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Jonathan Melvoin and the Fall of the Smashing Pumpkins

By the start of 1996 the Smashing Pumpkins seemed to have the world at their feet. While their second album, Siamese Dream, had suffered in the charts at the hands of Nirvana‘s In Utero, the death of Kurt Cobain had allowed the Pumpkins to fill the void as fans began to search for a new voice that spoke to their generation. Two years after the release of their breakthrough, the Smashing Pumpkins returned with their epic double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, gaining further acclaim with the singles Bullet with Butterfly Wings and the recently-released 1979. In the wake of its success, the band were set to embark on their most ambitious tour yet, which would take them across the United States, through Europe and down to the Far East. But a last-minute addition to the line-up on the eve of the tour would prove a fatal decision for the group.

Unlike its predecessors, Mellon Collie had featured extensive piano and synthesisers and so it was agreed that the band would need a keyboardist to join them on tour if they were to recreate the sound live onstage. Despite not being a household name, by the time he had been approached about joining the Pumpkins Jonathan Melvoin had already achieved minor success as a musician. Having graduated from the Juilliard Music School in New York, Melvoin had first entered the industry alongside his sisters Wendy and Susannah as a member of Prince’s backing group during the mid-1980s, where he had performed on the 1985 album Around the World in a Day. Following his brief time with Prince, Melvoin was hired as a drummer for the hardcore punk band the Dickies, remaining with them for the next two years before deciding to retire from the music scene to work as an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) in Conway, New Hampshire.

But music had always been in his blood; his father, Michael Melvoin, had worked as a successful session musician during the 1960s and ’70s, contributing to classic recordings from the Beach Boys, John Lennon and Frank Sinatra, as well as serving as the president of the Recording Academy. Melvoin’s introduction to the Smashing Pumpkins had come via Chris Connelly, a one-time member of industrial pioneers Ministry and Revolting Cocks. While his musical abilities had impressed the band, his medical experience as an EMT also proved to be an invaluable asset, as behind-the-scenes Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin had been struggling with heroin addiction and needed a level-headed friend to watch out for him while they were on the road.

Chamberlin’s ongoing battle with his appetite for drugs was an all-too-recurring story in rock ‘n’ roll, with countless artists over the years falling foul to the excess of the music industry as they began to reap the rewards of their hard work. By the time that the Smashing Pumpkins commenced their tour in support of Mellon Collie he had become a liability, but it would be while touring Asia that his behaviour would threaten to destroy the group. Starting out in Toronto, Canada, in early January 1996, the Pumpkins spent several nights in Washington D.C. and New York before relocating to the west coast via a brief stopover in Brazil. After further dates in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, they flew to Japan to perform to enthusiastic crowds in Osaka and Tokyo, before travelling to Thailand.

While Chamberlin’s drug use had been no secret in the Smashing Pumpkins circle, what the other three members of the band were surprised to discover was that Melvoin also had a weakness for heroin, something that they would discover during their stay in Bangkok. As one anonymous source told Spin in an article in October 1996, ‘Chamberlin and Melvoin did so much heroin (in Thailand) that they almost missed their plane to Australia because they were dope-sick.’ Both parties would be issued a warning from their bandmates and then the tour continued to Australia, where they performed at venues in Perth, Melbourne and Syndey, among others, but this leg of the tour was cut short when Chamberlin received news of his father’s death and returned to the States to be with his family.

After a three-week hiatus the Smashing Pumpkins returned to the road with two shows in Rotterdam, followed by dates in Germany, Denmark and Scandinavia. But during a stopover in Lisbon, Portugal on 2 May, in which they performed at the Cascais Bullfight Arena, both Chamberlin and Melvoin overdosed and were taken to hospital. Concerned for the health of their drummer, Chamberlin was warned that if his habit continued to threaten the band then he would be fired but Melvoin, whose presence had only helped to instigate further drama, was not given a second chance and was dismissed from the tour. But with dates scheduled for most of the year and a best-selling album to promote, frontman Billy Corgan knew that he had no choice but to ask Melvoin to complete the tour, as keyboards had become such a prominent aspect of their live shows.

As Corgan would later explain to Rolling Stone; ‘After the first time it happened, I had a talk with Jonathan where I told him, If this happens again, you’re gonna be fired. After Lisbon, I told him, ‘You’re fired, but I want you to finish the [European] tour because you’re gonna leave us in the lurch.’ He was very forlorn, very repentant.’ In an interview with Details, bassist D’arcy Wretzky commented on how both Chamberlin and Melvoin succeeded in keeping their drug addiction from the rest of the band; ‘[The heroin use] went on in secret behind our backs. We had already fired Jonathan. He came back crying, and begged for a second chance to prove himself. As far as we knew, he was clean. We liked him a lot, he was a very sweet guy and we hired him back.’

Following a disastrous show at the Point in Dublin, in which a sixteen-year-old fan was crushed in a mosh pit, dying from her injuries the next day, it seemed that the tour that the band had worked so hard to prepare for was cursed. On 11 July, the Smashing Pumpkins had arrived in New York for a show at the Madison Square Garden, where Chamberlin and Melvoin were sharing a room at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue. Having taken heroin together shortly before midnight, Chamberlin woke a few hours later to find Melvoin lying unconscious nearby, but was unable to get a response from his friend. When the paramedics arrived at the hotel they attempted to revive him but were unsuccessful, eventually pronouncing him dead at the scene at approximatelty 4:15am.

Corgan and his bandmates, Wretzky and guitarist James Iha, were summoned to the police station on East 67th Street in order to make statements regarding the events leading up to the death of Melvoin. ‘I guess they wanted to know if we were involved,’ Corgan told Rolling Stone. ‘I think they thought maybe bands were like gangs, and it was all interconnected: If somebody in the band was doing drugs, then everybody in the band was. In the end, they turned out to be genuinely just doing their job.’ While the three were released following a discussion with officers, Chamberlin was arrested for his involvement in Melvoin’s death and was promptly dismissed from the Smashing Pumpkins.

While the fate of both Chamberlin and the band seemed uncertain for some time, Corgan, Wretzky and Iha eventually returned the following year with two new tracks. The first was the drum machine-assisted Eye, which was included on the soundtrack to David Lynch’s noir drama Lost Highway, while the second was the single The End is the Beginning is the End with former Filter drummer Matt Walker, which was released to promote the critically-mauled Batman and Robin. For the recording of the fourth studio album, Adore, the Smashing Pumpkins opted to continue as a three-piece, without recruiting a permanent replacement for Chamberlin, and instead hired several session drummers; Walker, Soundgarden‘s Matt Cameron and Beck collaborator Joey Waronker, while the remaining songs featured programming from Corgan and Bon Harris.

Smashing Pumpkins

Smashing Pumpkins

But even as the band were completing work on a record they were hit by a lawsuit from their record label, Virgin, who accused the group of breaching their contract that guaranteed the release of four studio albums. Despite this, the label’s attorney claimed that, ‘Virgin expects and is looking forward to releasing the Smashing Pumpkins‘ next album.’ Following the disappointing release of Machina/The Machines of God in 2000, which saw the return of Chamberlin, the Smashing Pumpkins parted ways with their label and self-issued a second album, Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music. The beginning of the end came when Wretzky, who had grown tired of the band, announced her retirement and was replaced for a short time by former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, who appeared in the videos for The Everlasting Gaze and Stand Inside Your Love.

The Pumpkins finally announced their split in 2000, with Corgan and Chamberlin reuniting for the short-lived Zwan, before eventually bringing the Smashing Pumpkins back five years later, albeit without the input of Wretzky and Iha. Chamberlin finally left in 2009 after the lukewarm response to their comeback album Zeitgeist. Regardless of the acclaim they have received over the last few years, the magic that they had created during their heyday of the mid-1990s was broken following the untimely death of Melvoin and the firing of Chamberlin. And despite the phenomenal success of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the Smashing Pumpkins failed to reach their full potential and eventually burnt out before they had chance to fade away.


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