Billy Corgan on Meeting His Rock Heroes, Being a Family Man, and the Time Kathie Lee ‘Hit On’ Him
Smashing Pumpkins frontman returns to the Stern Show following the release of new album “CYR”December 1, 2020
On the heels of his band the Smashing Pumpkins’ brand-new studio album “Cyr,” Billy Corgan returned to the Stern Show on Tuesday to catch up with Howard and Robin. Sitting at his home surrounded by both the piano and Mellotron where he wrote many of the Pumpkins’ biggest hits, Billy opened up about the value of music – both his own and the music of others. “I take it very seriously because I really know what that feels like, how one song can really, like, keep you from jumping off the roof,” he explained to Howard of how important music can be. He’s had fans tell him how the Smashing Pumpkins saved their life. “It’s probably the greatest compliment you can get,” Billy stated.
Check out all of the highlights from Billy Corgan’s interview (below).
Meet Your Heroes
After more than 30 years in the music industry, Billy has gotten to know many artists – both his contemporaries and those he grew up idolizing. Coming up around the same time as Seattle’s Soundgarden, Billy made no secret of his admiration for the band. “They asked me to write liner notes for them, I mean, like I was a known fan,” he noted. “I used to go visit them in the studio … I was welcome in their world.”
With that access, Billy was able to witness up close and personal the talents of late lead singer – and Howard favorite – Chris Cornell. “Chris was one of the greatest singers of all-time, certainly influential,” he noted of Cornell. “I used to look at him and think, ‘My God, not only is he handsome but like he’s got all these abilities … he got the full package.’”
While the two frontmen at one point had a falling out, Cornell’s widow Vicky told Billy her husband did want to make amends. “His wife later told me that he felt bad about the situation, he wanted to kind of make up but obviously that didn’t happen,” he recalled.
Less complicated was Billy’s relationship with guitar virtuoso Eddie Van Halen, whom he met thanks to an interview for music magazine Guitar World. “It was only supposed to be an hour – he was great, I was with him for like four and a half hours,” he remembered of the experience. “Played guitar, we talked shit about everything, he showed me all the unreleased Van Halen music – it was like the grand tour of all time. I mean, you talk about like 10 out of 10 experience in my life … he was so awesome.”
Billy went on to say that the guitarist – who passed away in October – was at first skeptical of his own axe skills but was soon convinced otherwise. “I think he thought because I was an alternative guy I couldn’t play so when he saw that I could play the guitar then that totally changed,” he revealed. “It was like I was entered into the other club and then he started telling this other stuff that was like guitar stuff … he was just so wonderful, such a nice person.”
Unlike his connections with Chris and Eddie, not all of the singer’s run-ins with musicians have run as deep. “They get this certain look in their eyes, and now I know what that look is,” Billy said of meeting some of his heroes, especially earlier in his career. “The person meeting you has an idea in their head of the legend … they want to meet the legend and you can almost see it coming and so your reaction is like ‘No, I’m not into being the legend right now I just want to have a drink and talk with my buddy here.’”
Before playing his hit “Disarm” off 1993’s “Siamese Dream” – which Howard admitted regularly gave him the chills – Billy discussed what a turning point writing it was for him. “For me it was the watershed moment of my life where I was like okay, if I’m going to be this person, I have to own my version of it,” he said of the song, which is about his complicated childhood. “In a million years I could never have imagined that people would have connected with it from the other side … it was one thing to have the courage to do it, but it was another to then have people go, ‘No I understand’ – that blew my mind … I’m literally just writing to myself about something I went through.”
Talking more about that album, Billy addressed whether or not Hole singer and former flame Courtney Love was the muse. “It’s partially about her but it was also partially about my wife and partially about … the women I still haven’t met,” the songwriter explained. “I’ve had a lot of women through the years try to say, ‘Oh that song is about me’ – it’s never really about one person. I mean, at the end of the day I’m writing about myself, right?”
The frontman also discussed the effect certain bands had on him, from Metallica to the Beatles. His introduction to the former was thanks to a drug dealer who took him in when he was kicked out of his house as a teenager. “They would sit around and smoke weed all day and just listen to Metallica,” he remembered of that time. “I saw something in the music but then when the second album [“Ride the Lightning”] came out … I went to the show, I saw them and I saw this revolution was happening … it was like a religious experience.”
Even more crucial was the role the song “Fade to Black” off that album played in the healing process he went through over the death of his grandmother. “When I was totally losing my mind because the closest person in my life was dying, that was the song I listened to over and over and over again,” Billy admitted. “It summed up what I was feeling and I’m forever in debt with James [Hetfield] for that.”
Speaking about the Beatles and specifically John Lennon, Billy relished in how the legend’s approach to his later songwriting opened up the door for him to be emotionally honest in his own work. “This is the beauty of a John Lennon,” he noted. “He’s telling you, you can do this too. Look inside yourself and there’s a lot of treasure there. And so he encouraged me, as did Bob Dylan and Neil Young, to look inside myself and say I’m okay with whoever that is.”
One of the songs Billy performed for Howard on Tuesday was Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” “I think this is the first song that ever really landed me personally,” he said of the hit. “This was the first song that was like wow, this person is singing for me.”
Billy was able to return the favor by inducting the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. In a room filled with many industry big wigs, the singer told a joke that was perhaps too honest. “’I remember that all the people who were responsible for disco are in the room and I haven’t forgotten,’” he remembered saying at the time. “I probably buried myself in the music business for years because of that but I just couldn’t resist saying it.”
Over the years, a source of pride for Billy has been his willingness to be unpredictable, from things he likes to his influences. Of his unlikely 1997 appearance on “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee,” he noted that the duo was at least partially responsible for one of his most famous songs. “I would sit on the couch and watch them every morning,” he confessed. “I literally think I wrote the riff to ‘1979’ … watching Regis and Kathie Lee … I had my people call their people and said I’d love to come on.”
As Billy remembered, the interview went almost too smoothly. “It was awesome. They were really sweet but … she starts hitting on me during the show,” he explained. “I was like wow, Kathie Lee is hitting on me, this is amazing.”
Less intimate but just as meaningful to the singer was iconic metal band Black Sabbath. “Probably my favorite band of all time,” he said of the foursome, which of course included Ozzy Osbourne. “We would do interviews in like 1989 … we’d say Black Sabbath and people would laugh at us. Things have changed and Ozzy’s an institution but back then it was like verboten to say Black Sabbath – I think it’s one of the greatest bands ever.”
From Kid to Family Man
Talking about his childhood and starting out as a guitar player in bands at a young age, Billy said he received a rather harsh reaction at first. “They didn’t understand the way I played or they didn’t understand my attitude,” he said of audiences at the time. “I’ve always encouraged a sort of violent response to me on stage … I would just be standing playing the guitar and someone would come up and yell in my face.”
Before playing “Birch Grove” off the new album “Cyr,” the rocker explained it was actually for his two young children. “I’m 53 and my kids are 5 and 2 and I look at them and I think, ‘Are they going to grow up without me?” he admitted. “It’s like a road map, it’s something maybe only they will understand … I want them to know that I thought about this and this is their card if they need it if I’m gone.”
Opening up more about his feelings as a father, Billy was as open as ever. “I just want them to be happy – happiness is the greatest commodity of life,” he said. “You can be poor and happy and you can be rich and miserable … I want my children to be happy … that’s the one gift I want to give them.”
The Smashing Pumpkins’ latest album, “Cyr” is available now.