This week Billy Corgan made headlines again by commenting on Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The Smashing Pumpkins' front man said that the success of the two 90s rock icons caused him to fall into a "suicidal depression." Not surprisingly, with that headline alone, the comment trolls were off.
Many took the comment to be Corgan "whining again." They took to defending Nirvana and Pearl Jam while insulting what they perceive to be Corgan's frequent complaining. However, my deep love of Pearl Jam notwithstanding, the interview that Corgan gave really didn't insult Pearl Jam or Nirvana at all. If anything, his comments highlighted their significance for the epic shift that they inaugurated in rock music. In the interview, they aren't really even the subject, but rather how one comes to terms with their supposed arrival in a profession, only to find out that the criteria have changed--most of us struggle when we reach a level of success that we've worked for over the years and immediately discover that success has been redefined.
In 1991, the Smashing Pumpkins had released their first album, Gish, and it was doing pretty well. But while the band was on the road, Nirvana released Nevermind and Pearl Jam released Ten. Those two albums initiated a cataclysmic shift in alternative rock music. For Corgan, it signaled a change he wasn't prepared for.
In his interview with Amy Jo Martin, host of the Why Not Now podcast, Corgan said:
"Within a short span of time, I went from thinking I was very successful within my given field, to all the rules had changed in my given field. Everything I had built myself up to be and do was no longer as relevant as it needed to be. I went into a very strange depression because I felt like something had been not taken, but the change made me feel kind of inadequate in a way I wasn't prepared for."
He said that he actually contemplated his own suicide, until he got to the place where he "couldn't meditate on death any more," where he was "either going to jump out of a window or change [his] life." So finally he woke up one day and decided that if he wasn't going to jump out of a window, he needed to get on with what he needed to do. That day he wrote the song "Today," which highlights the beauty of waking up to yet another day.
For sure, his was a "first world problem," but I have to confess that I sort of admire Corgan for his directness on the subject. When you've worked your ass off to master a profession or craft, only to be told to nevermind, it has an effect on a person.
Lately I've noticed so many parallels to what Corgan talked about: the kid who saw sports as his way out of the neighborhood but eventually maxed out his talent, the church organist whose church decides that all of the music will be guitar accompanied, the coal miner in an age when we rightly focus on renewable energy, or the accordion player who learned that nobody listens to polkas anymore. One should have sympathy for these folks because right now things are changing so fast that it's almost impossible to keep up with technology. I struggle just to keep up with the new bands.
It seems that we all face our moment of truth, like Corgan, when the Pearl Jam of our chosen field shows up right at the moment when we think we've arrived. Corgan, though, gave us a pretty good template for coping with it--we can either jump out of the window or we can do what we have to do to change our circumstances. Contrary to how the trolls interpreted him, Corgan didn't blame Nirvana or Pearl Jam for his situation. He instead made a decision to get out of bed and change what he could--himself. I think we might all do well to take that idea to heart.
Check out the actual interview with Amy Jo Martin here (Episode 25). You can also read the Rolling Stone article here.