Twenty years ago today The Smashing Pumpkins released Siamese Dream, their breakthrough multi-platinum-selling effort.
A month later, on my way to Syracuse, NY to work at the New York State Fair (booth sitting for a basement waterproofing business), I stopped by the newly-built Walmart in Rome and bought the album on cassette.
I think it was the last cassette tape I ever bought, and I think the primary reason I purchased the cassette version was because my step-dad’s late 1980′s Buick Skyhawk had a cassette deck and I didn’t yet have a portable CD player.
I suppose I could wax rhapsodic about the album, take histrionic license in describing how it affected me, or make grand claims of its wider cultural significance. I doubt it needs that kind of support or defense. Just the fact that it still holds water for me after 20 years feels pretty significant when so much cultural flotsam has easily floated away. I’ll try to contain myself.
Yet even after two decades I can still remember some the feelings I had first hearing those songs. I literally caught my breath when Soma, the last song on the first side of the cassette, transformed from hush to roar in my ears that first time. I had been turning the volume up and up and up during that first side, and the quietness of the initial minutes of the track yielding instantly to the guitar blast was awesome to experience with no prior knowledge of what was about to happen.
That pivot – from Soma finishing side 1 and Geek USA opening side 2 – was astounding. I think these two are my quintessential Smashing Pumpkins songs. They both share a kind of binary form where the balance between the hush and the roar is necessary to their emotional content. The stuff that Corgan is talking about in these songs – the existential rush of desire and fear, love and death, meaning and dissolution – requires more than a simple, single movement. So when Soma blows up or Geek USA stills its storm we sense the contours of one man’s deeply-felt reflections.
Here are the lyrics at the key moment between the two movements in Geek USA:
Shot full of diamonds
And a million years
The disappointed disappear
Like they were never here
In a dream
We are connected
At the wrist
And then I knew we’d been forsaken
Expelled from Paradise
I can’t believe them
When they say that it’s alright
It’s completely appropriate that we find a nod to the album’s title in the whispered words between each half of the song.
The longest track on the album, Silverfuck, takes this ebb-and-flow/hush-to-roar mode to another level, blasting through a ramrod guitar and drum interplay into scintillating psychedelic dreamscapes until pausing for an echoed spoken word intermission only to scream through the huge main theme and spin off in distortion and buzz. It’s exactly the melodrama and bombast that the Pumpkins – a la Billy Corgan – have always stood for.
Siamese Dream is full of great moments sonically and in the sentiments it carries; it’s easy to understand why this album resonated with a generation of teenagers. I don’t know that is truly relevant to my life or emotional state now, but I greatly appreciate the work in aesthetic terms, particularly in the balance and interpolation of big concerns with big sounds. Just a few short years later the Pumpkins would take all of this to a completely cosmic – and semi-psychotic – level on the Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness double album. If Mellon Collie represented a serious kind of break from reality, I think it’s clear that Siamese Dream is solidly rooted in reality and felt experience. In it you hear just some conflicted, weird young kids from Chicago trying to carve out a space for their hopes and hide away from their fears. You can see the complexity of these emotions in their performance at The Metro in Chicago on August 14, 1993, which was a CD release event. Click here to watch it.
Or just pick up Siamese Dream and listen closely.