The 1996 MTV Video Music Awards came at a very difficult time for the Smashing Pumpkins. The band was at the peak of their popularity, and they won seven awards, including Video of the Year for "Tonight Tonight" and Best Alternative Video for "1979." "We're happy to be alternative," Billy Corgan said after Tim Robbins presented the band the award.
Yet despite all the acclaim, the group was still reeling from the loss of their touring keyboardist, Jonathan Melvoin. He died of a heroin overdose in his New York hotel room on July 11th, 1996. Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was arrested that night for drug possession, and he was promptly fired from the band. They resumed the tour about six weeks later with Matt Walker from Filter on drums and Dennis Flemion from the Frogs on keyboards.
Years later, Billy Corgan said that carrying on with the tour after a tragedy of that magnitude was a mistake. But at the time he felt the group simply had too much momentum to stop. "Deep down, I'm really, really sad. Jonathan's dead, and I'd give a lot to change that," Corgan told Rolling Stone weeks after the keyboardist died. "Jimmy's in some other place, and I'd give a lot to change that. But what is, is. I've worked so hard. James [Iha] and D'Arcy [Wretzky] have worked so hard and been so consistent in their diligence. Why should we punish ourselves?"
There were few signs of distress when the band opened the VMAs in September by playing "Tonight Tonight" with a huge string section. The stirring performance stood out on a huge night that also featured performances by the Fugees, Metallica, Neil Young, Oasis and Kiss.
The Smashing Pumpkins cut their next album, 1998's Adore, with a series of drummers and a drum machine, but it failed to live up to expectations. They brought Chamberlin back in late 1998, but by that point Wretzky had left the group. The band split in late 2000. In hindsight, the 1996 VMAs were the last moment they seemed like a band on top of the world.
This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone: Flashback: Smashing Pumpkins Open 1996 Video Music Awards