Why Are We Laughing at Billy Corgan’s Sad Decline?

“At one time, you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’s gone forever.” So said Sick Boy in Trainspotting, and for all that this pronouncement came in the context of a conversation conducted while shooting a dog in the arse with a pellet gun, it’s a pretty succinct summation of the trajectory of innumerable creative careers. You have it. Then you lose it. And that’s it. In entirely unrelated news, Billy Corgan is following up his eight-hour Siddartha marathon with a set at his Chicago tea shop based on “four sonic impressions on poems by the great Sufi mystic Rumi.” Oh, Billy. How did we get here?

Look, I’m not here to point and laugh, Nelson Muntz style, at Billy Corgan. It was impossible to grow up in the 1990s without being aware of Smashing Pumpkins, and even a grunge contrarian teen like me had to admit that Siamese Dream was a pretty flawless record. It stands up today, too, a whole lot better than the likes of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden do.

But then, that’s part of the problem. Corgan was lucky enough to have a moment where everything aligned, when his art connected with a whole lot of people all around the world. From about 1991 to 1995, Smashing Pumpkins were critical darlings and also unimpeachably cool, their poster up on the wall of every teenager who wanted any sort of serious music cred. And then, as it did for innumerable musicians before him, that moment passed. You’ve got it, then you lose it, and it’s gone forever.

Of course, if you’re Billy Corgan, you want to prove that you haven’t lost it — but mostly the fans you acquired during that magic moment just want you to repeat it, again and again and again. Corgan has complained that a significant number of his fans are “stuck in 1993,” and while it sounds kinda petulant, to some extent one can relate to his frustration.

Clearly, Corgan hasn’t exactly helped his cause over the years — it’s easy enough to chart his decline from global alt-rock stardom to being the kind of guy who dates Tila Tequila and stars in local furniture commercials. There was the weird religious website and the constant sniping at former bandmates. There was the decision to “re-form” Smashing Pumpkins with Jimmy Chamberlin (who didn’t stick around long) and two randoms who weren’t D’arcy and James Iha, and the resultant disaster of a tour. And then there was the wrestling league (and attendant reality show). And the anti-vaccine evangelizing and the climate change denial. And, of course, the fact that he did an hour-long interview with Alex “Infowars” Jones.

People tend to assume that people who have Made It have it easy, enjoying a life of milk and honey off their royalties and living happily ever after. But if you’re an artist, you don’t stop wanting to make art, to surpass what you’ve done before. I’m guessing that Billy Corgan is no different — that however crazy he might be, he wants to make great music.

And the thing is that music is in perpetual thrall to the veneration of youth, to a greater extent than any other art form. There’s a general expectation that writers and visual artists and filmmakers will most likely make their best work as their career progresses, refining their craft as they age. Rock ‘n’ roll, however, demands the opposite — rock mythology is all about burning brightly and not fading away, about living fast and dying young, about channeling the energy of youth into art that’s dynamic and visceral.

There are very few artists who’ve managed to transition from bright young thing status to respected middle age. And once you hit the trough, the popular consensus is that nothing you do can live up to past glories, so that trough is almost impossible to climb out of. I didn’t watch all eight hours of Corgan’s Siddartha jam, and I’m guessing you didn’t either — so who knows, perhaps there was some stuff worth hearing in there. (At least one author has argued that there was.) We’ll never know, though, because pretty much everyone reported the whole affair as the source of hilarity rather than any sort of serious project.

I’m not arguing that Corgan’s been mistreated — clearly, the answer to the question of how to stay relevant into your 40s as a rock musician does not involve dispensing petulant homophobic insults to your fans or dating Tila Tequila. If anything, he’s been given a whole lot of leeway in comparison to various contemporaries — can you imagine the tabloid feeding frenzy if Courtney Love started talking about chemtrails or arguing that H1N1 was some sort of government conspiracy to scare people?

But while Corgan’s decline is is easy to ridicule, it’s also sad. He made at least one of the best records of the 1990s, and it’s a shame that 20 years later, he’s a pro wrestling punchline. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that there are no second acts in American lives — but those lives go on regardless.