Fri December 7, 2012
'Mellon Collie' Mystery Girl: The Story Behind An Iconic Album Cover
Originally published on Tue December 11, 2012 9:44 am
It recently got a deluxe makeover, but Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was born grand. The Smashing Pumpkins' 1995 opus, reissued this week as a massive collector's box full of outtakes and new artwork, did everything at double scale — two hours of music on two CDs, whose themes of day and night hinted at greater statements about life and death. It was a commercial and creative peak for Billy Corgan and his bandmates: Built to be a classic, it turned out to be a monument.
There's plenty of imagery associated with this period of the Pumpkins' career: the Victorian-era costumes in the "Tonight, Tonight" video, Corgan's own shaved head, his long-sleeved black "Zero" T-shirt. But unlike the real twins who adorned the cover of the band's previous album, Siamese Dream, Mellon Collie's figurehead is a girl who never really existed: a daydreaming star nymph with a split personality.
Her creator is John Craig, an illustrator from Pittsburgh who was living in Wisconsin when he began communicating with Corgan about what visual elements could bring the enormous ambition of Melon Collie to life. A collage artist, Craig had spent most of his career doing editorial commissions for magazines; here, he worked from Corgan's scribbled notes and crude sketches, most of which arrived via fax. Craig made other illustrations that appear throughout the album's packaging — animals smoking pipes, celestial bodies with faces, wayward children walking eerie dreamscapes — all with a vaguely antique quality. But the cover image, of a girl adrift on a celestial raft, was the simplest and the most indelible.
She is assembled, like the rest of Craig's creations, from scraps of paper ephemera, but she but doesn't look like a collage. Speaking from his home in Wisconsin, the 68-year-old Craig talks about his inspiration for the image, its implied eroticism and the moment it bloomed into something more than the sum of its parts.
NPR: How much did you know about The Smashing Pumpkins when you first signed on to work with them? Were you familiar with their music?
John Craig: I really wasn't. I don't think I had heard of them. My Chicago agent, who mostly dealt with advertising and other corporate work for me, put us in touch because they were looking for a retro style, and I liked to use lost and vintage imagery. Billy had such a big idea in mind; he must have had this whole booklet idea already conceived. He really wanted to do Victorian paintings, so after looking at my portfolio, I think he liked what he saw but still wanted to find someone who could paint in that style. So it sort of came up and then went away.
NPR: How did you end up back in the fold?
JC: They found a woman who actually did do Victorian-style painting and had her do something, and it just didn't work out. It still didn't look really dark and dusty like that period. At the same time, they had been working with Frank Olinsky, a designer in New York.
NPR: He was the album's art director.
JC: That's right. He put the package together, did all the type work — the whole assembly of the piece, which is kind of his specialty. And he recommended me.
NPR: Had you met him before?
JC: I had not, but he must have been familiar with my work. So they came back to me again, this time through Frank. Billy still wasn't sure that he wanted me to do this. I said, "Give me an idea of what you want to do and let me take a shot at it." It was originally only to do the booklet illustrations, of which there were only five. He sent me a couple of faxes, and I mocked up a couple versions of one of the pieces — I think it was the children in the field. I presented that to him and he liked it.
NPR: Those faxes from Billy Corgan, which are reproduced in the deluxe box, call for a lot of strange juxtapositions — rats and squirrels in an opium den, or a pair of cats getting married. In retrospect, collage seems like the ideal medium for what he wanted. What drew you to that way of making art?
JC: All through art school I was always most inspired by the Dadaists and the Surrealists, who used collage quite a bit. They actually picked it up from a commercial source, mostly postcards from the turn of the century, which I use a lot myself. They would do these fantasy cities of the future, or these overgrown vegetables on railroad cars, just playing with photography in those early days — amazing stuff when you consider it was all somehow done by hand. I remember visiting a guy that had a shop in Chicago; he collected all sorts of paper paraphernalia, ephemera, postcards, labels, posters, any printed material. I just fell in love with that old color, that old surface. Working with this fax from Billy, I'd go through a box of unrelated images and dismiss a lot them, but every now and then I'd grab a piece and say, this might work. They start to become something new just by their association.
NPR: How did you get assigned to the cover?
JC: I believe they had contacted a photographer in France that they were interested in. He was going to come over here and they were going to build this Victorian set, almost like a stage. All the Pumpkins would be in costume, and it would be a pretty elaborately designed photograph for the cover — until he wanted $50,000, I guess. So he was out. By that time, Billy seemed happy with the booklet illustrations, so I said, "Why don't you give me a shot at the cover?" We talked about it and he sent me some more faxes, and I looked through a lot of the period books I had and showed him some examples of other people's paintings that related to the celestial idea he was looking for. He was really talking about a ship's maiden — you know, the ones carved into the front of old ships.
NPR: A figurehead.
JC: Right. I found maybe a dozen or so images from the Pre-Raphaelite period from the turn of the century. And we distilled that down a bit, so we had a few things he felt really had the essence of what he was looking for. I went through my own imagery and started to assemble a few things, until I came up with the image of the woman in the star.
NPR: Who is that woman? Who is she to you?
JC: Let me put it like this: The designer of the new deluxe package has included a decoupage page, where there are images that you can cut out and rearrange. He asked me if I would take the cover image and cut it apart so people could put it together themselves. And I told him that I wouldn't, that the magic of it would be lost if it became a collage by number. I don't think it would be very satisfying to anybody to see it all broken down. Anybody familiar with art history will tell you what those pieces are; for that reason only, I guess I can't.
NPR: I guess I'll spoil some of the magic and say I've done a little research on the cover. Learning that it's a composite, of some pretty famous images no less, is a big part of why I wanted to speak with you — I've owned the record since it came out and was never the wiser until a few days ago. If you'd really rather not talk about this part ...
JC: I can if you know. There's no sense in hiding it if you know.
NPR: Tell me about the process. Were you working by hand?
JC: It was done with a color copier, so I had some flexibility in tweaking the color and adjusting the size. The background is a celestial image that came from an old children's encyclopedia or book of knowledge. While I was looking for the body and the face, I was also looking for something to carry it beyond just a standing figure. And I had this whiskey ad, which happened to have these drinks floating on stars. If you look closely, you can see that where the body is inserted into the star, there's a little lip — that was the stem of a cocktail. The face is [by the French painter Jean-Baptiste] Greuze. I had a nice, clean lithograph of that with lots of detail, from the turn of the century. That face was laid out on my table, probably with another dozen or so faces.
NPR: And then the body is from a Raphael painting of Saint Catherine of Alexandria.
JC: It's a CSI of album covers (laughs). With any collage piece, I'm always I'm trying all the possibilities. It's almost like one of those changing heads books, where you move the eyes and nose until you get what you want.
NPR: The head and body seem made for each other; you'd never know they came from two different women, let alone two different works.
JC: Well, that's the kind of magic I want to achieve. Most collage is thought of as cut and torn, and really has a surface to it. I'm looking for a seamless thing. I think I have in all my work.
NPR: What did you like about these two once you put them together?
JC: With the Greuze, there was something very dreamy or ecstatic about her expression that certainly wasn't in the Raphael painting. And then the flow and color of the Raphael dress, just the way it's rippling and almost traveling. I guess it's those primary colors too. That's what happens — you don't know if it's going to work, but you put the body on the star and the head on the body and you just know it's right somehow. Though I look at it now and see some tweaks I would do.
NPR: Such as?
JC: There's a little more texture in the hands, and that bothers me. I can't really change that. Her shoulders are a little too pinched; she should have more cleavage somehow, or a suggestion of a beginning of that. The hair should be more transparent around the wispy part. I mean, you can work it to death.
NPR: Let's talk about the hands, which are really interesting to me. I was probably 12 when I got this album, and I don't think I looked twice at the art. When I revisited it a few years later, I remember thinking there was something really risqué about it — especially the left hand, draped below the waist. Is there a sexual element there?
JC: Is she masturbating?
NPR: That's my question.
JC: You know, I have to be honest with you: I see that in a lot of paintings of women from those periods.
NPR: That they appear to be masturbating?
JC: Not necessarily — but that there's a lot of fondling, self-fondling. She may be, and maybe only Raphael knows. There's something about the placement of the hands and the whole look this woman has on her face that implies it. I think that's the unspoken eroticism in a lot of that early art. That's all they could get away with.
I have to tell you, I've had a few calls from young bands over the years who grew up with this album, who tracked me down and wanted me to do their covers. Augustana was one of the first bands I did a piece for, and it's kind of erotic as well: a night scene with a very monumental pair of legs that kind of fade up just off the naughty bits. It's been fun seeing how quickly time passes and how new bands are generated out of old bands. All art is derivative.
NPR: There's a chance that Mellon Collie will remain your best-known work.
JC: I hope not. I'm still growing, I think, even at 68. Recently I did a show of the 40 years of illustrations I've done, and I was opening boxes that I hadn't looked in since the art came back to me. It's a little unnerving; you see a lot of pieces that you kind of wince at. And other pieces where you go, you, know, I think that still works. That's satisfying. Had it been a bad cover coming back to haunt me, it would be another story.
NPR: Have you ever made sense of how all the different elements — the cover, those strange scenes in the booklet and the music itself — fit together?
JC: I guess it's a bit like pages from a lost book. There's not enough there to really see a continuity; the whole relationship of the different pieces is a collage in a way.
After it was all over, my family and I were invited to see the band in Chicago for the release performance. They got this great old theater, a crumbling old monster-movie theater, and Cheap Trick opened for them. The lights went dim for a while; they had to cut their power down by half because the place was so decrepit. But it was packed. There was an after-party too, but it was so late and my kids were kind of young, and we never did get over there. So I never got to meet Billy face to face, as much as we had talked on the phone and seemed to sync pretty well as far as our thinking went. I did send him an old children's book print that I had found, loose, with all the other paper ephemera I had. It must have been from Cinderella or something like that. It was this smashed pumpkin, as though the carriage had turned back into a pumpkin and the little critters were fleeing, the mice and all that. I put it in an old frame and sent that to him. And that was the end of the story.
More of John Craig's collage art can be found at johncraigprints.com.