You Blame Yourself For Wanting More: Melon Collie Revisited

We’re just shy of 30 years with 'Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness' and it feels as vital today as it ever did, Casey Taylor writes.
By    November 22, 2022

Image via Virgin Records

Even when the blue birds have fallen out of the sky, we’ll be here. Support real, independent music journalism by subscribing to Passion of the Weiss on Patreon.

Casey Taylor wants to know: if Rudy Gobert isn’t publicly asking for people to be nicer to him, does he even exist?

The first thing I can remember about Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is the double jewel case. Released at the height of the CD era, I spent God knows how long staring at the sad girl emerging from the star (who it turns out was drawn by a Pittsburgher, like most good things) while fumbling with the clacking translucent plastic, all pinched together by a small black partition. My brother and I had a small boom box in the basement that we’d set up near the Super Nintendo and our parents, floating through the halcyon Clinton days, didn’t seem to care that my older brother was blasting my eardrums out with whatever grunge album I was too young to listen to at the time. The physical media era is dying and with it are the totems of our youth; the spirit that passes through everything, including a clumsy jewel case, and the magic imparted by the experience of touching, having, holding in addition to hearing.

It therefore feels a little goofy to pretend that a rediscovery of the record is rooted in “nostalgia” or revisiting something formative in my childhood. Truth be told, I didn’t remember any of the songs by name aside from the hits. One of the few compositions that stuck out to 8-year old Casey was the opener – the sparse, repetitive piano arrangement – if only because I was confused. Where was that fuzzy guitar that didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard before when I first heard the opening riff of “Today” from their last album? Was the pale guy with the weird voice a piano guy now? Pianos were sad. That was the extent of my critical consciousness at eight. So I would listen to the piano song to start the album and sit in a way that I imagined was contemplative, thinking sad childhood thoughts regarding Nesquik or how much I didn’t enjoy that night’s family dinner.

We’re just shy of 30 years with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and it feels as vital today as it ever did. Maybe that’s because Billy Corgan was the most talented of all the slacker kids who picked up guitars in the 80s–an egomaniac whose control issues were only surpassed by his beautiful lightning brain. Or maybe it’s because we are fleas nibbling on a beast we can’t comprehend, and its blood flows to us in cycles imparting wisdom and consciousness that makes 30-year old records feel topical. It would make a perverse sense: the end of an era of American faux-prosperity, a rudderless culture with no tradition, and a voice in your ear telling you that you aren’t supposed to be satisfied with any of it.

It’s unclear whether the 90s NostalgiaTM fad of the past few years is simply a matter of corporations marketing to Gen X consumers – now-parents-of-teenagers – to give them a little flavor of the recognizable, but I wouldn’t blame you for reaching for deeper connections. That’s what people have done throughout all of human history, from the sutras to music blogs. The parallels between our current hell and the hell of the early ‘90s are somewhat striking, if somewhat superficial: the looming collapse of an economy built on greed, a president elected to steady the ship and bring America back to a place of folksy normalcy, a bored populace with little to do except invent a new purpose for themselves now that the old one is clearly outdated. I have a tendency to reach for parallels that aren’t there, perhaps as a way of easing my own anxieties, but I don’t think it’s a reach to say both slacker culture and modern “Affluenza” are byproducts of the same beast. We don’t believe in anything over here in the United States, so it’s easy to get stuck hanging around and waiting for something to happen.

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness captures the tension between our two states of being better than any other record from the era, kicking things off properly with “Tonight, Tonight” to introduce listeners to Corgan’s unique approach to “we gotta do something”-style optimism. But despite starting things off with a declaration of meaning, the whole of the piece isn’t a two hour journey of uplift but a search for the very meaning that evades all of us. Aside from providing the album’s first big hit, the song acts as its thesis statement: you’re stuck here tonight and all nights, and now you’ve gotta figure out what the fuck you’re gonna do with that information. You can “crucify the insincere” to create a life of earnest meaning, you can choose to believe in your fellow man, but one thing you can’t do is change the very nature of time, which projects the illusion of marching past even as humanity gains a conflicting scientific understanding of its nature as an infinite loop.

Belief is what shapes our world and gives it form. Nobody sees a tree and only sees the bark and the leaves, but instead also takes in the essence of an eternal symbol, or thinks of the oxygen the tree gives us to enable our own existence. “Believe in me like I believe in you” is less a plea than it is a directive to remember that our reason for being is within each other, and everything within your neighbor is within you, as well. There are elements of the Buddha mind-seal in such a declaration–the principle of Saddha that is closer in meaning to “confidence” than “faith,” but used in a similar manner–and that’s not a coincidence because Billy Corgan shaped his world in art through the tension between his Catholic upbringing and his Buddhist sensibilities. Alongside the sad girl emerging from the star in the iconic cover art of that double jewel case is the Trimurti, the Vedic parallel to what we in the West think of as the Holy Trinity. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is many things, but perhaps most of all it is ambitious; an expression of the Cosmology of Corgan as he understood it. Remember that? When rock albums tried to accomplish something via an auteur subverting your expectations?

If Siamese Dream was about introducing a new frequency via the Big Muff pedal that amateur shredders would fall over themselves to secure for their own setup, Mellon Collie was about showing that the ear that identified the frequency was attached to a mind producing it through the whirring of the imagery of the eternal. Grunge was always a version of punk rock, or at least the aspects of punk rock that mattered. It was a people’s music movement, similar to the heroin addicts in New York City of the 1970s that just wanted to return to playing 3-minute Chuck Berry style records instead of prog or hippie bullshit. And just like the 70s in the punk rock movement, the early ‘90s had a similar Gold Rush feeling as acts emerged on a weekly basis and listeners were forced to figure out which ones were corporate schlock (fuck you, Candlebox) and which ones were real (long live the Meat Puppets). Who was going to sell out first? Who had already sold out by changing their music to meet their audience’s expectations?

Now that the dust has settled, the answers to those questions seem obvious but probably vary at the individual level. Try telling a Gen X guy that Eddie Vedder is a fraud and they’ll bring up the music video for “Hunger Strike” or his standoff with Ticketmaster, but was there a less consequential act than Pearl Jam? Today, the records have a legacy on part with the Dave Matthews Band, which is the kind of statement that might be innocuous or might be fighting words, depending on your point of view. Meanwhile, an artist like Billy Corgan leaves a more complicated legacy, seemingly driven mad by his commitment to a vision that few people understood. Corgan became a bit of a joke after tragedy struck the Pumpkins and his grief slowly morphed into a public persona that was bitter and cynical. The Bodhidharma of grunge had finally reached his breaking point and wasn’t taking on new acolytes.

One of the first parables in the Blue Cliff Record, a keystone text in the Mahayana and Chan traditions, is about the Bodhidharma’s immovable nature. He visits an emperor who asks him his name, and the Bodhidharma tells him he does not know his true name before leaving, and only months later does the emperor ask after him again. When he finds out that he has let the descendant of the Buddha leave his palace, he asks for someone to fetch Bodhidharma, but is informed by the court that there is no point in trying to find him. He would not return under any circumstances, because the Bodhidharma does what he wants. The Bodhidharma knows the Buddha nature is to follow a path rather than forge a new one. The Bodhidharma, one would therefore assume, would likely know that releasing the best album of the 1990s is reason enough to walk away without much concern about what others say about you.

Corgan’s modern status as misunderstood recluse and bitter interview subject feels less like us being robbed of anything and more like the culmination of what he’d been telling us all along. Listening to Mellon Collie as I re-engage with my own Buddhist practice has been meaningful if only because it has felt like having a guide; another Western Christian who knew he wasn’t being given the whole picture who went to fill in the gaps with the Vedic. “Zero” is still the album’s best track, barely edging out the more contemplative and ethereal “1979” for my own personal preference. Where “1979” revels in the feelings imparted by the past, “Zero” might as well be an ode to the goddess Kali, who emerges from Shiva’s chest during battle and kills those in need of rebirth. You blame yourself for what you can’t ignore. You blame yourself for wanting more. That might as well be the mantra of all former Catholics, and Corgan surrounds it with imagery of tricksterism (reflections in dirty mirrors, disconnected self) and a Buddhist cosmology (“God is empty just like me”). Unlike many of the grunge acts at the time, this wasn’t posturing or an attempt to shock conservative Christians, and the proof is in Corgan’s active rejection of fame and ambivalence towards fans once he decided he simply didn’t want to do it anymore.

Listening to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness today, I’m struck by its resonance during a similar time of uncertain stasis; a sort of “waiting for the other shoe to drop” moment in American culture as we seek a new purpose. Albums aren’t theological documents but often exist in that weird space between the explainable and the divine. Music is math and patterns but there’s a je nais se quois that separates a good technical song – radio fodder, pop songs, mass produced algorithmic dogshit – from something that moves you to tears. For me, Mellon Collie occupies a divine space because it captures the tension between Buddhist and Christian theology at times of unjust stillness. The Christian is taught to do something and to shape the world to their fantasies, and to embrace that individualism that tells you it’s okay to create chaos to serve greater means. The Buddhist is taught to do something only when necessary and to follow the path laid out, avoiding situations that require one to deviate and hack a new path with a machete, particularly since those machete swings are going to hurt somebody.

Neither of these things are inherently incorrect – there is no purpose to existence except to love and care for one another, thus there is no “correct” way to do so – but they do present problems when considering how to approach injustice. Does one fight for liberation, or accept impotence in the face of God? Neither of those choices make much of a difference to the world around you, but only one of them leads to a life of contentedness. Existence is a prison, and there’s only one true liberation from it. That’s not what you want, is it?

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!