He’s a dark and moody rocker who looks forward to daily teatime, an award-winning lyricist and a poet who writes story lines for a professional wrestling team.
If fans of Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan have any preconceived notions of how an alternative icon should behave, he’s upending those stereotypes on multiple levels.
“For somebody who has been in public life for more than 20 years, I feel like the public doesn’t really know me,” Corgan says, sitting inside Madame ZuZu’s, the 1930s-style teahouse he opened in Highland Park three months ago.
What we do know could fill volumes: His band was formed in Chicago in the late 1980s, and issued its breakthrough album, “Siamese Dream,” in 1993. The even bigger “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” debuted in 1995 and spawned hits including “1979” and “Tonight, Tonight.” More albums featuring a rotating cast of feuding Pumpkins — and the formation of the short-lived band Zwan in 2001 — made for dramatic headlines. Then Corgan’s own love life became tabloid fodder when his divorce was followed by a tumultuous relationship with Courtney Love, and a brief one with Jessica Simpson.
Just when it seemed possible to pigeonhole Corgan as another turbulent rocker, he entered a new era of productivity, with serious artistic pursuits book-ending projects that are practically whimsical: In June the Smashing Pumpkins (with three new members who joined the band in 2010) released the album “Oceania” to positive reviews; in September Corgan proclaimed his devotion to tea with the opening of Madame ZuZu’s; on Nov. 30 he celebrated the one-year anniversary of Resistance Pro wrestling, which he co-owns, with an appearance by Jake “the Snake” Roberts; and this week the band reissued “Mellon Collie” along with 66 previously unreleased songs recorded at that time.
“It’s cool to put out the demo that nobody ever heard, but the better part is you introduce your music to a new generation that isn’t socially coded for that time,” Corgan says. “A lot of the bands that I fell in love with, I found through reissues or greatest hits.”
Identifying new ways to connect with his fan base — and generating new followers — is something Corgan doesn’t underestimate in the Internet age. Though there are more than 2.5 million fans on the Smashing Pumpkins Facebook page, “Those numbers are really deceiving,” he says. “How people interconnect is way more complicated than what social media makes it appear. I really think it’s more peer to peer.”
And that street-level interaction is one reason Corgan decided to open the teahouse. He’s there nearly every day, DJing from his iTunes playlist and sipping his favorite loose-leaf teas. “About 10 years ago, I started thinking how it would be cool to have a performance space, meaning a multipurpose space that could be used for anything,” he says. “I knew when I was a young artist it was really hard to find anywhere to be creative.”
To that end, Madame ZuZu’s offers weekly open mike nights to new talent, and Corgan is structuring other nightly events that align with his personal interests: a rabbi teaching kabbalah (Corgan is not a follower, but describes himself as “a mystic at heart”) and appearances by scholars, historians and alternative medical experts such as Dr. Leslie Temple, director of integrative medicine at NorthShore University Health System.
“I’d like to work with somewhat extinct art forms here to try to create new things like pantomime, and we’ve talked about doing old radio plays,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s about trying to build a culture that’s self-sustaining in the sense that people come because they’re interested in what’s going on here, and then the artists come because they know there’s an audience that’s interested.”
Corgan, who lives in Highland Park but was raised in the western suburbs, says he’s hoping Madame ZuZu’s will help anchor an emerging arts district in the area surrounding Ravinia, the nearby outdoor music venue. “This is my community, so I’m taking possession of what happens here and maybe I can affect something positive,” he says.
If a positive turn seems unlikely for a guy who’s been called the “king of gloom,” then maybe it’s because he’s been misunderstood all along. “[People] confuse the character I play with the person I am,” says Corgan. “Just because I got onstage and played the character of an angry young man doesn’t mean I was that angry young man 24 hours a day.”
In fact, the soft-spoken and self-reflective rocker is an open book — literally. He’s been working on a memoir that will tell the story of his rise to fame.
“I think the actual substantive journey of my life — from being abandoned by my mother and a drug-addicted father and all the headline-y stuff — the journey of that to somebody who becomes an artist, and what you do with that art and why you empower yourself in certain ways and the mistakes that you made, I think that journey is quite interesting,” he says.
What he doesn’t find worth mentioning is his romantic life. “There’s stuff I could say that would be quite salacious, but I’m not interested in writing from that perspective,” he says. In reference to his relationship with Simpson, he’ll only say, “I think the person that I know is far different than the way she’s been portrayed in the media. She’s actually quite a lovely person. I think there’s a lot more depth there than people think.”
The same can be said of Billy Corgan.
BILLY RIFFS ON …
Dating: “Me and dating are a f—ing nightmare. I have nothing good to say about it, let’s put it that way. What does it say on Facebook? I’m complicated. I’m 45 years old and I want to settle down, so everything I do is defined by looking for a relationship.”
Coffee versus tea: “I never drank coffee in my life. I always hated the smell. I call it the three Cs: I never smoked cigarettes, I never drank coffee and I never did cocaine. [I’ve done] everything but the three Cs [laughs]. But I haven’t done any drugs in 11 years.”
His Twitter handle, @billy: “There was a guy pretending to be me, and rather than kick fake Billy Corgan off they changed him to ‘Not Billy Corgan’ and they gave me @billy. But they didn’t want to just give me Billy Corgan; that’s why there is no Billy Corgan. I get a lot of weird s— because of it.”
Life in Highland Park: “In 2003 I bought a David Adler-designed house that’s just incredible; it’s like living in a work of art. It’s really beautiful and I live on the lake, and it’s all the dreams come true.”
Story by Susanna Negovan