The thing about being an aging punk band -- one that defies expectations of longevity, doesn't combust, doesn't go down in romantic flames -- is that you really can't win. Punk rock is, nearly by definition, young people's music. It's rebellion and angst, and it's the struggles, fierce pride, idealism and incredible sense of identity that come with that outsider status.
The tricky part about anti-establishment art, of course, is that if you're great at it, if it resonates with enough people, it eventually crosses over to the establishment. So what do you do when you write songs about being a bored 15-year-old in Berkeley, getting stoned and jerking off, and the chord progressions are really simple but your lyrics are universal and your songwriting and showmanship hit that sweet spot in people's hearts and a major label looks at you and sees dollar signs and that sounds pretty okay to you, and then the next thing you know not only are you banned from the underground club that raised you, you're being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- which is, if we're being honest, a little like being banned from getting to claim punk credibility ever again -- and all of a sudden it's 25 years later and tickets to your very corporate-feeling shows cost hundreds of dollars and you're basically a solid nostalgia-rock band instead of a snotty teenage punk band and Rolling Stone is writing about your post-rehab comeback album and goddamn, who even reads Rolling Stone anymore anyway?
These are the questions I want to ask Green Day. There's something allegorical, cautionary about their career arc -- and yes, it's extra-personal if, like me, you grew up in the East Bay, Billie Joe's funny nasally pseudo-British accent confusing the adults around you in the absolute best of ways when you insisted on staying up to watch their 1994 Saturday Night Live debut. Those three-minute, three-chord songs are in your DNA, so it makes sense that there's a sense of ownership, a stab of betrayal. And a resigned understanding that, much like a charming high-school boyfriend you would never date again in a million years, you will never truly get over them.
Now is when I should probably mention that Green Day actually put on an objectively very good, very loud show last night, Oct. 20, at Berkeley's newly refurbished UC Theatre. After an appearance from their standard hype man of the last few years, the Drunk Bunny, the band emerged and launched directly into "Know Your Enemy," off 2009's 21st Century Breakdown, "Bang Bang," off the new Revolution Radio, and "Holiday" from 2004 comeback American Idiot -- all pomp and bombast and power chords; Billie Joe Armstrong in a ruffled red shirt with black suspenders, successfully exhorting the sold-out crowd to jump and scream and fist-pump on command.
Then came a blur of Kerplunk and Dookie and Insomniac hits: spirited, warm, and increasingly loud versions of "Longview," "Armatage Shanks," "Christie Road," "When I Come Around," "Welcome to Paradise," "She" and "Stuart and the Ave." -- that last one, as Armstrong was quick to point out, referencing a Berkeley intersection a few blocks from the theater.
"We're gonna give it our all tonight," he promised at one point, "because we always save the best for the hometown shows!" It was one of about a dozen references over the course of the evening to Gilman, Berkeley Square, "Oaktown," etc., not counting the times Armstrong simply screamed "EAST BAY!" Other stage banter included references to the Raiders and a prideful "You progressive motherf*ckers!"
Did the gestures feel forced? A little. Did either of the young teenagers Armstrong pulled onto the stage to sing, then instructed lovingly on stage-diving and crowdsurfing technique seem to mind? Not in the least. I'm certainly not going to forget that first kid anytime soon. She was shaking. He made her life. And it almost made up for all the people in the back in tucked-in polos who sat down throughout the entire show.
Those people, for what it's worth, came most alive when the band, cued by a blue-haired Tré Cool and joined by keyboardist Jason Freese on saxophone, launched into a hard-winking medley of "Shout," "Have You Ever Seen the Rain," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," "Hey Jude," Journey's "Lights," and so on. The joke being that those songs are cheesy classic rock, get it? Which is, like, really different from what Green Day does, right? Just try not to think too hard about the 44-year-old frontman with the dye job and the eyeliner. And definitely don't think about what Oldchella will look like in another 15 years.
After encore songs "American Idiot," "Jesus of Suburbia," "Forever Now," and solo performances of "Ordinary World" and "Time of Your Life," Armstrong's bandmates, grinning, nearly carried him offstage. The house music came up, and the sweaty humans all around me began to carry their own grins toward the exits, adolescent euphoria radiating off even some of the most senior attendees.
And then, on the way out, I passed a group of maybe 14-year-old boys I'd seen earlier, receiving a stern talking-to from someone's mom as she dropped them off -- and in a matter of seconds, their dazed, energized, mischievous expressions as they plotted their next move (Nation's, boys, Nation's!) answered every question I had about whether or not Green Day still represents something pure and true and rebellious to anyone in this world.
Look, no matter how long they've been a Very Famous Mainstream Rock Band, there's always going to be something surreal about seeing the best-known graduates of Berkeley's most proudly grungy DIY scene playing something like the Disneyland version of punk in a big shiny room featuring expensive chandeliers. ("These guys would make a great Green Day cover band," went some nonsensical part of my brain near the end of the two-and-a-half-hour set.)
But if today's 14-year-olds are still picking up Dookie (or, hell, Revolution Radio) and searing those three-minute, three-chord songs onto their DNA -- and then maybe, hopefully, going to 924 Gilman to check out the next-generation iteration who doesn't cost hundreds of dollars to see, or maybe even to start that band -- well, who am I to say that's not punk?
Take it away, teens: This is your band now. Take good care of them. And please don't forget to stagedive.
Neither here nor there:
- Mike Dirnt is a very celebrated bassist and yet I still feel like he's underrated.
- Very curious about these shirts at the merch table that bore the famous rules posted at 924 Gilman; hope it's some version of a fundraiser.
- There's something to be said for genuine hometown energy: I heard the band's guest list was roughly 400 people long.