In defense of Billy Corgan’s ‘Siddhartha’

Categories: Chicago Tribune

An eight-hour concert inspired by the Hermann Hesse novel? Yes. You gotta problem with that?


“Play normal music!”

The woman yelling this at Neil Young stood three rows away from him at the Rosemont Theater in 2004. Between each song, as he spoke to the crowd about the next chapter in “Greendale,” the theatrical rock play he was presenting (complete with actors and rudimentary set pieces), the woman behind me loudly made her demand. For more than an hour. He, and everyone else, should understand she wanted none of this.

She wanted the hits. “Normal music.”

For all the good it brings, success can also become an obstacle to advancing the creative impulse. Audiences are stubborn, and they will often complain if their favorite rock auteur decides to scratch an itch in public that produces a work that is not reflective of the familiar fare he or she may have produced decades earlier. Social media has not helped but has only created an echo chamber for obstinacy. The great irony is that most agree, in theory at least, that great artists are inherently restless and operate by discovering a voice, listening to it and responding when it whispers in their ear. The best we can hope for is that the art it produces challenges us to think, see or experience the familiar. If we are entertained, even better.

But in Chicago, we’d better be entertained. And it had better not be super weird.

That was the kind of dark cloud Billy Corgan entered late last month when he announced plans to perform electronic music inspired by the 1922 novel “Siddhartha” by German writer Hermann Hesse. The announcement, made over his Facebook page and the website for his Madame ZuZu’s tea shop, made it clear this would be a quiet affair in his Highland Park shop, streamed online for fans. Tickets were offered free, first-come, first-served. For a rock star like Corgan, who has sold millions of records worldwide in his role as frontman of the Smashing Pumpkins, the event was obviously a personal, not commercial, endeavor by someone who just wanted to share his love for a novel that spoke to him.

But Chicago wouldn’t have it. “Pretentious,” railed Tribune columnist Rex Huppke, in a ludicrously rigid opinion piece that ran before “Siddhartha” even opened and that subsequently inspired Corgan to ban the newspaper from covering the event. Huppke scolded Corgan for attempting to perform for eight hours, an act he described as adolescent, unlike what is considered normal by “pragmatists” like himself, “people who’ve reached a stage in life where intellectual pretense is no longer necessary and a rerun of ‘Law & Order: SVU’ can be artistically preferable to eight hours of interpretive synthesizer gurgling.”

Similar vitriol showed up in Chicagoist (“sleep-inducing adventure”), Pitchfork and the AV Club. Vice blamed Highland Park: “Clearly, Billy is beloved here. In Chicago, he might have been heckled or the room might have quickly drained.” Even Jonathon Brandmeier piled on, saying “The snoot needle is spinning out of control.”

The reaction, not just negative but particularly mean-spirited, reflected a similar carpet-bombing that writer Rachel Shteir received following her Sunday New York Times book review last year that dared suggest Chicagoans were thin-skinned about their city, and “trapped by its … limitations,” particularly boosterism. Again, many of Chicago’s most respected commentators, including Carol Marin and Neil Steinberg, dashed out reaction pieces that can only be described as shrill and hysterical.

What’s going on here? Why do many of those who profess to speak on behalf of Chicago speak so condemningly when the city’s shortcomings are challenged? Why do these voices sound so parental — just like that woman at the Neil Young concert — whenever they are nudged outside their comfort zone? If Chicago proudly brandishes such steel-plated nicknames like “Chi-raq,” “Chi-beria,” and “City of Big Shoulders,” why are its loudest, self-appointed protectors so frail?

A lifetime here means I’ve grown accustomed to this larger attitude and have always found it an embarrassment, especially because I’m familiar with the rich tradition of artistic outsiders that Chicago has attracted and groomed. These have included the burgeoning group of young writers — including Edgar Lee Masters, Theodore Dreiser and Carl Sandburg — who established a colony in the building ruins of the 1893 Columbian Exposition starting in 1910; the freethinkers who coalesced around the Dill Pickle Club for decades; the folk music radicals who established the Old Town School of Folk Music in 1957; the Chicago Imagists, who emerged from the School of the Art Institute in the 1960s; the free jazz musicians who founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1965; the avant-garde theater makers of the Curious Theatre Branch and Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co.; and the countless left-field writers, cartoonists, filmmakers, photographers, musicians and artists who have created difficult, confrontational and ultimately acclaimed work far below the scope of the major media gatekeepers.

Which is to say, Chicago is, and always has been, wonderfully weird. Even though “Chicago” has refused to recognize that truth.

The tension between what is publicly professed as “Chicago” — hot dogs, tribal politics, Vince Vaughn — and Chicago, a center of no-nonsense, experimental art making, is always evident. Chicago is known by the whole world as the birthplace of electric blues, but inside “Chicago,” try finding a museum that celebrates this wonderful musical heritage — or even a statue of Muddy Waters. This is a city where broadcast personalities are self-anointed as its ambassadors, but many of these people are short-timers on their way to the next market, or operate within a limited set of neighborhoods. There is also the distinction between celebrities: Chicago recognizes Studs Terkel as a totem; people in “Chicago” salute Jenny McCarthy as their own.

Back to Corgan. True, a millionaire rock star living in the suburbs may not need defending. But it is apparent he requires explaining. The “Siddhartha” project fits in comfortably with similar side excursions made by rock stars over decades who have drawn inspiration from literature: Pete Townshend (Ted Hughes), Patti Smith (Allen Ginsberg), Lou Reed (Edgar Allan Poe), Bruce Springsteen (John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor), Sonic Youth (James Joyce), Van Morrison (William Blake, W.B. Yeats), and even an album of new songs inspired by Jack Kerouac by Son Volt’s Jay Farrar and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. Chicago’s Bloodshot label released a tribute to the late Mississippi novelist Larry Brown with new songs by Vic Chesnutt, the North Mississippi Allstars and Alejandro Escovedo, among others. Musicians have joined forces with their literary heroes — Kurt Cobain with William S. Burroughs, for example.

The relationship between music and words runs deep, and poets and writers have made their fair share of art paying homage to musicians who have served as inspirations. These interchanges have shown that the creative mind is not constricted to boundaries as are radio playlists or Nielsen SoundScan data.

The “Siddhartha” event is not the first time Corgan has drifted away from his main duties in the Smashing Pumpkins to perform music on the fringe. He once staged a night at Metro to debut a song cycle of unreleased folk songs related to Chicago, and he hosted a Monday night residency in 2003 at the Hideout where he often gave the stage to local musicians to perform their own songs.

Corgan is an easy target, but no one would have thought to lash out at Lou Reed when he performed songs inspired by Poe’s “The Raven” at the Bowery Ballroom in 2003, or another date in 2011 when he appeared at the Strand to read Poe’s works; instead, Reed and many musicians of his generation who emerged from the city’s downtown art scene were allowed to experiment because there was an appreciation for who they were and what they accomplished, and there is the recognition that a world-class city needs artists of global stature who reflect its creative spirit. Even if it strays from “normal music.” Maybe especially so.

Lambasting Corgan for taking a quirky side turn brandishes Chicago’s undeserved status as the second city, a cow town with a tradition of driving artists away. Giving him space to experiment elevates everything else, from the free jazz combos at Constellation to the apartment galleries in Bridgeport to the noise-rock bands at the Empty Bottle. It says, “we want you here, we want this to thrive.”

A bumper sticker in Texas reads “Keep Austin Weird,” a reaction to the fading art scene in that city due to its growing digital class. I propose a version for our streets: “Keep Weird, Chicago.” Maybe enough exposure will inspire some people to switch off “Law & Order: SVU” for one night, put down the poison pens and let their minds expand.


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