Graded on a Curve: Smashing Pumpkins,
Gish

In his 1823 essay On the Pleasure of Hating, British author and philosopher William Hazlitt wrote, “Love turns, with little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: hatred alone is immortal.” He also wrote, “We grow tired of everything but turning others into ridicule, and congratulating ourselves on their defects.” With those words he summed up my whole character. Hating’s what I do best.

Hell, I even hate things I know next to nothing about. Take the Smashing Pumpkins. I’ve despised them since the first time I heard “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” and when people ask why I tell them, “I dunno. They just smell wrong”

But here’s another quote, this one by the 19th Century British philosopher Herbert Spencer: “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation.” I don’t mind being called a hater. But an ignorant hater? Nobody wants to wear that hat.

So I tied myself to a chair and listened to the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1991 debut, Gish. And you know what? My ignorant hating ass was right. The Smashing Pumpkins suck. Wait, let me amend that. Billy Corgan’s voice sucks. He’s a whiner. He whines the way I used to whine when my parents would drag me through the gift shop at Fantasyland without buying me anything.

I don’t have a grudge against the songs on Gish; most of them are quite good. The production’s crisp (Butch Vig and Billy made sure of that), the band’s solid, and Corgan’s a bona fide guitar god. Trouble is, every time he opens his mouth I get the heebie-jeebies. It’s akin to my reaction to the sound of someone rubbing styrofoam–my skin crawls, my teeth curl up, and I do an uncanny imitation of the fella in Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

No, it’s not the music that sends me fleeing. Take Billy’s whinge out of the equation, and I’d probably buy the damn record on the basis of the staggeringly ferocious “I Am One” alone. And there are plenty of other goodies. “Suffer” splits the difference between the Velvet Underground and the Doors, “Snail” is a guitar showcase and downright majestic, and “Tristessa” metals up Led Zeppelin to good effect.

The hypnotic “Rhinoceros,” the bass-propelled “Bury Me,” and the dreamy and psychedelia-tinged “Crush” (oh shades of the Brian Jonestown Massacre!) are also keepers. “Bury Me” in particular demonstrates Corgan’s knack for the monstrous riff, and as for “Siva,” it’s a headbanger for the ages with some great freakout guitar. “Daydream is an acoustic drag redeemed only by the fact that bassist D’arcy “Make Her Lead Singer!” Gretzky handles lead vocal chores.

What to make of an amazing record marred by a lead vocalist I’d love to muzzle? Lord knows. Corgan himself offered a solution to the problem when he told an interviewer, “In a weird kind of way, Gish is almost like an instrumental album—it just happens to have singing on it… I was trying to say a lot of things I couldn’t really say in kind of intangible, unspeakable ways, so I was capable of doing that with the music, but I don’t think I was capable of doing it with words.”

An instrumental album! What a brilliant idea! But message to Billy: it’s not the words that fail you, it’s your voice. That word “unspeakable” applies not to your grasping for the intangible, but to your vocal cords, which should be surgically removed and studied by scientists looking for a cure for my piece of mind.

Pavement famously had this to say about Billy “Cueball with ears” Corgan and the gang: “Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins/Nature kids, they don’t have no function/I don’t understand what they mean/And I could really give a fuck.” I don’t know about the nature kids part, but I’m down with not giving a fuck. Call it ESP, but I was right about the Smashing Pumpkins in the first place, and can go back to despising them with a clean conscience. Brothers and sisters–give hate a chance!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C

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