There’s no doubt that being in a band which tours and records over many years is like being in a family. Whether it’s a fun-loving party family or a dysfunctional jealous family is largely down to the main players. And often there’s a main man.
Many of those in the world of celebrities, rock stars, top sports people come from a background with some kind of trauma. Having a parent or sibling die at a crucial age is a known driver for success at all costs. Another common feature is having an abusive or mentally ill parent manipulating your emotions, gaslighting, being cold, pushing you or physically attacking you.
Other musicians are ‘driven’ by neurological conditions – the impulsivity of ADHD, the control of autism, the addictive urges and false worlds of narcissism. There’s little we can do to change these things, but in the series ‘Dealing with a Difficult Man’, punkgirldiaries aims to trace how the girl in the band puts up with that stuff (or not), plays her part and maybe later reflects on what was really happening.
So … Smashing Pumpkins.
Billy Corgan (mental health issues stemming from long-term abuse from stepmother) forms a band with James Iha in 1988. Billy (for the reasons above) thinks that it’s his band and he needs to control everything because his ideas are so awesome. When drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and experienced musician D’Arcy Wretzky (bass) join the band there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about what the group is. Three people think they’re in a collective. One thinks the other three will serve his needs. And this is the splinter-factor which does it for so many bands. Multiple Grammy awards, yes – but overdoses, arrests, poor reviews and a trail of bitterness and blame all follow.
Gigging and recording in the era and sound-park of Nirvana brought Smashing Pumpkins early recognition. There’s a frenzy that goes with all that… Why not take heroin? Why not get married? Why not make huge pompous announcements? Everything becomes unreal then; the media and industry love an egotistic car-crash, and millions of fans believe that sensitive, damaged artist-types make the best music.
Backtrack now to D’Arcy Wretzky who also has a family upbringing that could be questioned. Reading between the lines, it sounds like her mum and step-dad were overly ambitious for her to succeed in music… or gymnastics … or horse-riding. Kids internalise these early pressures in an attempt to please their adults and before long, D’Arcy’s trying to overcome her stage fright and playing oboe and violin. Then she’s in a high-school post-punk band, then she’s left home and playing bass in Smashing Pumpkins. Wretzky’s an experienced and competent musician; Corgan’s deal is for her to look good in the photos, attract the fans, be a cute live player …. but not to contribute or be creative. Darcy’s supposed to play exactly what she is told to and to have the bass parts on all recordings written and played by Corgan. There were constant arguments about this, and there’s still a lack of agreement about exactly who played bass on any of the first Smashing Pumpkin tracks.
“He just would throw tantrums and I would laugh at him. James would say, ‘Don’t laugh at Billy!’ Why not? Who died and made him God? We would be writing a song, and he would say, ‘That’s not the right bassline!’ ‘Oh, you’re telling me it’s written already?’ …… There’s so much ugliness. Billy loved to humiliate people and shame people in front of other people. It was incredibly abusive, and I was the only one who would fight back. I think he and Jimmy got in a couple fights, and he and James maybe five, but with he and I it was screaming matches all the time. I just got to the point where I couldn’t fight anymore, and I needed to leave.”D’Arcy 2018 in Alternative Nation
With different accounts of the band’s workings over many years, and with members being at breaking point, then on talking terms, then not caring, then up for a reunion, it’s hard to believe anyone. The central creative power struggle between the narcissistic Corgan and the bullish Wretzky was doomed. Drugs also clearly impacted on Smashing Pumpkins, and in 1999 D’Arcy was sacked for being in Corgan’s words, ‘a mean-spirited drug addict who refused to get help’.
Being the only girl in a band that isn’t ‘your’ band, amongst a generally all-male crew is a tricky deal. For the 3 years when D’Arcy was in a relationship with James the guitarist, there was a bond, where the two of them had strength against the main man. But once that finished, D’Arcy was isolated and powerless; her upbringing, characterised by ‘get up on stage and force yourself to perform even though you hate it’ would have made it hard to throw it all away unless pushed. Drink, drugs… it all follows.
“The day after the tour, I had tried to quit two or three times, but it’s difficult to do when you have everybody, my husband, my family, telling me, ‘No, no, just wait until the next record. All of these people are depending on you, all of these people who work for you guys, don’t just think of yourself.’ I just should have left a couple of years earlier.”
“It was mostly that Billy would have a scapegoat for three months, and then somebody else. He doesn’t understand that other people don’t think like him, he always thinks that everybody is in the same mood as him. He would get really angry if he was depressed and you were happy.”D’Arcy 2018 in Alternative Nation
Corgan’s approach to Wretzky has been problematic all along. It’s quite clear that he saw D’Arcy as ‘the girl’ in the band; useful as a fan-favourite but neither an equal nor a contributor. There’s something weird about the way Billy then replaces D’Arcy with a string of different girls: Melissa Auf Der Maur, Ginger Reyes, Nicole Fiorentino – all of whom played the bass live, but …. not on any recordings. They too report on Corgan’s control, lack of acceptance and self-centeredness. Not to mention poor Billy’s seven bad girlfriends….
I poured my blood into my songs. I’ve had a bad marriage and seven bad girlfriends in a row. I make sacrifices to do my work. That’s not victim talk, that’s nobody’s fault, that’s a choice I made for me …… It’s my band. Anyone who doubts the legitimacy of this band can go [expletive] themselves. That’s old thinking about bands. Show me any band that lasts for any tenure, they don’t have the original members. This world doesn’t care about that. They just want to hear the songs. They got karaoke singers now fronting big bands.Billy Corgan Chicago Tribune
Because Corgan has survived, kept the band name and continued to play, it’s his narrative that gets the attention. Although he has gone through some challenging periods himself, keen fans may still be on his side. They might think that Billy’s the reasonable one, the caring, positive one who’s concerned about Darcy – an original band member who’s down on her luck, had a brush with the law and gone a bit screwy.
Audiences at the opening of Smashing Pumpkin’s 2018 tour might be aware that D’Arcy has struggled with addiction as they watch this very pointed ‘pregnant street junkie’ video during the gig. The actress appearing in “Try Try Try” is described in wikipedia as bearing “a striking resemblance to D’arcy struggling with drug addiction.” That’s not being caring; it’s sinister and controlling.