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[whitespace] Green Day Time of Its Life: Green Day has enjoyed 10 years of extraordinary success in defiance of the commercial paradigm.


Once There Were Giants

The 'Warning' of Green Day's album is that we may never see such authenticity again

By Gina Arnold

AT THE START of Edmond Rostand's play Cyrano de Bergerac, Cyrano yells, "Bring me giants!" Near the finish, after being mortally wounded by government henchmen, he whispers the words "felled by lackeys." I've always thought those two immortal phrases sum up the life cycles of all great rock bands. They begin with the belief that they can take on the entire world--and sometimes, they actually can. In the end, though, they are brought low by forces beyond their control: the unimaginative and easily threatened hegemony of the music industry, the co-option of their sound and exploitation of their ideals by their enemies and, finally, the death of the heart.

Green Day is a case in point. The Bay Area punk-rock trio has had a glorious 10-year run, starting out as an underground favorite at the notorious 924 Gilman Street club in Berkeley, signing to Warner Bros., wowing the world at Woodstock '94 and winding up as the reigning kings of nuevo punk.

Giants indeed: In 1998, the band's song "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" was the closing music on the last episode of Seinfeld and the season finale of ER respectively. Green Day had utterly transcended its roots. Green Day is still a wonderful band, but in some ways, it has been felled by lackeys in the form of bands like Blink 182, Lit, NOFX and others whose combination of sound, look, lineup and even attitude is such a close approximation of Green Day's own.

True, a band like Blink 182 is nowhere near as genuine, original or talented as Green Day. But when a band is surrounded by imitators, it's easy to lose sight of it in the crowd. This has happened before, most notably to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but Green Day suffers particularly from this kind of blotting out in the sonic landscape, because what it does is so damned simple. Green Day really does play songs of three chords (even though, as Joey Ramone once protested about his own music, "They're the right three chords") and its tunes are highly derivative.

All that's left to distinguish Green Day from the pack of bands howling at its heels is its lyrics--and its personality. Both are in the hands of singer Billie Joe Armstrong, and although Armstrong is a funny, sarcastic and charismatic guy, he is also low-key and unpretentious. Carrying a band's image into the newspapers via outrageous behavior and shock tactics--the tactics that are apparently necessary in this day's market--is not only beyond him, it's probably his idea of hell.

Warning (Warner Bros.) is the band's fourth major-label LP (there were also two LPs on the indie label Lookout!). And although it is a perfectly fine example of the band's art, Warning really doesn't develop Green Day's sound beyond its roots as much as one might like.

"Time of Your Life" actually hinted that Green Day had some stretching power, but Warning reneges on the promise. I mean, no one wants Green Day to suddenly go techno or jungle or something, but there's a limit to one's endurance of music this narrowly gauged. If Green Day changes its tempo at all, it's only by milliseconds.

THE NEW ALBUM uses a tried-and-true formula: a rock-steady, mid-tempo beat, simple but infectious tunes, and lyrics that are, simply put, all about questioning authority. The title cut is really the summation of Green Day's attitude toward life, which is not so much anarchic as libertarian.

Green Day isn't a politically conscious band, but here it takes on an issue that's much in the news: warning labels. In a chorus deeply reminiscent of the silly '60s song "Signs" ("Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blocking up the scenery/messing with my mind"), the band pleads with consumers to "live without warnings."

The album's first single, "Minority," also proclaims Green Day's continual alliance with the opposition: "I want to be in the minority, I don't need your authority/Down with the moral majority."

Elsewhere, the CD is not so anthemlike. In spite of his great success, Armstrong has a strangely dark view of life, especially the kind of conformist, suburban life that probably sums up that of many of his fans. "Deadbeat Holiday," for example, tells listeners to "celebrate your own decay," while "Jackass" is about a hateful person. Despite their underlying bleakness, these are thoughtful, not dumb, songs. However, they hardly exude a huge amount of personal growth or lyrical maturity, and no wonder, since Armstrong is still under 30.

Warning delivers more than a retread of past glories. "Hold On" has a faint flavor of Dylan and Woody Guthrie, and "Misery" is a circus-flavored folk song about crazed youth that sounds as if it belonged on Green Day's 1992 album, Kerplunk. The title song, "Waiting," has a nice intro and a more positive outlook, as does the album's closer, "Macy's Day Parade," a pensive and pleasant song about home and hopefulness.

Throughout the album, Green Day never loses its grip on tunefulness, but in essence, Warning is all just business as usual--more of the same old sound. Whatever the shortcomings of the album, Green Day's stasis says something about the state of punk rock. The band considers itself the purveyor of punk ideals, not punk music--Armstrong has (rightly) said, "I can never drop the [punk] lifestyle--it's me. It embodies me."

That's a particularly admirable stance, given Armstrong's newfound money and position. Personally, the members of Green Day have retained their "small is beautiful" ethos: they live and work in Oakland, self-produced this LP for a sum doubtless considerably less than most bands spend on their clothes, and have their own private record label, Adeline, on which to record their friends' punkier projects.

IN SHORT, Green Day is a great, great role model for how to survive rock stardom with your dignity intact. But the band also--sadly--represents a real turning point in music history, because it may be the very last superstar group to make its way in the world via a relevant, socially contextualized "scene."

Yes, the last. After Green Day, the world became loaded down with careerist bands that, far from feeling like a part of their own communities or expressing some great, unexpressed truth about life, merely believe that the world owes them a good living for doing what they love.

Consider the current stink over the closing of Downtown Rehearsal Studios, a building in San Francisco that houses the rehearsal spaces of about 300 bands. The building was bought by a dotcom for $16 million. Many of the bands that rehearse there have decried the situation, claiming it is killing San Francisco's local music scene and that such a situation is detrimental to the city's arts community.

The owners have offered the bands $500,000 to vacate, but they have rejected the money in favor of public protests, like the one last weekend when bands played on rooftops and streets. It is an attitude of pure entitlement--and one that really sums up the change in the Zeitgeist about indie rock and punk rock.

For one thing, I can't see how, if one of the many bands involved in this protest became successful, that would differ from a dotcom making millions--except that a dotcom might employ more people. For another, why should the city government or the local economic community help bands develop? It's completely outside the paradigm.

Green Day, for example, made its own scene in an old cane shop in a forgotten neighborhood in west Berkeley: recently, since that hood has gentrified somewhat, the band has moved its operations to a forgotten part of Oakland.

In Green Day's world--and I'd add, in the worlds of most successful punk-rock bands--being outside the economic and social milieu of the "real" world was not only preferable, it was necessary to the development of its art. The idea of forcing local government and businesses to help the band rehearse would have been against the whole point of the exercise, negating its autonomy and artistic sense of self.

Granted, Green Day's success puts it in a position where the price of Bay Area real estate is irrelevant. But the old-school principle still stands. That's why, although the title of Warning may refer to consumer warning labels, I think it also serves as a kind of eviction notice to all those lackeys whose music may sound similar but whose motives are infinitely less noble. Green Day is still a giant, but there are currently no new Cyranos in sight.

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From the October 12-18, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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