We Watched Billy Corgan Play an Eight-Hour Freeform Synth Interpretation of "Siddhartha"
Well, Wouldn't You?
Twenty miles north of downtown Chicago, Billy Corgan is selling raffle tickets. Blue-eyed and wide-eyed, he's the first person I see when I walk into Madame ZuZu's, a cozy tea house in Highland Park that he opened in 2012. A $10 ticket from the reel he's holding will buy you a chance to win the single poster screenprinted for the day's event, an eight-to-nine hour ambient musical performance inspired in real time by a reading of Hermann Hesse's novel Siddhartha. The grey, low-contrast print is on display at the front of the shop. Billy has stamped—not signed—the back.
I'm 45 minutes early and ZuZu's is bustling but not yet full, so I take an empty seat at a table where strangers chat out the wait. A man with a dark ponytail inks a children's maze on vellum paper—it's his living and he'd do it for free but he has a daughter to support. He also has a book coming out in Target stores and a deal with a high-profile celebrity that he can't talk about just yet. He's from Oregon and he'd have moved back there except he has to share custody of his 2-year-old with his ex, who lives in the north suburbs. At night he wakes up shaking, he tells us, because there aren't any mountains in Illinois.
Of the Chicagoland suburbs, Highland Park might boast the strongest countercultural streak. Bookstores and Guitar Centers thrive alongside craft shops and Trader Joe's; a lot of people play in bands. Teens and young adults wear prepackaged takes on what Chicago kids were scrounging up in thrift stores a few years ago, and throughout Billy’s performance I see about six pairs of gauged ears. Their parents, Highland Park lifers, are wealthy and eccentric. On my drive up, I pass an LED sign advertising upcoming events hosted by the Chicago Orchid Society. I drive through the snow-frosted grounds of a country club. I pass a white woman in a black Jaguar with a vanity plate reading "GLOVES".
In addition to raffle tickets, Billy is pushing cellophane-wrapped gift baskets of "elixir" tea, limited edition t-shirts printed specially for the event ($60, sold in glass jars), and standard edition Madame ZuZu's t-shirts ($30, no jar). He mentions that sage from his own garden is for sale: $10 a bag. Antiques—orientalist kitsch, also purchasable—line the wall. Manila price tags hang from the necks of ceramic geishas.
The event was billed for noon, but by that time Billy is just starting to set up. He fiddles around in the submarine control room that takes up the front of the shop. Cabinets of modular synthesizers loom toward the ceiling, blotting out the sunlight. I count seven cabinets, and then there are effects pedals, sound boards, pre-amps, and other thick blocks riddled with jacks and dials. A Roland SH-7 rests on a stand, dwarfed.
As Billy twiddles, one of the baristas passes out a program of sorts on card stock. She's a young, thin woman in low heels, her loose dress curtaining a mesh shirt with a Chinese lion printed on the back. She asks each audience member individually if they would like information on the event before handing over the card, where a badly punctuated artist's statement blares:
"MY HOPE IS TO EMBARK ON A MUSICAL JOURNEY; NOT IN SONG, MIND YOU, BUT BY EXPLORING THE TEXTURAL SPACE THAT LAY BEHIND THIS POWERFUL, EMOTIVE PROSE; AND LIKE SO MANY GLIMMERINGS IN THE MIND'S EYE, CAPTURE THAT WHICH IS EVER CHANGING, BUT STILL"
I sip a $6 green tea while listening to Maze Maker and his new buddy Server Farm Engineer grumble about divorce. The tea comes in a tiny glass jug which you're supposed to pour into a tiny china cup. I don't know a lot about tea, but it's my understanding that green is supposed to be delicate; you steep it at a lower temperature than black, and not for long. This green has bite. This green tastes like a mixture of crab grass and gunpowder.
It's 1 p.m. when Billy is ready. No one introduces the event. The barista asks everyone to turn off their phones (all the way off, no airplane mode, if she sees you using a phone she'll ask you to leave, the equipment is very sensitive) and then one of the two sound techs presses "play" on a MacBook. Chapter one of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, as read by Adrian Praetzellis for LibriVox in 2008, comes over the speakers.
Maybe it was naive of me but I had assumed Billy would be reading the book all day. The promotional blurb for the event said that "readings of the text" would accompany "whatever is created", and perhaps I'm nitpicking, but if you advertise something as a reading, you're implying that it will be a live one. I was sort of hoping that Billy would shed his celebrity and open up by reading a worn, leather-bound tome that was very dear to him. Yet here I am, listening to an .mp3 of an English professor enunciating Hesse's prose, waiting for something to happen.
It takes a while. Billy spends the first 20 minutes plugging wires into the cabinets. He pulls cables from a tangle at his feet, dragging up a whole cluster of wire and shaking free the one cable he wants from the knot. I'm reminded of a kid playing with one of those electronic kits that's supposed to get you interested in science at an early age. He's dressed in grey Dickies and a striped pullover sweater that's a size or two small, so every time he bends over he bares his lower back and upper ass to the audience. His love handles seep out of his clothes. Throughout the performance, he compulsively pulls up his pants. He is bald and nervous, an overgrown Charlie Brown.
The first thing we hear sounds like a bumblebee drowning in magma. A single note pulses for half an hour while the audiobook drones. By now, cables cover the synths like Spanish moss. At 45 minutes, Billy locks into a groove, sending Twilight Zone squiggles flying above a grimy bass arpeggio. He scurries to get the Roland in the mix, and when it comes through, it sounds like a small banshee. He pecks at the keys with his index fingers, firing screeches into the room.
His techs adjust the levels as he goes, but it is soon clear that no amount of tinkering will change the fact that Billy has funneled at least eight analog synthesizers into two speakers that were designed for open mic poetry nights. They each rise about a foot and a half off the ground and crackle incessantly. There is no subwoofer. The bass is doomed to resemble wet fart.
The sound is slow and constant, filling long pauses between chapters of the audiobook. Straw-blonde moms and salt-n-pepper dads filter in, but no one with kids stays long. The preschoolers whine and cry against the noise. Before they leave, the dad next to me promises his sullen 10-year-old son that they can go anywhere he wants for dinner to make up for having heard this music. Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering is here in pearls, watching carefully.
I think hours are passing. There is no clock in the shop and I'm afraid to take out my phone. At some point, patrons are asked to leave to make room for the people who have been waiting outside in the cold. A new crowd forms around me while I stay put; Lion Shirt Barista doesn't notice that I've been there since the beginning. In this humid purgatory of synths, red wallpaper, and diner-checkered flooring, time is marked by recurring events: a chapter ends, a chapter starts, the techs change the reels on an enormous reel-to-reel, Lion Shirt brings Billy a large plastic cup of iced green tea. At one point, she brings him hot tea instead, which he rejects. She returns with iced and gently rubs his back as she delivers it.
At one point, Billy cuts the music to silence, then spends ten minutes trying to build up a faint arpeggio. I don't know if he is listening to the book. I don't know if he is even familiar with the book. He adorns a passage in which Siddhartha longs for death with bright, happy chirps that could have been made by a PC's sound card in 1994. Siddhartha has sex for the first time to the rumble of an ancient mammal's digestive organs. Siddhartha witnesses the death of his friend as a frail house beat kicks in. Siddhartha strives for enlightenment while the theme to a forgotten '80s platformer bounces around in the air. Mostly, I feel as though a kindly English gentleman is reading me a very long bedtime story in the engine room of an ocean liner.
For a long time, the neuroses of Billy's archetypically Mormon brand manager are the most interesting thing in the room. He's running the live stream, and every half-hour he emails a friend who is watching remotely to make sure that it sounds okay. He tries broadcasting a direct line from the sound board, but switches back to a USB mic after his friend writes that the audio sounds distorted. Later, I watch Brand Manager read a negative blog post about the performance with a hand over his open mouth. He checks new Google results for "'Smashing Pumpkins' OR 'Billy Corgan'". He removes critical comments about the stream from the Smashing Pumpkins Facebook page.
Billy is focused. He does not look at the audience. A man tries to shake his hand on his way out and Billy waves him away. He adjusts knobs, he plugs and unplugs wires, he diddles with the keys. Sometimes he rubs his temples like he's been asked to perform invasive surgery without having passed high school biology. Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder feeds an off-brand Strat through the synths at one point. The sun eventually goes down.
Clearly, Billy is beloved here. In Chicago, he might have been heckled or the room might have quickly drained. In Highland Park, fans watch him for hours, then line up in the cold to watch him some more. Passersby peer through the window and exclaim to each other, "That's Billy!" After school lets out, throngs of teenagers wait to spend their Friday night in his presence. It seems the only reason Madame ZuZu's can sell tea for the price of beer any other day is that customers show up in the hopes of seeing him. The possibility of Billy is included in the price of a cup. He is a hometown hero, a mascot, an icon.
At 7 they catch on that I've been camping. Lion Shirt says I have to leave and gets flustered when I dawdle. I don't think she has ever hosted a performance or managed a cafe before. She's wearing thick eyeliner and a dusting of powder over her acne. She doesn't look much over 20.
I march out into the winter, joining a group of about 12 who have been waiting for over an hour. The book is muffled but I can still hear the music. I can see Billy's face better now, his furrowed brow, his look of concentration as he makes minute adjustments to the wall of knobs. I talk with a couple teens who remark that it's usually dead in here on a Friday night. The way people look at the shop as they walk past gives me the sense that there are rarely this many people in a public place at once in Highland Park.
Now that I am even closer to the instruments, I'm free to take out my phone, so I catch up on Twitter. I laugh at Dan Lopatin, who's been drunkenly livetweeting the stream. The internet agrees that this has all been Bad. The people here are loving it. I talk with a few Highland Parkers as they leave, and they say words like "meditative," "relaxing," "awesome," "trance."
This is Billy Corgan's safe place, where no one, not even strangers, will tell him "No."
While I'm outside, a few VIPs sneak in past the line. They are clearly Billy's friends, as the staff does not ask them to leave. The mayor is still here, as is the guy who sells Billy his faux-vintage analog gear, who looks exhausted. The line gets annoyed. Eventually, after a lot of civilians leave, an exasperated woman wearing bubblegum-pink hair and leggings printed with the poster for Star Wars Episode IV lets us in on the condition that we buy ourselves more tea. I pick up a "Honey Almond" blend that looks and tastes like diet fruit punch.
Billy's in the throes of a weird, organic groove, having moved on from the polite PSA soundtrack I was hearing through the glass. It sounds like alien breath; it sounds pretty good, actually. He's no longer scraping up against the edges of what the speakers can handle and the book is, fortunately, done. The sound simmers down. It ends. Billy spins around and says, "Finito." The audience, still packed, applauds.
He takes a five-minute Q&A to talk about his process. He uses very simple terms to describe the piles of technology behind him, framing it like he's trying to make it easy to understand. He attempts self-effacement ("I used these on my album, which no one bought") only when he knows he'll be contradicted ("I did!"). He is very well loved and still nervous. He says things like, "I've learned more from being on stage that anything else in my life" and "I want to do On the Road next." He ties his sweater around his shoulders. He takes out a plastic baggie of pretzel bites from his coat pocket and starts snacking. Then, finally, now that the crowd is dwindling and the raffle winner has been picked and Lion Shirt is yelling that they're closing in 10, finally, William Patrick Corgan goes to the bathroom.
This definitely wasn't as sad as Cam'ron's birthday party, at least.
Follow Sasha on Twitter: @sashageffen