When you first fall in love, you float above the earth, limbs cushioned by azure sky. You expect things to stay that way forever. Then one day you realise your feet are back on solid ground, the sky now an ominous black. How do you tell your first love it’s over?
For my fifteenth birthday present, my skint older brother recorded the Smashing Pumpkins’ second album Siamese Dream onto a cassette. It mattered not that six million people worldwide (and countless freeloading younger siblings) also loved the Pumpkins; they became my musical obsession. Whether I was crushing on any boy who named them as a favourite or offering to eat a live pigeon on radio in an effort to win a backstage meeting with the band (strangely, I didn’t win), the Pumpkins were my first love, and I stayed true for more than three years.
Such a long-standing obsession seems unusually faithful for a teenager, but I later showed my true teen colours with my childish break-up method. I used the musical equivalent of not returning phone calls: after buying the Pumpkins’ fourth album, Adore, I played it only once before I stopped listening to their music entirely. Now, with sage hindsight, I’ll give the Pumpkins the break-up they deserve, using Nada Surf’s three important rules for breaking up:
1. Don’t put off breaking up when you know you want to.
I should have cut our connecting heartstrings in 1998. Instead, I let them fray in the wake of Adore. When the Pumpkins parted ways after the 2000 release of Machina/The Machines of God, I was unshackled, free to explore new music without guilt. But then lead singer Billy Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain revived the Pumpkins’ corpse with a new album, 2007’s self-consciously titled Zeitgeist. It was difficult, but I managed to avoid sliding back into the relationship. When, in 2009, Teargarden by Kaleidyscope began to be released one track at a time, the drip-feed of songs was such an easy way to sample the new material that I almost broke. Thankfully, I also began to follow Corgan on Twitter. It was a cringeworthy feed: vague, New-Agey tweets and sappy love directed at a Veronica. Thanks to Billy, we were finally through.
2. Tell them honestly, simply, kindly but firmly.
To properly tell your former love why it’s over, you must first recall why it started. In an early nineties that divided bands into two genres – ‘alternative’ and ‘mainstream’ – Siamese Dream gave a sugar coating to the bitter alternative pill of grunge. Corgan’s voice could throw petulant tantrums, but it could also cast wispy charms on the band’s rock-heavy guitar riffs. From the first drum roll of ‘Cherub Rock’ to the final lullaby strains of ‘Luna’, the album simultaneously captures the dreariness of life and offers an escape hatch. Corgan’s elliptical lyrics, hinting at sorrows unknown, were the blank canvas on which I projected my (hard to elucidate but deeply felt) teen angst.
The Pumpkins delighted in their commercial success, meeting Homer Simpson and walking a self-indulgent road with their third album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. They inevitably drew haters, such as US music producer Steve Albini, who ranted they were ‘by, of and for the mainstream’. But, as Alex Ross noted in the New Yorker in 1994, alternative music ‘sold out as a matter of principle’. Where some saw sell-outs, I saw ambition, which – as a young girl desperate to escape a country town – was a trait I could understand. We formed a symbiosis, the Pumpkins’ buzzing, dreamy rock the perfect soundtrack for my swotting as I plotted my flight path to university, and a life in the city.
The fizzling of our relationship could be seen as my fault. When Adore came along, I was finally living the life the Pumpkins had inspired me to seek out, so I no longer needed their support. But after relistening to Adore as I prepared this column, I’m awarding equal blame. Maybe the Pumpkins had also fulfilled their dreams by that time? It’s such a downright bland record that you’d never see it in the luminescent glare of Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie.
3. If you want to date other people, say so.
Since abandoning the Pumpkins, I’ve shunned musical monogamy, preferring to find pleasure with many different groups. A few – Eels, of Montreal, Yeasayer – have crept closer to my heart than others, but I’ll never again feel the white-hot intensity of my Pumpkins love. On the plus side, at least there’ll be no more messy break-ups.