Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan is a complicated guy. In the years since that iconic and much-beloved rock band broke up in 2000, Corgan has continued to put out music under various names and projects – including several releases as Smashing Pumpkins, with different lineups – while often stumbling through a bumpy minefield of his own making. To the head-scratching surprise of some longtime fans, he's gotten heavily involved in pro wrestling, talked conspiracy theories during several appearances on The Alex Jones Show (warning of weaponized zombies in one interview), and, over the years, lobbed innumerable grievances about former bandmates, while trashing other musicians and publicly feuding with a revolving cast of celebrities and public figures.
More recently, Corgan seems to have mellowed. He opted to release his new solo album Ogilala, under his (very grownup-sounding) full name, William Patrick Corgan (though he very recently changed it back to Billy Corgan on streaming services and YouTube), and filled the record with beautifully rendered acoustic songs built on piano and strings.
When he settled in for this memorable Tiny Desk performance with a string quartet he'd just met hours before, Corgan was nothing but a good-natured delight. After years of selling millions of records and playing packed arenas, he showed up in a cab with just his tour manager and, during setup and rehearsals, joked about being all DIY now.
Dressed for winter weather in a heavy scarf, hoodie, down jacket and cap, Corgan opened with a stirring rendition of the 1995 Smashing Pumpkins song "Tonight, Tonight." It was a transporting moment that left some fans in the NPR offices a little misty eyed. Corgan then followed with two Ogilala standouts, "Aeornaut" and "Mandarynne," songs about staying strong and true to yourself and soldiering on in the face of a troubled world.
The Smashing Pumpkins always had a soft side, from the more melancholy moments of 1991's "Rhinoceros" to "Sweet Sweet," "Take Me Down" and Adore's gorgeous opener, "To Shelia." But here the beauty and grace of Corgan's poetry and songwriting is on full display.
Billy Corgan (vocals, guitar, piano), Kristin Bakkegard (violin), Livy Amoruso (violin), Paul Bagley (viola), Carol Anne Bosco (cello)
Producers: Robin Hilton, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Nicholas Garbaty, Alyse Young; Production Assistant: Salvatore Maicki; Photo: Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR
For more Tiny Desk concerts, subscribe to our podcast.