The Smashing Pumpkins, back when "Today" was the greatest -- live at Chicago's Metro in 1993, via YouTube.
During its intoxicating heyday in the mid-'90s, "alternative rock" was an ambiguous term for a wide variety of idiosyncratic bands that never subscribed to any one style, coherent aesthetic or single way of doing business.
"Alternative to what?" was the question some asked, and it was a good one. But there was one similarity to the many groups that stormed the pop charts after the phenomenal success of Nirvana's "Nevermind" (1991). The alternative rockers mostly were members of Generation X, that proudly defiant group of 17 million born between 1964 and 1979, the majority of whom were sick of hearing their Baby Boom elders waxing nostalgic about the sounds and spirit of their own golden youth.
"Hate Haight, I've got a new complaint / Forever in debt to your priceless advice," Kurt Cobain roared, and though Nirvana's leader insisted he wasn't a spokesman for anyone but himself, he did smile broadly in 1993 when I told him that I heard "Heart-Shaped Box" as the expression of his generation's disgust at pop culture's endless mythologizing of those halcyon '60s, from Beatlemania to Haight-Ashbury via Woodstock, Vietnam, Grant Park '68 and all the rest.
Whatever mistakes they might make -- and there would be plenty, starting with Cobain joining what his mother called "that stupid club" of dead-before-their-time rock icons Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison -- from the perspective of the mid-'90s, it was hard to imagine the bands of the alternative moment ever becoming the artistically stilted, cash-hungry or pathetically reactionary dinosaurs that preceded them.
Sadly, the argument can be made that that's exactly what's happened.
Alternative nostalgia has become big business, and just as they were one of the bands that bridged the gap from the indie-rock '80s to the alternative '90s, the Pixies were on the cutting edge, reforming 11 years after they first broke up to undertake one of the highest-grossing tours of 2004-2005, and then promptly disbanding once more. Since then, My Bloody Valentine, which crafted the second most influential album of '91 with "Loveless," also has ridden the reunion express, while a bevy of other acts including Sonic Youth, Built to Spill, Sebadoh and Liz Phair have adopted the ironically entitled "Don't Look Back" concept of the U.K.'s All Tomorrow's Parties Festival.
If an act is still a vibrant creative force, why would it want to tour and play one of its older albums in its entirety? The answer is obvious, according to an article in Billboard last August: At 11 shows in 2006 featuring a mix of new and old material, Sonic Youth grossed $315,305 in tickets sales. In 2007, during only three shows at which it played its classic "Daydream Nation" album, the band raked in $496,791.
Meanwhile, while some remember Lollapalooza as the defining genre-defying concert of the alternative era, after "three years of brand analysis and marketing surveys," Texas concert promoter Charlie Jones of C3 Presents saw in that phrase "the most recognized name in music today," purchased it from founder Perry Farrell in 2005 and reinvented it as an often bland, corporate-advertising and family-friendly "destination festival" based for the next 10 years in Grant Park. Which brings us home to Chicago.
Two years after the major-label feeding frenzy and worldwide hype that consumed Seattle in the wake of "Nevermind," the nexus of the alternative universe shifted to the Windy City, which produced its own platinum success stories and worldwide superstars, but with even more diversity and originality than the grunge bands of the Pacific Northwest. What has become of Chicago's Class of '93? The answers aren't pretty for the four acts once voted most likely to succeed.
"Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon"
After honing its James Bond/Playboy Mansion shtick and postmodern take on '70s funk and metal through a series of releases for Chicago's independent Touch & Go label, Urge Overkill signed to Geffen Records, home of Nirvana and Sonic Youth, paired up with big-name producers the Butcher Brothers and released their unrepentantly silly but enduringly catchy masterpiece "Saturation" in June 1993. The reception from modern-rock radio was lukewarm--the band fared better the following year when its cover of Neil Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" was included on the soundtrack of "Pulp Fiction"--but by the time they entered the studio to make "Exit the Dragon" (1995), Nathan "Nash Kato" Katruud, Eddie "King" Roeser and Johnny "Blackie Onassis" Rowan were lost in a fog of acrimony, confusion and non-ironic excess. And then they broke up.
Kato released a stillborn solo album and Roeser never really got his post-Urge band Electric Airlines up off the ground, so in 2004, they reunited minus Onassis to play the old should-have-been hits. Since then, Urge Overkill has played the occasional gig for beer money, but the band hasn't released any new music, its official Web site has been shut down and its MySpace page is still spinning tracks such as "Sister Havana" and "Tequila Sundae" that are now 15 years old.
The favorite daughter of suburban Winnetka set the indie-rock world on its ear in '93 with her epic post-feminist manifesto "Exile in Guyville," but despite landing on the cover of Rolling Stone the following year under the headline "A Rock Star is Born," Phair was unable to win mainstream success with a retooled indie sound on the subsequent "Whip-Smart" (1994) and "Whitechocolatespaceegg" (1998). So the musician picked up stakes, moved to Los Angeles, recorded with the bubblegum-pop production team the Matrix and tried to reinvent herself as Sheryl Crow Mach II with a self-titled release in 2003 and "Somebody's Miracle" in 2005.
Those discs primarily succeeded in alienating Phair's original fan base, while scoring only modest success on the charts and radio play lists. So earlier this year, she tried to win back the faithful with a "15th Anniversary Tour" where she played all of her first album. This critic thought she strictly was going through the motions as she returned to Guyville, but as with Sonic Youth, Billboard reported a commercial hit: Phair sold out two shows at San Francisco's Fillmore (1,298 capacity) and Chicago's Vic Theatre (1,400) with an average gross of $31,787--a stark contrast to the $18,174 she earned during 17 shows mixing new and old material in 2003.
Phair reportedly is working on a new album for 2009, to be released on her new label, ATO, the company started by Dave Matthews.
Guitarists, vocalists and songwriters Louise Post and Nina Gordon famously came together on New Year's Eve 1992-'93 after auditioning for one another over the phone. A little more than a year later, they'd released their debut album "American Thighs" and scored a major hit with the single "Seether." But the next full release, "Eight Arms to Hold You" (1997), suffered from the embarrassing over-production of Bob Rock and the growing dissension between the group's leaders, fueled by enough behind the scenes soap-opera drama to embarrass Fleetwood Mac. In 1998, Gordon left the band.
As a solo artist, Gordon has tried to morph into a cross between Jewel and Stevie Nicks, producing two saccharine and nearly unlistenable flops, "Tonight and the Rest of My Life" (2000) and "Bleeding Heart Graffiti" (2006). Meanwhile, Post put together a new version of Veruca Salt and made the brilliant if sadly underrated "Resolver" (2000) and the less powerful but still game "IV" (2006). Neither was widely heard, and Veruca Salt has gotten most of its airplay in the new millennium via a commercial for the Illinois State Lottery.
The band, now based in L.A. and with Post as the only original member, reports on the Internet that it's working on another album, while Gordon, who's also living on the West Coast, has not updated her Website since August 2007.
THE SMASHING PUMPKINS
Finally, we come to Chicago's bestselling alternative-era heroes, whose present status, in keeping with their past history, is the most confusing and controversial of any of the Gen X stars.
Propelled by their 1991 debut "Gish" and their 1992 slot on the "Singles" soundtrack, the Smashing Pumpkins broke big with "Siamese Dream" in 1993, selling more than 6 million copies worldwide, and then securing their reputation for grand gestures and overwhelming bombast with the 9 million-selling "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" in 1994. Throughout this dazzling ride, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Billy Corgan never tired of insisting that the Smashing Pumpkins were a band, and that his reputation for being a control freak and a megalomaniac was not only untrue, but an insult to his bandmates James Iha, D'arcy Wretzky and Jimmy Chamberlin.
The illusion of the Pumpkins as anything other than the Corgan Show began to unravel when a drug-addled Chamberlin was banished from the band, followed by Wretzky and an obvious and growing resentment of Iha. The band continued to make strong music--in fact, contrary to the opinion of many fans, I maintain that "Adore" (1998) and "Machina/The Machines of God" (2000) are its best albums--but with his typical flair for drama and fanfare, Corgan announced that a Dec. 2, 2000 concert at Metro would be the group's last forever.
Nobody really believed that, but Corgan forged ahead for a while with a new group, Zwan, which lasted for one album ("Mary Star of the Sea" in 2002) and a couple of tours, and a solo career that died even more quickly. In June 2005, on the day he released his first official solo disc "The Future Embrace," Corgan placed a newspaper ad announcing that he was putting his old band back together. But what has that meant?
Though a now clean and sober Chamberlin is on board, as he was for Zwan, Corgan may or may not have made a sincere effort to re-recruit fellow founding Pumpkins Wretzky and Iha. The reunited band's first release, "Zeitgeist" (2007), sounds a little like the Pumpkins of old, only not as good, and though Corgan has positioned the group as being all about moving forward, it's returning home for the first time in its new incarnation to play four much-hyped "20th Anniversary" shows.
I'll reserve judgment on the reconstituted Pumpkins until after those shows, but all of the evidence so far--which also includes a strictly-for-the-money Indiana casino gig earlier this year and a recent deal with the silly but absurdly popular "Guitar Hero" video game--suggests that, as with the forces behind the new Lollapalooza, the Smashing Pumpkins 2008 are simply a popular brand name that sells more tickets than another might.
"Alternative to what?" we may once again ask, and finally the answer is obvious: "Absolutely nothing." Like so many rock bands before them, 15 years down the road, the most promising members of the Class of '93 are treading dangerously close to that sad but true scene in "Spinal Tap" where the aging metal legends find themselves playing at the state fair.
The only consolation is that at this very moment, somewhere in a basement in Bridgeview, a garage in Schaumburg or a bedroom in Oak Lawn, some kid with a guitar or a sampler is furiously ranting about the umpteenth Vh1 special about Nirvana, the hype surrounding some recent alt-era reunion and the way his or her parents are constantly talking about the magic of Lollapalooza, and he or she is about to make some noise that will really be alternative--at least for a while.