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Kurt Cobain vs Billy Corgan: Is it better to burn out or to fade away?

Feb 21, 2013

On July 27th, 1993, a band by the name of The Smashing Pumpkins released their second album – Siamese Dream. It had cost over $250,000 to record over a period of four months. Frontman Billy Corgan played nearly every instrument on the album. During recording, he suffered a nervous breakdown and ultimately alienated his bandmates to the point where The Smashing Pumpkins as a group became little more than a live band, while Corgan manned all aspects of writing and recording. Siamese Dream sold over four million copies. David Brown, of Entertainment Weekly, hailed the band as “the next Nirvana.”

On September 13th of the same year, Nirvana themselves released In Utero. It was to be their last album. They recorded the album together, in one room, and worked diligently – it was recorded in just two weeks (from February 13th until the 28th) at Pachyderm Studios in Minnesota. Nobody suffered a nervous breakdown. Cobain later said that the recording process was “the easiest recording process we’ve ever done, hands down.” How expensive was In Utero to make? Studio fees were just $25,000. One tenth of Corgan’s Siamese Dream.

The two bands had never quite seen eye to eye. “Cherub Rock” – the lead single and first song on Siamese Dream – features the lyics “Who wants honey / as long as there’s money,” a dig at other musicians (and Nirvana producer Steve Albini) who compared the band to REO Speedwagon, saying they were “by, of and for the mainstream.” Meanwhile, Nirvana started In Utero with the line “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old” off of a song called “Serve the Servants” … the rest of the album included song titles such as “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and “Rape Me” as digs at the recording industry as a whole. In Utero was and is a somewhat difficult album. Siamese Dream‘s hit single “Today” features the lyric “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known.”

In April of 1994, Kurt Cobain was found dead in his greenhouse, ruled a suicide by an apparent shotgun blast to the head. At the bottom of his suicide note, in arguably the last of his handwriting, he wrote the words “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” – themselves a lyric from “Hey Hey, My My” by Neil Young.

Billy Corgan continued on with the Smashing Pumpkins, and their 1995 double album Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness became a landmark of the 90s, the sort of thing you could expect to find in just about anyone’s record collection in the middle of the decade. A sprawling two hours, it was the high water mark for not just the Pumpkins but Billy Corgan as a songwriter. While his 1999 album Adore, inspired by the death of his mother, is somewhat of a critical masterpiece, nothing Corgan has done since has come close.

Now, Corgan spends much of his time releasing pay-for-access spiritual guidance blog posts featuring his own poetry, working on his second-tier wrestling league, and appearing in wrestling video games. The Smashing Pumpkins as they were in the early 90s have disbanded, leaving Corgan alone as the sole surviving member. The new lineup features a drummer that Corgan hired at the age of 18 after discovering him in a YouTube video. Their last album Zeitgeist featured different pressings for different stores – if you bought the album at Best Buy, you’d get a different album than you would at Target. It was a smack in the face for any remaining Pumpkin fans. If you wanted all of the songs, you’d have to buy the album four separate times, at four separate big-box stores.

Cobain, on the other hand, remained quite dead. In his eternal question of “Is it better to burn out than to fade away” he chose the former – becoming a legend in the process. Cobain’s financial legacy after death is in the realm of $40,000,000 annually… and he hasn’t released a new album in 20 years.

Look at it, if you will, from this angle: James Dean died at 24, after just three movies, yet his face is still as iconic as ever. If you were to wear a t-shirt with Dean’s face on the front and walk down the street just about anywhere, chances are that the overwhelming majority would know who he was. The dead actor. His output was limited because he died young. Such a shame. What a guy, etc.

Cobain’s legacy is pretty similar: three (studio) albums before he abruptly died, leaving a generation of people fetishizing what limited output he had to the point of deification. Cobain’s name (and suicide) is now mentioned alongside the same as Hemingway, Sylvia Plath and Vincent Van Gogh. Billy Corgan’s legacy, however, lingers in the bargain bins at Best Buy and Target.

I’m not saying Billy Corgan should kill himself – although there isn’t a doubt in my mind that if he had died after Mellon Collie we would probably be deifying him, too. He is – or at least was – a very talented songwriter. But he’s a living, breathing answer to Kurt’s question: rather than burn out, he chose to fade away. And he’s currently paying the price of staying in the spotlight for so long.

Kurt Cobain is still held in a pure and almost angelic light because he went out at the perfect time for someone to hold such a legacy – if you add up the length of every Nirvana studio album the total result comes in at just 125 minutes, or a little over two hours. In contrast, one Smashing Pumpkins album – Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness – clocks in at 128 minutes.

At the risk of seeing these words out of context, I’ve decided to bury the thesis of this thing way down here at the bottom: maybe Cobain is better off dead. Nobody would have wanted to see Kurt Cobain become the strange, bitter quasi-sell-out that Corgan became. Billy Corgan hinted at what his legacy would be known for with his dramatic nervous breakdown and insistence on control during the Siamese Dream sessions.

Is it better to burn out or to fade away? For Cobain, the former was the right choice. One shudders to think at an obese Cobain shambling around Hollywood Boulevard with Tila Tequila (another Billy Corgan reality star beau) or Lana Del Ray (who is currently dating similar fade-away-er Axl Rose of the formerly great Guns N’ Roses). In the end, Kurt ended up crystalizing his legacy at the age of 27, before he’d had a chance to fuck it up, his lasting image frozen forever on a rainy April night in 1994, at the height of his fame.

In the meantime, Corgan is doing furniture commercials like this, below (h/t Ellen). Who wants honey as long as there’s some money, eh?

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