Photo by Marina Chavez

Rock stars growing up in the public eye is an ancient
tale: the choppy travels and travails of fervent young people
who must learn to balance a checkbook and buy groceries
while exploring the furthest depths of their creative capacities,
without becoming addicts or wife beaters or, crucially,
crashing bores. Simultaneously, they face an enormous,
hungry audience bellyaching for nothing at all more than what’s
already been given.

Your really big rock stars, such as Green Day, often begin their careers at an extremely young age; Green Day were, like, 15 or 16 when they began bashing out their melodic punk-pop up in the East Bay back in the ’80s. They hit with the 1994 album Dookie and its genre- and audience-defining hit “Basket Case,” which paved the way for the hordes of hyper pop-punk combos such as Blink-182, Sum 41, Good Charlotte, etc., and brought the still young Green Day incredible wealth. Predictably, “cred” problems quickly followed, among the band’s original punk followers and more than likely in the guts of Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool.

From the outset, a genuinely sharp and bitingly humorous hue gave Green Day’s thrash the something extra that made their success deserved. (Though yes, yes, whether they ever did anything but strip the surface from old-school punk, double its speed and apply a lot of Bay Area–style ironic contempt remains a “hotly debated topic.”) And as players, they proved to be a unit of almost awesome facility and cohesion, absolutely raising the bar on whatever pop-punk garbage trailed behind.

Green Day tampered with and modified the form they themselves were largely responsible for bringing into the public arena. They did love songs, for cryin’ out loud, lots of ’em, which, given the entire subsequent emo-punk wave, might not seem like such a big deal, but at the time was a somewhat daring maneuver, at least for punk rock. And then, over the course of three more albums that largely refined this mix of super-alive party-punk and the occasional sweetly goofy plea for love, home and security, the band confronted the same dilemma that’s plagued rich, comfortable musicians since the dawn of rock & roll: How do you keep in touch with yourself and the times and other people, in order to maintain the fiery compulsion that made you want to start a band in the first place? How do you do that while maintaining an eye to the needs of your original constituency and the evolving wants of a (hopefully) ever-expanding, mainstream audience?

Agh, “maturity.” The strain can be a bit much, I’m told. For their part, Green Day, after a four-year layoff (raising kids, shopping at the mall, listening to music), decided to address their personal need for broader musical range and deeper lyrical content by writing . . . a rock opera. Called American Idiot, it illustrates, according to the band, “the alienation and disillusionment of the American citizen under Bush’s post–war on terror administration.” And that’s fine with me. I’m not one to criticize rock bands for thinking ambitiously, for trying new shapes and sounds. No, I think the rock opera is relatively unexplored turf that, in the right hands (admittedly there’re few), could yield fabulous mutations of form. And I think it’s a great misapprehension that young listeners’ attention spans are so crippled that they can perceive the shape of nothing longer than three minutes.


And American Idiot works. It works very well, mainly because the band have become full-grown songwriters and certifiably great arrangers. Sound ludicrous? Well, it’s not. While renowned mostly for their amphetaminized punk-rock buffoonery — a sound and a sheer force, by the way, that still slam again and again on this new disc — Green Day are also blessed with three sets of acutely tuned ears.

Laying out the story of one “Jesus of Suburbia” (“victim of circumstance and part victim of political climate”), the album tramps through a landscape of American complacency and self-boredom with the band’s most musically ferocious and lyrically pungent attack to date, especially on the title track (“Welcome to a new kind of tension/

All across the alienation/Where everything isn’t meant to be okay”). The song is arguably standard-ish hyperteen whiteboy shit, but in this case boiled down to its very essence; as pure energy it’s immaculate, and its effect is appropriately idiotic.

But for a band so furiously facile at the rudiments of superthrashing, there’s something a little schizoid about Green Day. Amid their constant heavy-emo/party-rave raging, you keep hearing these evocatively pensive bits — and they’re way too brief. (You can imagine the band’s longtime producer Rob Cavallo saying, “Oh, that’s nice, that’s sweet, but you gotta give ’em the thrash.”) These sensitively handled little musings peek their heads in, as intros or the first half of verses, and the effect is tentative, still not entirely confident. In the minorishly moody “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Give Me Novocaine,” Green Day slow it down (briefly) and become a completely different band, a far more interesting one. But often these pretty patches make the inevitable launches into double-time squawking and churning seem a tad obligatory, as if the guys doubt they’re gonna get away with their adventures.

The best song is “Extraordinary Girl,” whose great chord sequence and wide variety in guitar sounds comes off very ’60s, reminiscent of the Leaves’ version of “Hey Joe.” On this particular track, Green Day’s punk approach just makes sense, as if they’re aiming to shoot new energy into old forms. And the bittersweet “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” though glomming onto the band’s de rigueur thrashrock chorus, generally stays true to the song’s reflective spirit — its chimes and gentle acoustic guitars give a wistful (not wimpy!) feeling, and in a far better world it’d be an autumn-release chart-topper.

While Green Day’s physical prowess sounds far from peaking, the band’s trademark youthful sarcasm now feels a bit muted, as if growing up’s uncertainties make such easy slagging a lot more difficult. The key to why this set of songs had to turn out this way in September 2004 lies in American Idiot’s recurring themes of alienation and hope. And just as Green Day came to prominence at a time and place that made them perfect for their age group, today their peers’ awful but predictable alienation (and hope?) is the story behind Green Day themselves. I wish them good luck.

| American Idiot | (Reprise)

Those reading this on Thursday, September 16, can catch Green Day performing American Idiot in its entirety tonight at the Henry Fonda Theater — if they can scam a ticket, that is. SOLD OUT!

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