The list of musicians who have made schools the focus of their philanthropy is a short one and, curiously, so are their names: Madonna, Shakira, Diddy, Pitbull and Flea, the longtime Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist and active supporter of the Silverlake Conservatory of Music.
The Los Angeles school held its annual fundraiser on Saturday night (November 2) and featured performances by the Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, the latter on acoustic guitar as well as ukulele. The veteran rock stars ensured that the crowd got its money’s worth at the intimate double-bill. After all, what could possibly top Vedder and the Peppers joining forces for a rendition of Prince’s “Purple Rain” as an encore? The answer: a cover of “All Along the Watchtower” that evoked both the Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix versions.
Before taking the stage, Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis reflected on the moment when Flea first fell in love with music. “Flea’s life was changed by enrolling in a music class in junior high,” he told Variety. “He had an orchestra teacher who put him on a path. He was, like, ‘If you study music and practice every day, your life will change’ — and Flea’s life changed. When he grew up, he got to play music for a living and he was successful.”
It’s hard to imagine Flea as a band geek, but he certainly embraced that identity. “I always played in music programs and the marching band, the orchestra, the jazz band,” said Flea, sharing highlights from his formative musical years. “When I graduated in 1980, they passed proposition 13, which cut funding for all arts programs in public schools,” he lamented. “I wanted to fill the void. That education meant the world to me as a kid: It was an opportunity to find myself; to have a sense of self-discipline; to have a community of kids that weren’t doing drugs or robbing people.”
While the event featured comedy — the host for the third year in a row was Marc Maron who did stand-up between sets. But on a serious note, the podcaster and star of “Glow” expressed his admiration for Flea, the philanthropist. “He feels like it’s on him to fill that gap,” Maron told Variety, referring to the lack of music classes for public school students in L.A. “And that’s commendable. He built it out of nothing and created this thing to directly and very specifically help kids of any kind.”
“Goodwill and positive energy led to a storefront down the road,” added Kiedis of the conservatory’s original location before it moved into its current home on Hollywood Boulevard in 2016. “It just snowballed from there into a full-fledged school — this beautiful building with beautiful facilities.”
Ironically, during his own school days, Flea was somewhat of a music snob with little interest in rock ’n’ roll. The trumpet was his instrument of choice as a teen. Said Flea: “I liked the more sophisticated s–t. I grew up playing jazz and classical music. I thought rock music was for dumb people.” But when Flea’s friends formed a band in high school and asked him to play bass, he realized that rock music brought the girls and quickly changed his tune. “The odds of a girl liking me expanded multifold in that moment — that was a big inspiration,” he confessed. “When I was jamming with buddies, it awakened something in me that was really profound.”
And opening the Silverlake Conservatory of Music provided him with a deep sense of purpose. To put the school’s importance in Flea’s life in perspective, it ranks fourth — “outside of the birth of my children and my awesome wife and my band” — on his list of loves. Number five is merely a blueprint at the moment. “We’re opening a new school in Watts,” said Flea. “We’re starting construction within the next few weeks. I don’t even think about it as giving back, though. It just feels like the right thing to do.”
This has proven to be a popular opinion, as Kiedis pointed out: “When anyone with half a heart hears that these underprivileged kids need a place to study the arts, people are like: ‘I’m in!’” he said. “ ‘What can I do to help? I’ll give some money, I’ll give some of my time, I’ll tell my friends.’ It’s self-perpetuating goodwill — and it just makes sense.”
Flea hasn’t forgotten what life was like before he found his calling. “I was a street kid — crazy and wild,” he said. “But music gave me a single thing to focus on that saved me in so many ways and created this beautiful life for me. There are lots of kids who have that song inside of them and the worst tragedy is if they don’t find and opportunity to express that.”
What child wouldn’t benefit from music education, Flea asked. “Even if they’re not serious about music as a career, every kid should have the opportunity to study the arts — it fulfills an important part of anyone’s character,” he said. “And when you can appreciate music, it makes the world a lot less lonely place.”