Siamese Dreamers text on purple background with folded American flag, photo, and Smashing Pumpkins CD and graphic

Siamese Dreamers: A Tale of Love, Loss, and the Smashing Pumpkins

By Preston Burt

I’ve always been a rule follower. I don’t consider myself a teacher’s pet or a goody-two-shoes, but I was certainly teacher’s pet-adjacent. I was polite, a solid student, and always very well behaved, which is why I was probably allowed to use that caché to somehow—as a fresh-faced 16 year old—convince my mom to borrow her car, travel over three hours each way with two of my best friends to Biloxi the day before Thanksgiving to see the Smashing Pumpkins live in concert.

The road from Clinton to Biloxi was long, but the drive was freeing. Growing up in Mississippi, I had never been to a big concert before, so scoring tickets to see the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness tour was unbelievable to me. And getting to see them with Brian and John, free from our parents and the confines of our small town…well, let’s just say the world felt bigger than ever before.

The three of us together in my mom’s green Toyota Corolla was inexplicable enough, nevermind heading to see one of the biggest bands in the world in 1996. We were a ragtag trio of misfits who found friendship in our awkwardness and brokenness, who didn’t quite fit into a defined mold. Me, having initially grown up outside the big city of Chicago and forced to move to small town Mississippi after my parents broke up. Brian, undoubtedly dealing with his own identity while trying to survive his shitty home life and a mother struggling to hold on to her mental health. And John, a self-described “hood rat” who could deftly navigate between nearly any social group, skirting trouble repeatedly, and always seeking any excuse to escape his cluttered, cigarette smoke-filled duplex he dubbed “Junksta’s Paradise.” 

Among all of my friends, John seemed the most invincible, which made it all the more shocking when he was the first of us to die.

I used to be a little boy
So old in my shoes
And what I choose is my choice

It’s only through the lens of time and experience that we can really see who and what shaped our lives the most. John, however, was such a singular force that, even in the moment, I was in awe that he was my friend. Though he mostly hung out with the gutter punk BMX kids (the local track was literally across the street behind his house), neighborhood proximity put him in close contact with mutual friends Dan and Steve, his fellow cul-de-sac residents, and Brian, my best friend for years who lived slightly further down the subdivision. 

Though I was only six months older than John, he was a year behind me in school. That didn’t matter too much, however, when he got his own car before I did: a 1966 AMC Rambler. Aside from the fact that having your own car was a ticket to freedom, the defining characteristic of his ride was a rusted-out floorboard that allowed the front seat passenger the ability to lift up the floor mat and deposit hamburger wrappers directly on the speeding highway beneath our feet. Another benefit of an old beater: ramming trash cans with abandon to make your friends laugh and frustrate innocent homeowners.

His brashness and flirtation with hooliganism was just a facade, however. Beneath his longer-haired punk veneer lived a deep thinker and a kind heart. With psychedelic tapestries adorning his tiny bedroom, we spent many hours listening to music and he was the first person to introduce me to Led Zeppelin and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. His influences weren’t always wholesome, however, as it was in the tree line toward the distant rear of his backyard where I tasted my first sip of alcohol—a Seagram’s strawberry daiquiri wine cooler, a feat such an affront to my straight-edge upbringing that I kept the bottle cap as a memento I still have to this day. 

Illustration of a woman coming out of star from Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness album cover

Endless pine trees lined the roadside down highway 49, with the exception of a scattering of small produce stands, an exceptionally large rocking chair tourist attraction, and signs for a smattering of small towns with names like Seminary, Magee, and Saucier. We probably listened through the seminal Siamese Dream CD and the entire Mellon Collie double disc album a few times as day turned into dusk and we made our way toward escape.

The arena was already crowded as we navigated our way to our nosebleed seats. The grunge era was waning, post-grunge was peaking, and the Shirley Manson-fronted Garbage was opening for the Pumpkins. We didn’t want to miss such a seminal alternative band. Unfamiliar with most of their catalog, I’m pretty sure I can only remember all of us being excited when they eventually played their radio hits, “Stupid Girl” and “Only Happy When it Rains.” 

Honestly, I wish I could remember more, but how often are we too busy enjoying the moment to take notes of the intricate details of the events that most shape our lives? 

When the Smashing Pumpkins finally took the stage, kicking off with “Where the Boys Fear to Tread,” the cloud of marijuana smoke was already visible in the rafters. While everyone in the coliseum that night was probably already experiencing some level of contact high, that didn’t stop John from leaving Brian and me to try to get on the concert floor to score some pot. I don’t know if he succeeded or not, but he was always going to go his own way. I guess it’s not surprising then that just a year later he got his parents’ permission to sign with the Army National Guard at 17. Opportunity and escape were calling, what’s the worst that could happen?

What’s a boy supposed to do?
The killer in me is the killer in you, my love

John A. Clark in military uniform

John shortly after earning his jump wings.

I don’t know much about John’s military service. He told me he was with the Rangers. I know he got his jump wings. I know he went to Afghanistan. His tombstone tells me he attained the rank of sergeant. 

When I left for college, knowing John signed up for the Army and endured basic training inspired me to want to join the military too. I planned to follow him into the Guard so I could still go to school at Ole Miss and when I graduated, I would be an officer. Despite an enviable ASVAB score, a salivating recruiter, and a trip to Memphis’ Military Entrance Processing Center, my prior diagnosis with asthma raised too many questions for me to move forward.

After 9/11 happened, I’ll never forget my mother breaking down in tears of relief telling me “I’m so glad you never joined the Army.” John wasn’t so fortunate.

He was smiling ear-to-ear, however, when he rejoined me and Brian at the Pumpkins concert. As Billy Corgan, James Iha, D’Arcy Wretzky, and Jimmy Chamberlain played through hits Tonight, Tonight, Cherub Rock, and Drown, the three of us were mesmerized by the music: melodic, contemplative shoegaze followed by frantic, energetic rage rock and back. When the only other national touring act that came anywhere close to our hometown of Clinton, MS was Garth Brooks, this was heaven to three teenage outcasts. 

As the night progressed and the rage of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” (“The World is a Vampire…”) subsided to the ethereal “Mayonaise” (“I just want to be me.”), Brian, John, and I lived in the music and the moment willing it to not end. When the second encore opened with 1979, a beautifully haunting coming-of-age song, our brains internalized a nostalgia for a youth we hadn’t yet finished experiencing while simultaneously marring me with this seminal experience I would try for the rest of my life to recapture.

The ride home was much longer than the expectation-filled ride there. Coming down from the exhilaration of the concert, it was hard keeping my eyes open, but being after midnight it was already Thanksgiving and I had to get home to meet up with my family before heading off on yet another three-hour drive to enjoy a sleepy dinner with my aunt, uncle, and cousins. The tiredness left me with few memories of the departure of three friends who just cemented a life milestone, but the feeling of contentment remains.

Oh, the years burn

Polaroid photo of an abandoned shopping cart rammed against a telephone kioskJohn was lucky enough to make it out of Afghanistan alive, though not unscathed. He sustained a head injury in the line of duty, and after approximately 8 years of service, had no option but to take an honorable medical discharge.

While our in-person interactions after high school were limited, social media allowed me to see him succeed in attending Ole Miss on the G.I. Bill to pursue a political science degree and later move to New Orleans where he tended bar and fell in love for a while. 

In between shared remembrances, birthday greetings or Facebook messages “happy fathers day slick,” John mostly shared photos of old, abandoned shopping carts he discovered on his daily trek through the French Quarter with captions like “hey, little guy.” or “must be one of those mornings.” To this day, seeing a random, stray cart makes me smile and think of him.

Though we remained friends, I hadn’t spoken to Brian in years, so when I got a call from him in September of 2013 asking if I heard what happened to John, I knew it was bad. Although the diagnosis for his death was broncho-pneumonia, he “would have lived through that without the complications from service-related epilepsy,” according to the doctor (as relayed by his mom). It turns out that while ill, John suffered a seizure and was not well enough or strong enough to pull out of it. He passed away at age 32, leaving everyone he touched devastated.

I still haven’t been able to bring myself to visit his grave.

I send this smile over to you

Dual faces CDs from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

When I learned that guitarist James Iha had rejoined original Pumpkins Corgan and Chamberlain for the Shiny and Oh So Bright tour to form a nearly-complete original lineup in 2018 after years of disarray, I immediately snatched up tickets. My wife, Brooke, knew of my love for the Pumpkins and the significance they held as my first “real” concert, so she was down to accompany me.

As the lights dimmed, the arena filled with the sounds of piano playing the instrumental “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.” Many of us had waited years for this reunion to happen. Others, like John, were no longer with us to see it. As Corgan took the stage solo to sing and play an acoustic rendition of “Disarm,” tears streamed uncontrollably as I was flooded with so many emotions: the beauty of the music, the absolute love I felt for the woman beside me and recognizing how much we’ve overcome, and for the sadness of knowing my friend wasn’t here to share in this joy. 

Some nights when I need to clear my head, I take a drive with the windows down. Much like John’s Rambler, many of the cars I grew up with were without air conditioning, and the fresh air and rushing breeze just feels right

On one of these drives, as the sun was setting and casting a beautiful tapestry of colors across the sky, I turned around and headed back home to pick up my teenage daughter so she could witness the amazing sunset. With Siamese Dream playing on the stereo, “Mayonaise” became the soundtrack for our journey. As the soft guitar instrumentals give way to the gritty vocals “We’ll try and ease the pain…but somehow, we’ll feel the same” I wistfully remembered my friend John—our friendship, our youth, his service and sacrifice, and how much I’ll get to experience that he never will.

We drove across the bridge looking towards the brilliant pinks and purples that blanketed the lake across the western sky. With the wind rushing through our hair, I asked my daughter if she wanted to go home. 

“No.” She said. “Let’s keep going. I want to hear how this one ends.”

Tonight, Tonight
Time is never time at all
You can never ever leave
Without leaving a piece of youth
And our lives are forever changed
We will never be the same
The more you change, the less you feel
Believe in me
Believe, believe
That life can change
That you’re not stuck in vain
We’re not the same, we’re different

-From “Tonight, Tonight” by the Smashing Pumpkins