Billy Corgan's booking this Saturday night at Ravinia somehow is both odd and logical.
The odd part is imagining the ferocious/sensitive '90s alternative-rock god howling, "Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage!" to a lawn full of chardonnay sippers. The logical part is that not only does the 47-year-old Smashing Pumpkins frontman live in Highland Park, but he operates a tea shop, Madame ZuZu's, less than a mile from the music venue, and he's playing an acoustic show for this hometown gig.
The reality is that almost nothing involving Corgan is simple, so this appearance has him pondering his "brand" and place in the modern rock world. Corgan, after all, is the only original member — or "survivor," as he puts it — of the Chicago-based quartet that articulated a generation's angst and aspirations on the multiplatinum albums "Siamese Dream" (1993) and double-disc "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" (1995).
What followed was a series of band personnel changes and musical left turns — the introspective, electronic/acoustic "Adore" (1998), which is getting the deluxe reissue treatment in September; the dense, metallic concept album "Machina/The Machines of God" (2000) — that drained the Smashing Pumpkins' commercial mojo. The band broke up, Corgan released one album with his new band Zwan and another album under his own name, he reformed the Pumpkins with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin (who eventually left again) and has released two more Pumpkins albums plus other tracks under the umbrella "Teargarden by Kaleidyscope," with another full-length album, "Monuments to an Elegy," coming in December.
Yet despite of all this activity, Corgan is vexed that his image remains rooted in the past — something, it must be noted, is not true of, say, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam or Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters (and formerly Nirvana).
"If you said to me: 'List out the priorities that you face,' the number one problem for Smashing Pumpkins et al is that the general public does not see the band as a contemporary band," a T-shirted Corgan said over tea last week amid Madame Zuzu's vintage coziness. "Who's in the band, what the band does, what I say, what I do, what happened in the past, they're all like distant second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth. My focus is, can I get an album out there that the general guy will go, 'I'll listen to that — and actually I want to go to a show and actually hear this material'?"
That's his aim with "Monuments," which he characterizes as a "pop" album and which features the drumming of Motley Crue's Tommy Lee. But in the meantime, he's grappling with the notion that his work as a songwriter — with the Pumpkins, with Zwan, as a solo artist — is not seen as part of one big continuum.
"I never, never, ever would have thought I would have been in these set of circumstances," Corgan said. "I never thought you could have the pedigree that I had through one particular period of my life, and then when I stepped out of it, it didn't follow me. Then I would be like: 'Do you realize I wrote all those songs?' ... I was like, OK, I'm a solo artist now, but somehow I don't get to take that cache with me."
Hence the trickiness of presenting and promoting Corgan's Ravinia show. The venue's calendar lists him as "BILLY CORGAN of the Smashing Pumpkins," and the description reads: "Don't miss this evening of Smashing Pumpkins music plus the music of Zwan and other solo endeavors."
"We actually talked about calling it Smashing Pumpkins Acoustic, because at the end of the day, and I've had to wrestle in different ways with the Ravinia people about this, they sit there, and they fret over the fact that punter No. 4 won't know that I'm the guy from the Smashing Pumpkins, so it's got to say 'Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins,'" Corgan said. "And people even were suggesting that I blog up the set list. They don't want me to blog up the set list hoping that I'll write about some obscure song I'm going to play. They want me to blog up the set list so that the punter will look and go, 'Oh, he's playing those songs.' I'm not stupid, you know."
Ravinia President/CEO Welz Kauffman said, "One of the questions we asked was, 'Will there be Pumpkins songs in the set list?' Social media is everything these days, and we get calls from people asking, 'What's he going to sing?'"
That said, Kauffman said he had been trying to get Corgan, with or without the Pumpkins, to play there since he arrived at Ravinia in 2000, "long before I ever knew that Billy was a Highland Park resident." Kauffman finally met Corgan a few years ago, and it took till this summer for the performer's schedule to sync up with Ravinia's.
Corgan said the concert represented a welcome break from work on "Monuments" and the "Adore" reissue for him and current Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder, who will join him on stage. "This is like the complete opposite of the studio experience, which we've been in for four or five months," Corgan said.
Kauffman said the acoustic performance was Corgan's idea. "I just wanted him in any way, shape or form we could possibly get him," the Ravinia president said. "He's a terrific artist and a serious artist and an entertaining guy, and I just love his music, so when we had an opportunity to make that booking happen, we jumped at it."
And although the Ravinia team made suggestions regarding how to present the music, Kauffman stressed that "it's really up to him to make those decisions. The last thing I wanted any artist to do, especially in their debut, is to feel like they've compromised something."
One promotional tie-in has given pairs of pavilion tickets to people who agree to foster a homeless pet through PAWS Chicago, a non-profit supported by Corgan.
Corgan played solo shows around the time of his 2005 solo album, "TheFutureEmbrace," but said the Ravinia concert will be his first major career-spanning effort. He said he has prepared a 2-hour-and-15-minute set of 27 songs, which, as he wrote on the Ravinia site, have been "broken into five small acts, with hopefully a different emotional result in each." The centerpiece will be a suite of nine songs written for the "Mellon Collie" album, including at least one that didn't make the final cut.
"It's intense," Corgan said. "It's a very personal journey. And then, of course, (I must) remember all of the lyrics. It's one thing to do songs that I've done through the years. It's another to play a song I've never played live and how am I going to do this without a cheat sheet."
As for what will distinguish this as a Billy Corgan show, as opposed to a Pumpkins show: "I think that if I play solo, it would be the more intimate reflection of the material that's not adherent to the need to hit everybody between the eyes with loud music — in essence the Smashing Pumpkin dynamic which goes quiet to loud, but it's all about setting up that big moment, those epic moments, which unfortunately really don't mean as much as they used to because it became widely imitated, not just from us obviously, a lot of other bands too."
At the same time, Corgan said he no longer draws distinctions between his Pumpkins work and anything else he does. "Honestly, to me it's all the same," he said.
So could "TheFutureEmbrace" have been called a Pumpkins album?
"Is 'Adore' a Pumpkins album?" he shot back.
I think of it as one.
And although Corgan has an artist's temperament with accompanying idiosyncrasies — he performed an eight-hour electronic interpretation of Herman Hesse's "Siddhartha" at Madame ZuZu's in February, and he's also launched a professional wrestling league — he's no art-for-art's-sake kind of guy. He views music in terms of conquering.
Hence this reflection on the Pumpkins' triumphs: "How did we defeat what was the pop music at the time? We were more authentic. We were more visceral. We spoke to people more directly. We reached them in a fresh way that if you had any brain at all and you were cool and you were a kid, you went, 'This is cooler' or 'This is better than that.'"
And when he discusses his hopes for "Monuments," he's still thinking in those terms, even as he acknowledges that people don't engage with music the way they did 20 years ago. "I still think you can present people with very simple choices," he said. "So if pop music is king, you have to beat people at their own game. Because I'm not going to get the indie vote."
Besides, he's not all that impressed with the competition. "I see certain artists' work vaunted as if it's like the greatest thing you've ever heard on those web pages, and then I listen, and I don't hear it," he said. "You know, I don't hear (the Beatles') 'Sgt. Pepper.' I don't hear (the Beach Boys') 'Pet Sounds.' I don't even hear the best Ramones album."
So he's feeling at least that the years have been kind to his own work.
"I do see where generally speaking people are starting to recognize my songwriting, like that laurel is finally getting put on me," he said. "From my estimation (it's) about a decade too late, but I'm finally kind of getting that street-level respect that I didn't get, and maybe it's just because so many of my contemporaries really weren't good writers, and once their kind of gimmick wore off, you know they haven't produced a level of quality material, and then the newest generation's been covering a lot of my songs, so maybe that's kind of adding up."
At the same time, though, he's not seeking delayed gratification for his new music, saying, "I'm not willing to wait around 15 to 20 years to have somebody go, 'Hey, that album that you made is really good.' And then sell it to the 7,000 people that are still paying attention." So "Monuments to an Elegy" will be followed by another yet-to-be-recorded Pumpkins album, "Day for Night," and then he'll take stock.
"When this process is over, I'm either going to bail on this ship for good, like 'I'm done,' or I'm going to have a new ship to sail on," Corgan said, adding that at a time when everyone walks around looking at phones, he wonders: "How do you reach through the fog as an artist? How do you punch your way back through? How do you say, 'I still matter'? How do you say, 'How does one of my contemporaries get treated like a contemporary artist, and how do I get treated like I'm supposed to play "Siamese Dream" for the rest of my life?' At some point you've got to fight this fight or go away."
But first there's Ravinia, a place he envisioned playing the first time he ever visited.
"I always think that at whatever venue I'm in," Corgan said with a laugh, "because that's the dreamer in you. When I was a kid and I'd go to Riviera, I'd think, wow, if I could ever stand on that stage. Same with Metro. Same thing with the Vic. Same with the Aragon, you know?"
Now, he said, "I've stood on pretty much every famous stage in the world, which is pretty crazy." So Ravinia is one of his last frontiers.
"It'll probably be the last frontier considering the show I'm going to play," he deadpanned. "You'll be like, 'They started throwing bottles around…' Actually, it's Ravinia. They'd throw wine glasses. 'They started throwing wine glasses around song 11.'"
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Ravinia Festival, Lake-Cook and Green Bay Roads, Highland Park
Tickets: $38, $60, $80; 847-266-5100 or ravinia.org