For the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I will be using this space for a series of pieces I call Mixtape – a set of personal stories about the pop music that made a positive change in my life. Enjoy and share your thoughts on these and the other songs and records that shaped the way you see and hear things now! Part of the power of music is how it can be both personal and communal at once.
The squarest guy I knew showed me the coolest band I had ever heard.
It was 1994. Bill was friends with my older sister. He had a buzz cut. He drove a Ford Escort.
It had a CD player in the dash.
Bill was the first person I knew to own a copy of the album Dookie by Green Day.
As a preacher’s kid, my exposure to any rock bands with bad attitudes was limited, but I had really never seen an album cover devoted entirely to bathroom jokes.
And those power chords…
I poured over the lyrics to “Basket Case,” shocked and awed by the bald grossness.
I was in love.
And I wasn’t the only one. Through the second half of the 90’s, Green Day continued to reinvent their own versions of late 70’s angst and cultivate a fanbase of kids who never understood the Sex Pistols but had their own suburban, white version of discontent that needed catharsis.
It wasn’t dripping in originality or talent. In fact, I played the epic riff from “Brain Stew” (from their 1995 Insomniac record) for my dad and he shook his head while exclaiming, “That’s Chicago, Brian! They are just messing with ‘25 or 6 to 4.’”
But that was all part of the appeal. These pierced, spiky-headed thugs were chewing up and spitting out the things our parents were feeding us. And that seemed worthy of attention and money.
And to their credit, Green Day kept trying to mangle and mess with different things. There was a weird folk album, an acoustic ballad I played at my high school baccalaureate, and then – American Idiot.
American Idiot was REAL punk- or as authentically punk as a commercially successful band would ever be allowed to be and keep their fanbase. The music was recycled, but it had down-with-authority attitude that denounced the second Bush era and created mainstream choruses of discontent with songs like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and the overtly anti-war “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”
Truthfully, after that album, I paid considerably less attention to Green Day. I only know that they have since made several more records and have turned American Idiot into a Broadway musical. But when I found out they were doing an amphitheater tour this summer, I felt compelled to revisit the version of myself that first ripped Dookie out of Bill’s car stereo and tried to take it home.
My best pal Murdock was in the amphitheater with me that night and he tried to warn me. One of the only people I know who is more studied and obsessed with rock n’ roll minutia than me, Murdock had seen the setlists, watched the videos on YouTube and had a full grasp on the shtick coming our way from the guys in Green Day that night.
There was fire, a fan singing lead vocals, noise bombs and crowd surfing – all before the end of the first song. The bombast was cranked high. And I was on board. Sure, the lead singer said the name of the city we were in a half dozen times in five minutes, but that seemed excusable given the other over-the-top antics.
But during the third song, the singer said something that got me upset.
“I am so tired of politics,” he yelled. “Tonight we are just going to have fun.”
It was barely a week after a certain rally had taken place in Virginia and here was a band who’d spent the first decade of this century commenting on the White House. And they were not only openly refusing to talk politics – they started playing cover songs of the ilk most often heard while tipsy and at a wedding (Isley Brothers’ “Shout” – I kid you not).
This was NOT the Green Day I had come to see.
I felt gut-punched. I felt bait-and-switched. I felt like I was watching a Green Day impression.
Was Green Day supposed to be about “fun”?
This wasn’t subversive, angry or even rabble-rousing. This was a full-blown nostalgia play for grown adults so we could look back at how silly we all were 20 years ago when we thought bathroom humor sneaked onto an album cover counted as “sticking it to the man.”
And I guess we were all silly back then.
If life teaches you anything it’s that everything is more complicated than it should be.
There is nuance and gradations and complexities. Plus, life just makes you tired.
I am reminded of the first few weeks after I met my now-wife. We worked together at a college textbook store. She had short hair and piercings and a killer scowl and one day – amidst some kind of argument – another co-worker told her “You can’t keep up this James Dean act forever, you know!”
We still laugh about the pomposity of that statement in that moment, but now inching closer to the far side of our thirties, we do see that it’s true.
Being indignant and idealistic and demanding more of the town, state and country in which you live can wear you out. To be honest, I rarely make it to PTA meetings, let alone town halls or protest rallies.
As much as I’d like to say I stand for change and equality and making the world better, my actions often tell a different story.
But it’s not too late to try a little harder.
I am going to let that sweaty, commercialized rock n’ roll spectacular I witnessed this summer cause a small revolution despite what that singer might have intended.
I, for one, plan to play the old Green Day albums at an extra high volume today and recapture that flare for asking questions and “sticking it to the man.”
Even if it only lasts for three and a half minutes…