Do you have the time
To listen to me whine
About nothing and everything
All at once?
I am one of those
Neurotic to the bone
No doubt about it
--Green Day, “Basket Case”
It’s a story that begins, I suppose, in 1994. Specifically, it begins on a Tuesday night in the Fireside Room of my old church. I know this because it happened at junior high youth group. My youth leader had decided to do one of those messages on the evils of rock music. The songs he chose to deconstruct in order to inoculate us from worldly evils were Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” Green Day’s “Longview,” and Offspring’s…um, whatever the big song was off of Smash.
We were all given lyric sheets with the swear words edited out. The youth leader sat up front with a boombox, hitting the fast forward button on the CD player every time one of those words came up in the song. We learned about the messages from those songs: sex is okay, violence and suicide is okay, and masturbation is a-ok.
The whole thing made me vaguely uncomfortable. I liked all of those songs. That particular night came just a couple months after my first introduction to the world of alternative rock and I already possessed a copy of Dookie and Ten. I went home and stuck my copy of Dookie in to a little slot at the back of my RCA boombox. I didn’t want to be influenced by the evil rock, but I also didn’t want to just throw the CD out. It languished there for a while.
That night was the beginning of a ten-year war in my mind that had everything to do with music.
Do you the enemy?
Do you know your enemy?
Well gotta know the enemy
--Green Day, “Know Your Enemy”
Superpages.com Center is probably not the sort of place I’d spend a lot of time visiting. I’m more of a small club, 21 and older show sort of guy. Still, last Thursday I put on my RCPM Che shirt for indie cred and headed down to Fair Park. Green Day was in time and I’d grabbed a seat in the pavilion. I’ve never actually seen Green Day live and this seemed like as good an opportunity as any.
Apparently my indie snobbishness has insulated me from a lot in the world of concerts. And I’m not just talking about venues that charge $9.50 for a Miller Lite in a plastic cup. I don’t even go to the House of Blues much because they have too many all-ages shows. So I was shocked to find myself surrounded by tweens in skinny jeans and leggings and, um, the various other accoutrements that are popular with the high school and junior high set these days.
Overall it was a weird effect. There was a better than even chance that if I saw a member of the female gender I was then expecting the dude from To Catch a Predator to jump out of the bushes in a very special edition of the show or I quickly realized that she was there escorting her high school-aged offspring. It’s an odd thing, being 29 and single at an all-ages show.
I apparently totally missed the switchover that Green Day managed to make from the music that I grew up with to the music that thirteen year-olds listen to. I quickly dropped in to Grampa Geds mode and started putting up Facebook statuses about the damn kids with their skinny jeans and wondering if they even knew about Green Day’s history of writing songs about jerking off. It was certainly better than going to my seat and listening to AFI.
The rage and love
The story of my lfie
The Jesus of Suburbia is a lie
Are we, we are the waiting?
--Green Day, “Are We the Waiting?”
I eventually removed Dookie from its randomly imposed purgatory. I added Nimrod, Insomniac, and International Superhits! to my Green Day collection. But then I, like most people, totally forgot that Green Day had ever existed. Then news came that they were releasing a new album and they’d be trying something different: a Tommy-esque rock opera. I was intrigued.
When American Idiot came out I loved it from the start. I named it my 2004 album of the year. Mostly, though, I connected with the story of growing up and growing disaffected. 2004 wasn’t quite the beginning of the end, but the markers of discontent were there. 2005 would see one last, half-assed attempt to seriously follow-through on ditching all of my worldly music and listen only to proper Christian entertainment.
But, see, we’d been promised a revolution. Jesus was gonna show up and make everything happen. There was going to be revival.
But there was never a revival. Jesus kept obstinately insisting on not coming back. The Jesus of Suburbia was a lie.
Here they come marching down the street
Like a desperation murmer of a heartbeat
Comin’ back from the edge of town
Underneath their feet
Their time has come and it’s goin’ nowhere
Nobody ever said that life was fair now
--Green Day, “Homecoming”
Billie Joe Armstrong has re-invented himself, just as Green Day re-invented itself with American Idiot. I’d seen the whole pseudo-Emo, heavy eyeliner and frosted hair shit, which I find rather annoying. But what I hadn’t seen was what he does on stage. Billie Joe has morphed in to a manic televangelist for disaffected youth.
But there’s a message in the whole thing that I’ve never really noticed before. The question is asked every once in a while, “Where has all the protest music gone?” We wonder why there is no Bob Dylan, no “Universal Soldier,” no “Eve of Destruction” for the endless War on Terror generation. It’s there. Green Day seems to have figured out how to do it. But no one takes them seriously because they were originally a three-chord pop punk band playing silly songs about masturbation and entertaining junior highers.
One of those thirteen year-olds is now twenty-nine. At first I was disoriented to find myself at a show surrounded by teenagers. But as the night went on I began to realize something. It was a good thing. Sixteen years ago my youth leader tried to warn me about the dangers of the evil rock music. I strongly suspect that a lot of the kids in that audience have heard that exact same message.
For three hours on a Thursday night Green Day made me extremely happy that I eventually ended up deciding to keep Dookie around. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that American Idiot wasn’t really a re-invention of the band, it was a re-invention of the idea of how the band presented itself.
I wanna be the minority
I don’t need your authority
Down with the Moral Majority
‘Cuz I wanna be the minority
--Green Day, “Minority”
When all of your songs are two and a half minutes long it’s pretty easy to squeeze a big chunk of the library in to a three-hour set. Even at that, I was impressed. They managed to work in most of American Idiot and Dookie, as well as several other old songs I like, not the least of which was “Minority.”
But there was also plenty of tagging. The band riffed in “Iron Man” and “Highway to Hell” and “Hey Jude” among many, many others. Everyone sang along and cheered.
It reminded me that rock music is a part of our culture, woven in so tightly that I can even sing along with and enjoy songs that I would never choose to listen to on my own and enjoy the hell out of myself. It also reminded me that we’ve seen this culture war of the Christian establishment against rock music ever since, well, rock music started. Elvis was too dangerous with his swiveling hips. The Beatles made young girls scream just a little too loud. Black Sabbath worshiped the devil.
Green Day sang songs about jerking off. It doesn’t seem like much of a statement to rally behind, but that’s not really the point. They had something to say beyond that. For the first time I really listened to “Minority” and realized what they were saying when they referred to the Moral Majority. I think I’ve always known they were referring to it, but I didn’t realize that they were firing an intentional salvo in the culture wars.
Last Thursday I realized something: the culture wars are over.
It might not seem like it, because we’re seeing a furious rear-guard action. But I can tell you a story about a thirteen year-old kid who put away his copy of Dookie because he’d been told it was of the Devil.
I can also tell you the story of a twenty-nine year-old who went to see Green Day sixteen years later.
Or something. I’m still a bit lost on how “Jeremy” really fit in to the whole motif. How the fuck you get any particular “rock is evil” message out of “Jeremy” is completely and totally beyond me. I mean, the song is a story about an abused kid who lashes out and eventually ends up committing suicide.
I suppose this is one of those INOUIITB (It’s Not Okay Unless it’s In the Bible) moments. If “Jeremy” had been a story about Demon possession or some other such BS from an appropriately Christian source it probably would have been a morality play set to the music of Carman. The fact that it involved a grunge rock band singing the evil Devil’s music meant it didn’t work that way because it would have blown the doors wide open on any number of assumptions.
Thank Jeebus that “Brain Stew” wasn’t out yet…
In an incident that involved Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and a maroon minivan on the way back from the youth group’s Spring Break Work Trip. Yeah, I sold my soul to rock and roll that day. I think I got a pretty good price, too…
This was in that weird sweet spot where I liked Pearl Jam because “Spin the Black Circle” had not been played every twenty minutes on Q101. Seriously, I hated Pearl Jam for about eight or ten years after that. Still can’t stand “Spin the Black Circle.” Also, I’ve never owned Smash and never will.
Okay, there’s a non-zero chance that I gave that to Velvet Revolver’s Contraband, mostly because I was a fucking moron in 2004.
Okay, no. I just looked. I gave the number 1 to American Idiot, the number two to Contraband, and the number 4 to Local H’s Whatever Happened to P.J. Soles? In at number 3? Collective Soul’s Youth. What the hell was wrong with me in 2004? American Idiot and PJ Soles were obviously the best two albums on that list, not for the least reason that they’re the only ones I still listen to. This, of course, totally ignores the fact that RCPM’s Americano! came out in 2004 and isn’t even on the list. But the simple reason for that is that I wouldn’t become aware of RCPM until early in 2005. I also totally feel like I’ve sidetracked in to berating past me about the year 2004 in music at several points in the past on this blog. But that 2-4 is completely unforgivable, as is the rest of the list. Honestly, I’m embarrassed to mention any of the other albums I liked in 2004 save U2’s Vertigo. It wasn’t a very good album, but it had a couple of good songs and “Love and Peace or Else” is genuinely amazing.
This isn’t exactly what the “Jesus of Suburbia” in American Idiot refers to. But it’s how I’m using it.