Shortly after midnight on October 24, 1995, I lay in bed, in the dark, my stereo volume low, and, for the first time, heard that famous piano melody drift tenderly from tiny speakers. The album was Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by the Smashing Pumpkins. I had waited in line with friends and hundreds of other kids to snag a copy the moment it went on sale. The piano melody was followed by the triumphant strings of Tonight Tonight. The hard distortion of Jellybelly. The sinking isolation of Zero. I had no idea, in that moment, how familiar those songs would become.
Early this morning, shortly after midnight, exactly 25 years later, I sat alone with a glass of whiskey and a turntable to relive the experience. I spun the album from start to finish, amused that my 1995 CDs had been replaced by 2020 vinyl. How many thousands of times, I wondered, had I listened to those songs.
A quarter century. More years had passed since my first listen than all the years I had lived before it happened.
We endure a lot of life in twenty-five years. I've seen cross country moves, home buying, marriage, kids, divorce. Rebuilding. Financial worries, a career, teenagers, new loves, heartbreak, success. None of it played out like I dreamed it would as a twenty year old kid in college.
Always in the background: the Smashing Pumpkins. New music and old. Supplemented, of course, by other bands and other genres, but nothing with such monumental impact.
These are the songs and the music of a lonely Chicago boy with a weird voice who dared to dream big. A band of Chicagoland kids who achieved the impossible. They grew up not far from where I lived, and I can't overstate the impact their success had on this suburban midwestern kid entertaining teenage delusions of grandeur.
I've been teased about my fascination with the Pumpkins. Few people make an effort to understand why the music affects me the way it does, why I fell in love with it, or why it's grown with me. Fair. Many people have their own similar stories, their own bands, their own consequential music. My story is not particularly unique.
But what about this music moves me still? How can I succumb to its mystique and allure despite its familiarity?
I've been told repeatedly that I'm hard to know, that I'm not as transparent as I think I am. I don't share my thoughts willingly with others, at least not without prompting. True, I'm quiet, unrevealing, but not by design. I moved around a bit as a kid. Attended many different schools. I learned young that people come and go, that friendships are fleeting, that relationships often linger longer in memory than in reality.
I've always felt alone.
I'm not bothered by it. It's not a bad thing. I understood early how to entertain myself. I read. I learn. I create. Mostly, I find people to be a hindrance to everything I want to achieve. They inflict pressure and guilt. They express disappointment, and the threat of disappointing people has always been a tremendous source of anxiety.
Nevertheless, I don't feel hard to know. I can't grasp my apparent lack of transparency. My emotions seem so obvious and universal that surely everyone else understands. Of course, as my romantic partners of the past decade would tell you, in this regard I'm a sorely mistaken idiot.
Despite the opaque exterior, inside I'm an endlessly sentimental romantic, dreamy to a fault, nostalgic, uncertain, optimistic, hesitant, loving, caring, desiring to be understood, wishing to be smarter, to know more, to improve myself, to make people smile. I'm desperate to achieve, to prove, to accomplish. I'm certain of my potential and drive but not of my ability to execute. I long always to be adored, but mostly from a distance.
No one has ever captured the nuances and contradictions and ambiguity and depths of that internal struggle the way Billy Corgan has.
I'm not necessarily talking about lyrics. I don't know every lyric to most Pumpkins songs. I sing along at times. But it's the feel, the dynamics, the sound, the theatricality of the whole package that touches me.
Mellon Collie arrived at a time in my life when I had found my first (and, ultimately, only) group of close friends, people I cherish still though we've rarely seen each other in decades. It arrived as I was discovering myself, my coming of age, as I developed my earliest ideas about life and politics and humanity, a time when my world was expanding in every direction.
I hadn't faced a lot of hardships growing up, beyond the isolation referenced above. I had a loving family. What struggles we faced, my parents hid well, to their endless credit. Then I went to college. Immediately, I lost my grandma. I watched tragedy befall my teammate. Another friend lost his mom. I fell in love, and, not for the first time, lost that love to another person. I quickly learned to distrust, and that lesson has been sadly reinforced many times over the years.
I developed many identifiable characteristics during those days, and the backdrop to it all was this muddled mass of whimsical, bombastic, glorious musical absurdity we know as Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Endlessly creative, depressing at times, redeeming at others, it is a barrage of emotional epiphanies. Quiet, loud, brutal, delicate, angry, tender. There's a song for every mood, a moment for each emotion, and it tickled every tendon of my psyche. It's a bottomless well from which to pull ideas, an endless fountain in which to cast your wishes.
I haven't changed much since my first listen. At least, I don't feel I have. My calm, shy, polite exterior remains a front to conceal an endless struggle between naïve uncertainty, tumultuous desire, and a driving need to prove I'm something more than ordinary, perhaps with a few extra years of experience tacked on to reduce the anxiety such battles often inflict.
If you want to know me, to understand my ambition and determination and confusion and love and yearning, my eternal sense of inferiority, my contradictions, stupidity, angst, and a medley of my unfocused machinations, sit in a quiet room and listen to this album. You'll find pieces of me in there, just as I find pieces of there in every part of me.
A lot changes in a quarter century, but some things remain eternal.
I'm not eternal. The tears of nostalgia and sentiment as I listened were not eternal. My glass of whiskey was certainly not eternal.
Thankfully, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is and will always be.