I wanted to make a point of attending a live rock show at some point during the semester (a pithy attempt at fieldwork, perhaps). I’m not really the concert-goer-type, so I had to select my first real rock experience carefully. I chose the Smashing Pumpkin’s Zeitgeist tour (Normal, IL 10/04/07) and hoped for the best.
In light of what I have read for the class so far, particularly Theodore Gracyk’s Rhythm and Noise and Albin Zak’s The Poetics of Rock, I must admit that I was a little worried about seeing my favorite band live. Would I be disappointed if the live version did not sound like my well-indexed recording? Gracyk seemed convinced that most modern rock music lives primarily as a recording, and that live shows become a lackluster attempt to recreate an impossible sound. Zak would have me believe that the sound of the Zeitgeist album that I was coming to know is an entity created in a sound studio, meaning of course that I couldn’t expect the same caliber of sound live (since Billy Corgan can not sing multiple parts nor play multiple instruments at once). However, after the show, I am left with a completely positive and exhilarated point-of-view. In fact, I was so very pleased with the live performance of both the Pumpkins and the opening act (the Bravery) that I decided to forego my previous plot to post a comparison of the live versus the recorded and instead use this live experience to comment on ideas brought up by Philip Auslander’s work Performing Glam Rock.
Auslander mentions the three layers of a popular performer: the real person, the performance persona (on- and off-stage presentation), and the character (a figure portrayed in a song) (4).
As to the real Billy Corgan, I cannot attest to much since I do not know him beyond his performance persona. Yet, I feel like I can speak to slight glimpses of a Billy Corgan that seemed different from his on-stage persona. Anyone who knows much about the Pumpkins and/or Billy Corgan can notice how steadfast Corgan holds to his persona. Each band he’s formed, from the two-versions of pre-2000 Pumpkins, to Zwan, to his new Pumpkins band symbolize the persona Corgan is trying to present: Corgan plus male guitarist(s), female bassist, and Jimmy Chamberlin on drums. Auslander compares feminine and masculine coding between performers on stage (discussing the relationship of David Bowie to guitarist Mick Ronston) (140-141). In the Pumpkins line-up, Corgan takes on the feminine coding in contrast to the masculine coding of the drummer Chmaberlin. Compare wardrobe choices: Corgan appears on stage in white Capri pants, knee-high striped socks and white leather boots, along with a long-sleeved striped shirt covered by a white blouse. Chamberlin, to contrast, is wearing a white sleeveless shirt, accentuating tattoos and defined bicep muscles. Yet, perhaps this is the reason for the female bass player: to counter Corgan’s feminine persona with an even more feminine persona on stage. Mary Ann Clawson suggests that the bass guitar may have become a “feminized instrument,” due to the “supportive nature” of the instrument to the lead guitar and the female “intrinsic willingness to subordinate” (qtd. on 202-203). If this is true, this adds to the complexity of the Pumpkins-persona, which leaves me to not question Corgan as the alpha-dominate persona of the group. Even more so than perhaps previous bassists for Corgan, Ginger Reyes seemed to embody a female “sex object;”, Corgan received heckles from male members of the audience to “introduce the bass player” (198). Of course, this might have been Corgan’s way of saying “the bass player’s name is not important, just the roll she’s filling.” In fact, with all of the iterations of Corgan’s bands, the persona seems to remain the same even as the actors change; Corgan is the only link. Corgan is the total embodiment of a “band leader,” taking the time during the concert to meticulously adjust the levels on his guitar and address the stage engineer in a way that still seemed to be part of a performance. He is the alpha and the omega, the artist as perfectionist.
And yet, occasionally Corgan would seem to “let his guard down,” even if it was completely staged and choreographed. Mid way through the show, the entire band left the stage and Corgan reappeared solo with an amplified acoustic guitar. He spoke candidly to the audience (insulting the Cardinals and commenting on how “no one buys records anymore, not just [his]”). Near the end of the show, Corgan invited audience members from the back rows to sit in the open seats of the pit. At the very end, Corgan walked the entire length of the stage to thank the entire audience, even taking the time for some of the audience who could get close enough to say a few words and pose for a quick picture. This Billy Corgan contrasts the stage “demi-god” persona who portrays both masculine and feminine rolls on stage. This is a humble Billy Corgan deeply dedicated to his art and his fans. But, even with this small glimpse, the audience still must wonder “is this part of his persona too?”
As to the nature of the characters presented in Pumpkins songs, using the live show is not the most successful source for discussion. Live shows are not the place to learn and/or listen to lyrics (I could barely recognize any lyrics beneath the wash of amplified sounds). Plus, with the aging of the band, I wonder if “1979” represents the same character it did 10 years ago anyway. I must also admit, that when Corgan turned to the audience to sing the first verse of “Today,” I sang the approximated version of the lyrics as I had (poorly) translated them from the radio: “Today is the greatest / Day I’ve ever known / Can’t live for tomorrow / The Day I’ve [la-la] grown / I’ll burn my heart out / Before I get gone” (compared to the real lyrics: “Today is the greatest / Day I’ve ever known / Can’t live for tomorrow / Tomorrow’s much too long / I’ll burn my eyes out / Before I get out”). So again, seems like the character of the song is completely obliterated in a live performance if an audience member (like me) doesn’t know the words anyway.
In general, I can’t imagine my first big rock concert experience going any better. Adding to my pleasant interpretation of the Pumpkins live sound and light show, I was inadvenrtantly hit in the head with Jimmy Chamberlin’s drum stick as he threw it from the stage after the last encore. Now I have a new rock object to index this live performance in a way that the recording could never mean to me. Not a bad way to end my first true rock experience.