Most music fans of my generation can tell you where they were when they heard Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time, especially if they weren't already a denizen of the Pacific Northwest and organically attached to the Puget Sound music scene. I wasn't. So, yeah, I can tell you not only where I was but what I was doing the first time I heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I can also tell you where I was and what I was doing the first time I heard "Even Flow." Finally, I can tell you where I was and what I was doing when I first heard "Cherub Rock" by Smashing Pumpkins.
By now you've probably sussed out my favorite three bands of the era. Nirvana was a clarion call. Pearl Jam was the affirmation that said call could take on significance, both socially and politically, but Smashing Pumpkins served as a reminder, and a comfort, that you weren't alone in this new world personally or emotionally. The heavy drums and riffing that broke into a maelstrom of distortion and reverb coupled with the lyrics laying bare the nervous, and somewhat anti-social and anxiety ridden, attempt to "stay cool/and be somebody's fool" and the hefty amount of tongue and cheek that simultaneous warned us to "beware all those angels/With their wings glued on" was somehow more emotionally mature than what Cobain and Vedder had come up with by that point. It made sense since Smashing Pumpkins' leader, Billy Corgan, had already released an album to middling success, failed to become the "voice of a generation" that Cobain was hailed to be after Nevermind, and had a nervous breakdown. (Nirvana released Bleach in 1989, to lesser success than Nevermind, but Cobain's trajectory, and where he finally ended up in the annals of rock history, has never quite been equaled by Corgan-then or now). Corgan displayed a level of rock n roll world weariness, and his career was really just starting. It was more than world weariness though, it was a certain emotional and spiritual wisdom, that made Siamese Dream, Corgan's artistic peak, such a powerful album that struck such a deep chord with its listeners, and still does 25 years after it was released.
So where where was I when I first heard "Cherub Rock?" I was driving on Mt. Gallant Road in Rock Hill, SC. I had just passed the Fire Station and was heading into the bend in the road just past it when the DJ on the station I was tuned to, which I unfortunately DO NOT remember, said "Get ready to rock. This is Smashing Pumpkins with...'Cherub Rock.'". I don't remember the rest of the drive, but I remember the song. This was the early summer of 1993 and I was about to start my first year at Winthrop University as a freshman that fall. I remember when I attended orientation at Winthrop later that summer, the student newspaper, The Johnsonian, had a review of Siamese Dream published in it. I don't remember if it was from the previous spring, but it had to be. Some lucky college aged rock critic was lucky enough to get their hands on a copy before it came out apparently. I remember the review being vaguely disparaging of the album, decrying the band's selling out or something. It would be a moniker that would dog Smashing Pumpkins for a long time. Little did anyone, who were casual alt-rock music fans, know or remember that Smashing Pumpkins contributed their first full length album, Gish, to the forever legendary list of albums released in 1991, which included: Achtung Baby, Badmotorfinger, Blood Sugar Sex Magic, Nevermind, Out of Time, Loveless, Ten, Pretty on The Inside, Trompe Le Monde, Green Mind, Sailing The Seas of Cheese, Wretch, and Temple of The Dog. Wow. Yes, that really happened. Gish didn't reach the level of success that many of the albums listed above achieved, and in many ways, it was assumed that the Pumpkins had missed the boat.
The reality was that Corgan's ship just hadn't come in yet. It's an inarguable reality that the "new rock revolution" of the early 1990s drew attention to many bands that were not to embody the staying power that the Pumpkins would display, and undoubtedly helped amplify the buzz around Siamese Dream, but the album was head and shoulders above its peers. It also sounded quite different from the other alt-rock (a genre that was quickly becoming mainstream rock) releases that year. Pearl Jam's sophomore release, Vs, which would drop in October of that year, took a step back in production complexity. Producer Brenden O'Brien, who's production sensibilities tend toward live sounding studio recordings, helped Pearl Jam, at that time more Eddie Vedder's band than it would really ever be, capture Vedder's love, and near obsession with, sounding live and personal. Nirvana's swan song, In Utero, which would be released in September of 1993 likewise took a step back in production, also going for a live and up close and personal sound. The only band to go full on production with a loud, out of step with the alt-come-mainstream-rock, sound would be U2, who released the static infused and vocal chicanery laced Zooropa. Siamese Dream, along with Zooropa were two rock albums that didn't shy away from the technology available at the time and fully embraced what many at the time were calling an "overproduced" sound. Ironically, Butch Vig, the co-producer of Siamese Dream with Corgan himself, produced Nevermind as well. The punk esthetic that infused Nirvana, and Pearl Jam's (then current) sound was to peak when Green Day released their major label debut album, Dookie, the next year. Pearl Jam would move more towards a classic rock sound that displayed flashes of alt-rock sensibilities and release several phenomenal albums that moved further and further away from the garage/punk sound of Vs. Nirvana would cease to exist, and there really wouldn't be another (albeit much smaller in affect culturally, politically and socially than grunge) rock movement to capture the coming of age crowd until emo broke about a decade later. Bands in the emo movement, like AFI and My Chemical Romance, ended up being influenced by U2 and Smashing Pumpkins (along with The Cure-perennially forgotten as one of the most influential bands of all time), but would prove to be a flash in the pan with their sound. A sound that can be most effectively described as sounding like a heavier version of The Cure and a lighter version of Smashing Pumpkins.
Which is a long and winded way of saying that Smashing Pumpkins, and their masterpiece Siamese Dream, is pretty much one of the most influential rock bands, and albums, of the late 20th and early 21st Century. It's more than just greatly influential though. It's more artistically accomplished than its contemporary peers. While Nirvana and Pearl Jam doled out heavy doses of angst and frustration, often poetically, Corgan wrote more sophisticated lyrics. Lyrics which engaged in the type of allegory and metaphor that Vedder would eventually master and, sadly, we'd never hear from Cobain. Corgan would also engage in the type of self effacing commentary that Vedder and Cobain would also shy away from. "Cherub Rock" wouldn't be the only time on the album that Corgan would poke fun at, and strike at the heart of, rock star insecurities, which of course can be related to by anyone. We all have insecurities, both personal and professional. Corgan would go deeper though and ponder more serious questions. "Today," with its declaration of "wanting more than life could ever" grant and it's suggestive "pink ribbon scars" that "never forget" induce the necessary waves of woe that the emotionally open, and future self-described "death rock boy" who is obviously exorcising his depression demons, needs to get off his chest. Corgan doesn't leave his listeners there though. The "pink ribbon scars" might never forget, but they are scars, not open wounds. They have healed. Corgan's here "today." He's survived and moved on. He even want's to "turn you on." This could be interpreted as sexually of course, but it also can be interpreted as spiritually, as we'll see later on in the album.
Songs like "Hummer" and "Rocket" both deal with escaping or overcoming difficult periods in one's life and accepting who you are. "Life's a bummer/when you're a hummer," but "when I woke up from that sleep/I was happier than I'd ever been." "Rocket" declares that "I shall be free/of those voices inside of me." Voices of doubt, fear, loathing, etc. all can be assumed to be, or interpreted as, the message of those "voices." It all sounds pretty dark, but to someone who's facing some of the same emotional tidal waves that Corgan is expressing here, it's a purifying bath of reassurance that he or she is not alone. Here's a talented rock star, creating powerful and unique rays of electric guitar sound that was, and in many ways still is, outrageously unique, and even he has to deal with fears of failure, the affliction of anxiety and the depression it births, and struggle to succeed when the odds are against you.
It is "Soma" that really encapsulates everything that Corgan was wrestling with and attempting to communicate artistically through his music and his lyrics though. Opening with a dreamlike, almost lullaby musical movement of alternating echoing and chiming guitar lines, Corgan sings about running away again, but this time instead of escaping, ends up locked in by a cruel truth. A truth that transcends just the superficial, "she's gone and not coming back" lovelorn melodrama. The lover lost metaphor ends up representing more than just a lost partner. The relationship herein actually takes on massive spiritual significance when a closer examination of the lyrics reveals that the lover lost that Corgan "crawls back to" is actually whatever notion of God that one is enraptured with. Corgan realizes that he is "all by myself/as I've always felt," as "until the bitter bitter end of the world/God sleeps in bliss." No matter how many times he's "crawled back to you (God)" he's still ended up betrayed, alone, and lost. IF there is a God, whom Corgan desperately wants to consummate a spiritual relationship with, she ("she lead me on"), will not become manifest until the "end of the world." It's this existential angst, eloquently brought to musical life through Corgan's powerful guitar solo that evokes mankind's cry to the heavens for acknowledgement by a higher power, that powers the entire album thematically. There is no talk of suicide overcome in "Soma." There is no escape as there is in "Rocket." There is only the bride's longing for the groom as in Christ's people's longing for him. In fine Catholic tradition, the sacred and profane (the sexual aspect and spiritual aspect) of religion and religious longing and angst co-mingle metaphorically. Corgan manages to ascend the simple topical interpretation of "Soma" as the longing for a lover lost and makes it into a longing for a higher existence with a higher power, free of the emotional toils of our physical existence through contact and communion with said higher power. Here, with "Soma," the meaning of "Siamese Dream" is most fully explained, without even the words being used. A fulfilling connection God, an almost "Siamese," in the medical sense of the word, connection, is nothing but a dream. We are all by ourselves spiritually, yet we live and strive on. We are only soma: "a body as distinct from the soul, mind, or psyche" (one of the word's definitions). The soul, mind, or psyche here though is God, however one defines it, metaphorically disguised as a repeatedly betraying lover. "Soma" falls halfway through the album, and is the destination that the narrator of the first half of the songs on the album is striving towards thematically, physically, and spiritually. The rest of the way through to the end of the album is the resolution and the final acceptance that, "we are all alone," spiritually yes...but not physically. Seeking the spiritual communion with a higher being ends up being foolish. God has no "soma." Our fellow human beings do, and we CAN commune with them. That's the silver lining of the existentialism of "Soma."
It's always a possibility that the observer of any great art can read their own interpretation into a piece, but in reality that possibility is what makes a work actually definable as art. Siamese Dream maps out its intention and artistic message, but invites the listener in to participate in the creation of the work of art. Music and spoken, read, or sung word isn't complete in its effect until it is heard, interpreted, and responded to. Overall though, it's pretty obvious that Corgan has a fascination with the spiritual and mystical. Smashing Pumpkins' album art, concert staging and props, as well as band iconography are rife with spiritual and mystical references. It's safe to say that interpreting Siamese Dream, as it is being interpreted here, isn't giving Corgan more credit as an artist than he is due.
As the album progresses though its second half, the tone it takes becomes more centered on the "urgency of now" as Corgan would describe it later on in "1979" off of Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness. Recalling the poignancy of existing in the moment and survival of "Today" from earlier in the album, "Geek USA" urges himself and his lover to "pretend we're innocents/cast into the world with apple eyes." Corgan is ready to move on and start a new existence at peace with his newfound knowledge gained in "Soma." "Geek USA" is a frenzy of activity and progression musically, and has the fastest and most complicated guitar solo on the whole album. "Mayonaise" takes a step back emotionally, although this time the melancholy drone of the overdubbed guitars is steeped in the type of educated and experienced world weariness that leads to the final relapse into "Silverfuck" where Corgan's narrator almost falls back into the despair (both physical and spiritual) of the lost love (both earthbound and heaven residing). Suicide is considered again, or at least the time when it was considered is remembered. Again though, Corgan "hears what you want" and "feels that way," but does not go that way. The album ends with "Luna," another dreamlike lullaby type of song that evokes peace, love, and hints at the product of the communion with ones loved ones "soma:" new life. "What songs do you sing your baby?" Corgan asks and repeatedly ensures who he's singing for (either his child or his love or both) that "I'm in love with you." The quest for the spiritual communion with God has been, if not abandoned, understood for what it is a metaphor for: our earthly existence.
Any look at Siamese Dream that leaves out "Spaceboy" and "Sweet Sweet" is incomplete, especially since "Spaceboy" has been confirmed by Corgan to be about his younger brother who has a rare chromosomal disorder. "Sweet Sweet" can be interpreted as being about a young child who is adored by the narrator of "Luna." Both songs fit into the overall spiritual vs existential themes of the album, and display Corgan's talent for writing more than just hard rock songs.
It's been a long time since I first heard "Cherub Rock" playing through the cheap speakers of my 1975 Dodge Dart as I cruised down a road in a small southern town. I'm glad it happened when it did though as I was lucky enough to get introduced early on to the first single off of an album that would stay with me for 25 years, never traveling far from my own personal heavy rotation playlist of albums. Over the course of countless listens, most of which occurred while lying in bed with headphones on during the time of night when the most creative ideas and interpretations arrive and take root in ones drifting mind, as well as the darkest fears-the middle of the night-Siamese Dream both soothed and disturbed me. More than either though, it inspired me, and for that, regardless of whatever one thinks of him or his masterwork personally, I am eternally grateful to Billy Corgan and his album.