Full Circle - An Anniversary of The Smashing Pumpkins' "Machina/the machines of God"
“You and me, meant to be…”
These are lyrics from the Smashing Pumpkins’ love song “Stand Inside Your Love,” from 2000’s Machina/the machines of God. They speak of star-crossed lovers.
But dang it, it also describes how I feel about this album. Because Machina holds a very special place in my heart. Maybe it does for you too.
Whenever it arises in conversation, I make sure to tell people what an amazing and special album Machina is. This isn’t just because I love it, but it’s because it is a notoriously misunderstood album that went straight over the heads of critics and music consumers alike. It was a grandiose concept album loaded with symbolism that just wasn’t perceived, probably either because people didn’t have the patience for it or simply weren’t paying attention.
But for me, it was the album that got me in to the Smashing Pumpkins, and as such, an album that has greatly influenced my life. It brought me to a band that, in all its many incarnations, varieties and evolutions, consistently creates lyrics and music that I identify with on a level deeper than any other band. The Smashing Pumpkins speak to my soul.
I was 16 years old when the album was released on February 29th, 2000. I had recently seen the music video for the album’s “The Everlasting Gaze” and thought they looked and sounded pretty cool, original and interesting – something I felt that, even in the 90’s, was largely missing from popular music. In fact, that’s why I hardly listened to any rock music in my early teen years. To be honest, I didn’t even care for Nirvana. In hindsight, of course, I realize what an influential rock band they were and can appreciate them. But at the time, my bias against what I heard on the radio and the cult-like obsessions of other kids around me turned me off from a lot of popular music of the day. I instead withdrew myself into classical music, movie soundtracks, and occasionally very specific bands like R.E.M., U2 or Guns N Roses. I didn’t even know when Kurt Cobain died. Let that sink in. And although I had heard of the Smashing Pumpkins and recalled them and their popularity throughout the 90’s, I had largely missed the train – though still, somehow, felt favorably toward them from what exposure I had.
So when I read in Maxim magazine (I was an avid reader at the time – where else can a teenage boy legally purchase a magazine full of good content and hot chicks?) that the Smashing Pumpkins had released a new album and the magazine gave it over-all very positive reviews, my good friend and I decided we’d split our pocket-cash and buy the album together, out of curiosity. We decided we would both listen to it and whoever liked it more could keep it (hint: that was me).
I gave it a spin. My first listen, I couldn’t say I understood it all. Like I said, it’s a deep album packed with symbolism, both lyrically and visually (thanks to the amazing artwork by Vasily Kafanov). But I could tell it was a solid and ambitious rock album with layers of meaning, and the themes greatly appealed to me. Epic themes of love and loss, God and faith, and somehow something heroic intertwined within it all. It almost felt Wagnerian. Not just the words, but the musical chords also. It had the sound of something epic and heroic, beautiful, tragic and redemptive. It was the kind of stuff I felt was missing in a lot of music of the day. But this had real meaning. This had something to say. And I valued that. I listened and I listened again. It became my regular driving music. Then I listened to it at home. I read and pondered the lyrics. It even prompted me to join the original Smashing Pumpkins message board (and become a pretty notorious member, I might add. That’s what happens when you’re outspoken).
And a funny thing happened. I realized I had fallen completely in love with this album. Far, far deeper in love than with anything I’d ever heard. And so my journey as a Smashing Pumpkins fan began.
As mentioned, Machina was a very misunderstood album, which isn’t surprising given that it is a concept album with a very specific concept. A story-line was woven together that spanned the entirety of the Smashing Pumpkins catalogue, with multiple connections to lyrics and songs in every album previous. It’s like a revelation that binds the albums together under a common narrative as it tells the story of Zero and his lover, June. Remember Zero from the Mellon Collie days? Yeah, that Zero. And June goes back to the days of Gish ("Bye June") and even can find allusion to her in Adore’s “Tear.”
The story tells of how Zero, a somewhat typical jaded rock-star, one day hears the voice of God speaking to him through the radio. In Machina’s “I of the Mourning” this is addressed. “Radio, play my favorite song, radio, I’m alone, radio….radio, please don’t go….radio, what is it you want? What is you want to change?” This went completely over the heads of critics, who missed the entire story-line and thought Billy Corgan was simply writing about wanting to be popular on the radio again and then lambasted him for being vain and self-absorbed.
*Insert collective facepalm here*
Zero hears the voice of God, and he is given a higher calling to use his music to promote the Truth and glorify the Light. Consequently, Zero goes through a biblical transformation, as he is given a new name – Glass – and he essentially becomes a rock and roll prophet. On a side note, recall Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’s “Zero,” in which it says “I’m your lover, I’m your zero, I’m the face in your dreams of glass.”
All of this contrasts with his drug-addicted lover, June. While Glass represents the darkness transformed to Light, June basically represents the darkness and the care-free pleasures of the world. She is beautiful, tantalizing, if not exotic. Free-spirited and individualistic. But also fallen and in the grip of her own vices and self-deceits. The song “Glass and the Ghost Children” is quintessential to this whole story, as it tells of Glass’s prophetic calling, the beginning of his doubts, and June’s tragic drug addiction – perhaps ultimately leading to her death, for die she does. In an awful car crash (again, Adore’s “Tear” and Machina’s “Speed Kills” - Japanese release only, but alternate version on Machina II). And her death nearly destroys Glass as he is filled with confusion, grief and bitterness towards God – but ultimately, goes through a journey that leads him to see the bigger picture and finally attain peace and reconcilement with the divine plan.
Nineteen years have now passed since the album’s release.
And now, finally, we have the long-awaited re-issue of this album being worked on and set to arrive in the near future. Beautiful as it was, Billy Corgan has remarked that it is an incomplete album. Its semi-sequel, Machina II/the friends and enemies of modern music, was really meant to be part of the larger whole. When the band’s label, Virgin Records, refused to release the music all together, Billy Corgan created his own label and gave it away for free download online. And additionally, there are extra songs and demos that were never officially released.
Additionally, a graphic novel is apparently in the works to re-tell the story behind the concept album. This was part of what made the album so great, and so epic. Originally, there were a few short, anime-style episodes that put the story of Glass and June in a futuristic setting, but the series was incomplete (although fun to watch). But a graphic novel would be an excellent way to imagine the story and tell it in full, and its something I’m really looking forward to.
To be honest, the entire long process of the Machina reissue coming about feels, to me, like it was meant to be. If the Smashing Pumpkins’ albums weren’t just pushing boundaries, they were often ahead of their time. It took nearly twenty years for Adore to be better appreciated for the wonderful work that it is, while it was maligned in its time. Now we’re approaching twenty years for Machina, which was also terribly misunderstood, maligned and ignored. With the returns of James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin, so much feels like its beginning to come full circle. It just feels like the timing now is so much better than it would have been a few years ago. And the music sounds as fresh and new as ever. It may just be that now, people are finally beginning to be ready for a work such as this.
It was never completed, but destined to be complete.
To that I say, “it’s about time, it’s about drawing near.”