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Cherubs, Zeros, Glass Children & Swans – Symbolism in Lyrics of The Smashing Pumpkins

By Guy Mankowski.

The first line on the Smashing Pumpkins debut album Gish is ‘I am one / as you are three.’ If we can draw an analogy between the progression of the band’s output with the idea of an artistic journey, this is a notable opening line in a couple of respects. Firstly in respect of Corgan having described Gish as an album ‘about spiritual ascension’. Secondly, because the broad concept of Corgan in relation to split identities (an idea later resumed in his persona of Zero and the resulting persona of ‘Glass’) is established right away. Thirdly, this opening line echoes the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity, which in turn mirrors the ancient notion of ‘Yod He Vau He’ as repeated in late track ‘Quasar’.

Yod He Vau He (with its similarity to the term ‘Yahweh’) is widely considered the most ancient name for the Universal Spirit. It is also a representation of the Universal Law, and a representation of the universal law of polarities. Within the Kabbalistic tradition (itself a derivation of Judaism) the Yod represents the positive, the first He represents the negative (or void). Vau is the meeting of the Yod and He, or the place of interplay between these two principles. This comprises an ultimate principle of existence, which can be compared with the idea of the Holy Trinity or the Three.

Given the introduction of religious imagery on the opening line of the Smashing Pumpkins’ debut album, it is notable then that the Smashing Pumpkins’ artwork would go on to repeatedly use corresponding religious imagery.

Given that Corgan’s personal philosophy combines elements of Buddhism and Catholicism it seems reasonable to examine this imagery using esoteric definitions of symbolism. The eclectic nature of his beliefs is suggested in the title of the Smashing Pumpkins’ B-side collection Pisces Iscariot, combining as it does astrological and religious references. A neat summary of Corgan’s personal philosophy is difficult to achieve, given his reflexive openness, but it includes a belief in multi-dimensional existences and ill-defined phenomena such as psychic attack (for instance, in a 2018 interview with Howard Stern, Corgan related his encounter with a shape-shifting individual who he reported as metamorphosing in his presence and then acknowledging having done that.)

The band’s second album, Siamese Dream, has on its front cover two young girls who the back sleeve explicitly reveals are angels.

The album’s opening track is also entitled ‘Cherub Rock.’ Angels, as well as symbolising within Christianity messengers of God, are within the Tarot system representative of messages. Surrounding cards in a Tarot reading are said to point to the divine message that the recipient is intended to receive. So what is the message Corgan is on some level hoping to transmit on Siamese Dream?

If Gish was about spiritual ascension, Siamese Dream seems dedicated to the purpose of expressing inner pain that has previously been a source of shame. In the Smashing Pumpkins’ documentary Graceful Swans of Never Corgan speaks of his abusive childhood. Corgan has spoken of how this abuse led to obsessive-compulsive behaviour, suicidal thoughts, self-injury and enforced sleep deprivation. He added that ‘as an abused child your confidence to express yourself is so low.’ He then goes on to explain how Siamese Dream was the result of his courageous decision to express the hidden anguish of his childhood. The ‘message’ denoted by this angelic imagery could, therefore, be of the possibility of transcending pain by expressing it.

It is possible that the children on the cover are intended to resemble Corgan therefore, especially given his tendency to use female characters as mouthpieces, which is discussed later. Adding to this possibility, the Cherub in Tarot symbolises four basic virtues – to Know, to Will, to Dare and to be Silent (which Corgan felt pressured to be regarding his abuse). Furthermore, the final track of the album ‘Lunar’, appropriates the imagery of the moon, which in Tarot resembles ‘the mothering principle, nurture, home and family.’ Given the preceding track ‘Spaceboyconcerned the plight of Corgan’s brother, who has special needs, it is notable that an album arguably about overcoming spiritual pain should end firmly rooted in the symbolism of the family.

In an interview with Jenniffer Weigel for the series ‘I’m Spiritual Dammit’ Corgan explained his own view of emotional healing. Whilst it did not explicitly implicate art it showed a less binary view than simply the motivation to turn negative into positive. Corgan said;

‘The healing point is where you translate those [personal] stories to the point where they no longer have an emotional punch to them… they’re as important to you as ‘hey I went to the Cubs game and I saw this an amazing game and oh this thing happened to me when I was a kid and it was really awful… it doesn’t define you emotionally any more….’

The fact that Corgan is a Cubs fan and did have awful things happen to him as a child seems revealing. He added:

‘If you can reach that point in your emotional connection to your past that means you’ve actually accomplished something because your past is not defining your present and your future… you do actually have to examine your past and you have to examine your experiences and your role in it to heal but once you do heal they don’t have the same value they once did nor should they.’

So to him, catharsis or growth does not come in the form of turning bad into good, through art or otherwise, but instead through re-examining your emotional connection with the stories you tell yourself about your life.

The cherub theme returns in the Smashing Pumpkins’ work notably on their following double album Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness (MATIS). On the front cover of the album, foregrounded in the CD and cassette version a celestial female, with an expression of divine rapture, is riding the vehicle of a star against a backdrop of moons. In the video for lead single ‘Tonight, Tonight’, the aesthetics of French illusionist Georges Méliès are appropriated in a video in which a couple undertake another, startling, journey through the cosmos. In it, the Pumpkins play a kind of celestial Greek chorus, appearing as flickering apparitions on a cloud, as if offering commentary on the couple’s emotional journey, as narrated through the song. This voyage requires them to battle aliens with umbrellas and take joint leaps of faith, as well as witness beautiful underwater spectacles. Corgan here is not the adventurer, but rather an omniscient narrator describing the nature of it.

The album track ‘Cupid De Locke’ furthers utilises the imagery of a cherub in lyric as well as visual form, with Cupid using its arrows to stimulate love. Corgan’s description of the album in the vinyl’s liner notes focuses on the aesthetic symbolic level. In Corgan’s words, ‘I sought some refuge by writing whimsically as well; finding solace in twirling parasols and the extant, lingering passions of the Belle Époque.’

Of the track Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans, Corgan is more open to a psychoanalytic interpretation of his work in the post-Freudian tradition. He notes that ‘vague allusions to mythic tides and sinking ships seemed only to enhance the unconscious feelings within. Carl Jung would be proud!’ More thoughtfully, he added, ‘there is something perfect about not fussing over everything too much, letting synchronicity be a teacher and guide to the stars.’ Here, his appropriation of Jung’s termsynchronicity magnifies the importance of coincidence and the idea that events can be meaningfully related without being causally connected. Corgan validates this as an interpretive method.

The MATIS track, and single Thirty-Three’ is notable for the repeated symbolic use of the number three. The song contains the evocative line ‘mysteries not ready to reveal,’ thereby giving the track a kind of resonance which, if Corgan’s insights into his artistic process are to be believed, may be beyond even his comprehension.

In a Q&A following the New York screening of his 2017 film Pillbox Corgan described himself, when he writes as having ‘something speak through me’ with him acting as ‘a filter for information coming from somewhere else’. He added ‘it seems to me in a sensory way I’m having an experience of an other, an other speaking through me; call it nature, call it love, call it wisdom, call it ancestral DNA… I feel my job is almost custodial.’ Having acknowledged the possibility this experience could be psychotically generated he then evokes meditative or liminal states of the type described by spiritual practitioners in the Hindu or Yogic tradition. He describes how he has no recollection of having written certain songs.

The track Thirty-Three also contains the unusual linegraceful swans of never’ and the imagery of the swan is interesting given the line about ‘mysteries not ready to reveal.’ In the Tarot tradition, the Ace of Cups card represents the Swan. The Swan spirit embraces beauty and grace [one interpretation of which is of ‘acceptance’ of the future] as part of life. The swan symbolises an ability to ‘see into the future and to enter into higher vibrational planes of existence.’

This song could, therefore, be argued to denote Corgan’s subconscious appreciation that in time unresolved mysteries will be concluded and that on some level he has an awareness that the individual will access in the future higher planes of consciousness and realisation. His awareness of this interpretation seems moot given the above insight into his songwriting process.

Supporting this interpretation, when considering this song Corgan said, ‘there is a moment where you feel alright knowing where you will land; knowing that by standing at a crossroads you invite whatever conclusion may come.’

The video for ‘Thirty-Three’ elaborates some of Corgan’s stylistic tropes. The celestial being on the cover from the album is reproduced as a woman, and a cast of angels and anguished ballerinas seem to stand as visual proxy for Corgan, given the first person narration of the song.

Later on in the record, the track ‘By Starlight’ evokes the celestial creature on the cover of the album. The Star card in Tarot is an important card for personal transformation, representing new ideas and growth. Given the exponential musical growth of the Smashing Pumpkins on this bestselling album, this symbolism seems coincidental at the very least. Whereas their previous albums had revolved around compositions mainly using the bass, drums, guitar, and vocal set up, MATIS saw Corgan learning a range of new instruments. Here he incorporated synths, zithers, and various other devices to push the musical envelope. The album itself opens with a vocal-less piano and string-led piece, therefore serving as a strident reaction to the heavier, grungier sound previously associated with the band. The idea of development on this album seems played out too in the titles of both sides of the record which denote the development of morning to night. They are titled Dawn to Dusk and Twilight to Starlight.

During the MATIS era, Corgan made a conscious decision to negate his personality, as a reaction to the pressures of fame. ‘I’ll shave my head, and write Zero across my chest,’ he said [to paraphrase] thereby spawning the image Corgan would become most readily associated with.

Tracks on MATIS echoed this sentiment, with the track ‘Zero’ containing the line ‘God is empty / just like me’. In the liner notes for the album, Corgan mentioned how this line led people to try to come up to him, ‘trying their best to convert me to a God and Saviour I was already sold on’. So if Corgan’s seeming nihilism did not truly relate to an atheistic belief then where did it stem from? An argument can be made that it was more a reflection of Corgan’s sense of emotional devastation. As Corgan revealed, the track ‘Here Is No Why’ had a title ‘appropriated from an article [he’d] read on an anniversary of the world’s first nuclear attacks. A survivor, surveying a legacy of near-total devastation, had remarked in broken English that ‘here is no why.’ Looking at the twisted remnants of [his] own childhood memories, [he] felt a similar sense of loss.’ On this record, the idea of development and celestial travel sits alongside a personal bland of nihilism that, on closer investigation, is not religious.

The band’s fourth album Adore eschewed Gish’s principle ideas of spiritual ascension and MATIS’s preoccupation with development, for an immersion into overtly gothic aesthetics. When asked in an interview where such imagery came from, Corgan answered that as a child he had ‘read too much Edgar Allen Poe.’ But the symbolic use of the gothic tropes on this album is significant.

The gothic movement, in terms of the musical subculture, is striking for its use of the negation both in visual landscapes, as well as in soundscapes. As Charles Allen Mueller wrote (with reference to The Cure’s records) ‘The fragmented nature of the imagery helps relay a gothic sense of disintegration.’ One of The Cure’s most famous records was in fact titled Disintegration, with the band’s singer, Robert Smith, portrayed amongst a backdrop of shadowed, wilting and decaying vegetation on the cover. In fitting with the Goth preoccupation for Victoriana this cover fitted comfortably within the aesthetic palette of crumbling castles, mist, candlesticks and ever-present darkness- all visual cues associated with this movement. Comparably, Adore contains within its colour-drained artwork a stark shot of the band, dressed in Victorian clothing, climbing a hill to a skeletal looking tree. These features allow the album to fit neatly into the gothic tradition. So to does the use of female protagonists as sites for the artist to explore emotional pain through. The acknowledgement of the gothic work of Daphne du Maurier in the protagonist of the track ‘Daphne Descends’ is noted. So too is the fact that du Maurier’s protagonists inhabited the type of windswept settings depicted in the album’s artwork.

Corgan’s lyrics show a tendency for him to use female characters with evocative, literary names as sites of personal and thematic meaning. One track off MATIS is even entitled ‘Through The Eyes Of Ruby.’ Names such as Starla, Porcelina, Ava, Czarina, and Daphne recur in his work. Within the musical context of the time, he was not alone in this respect. Possibly continuing a tradition established by Kate Bush, in her 1998 album Is This Desire? PJ Harvey would use female characters such as ‘Catherine de Barra’ as emotional canvases within similarly gothic settings.

Corgan’s description of the album was that it was ‘made by broken toys, for broken people.’ The death of keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, Corgan’s recent divorce, and the breakup of the relationship between guitarist James Iha and D’arcy Wretsky all offered ample explanation for this emotional backdrop.

Furthermore, the musical relationship of the band was disintegrating, with drummer Jimmy Chamberlain having been sacked for drug use. Deprived of the band’s powerhouse drummer, Adore eschewed overdriven music, which fitted into the realms of grunge or metal, in favour of piano-led, acoustic songs such as ‘For Martha’, which detailed Corgan’s grief over his mother’s death.

But within this new aesthetic palette was also room for darker devices, reflecting the tone of the album sleeve. Tracks like ‘Shame’ and ‘Daphne Descends utilise drones, to give Flood’s ornate, layered production a sense of dense layering. Flood’s production evokes moods that are at once claustrophobic and expansive. In the album’s single ‘Perfect’ the glacial production and clean guitars offer a backdrop to a painful lyric concerned with Corgan coming to terms with a breakup. The clashing guitars in ‘Daphne Descends’ sit behind the choruses words; ‘You love him’. But they sound far from romantic, instead evoking an approaching emotional storm.

In his consideration of the goth genre in England is Mine – Pop Life in Albion from Wilde to Goldie Michael Bracewell focuses on The Cure and the unresolved trauma of their music. He defined the goth movement as one in which ‘there is the continued, or even obsessive denial of a formative trauma.’ This is a salient observation given that Corgan drew parallels between his childhood and the documentary description of nuclear fallout. Bracewell would go on to draw parallels between the urban architecture of suburbia and The Cure’s songs, which he unflatteringly described as a ‘musical expression of suburbia itself; a dense and repetitious sound, carrying a mesmeric dirge…’ The nine minutes of repetitive music in the Adore track ‘Shame’ (itself an unresolved trauma, with Corgan ending the track addressing someone who ‘made us cry’) comes to mind following Bracewell’s description. If Adore did not contain many dirges, it did contain more drones, repetition, Victorian imagery and stark colouring than any of Corgan’s previous work. The thematic idea of celestial development has given way to a gothic sense of unresolved pain, itself a state in which the artist and listener languish and co-exist in beautiful, disintegrating denial.

For the Smashing Pumpkins fifth album, Machina / Machines of God a concept was created to tie the songs together. However, with the band’s line-up disintegrating throughout the recording process the resulting album felt a little unrealised. It is worth noting however that the distancing effect the album was criticised for having from the listener was, according to Corgan, intended.

Corgan conceived a story revolving around a rock star named Zero (based on the public persona of Corgan). An early premise regarding the album was for the members of the band to all similarly caricature themselves throughout the touring duties. ‘Zero’, whose relationship with Corgan is obvious, hears the voice of God and renames himself Glass. He then also renames his band The Machines of God. Within this narrative, fans of the band are referred to as the ‘Ghost Children.’

In the track ‘Glass And The Ghost Children’ dialogue from Billy Corgan’s therapy sessions is spliced into the audio. Corgan is heard saying; ‘God could be my intuition or whatever, but I always assume that the voice I hear is the voice of God. Then I started thinking, what if I’m insane? So I’m operating on the premise that I’m hearing the voice of God, or what I perceive to be God speaking through me…the fact [is] that I’m [instead] following my intuition, which in of itself may be completely false.’

This insight has echoes of Corgan’s reported self-doubt earlier in the article, when he wonders if his creativity is ‘psychotically generated.’

The song ’Glass And The Ghost Children’ contains the lines ‘up the silver ghost / glass migrates under / her translucent skin / and all are spiders / wonder what we’ve got us in’. The imagery of spiders and glass recalls Ingmar Bergman’s use of the spider as metaphor in the film Through A Glass Darkly. In the film, a disturbed girl named Karin tells her family that God came to her in the form of a spider, which crawled out of the closet and tried to penetrate her. Despite this disturbing personification of God, Bergman’s conclusion seems to be ‘God is love.’

An analysis of Bergman’s conceptions of God as a spider by the academic Sean Volk concluded that both the director and the philosopher Nietzsche (who had also used the God / spider metaphor) believed it to be the responsibility of the individual to create their own understanding of God and religion.

Perhaps Corgan’s concern that it was his intuition, rather than divine intervention that he was accessing when seeking guidance is validated. Here we have the view that an individual cultivates their own understanding of what ‘God’ is, rather than communicating directly with an accessible outside force. Perhaps what is perceived as ‘God’ is, in fact, a personification by which the individual’s own meditative or creative communion with themselves cultivates personal development.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Guy Mankowski is an academic whose PhD concerned post-punk literature. He is also the author of How I Left The National Grid: A post-punk novel. His latest novel, An Honest Deceit, was published in 2016.

(with thanks to Dr. Peter O’Connor and Hollie Martorella)

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 24th, 2018.