Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Excalibur Nightclub is a gaudy stone cathedral in the heart of downtown Chicago’s douchiest district. It's one block away from the former Rock n’ Roll McDonald’s, two from Sports Authority, and is visible from blocks away thanks to a freestanding neon “EXCALIBUR” sign stuck on the street corner. Until 1931, it was the home of the Chicago Historical Society, which gave it city landmark status and is probably the only reason the club’s name hasn’t been carved into the exterior in giant, glittering diamond letters. Stone gargoyles keep watch over the front of the building while a pulse of taxis drop off well-coiffed, well-coked, and otherwise well-to-do Chicagoans. Abrasive-bro music videos strut across the bar’s many, many televisions—Slipknot’s “Duality,” Kid Rock’s “Picture,” one of the INXS songs with the singer who isn’t Michael Hutchence.
Obviously, this makes Excalibur the best place to hold a wrestling show sponsored by Billy Corgan.
Several months ago, Corgan announced he was starting a wrestling company called Resistance Pro, to the general be- and amusement of many who’ve chronicled his post-Smashing Pumpkins career with pointed disdain. (This old Pitchfork headline, “Billy Corgan Finds Innovative New Ways to Embarrass Himself,” is particularly harsh.) That Corgan has long been a wrestling fan—when he was on top of the charts, Corgan was also showing up at ECW pay-per-view events—didn’t do much to mitigate the goof-on effect. To the common commenter, Corgan is the past-his-sell-by-date front man of a once-great band, and wrestling is the bottom-of-the-barrel-brow pastime of Waffle House regulars; it's all very FAIL for those inclined to see and grade things that way. To wrestling fans, Corgan might’ve seemed well intentioned, but naïve: starting a brand new wrestling promotion in a market dominated by one mean giant (WWE) and a host of indie federations was much more something an eccentric old rock dude would do than a reasonable business decision. The questions of who would or could give a shit about this, and what audience Corgan thought he would serve, haunted the usual snark.
The appeal of wrestling is easy enough to figure: dudes hitting dudes, with metal folding chairs when at all possible. There’s a complicated physical ballet to it, sure, and the best performers work a back-and-forth rhythm of escalating physicality and spectacle, but wrestling also speaks to—it yells at, it cuts spittle-y promos in the direction of—our basic appreciation of literal blood, sweat, and tears shed for our entertainment. Figuring out Corgan in this day and age is a little trickier, especially for a post-’90s baby like myself.
I wasn’t very sentient for roughly half that decade, but VH1 and Rob Sheffield have done their best to characterize the period as a utopia of authenticity made maximal; Kurt Cobain’s plaid overshirts killed hair metal and so on. For most of the people who lived through this era, that is probably a bit much, and it is all very easily parodied. And so is Billy Corgan.
But also: Billy Corgan was big, like Biggest Rock Star in America big, big enough that his silver pants and Zero tee and overall overstatement were seen as working aspects of whatever sonic revolution was or wasn't going on. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness sold about ten million copies and featured two of the era's definitive songs in “1979” and “Tonight, Tonight." Corgan, a Midwestern suburban boy, had always championed big feelings and grand statements, and when he bleated “We’ll crucify the insincere tonight,” he not only really seemed to mean it, but seemed also to have an army at his back, believing in him and awaiting their orders.
That type of spiritual and financial validation is not a good cure for megalomania, and the rest went more or less as you'd expect. Corgan spent the post-Mellon Collie decade chasing his creative impulses, lashing out at just about everyone who stepped in his path. When the Pumpkins finally broke up, Corgan openly questioned his bandmates’s sobriety and moral fiber. His first post-Pumpkins band, Zwan (shortened from True Poets of Zwan), only lasted for one album, and the post-breakup rhetoric Corgan leveled at his bandmates was even more vitriolic this time; he told the Chicago Tribune that his bandmates were "not very good people and not very interesting,” and added on LiveJournal, in a more LiveJournalistic fashion, that, “their filth is in their larcenous hearts.”
Corgan never dialed down his persona or tried something different. He was Billy Corgan, after all. He dated celebrity-celebrities like Jessica Simpson and Tila Tequila, even getting re-involved with old flame Courtney Love. “He was so arrogant, it cracked me up," former Zwan-mate Dave Pajo told the A.V. Club in 2008. "He would constantly bring up the fact that he sold 25 million records, or that his hit song was played at the Super Bowl or something. It just made me laugh." In 2009, Corgan announced a 44-song concept album, Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, that was supposed to be released one song at a time; about a quarter of it has come out. It's almost exactly the sort of ostentatious vanity project someone would make up if he or she was, for some reason, telling a joke about Billy Corgan. So is Resistance Pro, for that matter.
At Resistance Pro's inaugural show at Excalibur, on the day after Thanksgiving, Corgan is everywhere—on posters, in the weirdly backwards Geocities-meets-Matrix promo videos that flash on the monitors before the matches start. Corgan is also the writer of the night’s storylines, responsible for deciding who is good, evil, a traitor, and so on. He is not, however, actually in the building. Instead, we were told, Corgan was watching via Skype from Europe, where the reconstructed Pumpkins—Corgan is the only original member—are on tour. He is profoundly unavailable for interviews, but I wasn't the only one asking. Upon checking in, I spot representatives from the AP, Chicago Tribune and (strangely enough) Forbes at the event. For the first time in recent memory, Billy Corgan seems content to stay in the background. “I’m at the point in my life where he doesn’t have to be about me, you know?” he said in an interview with PW Torch. “In the Pumpkins world, I have to worry about everything, but this is a chance for me to just be creative.”
More surprising is that, for once, Corgan seems to have left some creativity for his collaborators. Almost all of the night’s wrestlers, from Chicago favorite Colt Cabana to former WWE star Harry Smith (son of the late British Bulldog) already have their own personae and signature moves and buffed-up brands. They know enough to improvise on their own, and Corgan—uncharacteristically, but wisely—let them do just that.
Which is good, because the wrestlers are pros, and know and do their jobs well. A massive “Holy shit” chant erupts when one of the Briscoe Brothers suplexes Gran Akuma off the second floor balcony, only eclipsed when Teddy Hart does a backflip off the same balcony onto both of the Briscoe Brothers. The crowd, too, knows its part—they chant Colt Cabana’s name and El Generico’s catch phrase, booing and cheering for the right heels and faces. The escalating violence has its casualties—at the end of their tag-team match, Teddy Hart sells a knee injury a little too well, and there’s a terrifying moment when he hocks up a mass of red phlegm—which looked very real—while screaming for help. When Hart runs out, the R-Pro handler gets a look on his face that suggests he has no more idea what to do than anyone else might if presented with a giant suffering from chest trauma, and Hart spends a few minutes on the stairwell massaging his chest and downing water. Considering that one of Corgan’s selling points for the company is increased safety it doesn’t seem likely that they’d fake such an injury, making Hart’s risk all the more unsettling.
As this is R-Pro’s first show, all the storylines and champions are being set up for the first time, which inevitably leads to some moments in which creative ambition outstrips execution. The women’s match, a six-way rumble, ends in "controversy" when after dominating for most of the match, fan favorite Cheerleader Melissa is dropped by a late entrant to the ring, Melanie Cruise. Cruise goes on a typically villainous rant about how the match had been terrible and how she was going to take over the company, but the crowd—which chanted and cheered for Melissa as she stumbled out of the ring—seemed barely to notice (Also bizarre: the presence of a mock-transvestite with a “Twin Peaks High School” cheerleading outfit and a pair of comically mis-sized breasts, who eventually gets stomped by all six women at once after intervening in the match. At least in terms of gender politics, Vince McMahon and the guy who wrote "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" seem to have a lot in common)
The other rookie-promotion blooper is more glaring, if similarly based in a cornball last-minute switcheroo. The evening's last bout is a semifinal between Harry Smith and Kevin Steen for the second spot in the first Resistance Pro championship match. (The first spot was claimed by The Sheik, the generic evil Arab villain who won the night's first match) Smith and Steen go back and forth for a while, the crowd more invested in Steen’s lascivious come-ons to random members of the audience than Smith’s paint-by-numbers good guy routine, though he is very big and good at what he does. Eventually, Smith locks Steen in a Sharpshooter submission hold, and that seems like it’s enough to end the match. Then, out of nowhere, the timekeeper’s bell rings, as apparently the match has hit its 20-minute time limit.
There’s a collective “Huh?” in the room as everyone tries to figure out when or if a time limit had been announced. A decision from “upstairs” allows the match to go on for another five minutes, at which point it ends in the exact same way (Sharpshooter into a draw). By now there’s almost no heat from the audience, whatever rhythm Steen and Smith had worked up derailed by the starting and stopping. This time, the match is given an infinite extension, only Steen says he doesn’t want to continue, setting the stage for a 3-way heavyweight match between Steen and Smith and the Sheik on January 13, only at Excalibur and with Corgan himself on hand to crown the champion. The audience files out quickly to the lounge area, where—in what’s both an indie-show staple and a coincidental nod to Corgan's rock and roll roots— they can buy souvenirs from the exhausted, now-shtickless wrestlers, who man their own merch tables.
The WWE can (and does) get away with its more asinine storylines—Oh no, The Rock lost his championship to Vince McMahon’s dog! The Undertaker got drugged and put on a plane to Antarctica!—because its two nationally televised shows a week allow for quick turnaround on every angle. The longest storylines may go on for six months, but there are multiple matches and interviews to work the tension in between. R-Pro doesn't have that luxury, and asking an audience—many of whom, if Twitter is any indication, flew into Chicago specifically for this show, for reasons ranging from superfan ardor to the relentless pursuit of WTF-ery—to wait two months for a conclusion seems either ambitious or foolhardy. The gamble is that fans will still care about the labyrinthine betrayals and caveats of the first show; the risk is that they'll have forgotten about the whole thing entirely.
A week after the show, Corgan retweeted a sycophantic follower who wrote, “Salient point on naked ambition—its been a long time since I heard a new band go for broke on the level of Gish.” Which is, of course, the type of thing only a total narcissist would retweet and therefore totally what one would expect from Corgan. But, in an odd and endearing way, Resistance Pro is not quite par for the Billy Corgan. If the appeal of Corgan's music was in part the way it elevated teenage emotions to world-historic scale, Resistance Pro does the opposite—wrestling's signature grandiosity is there, of course, but there's a leavening, lightening smallness, and oddly un-Corganic human scale to it. Corgan may well believe that the world is a vampire and that his feelings are bigger and more beautiful than anyone else's; given how thoroughly he seems to have taken those platinum records to heart, it'd be a shock if he didn't. But Resistance Pro's scrappy, sloppy exuberance, and the basic weirdness of Corgan pursuing this gambit at all, suggests that Corgan might be doing all this for the simplest and most surprising reason of all—because he likes it, and because it's fun.