Of Love and Music: A Relationship with The Smashing Pumpkins

I originally wrote this as a guest post on Plane back in October, 2015, but I wanted to share it with you all here as well. 

I developed my first musical crush when I was 12 years old. It was on Candlebox, an alternative rock band from Seattle. (It was the early ‘90s; pretty much every band was an alternative rock band from Seattle). I was venturing from the world of dance pop and Top 40 into the world of rock, and Candlebox was the band that made me realize this was the new territory I wanted to settle in. What the point of connection was between me – an introverted girl who still owned Barbies and read every “Babysitters Club” book she could find – and songs such as “Cover Me,” “You,” and “Understanding” I’m not sure. But there was something in the loud rawness of this music that captivated me. I stopped listening to TLC and Ace of Base and entered the world of grunge. I got labeled a “rocker” by the other kids in my junior high school. I decorated my school notebooks and binders with “Candlebox rules” and “I love Candlebox,” as though Candlebox was the name of a boy I liked. I suppose in a way it was, since my crush on Candlebox was at least equal in intensity to the crushes I had on actual boys.

So I “liked” Candlebox. And then one day, as I was faithfully listening the local alt-rock radio station, I heard Billy Corgan’s voice. Everything changed. It was as though a door had appeared in the alternative-rock house I lived in and opened into a vast musical world of greater depth and quality than I had ever known. Yes, Candlebox and The Smashing Pumpkins (of which Billy Corgan was the lead singer and writer) fell into the same genre of “alternative rock.” But Billy and The Pumpkins were different. Theirs was an emotional and musical complexity, exploration, and daring that made me jump gladly across that door’s threshold.

While I had been infatuated with Candlebox, I fell head over heels with The Smashing Pumpkins. Discovering them unleashed a level of emotion from and personal attachment to music that I hadn’t experienced before. I was swept by the contrast and range in the band’s sound, everything from the simple, melodic beauty of the piano in the song “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” to the earnest, congested guitars and drums in “Silverf***.” I was roused by Billy’s poetic lyrics that covered multitudes of feeling, from exultant love in songs like “Stand Inside Your Love” (my favorite love song of all time) to the despairing of life in songs like “Jellybelly.” And then there was Billy’s voice. From his yells to his whispers to his talking, no other voice conveyed to me or provoked in me as much heightened emotion as his did.

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A Fascination: In which all I see is empty


Sometimes when this place gets kind of empty
Sound of their breath fades with the light

Sometimes I look at the space around me and all I see is that it is empty. I see a chair, a bed, a modern-art print on the wall. Through the window I see cars on the street and people sitting on their balconies. If I were to punch a hole through this apartment wall, a family of three would look up from their dining room table. But I see all this and take it in as empty.

The faces of the people, the sounds of their living, the things they make and break – everything is empty. I don’t know the full reason for this, but I suspect it has something to do with my new reality of not being sure of what I’m perceiving, not being sure of what lies behind life. I’ve always been certain of at least something. I’ve always been sure of what drives life forward. But now my list of certainties shrinks every month, every week, every day.

………

What dramatic statements. And they’re not completely true. There are still things I am certain of, things whose sureness becomes more firm as other things that used to be facts to me waver between being concrete matter and almost-ghosts:

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The Feeler: In which I stay

 

Sometime in the a.m.:

The feeler stays awake, any way she can, through the fog of wine, through the pulse of music, through the rushing of time no hand will stop.

I did not choose to be here, not now, not ever. Yet, continually, it seems, you refuse to tell me why I am.

“I am alive!” people exult every day, but it takes more than what is in me to simply state it for myself.

Yet alive – even if just technically – I am. Grace has kept me from finding the means to willingly change this.

And so the feeler continues, through this night and through as many in which time does not play its hand.

Purpose, come to meet me.

Will, come to save me.

Truth, tread down before me the path to follow.

Time, time, I will stay.

Places: In which I move, yet again

It happens again, time after time: you move to a new place. Sometimes this new place is exactly what you’ve been looking for, like the spacious, one-bedroom apartment with the gray countertops and the large living-room window looking out into the city. Other times it’ll simply do.

There have been 19 moves and 17 places (two repeated) so far: houses, apartments, and a trailer scattered over two countries and seven cities. Moving this much comes naturally, though not often easily. Moving from one country to another is hardest, of course, and moving from one state to another is easier. It’s easier still to move within the same state or within the same city. The easiest of all is moving from one house to a different one just two doors down because the floor plan is exactly the same, but the rent is lower and the owner will take care of the lawn in the summer and the snow in the winter.

But whether from one country to another, one house to another, easy or difficult, it comes: the swapping of one place for a different one.

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Thirty-Three: In which a song helps me deal with time

My birthday was this month and, honestly, I wasn’t very happy about it. It’s to no avail, of course, but I find myself continually resisting my birthdays, more and more each year.

I have never liked getting older, not even when I was young. I didn’t eagerly await turning 16 so I could drive, or 18 so I could be of age, or 21 so I could drink legally in the U.S. (although I was a little excited to turn 25 so I could rent a car).

If it were up to me, I would have stayed 10 forever, when the first signs of puberty started me thinking about age and time. Since then, the reality of our inability to stop time from rushing, rushing by has been hard for me to deal with. This may be arrogant or foolish, but it’s not OK with me that there is a force beyond my control, a force I cannot fight with nor overcome, that determines some of the most basic things about me – how I feel, what I look like, how my brain works.

So birthdays have always been hard for me, and each year they get harder. Each year there is more time to look back on with the sober understanding that I am completely responsible for it. Each year the answers to the questions of Was this year what I wanted it to be? What am I doing with my life? Am I any closer to who I want to be? become graver.

Of course, this thinking isn’t unique. I imagine most adults ask these types of questions during birthdays or at the New Year. They are not easy questions to ask and are even harder to answer.

That is why, with time against me, I resentfully face this 33rd year that did not ask me for permission to arrive.

33.

As I write this just now, I realize 33 is one of my favorite numbers. And I am cheered by this! I had more to say about how getting older makes me sad, how there are things I regret from the last year. But I’m 33! Maybe this year won’t be so bad if I get to be one of my favorite numbers during it.

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Demons: In which they take on new forms

I walk into the room and turn on The National’s “Trouble Will Find Me”. I reach for a bottle of wine. I put on Bordeaux-red lipstick and re-apply eyeliner. I change my clothes so my skin can catch any breeze that floats in through the open window.

But I stay down with my demons, Matt Berninger sings.
I stay down with my demons.

What are my demons these days?

Uncertainty about what my next steps should be, and whether I should take them driving through the streets of Guatemala City or walking down the streets of Chicago.

Unsure, often forced, and sometimes deliberately-veiled talks to God (Has he sent a response? I don’t always listen for one.)

Actively smoothing out the pebbles and boulders from my closest friendship.

Climbing every day the mountain of mental and emotional health. Some days I only stumble; other days I fall all the way to the dark ravine below.

And yet, what kind of “demons” are these? If these are all that haunt my steps, can I not easily turn to face them? If these are the troubles that knock at my door, can I not safely let them in?

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I Can Change: In which I’m inspired by Brandon Flowers’ enthusiasm

As I write this post, Brandon Flowers’ new album, The Desired Effect, has been out for about a month. I had been waiting for this album since it was announced in February. Like a lot of fans, I took notice of The Killers (the band of which Flowers is the leader singer) when their single Somebody Told Me hit radio in 2004. I was immediately hooked on the song and liked it unequivocally.

Unequivocally perhaps, but silently. One of my best friends at the time (see Lost in Zooropa) was as obsessed with music as I was, and we both prided ourselves in having really good taste. Although we didn’t always see eye to eye on specifics, we did agree that the other had a good ear and trusted each other’s musical judgment.

But with Somebody Told Me, and its album Hot Fuss, I felt hesitant. The Killers’ sound was different from what was being heard in alternative rock at the time and, while I liked their first singles, I was unsure of how they would hold up to the critics, including this friend, Doug. I thought he would ridicule their synth, ‘80s sound. There was an emotional element in the music that took me back to junior high in Miami that I knew he just wouldn’t get. And so, as I listened to Somebody Told Me on repeat and reveled in the swell of All These Things That I’ve Done, I kept silent about my new discovery.

Fast forward to a few months later. Doug and I were talking, as usual, about music, discussing new bands we were listening to. He mentioned this new, up-and-coming band, The Killers. Had I heard them? I should really give them a listen because they’re one of the best bands to come out in a long time and they’re going places musically that no one else is going. I really should check them out.

I was…surprised, yes. But mostly I was mad, at myself. Here I had been listening to this band for months already, and Doug was taking all the credit for discovering it first. I didn’t say much beyond, “OK. I’ll look them up,” because there really wasn’t much to say. I was just angry with myself at the missed opportunity of being the one to have introduced Doug to The Killers (who would become one of the best bands of the 2000s and one of Doug’s all-time favorite bands), and I was angry at the pattern this revealed.

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