By Lloyd Sachs
6:25 PM EST, January 11, 2013
For an establishment called Madame ZuZu's, the host is pretty dressed down: no flowing silk robe or pointy painted fingernails. And even if Billy Corgan could qualify for madame-hood, he wouldn't be going for extravagance. At least not at 6 p.m. on a winterstruck Thursday, and not in a setting as casual as his new Highland Park tea shop.
Relaxed in a dark cardigan sweater and yellow button-down shirt with a crumpled collar, Corgan relieves a writer and his college-age daughter of their umbrellas and deposits them in a rack by the front door before sitting down to chat. The low-ceilinged storefront spot, once occupied by a post office, is already full for a book signing.
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The graying crowd looks like it has spent more time at Peter, Paul and Mary reunions at nearby Ravinia than at concerts by Corgan's super-successful rock band, Smashing Pumpkins. That's all well and good with management. Madame ZuZu's, which opened in September, may have been inspired by Chinese-style salons of '30s Paris, but Corgan envisions it as an all-American, all-ages club where people can attend lectures, readings and musical offerings, and partake in what Chicago talk show legend Irv Kupcinet once called the lively art of conversation.
"People in Highland Park have been looking for things to do," says Corgan, a native of the western suburbs who since 2004 has lived in this North Shore town in an 18-room lakeside mansion designed by celebrated architect David Adler. "We're trying to build a culture where they can come here and not have to go to the city. We had a local lady talk about flower arranging and someone else talk about kabbalah. Everyone is welcome here, whether they're in their 70s or their 20s."
That includes teenagers. Junior high kids regularly hang out here after school, doing homework. There have also been storybook hours for children.
Tonight's featured author is Christopher Nowinski, a onetime Harvard football star and WWE wrestler — and a locally based friend of Corgan's — whose 2006 book "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis," sounded the alarm on helmet-on-helmet collisions at a time when the risk of brain injuries in contact sports was routinely dismissed as conjecture. Nowinski, who became an expert on post-concussion syndrome after a head injury in the ring forced him to retire from wrestling, is promoting a new expanded version of the book — and the DVD of the documentary film adapted from it by acclaimed director Steve James ("Hoop Dreams," "The Interrupters").
Madame ZuZu's, located on a small commercial strip a block away from the Ravinia Metra station, will have livelier speakers than Nowinski. But he's articulate and deeply committed to a cause that has hit close to home with the suicide of former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson and the revelation that Duerson's former teammate Jim McMahon has dementia as a result of the punishment he took on the field. Nowinski serves as director of wrestler safety for Resistance Pro, the professional wrestling outfit of which Corgan is co-owner and "creative director."
Among those who have shown up tonight to ask questions and lend their support are a woman who is concerned about her son playing high school football and Mike Jennings, a 2005 inductee into the American Football Association's Semi-Pro Hall of Fame. Corgan, a lifelong sports enthusiast who has worked with area doctors to promote concussion-awareness (his wrestlers are barred from certain moves now deemed dangerous), takes an active part in the discussion.
When you think of salon gatherings in '30s Paris, of course, you think not of sports talk but of the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Henry Miller. What kind of presence literary types will have at the decidedly un-bohemian Madame ZuZu's remains to be seen. "My hopes are to create a means by which authors and poets can discuss their creativity," says the 45-year-old Corgan, stopping short of saying what kinds of authors and what kinds of poets.
In addition to being a rock idol, Corgan is a literary type himself, having published a best-selling collection of poetry, "Blinking with Fists," in 2004. He's still smarting over not being taken seriously by the poetry establishment.
"I had the No. 1 selling book of poetry, and I didn't get invited to one poetry event," he says.
Snarky reviews of his mysticism-drenched free verse — "Corgan is bored and he's taking it out on poetry," one critic wrote — can't sit well with him either. But that hasn't kept him from writing: For the last three years, this inveterate New Ager has been working on what he calls a spiritual memoir.
As it is, Madame ZuZu's is building slowly toward a fuller calendar of artistic offerings. January's weekend lineup, mostly featuring local performers, includes singer-songwriters Matt Sams and Rachel Fridkin, comics Meredith Stepien and Nick Gage, and the Merrigan-Brown-Jacobs Trio, plus a live podcast recording for the web radio station Vinyl Schminyl.
Otto Stuparitz, a musician who doubles here as events planner and tea-serving bartender (there's no alcohol at Madame ZuZu's), is excited about the salon's future. "This is an extremely creative place, very different from anyplace I've worked before," he says. "Billy blows my mind a lot."
Corgan got the idea for Madame ZuZu's about 10 years ago. A onetime rehabber of expensive old houses, he designed the place, which cuts across eras, styles and cultures with its oversized white neon letters in the front windows, black and red dragon motif on the walls, jagged black and white pattern on the floor and metal-plated ceiling. There's a 1930s Bosendorfer upright piano, which he found in Finland, against one wall and an easel in the back with a classic French Art nouveau ballet poster.
People sit at small wood tables. There are no couches or comfy chairs, or any concessions to laptop users. "I wanted it sparse," says Corgan. "I didn't want this place to be like Starbucks. I wanted things to be different here."
He's not a big fan of social media. "People need to experience each other face to face to really connect to each other and the things going on in the world," he says. "Thirty years ago, people were more socially conscious, as members of a democratic society, than they are now. Now, things are going the other way."
There's another reason Corgan disdains the trappings of coffee shop culture: He hates coffee. Always has. Hates the smell of it. "We sell it in the corner in paper cups," he jokes. In fact, Madame ZuZu's serves top-of-the-line Intelligentsia Coffee, drip and pour over style. But with 19 varieties of tea on the menu, such as Darjeeling Makaibari from India and Matcha Genmaicha from Japan, this is a place for the loose-leaf set.
Corgan has been drinking tea since he was a boy. He started out, like most people of a certain age, with Lipton's, and progressed to more sophisticated brews as he got older. He doesn't profess to be an authority on tea: "For a long time, I didn't know there was more than one kind of green tea." But he now knows more than enough to do all the tea buying for Madame ZuZu's.
His favorite tea is South African rooibos (pronounced roy-boss), or Honeybush as it's listed on the menu. Grown in South Africa, it's an increasingly popular herbal tea that until recently hasn't gotten the press of green and back tea but, he says, has a higher anti-oxidant content than either of them.
Corgan's decision to open Madame ZuZu's in Highland Park rather than a hip neighborhood like Wicker Park speaks to his commitment to his adopted town.
The cozy, comfort-food vibe of his tea shop may reflect the essential squareness of the man who has reached millions of "alternative" rock fans with albums like "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" (a 1995 effort recently reissued in a six-disc deluxe edition) and "Oceania," released in June.
At a time of chain-dominated coffee and tea joints and bookstores and narrow commercial branding, succeeding with an independent venture as eclectic as Madame ZuZu's won't be easy. For reasons Corgan declines to get into, he recently parted company with his business partner. His hopes of drawing performers and presenters through open submissions haven't panned out.
The occasional musical set by Corgan, who performed as part of the salon's opening festivities, won't hurt Madame ZuZu's fortunes. But he knows the salon's success will depend more on the clientele's participation. "I don't want me to be the driver," he says. "That would be bad business."
Which is one thing of which, many millions of album and book sales into his career, he knows little.
Lloyd Sachs is a local freelance writer who frequently reviews music.