SAN FRANCISCO -- The Smashing Pumpkins are spending the summer being charitable. And everyone knows it.
On Tuesday night the Pumpkins played a punishing hour-and-a-half set of songs from their new album, Adore, at San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Before coming back for an encore, they made a very public display of their largesse. The group took time out from the show to present representatives of an East Bay charity the show was benefiting with a $170,000 check, a moment that clearly felt awkward for some in the audience during such a cathartic rock concert.
It's hard to recall any band that has embarked upon a tour of this scale before. Scale, not in the sense usually used to describe the megaplatinum Chicago trio -- massive stages, huge shows, epic guitar solos -- but in the sense of economic scale. Seated at a school lunch table at Oakland's Hawthorne Elementary School on Tuesday afternoon, the band -- singer/guitarist Billy Corgan, bassist D'Arcy Wretzky and guitarist James Iha -- speculated that the 14-city, 16-date charity tour would collectively net more than $2 million for local non-profit groups in each city.
That's $2 million out of the band's own pocket.
And though Corgan didn't mention it at the press conference, the group is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of its own money covering tour expenses: sound, lighting, travel and the like.
"It's very close to our hearts," Corgan said at a press conference arranged in one of the school's classrooms. "We've always talked about what's an ethical approach when you have success, and I think we've reached the kind of success very few people ever reach. We're doing exactly what we'd always hoped we'd do, which is to stand up for something. To represent something and not just basically take the gold and go live in a castle."
Here were three of the planet's biggest rock stars -- Corgan, dressed all in black, his gleaming head tossing off rays from the reflected lights of the local news camera crews; the glamorous D'Arcy, wearing a sheer black top and slinky black pants; and the subdued Iha in dark blue-jean jacket and pants -- bringing their new album's dark, gothic vibe to a room plastered in grade-school finger paintings.
Just before the press conference, they'd hung out with 10- and 11-year-olds from the school, answering questions about what it was like to be a famous rock star. "They wanted to know if we came here in a limo," mumbled Iha. "We came in a van today." (Corgan made a comment before the end of the first set Tuesday night about having to "leave to go catch a limo" that drew loud jeers from the teenybopper crowd. Only he knows how far in cheek his tongue was planted.)
Bands have mounted benefit tours before: Bruce Springsteen asked fans to bring canned goods for food banks in the mid-'80s; Michael Jackson has staged a number of benefits for children's charities; and shows like Farm Aid, Live Aid and even the now-laughable Hands Across America were all very public displays of celebrity generosity. And while some artists and philanthropists prefer to give in silence, this being the Pumpkins, their charitable work was out in the open, on display for all to see, public catharsis being Corgan's stock-in-trade.
A colleague said he felt the in-concert check ceremony was "weird." Too public, too self-aggrandizing. He said it disturbed the flow of the show and seemed to upset some fans by drawing so much attention to the philanthropic gesture. If you looked around there were plenty of hard-core Pumpkins fans dressed in their Billy and D'Arcy glam drag and their "ZERO" shirts, with some young girls in homemade angel's wings who seemed bewildered after the show.
I saw it another way, though. For all their bluster and, at times, overkill moments of self-analysis, this gesture by the Pumpkins was one that felt almost awkwardly genuine. Here they were presenting a large check to a children's charity in front of an audience of (mostly) children, sending a clear message about where their hearts and minds were. This, despite the fact that the chaotic show made no attempt to assuage the young fans who were looking for Mellon Collie II instead of the more arcane Adore.
"The music business is basically an egoistic business, and it's hard to get people away form their egos," Corgan said that afternoon, adding that he'd like to see more bands follow the Pumpkins' lead. That statement in itself would seem, as my colleague suggested, self-aggrandizing.
"Don't break your arm patting yourself on your back, Billy," my colleague might have said. But it was what Corgan said next that might have stolen my colleague's thunder.
"We're out [promoting a new] record," Corgan replied, in reference to how the no-profit tour might affect the so-far sluggish (by Pumpkins standards) sales of the new album. "And in some ways, by doing this we're not doing the basic necessities of touring our record. If it was about egoism we'd be more worried about our record than what we're doing today."
I'm as jaded as the next guy, perhaps even more so, but I wanted to believe Corgan. Even if the tour were hatched out of some millionaire rock star's guilty conscience, born out of fear of being trapped in that gilded castle, it doesn't really matter.
I think the check hand-over was weird too, but I also think this feels like an unprecedented gesture by a huge band that could very well have done another arena tour that netted it more millions with which to fortify its already formidable golden castles.