Part 4: 1993: Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, and Urge Overkill forsake the underground
More Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation?
- Part 10: 1999: By the time we got to Woodstock 99 …
- Part 9: 1998: You’re either with Korn and Limp Bizkit, or you’re against them
- Part 8: 1997: The ballad of Oasis and Radiohead
- Part 7: 1996: Layne Staley and Bradley Nowell are the living dead
- Part 6: 1995: Live, Bush, and Alanis Morissette take the pop path
“Each artist had to grapple with what’s supposed to be a dichotomy between being popular and being ‘alternative.’ Once it became apparent that the fine line between the two was blurring, the rear guard from the underground—which I would define as deliberately non-pop, whereas I guess alternative would be relatively personal music that doesn’t necessarily exclude pop—tried not only to keep them clear, but to make a big deal out of which side of the line you were on. This, of course, is bullshit, and these artists took a stand and the resulting heat to prove it.”—Bill Wyman of the Chicago Reader, “Not From The Underground: 1993 In Review,” Jan. 6, 1994
“Clip your year-end column and put it away for 10 years. See if you don’t feel like an idiot when you reread it.”—Steve Albini, “Three Pandering Sluts And Their Music-Press Stooge,” letters section of the Chicago Reader, Jan. 27, 1994
After one of the headiest years in Chicago rock history—a time when the city usurped Seattle as the new alt-rock hotspot, thanks to Smashing Pumpkins going platinum with the colossal guitar symphony Siamese Dream, and Liz Phair and Urge Overkill releasing the critically acclaimed and demonstrably cool Exile In Guyville and Saturation—local music critic Bill Wyman stated an opinion that seems obvious now, but ended up being quite the shit-stirrer when he wrote it. For Wyman, the common thread connecting the city’s best-known but otherwise disparate rock acts was their “explicit rejection of much of the insularity that increasingly characterizes underground music and the fringes of underground music in America.” In other words, Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, and Urge Overkill actively pursued a mass audience: They made pop-friendly records, engaged with the record-industry hype machine, and did it all with enough ironic detachment so as to not appear overly craven. They appeared, to quote Saturation’s “Positive Bleeding,” to be remote-controllin’ their destinies.
I was still too young and clueless in 1993 to feel the push and pull between the increasingly popular alternative scene and the “rear guard of the underground” that Wyman writes about. To me, Siamese Dream was an underground record, insofar that it wasn’t The Bodyguard soundtrack. If it was “relatively personal” to Wyman, I suppose that means it just seemed “personal” to me. I had a vague awareness that there was a strata of bands beyond the new alt-rock establishment, mostly pop-punk groups like Bad Religion and NOFX, which my snowboarding-obsessed pals played all the goddamn time while we drove around town during lunch hour, along with stuff like Fugazi’s 13 Songs and the self-titled Operation Ivy compilation. I was still gleaning most of my music knowledge from Rolling Stone, which at least partially explains why I liked The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin as much as any contemporary band at the time.
But in a place like Chicago—the home of Screeching Weasel and Styx, The Jesus Lizard and “Eye Of The Tiger,” Ministry and, well, Chicago—the separation between the underground and pop audiences couldn’t be more obvious, and there was no clearer statement of disreputable intent (if not out-and-out shittiness) in the underground than wanton commerciality. When Wyman stepped forward and called “bullshit” on all the huffy finger-pointing being directed at the local scene’s biggest stars, he was practically begging for a smackdown.
Enter preeminent smackdown artist Steve Albini. Incredibly smart, engagingly articulate, openly judgmental, and intimidating to anyone with even a modicum of self-confidence issues, Albini not only once inspired Chunklet to ask “Is This Guy The Biggest Asshole In Rock?” in 40-plus-point cover type, he seemed to lust mightily for the distinction. Albini was a musician and studio engineer celebrated in underground circles for fronting the seminal indie outfits Big Black and Shellac, and he became a celebrity of sorts after recording classic albums like Superchunk’s No Pocky For Kitty, Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, and, in 1993 alone, PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me and Nirvana’s In Utero. Albini famously refused producer credit on records he worked on; in fact, he preferred not to be credited at all, particularly for albums he often saw as falling below his high standards. To the contrary, Albini didn’t hesitate to publicly discredit bands after they paid for his services. In “Eyewitness Record Reviews” from the zine Forced Exposure #17, Albini called Surfer Rosa “a patchwork pinch loaf from a band who at their top-dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock.” (He also wrote about an unsuccessful sexual encounter with a friend of the band who was “lounging around making little fuck me noises” that ended with him having to “run a batch off by hand.” Who on earth would ever turn down the pleasure of having sex with this man?)
On top of everything else on his impressive résumé, Albini was a prolific and important rock writer, contributing profane, Arsenic-laced prose to zines like Forced Exposure and Matter, where his well-thought-out arguments against submitting to the destructive conventions of the music industry were spiked with lame stabs at “provocative” political incorrectness. (“I don’t give two splats of an old Negro junkie’s vomit for your politco-philosophical treatises, kiddies,” goes a typical line.) To Albini, indie-ness was both a science and an evangelical religion; he could be persuasively pragmatic about how bands were better off personally and creatively treating music as a pastime rather than a job, and then land patently insulting roundhouse blows against anyone dumb, silly, or unlucky enough to disagree with his fiercely held views.
In the letters section of the Reader, Albini was in born-again indie zealot mode. Not only did he hate the artists that Wyman was trumpeting—Exile and Saturation took the top two places on his best-of list—Albini objected to the Reader’s casual dismissal of underground dogma. “In your rush to pat these three pandering sluts on the heinie, you miss what has been obvious to the ‘bullshit’ crowd all along: These are not ‘alternative’ artists any more than their historical precursors. They are by, of and for the mainstream,” Albini wrote. “Watching the three artists you moo about prostrate themselves before the altar of publicity these last 12 months has been a source of unrivaled hilarity here in the ‘bullshit’ camp, and seeing them sink into the obscurity they have earned by blowing their promo wads will be equally satisfying.”
Albini had missed the point somewhat; Wyman wasn’t arguing that these artists weren’t mainstream, he was saying that it didn’t matter that they were mainstream, at least when it came to judging the quality of their music. But looking back 17 years later, it seems that Albini was right about the Chicago alt-rock class of ’93 on one count: Each of the artists mentioned in Wyman’s story have been significantly diminished, none more so than Urge Overkill.
Certainly this must have pleased Albini to no end, since Urge Overkill was undoubtedly the one band out of the three for which he had a special spot in the deepest, darkest region of his pinched, pitch-black heart. When Urge Overkill formed in the mid-’80s, the band released its first EP on Albini’s own Ruthless label; after moving to storied Chicago indie Touch And Go, the band continued to use Albini as an engineer. But then Urge Overkill decided to sign with Geffen before the release of Saturation, which to people like Albini and Touch And Go founder Corey Rusk was an unethical, if not unforgivable, transgression.
It didn’t help that Urge Overkill had adopted a winking, swinging dandy persona on Saturation that reveled in passé rock clichés with far less irony that it might’ve initially appeared. The medallions and leisure suits that guitarist Nash Kato, bassist Eddie “King” Roeser, and drummer Blackie Onassis donned as everyday casual-wear fit with the thrift-store sensibility of Saturation, which created good-time Gen-X party jams out of the discarded pieces of unfashionable ’70s arena-rock like Ted Nugent and Aerosmith. The end result set Saturation apart from the alternative pack: This was a record that could actually be described as fun.
By the time Saturation was ready to be released in early June—a perfect time for the best beach-friendly rock record of the year—the members of Urge Overkill were already acting like rock stars. When Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times profiled the band, he visited its secret lair, a converted bank on Chicago’s northwest side that had been transformed into “a grunge-rock version of the Playboy Mansion,” a veritable theme park of hip trashiness decorated in tiki lamps, campy best-selling novels, and oversized bongs. (Never one to turn down an opportunity to tear into any Chicago music writer praising Urge Overkill, Albini responded to DeRogatis’ pro-Urge coverage by penning a letter addressed to “Jim DeRogatis, Music Pimp,” where he called the critic “a useless fuck I should ignore.” He then refused to speak to DeRogatis ever again.) While Urge Overkill was squarely opposed to the righteous indignation that was de rigueur for alt-rock bands at the time, the band members were just as serious about maintaining an authentic image, which for them meant pumping up the outlandishness of their everyday lives to sync up with their publicity photos. For Urge Overkill, life really was a cartoonish Urge Overkill video.
Even if the glamour of Urge Overkill was constructed, it was still a form of glamour, and it drew in local fans like Wicker Park musician Liz Phair. After failing to make it as an artist in San Francisco, Phair returned to Chicago and began writing and recording songs at home. These tapes, which Phair released under the moniker Girly Sound, made her a star among aficionados of lo-fi recordings, including Gerard Cosloy of Matador Records, who decided to sign Phair after she called him out of the blue one day and asked if he’d like to put out her record.
Phair’s Matador debut, Exile In Guyville, was partly inspired by her unrequited infatuation with Nash Kato; the title referred to Urge Overkill’s “Goodbye To Guyville” and the boy’s-club atmosphere of Chicago’s underground music scene. (Kato had also convinced Phair to pose topless on the album’s cover.) The other, more famous inspiration for Exile In Guyville was The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, which Phair told interviewers provided the answers to questions her record was posing, song by song, two decades after the Stones’ album’s release. It was an inspired hook for selling Phair’s Exile to male rock critics not normally predisposed to giving female singer-songwriters a fair shake; while some detractors claimed the Guyville-Main Street connection was only marketing, Phair insisted she consciously crafted her record as a response to the best album ever made by rock’s foremost misogynists.
The Stones’ influence on Guyville is plain in the record’s gut-level, stripped-down drive, with Phair beating out lean Keith Richards-style rhythm guitar parts over Brad Wood’s subtly swinging, Charlie Watts-like drumming. Then there was Phair’s voice, which came out in a flat, seen-it-all, waveringly tuneful sing-speak that critic Rob Sheffield memorably described as sounding like “Peppermint Patty on a bad caffeine jag.”
The most interesting parallel for me between Guyville and Main Street is Phair’s “Fuck And Run” and The Stones’ “Happy.” As sung by Richards, “Happy” is the epitome of rock ’n’ roll self-mythology, a song about a ne’er-do-well with a heart of gold who “never kept a dollar past sunset” and just needs a love to keep him happy, baby. “Fuck And Run” similarly is about the pursuit of a romantic ideal—the “letters and sodas” and all “that stupid old shit” that’s supposed to come with having a boyfriend. The difference is that “Happy” takes place the night before, with the promise of kicks just over the horizon, while “Fuck And Run” happens the morning after, when the promise becomes betrayal, and Phair is stuck with yet another dickhead in yet another room she doesn’t recognize.
“Fuck And Run” isn’t angry; it’s weary and disturbingly nonchalant about the emptiness of modern relationships. But it feels angry as it soberly explores how women are treated as fun-time non-entities on the level of whiskey shots and lines of cocaine in songs like “Happy.” Phair was saying things that women weren’t supposed to say on a rock record; really, she wasn’t supposed to say anything at all. “I was so angry about being taken advantage of sexually, being overlooked intellectually,” Phair said about Guyville in a Rolling Stone interview earlier this year. “Even when I was young at dinner tables with the extended family, listening to the men argue and the women sort of sit there—that’s just the way it was back then.” By merely existing, Guyville stood out as a statement undermining a male-dominated alt-rock scene that didn’t always practice the gender equality that it preached.
For Guyville’s female fans, listening to the record was like being allowed to speak after a lifetime of sitting silently with their hands folded on their laps. “What Phair and the rest of the world didn’t expect was just how many women would hear Guyville and think, hey, I live in a man’s world too, and it’s a problem,” L.A. Times music critic Ann Powers wrote 15 years after the album’s release. “In situations where equality is assumed but men still dominate, women occupy a strange space between the center and the margins. They can express opinions, but they’re not dictating the terms of the conversation.”
I wish I could say that I fully grasped the gender politics that Phair was exploring on Guyville when I first heard the record. But I’d be lying if I said that as a deeply awkward, profoundly confused, and sexually inexperienced 16-year-old boy that I didn’t take Phair’s blunt talk about blowjob queens and fucking until your dick turns blue at face value. (Phair didn’t exactly discourage this when promoting the record, posing in cheesecake photos that played up her bohemian sex appeal.) I found Guyville titillating and unnerving, which is essentially how I felt at the time about every girl I had ever met. In my world, women had all of the power, which created a not-quite-healthy mix of worship and resentment of femininity that’s common to a lot of boys that age. Listening to Guyville tracks like “Girls! Girls! Girls!”—“I get away, almost every day/with what the girls call, what the girls call, what the girls call/the girls call murder”—was like hearing what they really thought of you, and it was not the least bit reassuring. On Guyville, sex was war—and I was Guam.
My 16-year-old self had a lot more luck connecting with the comfortable self-absorption of Smashing Pumpkins and Siamese Dream, which easily out-sold the other big records coming out of Chicago that year. Probably not coincidentally, Smashing Pumpkins were also the city’s most hated band, both in Chicago and everywhere else. Bob Mould called them “the grunge Monkees.” Stephen Malkmus of Pavement dubbed them “nature kids” that “don’t have no function” in the song “Range Life.”
Smashing Pumpkins drew detractors like health inspectors to Chinese buffets for reasons both musical and personal. Musically, the band’s grandiose 1991 debut, Gish, had not one iota punk rock on it; even worse, at a time when bands that owed more to Black Sabbath than Black Flag still took pains to recite the standard pieties about the sanctity of the underground, Smashing Pumpkins didn’t pretend that their influences extended beyond Judas Priest and The Cure. But even if Billy Corgan had gone out and gotten a Dead Kennedys tattoo on his neck, there was no getting around the fact that the band’s preciously boyish, prodigiously talented, and stridently controlling frontman was what many people—including the other band members—really hated about Smashing Pumpkins.
To his credit, Corgan seemed to recognize this. When DeRogatis asked Corgan about the army of Pumpkins haters that was already growing before Siamese Dream made him one of alt-rock’s biggest personalities, he admitted that “the way that I carry myself” fueled much of the animosity. That Billy Corgan was arrogant and annoyingly messianic did not make him special among rock stars, particularly in the early ’90s. But his singing voice—which ranged from a whimpering whisper to an agonizingly forceful and petulant whine—was the manifestation of an endlessly needy personality, the kind of guy who makes a list with the names of everyone who’s ever wronged him and keeps it under his pillow at night. Whether Corgan obsessively pursued rock stardom to spite those people or finally win them over, it seemed even he didn’t know. But in the underground rock scene, a place where all kinds of freaks and geeks were supposedly welcome, Corgan was on the outside looking in. “I wish from Day 1 people would have looked at me and said, ‘You’re all right, come on, join the team,’ but it’s never been that way with me,” Corgan told Rolling Stone. “I don’t know why. Maybe I’m a dick, it shows. I don’t know.”
In a way, bashing the Pumpkins only strengthened Corgan and the “tortured genius” image he fronted in interviews. But if Corgan made a big deal out of being tortured, you also couldn’t deny him the genius part. Corgan wasn’t only the architect of the widescreen Smashing Pumpkins sound, he was also the construction crew, handling virtually all of the guitar and bass parts on the band’s early albums. For Siamese Dream, that was a lot of parts, with some songs having more than 50 different guitar tracks. It took three months and a quarter of a million dollars to finish Siamese Dream, and the arduous process of making the record nearly ended the Smashing Pumpkins right then and there. But, like Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s masterpiece of megalomania, Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, Corgan kept the band together to satisfy his maniacal pursuit of endless power and riches. In Aguirre, Kinski ends up adrift on a lonely stretch of the Amazon with a raft full of corpses and wild monkeys; Corgan had better transportation, riding the stainless steel perfection of Siamese Dream’s impeccably conceived guitar-rock hymns straight to the promised land. And he did it his way, declaring his independence from the cool kids that scorned him on the album-opening “Cherub Rock,” which sounded like Bob Dylan re-writing “Positively Fourth Street” after gorging on Boston’s first album for an entire summer.
An even bigger hit from Siamese Dream was “Today,” which ranks among the grunge era’s best singles. In typically melodramatic fashion, Corgan revealed that “Today” expressed his suicidal thoughts while grappling with writer’s block during the making of Siamese Dream. Corgan was wise to score his manic-depressive confessional with a gorgeously simple melody that took grunge’s standard quiet verse/loud chorus formula to new heights of gloomy grandeur.
Soon, writer’s block would be a distant memory for Corgan. Emboldened by the acceptance he found with the mainstream rock audience that had eluded him every place else, Corgan became a one-man factory of angsty alterna-pop. With 1995’s Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness and the accompanying singles collection The Aeroplane Flies High, the Pumpkins amazingly offered up five albums’ worth of material over the course of a year. It was tough not to be impressed by the superhuman efforts of Corgan, who wrote nearly all of the songs and surrendered no quarter of attention to his bandmates. The guy had even stopped looking human, taking on a pale, bald-headed, rock ’n’ roll alien look that was as repellent as his songs were catchy. Compared with reluctant grunge-rock pin-ups like Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell, who didn’t court sex-symbol status but undoubtedly benefited from it, Corgan didn’t exude traditional rock-star charisma. If those guys were Don Draper, Corgan was more like Pete Campbell—not exactly a people person, but a real scrapper with ambition to burn.
Corgan’s hard work was paying off big time: Singles like “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Tonight, Tonight,” and “1979” made Smashing Pumpkins the most inescapable alt-rock band of the mid-’90s, a time when the competition had either already taken itself out of commission (Nirvana) or was in the process of doing so (Pearl Jam and Soundgarden). The sheer quality and quantity of Smashing Pumpkins’ work at the time integrated Corgan’s larger-than-life odes to his own sadness into the very fabric of popular ’90s rock, making Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie essential documents of their time.
Unfortunately, the Pumpkins’ greatest hits suffered greatly from being tethered so inextricably to alt-rock’s prime once the ship started to go down at the end of the decade. By 1998, the epic emoting of Siamese Dream already seemed irreparably dated even to Corgan, who pulled Smashing Pumpkins in a radically different direction on Adore, playing around with trendy electro-pop and sullen balladry. But by then his band was falling apart. First, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was fired in 1996 for his involvement in the drug-related death of touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin. (Chamberlain re-joined in 1998, and then quit in 2009.) Then bassist D’Arcy Wretsky left in 1999, and guitarist James Iha decided not to re-join Corgan when he revived Smashing Pumpkins after the band’s 2000 breakup. Today, Corgan keeps Smashing Pumpkins technically afloat like one of those barely-there, barely-remembered classic-rock institutions that tour county fairs every summer with one original member and four or five guys in Hawaiian shirts. But he’s still a songwriting machine—over at smashingpumpkins.com, the curious can download selections from Corgan’s ongoing Teargarden By Kaleidyscope project, where he is gradually releasing tracks from a massive 44-song would-be masterpiece-in-progress. By the time that’s finished, Corgan will surely have another 44 songs ready to go for whoever is available to play them.
Liz Phair took longer than Billy Corgan to fall from grace, though that was mostly due to not being as prolific. After Guyville, she released two other ’90s albums, 1994’s Whip-Smart and 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg, that were respected by fans and critics but not particularly loved. Only Phair’s self-titled fourth record inspired as much passion as her debut when it was released in 2003, though this time people were rushing to take back all the nice things they had said about her 10 years earlier. Working with the sought-after production team The Matrix, which was most famous for making hits with shopping mall punk Avril Lavigne, Phair attempted the same career makeover that Weezer pulled off far more successfully a few years later, deliberately setting aside the dark idiosyncrasies that her cult following loved in order to create an exceedingly cynical version of modern pop music for the masses. Guyville is the work of a woman wise beyond her years; Liz Phair, meanwhile, was sort of embarrassing coming from a 36-year-old divorced mother who was slouching toward middle age by singing about playing Xbox with hot twentysomething-year-old boys in “Rock Me” and using semen as a beauty aid in “HWC.”
“When it comes to rock, we’re used to wincing at stars dressed up in packaging that masks a lack of talent,” Meghan O’Rourke wrote in a famously scathing New York Times review of Liz Phair. “Here, the wince comes instead from watching a genuine talent dressed in bland packaging.” For people who felt Guyville had been an honest reflection of their own experiences, it was as if Phair had gone back to being the girl that fetches the beer and talks about how bitchin’ her boyfriend’s band is.
Corgan and Phair have both disappointed their followers over the years, but Urge Overkill seemed not have any followers, save for those of us that still like to break out Saturation on sunny summer afternoons. When Saturation failed to set the world on fire—even after the band scored a hit with the Neil Diamond cover “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack—Urge Overkill strangely kept on pretending to be rock stars, falling victim to assorted drug problems and ego clashes that made 1995’s Exit The Dragon as joyless as Saturation had been breezily exuberant. When that album also flopped, Urge broke up.
But now Nash Kato and “King” Roeser are back together, having recently put out the first song from Urge Overkill in 15 years. The rumbling “Effigy” is a deliberate departure from the glossy sugar rush of Saturation, recalling the days when Urge Overkill was still pals with Albini and Rusk. “We went and rehearsed it for a couple of days then banged it out like we used to, Touch And Go style,” Roeser told Spin. “Effigy” sounds understandably shaky, like a band trying to go home again even if it knows home no longer exists. Here’s hoping they end up someplace better.
What Happened Next? Kurt Cobain’s suicide knocked the wind out of alternative rock, but not before Soundgarden released the defining grunge masterpiece Superunknown. But by then, the old alt-rock guard was being upstaged by Stone Temple Pilots, Bush, and the new wave of “bubble-grunge” bands.