“Silence is the enemy.”
At some point on this past August 11th, at Jiffy Lube Pavilion in Virginia, it all went away. At some indefinable moment, while realizing that time had seemed to stop as Green Day obliterated tedium on their way through a legendary, two-hour-and-45-minute show, while observing that Billie Joe Armstrong is a frontman in ways that few are today, while deducing that this band had become much more expansive and adventurous than their critics would admit, all of the Green Day hate that I used to store up in my head had drifted away. It had been eradicated by the firework-propelled opening of the title track to their last album, by the seamless transition from songs written 16 years ago to ones written less than 16 months ago, and by the connection and genuine love felt from the audience to its entertainers. There was nothing left but admiration.
In my formative music years, I had to deal with an internal Green Day disapproval meter that pointed to red less because of actual knowledge than from some nebulous perception that they were too popular. I wasn’t enamored with many of their songs that enjoyed radio love, and so, outside of “Basket Case,” I gave their music little attention. When the trio teamed up with U2 to re-make “The Saints are Coming” for the New Orleans Saints in preparation for the 2006 NFL season, I loathed the pairing.
Shortly after that, I felt inexorably drawn towards something I had tried to resist. “Saints” turned out better than I expected, but, mostly, Fugazi happened. I wore out their discography in that fall of ’06 (my freshman year of college), and Dookie was next in my iTunes library. Every time I got to the end of The Argument, I would prepare myself to stop the music…until I heard “I declare I don’t care no more / I’m burning up and out and growing bored,” heard the band start running, and suddenly the pause button was the furthest thing from my mind. The revolution was underway, propelled by the inescapable fact that over a half-dozen songs off that album had implanted themselves in my mind without conscious intention—indeed, probably despite some conscious intention.
And so, for much of college, my interest in Green Day slowly expanded, albeit reined in by the cognitive dissonance engendered by that fall and the knowledge of my earlier distaste. As such, it took until the last 12 months to see them as more than a one-album band.
When 21st Century Breakdown was released last May, I was compelled to listen only because a friend played it for me. My initial thought concerned my inability to get “Know Your Enemy” out of my head after just two listens, and then I observed other details about the album that didn’t jibe with Green Day stereotypes—that songs were often broken down into sections with disparate sounds, that the band was incorporating elements from all sorts of musical genres—and some that should always have been apparent—namely, that Billie Joe has one of the most underappreciated gifts for melody of our time.
Rolling Stone put it well in their review of Breakdown: “What’s more bizarre: the fact that they sound so ambitious and audacious on their eighth album, or the fact that they even made an eighth album?” And therein lies Green Day’s walking contradiction; punk bands simply don’t last as long as they have. They don’t evolve the way they have. Dookie dropped just weeks before Kurt Cobain killed himself; what other bands of their genre are still relevant?
And a large part of Green Day’s evolution has been their thematic interest. American Idiot shocked everyone; the joke went something like, ‘Wow, things are so bad, even Green Day are writing protest songs.’ Yet, paradoxically, that album was the most ‘punk’ of their career. And the rants against the Bush administration and 2004’s political climate enlivened critics and fans alike, cultivating a career renaissance that happened even without a sharp decline. Without a massive change in sound or a fall from grace, their seventh album redefined their career, a more impressive feat than you’d imagine.
In fact, Idiot became so recognizable that I longed for more people to go back and listen to their earlier work, to understand that 2004 wasn’t the first good year of their lives. And before this month’s concert, I hadn’t even bought the album, my youthful resistance still holding a bit of ground. But the show did many remarkable things, not least of which was converting me to Idiot. In the last couple weeks, I’ve determined it’s indispensable to own alongside Breakdown, both because the latter naturally follows the former and also simply because the former is stellar.
Both these albums’ strengths were amplified live; Green Day and Billie Joe, now at least, convince you that they take themselves and their music seriously. In an age of insouciance and apathy, bands that do so stand out; this is a substantial reason why the Arcade Fire are the new media darling. Green Day’s contradiction can be summed up as such: they give a shit—about the world around them, with or without Bush in office—and don’t give a shit—about people’s expectations for them, about their genre’s constraints, about their history. I mean…9-minute, 5-part suites? Over a minute of quiet piano slowly introducing songs?
The show also furthered a key point of Breakdown—how far the band has progressed from their punk roots (in all ways except their politics). The genre’s ideology emphasizes minimalism; it would never approve of the elaborate, sweeping show GD put on, not the lengthy interludes during songs or the flames bursting forth during the loudest moments of the most impassioned numbers. Billie Joe channeled the spirit of all great frontmen by running around like a controlled drunk, always emphasizing inclusivity. Someone threw me a lei? Sure, I’ll put it on. Want one fan on stage? Why not 30? It all worked, splendidly, and it proved to be done by a band living on its own terms.
Over the course of the nearly 3 hours, GD pulled, by my count, four tracks from Breakdown (the singles: title track, “Enemy,” “East Jesus Nowhere,” “21 Guns”), several from Idiot, occasional quirky deep cuts like “King for a Day,” and, of course, juicy Dookie standouts. I would have loved me some “Nice Guys Finish Last” or “The Static Age,” but the band threw out more than a few bones, namely “She” and Warning’s “Minority.” Would I have preferred one or two additional songs to be played in lieu of some of the mid-song interludes? Perhaps, but it’s hard to complain about anything in the presence of such energy, such ferocity, such charisma. GD have entrenched themselves as a peak live band of our time, possessing the ability to transport audience members into another world, the way great films and books do.
Really, though, a look back on the band’s discography reveals a few patterns that might have clued us in to their potential longevity. The music and lyrics are consistently smarter than one would imagine, every song managing to sustain independence from its brothers while yet maintaining propulsive drive. (Dookie, for example, is one of the great energizing albums out there, but it has a heart and soul.) Throughout their career, they’ve written indelible breakneck rockers (“Burnout,” “Nice Guys,” “Idiot,” “Holiday”), effortlessly smooth power ballads (“Having a Blast,” “Redundant,” Worry Rock”), and then occasionally pulled back for change-of-pace slow-burners (“Good Riddance,” obviously, plus “Are We the Waiting”; “Last Night on Earth” still blows, however). Their use of tension and release, especially on “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Letterbomb,” is masterful. Except for the underrated Warning, their albums are typically too long, over-loaded with trimmable filler, but that’s sort of the point: with nothing to lose and nothing to prove, they always seem to be tossing off ideas just to see what sticks.
Billie Joe’s lyrics, from 1994 until now, are stronger than casual critics will give him credit for (Dookie wrings humor and mischievousness out of nothing, and the last two have many quotable lines), and his gift for hooks is borderline criminal (“Jesus” reins in this category, possessing enough hooks for about 7 songs; see also “Basket Case,” “Coming Clean,” “Scattered,” “Church on Sunday,” “Brat”). But it was only Breakdown that allowed me to see all of this, that allowed me to go back and listen to everything that came before, to realize that there was much more there than meets the eye. That album’s staying power, frankly, stunned me; but it shouldn’t have, not with its diversity, smooth flow, and abundant creativity, hooks, color, and intelligence.
They’ve just never hit these peaks before—the epic bridges of “Static Age,” the second “Gloria,” “21 Guns”; the release when Billie Joe cries, “My generation is zero / I never made it as a working-class hero!”; the titanic drum lead-in back to the final chorus of “Enemy”; the passionate, inimitable Green Day gallop of the first “Gloria,” “Christian’s Inferno,” and “American Eulogy.”
On Nimrod’s “Worry Rock,” they declared, “Promise me no dead-end streets / And I’ll guarantee we’ll have the road.” Well, Billie Joe, you should never fret about not having that road.