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From the Vault of Art Shay: Getting to Know Billy Corgan

By Art Shay in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 19, 2011 4:00PM

The rock star Billy Corgan has become a friend of Florence's and mine. As a Highland Park resident he started dropping into Titles, Inc. (my wife's bookstore) three or four years ago and Florence treated the tall, thin Smashing Pumpkins originator as what he was: a sort of intellectual interested in books, especially books of poetry. He shyly allowed that he had written a few poems, books and songs.

Florence befriended him and gradually I came to know him and something about his life. He said he feels his songs coming from a place like no other in himself and took the trouble to invite Florence and me to see how he composed in his secret, sacrosanct studio that looks like an electronic spaceship.

Sitting at a green harpsichord, he played and sang parts of his older songs and bits from his new Oceania for us, allowing for our non-comprehension of rock and roll. His titles intrigued us: "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," for example, and "Geek USA." Of course, there was "Pale Horse," "Lightning Strikes" and "Soma," too. All blended loudly - and softly - with the lyrics he composed on pieces of random paper.

He introduced us to gorgeous, long-legged Nicole Fiorentino, who strummed her bass guitar so well she brought smiles to Billy's lips in the midst of his own musical problems and flights of creativity. We gathered gradually that his father and grandfather had left him in Division Street bars from the age of four. He had always been a tall kid and had always liked the music in these places, from the voices of bartending whores to the stride piano blues of straw-hatted fancy men.

Guitarist Jeff Schroeder and I hit it off because he was an amateur photographer and could miraculously read Billy's mind, music-wise. Time and again he would pick up a rhythm or a phrase from something Billy played, or the recordist would copy, and bring it back until Billy approved. 21-year-old Mike Byrne, the drummer Billy had imported from Oregon, was a bundle of new energy. Greg Kot, the Trib's music maven, noted in his review of Corgan's sold-out Friday night concert at the Riviera, "Byrne was on the hot seat, as he replaced Jimmy Chamberlin - Corgan's longtime foil - in 2009. The 21-year-old drummer has touch, power and Fiorentino locked in with him, pushing her bass to the forefront of the band's engine room and chipping in with lots of harmony vocals."

Much of this was enjoyed by my son Richard, an old saxophone player, as was my friend and Billy fan Jeff Dembo, and I, all having gotten up to the balcony overlooking the mosh pit and the stage. A stage that had an indescribable variety of lights, moving and static, reds, greens, blues and pure whites, changing as Billy's mood and music changed. The crowd, jammed wall to wall, was with him all the way. Billy seemed to thrive on the energy going both ways in the big room: stage to people and fans to stage.

At this stage I still have to pick my favorite Corgan pictures, but I'll do it. About a year ago Billy read my Algren book in one sitting and hired me to document his next three years of creativity."Drop in when you can," were his only instructions.

Sometimes he comes over on Sunday mornings for lox and bagels.Sometimes he talks to little knots of young neighbors who can't imagine what Billy Corgan is doing in our 89-year-old lives. He came close to expressing it in a two line tweet: "I can't tell you how much pleasure it gives me to have you and Florence in my life."

When he heard that Mike Caplan was making a movie using my Algren pictures, he said, "I can't believe you didn't ask me to do the music." We asked him and he agreed to
do it as a freebie. On camera he spoke for 15 minutes on the influence of Algren's work on his music.

On his current tour of 50 cities, Milwaukee, Chicago and Washington are sold out. Paris and Stockholm are coming along...

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Nelson Algren's Chicago, is also available at Amazon.