Ghost Story #3 – I Used to Be a Little Boy

I clearly remember finding Billy Corgan’s online diary my freshman year of high school.

The Internet was just starting to come into its own in 2005, or maybe I had just discovered I could use it for more than playing Addicting Games and browsing through pictures of Sarah Michelle Gellar from Rolling Stone. I can’t quite retrace my steps mentally but I assume found Corgan’s LiveJournal through some query of his Chicago roots. I’d asked for the Smashing Pumpkins’ greatest hits CD, Rotten Apples, for my birthday on the belief that “Zero” was the baddest song I’d ever heard (And God is empty/just like me!) and, in my subsequent obsession, had unearthed the knowledge that they hailed from the city I’d lived just south of my entire life. Never one to shy from solitary, semi-psychotic research in front of a glowing screen, I’d spent hours reading articles about the Pumpkins trying to find out exactly where Corgan grew up and if he still lived nearby. It’s through this that I can only assume I stumbled upon the site.

A young Billy Corgan

A young Billy Corgan

“My real name is William Patrick Corgan, and I was born at Columbus Hospital (just across from beautiful Lincoln Park which straddles Lake Michigan) in Chicago at 5:41 pm on March 17, 1967…most know me as Billy Corgan, but “he” didn’t arrive until age 18…my father was Billy, and I was known to the family as “little” Bill…I am the architect of the “Billy Corgan” that you know and love, or hate, or don’t give 2 cares about…I created him, and at times have loved him, feared him, and despised him more than you could possibly dream up…it is the author of this being that wants to tell you this story…depending on how you look at it, it is the brutal truth or a sad sob story…a tale of glory and failure or the fictional scrapings of a madman and has-been…the author is ok with however you take it, because it happened TO ME…the closets are thrown open, and the sweet mist of a life blown by come spilling out…there are dead bodies and old pictures and pornographic gasps and ghosts so shy they are the ghosts of ghosts…but all the voices are here, and they want to talk to you…in fact, there is a fight as to who goes first! But it’s all the same, cause in my mind all is happening at all times…backwards and forwards, we can survey what has happened and what is yet to come, and have a laugh and a cry…but in the end, it is my wish that there will be no more secrets worth keeping, and no more fear worth running from…all that should remain is the clear heart and a vibrant joy, and of course, music...”
 – from “The year is 1986” (Apr. 7, 2005 | 10:51 pm)

To say that reading Corgan’s diary was life changing would no doubt be dramatic, but it wouldn’t be entirely false. I remember being struck by the emotional openness of a few particular entries – a recollection of the coping mechanisms he employed to deal with the beatings of his stepmother, navigating the family politics of his parents’ divorce at a young age, his reaction to the news of Kurt Cobain’s death. A part of me unconsciously created an analogue between the transient childhood described in the disjointed digital journal entries and what I knew of my own father’s troubled upbringing around the city’s south suburbs. Manufactured memories tinted like faded film with my father as a stand in for the protagonist in Billy’s blog posts. My mental visualizations of Corgan’s descriptions of hanging out around apartment complexes or walking down cracked sidewalks immediately found themselves populated by the brown-bricked buildings of Oak Forest or Tinley Park, all wrapped in the intangible nostalgia of the “1979” video (which still had its place in VH1’s late night rotation at the time).

What I think affected me most though was the strange sense of familiarity and closeness the blog gave me to a person I was beginning to idolize and, by extension, regard as a distant demigod to be treated more as a myth than as a man. The revelations that a young Corgan went to birthday breakfast with his dad at IHOP or got beaten with a belt for blowing off M-80s with his little brother humanized him in a way I hadn’t experienced before. My idols had always been frozen on posters or t-shirts, pictures not people. Even my middle school fascination with all things Cobain didn’t go much past something akin to an enthrallment with a great episode of Forensic Files. My relationship with Kurt was very teacher-student, but this felt much more like a peer-peer kind of thing, as if I was in the room with Billy as he set out some of his past for my (and his own) appraisal. In the days of the pre-Twitter Internet, this was as close to knowing a celebrity’s unfiltered thoughts as I was going to have and there was something magnetic, almost magical, about it, as if I were seeing something I wasn’t supposed to. This is of course one of the many contradictions of the Internet age: Personal expression has been unprecedentedly democratized, but individual, intimate experiences cease to be such when published to a web page. The personal immediately becomes the public, a diary page becomes a declaration.

Returning to the “Billy Blog” about 10 years later, the entries appear primitive and even a bit immature. I find myself cringing at the liberal use of ellipsis and lack of capitalization, faux pas in our culture of self-image cultivation and maintenance. The best comparison I can make is to the feeling I get when reading someone’s long forgotten “Notes” on Facebook, but that’s essentially the beauty of what these entries are: the pure, un-manicured musings and memories of a common man that also happened to be a monster musician. I’m grateful to Corgan for teaching me that it is possible to be both.

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