Only Wanna Be with You,” he makes direct reference to Bob Dylan, perhaps employing a sort of dumb-it-down technique in order to buddy up with larger audiences (I think he actually misnames the Dylan song he’s citing), his all-white band steeped in Confederate South Carolina then cloaked in strategies straight from the Beatles playbook. There had been a black blues-guitarist, a black punk band, a black ska band, entire genres of Motown, funk, soul and hip-hop: Rucker ignores all of these things. Literally, saying that his musical lineage is akin to Luke Skywalker being born on the Death Star isn’t too much of an overstatement. His songsmithing then is something you might call a “foray”: a venture into enemy territory for the purpose of looting, so to speak.
So aside from growing up in the racist South and immersing himself within a musical culture very much antithetical to that race, you’ve got the brash way the critics treated him. They routinely call him a “nonkie,” so to speak (see the New York Times’ “If Colin Powell Sang and Played Guitar . . .”) , also getting absolutely ripped to shreds for Hootie & the Blowfish’s second album Fairweather Johnson (the Rolling Stone critic actually got fired for the review, so tasteless were its unnecessary brashness and boisterousness). Jim DeRogatis is transcendently, and pointlessly, hateful, in his diagnosis of Fairweather Johnson: “Are these the sweet nothings of a bunch of regular Joes struggling to express their romantic feelings, or the trite clichés of hack songwriters who just wanna get laid?”  Here is all this antipathy, senseless and astonishing. I mean, last time I checked, everybody in the world wants to get laid.
And yet, Hootie has a massive following, even to this day: this very RS review makes light of their debut album’s sales in two year (8.5 million). In addition, I happen to know just by word of mouth that even today Hootie draws an incredible cult following, voluminous crowds of everyday pot-smoking individuals who commune around this music.
Was the music they made anything NEW? It’s a valid question: Rolling Stone’s DeRogatis (from the Latin word, “derogatory,” of course), calls their material “silly little pop songs,” as if music is something moral, to be something more than enjoyed: to be paradigmatically employed toward the complex improvement of society. Well, how is bashing black achievement a societal improvement? Darius Rucker was and is hated because he’s a black man from the South who reached a level of white achievement of which most crackers can only dream. On one of many plangent, beautiful and memorable cuts off Cracked Rear View, “Not Even the Trees,” Rucker emits the query: “I wonder how you feel / When you realize my pain is for real”, at another point crying “I’m a stranger in my home”. Keep in mind, this is the state that wanted to put the fu**ing Confederate symbol on its flag: he’s not exactly the heir to King fu**ing Lancelot. All over this project, there’s a strong, aromatic sense that at any time everything can fall apart: “Let her cry / Let the tears fall down like rain / Let her sing / If it eases all her pain”; “Cried myself to sleep at night / And I listened as I heard the angels sing ‘Shah-La-La’ / Sha-La-La-La / Sha-La-La-La / I’m goin’ home”; “Can you teach me ‘bout tomorrow / And all the pain and sorrow / Runnin’ free? / ‘Cause tomorrow’s just another day / And I don’t believe in time”. He doesn’t have to believe in time: with classic music of undeniable emotional integrity he has transcended it. But don’t take it from me. Ask their millions of pot-smoking fans who all of a sudden seem to care about something other than just “party rocking.” They heard the angels sing.
In a world full of staggering, mind-boggling disappointments, such as the laughably low level of edge and anger with which The New Yorker staff writes in the wake of the Trump election and that preposterous Super Bowl comeback last year, we have Samuel L. Jackson, the single most disappointing human being in the history of mankind.
Let me put this in perspective, briefly, if I may. There’s a great part in Modest Mouse: A Pretty Good Read by Alan Goldsher explaining both sides of the argument around Isaac Brock’s band selling “Gravity Rides Everything” for a car commercial. There were a bunch of angry online comments leveled against the band but I have to say Brock’s defense itself takes the cake, which is something along the lines of “I used to fu**in’ clean animal brains off the floor of a truck. I think I deserve to sell my song to a commercial.”
Now, to the casual onlooker, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and Trees Lounge actor Samuel L. Jackson doing these Capital One credit card commercials does not really look like an abominable atrocity: celebrities sell out and do product spots all the time. Well, if you’re anybody, you should have seen Pulp Fiction right now, in which Jackson’s character’s WALLET is a character in and of itself: it’s the vestige from which the unwitting, intimidated robber takes all the money, which is proposed as the root of all evil per the Ezekiel bible passage Jackson’s character keeps quoting, and on its front are inscribed the words “Bad Mother Fu**er.”
Now, Jackson is doing these credit card commercials, asking, “What’s in your wallet?” And I know I just chastised the truncation of Black achievement in America, but not only is Pulp Fiction Jackson’s most important role of his career, but he’s generally known as the actor who will literally do any movie which comes his way, if it means it will make him money. These Capital One travesties are certainly corroborative of such an assessment.
 Colin Powell was an African-American White House Chief of Staff under George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State under George W. Bush, often browbeaten for being very “white”: conservative, tailored to the wealthy and privileged (not to mention being very light-skinned as well).