Billy Corgan wants his tea house steeped in the aura of salons past
Sharon Mackin-Norberg pours a custom brewed tea Madame Zuzu's, a new tea shop in Highland Park. Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan co-owns the shop at 582 Roger Williams Ave. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times
Updated: September 12, 2012 7:56AM
Billy Corgan’s schedule the rest of this week looks like this:
† Thursday — Open new tea shop in North Shore suburb
† Friday — Attend matches by his wrestling team, Resistance Pro
† Saturday — Start rehearsals for Smashing Pumpkins tour
“There’s my life,” Corgan told the Sun-Times this week, chuckling. “Maybe not magical but always interesting.”
The tea shop is Corgan’s latest endeavor in a career full of Neil Young-esque left turns, on and off stage. It’s an idea he said he’s had for a decade, one that’s finally budding with Thursday’s grand opening of Madame Zuzu’s Tea House, a former post office storefront at 582 Roger Williams Ave. in Highland Park.
At Thursday’s opening, in addition to the free tea available, Corgan — the bald-pated leader of alt-rock’s Smashing Pumpkins — will be at the shop, greeting customers and occasionally performing. He may play guitar, but he’ll definitely play the shop’s 1930s Bosendorfer upright piano.
“It’s one of things from a moment of my rock ’n’ roll excess,” Corgan said. “We were in Finland [in the 1990s]. … It’s a very rare piano. It’s got this deco vibe. I picked up the phone and said, ‘Can we ship this to Chicago?’ Now there it is in the tea house all these years later.”
The 1930s, a deco vibe, French and Chinese influences — Corgan’s going for all of this when he refers to the tea house, almost exclusively, as a conversational salon, “a step up from the grab-and-go Starbucks experience.” And it’s here where Corgan — a talker, and an intelligent one — gets going.
“I’ve always been fascinated with that era, the Jazz Age,” he said. “There’s a weird connection in my mind between the decadence of a certain era and political unrest. … Today, people are so disconnected from the political process, but they’re updating their Facebook page 27 times a day. There’s a lot going on in the country right now, and local discourse is important. It’s important for people to talk and get beyond the wall of Facebook and social media.”
No easier way to do that than over a cup of tea.
Corgan hopes Madame Zuzu’s will be a gathering place — and a talking space. In the small shop, he intends to facilitate cross-generational conversations and showcase speakers and performers of every stripe. An off-the-cuff list of examples this week included holistic medicine practitioners, occultists, photographers, flower arrangers, high school artists, storytellers and, of course, musicians. When we spoke earlier in the summer, Corgan described the shop as “a more casual hang, a place where you could come see a guru or a rabbi talk.”
“The North Shore gets a bad rap,” Corgan insisted this week. “Someone wrote something typically stupid on Twitter the other day, saying it’s all rich white people. That does these communities a disservice. I meet people of all walks and races here. To me, this is a vibrant community.”
It’s not a mere celebrity vanity project. His name’s not on it, but Corgan plans to be very involved and present — along with partner Sharon Mackin-Norberg, owner of the Ravinia Wine Shop directly across the street. The shop isn’t selling a bunch of extra merchandise — no Smashing Pumpkins mugs. Corgan himself selects the teas supplied from around the world.
“I’ve never had coffee. I’ve always hated the smell,” Corgan said. “It was always tea. I was a pretty typical kid, though. I grew up drinking Lipton. I didn’t know there was other tea to drink.”
But as he and his bands traveled the world, Corgan sampled teas from many tea-producing countries and “began to appreciate the subtlety of tea.” This summer, he told me, “We were in Japan once where they had 30 kinds of green tea. I thought there was one.”
Meanwhile, Corgan’s pro-wrestling group is still under way, with another thrown-down Friday night at Excalibur. He still relishes shepherding the matches.
The Smashing Pumpkins start their latest North American tour Oct. 10 in Seattle, supporting the band’s latest and acclaimed album, “Oceania.” They return for a hometown show Oct. 19 at the Allstate Arena.
Does he worry about his rock ’n’ roll image suffering by drinking tea, pinky up or not?
“If I worried about appearances,” Corgan said, “I wouldn’t be at Cubs games.”