For Pumpkins, Charity Begins At Oakland, Calif., School
Superstar rock band kicks off its benefit tour by stopping at a school for underprivileged youth.

Senior Writer Gil Kaufman reports:

OAKLAND, Calif. -- While most bands would have been ironing out last-minute details and doing some sightseeing, the Smashing Pumpkins spent the hours before the first date of their 14-city charity tour hanging out with underprivileged kids in Oakland and explaining the motivation behind their unusual road trip.

Given the odd venues that the band chose on its recent European and Asian promotional tour -- museums, historical landmarks, gardens, harbors -- perhaps it wasn't that surprising to see the band walking the halls of Hawthorne Elementary School in Oakland on Tuesday afternoon (June 30).

"We embarked upon this tour to attempt to not just economically support different areas of the country, but also symbolically represent our generation, Generation X, as it's commonly known," said Billy Corgan, Pumpkins leader.

Seated with bandmates D'Arcy Wretzky (bass) and James Iha (guitar) behind a school lunch-table in a classroom at the Hawthorne School -- located in a hard- scrabble, working-class neighborhood in Oakland -- the Pumpkins explained why they chose to mount a tour in which all proceeds will benefit a number of children's and abuse-prevention charities, including two in Los Angeles based on money raised at their Wednesday (July 1) and Thursday night shows at the Universal Amphitheatre.

"As this generation moves into its 30s," said Corgan, dressed all in black, from his leather jacket to his black boots, "we have to start taking responsibility, and it's very symbolically important that we start standing up for something."

The surrounding neighborhood and the school's grounds were likely a far cry from the kinds of schools that the Pumpkins described attending as children in suburban Chicago. The small outdoor playground housed a well-worn jungle gym, its paint worn off. The cracked pavement beneath it led one child to say he'd like to see it covered in grass, "because we scrape our arms when we fall down."

As children in an after-school music program were yelling and singing at top voice in the next room, a serious-looking Corgan explained his personal ties to the issue of child abuse and education.

"Where I came from, in suburbs of Chicago, I saw none of this [community involvement]," Corgan said of the Hawthorne School's community-based education model. "Almost all charity work that I saw was basically through the church, and for someone like me, as a young person who didn't believe in what my particular church had to say, there was no option."

Representatives from the school as well as the East Bay Agency for Children, both beneficiaries of the money raised by the Pumpkins' tour kickoff show that night at San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, were effusive in their praise for the superstar rock band's charitable donations. "I think it's very important for a band of your stature to make a statement like this to come to a large inner-city school in Oakland and show your appreciation and your connectedness to the people," EBAC's Gary Thompson said. "I really thank you for that."

After the Pumpkins received a commendation from a representative of the city of Oakland, a group of children presented them with a large "thank you" card and a tennis ball painted orange to resemble a pumpkin. "I was excited because the only time I ever saw a famous person was when I went to see Usher and Mary J. Blige," said 11-year-old Mikey Montaez, who said he liked the band's music.

The Pumpkins spent some time with the young students answering questions about rock stardom and music prior to the press conference. And while the kids were certainly inquisitive about the band, many had their minds focused on learning.

"We need a new science room and some more books," said 9-year-old Charlie Saephanh, who was holding a transformer-robot toy in his right hand and clutching a scrap of paper with D'Arcy's autograph in his left. "The books are getting old and I read them all."

Another student excited about the rare visit from rock royalty, 10-year-old Juan King, said he wanted the money that the Pumpkins raised to fund a field trip, since his class hadn't been on one all year. "The only person like that who ever came here before was [San Francisco 49ers wide receiver] Jerry Rice," Juan said. "Maybe next time the Spice Girls will come."

Iha said the group chose a children's charity, in this case, EBAC, which assists children with emotional problems, and the Hawthorne School, which serves a disadvantaged community, because they are "non-political" causes. The Pumpkins said they were aided in their choice of charities by a representative from their management, who compiled a list of worthy U.S. causes.

"We didn't want it to be political or self-aggrandizing," said the soft-spoken guitarist, dressed in a dark blue jean jacket and pants and a green army shirt. "By picking something that's local and affects the community, no one can make a political analogy. We didn't want to do something that was attached to any organization with ties to Democrats, Republicans, the right or the left."

The Pumpkins said they expect to raise more than $2 million dollars on the tour, which Corgan said he hoped would help work against what he termed the incorrect perception that "Generation X" is selfish.

In one of the more poignant moments of the press conference, Corgan told the story of how his mother died from cancer more than a year ago and how the two discussed how Corgan could make good out of the negatives that he's accrued in his life. "I feel like I've translated the pain that I had into something that other people could understand and find comforting, and I think that gave my mother a lot of peace to bring perspective to her life and my life as well," he said, his hands pressed to his lips.

"But quite frankly, I wish I'd had the kind of childhood that I desired ... I don't think there's anything wrong with growing up happy. I would wish that on a child ... I wish I had these kinds of programs around me to give that support. When you're 15 years old, you're thinking about suicide, you don't feel you have the support either in your family or your social structure -- those are very, very tough things."

Source: Sonicnet