Saturday, May 30, 2009

Why Am I Always This Way?: Green Day, Pt. 3

Apparently, there is a button that just deletes everything you just wrote. Luckily I was only one or two sentences in. But that might be fateful. No matter how many times I've laid out this final entry in the Green Day Defense/Tribute, none of them seem to work, especially since I've hyped this entry, and even though I can't imagine anyone out there has been on pins and needles waiting for it, I'd like to finish things up nicely.

A man (or woman) is defined by many things in their life. However, some are more definitive than others. There are three moments that had a deep impact on me, that in many ways defined the course of my life, that in some ridiculous fashion, were all centered around Green Day. It's silly, I know, as I love the band, but am not a fanatic, i will not ever get any tattoo based on this band, I do not know the members' middle names, or what pets they have, or even their spouses' names (OK, I know Armstrong's wife's name, but that's only 'cause he named his label after her). Nonetheless, these big three moments, while not the most defining moments in my life, are all probably in the top ten.


When I was in the 8th grade, I found myself out mowing the lawn, as many 13 year olds often find themselves doing. Naturally, I had Dookie (the ALBUM, jerk) in my walkman (cassette, no less), and was howling along to it, trying to hear myself over the din of the ancient death machine the parents strapped me to every week. The fact that it was those retro 80's headphones with the thin metal band and the little foamy puffs over your ear didn't help things. So I'm singing along to that record when I realize that after a couple years of singing to that record, I can sing a lot better than I used to. Now, I was in the school choir as a kid, and thanks to my dad, always had music around and was probably already musically inclined, but at this moment, I realized that my "rock"-type singing had gotten better. Not great. Nasally, not 100% on pitch, but not bad. Better than some bands I'd heard by that point (although my dive into awful indie rock vocals didn't come for another couple of years).

"Wow," I thought. "Maybe I could do this, like, in FRONT of people. I've got a guitar, and I sing in my room, but maybe I could, like, perform!"


Let's get to the big one, so that I can end it with a happy one. About a year and a half prior to my "I can do this" moment, I was in Mr. Rowe's science class at West Frederick Middle School. Green Day had just hit the radio with "Longview" and "Basket Case", the latter of which flipped me out. It was most likely my first exposure to punk rock in any accessable form (my previous understanding came from the movies, and as we all know, the 80s never got confused about what punk was. Remember the guy on the bus in that Star Trek movie with the whales? What about the "punks" who listen to funk metal in "Point Break" Ugh...).

"Basket Case" cracks my head open, and the next time I'm at the mall, I sneak off while mom's in some store to go to the record store to find a tape. Yeah, a tape. Dookie was a new release on a major label. It was like $13. For a CASSETTE. I don't have that kind of swag at that age. So I lurk away. Luckily, one of my neighbors has their previous record, Kerplunk, and runs me off a tape of it. I think it had something good on the other side, but I don't remember. in any case, it wasn't labelled and had no track list (that's the important part here). I love it. Even more than "Basket Case". What I liked about the radio songs were the speed, volume, and hooks - I was looking for punk rock but didn't know it. I was, however, at a disadvantage. There was no hipster obscurity points in these days. Not in Middle School. I'd save up my money to buy that cassette, but until then, I was in love with Kerplunk.

A few weeks later, I'm in science class (Remember? Where this all started?) and on our way out of class, I'm on the fringe of some conversation with Heidi (who wore Cranberries shirts and was a vegetarian in the 7th grade - a future barista, I'm almost certain), Jake (a pretty-boy airhead, but certainly the nicest of the bunch to me), and Neil (thuggish frat-rocker type, probably in the private sector these days... middle management?). So they're talking about Green Day.

"I really like Green Day," I chime in.

Now this was a bold statement for the new kid to make. I didn't fit in with anyone, as I'd spent a few years prior living in Europe, so I missed a whole bunch of the important evolutionary years in pre-teen culture in the States (ages 7-9). There was a lot of stuff I didn't get, and didn't fit in at all (although I bet almost everyone felt like this). But here I was, and I'd made a statement, a definitive statement about something. Something that it was already established that the "cool rocker kids" had approved. This was about all we had at this point in our lives, so "claiming" a band was almost like staking out your identity. In that class (1994), we had a "Pearl Jam Guy", "Nirvana Guy", "Doors Girl" (there's one in every class)I'd been woken up by punk rock (not, at that point, really knowing it, or even what punk was), and was planting my flag in it, for better or worse.

"You're just jumping on the trend. You probably can't name any of their songs besides 'Longview' and 'Basket Case'. So trendy..."

I knew most of the words to Kerplunk. I listened to it every night, almost. I'd had my mind completely opened by this music that I thought was almost perfect, the same way certain people reacted to the Beatles, Elvis, the Stones, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, etc. I had even seen Nirvana at that point, pre-fame, in a GYM in Vienna, Austria. It was by accident, and I hated it, but I saw them playing. But this Green Day thing, I didn't understand it all, but I loved it.

And I didn't have a fucking leg to stand on, 'cause I couldn't name a single other song. I stood there feeling dumb and betrayed. Especially since in the heady days of the early '90s, being a part of the pack was about as uncool as could be. This was the alternative revolution! It was like having the wind knocked out of both me and my sails. I just sorta stood there as they walked off, my identity dismissed and stomped on. It hurt. Not like tears hurt, but hurt. I resolved to go out and get that Dookie tape, and it took a lot of scrounging and pinching and saving change from my lunch money when mom wasn't paying attention to save up that thirteen bucks. And when I did, I memorized the thing. Lyrics, song titles, liner notes, references, as well as any press I came across on cool music. I swore that the next time, they wouldn't be able to dismiss me again. But something funny happened while I was obsessing. I liked it more. And then I found references in liner notes to thanking other bands, and I'd hear the other bands and love them too.

Now, I was never able to rub Jake and Heidi and Neal's faces in my newfound knowledge, since just walking up and spouting would have been social suicide, and in those days, I cared about that. But my insecurity and painful dismissal by the "cool" rocker kids is, I realize, fifteen years later, what made me them music geek I am today. It was the moment that I went from listening to music to diving into it. All these years later, I've played on stages with some amazing bands, worked in a cool indie record store, and was a college level assistant instructor of rock and roll, and I often find myself wondering if that would ever have happened if it weren't for that moment walking out of Mr. Rowe's class.

Despite the theory of the Butterfly Effect in the evolution of time (not that shitty movie, but sorta), my life might have been completely different. I might not have started playing guitar, in which case I never would have started playing out, in which case I never would have met Shannon, and I'd probably not be in Boston in a newsroom right now. And that's just one example. So Jake, Heidi, Neal, and maybe Peter? Thanks, you assholes. And fuck you. (That's the years of built up punk rock.)


Do you remember your first "9 to 5" job after you left school? I do. It was the Credit Union of the university I went to, which is going to remain un-specifically-named, just in case Google still wants to smite me. Anyway, my better half was a few years behind me in school, and I took this job to bide my time until she was out and we could move away from Bloomington together, in search of greener pastures. So I buckled down and after a difficult job search (everyone in a college town is overeducated for what they do), I ended up as a member services representative at the main branch.

It was essentially a soul-crushing job. There were some cool people there, but it was largely horrific. Most of the people who worked there were nice people, but too many of them had been there more than 7 years. This was not a 7 years sort of job. The management was (cliche as it may sound) very similar to the "Lumberg" character... assigning needless busy work for no reason other than to do so (again, more on that in a moment). I spent most of my lunch hours dashing downtown to the record store (Tracks) to try to find some used CDs that would make me happy on the way home... about the only happy I got except for that 6:00 PM - 10:00 PM window when I could hang out with Shannon at home after dinner and before bed.

American Idiot had been out about 6 months. The title track had been all over the radio, and teenage America was lapping it up. I was the bitter, jaded old man who'd been into Green Day the last time they were famous, and still stinging from the commercial failure of the brilliant Warning, I was skeptical of this new "eyeliner and studded belt" version of Green Day. But, one early spring day at Tracks, I picked it up (new, which was weird for me), 'cause I couldn't find anything else, and loved the Banksy-esque cover art. Well, on the way home, I rolled the windows down and cranked that album up. I was so drawn in that I faked a stomach ailment that day so I could leave early and listen to it in my car some more. The first song was sort of political, but it was the rest of it. Was it a great album? Really good, but not great. It was the fact that this album was a rehash of Quadrophenia and Zen Arcade, except for my time, my present. Rehash might be a harsh term... how about reiteration? It was the story of a young teen who leaves home for the real world, only to become disillusioned and try to act to change his circumstances.

All the years I'd spent listening to it's forebearers, I was hit in the face with another concept album with a similar theme, and I realized that I'd betrayed myself. I was wearing a nice blue oxford and some khakis, but it wasn't the dressing that mattered. I'd sold out. I was miserable for $10.00/hr plus benefits. I sold my soul for security.

I drove around for another 2 1/2 hours, miserable that I'd betrayed what I thought I believed in, and realizing that being miserable was not worth what I was getting paid. I wanted to quit my job. That weekend, we were going to visit my parents, and over dinner with them and Shannon, I let is slip that I really didn't like my job and wanted something else. To my surprise and eternal gratitude, they all agreed with me. they supported me.

The next week, on a Friday, my boss came over to me to follow up on some online training tutorials we were supposed to do. It was 3:00 PM, my absolute downtime, which I relished, since us member service reps didn't get breaks, this was our break.

"Hey Mike, did you do those tutorials we had the meeting about Tuesday?" (Three days ago.)

"Uhhhh... not yet. You mentioned they weren't due to the admin office for another 6 weeks. I figured I'd read up on them and then take them" (I was lying, I wasn't going to read up on them.)

"Well, it'd be great if you could do those, alright?" she ordered me, like a gopher popping her head over my cubicle wall.

As she waddled away, I called Shannon.

"Can I do it? Can I do it today?" I asked, since we'd talked about me staying on for one more paycheck, just to have some money in the bank while I hunted for a job.

"If you really want to, yeah, do it.".

There are three times I cherish when Shannon has answered a question for me. The first is when she said she'd be my girlfriend, standing in her driveway when we were in high school. The third is when she said she'd be my wife while we looked over Boston from high above. The second was this conversation I'm recalling.

I knew that the HR machine would be closing at 4:00 on this Friday, and I knew that the branch closed at 6:00. I waited until 4:05 to walk into my managers office and quit.

Shortly thereafter I got a job at the very record store I'd bought American Idiot. It was (to start), $6.00/hr, no benefits, and 20 hours a week. I didn't care. I was free. It was like I'd just woken up from a bad dream. And that was when I turned into a hippie of sorts. You shouldn't have to be unhappy. You CAN change your situation. Was I scared? Yeah. But I did it and my life has been better ever since. I worked that job for over a year, because that's what I thought adult life was. "You're out of college? Here's a soul-crushing but decent paying job. Have fun until you die." I thought that's just how life was. But it's NOT. I got off the treadmill, I moved to Boston without a job (eventually) to an apartment I'd never seen. And it's great. I took control of my life. And I felt like the 15-year-old me, the one that really believed in Quadrophenia and Zen Arcade, would be proud of that, in it's own way. Honestly, I wish it were a "cooler" record I could say "changed my life", but now that I've written it all down, it certainly does seem like it fits that description.



So there it is. Three stories, two of them sorta interesting, about major moments in my life that I would certainly say helped define who I am. The only two unifying threads are Green Day and me. What does it all mean? I have no idea. It's just things that happened. My concept album isn't done yet, but these three moments would probably be tracks. The universe has a deeper meaning I can't understand, but I do know that these things are all intertwined somehow.

Just don't ask me if I have any personal moments related to Toad The Wet Sprocket.

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