When you live with a song long enough, it becomes part of your memory-scape. In our BRAND NEW COLUMN One Song, One Story, our writers share a song, and the story it evokes in them.
I disliked the Pumpkins. I never probed why. Until the fall of 2014. I was at a date’s apartment, studying the room cautiously for red flags and alarm bells. The last time it was a copy of an Idiot’s Guide to Philosophy. The time before it was a Paulo Coelho paperback stashed behind Dostoevsky on the shelf. It all seemed to be going well when I heard him decanting wine in the kitchen. Until I turned around to retrieve my glass. There it was: a Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness reissue propped up proudly on a cabinet for display. I recognized it instantly as a storied weapon of affection–a kind of seemingly perfect fodder for wine-stained conversation with dates he brought back home. Not quite like discovering an Idiot’s Guide to Sartre, but quite similar in the way the record sat there, simply taunting me, reminding me of this great, big difference between us that was soon going to be realized. “Not a fan, I take it?”
I was abruptly made aware of a “concerned,” almost compassionate condescension that was going to explode out of him in enthusiastic bursts. A defense think-piece in the broken phraseology of exclaimed buts and oh-gods and how-can-you-nots, if you will. I could feel it in my bones, the threatening stirrings of a passive aggressive “we’re going to have to agree to disagree” conversation that was going to transpire, the haughty silence of victory that would fill the air afterward. I excused myself.
On the walk back home, I wondered if I even had an argument inside of me. I’d been told I was wrong for not liking the Smashing Pumpkins so many times before that I’d armed myself in self-defense. My disenfranchisement had begun to empower me. Yet, I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember what Billy Corgan did to evoke such strong feelings of dismissal for The Smashing Pumpkins in me. Why did I dislike The Pumpkins? Sure, there was the ever-growing caricaturish existence of Billy Corgan–the eight-part concept album about Buddha, the Chicago tea shop that served a single glass of tea for $25, the comic and vaguely threatening rapid-fire e-mail back-and-forth with Courtney Love, the wrestler magazine covers. Or perhaps, it was that my friend and I were followed by a biker gang at an Indonesian beach festival, at age 15, when I first decided to give the band an honest try. But those memories seemed so impersonal, shelved in a past too distant for me to retrieve. Maybe they had nothing to do with it at all. Maybe it all stemmed from my lamentable frustration with Mellon Collie, strongly rooted in my unsuccessful annual attempts to “get” the album and evolve my “philistine” tastes. It’s true: one night a year, every year, I’d put on Mellon Collie only to drift in and out of sleep, waking up occasionally to drizzly spoken word piano tracks and lyrics that recalled the self-created darkness of my teenage journals. I mean, “Fuck You (And Ode To No one)”? Really? Really? Like reading a book halfheartedly, I’d make it to the final page without remembering what the story was about. I was the delinquent music obsessive who couldn’t appreciate the second coming of The Wall.
I’d couched my inability to comprehend Mellon Collie until the night of my twenty-first birthday. It was then, after a baffling night of bar fights and betrayal, after asking myself a cab ride worth of questions, namely what am I doing here, eight thousand miles from the city I’ve come to know and love, trying in vain to forge a new home for myself that I heard it. I mean, truly listened. Suddenly I felt the night fading fast with the resolute urgency of now: “Time is never time at all/ You can never ever leave without leaving a piece of youth.” Sat on my bathroom floor, half a bottle of champagne down, I was taken in by the relentless emotional overlay of “Tonight, Tonight.” I felt anchorless, unbound. Before me was the woozy sound of nothingness and it somehow clicked with every rimshot, the song swiftly becoming the last thread holding onto me. I was too grateful to feel embarrassed. I felt infinite. We’ll make things right, we’ll feel it all tonight. Billy was speaking to me in a language I could hear and I was ready, once and for all, to finally “crucify the insincere.” And maybe it takes orbiting the world four times, leaving pieces of your youth scattered all around, before you can understand the seemingly inconsequential nature of life, what it means to be nowhere, nowhere to be. Maybe it takes utter, ruthless stagnancy to recognize the fluidity of time.
That night I was struck by the creeping realization that Billy believed in me. And worse, that I believed in Billy. I let “Tonight, Tonight,” dissolve into “Jellybelly” with the fizzing swoosh of a billion guitars, going nowhere fast with sliding celerity. It seemed laughable, strangely metaphysical, to have spent endless miles and minutes only to circle back and find a friend in Mellon Collie. And there I was, a humbling month later, adamantly defending the album to a boy over a glass of wine. He excused himself, too, but only to go out and buy the record.