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Sunrise on a Green Day 

Green Day's latest proves that a punk band can be popular and relevant, even in the Bay Area

Wednesday, Nov 24 2004
Last week I mentioned to a friend that I was thinking about writing an article on Green Day. He laughed at me. "Dude, seriously though," I found myself explaining, "American Idiot is way better than anything Blink-182 is doing. Green Day still remembers that there's supposed to be some punk in pop-punk. They're not that bad."

This really made him laugh.

"Never mind," I said, and we went inside the small club to watch an under-the-radar band on a local microlabel play some catchy pop that would probably never find its way outside the Bay Area, because that's the way we like it.

You know the Donnas? Yeah, they suck. So does Train, so does Third Eye Blind, so does Trapt. What do they have in common? They're among the most popular bands to come out of the Bay Area in the last decade. If you talk to members of the Donnas, Train, and Trapt, they will tell you that some of the worst press they get is in their hometown papers, that San Francisco is typically unsupportive of local groups that get major-label record deals and widespread mainstream success.

To some extent, this generalized disdain has to do with the fact that many San Franciscans are like that Morrissey song: "We hate it when our friends become successful." Mostly, though, the reason we shun those acts is simple: They're shitty. It's been a long time since the days of Jefferson Airplane and Journey (let's not fight: Journey rules), a long time since we've had a heavyweight contender we can really stand behind. S.F. may have the most thriving underground music scene in the country, but very few mainstream acts emerge out of it, at least few that we can be proud of.

Green Day is a rare exception. While the band has lost some ground in the decade since it released Dookie and introduced MTV to that curious new sound known as pop-punk, its latest record, American Idiot, is a triumphant return to form. A kind of rock opera in the vein of the Who's Tommy or Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, the album captures the angst and confusion of growing up in the suburbs of George W. Bush's America, and it feels like the statement that Green Day was born to make. So laugh at me if it makes you feel better, but the fact is, this is the best mainstream alternative record made by a local band in a very long time.

Mike Dirnt, Green Day's bassist, has his daughter next to him when he takes my call from a tour stop in Bakersfield. The band has been on the road nonstop since American Idiot came out on Sept. 21, so Dirnt's been away from his 8-year- old longer than he likes. But the day before, the tour had taken a short swing through Oakland, and Dirnt surprised her.

"I didn't tell her that I was coming home," he says. "I walked up behind her at school and I tapped her on the shoulder and said, 'What ya doing?' So I surprised her with that and I got to go to her piano recital, so that was pretty cool." Dirnt then took her on tour for the few days leading up to the band's show in San Francisco tonight. "She got a great report card; she deserves it." he adds

It's hard to imagine the members of Green Day as adults, to imagine Dirnt, with his tattoos and spiky bleached hair, doing things like going to piano recitals and parent-teacher conferences. After all, this is an act that hit it big in 1994 with a multiplatinum-selling major-label debut called Dookie (i.e., poo-poo); its first single, "Longview," lamented the details of suburban ennui -- smoking weed, masturbation, that sort of thing. Dookie remains Green Day's highest-selling album (7.2 million copies to date). Its cover art, depicting the band's name riding high atop a mushroom cloud, was oddly prophetic: That album, thanks to its four hit singles, was arguably the moment when pop-punk exploded across the nation, giving rise to the hundreds of Blink-182s and Dashboard Confessionals that would follow.

"We were hoping to be able to play parties," Dirnt remembers of the band's ambitions when it first started, "parties and shows. It was really just about, like, 'What are we doing this weekend?'"

A year after Dookie came Insomniac; two years after that, Nimrod; three years after that, in 2000, Warning. Green Day's story doesn't include tons of drugs, lawsuits, and infighting; frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and Dirnt have known each other since grade school (drummer Tré Cool joined up in 1989). Instead, the group simply slowed down over time, releasing solid, if not especially explosive, records that contained the occasional single -- Nimrod's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" still gets regular airplay -- but sold increasingly fewer copies in a marketplace now saturated with Green Day clones.

It didn't help matters that the members were growing out of their Dr. Martens and into more adult pursuits, like getting married (all three have been, Dirnt twice) and trying to enrich their youthful sound. So as acts like New Found Glory and Saves the Day were administering the pop-punk armies their dose of caffeinated distorto-fun, Green Day was breaking out the acoustic guitars, adding strings and harmonicas, getting all weird and shit. Warning was Green Day's lowest-selling major-label release.

But then four years went by, four long, strange years full of paranoia and confusion. Punk thrives under such circumstances -- if anyone can be credited with popularizing the stuff, it's probably Ronald Reagan -- so perhaps the passion of American Idiot isn't surprising. What is surprising, however, is its ambition. There aren't just four good singles here. Idiot is a grand, cohesive production, with characters and a loose narrative. It's got two nine-minute songs! Who would have expected Green Day to write a nine-minute song?

"I think we just wanted to challenge ourselves, and our fans, and this genre of music," says Dirnt. I ask him if the group ever doubted the notion that Green Day enthusiasts would accept a rock opera from a three-chord punk band. "Yeah, it was scary. It was like writing a score and a script at the same time, but nothing ever got done because of fear of failure."

The album opens with the now-ubiquitous single "American Idiot," a wily, distorted decree that sets the tone for what follows: "Can you hear the sound of hysteria/ The subliminal mind-fuck of America." The rest of the album tracks the progression of one mind in particular -- that of the character Jesus of Suburbia, aka St. Jimmy -- and the extent to which it is fucked by the media, the suburbs, girlfriends, parents, drugs -- that whole 180-proof American cocktail we call the post-9/11 world. What makes the work so enjoyable is Green Day's ability to change moods through music; those 10 years of working out its songwriting muscles are finally paying off.

The second track here is a five-movement suite that charges through distorted, pure-punk moments and then shifts to lilting, piano-backed passages, eventually arriving at a very Kinks-y section of bouncing acoustic guitars and background "Ooooo"s that color in Armstrong's spot-on lyrics: "The space that's in between insane and insecure/ Oh therapy, can you please fill the void/ Am I retarded?/ Or am I just overjoyed?" Then the song explodes again for a dramatic, grinding exit.

The album is not without its faults. "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," with its loping acoustic guitars and flanged background noise, is ripped right out of Oasis' playbook (as Live 105 DJ Party Ben pointed out in a recent mash-up). And certain lyrics ("She's an extraordinary girl/ In an ordinary world") are embarrassingly simple, even by Green Day's standards. On the other hand, there are moments of pop genius here that redeem even the lamest mistakes, like the anthem "Are We the Waiting," a stadium-ready slow-roller that's sure to get the lighters raised and the auditoriums full of 14- to 40-year-olds yelling, "Are we/ We are/ Are we/ We are the waiting unknown."

"Without sounding pretentious," says Dirnt, "we wanted to make a piece of art and have everything firing on all cylinders. I've always respected how bands like U2 and the Stones, bands like that, or monumental records like Ziggy Stardust and Rocky Horror, when you look at those records, and you look at everything that it did, whether it's the tour or the artwork or the album -- everything was tied together."

American Idiot marks the first time that Green Day debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. This was due in large part to the infectious "American Idiot" and the wealth of airplay it received on TV and radio in the month leading up to the election. Dirnt, however, insists that just because Bush won doesn't mean the album was a wash. "A lot of these songs hold a deeper meaning now probably than they might have had he lost," he says.

That may be because the album tells a good story, and good stories are meant to be timeless. OK, so it's no Les Misérables, but it is a sad, true-to-life tale of a regular Jim trying to get by in an "information age of hysteria," delivered in a catchy, accessible package that might just reach a few hundred thousand people. If that's not real mainstream success, I don't know what is.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps


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