The Smashing Pumpkins: Set the Ray to Jerry
here are approximately twenty devout Corganites left on the entire face of the Earth (hi, guys, it’s Ross), and being a member of such a select fraternity has both its plusses and minuses. On the downside, we’re one of the few endangered species that people are actively trying to kill off rather than save. Certainly, no one has made it his or her life’s work to attempt to get Billy Corgan to breed. But the benefits of our devotion are many, and perhaps the greatest of all is the treasure trove of the Smashing Pumpkins’ extensive wealth of non-album material.
Not willing to pay upwards of fifty dollars for The Aeroplane Flies High box set? That’s fine; I can’t blame you. But it’s probably the Pumpkins’ best work, at least partly because the discovery of song after song that could have been featured on Mellon Collie is so rewarding. Because it’s a box set, Aeroplane is immune to complaints of excessiveness, allowing prototypical rockers like “Mouths of Babes” and “Marquis in Spades” and a smattering of terrible James Iha songs to coexist as peacefully as possible.
But “Set the Ray to Jerry,” originally released as a B-side to the “1979” single, is completely different from anything else in the Pumpkins’ catalog, which is precisely why it stands out as their greatest song. Sometime after Siamese Dream, Corgan realized he didn’t need to pummel listeners with guitars in order for his songs to be effective, and he started writing songs like “Jerry.” Of course, that didn’t stop him from releasing “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” as Mellon Collie’s lead single, or from leaving “Jerry” off the double-album completely, but all of this is beside the point ten years later.
The only guitar that “Set the Ray to Jerry” features more than minimally is the rumbling bass, which carries the entire song along with Jimmy Chamberlain’s expectedly spot-on drumming. Like many Pumpkins songs, “Set the Ray to Jerry” is dark, but it’s a much moodier and subtle darkness than all that rat-in-a-cage stuff. The song centers on the simple sentiment of “I want you / I need you,” but other than that nothing is spelled out as explicitly as the lyrics of “In the Arms of Sleep.”
So what makes this song so special? Well, two-thirds of the way through Corgan pulls off a stunning transition. First comes the yearning bridge, which removes the song from its groove at just the right moment. Then all instrumentation drops out, and Billy breaks the silence with perfect alternation between his soft singing voice and his growl. (The fact that he never growls anymore has weakened Mary Star of the Sea and The Future Embrace considerably.) He’s accompanied only by the bass guitar and bass drum for a moment, which makes the snares’ and cymbals’ reemergence all the more powerful, and the song coasts to what sounds like a rare happy ending for the Pumpkins.
I’ll believe until the day I die that the Smashing Pumpkins were more unique and more complex than most people will ever give them credit for. But I also understand that casual listeners aren’t going to go out of their way to hear the hundreds of lesser-known Pumpkins tracks that are often just as good as anything that’s made its way onto an album. So I’m telling you to start with “Set the Ray to Jerry.” You can hate the band, just don’t hate the B-side.
By: Ross McGowan
Published on: 2005-11-16