Twenty years ago tonight, my friends and I began what would become, for me at least, a life changing adventure. Our destination: the most prominent music store on campus, Record Service I think it was, on Green Street in Champaign, Illinois. The reason: a midnight release of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the strangely named third album by The Smashing Pumpkins.
We’d all been introduced to the Pumpkins a couple years earlier by Los Angeles native Matt Redman, our teammate and friend. We each had varying degrees of interest in the new album. After all, $20 was a good chunk of change for broke college students in 1995. But we’d all become fans of Siamese Dream, the Pumpkins’ previous album, and months of daily anticipatory word-of-mouth (mostly from Matt) had increased the hype. So we ventured toward the old record store, which at the time was mostly a CD and cassette store, to satisfy our curiosities and put an end to anticipation.
When we arrived, the line already extended around the interior of the store and out the door onto the sidewalk. We found our place and waited for that magical moment when the clock would strike midnight, the line would start to move, and our money would turn into Pumpkins.
When the adventure ended, I returned to my apartment and opened my reward. Stylized artwork, a double-album jewel case, a thick book insert of liner notes, and two CDs, one pink and one blue, with different names and strange faces staring back at me.
I dropped the first disc into my CD tray. It was late. I was tired. I set the snooze on the stereo and climbed into bed. To this day, I remember my head hitting the pillow, streetlight streaming through the window, as those first piano chords filled the room. Quiet. Beautiful. Melodic. I thought, “What the hell did I just buy?” Then sound erupted as Tonight, Tonight began. I rarely love music the first time I hear it, and this was no different. I fell asleep after a few songs. The only real memory I can honestly recall is, “I probably shouldn’t have spent $20 on this. I may never listen to it.” Boy was I wrong. The adventure hadn’t ended. It was just beginning.
Since then, I’ve replaced those CDs twice because my originals were destroyed. I played them to death, left them on the passenger seat of my car, in the sun, etc.. I’ve bought DVDs of the music videos. I’ve bought deluxe collectors editions on CD and digital, not to mention pretty much everything the Pumpkins and/or Billy Corgan have released since. At least one of the album’s two discs was in my CD changer every day well into the next decade. I still listen to at least one song every few weeks, sometimes more.
It became an obsession. I listened nonstop to the first disc for months. I didn’t love the second disc, but eventually I found its sonic and emotional depth, and it ultimately replaced disc one as my favorite. The songs had range and spanned countless emotions. Loss, loneliness, angst, romance, love, heartache, ambition, hope, fear, to name a few. Each listen brought something new to discover. It certainly wasn’t the first album to bring all those things together, but it was the first one for me, and that made it special.
The album single-handedly changed my artistic style. My interests became darker. My writing took a turn toward the gothic, the surreal, but always with a touch of romance and unrequited love. I had discovered the type of emotional passion that gave life to my own voice. It opened me up to experimentation, to the realization that plenty of people had experiences far beyond my limited ability to understand or share. It taught me that many of my own fears and anxieties were not unique. Yes, we all superficially understand these things, but there are periods in life when they become more obvious, and our behaviors during those moments impact our behaviors and thinking later in life.
I became more accepting of outside influences and people. More artistically ambitious. More enamored with the idea that shared emotion could be conveyed in myriad ways, that unique voices and mediums and styles are simply different means of communicating the basic elements of how it feels to be human. It seems obvious in retrospect, and maybe I learned these things later than others, but that doesn’t lessen the personal impact. My vocabulary, my artistic sense, my selection of reading material and music, my desire to understand and empathize, my sense of love and isolation were all enormously influenced by this Chicago band’s alt-rock album of 1995.
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is many things to many people. Some love it. Some hate it. Many more are completely indifferent. I don’t care.
To me, it will always be a masterpiece. It will always be a guidepost on my journey. It will always be a reminder of what artistic ambition can accomplish, even if you’re just a midwestern kid from Illinois. Its impact on my life and the soundtrack it provided to my early adult years cement its place in my personal artistic pantheon.
More importantly, it’s a lesson that even the most mundane events in life can have lasting legacies. For all you know, a little trip to the record store on an innocent Monday night will send tremors and reverberations across every path you’ll ever walk. And that’s an interesting idea to consider every time you step out the front door.