In 1994-95 I was a high school freshman at Maize High School, which was, at the time, situated about five miles outside of Wichita, KS. I had just moved to this high school after living in Powell, OH for four years. The school was familiar, in an odd sort of way. Contrary to popular belief, there really isn’t much difference between Central Ohio and Central Kansas. The cafeteria food tasted the same, all the kids dressed the same, and they told the similar stories. On the first day of school I quickly aligned myself with the people I had met in marching band. This was my tribe. These were the people whom I would rely on in these early days at my new school.
My new crew was a mashup of characters who, first and foremost, took the music of marching band very seriously. They practiced for hours every single day and memorized their charts immediately. Outside of the music and marching, they were normal people who listened to a wide variety of music. I listened to a Smashing Pumpkins album for the first time among my new friends who were so familiar with his music that they almost put it on as background music.
I think I was immediately taken by the sound and soul of Billy Corgan’s music. It resonated with me for some reason. His songwriting matched with full dynamic range guitar sounds punched through my chest and ignited a fire. There was something universal and relational about Corgan’s music that I found refreshing. And I suppose it is this initial connection that urged me to stop and click on a series of videos posted to the Smashing Pumpkins YouTube channel last month. The three videos were the first three installments of a 30-day documentary series that Billy produced while traveling parts of “Flyover Country” (those significant areas outside of the media centers of New York and LA) and writing new music.
Something that you need to know is that while I have always enjoyed Smashing Pumpkins music I have never thought I was “cool” enough to admit it. That is to say, I never thought I completely understood it, like there was some higher level I was never able to tap into in 1994. And while I don’t know that I completely understand the mission Billy Corgan is on, it resonates with me. Though I live in Pennsylvania, I am from flyover country. The people and the story he was seeking in his long road trip across the American South collides every once in a while with my story, my experiences and my values. The web documentary series was a light-hearted and, at times, tragic reminder that there is a wide, wide world beyond our immediate existence. Great inspiration exists out there; we just need to take time to find it.
Along his journey, Billy and his documentary crew captured some memorable moments that made me laugh and inspired me to think about my own work as an academic and teacher.
In an early episode Billy stops to do laundry at a coin-operated laundromat. The facilities look decent, but you can tell the laundromat hasn’t been updated in decades. In fact, even the magazines are nearly 20 years old. While waiting for his clothes to cycle through Billy finds issues of Rolling Stone and Guitar World in which he and his music are featured. The camera captures a weird sense of nostalgia that crosses Billy’s face as he reads a pull quote from a feature article written about Smashing Pumpkins. Billy reads the quote aloud and laughs, as if to say, “Yeah, that sounds like something I would have said in my 20s.”
Early success, on any scale, has a weird effect on people. I am not saying that I can compare my success as a teacher with that of a multi-platinum recording artist. Only in my wildest dreams are these two things comparable. Instead, I think this moment in the laundromat gave Mr. Corgan a neat perspective on who he has become as an artist. I recently read through an application packet that I had to pull together for the Kansas Horizon Award that I won 2004. I had just started my second year of classroom teaching and I was told that I had been nominated for this state level award for outstanding service in the first year of the teaching profession. The nomination packet required me to collect several letters of support and to write a few essays. As I read through my essays today I smirk at the absolute naive tone I see in my explanation of best teaching practices and my plans for further professional development. But isn’t that cool? I think I would be really heartbroken if, when reading those early career essays, I found myself in the same place. I am truly happy I have moved on to new experiences and insight.
In another episode Billy takes a cave tour, which is always an experience unlike anything one has ever done. Picture it, you actually pay for the opportunity to walk two or three miles (or more) down into a cavern under the earth–from which you might not return if something remarkably tragic, like an earthquake, flood, mudslide, or some other natural disaster blocks the precious few exits. That said, Billy decides to take a cave tour of which he says, “Fun fact, last time I was in a cave I was with Courtney Love.” If that is indeed true, I’m afraid we need to know more Mr. Corgan.
Billy admits that he doesn’t like tours because when you take a tour you are expected to stay with a group of people and do exactly what you are told. And, throughout the episode, Billy makes these facial expressions to the camera that indicate he is not always having the time of his life on the tour. There is a moment, however, in the episode when the tour guide does the big reveal, the large cavernous room that every cave tour guid saves for last, and it is in that moment that both the viewer, and Mr. Corgan, realize that the whole affair was worth it. At the conclusion of the tour Corgan says something like, “I am not the same person that first went into the cave. I’ve emerged someone new.”
No matter what one does, success is the result of hard work, and a lot of luck. At one point throughout his songwriting tour, Billy meets a young musician who asks, “How do you take a band and its music to the next level?” The question was posed by an aspiring rocker who has some significant talent (he and Billy played a little together on camera). Billy’s advice was simple, and direct. His message was to work hard to routinely create good content that entertains and engages an audience. If the content is truly good, you will create a following.
The young musician said, “I feel like that is great advice for someone who already has a national following.”
Yes, while it is true it may be “easier” for someone like Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins to connect with a large audience through YouTube, this influence has come at the expense of a lot of hard work–which is what Billy was trying to convey to the young rocker. This is one of the better interchanges in the entire web series because here in front of this young musician is an icon he has looked up to nearly his entire life. That icon is giving sound advice and the yet-to-be-discovered musician nearly starts an argument because the advice isn’t what he expected.
Nothing in life, not even fame, comes easy.
At one point while watching one of the longer episodes I scratched down this quote:
If you have faith, then you must also believe in place.
I don’t know if I even have the quote down right, but this idea sparked a number of interesting ideas that I think I need to chase further. I have always believed in the power of place. Perhaps it is just the way that I catalog memories, but whenever I visit a place from my past my brain cues up an endless loop of memories that are anchored to that place. I can remember finishing up my last class in my undergraduate degree at Friends University. Class ended early. On my walk back to my on-campus apartment I decided to meander a bit. I walked through every building on campus and let the flood of memories from four years rush over me. It was overwhelming, and yet quite healing too.
I have thought a lot lately about faith and place. In future posts I think I am going to be ready to share tributes that I have drafted about both my paternal grandmother and grandfather. Both have passed away recently, and if I am going to talk about faith, their story will certainly play a part. The where and how these things collide will, hopefully, become apparent as I piece together these new epiphanies that have surfaced since first considering how faith–being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see–plays a part in the absolute significance of place and experience.
Thank you, Mr. Corgan. Your art and philosophy have once again caught me at a moment when I needed a shot in the arm.