Before They Were Famous: Billy Corgan
William Patrick Corgan Jr. The deeply abused boy from Chicago, Illinois, would go on to become the lead singer of one of the biggest alternative rock groups in history. The Smashing Pumpkins was the special treat on any festival line-up, their balance of simple instrumentals and Corgan’s soft rock vocals makes for a strong but gentle rock ballad. Corgan is the man that made The Smashing Pumpkins. As journalist, Greg Kot, wrote: “The music of The Smashing Pumpkins would not be what it is without his ambition and vision, and his famously fractured relationships with his family, friends, and band members.”
Corgan’s family dynamic would shape the largest part of his life. His father was a blues and rock guitarist and his mother a housewife. They divorced when he was young and his father went on to marry a stewardess. Corgan had a step brother out of the marriage who had Tourette’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, a chromosomal defect, and severe heart problems. Corgan took care of the boy, called Jesse, and came to love him dearly. Years after the marriage, Corgan’s father divorced the woman and left. Both of Corgan’s biological parents didn’t want to take care of him and so he was left to be systematically abused by the stewardess woman who both neglected him and her disabled son.
Corgan took Jesse to his baseball practices and games where Jesse would often be bullied. They formed a strong bond and Corgan has said that Jesse has gone on to college and has become a semi-successful playwright. He also wrote about Jesse in the song ‘Spaceboy’ on The Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream album.
He had stuck by Jesse because he knew what it was like being bullied. He had been abused by school boys because of a large red birthmark on his hand and arm.
“When you’re that young, anything that simple can set you apart.”
Corgan used his birthmark as an advantage and formed a band called The Marked, after he found a drummer who also had a large birthmark on his hand. He had been in a band in high school, called An Evil Day with Hexen, and was also wrote music reviews for his high school newspaper in which he predicted that the bands U2, Metallica, and REM would be the next big bands in the coming years, and he was right.
With the forming of The Marked, Corgan could move away from his step mother. Though he was free, he described playing in the band as “a living hell.” They broke up after nine months and Corgan moved back to his home town.
While he was working at a record shop, Corgan met guitarist, James Iha. They became friends and started making demos with each other. Corgan described them as “gloomy little goth-pop records.” While Corgan was watching a live show, he met D’arcy Wretzky, his future bassist. They met after arguing about the band, The Dan Reed Network, which Corgan hated but Wretzky loved. Corgan recalls that the first words he ever said to her were: “you’re full of shit.” (Perhaps that’s why she has brown eyes…)
The three of them formed The Smashing Pumpkins and found their footing very quickly. They played in local bars and soon went on to recruit Jimmy Chamberlain to replace the drum machine they were using so they could get a gig at the Metro in Chicago. Chamberlain would be a big asset to the band as he drove them to a heavier beat and overall sound, moving away from the slow Goth music they were playing.
The Smashing Pumpkins had almost immediate success following their first album and their second album, Siamese Dream, was even more successful as they topped the charts. It can’t really be said what it is that made them so successful so quickly, but maybe Corgan’s lyrics and voice that reflect his childhood and life of depression and self-harm was important in the eighties and nineties. Maybe kids needed to hear all about that stuff so they could start to feel that they weren’t the only ones who weren’t just self-harming for attention. They weren’t just goths, they were hurting mentally and Corgan, even if it was just for a short duration of time, would reach out to them and show them that world that he was also experiencing.