33 Years of "Gish"


I've had a handful of "favorite bands of all time" in my life, The Smashing Pumpkins being the one that reigned over my late high school and college years. In fact, D'arcy Wretzky inspired me to pick up a bass guitar at age 17. I blissfully rode the sonic waves of Billy Corgan's dreamy vocals and rocked out to his anguished screams that nearly ripped my heart to shreds; emotional catharsis supreme. Above all, Corgan's lyrics quite literally healed my soul as a young adult, providing both comfort and courage in a time of dire need. I scrawled the lyrics to Muzzle and Mayonnaise all over my college notebooks, and I vividly remember walking about campus, a Smashing Pumpkins CD endlessly spinning in my Sony Walkman. While I was never successful in learning bass guitar (yet), those years of fawning over the Pumpkins are still very much alive in my heart and soul, certainly a part of the person I am today. That may seem a bit silly to some, especially considering the opinions many people have of Billy Corgan (trust me, I'm well aware), but I don't think anyone can deny the deep and lasting effect that the Smashing Pumpkins had on alternative rock music and, consequently, on a generation of young adults. 

The aforementioned bass guitar. Her name is Mathilda and she's been with me for over 20 years.

While I could giddily ramble on about any album in the Smashing Pumpkins' discography, today I'm focusing on Gish. This incredibly underrated album is celebrating its 33rd release date anniversary, so it's the opportune time to show it some love. As usual, we begin with a brief history lesson:

Gish was released on May 28, 1991, and is the Smashing Pumpkins' debut studio album. Produced by Billy Corgan and well-known alternative rock producer Butch Vig (who also produced Nirvana's Nevermind), Gish is known for being a kaleidoscope of alternative rock, psychedelic rock, art rock, stoner rock, dream pop, grunge, college rock, hard rock, and heavy metal (sounds like many of the bands we talk about in the heavy underground, huh?). It was important to the band to find a unique sound that encompassed many of their musical influences, such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, without sounding oversimplified. Said frontman Billy Corgan, "For us, it was trying to become this balance point between what felt like dumb riff rock and then the stuff we were really attracted to coming out the the U.K. And then we put those pieces together with the Beatles somewhere in the middle." 

Three singles were released from the album: Tristessa, Siva, and I Am One. Unsurprisingly, Gish did quite well for an independent release and received high praise from critics, but didn't really take off until the band's subsequent album, Siamese Dream, came out and catapulted the Smashing Pumpkins into the mainstream. Ultimately, Gish was certified platinum in the U.S., selling over one million copies. 

Now, my favorite part: Diving headfirst into Gish track-by-track, focusing on both the music and the lyrics that really resonate with me.

I Am One 

You know when you hear that drum lick, followed by the bass line that ultimately carries the song into psychedelic-infused alt rock perfection, Gish has begun. This track is high energy, but not too crazy. It's almost as if both vocals and instrumentals occasionally tease about taking things further, but it never strays into metal territory, and Corgan doesn't quite settle into his trademark screeches, instead keeping things much more melodic. Like many Pumpkins songs, the bass line is the very foundation of I Am One

"I am one as you are three
Try to find a messiah in your trinity
Your city to burn, your city to burn
Try to look for something in your 
city to burn, you'll burn"


While I Am One is memorable for the bass, Siva is all about the riff: a psychedelic-drenched, trance-inducing guitar part that drives the song along to each of its start/stops along the way. The bass still prominently thumps from beneath, beautifully highlighted in those "stop" moments, when the guitar is more hushed. The "starts" are to die for, waking you up like the strongest coffee and drawing you into the pit. 

Lyrics also take on a trippy, psychedelic tone here, but never get so out there that they're not translatable. 

"I spin off and lose my head
Throwing stray spark instead
Gather strength down in my hell
And dig it in the world I peel

Way down deep within my heart
Lies a soul that's torn apart
Tell me, tell me what you're after
I just want to get there faster"


Rhinoceros has a gentle, floating, dreamlike cadence that never deviates much with the exception of a wailing guitar solo about 3/4 of the way into the song. 

I'm quite sure that only Billy Corgan himself knows the true meaning behind the lyrics here, but there are some interesting things to note. The first line of the first three stanzas is composed of three syllables and the second line composed of four. The lines themselves seem to be very specific memories tied to an image or time: 

"Panda show
Trees and balloons

Ice cream snow
See you in June"

These images and memories are likely associated with a person the author rather reluctantly said goodbye to:

"Color show
After the moon
I should go
See you in June, your way"

When sung in the sing-song meter with Corgan's whimsical, breathy tone, it ultimately creates quite a mournful atmosphere; a hurt deep enough to cause the author to only be able to think/speak in word associations of sorts, with a nearly childlike daydream mindset. This is obviously a painful loss, albeit something the author thinks upon with incredible fondness. I think that's a very relatable, familiar feeling for most of us (unfortunately): sifting through the bad parts - the parts where something wonderful came crashing down, to remember those parts that were deliciously good, so good that they seem like a mere daydream now. 

Bury Me

Bury Me begins with live wire guitar and energetic bass, leading into Corgan proclaiming, "Bury me in love!" This is a very groovy, feel-good alternative rock song. My favorite part occurs around the three-minute mark where the tone of the guitar changes along with Corgan's voice, going from jubilant to slightly trepidatious, as he croons, "She will bury me." 


Oh, Crush...
The backbone of this song is made up of soft, scintillating acoustic guitar and a bass line that is essentially a simple scale. Elementary as it seems, it adds massively to the dreamlike tone of the song.

We've all had a crush. It's the most wonderful yet most maddening thing in the world... Developing a sudden fondness for someone without knowing if those feelings are reciprocated, and driving yourself to the brink of insanity trying to guess about it. The spirit of this song sounds like the feeling in your heart when you're fawning over someone in such a way, lovesick: hopeful but terrified, butterflies, rose-colored glasses with cracked lenses of self-doubt, anxiety, self-pity, and long, tortured sighs..."Colors": stages of varying shades and intensities. The nutty thing about said colors is they don't follow a specific, predictable order, creating that sensation of simultaneous splendor and torment. 

"And this feeling shivers down your spine
Love comes in colors I can't deny
All that matters is love, love, your love"


Suffer is colored with hypnotic guitar and a buzz of apprehension. The cadence is a slow sway, quite meditative and easy to get lost in. 

The lyrics here are ambiguous in the best way, having the power to mean something unique to the individual listener. Overall, there seems to be a focus on one's "demons" and holding oneself back, having tried to keep those demons disguised in the past. You have to recover your true self before it's too late. 

"All your struggles beneath your disguise
Drink from the reasons that hold you alive
'Til we're safe from the wounds of  desire and pain
You must rise from the mounds of desire and change
Too late to discover peace of mind
Too late to recover me"


Snail really sets the stage for what would become the quintessential Smashing Pumpkins hit: A dreampop vibe, a great riff, and Billy Corgan's vocals wavering between breathy and melodic and a borderline screech. Snail very much feels like a precursor to songs on Siamese Dream, particularly Cherub Rock, Today, Rocket, and Hummer. We also hear a great example of the band's frequent use of building, adding in one instrument or vocal at a time before culminating in incredibly immersive intensity, in spite of the light, ethereal backbone of the song. That, in fact, is one of my very favorite things about the Smashing Pumpkins (in this particular era specifically); they have an unparalleled knack for delivering music that is simultaneously delicate and heavy while also providing depth, layers, and utterly entrancing qualities. 

"Flower, seize the hour the day away
Waiting, waiting for your way away
When you wake up your own way
Throwing your life away
Softly siren coming home
Siren snail
It's what you wait for"

It's not difficult to conclude that the lyrics on Snail focus on waiting around for your proverbial ship to come in, wasting your time and life away in the process. Combined with the lulling vocals and instrumentals, the lyrics conjure up feelings of a rather languid, lackadaisical state that it's easy to slip into when you're depressed. This is another theme that's present on several Pumpkins songs to varying degrees, including two of my favorites, Muzzle and Mayonnaise. There's (hopefully) a day that you kind of come to and realize that the ship is never coming, and the only one who can save you is yourself. It's very interesting to me to see how Corgan's lyrics about this particular topic evolved over the years, having a tendency to grow more hopeful. 


Tristessa, to me, feels like a great summary of the sound of Gish as a whole. It combines the dreaminess of tracks like Snail with the all-out rock of I Am One, while omitting much of the melancholic vibe present in songs such as Rhinoceros. It also sounds like a sister song to Bury Me in many ways - a bit of an alternate, less-contrasting counterpart, but with that same triumphant sound. This is an incredibly lilting, feel-good song from start to finish. 

Tristessa's lyrics are most likely primarily based on the Jack Kerouac novel of the same name. The book is based on the author's relationship with a morphine-addicted prostitute, and is also a vehicle Kerouac uses to outline his Buddhist beliefs. 

"Soul take soul and eye take eye
I will wait for you
Want to believe your wish to receive
Want to believe in you
Hang on to your life
I love you true
Surely I do"

Window Paine

This song begins with light percussion, a sneaking bass line, and apprehensive vocals. The song picks up slowly by delicately folding in heavy guitars, ultimately climaxing in booming, almost marching-band style drums and wailing lead guitar. This is a great example of The Smashing Pumpkins' more progressive side; the tempo and style changes within the song take the listener across quite the range of moods and emotions, cautiously but confidently waltzing into reckless abandon at the end, ascending into jubilation. 

Window Paine sends a message about ignoring the naysayers and one's own doubts/intrusive thoughts to begin a journey of healing.

"Shadows scream
Around my heart
What are you coming to 
Stripped down to the bone?
Life ain't living on your own
All alone
Do what you're gonna do
And say what you gotta say
Do what you're gonna do
Yeah start today
Start today"


This brief, acoustic and string end track to Gish beautifully highlights the vocals of bassist D'Arcy Wretzky, something I honestly wish we could have heard a lot more of. Her voice has a very soothing quality.

"My daydream seems as one inside of you
Though it seems hard to reach through this life
Your blue and hopeless life
My daydream
Screams bitter 'til the end
The love I share - true - selfish to the heart"

Final Thoughts

Unlike many bands at the time, the Smashing Pumpkins weren't exactly "just" grunge, nor could they be neatly classified as an alternative rock band (often used as a catch-all term for bands we don't know exactly how to categorize). Furthermore, the Smashing Pumpkins were able to play as heavy as a metal band in spite of their rather "artsy" style.  As fans are well aware, the Smashing Pumpkins' style only grew more experimental over the years. The proverbial pumpkin seeds, however, were planted and took root on Gish, where the band immediately displayed their creativity, inspired by a wide variety of musical styles. While listening to Gish, it's very clear how the Smashing Pumpkins' sound stemmed from what they started there, particularly on the jump from Gish to Siamese Dream, and on the journey Pisces Iscariot took us on to arrive at Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Most important of all, they proved that they weren't willing to stagnate, letting the natural flow and evolution of their art take them to the next stop on their musical journey. Needless to say, this journey had several stops along the way that were chosen without regard to genre affiliation, a true and genuine creative evolution. 

Gish, of all the Smashing Pumpkins albums, probably has the heaviest psychedelic rock influence. This pairs beautifully with the underlying grunge and dreampop sound, inducing a blissful, trance-like mood, the energy of which flows with the spirit of the songs themselves. In effect, Gish is a forty-six-minute daydream that takes you on a journey around your own mind, opening up doors you didn't know where in there. It invigorates, calms, challenges, and soothes the soul. 

I want to mention the vocals, of course, because they're certainly some of the most discernible vocals in alternative rock music. Billy Corgan's voice can sometimes seem so grating, over the top, and out of place, but it's really not. It's actually right where it needs to be, a believable purge of anger, frustration, sadness, and confusion. Conversely, those vocals can express love, peace, or contentment within the very same song. I always loved that because it reminds me of how things work in the real world. Beauty, art, and certainly emotion is not always black and white, and it's definitely not always pleasant and tidy. You can attempt to wrap it in a pretty package and adorn it with a lovely bow, but it will ultimately reach its destination a bit scuffed and crumpled, still a pretty package at its core. The Smashing Pumpkins have never been afraid of this reality, depicting both the darker and lighter sides of the human experience with honesty and passion. This is probably what I love most about the band. No matter how life is going today, tomorrow, or 20 years from now, there's a Pumpkins song that will speak directly to you. 

More than anything, I associate Gish with a particular time in my life, a time when I was finally starting to come out of my shell and gain confidence. The songs on this album helped release previously suppressed feelings in me, primarily those of freedom and acceptance, allowing for real introspection. Those feelings, combined with a good portion of the lyrics on Gish, made me feel less alone in the world. I never stopped listening to the Smashing Pumpkins after college. Sure, they're not on the same heavy rotation, but their presence in my life is just as meaningful. Writing this blog and looking deeper at the songs on Gish that I played over and over had me thinking about that awkward college kid I used to be, and still am, in many ways. I think of her fondly: her quirks, her passion, and her ideas. Maybe I'll pick that bass guitar back up, for her sake. 


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