The Vic, March 27
The idea that punk equals radicalism has always been somewhat overstated. For all the music’s political outspokenness and sartorial provocation–ingredients of equal import in rock ‘n’ roll–it’s obvious how rear-guard, how conservative really, the movement was. The intent was to wrench rock back. To what? Well, it was hard to tell exactly, but the fantasy seemed to be to wrench it back to a pre-Brian Epstein, Cavern-era utopia: garage bands in garage land, as the Clash put it, hooting at the suits and laughing at the old bag’s complaints. But if you think about it for a moment, the philosophical problems with this are plain. The original garage bands went to the garage because they needed a place to play. But when you’re heading out there not because your parents made you but on purpose because you’re making a political statement, you’re not in a garage anymore. You’re in a simulacrum.
As the 20th anniversary of the birth of punk, the Summer of Hate, looms, this problem circles in on itself one more time. What do you call punks who look nostalgically back at an era that looked nostalgically back at yet another? Can you take them seriously? Or are latter-day punkers merely the 90s version of, say, rockabilly boys (and girls), wearing the costume and walking the walk as banners of allegiance to a lost and simpler time? I don’t mean to sound dismissive. Punk, almost through sheer wishfulness, really did create something: a small but potent idealistic infrastructure of labels, bands, and distributors that percolated through the 80s and eventually produced a quintuple-platinum Nirvana, Soul Asylum on the cover of Rolling Stone, and Agamemnon dead.
But while all sorts of variants of this music–what came to be called alternative music–flourished in this shadow industry, the musical nostalgists remain. The neo-neo-punks have been surviving happily in several protected areas around the country, including a venerable scene in Berkeley, California, home of Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll and a club called the Gilman Street Exit. Green Day, a barely postadolescent trio playing an irresistible pop punk, is that scene’s current standard bearer. A major-label bidding war for the group has resulted in a Warner Bros. album, the ineffably named Dookie. (Dookie is the band’s word for doo-doo; the cover of the album is a cartoon of a massive shit bomb triumphantly exploding over Berkeley.)
Some punks, you will remember, were nasty, others artsy. Green Day are fartsy. “Noses were picked, butts were scratched and anal gases were released,” wrote one fanzine Boswell of Green Day on tour. The band’s cartoon infantilism is of a piece with their music, fast, spare, and exaggeratedly catchy punk-rock songs, recorded swimmingly on Dookie if not on the group’s previous two efforts. Having given up even the (deeply cliched) love songs of their earlier work, the band’s concerns on Dookie have narrowed down to exactly two things: being bored and having no life. Unlike their British forebears, however, they don’t blame society. Indeed, to the small extent self-awareness intrudes on the characters in Green Day’s songs, they blame themselves, acknowledging that pot and natural lethargy are the main creators of their anomie. But even this attitude has a faint air of the received about it. Green Day, after all, don’t sit around the house doing nothing. They formed a band, toured the country starting at 18, and put out their own records. Like Chuck Berry’s teens and Brian Wilson’s surfers, Green Day’s characters are an attempt to give an audience what it wants.
At a sold-out show at the Vic a week or so back, Green Day did their best to tend to their roots. Singer Billie Joe, bouncy and goofy, tongue hanging out of his mouth in concentration, mugged and riffed, stopping now and then to rail at the $10 ticket price or deliver a punk homily. (“It’s good to have a gathering like this where everyone can focus their energy one way.”) Bassist Mike Dirnt, who looked rather older than his alleged 21 years, pulsed pulverizingly with killer drummer Tre Cool. Nearly every song displayed humor, verve, and hooks hooks hooks. (The last band to play so many good songs so fast was the Ramones.) There are scores, hundreds, of bands of unwashed boys (and girls) playing punk rock, yet less than a handful have this group’s gift: the Beatles-esque harmonies, the clarity of the hooks, the awesome lockstep of the rhythm section. In other words, they typify their scene, but they transcend it as well. Do they care? By definition, pop bursts the bonds of scene and subculture; upon reacting with it, even the most devotedly constructed simulacrum will melt into air. Green Day’s garage is looking less and less solid all the time.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.