Germ Warfare

IN THE PAST YEAR, SMASHing Pumpkins has become the rock world's premier crisis-management team. Everything you'd think would derail their career hasn't. Last fall lead singer Billy Corgan released his third opus, ""Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,'' a two-hour, 28-track song cycle about youth, love and lost innocence that many critics decried as pompous, indulgent and overblown. It went straight to No. 1 on the pop charts and is now the top-selling double album of the decade. In July, touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died of a heroin overdose and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was arrested for drug possession. How did Corgan respond? He fired Chamberlin, hired a replacement drummer (Matt Walker of Filter), went back on the road and earned rave reviews. Now it seems like the Pumpkins can do no wrong. In September, it swept the MTV Video Music Awards. Next month it will release ""The Aeroplane Flies High,'' a five-CD box set of ""Mellon Collie'' singles and B-sides. Corgan even bounced back from a less life-threatening but still potentially devastating move: he shaved his head. He told Interview magazine he wanted to curb his vanity. How many rock stars get to conquer MTV looking like Uncle Fester?

The fact is, Smashing Pumpkins rules alternative rock in 1996. And that's a strange place for alternative rock to be. Ever since the genre broke through commercially in 1991, Corgan has been a kind of runner-up hero. In the tortured ""I hate myself, I want to die'' category, he just couldn't compete with Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, who did die, and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, who complained so tiresomely about his fame that one band, Oasis, publicly wished he'd die. Musically, Corgan always lacked punk-rock clout: though the Pumpkins poured on the distortion and rage at times, it also included noodley guitar solos, grandiose pop flourishes, lyrics out of a college poetry sourcebook and other things that punk rock rails against. Worst of all, Corgan actively courted success. In a calculated bid for credibility, the Pumpkins' 1991 debut, ""Gish,'' was released on an independent label, Caroline, even though the band had already secured a major-label contract with Virgin. Hard-core indie rockers labeled them fakers and never forgave them. For all their success, Smashing Pumpkins have never been cool.

Alternative rock was founded on the reverse principle: coolness, good music and an attitude meant a lot more than selling records. Two new records serve as potent evidence of that pre-1991 sensibility: Nirvana's ""From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah,'' an assortment of live tracks from 1989 to 1994, and ""Germs (Tribute): A Small Circle of Friends,'' a homage to the raucous late-'70s L.A. punk band by members of Hole, Sonic Youth, Firehose, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dinosaur Jr and others. Both albums are pure labors of love. ""From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah'' is the opposite of the acoustic ""MTV Unplugged in New York''--a showcase for the band's raw punk roots. ""Germs (Tribute)'' is a brilliant introduction to an outrageous band that influenced a generation of alternative rockers; Nirvana's second guitarist, Pat Smear, was a founding member.

Kurt Cobain spent a lot of time torn between the indie-rock fans who embraced Nirvana early on and the mass audience who made him a star. ""From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah'' caters to the former. Opening with a long shriek from Cobain, the album careers between blasts of feedback, abbreviated metal riffs, constant cymbal crashes, guttural bass lines and eerie breaks of si- lence that were always Nir- vana's most ominous moments. Through the noise, great songs are resurrected: ""Drain You,'' one of the most ferocious moments from ""Nevermind''; ""Sliver,'' a pop shout from 1989; ""Milk It,'' a distracted rant from ""In Utero.'' ""Wishkah'' shows how unpleasing Nirvana was in concert: the point wasn't to finesse or re-create the hits but to get lost in the furious immediacy of the moment, to shake things literally until they broke.

In terms of sheer audacity, Nirvana had a clear antecedent in the Germs. Fronted by an anarchic visionary named Darby Crash, the Germs were at the center of a regional punk scene that the mainstream conspicuously ignored. Fast and thrashy, L.A. punk was wrongly considered to be a dumber version of its New York counterpart, which produced arty bands such as Television and Talking Heads. Crash was a confrontationalist. He cut himself up onstage, often refused to sing into a microphone, threw food onto the audience and caused riots. ""People in New York were into dark sunglasses, hanging out--this Lou Reed cool attitude,'' says Bill Bartell, executive producer of ""Germs (Tribute).'' ""L.A. was more like, "Let's cover ourselves in ketchup and scare people, because we're freaks'.''

Underneath the drama, Crash was writing incisive songs about alienation, sexual confusion and the emptiness of social conventions. The Germs released a classic album, ""(GI),'' but lasted only three years. On Dec. 7, 1980, Crash was found dead of an intentional heroin overdose. (The mainstream media didn't notice--John Lennon died the next day.) ""Germs (Tribute)'' is a punk textbook. Because so few people actually heard the Germs, Bartell allowed only bands that really cared onto the tribute. Courtney Love, a Germs fan from way back, slams through ""Circle One.'' The Melvins, a stalwart Northwest punk-metal band, lay out the punk ethic in ""Lexicon Devil'': ""We'll give this established joke a shove/We're gonna wreak havoc on this rancid mill/I'm searching for something even if I'm killed.'' ""There are some multiplatinum acts that really wanted to be on the record that I told no,'' says Bartell. ""It had to be people who understood it. I'm not going to name names, but I didn't want Axl Rose on my record.''

Punk's club mentality is fine if you're invited. But the cool vs. not-cool rift has left a lot of bands on the defensive--especially Corgan. ""We hopped on this long before it was a gravy train,'' he says. ""You didn't get into alternative music in 1989 because you were going to sell a million records. You got into it because you wanted to f---ing rock.'' But Smashing Pumpkins have more in common with the Germs and Nirvana than you might think. All three helped turn adolescent rage into an art form; all three took the classic rock riffs of the '70s and spit them out in wildly refurbished forms. What really sets the Pumpkins apart is their attitude toward success. They like it. Accepting the MTV award for Best Alternative Video, Corgan sounded positively happy. ""We're very proud to be an alternative band,'' he said. ""The fact of the matter is it's what we come from.'' A gracious attitude might not be punk rock, but it's always cool.