Sunrise on a Green Day

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

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.

Stripes and Rock Stars Forever: Green Day returns to 
form with American Idiot.
Marina Chavez
Stripes and Rock Stars Forever: Green Day returns to form with American Idiot.

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.

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