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The Meaning of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979”

“1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins is a nostalgic song that frontman Billy Corgan wrote about growing up and coming of age. It was released as the second single from the group’s iconic 1996 album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and it became an international hit — the highest charting single of their career.

This article first explains the backstory to “1979,” and then goes into an in-depth exploration of the song’s lyrics.

“1979” Origins

Billy Corgan has said that “1979” was the final song he wrote of a batch of over 50 songs for Mellon Collie. At first, producer Mark “Flood” Ellis didn’t want to include it on the album, because he didn’t think it was good enough despite Corgan’s insistence.

So, Billy took it upon himself and went home that night to polish up “1979.” When he came back with it the next day, Flood decided it was good enough to be a single.

Inspired by “Pleasure” by The Frogs

In 1993, Billy Corgan saw a band called The Frogs at a small club in Milwaukee, and was so impressed that he invited them on tour to open for the Pumpkins.

The Frogs had a song called “Pleasure,” which never made it onto any of their albums, that serves as the instrumental basis for “1979.”

You can hear it if you listen to the guitar part from the video above. Note that they are joking when they discuss suing the Pumpkins, as the two groups were closely related.

“1979” Lyrics Meaning

Verse One

Shakedown 1979
Cool kids never have the time
On a live wire right up off the street
You and I should meet

First verse to “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins.

Billy Corgan was born in 1967, meaning that in the year 1979, he was 12 years old. If he is truly singing about his own life, he is talking about how the year 1979 is a “shakedown” for him, meaning that it has shuffled his whole life around and messed him up. This is an experience that many people go through around that age, in the transition from childhood to your teenage years.

The cool kids never have time to hang out with him, but he’s up the street and full of energy, like a live wire. This is a beckon for friendship with another kid on his block.

It’s also worth noting that the Grateful Dead album Shakedown Street was released in late 1978, and 1979 was the year that the lot scene became known as “Shakedown Street” among heads. Corgan is a known fan of the Dead, so it could potentially be a reference, but as far as I know he has never mentioned that.

Verse Two

Junebug skippin’ like a stone
With the headlights pointed at the dawn
We were sure we’d never see an end to it all

Second verse to “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins.

June bugs are insects that resemble cockroaches, named for how they emerge from the soil in June. So, this lyric could be a coming of age reference, or it could be a reference to the VW Beetle, known as a bug, which was especially popular in the 70s.

It speaks to the common human condition, which is how you never realize that your youth will end when you’re in the midst of it. While you’re living, it feels eternal, but looking back, it’s obvious that the time would slip away, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Chorus One

And I don’t even care
To shake these zipper blues
And we don’t know
Just where our bones will rest
To dust I guess
Forgotten and absorbed into the earth
Below

First chorus to “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins.

Zipper blues is an old saying about being constantly on the move, unable to settle down. He doesn’t want to do anything about it. He also has no idea how his life will end up, or where he will eventually die, but ultimately concludes it doesn’t matter. Because nobody will remember, and his bones will return to the earth.

I’d venture to say that people will remember Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins for a while, probably long after the actual band members have left this earth.

Verse Three

Double-cross the vacant and the bored
They’re not sure just what we have in store
Morphine city slippin’ dues, down to see

Third verse to “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins.

People who are bored, absent-minded, or otherwise not paying attention are prime targets for vagrant youths such as Billy an his friends. They have no idea what’s coming.

Then, a reference to a city that’s slipped into control of the powerful opiate, Morphine. It also suggests perhaps some of Corgan’s associates may have dabbled in substance abuse. Generally, it brings to mind an all-around rough scene, filled with people on drugs and people robbing each other.

Chorus Two

That we don’t even care
As restless as we are
We feel the pull
In the land of a thousand guilts
And poured cement

Second chorus to “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins.

The imagery from the verse prior continues into the second chorus, and again Corgan emphasizes how the youth doesn’t care. It’s like the “teenage wasteland” that the Who sang about, spilled out onto city streets.

They feel the pull to grow up, the temptation of drugs, and everything in a city that offers all of the darkest aspects of life. However, while it has “a thousand guilts,” it also has poured cement, which could represent a stable foundation and life, but could also represent the loss of freedom, innocence, and natural wonderment.

Bridge

Lamented and assured
To the lights and towns below
Faster than the speed of sound
Faster than we thought we’d go
Beneath the sound of hope

Bridge to “1979” by Smashing Pumpkins.

The bridge is all about the feeling of wistful nostalgia for youth. Corgan sings about how it slips away faster than you think, and there is no hope for ever returning to those days.

As someone who recently turned 30, I can really relate with this sentiment. Corgan describes the feelings of youth slipping away, wanting to slow down time, and being powerless to it. He was 29 years old when this song was released, which suggests that this may be a common experience for people around this age — further lending itself to the power of the song.

Verse Four

Justine never knew the rules
Hung down with the freaks and ghouls
No apologies ever need be made
I know you better than you fake it, to see

Fourth verse to “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins.

The identity of the “Justine” that he’s referring to is not clear, though some have speculated that this might be a reference to Justine (or The Misfortunes of Virtue), a classic 1791 novel by Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, better known as the Marquis de Sade. In the story, Justine becomes a sex-slave and becomes caught up in all sorts of depraved activities.

That explanation seems strange enough to be true, however it really could be applied to anybody who gets involved in something that is over their head. An innocent teen finds themselves wrapped up in the wrong crowd, or “the freaks and ghouls,” and before you know it, they’re one of those ghouls, too.

He says that there’s no reason to apologize. Perhaps because it’s life, and things happen, and we all get caught up in the follies of youth. Corgan says that he knows they didn’t put themselves in this place on purpose.

The first chorus repeats here, and the sentiment of not caring returns, thus bringing things full circle. Corgan doesn’t care if you mess your life up, because he’s so busy messing up his own life, and trying to hang onto his youth at all costs.

Outro

The street heats the urgency of now
As you see there’s no one around

Outro to “1979” by Smashing Pumpkins.

Things feel more urgent out on the street, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, because we all experience life at our own pace. Look around you, there’s nobody here to watch you fall…

Smashing Pumpkins – “1979” Music Video (1996)