Billy Corgan Comes Out of the Dark
While being hailed as an alternative rock god, the former Smashing Pumpkins front man confesses to being suicidal during the 1990s.
But with a little help from a few friends, Billy Corgan re-emerges with a solo album and new spirituality
by Bettina Kozlowski
Standing on the brink of his first solo album release, Billy Corgan resembles a modern day character out of a Bronte novel, a Heathcliff for the new millennium: a very pale, very thin, sort of ethereal master of a castle standing outside a dreamy mansion on Lake Michigan. But up close Corgan turns out to be warm, cheerful and youthful — almost boyish despite his 38-years and trademark baldness. He’s dressed as if he’s ready to shoot some hoops in the driveway of his Chicago-area home.
So it’s hard to imagine this man who radiates charisma and positive energy is the same person sitting down at a table calmly talking about the dark spells he had throughout his career with the Smashing Pumpkins. Corgan confesses he was in a very lonely, miserable space at the same time that he was being called the new alternative-rock God, and the Pumpkins were exploding onto mainstream charts, selling more than 25 million records.
“I think I had to hit rock-bottom to even be open to ask for help,” he says of his state of mind during much of the 1990s.
“There were days, months and years where I just stared out the window and felt miserable. I had to put things in a way that allowed me to experience how great life is.”
Life is indeed looking great again for Corgan, who has undergone an artistic reinvention and is ready to dive back into the scene. He has just completed final production work on his first solo album, called “TheFutureEmbrace” to be released in June on Martha’s Music / Reprise Records.
His solo album is an extension of his voice that was launched last fall with the publication of his poetry book, Blinking With Fists.
Besides writing poetry, he says his new path also includes strumming his guitar with a Tibetan singer and a desire to express the beauty and romanticism of life.
Fans may get a chance to see the new and improved Mr. Corgan after the album’s release when he goes on tour to perform in small select venues. He plans to take with him drummer Matt Walker, who replaced Jimmy Chamberlin after his departure from the band. But don’t expect a full Pumpkins reunion any time soon.
On Corgan’s 38th birthday in March, according to a friend who was part of the celebration, the musician announced that he had said goodbye to his old life and some of his old friends in order to be true to his heart.
That included splitting up the Pumpkins and his later band Zwan, in 2003, when he says he stopped believing in it.
Sometimes, loving someone means you have to walk away from them, Corgan explains.
“I see why someone is around me, and sometimes I try to show them that I actually love them beyond their own narcissistic desire to feel O.K. because they’re standing next to me,” he says, “but that doesn’t work either. They end up hating you for it, because you’re not holding the projection they want you to hold.”
Such musings seem unusually introspective for a rock star. But such soul searching has become commonplace for Corgan on his new path.
Corgan doesn’t draw a line between faith and spirituality. He embraces elements of Catholicism as well as Buddhism and a new global philosophy that integrates spirituality into every aspect of life, but he’s not obsessed with rituals of practice.
“I know it sounds a bit trite,” he says, “but I sort of believe in everything. The Christian religion has its own Karma just like the Buddhists have their own Karma. They all have their strengths and weaknesses.”
Corgan also has been exploring more unconventional spiritual masters. He has become a devotee of Ken Wilber who promotes Universal consciousness. Wilber provides a link to Corgan on his website: integralnaked.org.
Corgan is a frequent contributor to Wilber’s member-based website and participates in Wilber’s online dialogues between, what Wilber calls, the “most influential, provocative, and important thinkers and leaders in today’s world.”
On his website, Wilber calls Corgan a representative of a new avant-garde.
Corgan creates from “the leading edge of his unfolding consciousness,” according to Wilber, who added that the musician doesn’t hold anything back, and doesn’t concern himself with how his work will be received when he creates it. That includes setting artistic parameters in which to create freely. In a 2004 interview with Wilber, Corgan said he had to go through a long struggle with himself and others before getting what he called a dead weight off his neck, so he could return to experimenting with his creativity again.
Wilber also says he believes Corgan will find a new set of fans, those on an equal spiritual level with the singer, and together they will resurrect a better avant-garde. Those new fans may form a smaller group than the MTV crowd, but Wilber thinks they’re more intense and beneficial because they will inspire Corgan to incorporate deeper ideas.
Although he’s not working directly with Wilber or any spiritual teachers right now, Corgan says the time he spent with them including Chicago-based healer Sonia Choquette still has an impact on him today.
He points out that his newfound spirituality doesn’t mean he avoids swearing or telling irreverent jokes. And it doesn’t mean he’ll ditch some material pleasures for a life in a monastery or Ashram. Instead he strives to write songs that didn’t hold anything back — truly honest lyrics.
The Best and Worst of Times
Corgan’s music was always hailed for its raw honesty but overt spirituality didn’t seem to be part of his earlier life. In 1993, while their second album, “Siamese Dream,” catapulted The Pumpkins to nationwide popular success, Corgan says he felt suicidal.
Throughout that period, Corgan’s maniacally creative genius helped him suppress the unhappiness and emptiness he felt inside as the world seemed to simultaneously hand him the best and worst of everything. Band members’ drug addictions, messy personal relationships and the pressure of living up to expectations of becoming the new Nirvana locked Corgan into a deep depression while record sales soared.
It’s all chronicled on his tell-all website, billycorgan.com: Corgan’s biography describes his given name as William Patrick Corgan, and his birthplace and date as Chicago on March 17, 1967. It lists his height as 6’3", weight as 200 pounds, education as Glenbard North High School, and relations that include one ex-wife, a current girlfriend and no children. His musical influences include Black Sabbath, Bauhaus, Pink Floyd, and Queen.
But more telling are his reflections that read like chapters in a book chronicling a disturbing childhood and troubled relations with his parents, particularly his struggle to win his namesake father’s approval and love. He described his parents as Chicago-area high school dropouts, who met at a high school dance where his father was playing in the band. They were married when his mother became pregnant with him, and from the start he felt unwanted, recounting that both parents accused the other of wanting to put him up for adoption before he was born. Their marriage disintegrated, sometimes erupting into violence, despite the birth of another child, Ricky, two and a half years later. Describing that period Corgan wrote: “I have never heard one story of all 4 of us together, happy, like a family.”
The family eventually split up with Corgan’s father taking the youngest child, leaving behind Corgan with his mother. When his mother was placed in a mental hospital, the young Corgan was shuffled between relatives until his father retrieved him and brought him to live in a trailer park with his brother and stepmother. Corgan described feeling jealous of his father’s obvious affection for his brother and being bullied by neighborhood toughs as his father, who worked as a funk and soul musician, moved the family group around to various homes including one in suburban Cicero, and then Glendale Heights. Skinny and withdrawn, he wrote that he felt like an “unwanted adopted child.”
Relations didn’t improve any when as a young adult Corgan moved back in with his father, who was then living alone in a Northwest Side converted garage filled, Corgan said, “with mice and roaches and car parts.” During that period Corgan, a former honors student, questioned his decision to turn down college scholarships. Further rubbing salt in that wound was the fact that he was working in a college bookstore, along with taking odd jobs in the neighborhood. His memoir goes on to describe his experiences as a struggling young man and musician, including his days of trying to make it in Florida. But even when success finally arrived and the Smashing Pumpkins were all the rock rage, Corgan confessed he did not feel any happier.
Corgan’s mental portrait while re-cording the Pumpkins’ album “Adore” in 1998 described a depressed, bald-headed, overweight Pisces in a Ferrari, dressed from head to toe in leather.
“I think I was enslaved to a material mindset,” Corgan says today. “I don’t just mean making money. I mean feeling bad about myself all the time, because if I don’t look good enough, if I’m not the most popular and the most successful, there must be something wrong with me. I thought I was strong, but it was just puffed up weakness.”
He started seeing a therapist after he realized he needed help and learned how to let someone help him make his decisions, he says. But above all, he says, friends, chance encounters and some mentors put him in touch with the spirituality he feels he’s always had, but didn’t develop.
“I’ve had my own angels come in and out over the years just when I needed them,” Corgan says. “I think that’s the power of intention….”
The intention of … God?
“I know it sounds clichéd,” Corgan says, laughing. “To me, God is inevitable. There are so many things around me beyond my conception.”
“But you can’t access God through the intellect,” he adds, without a hint of self-consciousness. “It’s got to be through the heart. It’s been my experience that when you intellectualize the divine, you’re gonna get your ass kicked.”
Three years ago Corgan sought out Choquette and attended some of her workshops and classes.
“What I’ve taught Billy, and what I teach everybody, is that we are fundamentally spirit and that the spirit speaks to us directly through our intuition, our sixth sense,” Choquette explains. “We are naturally endowed with an inner voice that is holy.”
Choquette told Corgan to cultivate a relationship with that voice and live his life based on that inner integrity. She says in the process, he learned that his creativity, which was previously run by his reaction to the world, had shifted, coming from a deeper soul essence:
“It gives him a greater freedom to create in more dynamic ways,” she says.
And that new perspective on life results in greater self-compassion.
“It softens his ability to connect with everybody from soul to soul, instead of from role to role,” Choquette says of her student.
Though he admits he still prays to God constantly to forgive him for not being perfect, he does so now with a smile on his face.
“I feel happier,” Corgan confirms. “But it’s not some kind of divine bliss, like I’ve jacked into some mainframe I wasn’t connected to before. It’s just that I’ve removed the obstacles in my way that kept me from experiencing how great life is.”
Choquette calls Corgan a “world soul,” because, she says, through his music he’s connected to so many people’s souls.
“Being a world soul brings a big responsibility with it, and he knows it,” Choquette says. “His personal spiritual development contributes to everyone.”
Corgan now says he wants to “sow the seeds for something good,” and he believes that “if I am a good person, and I’m connected to nature and to my fellow human beings, that’s going to make for a better life.”
So he admits to being puzzled as to why, when he tried to write the new album from a positive place, a lot of the songs ended up coming from a place of pain.
“I wandered into these dark places. It’s hard to explain, because it comes so fast,” he says. “To think that life can be lived without pain, is wrong.”
Despite still getting angry and often feeling sad or lonely, Corgan says he accepts pain as part of life, and spirituality has taught him to feel compassion for others he may previously have judged.
“It’s no good to say about others, ‘you’re fat, you’re stupid, you’re the worst America has to offer,’” he says. “You can’t help someone until you understand why it is that they think what they think. The minute you think you’re better than someone, you’re in trouble.”
Prayer has become part of his daily life.
“You can bring the prayer into your life by wishing someone well whom you see having a hard day. You can send them good energy. There needs to be no exchange,” he says. “I pray and it’s pretty simple. There’s no structure.”
Chicago Metro nightclub owner Joe Shanahan, recalls when he and other guests were at Corgan’s home. Before dinner Corgan folded his hands and said a little prayer.
“And he’d do it in front of record company presidents, famous models, fabulous photographers,” Shanahan says laughing. “He’s unafraid of anyone who might think, ‘Oh, look at that guy, what’s that all about?’”
Corgan is always talking to God when he plays his guitar or piano, according to Shanahan. The club owner says he was in complete awe of the musician the first time he saw Corgan perform with the Pumpkins in 1988 at the Metro. The Pumpkins’ band life was book-ended by first and last appearances in the Metro, with the final concert in December, 2000.
“When he plays, it’s the purest moment of spirituality. He does it in concert, too,” Shanahan says. “You can feel it, you can see it, he’s in touch with God.”
Still, Shanahan thinks “TheFutureEmbrace” sounds different from anything Corgan has done before, comparing the sound to Brian Eno, Iggy Pop and “David Bowie’s ‘Low’- period, ’80s, grand, electronic hypophony.”
Corgan’s music has always closely reflected his life according to Shanahan who adds: “He would tell the world, in his songs or in interviews, about his frustrations and anger, about his childhood … I think he turned to spirituality because he realized he couldn’t be the open book personally all the time that he was artistically.”
A New Mission
Corgan may be a more private person now, but his mission is no less than to raise the collective consciousness. He says it’s his way to be supportive of the world, of the environment, of society. He wants to motivate the people he touches through his heart to bring about positive change in their respective areas of strength.
He tries to eat only organic foods and he has delved into yoga, although he admits to being “lazy” in keeping up a regular practice. He confesses to driving a ’70s “gas guzzler,” saying hybrid cars are just quick fixes to make people feel better about themselves, but they don’t effect fundamental change. To him, fighting for a better environment means raising the consciousness level of the public until everyone realizes that change needs to happen.
“Did you know the American army is using 12 million barrels of gasoline in Iraq every day?” he asks. “If I can raise the consciousness level of 100 people who are going to make 100,000 better choices, my energy is better spent than debating whether or not to drive a hybrid car.”
Despite talking about current ravages of wars and famine, Corgan is optimistic about the future.
He believes that society is moving toward a deeper collective consciousness as individual consciousness deepens.
“If you go 100 years into the future, you would see we’re on a better path. We’ll be more globally minded. People won’t be starving to death,” he predicts. “But in the meantime, we’ll have to go through terrible turmoil which comes with the death of an old consciousness.”
Corgan doubts he’ll live long enough to see the birth of the new, better age. But, he adds that “we live in a very unique time. We’re on the leading edge of a consciousness that’s coming.”
Corgan’s plans for the future — after he turns 40 — may hold composing a very artistic children’s opera in three acts, he specifies.
When he was 20, Corgan says, he made a promise to himself to work as hard as he could every day of his life until turning 40.
“My 40-plus plan is to have enough resources to never have to make a decision based on material outcome or availability again,” he says. “All my decisions will be based on what I want to do with my life.”
“In the meantime, I’ll come out with my own brand of Holy Water,” he says in a joking manner, apparently attempting to bring whatever may sound lofty safely back down to earth again.
“But life’s funny,” he ponders. “You think you know where it’s gonna go, and then ….” his voice trails off.
He admits to being afraid of the repercussions of finding himself once again in the rock star limelight if “TheFutureEmbrace” is a commercial hit.
“It’s not normal for a person to have that projection thrown on them day after day,” he says. “The way I deal with that is that I accept I will lose myself. I look at spirituality, like, the road is straight, but as long as I crookedly wander down it, I’m Ok, I can detour and come back.”
Bettina Kozlowski is a Chicago-based writer and journalist, who is a frequent contributor to WBEZ-FM radio. Additional reporting and writing for this story was provided by Marla Donato, Editor of Conscious Choice .
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