Billy Corgan Recalls Van Halen's Impromptu Test: 'I Wanna See You Play'

By Andrew Magnotta @AndrewMagnotta

December 9, 2020

Following news of Eddie Van Halen's death in October, Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan looked back on the day spent with Eddie at 5150 Studios back in 1996.

Corgan had lobbied Guitar World magazine to allow him to interview his guitar hero for a piece he was working on that would highlight Eddie's importance to the burgeoning world of alternative rock.

Though alternative music was widely considered to be devoid of virtuosity, Corgan — a leader of the movement — believed alt musicians owed a debt to Van Halen, whether they understood it or not.

Corgan offered more details of his experience at Eddie's house in a new interview with Q104.3 New York's Out of the Box with Jonathan Clarke. While the Smashing Pumpkins frontman was only supposed to be with Eddie for a little over and hour, the two spent at least four-and-a-half hours together playing music and talking about creativity.

"He was very open about his process, his work, his opinions on his career and, you know, he showed me everything," Corgran recalled. "The ultimate moment is, I'm sitting there two feet away watching Eddie play.

"You know I'm a guitar player, my father's a guitar player — I've played for 35 years or whatever. You watch somebody at Eddie's level play from two feet away, it's kind of shocking, because it's such another level it's almost like you can't even process it. Even today I couldn't explain to you what I saw, other than a man playing at the highest level, and by the way, laughing and smoking a cigarette and telling jokes at the same time."

Corgan went on to compare the display to something like a magic trick or "a great juggler," where the performer is a master of dexterity and sleight of hand. But Eddie wasn't there to play a private show; he wanted to see what Corgan could do, and he turned the tables in a most intimidating way.

"Then he hands me his guitar. He says, 'I want to see you play'," Corgan continues with a laugh. "So I played a little bit and he kind of smirked and laughed. He goes, 'Oh good, you can play.' I think he just thought I was this alternative guy. So I think when he saw I was a real guitar player, then we had this other conversation more based on guitar player thinking. Great, fantastic day."

The pair stayed in touch over the years and Eddie would often come see Smashing Pumpkins when they were in the same town.

Like most of the people who crossed paths with Eddie, Corgan emphasized that for one of the most important guitarists of the 20th century, Eddie couldn't have been sweeter.

"I'm a person who think he's good with words, but when it comes to Eddie I'm at a loss for words. He really was just a wonderful, warm human being, who had this savant level of talent and he didn't bring that ego into his life somehow. He was able to separate the two. He was very much a normal person."

Watch the full Out of the Box interview with Billy Corgan via the player above! Look for the Van Halen conversation at around the 14:30 mark.

Smashing Pumpkins just released a new double album, Cyr, which is available everywhere. Get more information here.

Photo: Getty Images

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