The smartest thing anyone ever said about punk rock came out, appropriately enough, in a one-sentence burst: "Punk's great -- as long as you grow out of it." The problem with most punks is that they don't, or if they do, they become irrelevant. The best thing about Green Day is that they did and they're not.
Sure, at Live 105's sold-out Shoreline BFD show a week-and-a-half ago, Green Day yanked out the Lil' Bastard bag of dirty tricks and acted like obnoxious teen-agers. On the ancillary parking-lot stage, beautifully illuminated by magic-hour light diffused with gravel dust, Billie Joe Armstrong did his retarded guitar-player routine and stripped down to a pair of bikini underwear. Drummer Tre Cool set his kit on fire. Bassist Mike Dirnt did plenty of those kicking jumps. And there were two horn players outfitted as a bumblebee and some sort of rooster.
So no, they're not aging in a stately, Bruce Springsteen-KFOG radio kind of way. Nor are they growing out of punk like Sonic Youth, whose A Thousand Leaves turns a baby girl into themes of domesticity and child care. Green Day's change is more like the Beatles growing out of Jerry Lee Lewis cover songs and into developed songcraft, from Beatles for Sale into Help! and Rubber Soul. Back in the mid-'60s, the Beatles still bobbed their heads live and bratted the press. But those two records showed serious artistic growth and an open embrace of broader subjects. The songs were more musical; the lyrics were revealing. In a way, the Beatles had to grow out of the simple R&B love songs in order to redefine rock 'n' roll. A direct analogy to Green Day would be a stretch, but the band is doing something similar by mining punk for pop. The result is not as epic, but neither are our times or this confusing moment in rock history. What Green Day is doing is smaller, more exacting, and probably more personally discombobulating: They're becoming ex-punks.
For four albums, Green Day existed in a state of developmental arrest. Almost every song on 39/Smooth and Kerplunk!, the band's two full-length Lookout! releases, and their first two major-label albums, Dookie and Insomniac, could be bashed out in three minutes and three chords, on time and under budget. There were approximately four themes: nostalgia, love, boredom, and drug use. (Sometimes, these themes collided.) On Dookie, Billie Joe sang, "I'm not growing up, I'm just burning out." On Insomniac, the follow-up, he was getting bored and "going nowhere fast."
On Nimrod, the record released late last year, Green Day grew up. The band now uses horns, strings, and harmonica to accentuate songs. They do a vibey instrumental, and -- as anyone who's turned on MTV, listened to the radio, or watched a recent season finale on television knows -- even an acoustic ballad called "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)." The lyrical changes are even more radical. Now, Billie Joe is turning out like his dad ("just another shitty old man"), and "the future just ain't what it used to be." Judging by the album, Green Day's punk world has collapsed upon them.
The sentiment is similar to what self-publishing scribe, former Green Day roadie, and Berkeley resident Aaron Cometbus has been mulling over in the pages of his brilliant zine Cometbus for the past few issues. The parallel is greatest in Issue 42, possibly one of the most ambitious single zines in micropublishing history. It's a novel, a zine novel, titled Double Duce, and written by a guy who started doing punk interviews and zine reports more than 10 years ago. It tells a story about a bunch of punks who move into a legitimate house together and how the entire thing falls apart. It's a simple tale, but the implication is much bigger. When Aaron writes about these guys crumbling under the weight of responsibility and insanity, he might as well be talking about any punk scene, anywhere:
I thought just by sharing a life together we could fend off the demons of cynicism and loneliness. We could create a productive environment, and squeeze some humor and hope out of the day-to-day desperation. But what had it all added up to? It was one thing to laugh at yourself and your goals, and destroy yourself in little ways, but quite another to purposely fail, to turn your life and your goals into a total joke which wasn't even funny anymore.
Green Day didn't fail -- they succeeded famously. Now, they're accepting it.
I have a couple of confessions to make. First, I was never a punk. Second, I never liked Green Day. The first is no great crime; what I did like -- pop music and what was known as college rock (the Replacements, early R.E.M., the Smiths) -- is nothing to be embarrassed about. But why I didn't like Green Day is a little more complicated. For me, they got pinched by twin perils of our overly self-conscious pop moment.
First, there were the charges from the punk side of town that Green Day were sell-outs after signing -- and receiving a ballyhooed big-money advance -- with Warner Bros. I hadn't been cool enough to see them at Gilman Street or on one of their pre-Dookie tours. I didn't realize that Green Day hadn't really compromised, so at the time the sell-out charge seemed reasonable. Instead, I read the fanzine screeds against the "sell-outs." I snickered when I heard the Stanford marching band play an instrumental "Longview" at a hockey game. I foolishly took a side in an unwinnable punk border war.
Secondly, once Green Day hit Warners, and once the resulting Dookie began its first amusing, then horrifying sales streak (eventually selling more than 10 million copies), the trio got broadsided by mainstream America. They aired stylish music videos that made punks cartoony and palatable to the masses; they were omnipresent on alternative radio. You could be sick of Green Day without ever paying attention to what they were doing. I never really listened to Dookie, and then I snored through most of Insomniac.
Sometimes we all need to admit ignorance and adjust the arbitrary opinions we develop about pop music. I was stupid. What I didn't get was that Green Day was making fantastic, celebratory teen-age music. As I heard Jello Biafra say at a panel talk on punk, Green Day blundered their way to success -- they didn't exactly plot it out. Everyone thought Green Day was a punk band -- even the members themselves. What I understood only recently is that Green Day is a pop band with a record collection full of Ramones albums. They're not necessarily punk.
Punk songs don't get played on the radio, and back at the Shoreline, almost every song was a radio song. The set began with "Nice Guys Finish Last" and "Hitchin' a Ride," the first two tracks from Nimrod. The band bounced, and the kids chirped along to almost every word. The lyrics weren't as cheerful. "There's a drought at the fountain of youth/ And now I'm dehydrating," Billie Joe sang.
Green Day ran through "Geek Stink Breath," "Longview," and "Basket Case." Billie Joe plucked some kid out of the audience to play three chords on a cover of Operation Ivy's "Knowledge." The songs, and the show, were fun, immediate, and substantive. The band finished the set with "When I Come Around," and then five minutes of feedback squall, burning drums, and a broken bass. As the drums smoldered, Billie Joe, by himself with an electric guitar, came back on. "For what it's worth," he sang, "It was worth all the while/ I hope you had the time of your life." His delivery -- a little sped up, slightly rushed -- exploded the tune's sentimentality. It sounded like a goodbye song to his punk friends, but he could've been singing to himself as much as anyone.