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.
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