It recently got a deluxe makeover, but Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadnesswas 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.
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