Mid-Florida Credit Union Amphitheater, Tampa, FL – July 24, 2015
The historic first joint live venture between The Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson has been dubbed, with characteristic humility and understatement, “The End Times Tour”. It does make a weird sort of sense that the leaders of perhaps the two most prominent cults of personality to survive the free-for-all that was ‘90s alternative rock would one day tour together. It also makes sense that the two would exhaust most every option that allowed them to maintain top billing and/or autonomy before grudgingly doing so. The infamous “Mr. Manson” and persnickety Pumpkin King Billy Corgan achieved their respective heights through mixtures of talent, ambition, artistic vision, and sheer guile (the exact percentages may be tweaked or spiked in the favor of one category or other). To finally share a stage so long removed from the period of their greatest successes and influence (’95 for Corgan, ’96 for Manson) is an exciting proposition and one, I’m sure, not a little bittersweet, for the artists and the audience. Cynics could easily assert this is, in essence, just another standard issue Journey/Def Leppard-style mega-nostalgia tour, minus approximately fifteen years of tread wear, and, a bit counterintuitively, carrying potentially far more baggage. When the two mouths that roared were filmed in a surprise live performance of the faux-goth Pumpkins single “Ava Adore”, it was interpreted as a turning point in a theoretically intense professional rivalry I’d never before paid much attention. There was of course a time when, stoked and spurred on by an overly inquisitive music press, these two seemed to be at some degree of war with a great many people, each other included. Courtney Love figures in there too, because obviously. I only care a little less now than I did back then. I’ve listened to more than enough of both bands over the years to instantly forgive their leaders’ many foibles. In 2015, pretty much any contrivance that gets them both into the same venue works for me.
Still, the potential for ego clashes between these cranky and particular ambassadors of Alt Nation, or just for unfocused, omni-directional angst, was nothing to discount. Impatient with the constraints of fame even as he tacitly embraced its benefits, the sensitive but outspoken Corgan always seemed to fancy himself a capital-A “Artiste” no matter whether his current audience numbered in the millions or the hundreds, and had an unfortunate tendency to occasionally burn industry and personal bridges in the act of crossing them. Manson, of course, was a professional lightning rod from day one, his outre flamethrowing proclivities, particularly as concerned and consistently rubbed up against the Religious Right, belying the more thoughtful soul hidden beneath all those layers of makeup and artifice. One did not exactly envision all-star encore jams of David Bowie tunes between the two as the climax of a perfect evening under the stars. Days on end of biblical rain in the Tampa area had grudgingly given temporary way to waves of truly oppressive humidity and an infrequent, gently mocking breeze only a scant hour earlier. The rain would explode back into play intermittently as the night progressed. The amphitheater lawn was utterly bare, its scattered masses huddled under roofs either on site or, more likely, at home, and from where I sat in the orchestra section, stars were in perilously short supply anyway, at least away from the stage.* On stage, where Manson’s main act of deference to the Great Pumpkin had been to perform first**, things got off to a sticky, volatile, slightly shaky start befitting the environment. This was my approximately eighth time seeing Manson on as many tours, and I couldn’t help thinking his stripped down three-piece band, augmented at times by a standalone drummer playing martial rhythms on two standing floor toms, was the thinnest sounding of his live career. He also ran through an early procession of microphones in short order, his trademark wail-scream alternately buried in the mix or overpowering. It would take a little while to find clean footing.
*Before the show could start in earnest, though, we first endured a punishing mini-set from a sneering neo-nu-goth guitar and drum machine duo that would have been more at home, and sucked just as viciously, back in 1998 where it belonged. I won’t dignify such an awful opener by repeating its name (gotta use Google for something), but my friend and I did christen its snotty, comically self-loathing singer “Justin Manson”, figuring that only transparent nepotism could’ve possibly been responsible for such a plum gig going to such an execrable act.
**As the Pumpkins are technically the bigger band – two giant albums instead of one, and a far bigger MTV profile at their height – I doubt he had much actual say in the matter. After so many years of unchecked id – I last saw him open for Danzig in 1995, and NIN the year before – I just found it exceedingly odd to witness Manson opening for anybody.
Visibly agitated, or at least clearly restless, the pasty white, black-clad front man stalked the stage from the second he mounted it, kicking off his set with a trio of newer songs – “Deep Six” and “Third Day of a Seven-Day Binge” from his most recent/most successful comeback album, The Pale Emperor, and “No Reflection”, one of the scattered highlights of his game 2012 attempt, Born Villain – interspersed with uptempo, mid-period, ostensibly popular ragers like “Disposable Teens” and “Mobscene”. Interestingly enough on a night where nostalgia permeated the very air, the newer songs were appreciably livelier and seemed to resonate more, indicative of the creative strides represented by Emperor (which will likely make my year-end top 20 in some capacity), though 1998 was the hard cutoff point thereafter. The remainder of the show was comprised, with a couple of notable surprises, of songs from Manson’s magnum opus, 1996’s Antichrist Superstar, and his underappreciated homage to Thin White Duke-era Bowie, 1998’s Mechanical Animals, and as the material strengthened, the band, featuring holdover original member Twiggy Ramirez on guitar instead of bass, noticeably followed suit. Ever the striking visual artist, Manson, whose minimalist stage was adorned with four standalone stained glass windows featuring “MMXV” in Roman numerals above his portrait giving a mock-papal gesture, performed his slightly sleazier but otherwise reverent cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” from a white insta-pulpit and emerged for a particularly stirring rendition of his breakthrough hit, the apocalyptic 1995 reimagining of Eurhythmics’ eighties staple “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, outfitted with metal stilts on both hands and feet, pulling the required performance out of a deep, yet-untapped personal reservoir of bile and confusion, and looking for all the world like an armored praying mantis. Striking.
For all his efforts and insistence, it’s been some time since Marilyn Mason has truly had the power to shock or unsettle. He’s not yet lounge act caliber, but, to paraphrase an old show business saying, you can see Vegas from here. The important thing to note is that, despite his prolonged post-millennial wilderness period and some contractually-obligated missteps (boy, did he release the wrong songs off Animals, which is 75% dark beauty, and so formidable, once you get past “The Dope Show” and “Rock is Dead”, both performed here) the songs still largely hold up, though not always the ones you’d expect. Superstar lead single “The Beautiful People” had a rushed, perfunctory feel to it, but the surprise inclusion of “Angel with the Scabbed Wings” was a giddy highlight, as was an off-the-rails run through of the extreme anti-bullying anthem “Lunchbox” from 1994’s Portrait of an American Family. The emotional apex of any Manson show since 1996, of course, is his grave, driving, exhilarating rendition of Superstar’s title track, which he sings in the guise of an oily fascist dictator, mid-rally, atop a towering black lectern, and during which he is able, for four minutes at least, to tap back into the combination of cerebral and visceral menace he once wielded so effectively. So it was again this night, which ended on an agreeably melancholy note with Mechanical Animals closer “Coma White”. Though Manson acquitted himself nicely on the whole and proved his gas tank far from empty, my real anticipation going in had been and remained reserved for The Smashing Pumpkins, the unlikely, famously combustible MTV darling that, immediately after achieving its biggest success with twin epics Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, became in practice what it had pretty much always been in theory, a periodic rotating session band serving the restless, often frustrating muse of leader Billy Corgan, one of alternative music’s great creative minds, not to mention one of the most underrated guitarists in rock history. For better and worse, Corgan as an artist has never been one to dwell on the past at the expense of current projects, which presents all sorts of potential obstacles to his loyal fan base. The problem is that Corgan does not demand loyalty, he demands focus. He demands attention on the here and now, despite having curated a gallery of bona fide hit songs many other artists would kill for.
Due to the surpassing cruelty of uncooperative geography, I missed seeing The Smashing Pumpkins at precisely the time I most should have, when, during a short but sublime window (1993-94), they became the third of only four bands to ever be designated as my official, unquestioned favorite. I remember listening to an inexplicably used copy of the band’s polished but primal debut album Gish in my local record store and being flabbergasted. My friend behind the counter referenced Jimi Hendrix in relation to Corgan’s axe-work, which seemed oddly plausible to me. A few months later, I listened to a promo copy of “Cherub Rock”, the advance single for the forthcoming second Pumpkins album, which was already garnering near-mythic hype from corners of the rock journalistic landscape so recently and thoroughly galvanized by the rise of Nirvana and grunge’s subsequent ascension. I loved how lush and enveloping the sound was, the tightly controlled compositional chaos and Jimmy Chamberlin’s superhuman drumming, and how simultaneously compatible it was with the strictures of grunge, and rock in general, while seemingly intent to expand and rewrite them at every turn. “Cherub Rock” alone blew my mind. After what must’ve been upwards of ten consecutive plays, I made the store owner a rash and stupid offer on the spot and walked out with the CD single. I wasn’t going to be denied. Released a month or so later, Siamese Dream completely rejuvenated my way of thinking about and experiencing music, and became, in what was basically a self-fulfilling prophecy, one of my ten favorite albums ever. Two years later, a triumphant Corgan unleashed the double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, his hit total trebled, and the band as constituted slowly, distressingly began to implode. With the electronica-tinged slight of hand of 1998’s Adore, Corgan’s outsized influence finally, officially, subsumed the rest of the band and recast it definitively as his show. From there, the Pumpkins would suddenly break up, reform, release reams of potent but instantly obscure new music, then break up again, starting a fresh cycle.
It was during these lean years that I finally saw The Smashing Pumpkins – or, rather Corgan, two mercenaries, and ace original drummer Chamberlin, who influenced my own playing as much as any modern sticksman this side of Rush’s Neil Peart – live, on an anti-reunion tour supporting 2007’s divisive Zeitgeist. That night, in an open air pavilion, and five years later, in a blissfully cramped capacity theater supporting 2012’s excellent Oceania, the Pumpkins were a mixed bag of power and potential, forever on the frustrating verge of explosion without ever quite breaking through, though still damned good. In each case, the set list was predominantly drawn from the most recent album, despite, as mentioned before, a veritable treasure trove of fan favorites available from Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie. As the crew in Tampa removed Manson’s backdrop and started hanging a multi-tiered arrangement of long, flowing white sheets and testing out colored lights on them, I began to feel my nerves. I’d heard rumors that this tour had, if not birthed a whole new band, at least enabled within it a heretofore unseen sense of user-friendliness. Could it be true, or would Corgan’s stubborn insistence on the primacy of now override any fleeting pretensions he might have toward populism or fan service? My apprehension lessened at the mere notice of a monogrammed “JC” on the kick drum, confirming the mercurial Chamberlin’s welcome return to the Pumpkin patch following several years and one underwhelming album away. The lights dimmed, and the Pumpkins took the stage without fanfare but to raucous applause. I held my breath in anticipation of a first note I’d instantly be able to identify, little imagining it would be a drum roll…my favorite drum roll of all time, in fact, the one that kicks off “Cherub Rock”. It speaks to Corgan’s famous obstinance that I could be as shocked as I was at the mere fact of hearing my former favorite band ever playing one of my favorite songs of all time in a live setting. For this band and this song, plus plenty of others comparable, it had simply, and honestly, never happened before. I could barely see straight from smiling.
The Pumpkins would ride this new paradigm, enabled by “Cherub Rock”, to the dizzying crest of a wave, following it up immediately with two Mellon Collie standard-bearers and MTV faves, the howling “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” and majestic “Tonight Tonight”. To be one of the well over 10,000 who had braved the elements for the opportunity to spontaneously scream the final word of Corgan’s iconic lyric – “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a CAAAAAGE!” – in unison…it felt like part validation, part victory. On the occasion of song four, the aforementioned “Ava Adore”, I remarked to my friend that this A) was already officially as many hits as I’d heard the band play in the previous two shows combined, and B) one hell of an occasion (for him) on which to see the Pumpkins for the first time. He laughed and nodded in amazement. I quickly learned that a loose Billy Corgan is an optimal Billy Corgan, which was the case whether he sat on a monitor admiring Chamberlin’s four-handed drum solo, ripped out blistering occasional solos of his own, or put down his guitar momentarily to try out his nascent lead singer moves on 2000’s “The Crying Tree of Mercury”. As front men go, Billy surely lacks Manson’s innate magnetism, but makes up for it in applied, self-evident passion. Improbably, the hits kept coming, first in the person of crowd-pleasing Mellon Collie aggro-bomb “Zero” and then gorgeous Siamese chestnut “Mayonaise”. Corgan played Siamese Dream’s emotional cornerstone “Disarm” as a solo acoustic number with plaintive, audience-augmented choruses, then was joined onstage by guitarist Jeff Schroeder for a lovely cover of the Fleetwood Mac classic “Landslide”. Mellon Collie’s biggest hit, the looping, yearning “1979”, marked for all intents and purposes the end of the set, despite the fact that the band still had four songs left in its quiver. This after-climax assortment better reflected Corgan’s normal, irascible nature, featuring a somewhat obscure single (2000’s “Stand Inside Your Love”), an underwhelming new song (“Run2Me”), a Mellon Collie deep cut (“Through the Eyes of Ruby”), and the grinding, ten-minute jam “United States”, an entirely decent song stretched to endurance test lengths with which, tellingly, I’d seen him close shows before. The MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheater observes a strict 11:00 curfew, which precluded any hope of an encore, and regarding which Corgan, upon informing us, cheekily observed, “I always play by the rules.”
Any residual disappointment we felt on our walk back through long stretches of instant swampland to the car was mitigated by how thoroughly in the early going Corgan had simultaneously subverted expectations while crafting an effortless, ass-kicking set list. Still, I’d heard tell beforehand of a spectacular three-minute medley of multiple songs from Gish, and, as long as Corgan was running a charm offensive, Siamese Dream’s biggest hit, the chiming, buoyant “Today”, seemed like a particularly egregious omission. But the day Billy Corgan overtly, intentionally plays to the cheap seats is probably the day just before he dies, so I was content with what I got. Unless your live memories happen to date conveniently back to the early ‘90s, I’ll all but guarantee this Pumpkins show was as good as you’ve ever seen. A tour like this, where old frenemies join forces in the dogged pursuit of black-clad art and commerce, offers ample opportunity for not just good times and music, but, I would imagine, personal growth. For all his on stage scowl and bluster, I noticed Manson casually talking to and taking pictures with a bevy of adoring fans – some of them obvious Halloween-Town ex-pats who deserve kudos for playing dress up despite the pervasive humidity, which wreaked unfortunate havoc on every overly lined eye in the place – after his set, and then again during the beginning of the next. The latter impromptu meet-and-greet was performed right in Corgan’s line of sight, which I doubt was either coincidental on Manson’s part or unnoticed on Billy’s. Still, Corgan had a sort of alien ease about him all night, and smiled more, even in passing, over the course of these ninety minutes than he had in the combined four hours I’d witnessed previously. This tour was worth the wait.