When I got into Green Day, I was a typical new fan: watching interviews, old performances, vacuuming up every bit of history I could get my hands on. I wanted to understand my new favourite band. Plus, it was fascinating. The East Bay was another world… and it may as well have been tucked away on Mars. My chances of ever visiting seemed that remote.
Green Day brought that culture, that background I’d immersed myself in, to their live show. It was as beautiful and welcoming as my research promised. Through Green Day I met my now-fiancée, Annabelle, who grew up in that very culture and would be my tour guide when I eventually made it. Even as I grew up and forgot all I’d learned, the fascination remained.
My mum – a huge Green Day fan – and I briefly visited Oakland for the first time last year. We saw a few of the Green Day sights: the Fox Theatre, the Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café there, Broken Guitars, 1-2-3-4 GO! Records and the Bay Bridge. It barely scratched the surface, really, but I still didn’t want to leave. I knew this dirty city I’d never visited so well. Being there felt like the homecoming I expected. Pun unintended but let’s go with it.
So when The Longshot – Billie Joe’s new band – rescheduled their California shows, it was finally time. You know how my mum is always detained by Homeland Security? Even though she’s a disabled 60 year-old with no criminal record? San Francisco Airport just let her in. See, we were meant to be there.
Annabelle met us in Arrivals. We drove through San Francisco and across the Bay Bridge to Oakland.
I took this photo of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge last year, but it’s a Green Day reference. Billie Joe Armstrong’s nickname for his wife, 80 (and in turn the song title 80) came from this, since Interstate 80 runs over it. He’s also talked about how the band and his father, a truck driver, knew they were home after long journeys when they saw it.
While my mum and Annabelle were in line at Starbucks the next day, a lady complimented my leggings and backpack. I thanked her. She asked if I had a cell phone. When I said yes, she promptly had me post on Facebook that it was a beautiful morning in Oakland, then installed her ‘brain’ so I could take it back to England.
‘Welcome to Oakland.’ Annabelle said as we left.
Walking up the street to the ‘Longview house’
We sat on a wall, recovering from the brain installation, singing Love is for Losers (I don’t remember why, but it was great) and working out what we were doing. Then we drove up Adeline Street – the street Billie Joe’s now-closed record label and clothing line were named after – to Berkeley. Annabelle pointed us towards a quiet, unassuming street. Hills rose up to the blue sky in the distance. It was completely, utterly normal. We glanced around, wondering which of these houses was the one, until Annabelle announced ‘here we are.’
So this is the ‘Longview house’: where Green Day’s Longview music video was recorded in the basement. The sofa was rolled in just to be destroyed, but everything else was real. Green Day were living (squatting) there at the time, sharing their space with another band called the East Bay Weed Company. Much of Dookie was composed here. It served as their base while they dealt with record companies in the build-up to Dookie. In the apartment upstairs was Billie Joe’s ex-girlfriend Amanda, who inspired She, Sassafras Roots, Stuart & the Ave., Good Riddance, Whatsername and, of course, Amanda to name a few. Many of the street’s residents were UC Berkeley students, who weren’t fans of the band’s rehearsels disturbing their studies.
‘The record company guys would come to see us rehearse in the basement and their wives would go shopping on Telegraph Avenue. And when we went on tour we would come back to discover these crusty punks had squatted our place, and every single thing we owned was gone. And my love letters ended up on the Internet…’
Someone actually left the house while we were taking photos, right as I announced ‘I’m so glad there’s no one here, or this would be really awkward.’
Looking at the unsuspecting house – the window that’s actually visible in the Longview video – was beyond surreal. Perhaps the most striking thing, though, was just how normal this street was. The house is so loaded with meaning for any Green Day fan, yet there’s nothing to say it’s more than a regular home. We walked back to the car feeling stunned.
924 Gilman Street, Berkeley: the careers of Green Day and many other East Bay punk bands began here
I could almost have walked past 924 Gilman Street. Then I looked up. Once I realised what this squat building was, it was like a punch to the gut. The number above the door; the caning shop sign; the graffiti on the windows and the door – unlike the ordinariness of the house, just that frontage embodied everything 924 Gilman was. I could feel what Billie Joe, Mike and countless other kids must have felt, walking through that doorway for the first time and thinking this was ‘salvation’; because that was me, 6,000 miles away at 12, discovering the culture Green Day brought from here to the world.
‘Armstrong and Dirnt began living for their weekends at the Gilman Street Project. Run out of the back of a caning-and-wicker-shop, the club would go unnoticed by anyone passing by. For those familiar with the side entrance, however, the shop opens into a world that Armstrong refers to as “salvation”: dilapidated wood floorboards; graffiti splashed across every inch of wall space; band after band with the look and sound of early British punk like the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks.’
– Rolling Stone Magazine, 1995
Much of the fan graffiti in the doorway was Green Day-related. It went from thanking them to referencing drama between fans. Some might call that ironic considering Green Day’s eventual negative reception at the club, but I suppose that’s what punk’s all about: doing whatever you want regardless. So of course, we went and added our own with our crappy biro pens we picked up in airports and hotel rooms.
How much do you bet some guy will find this and get up my ass about stupid fangirls marking a ReAl PuNx™ site?
My mum had to be encouraged by me and Annabelle
‘Growing up and going to shows around Gilman Street was the best education I got. Walking through that door the first thing I saw was a sign saying “No Sexism, No Racism, No Homophobia,” and I think that’s had an impact on me for the rest of my life. Now when people come to our shows the main thing is I want them to feel like they’re in a safe space. If you’re gay, straight, white, black, brown, transgender, if there’s one place you feel you can go to, it’s a Green Day gig.’
– Billie Joe Armstrong, 2016
We pulled up on another quiet, unsuspecting Berkeley street. Opposite was a building that looked quite a lot like my primary school, identified only by the word ‘Fantasy.’ On the corner was a stop sign, illuminated neon red by the bright sunlight. This was Fantasy Studios, where Billie Joe recorded his first single Look for Love and Green Day later recorded Dookie. It must have been quite the fantasy for those kids squatting in warehouses and basements, coming home to find their space invaded by crusty punks.
Green Day recording Dookie here in 1993
Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, CA
‘[Fantasy Studios] definitely had that Seventies coke-y vibe, mahogany and strange dead wood around the place. We would go into the vaults and see all of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s master tapes. But I felt we belonged there. Our first album cost $700 to make. Kerplunk! was like $1200. “Let’s record these as fast as we can – because we don’t have a choice.” This time, I learned how to dial in good sounds, get the best guitar tones. I was able to take a little time doing vocals. I loved that experience.’
– Billie Joe Armstrong, 2014
San Francisco from Berkeley Marina
Annabelle had been wanting to show me Berkeley Marina for a long time. Of course, it’s also referenced in The Ballad of Wilhelm Fink, from Fat Wreck Chords’ Short Songs for Short People compilation. The clear day offered views of Oakland, San Francisco and both bridges. Students learning to kayak crowded the paths, though the crowds thinned out before the closed-off pier. We walked as far as the sundial and decided we’d come back another day with a picnic.
Before we flew, my mum saw Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café advertising a performance of the American Idiot Musical. So that was our next stop: the Flight Deck on Broadway. It would be performed by Bay Area Zeta Players, a theatre company run entirely by local high school students. I was impressed with the set design as soon as we walked in. They’d fit the vibe of a huge production into a tiny room.
Theatregoers and people in Green Day shirts filled the remaining seats. The show’s director thanked us for coming and encouraged us to laugh, cry or clap whenever we wanted. A raffle was held for an American Idiot CD signed by Mike Dirnt; one of the guys in Green Day shirts won.
Jesus of Suburbia: introducing Johnny, Will, Tunny and the residents of Jingletown
Every performance of American Idiot is different. I know every line, but I’m never sure what to expect – or when I think I am, I’m surprised again. As relevant now as it ever was, it was made for these angry young voices.
Holiday: the ‘bus’ from Jingletown to the city
Favorite Son: tempting Tunny to join the army
Their performance had the perfect balance of rage, love and apathy so performative it mocked apathy. This take on Tunny by Anneke Angstadt was my favourite so far. She brought a fuller, angrier personality to the role; the perfect depiction of a loser easily enticed by military propaganda.
St. Jimmy: Johnny, having been deserted by Tunny, getting his first fix while Whatsername watches
Give Me Novacaine: Johnny falls in love with Whatsername while Tunny is soon hurt on the battlefield
Last Night on Earth: Johnny and Whatsername shoot up while St. Jimmy serenades him, willing him to choose drugs over Whatsername
Extraordinary Girl: in a morphine-induced hallucination, Tunny’s nurse appears as a glittering angel
Letterbomb: Whatsername, sick of Johnny’s drug habits, leaves him
Homecoming: St. Jimmy’s last moments before Johnny overcomes his addiction
Homecoming: Will, lonely and depressed in Jingletown
Homecoming: nobody likes you, everyone left you, they’re all out without you, having fun!
In the traditional Good Riddance, the cast encouraged everyone to sing if they knew the words. A shy chorus filled the little room. Afterwards, the producers thanked us again and explained more about the company.
Seeing American Idiot performed in Oakland – having been to the band’s squat in Berkeley, 924 Gilman and knowing I’d go to the warehouse Billie Joe lived in the next day – gave me a whole new understanding of where this album came from and, as a European, a real insight into the country it’s based on. Boulevard of Broken Dreams was the first Green Day song I ever heard. I loved and related to it so much when I discovered it at 12 that I overplayed it to oblivion. Every time I’ve seen the American Idiot musical it’s still managed to give me goosebumps, but this was something else. I relived every moment of how Green Day changed my life while watching this show. Can’t wait to see these guys in something else. If you get the chance, you totally should.
Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café
Our next stop was the original Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café in Emeryville. Owned by Mike Dirnt, it opened in 2002 with the Oakland location following in 2011. The tables outside were packed. We ate at the Oakland one last year, so we took photos and left. Sadly, since we got home, the Oakland location announced its closure. Wish we’d gone there again now.
The now closed Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café at the Fox Theatre in Oakland (taken last year)
After a trip to Sephora, we got back out of the car at West Oakland BART Station – where ‘a gunshot rings out at the station’ in Welcome to Paradise.
West Oakland BART Station
Annabelle walked us down 7th Street, ‘the cracked streets and the broken homes’ and we stopped outside a patched-up old warehouse. This was the squat Billie Joe had just moved into when he wrote Welcome to Paradise.
Pay attention to the cracked streets and the broken homes
‘Billie Joe left home at 17, and he lived on couches and in a scary live-work band space. He once lived in an old brothel and hotel, located on a desolate block in West Oakland under the BART trains.’
– Spin Magazine, 1994
The BART track is right outside, hence the line about the station. When Billie Joe lived here the bathroom was infested with rats, so he chose to use a cat litter instead. It’s also referred to in Sweet 16 – ‘throwing down a bottle of Old English back in the warehouse.’
‘I was living in West Oakland at the time. It was my first time ever being out on my own, out of my parents’ house and I just tried to capture that feeling – sort of frightening but at the same time you come to the conclusion that it’s freeing and you can end up growing as an individual.’
– Billie Joe Armstrong, 2005
Seeing this was a sobering reminder of where Green Day came from and how hard they worked to be where they are now – but also a powerful reminder that it’s entirely possible and, as Billie Joe said, that it can even empower you. With these photos I’d like to include Annabelle’s story from the We Are Revolution Radio book. They grew up in a similar setting, and their story makes great points about how Green Day inspire fans beyond the music.
Annabelle’s story from the We Are Revolution Radio book
Our next drive was to Jingletown, a real neighbourhood near Fruitvale. In a dead-end by the highway is Studio 880, also known as ‘Jingletown Studios.’ This is where Warning, the Foxboro Hot Tubs’ Stop Drop and Roll!!!, the ¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tré! trilogy and parts of American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown were recorded. It got the name ‘Jingletown’ when the Foxboro Hot Tubs used it to cover up their identity.
21st Century Breakdown is my favourite album of all time and the only record I’ll ever claim changed my life. So seeing the studio where recording began, and also where the album art – a massive inspiration to me at 14, which probably still shows today – was painted; it was emotional and left me a bit shaken in the best way. I also bonded with an old guy across the street when he waved to me.
You might recognise the parking lot if you’re a Green Day fan. It appeared in the ¡Cuatro! documentary and several of the ¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tré! promo videos. Much of the 21st Century Breakdown album art was painted on the walls, but sadly now it’s been sold and from what I could see, it’s gone.
27th Avenue sign near Studio 880
The studio is on 27th Avenue, which likely gave the Foxboro Hot Tubs song 27th Avenue Shuffle its name. Jingletown itself is also, of course, the name of Jesus of Suburbia’s hometown in American Idiot.
This store was an unintentional Green Day reference. I took a photo because it said Jingletown, but it also has a brief cameo in the ¡Cuatro! scene That Just Happened (around the 0:22 mark).
Despite Annabelle saying ‘we need to get your photos then get the hell out of here,’ we spent the evening eating 29¢ cakes in the Food Maxx parking lot. It felt a whole lot like we were Johnny, Will and Tunny. We even escaped alive. Peak Jingletown.
Sunset in Jingletown
The next day, we headed to San Francisco for the Longshot show. Our last stop before postponing our tour was Powell St. BART Station: so we could go do what we liked, making sure we did it wise. This is the phone (or the only usable one on the same wall) Billie pulled off during that line in the When I Come Around video.
I’ll write about the two Longshot shows in a separate post, so if you’re not interested, you don’t have to scroll through it. If you are, a recap is on its way and you can read my DC and Baltimore one in the meantime. My make-up stayed intact for three days, tho.
On arriving back in Oakland from Orange County, I found two guys I recognise in a Visit Oakland magazine.
We went for dinner at Homeroom, one of Annabelle’s favourites they’d been nagging me to try for two years. My vegan GFF did not disappoint. Afterwards, we passed Broken Guitars and went to 1-2-3-4 GO! Records which is, of course, a Green Day reference. Here they played an early show – the ‘Bay Area Music Fan Appreciation Event’ – for ¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tré!, The Longshot played their first show and Billie built the stage with his son Joey. They’re currently selling Turn It Around: The Story Of East Bay Punk.
1-2-3-4 GO! Records (taken last year)
Inside 1-2-3-4 GO! Records, Oakland, CA
The guy working was kind enough to show us the back room, where the stage is. It looked so much smaller than it did on photos. Its official capacity is 49.
Phone pic of me in the back room at 1-2-3-4 GO! Records. Don’t judge me guys, I’d just wiped the three-day-surviving make-up off
They also have a Live at Maxwell’s doormat in there, which confirms its status as the best record store in Oakland. We spent the remainder of our evening talking on various benches, moving regularly to avoid drug dealers and men with mini America flags non-ironically attached to them.
Sunset in Oakland
Next, we finally ventured out of Oakland to Pinole. Knowing the area inspired Jesus of Suburbia, I expected it to be a shithole. Like a mini Oakland, because that’s what the suburbs no-one wants to live in are like in England. Instead, the city dissolved into an endless vista of rolling hills, scorched by the sun. Sleepy streets led into the town. Annabelle drove on to park in an equally sleepy shopping centre.
To us, it was just pretty, but I could see why it felt like the end of the world in a completely different way to Kirkby-in-Ashfield. Instead of chavs grumbling outside the Job Centre, there was no-one. Just silence amongst the rows of parked pickup trucks. Now I understood exactly why the song was called Jesus of ‘Suburbia,’ and how a loser like its namesake pitted himself as Jesus; sitting in ‘my living room, for my private womb, while the moms and Brads are away.’ At the same time, though, those lyrics can still apply to anywhere. Because, for so long to me, they applied to my home so far-removed in England.
Fiat Music, Pinole: where Billie Joe Armstrong learned to sing
We stood for a while outside Fiat Music: a little section of the shopping centre, between Trader Joe’s and a martial arts academy. This was where five year-old Billie Joe was taught to play piano and sing, by Marie Louise Fiatarone and her husband.
‘Billie Joe’s mother brought him in because she was signing him up for piano lessons. Jim took one look at him and said, “He looks like he really belongs in show business. Why don’t you take him in the studio and see if he can sing?”’
– Marie Louise Fiatarone, 2006
With reassurance from Annabelle that we weren’t being creepy, we went inside. The building looked surprisingly modern outside, but once we opened the door, its age was clear. We were greeted by one of the kindest and most well-spoken people I’ve ever met: Mrs Fiatarone herself. Feeling embarrassed, my mum explained we were Green Day fans and knew Billie learned to sing here. Mrs Fiatarone smiled and said yes, he was one of her very successful students. She showed us the back studio, where Look For Love was composed. Propped up on the shelves was Green Day fanart by new students, inspired by Fiat Music’s past. When we said we were from England, she showed us a photo in a folder: a group of Green Day fans holding up the t-shirt from the Look For Love cover, in which we spotted one of our friends, Tony. You might know him from Bullet in a Bible – he’s the guy who comes in too soon when playing American Idiot. Even though we and Mrs Fiatarone were aware of Green Day’s ability to connect people around the world, it still seemed crazy these random English girls recognised someone in the Fiat Music guestbook.
Mrs Fiatarone then told us her own crazy story. When Billie Joe began looking into his Italian ancestry, he posted his grandfather’s birth certificate on his Instagram, asking if anyone could translate. Mrs Fiatarone’s son offered to help, since he spoke Italian. He soon found Billie Joe’s grandparents were from Viggiano, the same little town of 3,000 people, as his own. What are the chances of that?
‘I learned show tunes as a kid. My dad was a jazz drummer, and I used to go to veterans’ hospitals and sing. I wanted to play guitar, but they said my hands were too small.’
– Billie Joe Armstrong, 2005
We looked at the Look For Love cover and she smiled, saying ‘he’s still that same sweet little kid.’ Then she held it up so we could take a photo.
Me and Marie Louise Fiatarone, who taught Billie Joe to sing
We thanked Mrs Fiatarone, feeling like we couldn’t thank her enough, and said goodbye with a promise we’d send her the photo. Maybe one day someone else will recognise us in the guestbook.
This was by far one of my most unexpected, but surreal and incredible, Green Day experiences. We didn’t expect anything more than having a peek inside – let alone meeting Mrs Fiatarone herself and being treated with such kindness. We were just in time, too. It was about fifteen minutes before she started teaching and the next day, they were holding a concert for the 10th anniversary of Trader Joe’s. Meeting her was an absolute privilege and it’s a story I’m honoured to share.
Pinole Valley High School
We walked down an overgrown, cracked pathway to Pinole Valley High School – the latter high school Billie Joe and Mike Dirnt attended. Green Day also played an early show here. It’s currently being renovated, but we could make out the spot Green Day played and get a feel of the area.
The area around Pinole Valley High School
Across the street was ‘the’ library from At the Library. Green Day played that the first time we saw them. It always seemed fitting considering that’s where I met Annabelle. Everything was coming full circle. Sadly, the library is permanently closed now.
At the library
A minute’s walk away was perhaps the most mundane, but most exciting site for me (not counting unexpectedly meeting Mrs Fiatarone).
The center of the earth in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven where I was taught.
It said home is where your heart is but what a shame, ’cause everyone’s heart doesn’t beat the same
Like Pinole, the ‘end of the world’ wasn’t what I expected. I’ve been to some very dodgy 7-Elevens, and I expected this one to be the same; not set against the quiet backdrop of a hill. It was an entirely new take on Jesus of Suburbia.
Billie Joe worked here for a while in his teens, which is likely how it ended up in the song. We went inside, because we had to and bought a rainbow dragon, now named Pinole.
‘It’s that lost feeling. Hanging out at the 7-Eleven. Disenfranchised. Alienated. You just get that feeling of “I’ve got to get out of here. There’s more to life than this town.”’
– Billie Joe Armstrong, 2006
In the 7-Eleven at the center of the earth
Before we got back in the car, we looked for a bathroom stall. There was no way of knowing which was ‘the’ one, or if it even existed. So we just went for the only place that didn’t require a 500-digit code and pickaxe to get in: Trader Joe’s. It was a bathroom stall in the shopping mall.
A bathroom stall in the shopping mall from Jesus of Suburbia, also known as peak California tourism
Unfortunately there was no graffiti to confirm the center of the earth is the end of the world. Hopefully the random English people, accompanied by a local trying not to laugh, who piled in and bought one banana were enough confirmation to any bystanders.
‘[American Idiot] sort of follows the path of this guy, Jesus of Suburbia. He’s, like, 19 to 21 years old, he’s stuck in a small town, and he’s sick of everything there – the people, the 7-Eleven he grew up with, his friends, the institutions that he’s been in the whole time. He finally finds the courage and the anger to leave his hometown, and he moves to the city and tries to find people who are kindred spirits.’
– Billie Joe Armstrong, 2004
People love to claim Green Day betrayed their roots when they wrote American Idiot. The truth is, it’s no further from those roots than Dookie. You only need to stand on this street in Pinole to know that.
Rodeo, CA: Billie Joe Armstrong’s hometown
We weren’t sure if it’d be creepy to go to Rodeo. ‘But it’s just a town, and it’s not like you’re going to find his mom,’ Annabelle said, so we went. If we thought Pinole was a sleepy hamlet, this was even more so. We parked first opposite a gas station and wandered around; just taking in the atmosphere of the little town of 8,500 people.
‘I grew up in a town called Rodeo. It’s right off the 80. It’s off the 80 at Willow. And it was the inspiration for this next song. This is Jesus of Suburbia.’
– Billie Joe Armstrong on stage at The Warfield, San Francisco, 2005
‘Rodeo is on the water, you know,’ Annabelle said, ‘And there’s something you’ve forgotten there.’
Still unsure if it was weird to be here, I hesitated. They drove us up there anyway. We came to a view of a reference I’d completely forgotten: the oil refinery referred to in 21st Century Breakdown.
The last one born and the first one to run.
My town is blind from refinery sun.
OK, I may now be an adult with a cold, dark heart who won’t talk about how 21st Century Breakdown changed
(what I really mean is saved) my life. Because at some point since I felt that way, the phrase became overused and I shied away from ever saying it again. But as Billie Joe will say East Bay punk saved his life, I can say the same about that record. As a teenager, I lived by Gloria’s ideals: striving to claw my way out of a stagnant existence and find a home in all my scars and ammunition. She was my idol. Feeling that way inspired me to carry on when I felt there was no hope left. Now, walking around what might have been one of the most desolate streets in Rodeo; I was living in the songs that inspired me so. Like loving a movie all your life and finally visiting the set.
‘Aren’t you glad we came up here?’ Annabelle asked, and I was. I didn’t feel creepy anymore.
I’ve been to the edge and I’ve thrown the bouquet of flowers left over the grave
‘We came from such a highly polluted area in Rodeo, California. It’s a refinery town and we ended up getting sent home from school because kids were having headaches and nobody could understand why, when of course, 200 yards away from the elementary school I went to was the biggest refinery in America.’
– Billie Joe Armstrong, 2005
The San Pablo Bay from Rodeo
As we walked up the beaten road to Lone Tree Point, I had Outlaws playing in my head, too. Because if there’s one Green Day song, not from 21st Century Breakdown, that personifies what growing up here must have been like, to me, it’s Outlaws.
I found a knife by the railroad tracks.
You took a train and you can’t go back.
Forever now you’ll roam.
We sat for a while on a picnic bench at Lone Tree Point, talking and watching the sun go down. Two men threaded their way over the train tracks to a caravan by a dilapidated pier.
Christie Road was still on our to-see-today list, so we marked this as another spot we’d have to return to with a picnic (who has a picnic near a refinery? Us). We took a slow walk, taking it all in and detouring onto a bridge to take photos, back to the car.
A yard in Rodeo (I like cacti)
On our way in, we saw a Rodeo sign Billie Joe took a selfie with. Assuming Annabelle remembered we wanted to stop there, and even if they didn’t we’d leave the same way, we didn’t mention it again. We were back out on the 80 when my mum and I looked at each other.
‘I think we’ve come a different way.’
Annabelle glanced at me. ‘Ohhhh, the sign. Uh, we’re long past that…’
We turned in Hercules. Annabelle was doubting their knowledge of the area.
‘Which side was it again?’
It wasn’t exactly something we could Google. We continued, hoping for the best, until my mum grabbed my arm.
‘THERE! That’s it!’
‘Where do I park? Where the hell did he park?!’
My mum pointed. ‘There’s a bus stop, look. Park there. We’ll only be a few minutes…’
‘That’s illegal, Joy,’ Annabelle replied, but parked there anyway.
References galore (see THAT sign in the background)
We were wading through the grass when a horn screeched behind us.
‘It’s a fucking bus!’
I turned, watching Annabelle dive back into the car, and saw an entire park and ride.
‘Oh, that’s where Billie parked.’
The bus driver stepped out, laughing, and asked what we were doing. We said we were Green Day fans doing our history tour. He replied that he loved Green Day and knew Billie Joe’s brothers, who lived locally. We had a short conversation about Donald Trump and England, then he went on his merry way. Annabelle, now parked legally, was judging when was a good time to charge back over the highway.
By the time my mum and Annabelle had been to Starbucks to recover, the sun had set. Christie Road would have to wait. Thanks, Rodeo sign.
Sunset over the 80
We’d also forgotten John Swett High School – the first one Billie Joe and Mike attended – Tight Wad Hill and Foxboro. It seemed a shame to have little things outstanding up there, so we went the next day.
For some reason I didn’t take a single photo of this on my camera, so you’re stuck with this phone pic ft. me
Foxboro is a housing development five minutes down the 80 from Rodeo. Billie Joe and Mike used to sneak into the hot tubs dotted around the village, a spot to drink and make out late at night. So, perhaps obviously, it gave the Foxboro Hot Tubs their name. We didn’t wander in to see if we could find any hot tubs. However, we did go and say hi to our favourite sign, since it was a two minute walk away.
‘The Foxboro Hot Tubs were a place we used to sneak booze and chicks into late at night. But most of the time it was just “dude soup.”’
– Billie Joe Armstrong, 2008
Crockett is the other side of Rodeo, after the 80 threads through hills and the refinery. We stepped out of the car at John Swett. The first thing we saw was the board that announced Green Day’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
A board at John Swett High School, where Green Day’s 2015 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was announced
‘The fear was always there, even when we were doing American Idiot. I’d get this voice in my head: “Who do you think you are? Why did you write a song like Holiday, you high school dropout?” I think the working-class part of me comes out. Sometimes the people who have the loudest mouths are upper-class, upper-middle-class. The quietest are often working-class people, people who are broke. There is a fear of losing whatever it is that you have. I come from that background.’
– Billie Joe Armstrong, 2013
John Swett High School, Crockett: Billie Joe and Mike’s first high school
Across the street from John Swett, peeking through trees is Carquinez Middle School – where Billie Joe and Mike met. It’s an orange-and-pink-painted building in a dip, before the ground rises back up as a green hill.
‘Our school district went bankrupt, so they closed down the junior high and combined two elementary schools. So [Mike] went to one elementary and I went to the other. We used to have to take the bus out there. First day of elementary school, I think in fifth grade, I was like the class clown – but Mike was like the class clown, so it was kind of like these dueling banjos that were going to go back and forth. What you get is Deliverance. Mike is my musical soulmate.’
– Billie Joe Armstrong in his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speech, 2015
Carquinez Middle School, where Billie Joe and Mike Dirnt met
This was something else totally alien to us: suburban American schools. Everything, even this, was on a scale so much larger than England it was fascinating. At first glance, the warm brick buildings surrounded by trees were just pretty. All we’d seen of quiet, hilly Crockett, overlooked by the Carquinez Bridge, was pretty. It was difficult to imagine it feeling like the end of the world, but the more we walked around, the clearer it was that the silence and empty sidewalks could feel suffocating.
THIS DIRTY CITY IS MY SUGAR TOWN (yes, I went there, I non-ironically enjoy Nightlife)
‘I’m not royalty. I’m the king of nothing. I’m in the same high school rock ’n roll band I’ve been in since I was 16.’
– Billie Joe Armstrong, 2016
Down a hill dotted with porta potties is an urban scramble of metal and chimneys. It looks like part of the oil refinery, but it’s actually a huge sugar factory. This is where the phrase ‘sugar city urchin’ in Tight Wad Hill comes from – and, of course, ‘my sugar town’ in Nightlife. The latter likely references Crockett since Sugar City Tattoo, where Lady Cobra worked, is here.
C&H Sugar Factory in Crockett, referred to in Tight Wad Hill: ‘sugar city urchin wasting time’
Tight Wad Hill itself – a spot junkies and cheapskates hung around to watch school games for free – overlooks the John Swett field. The area has changed since the song was written, including the field itself; so it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where qualifies as ‘Tight Wad Hill.’ We climbed over a barrier and peered through trees at (what we at least thought was) the view.
The field and yard at John Swett High School from a spot near Tight Wad Hill
That was all our Rodeo-Crockett references ticked off. We thought we’d better see the bridge and a bit more of the town before we took off – part of the magic was just experiencing these places, after all. We wandered up the hill and through quaint streets.
The local bus Billie Joe and Mike would have taken to school – it stops outside Carquinez and John Swett
Toot’s Tavern, a street-corner pub adorned with an American flag and advertising live music, wasn’t on our list. I’ll admit I didn’t even realise its relevance until Annabelle pointed it out – it’s where the Foxboro Hot Tubs played their second show. We passed it, so why not?
Toot’s Tavern, Crockett, where the Foxboro Hot Tubs played their second show
On our way to the bridge, I found an unintentional reference. Not that this sign is directly referred to in any songs, but it’s Westbound Sign summed up.
Finally, we walked a bit of the way across the bridge as the sun set… and now it was too late to go to Christie Road again.
Sunset from the Al Zampa Memorial Bridge in Crockett, CA
Sunset over the refinery
These trips to the ‘end of the world’ might have been the dullest part of our trip to anyone else. For us, though, coming from an overcrowded little island where even the most isolated places can’t compare to American suburbia; this was our favourite part. I feel I’ve learned so much about Green Day and their inspiration by experiencing it myself. Next time I sing along to songs like Jesus of Suburbia at a live show, where Billie Joe’s lyrics are their most poignant, I’m not even sure how I’m going to feel. I just know I’ll lose my voice.
Block Party, Oakland
We spent our last day at the annual Block Party. The line-up included Dead Sound, Destroy Boys, Same Girls, Prima Donna, Anastazi and Arrica Rose. Stalls representing local businesses, from Homeroom to Atomic Garden, filled the street. We unexpectedly met our new friend Evangelina, who we’d met a few days ago at the San Francisco Longshot show.
Prima Donna live at Block Party
Finally, we attempted the photobooth in 1-2-3-4 GO! Records. We ended up with some photos of my mum’s cheek, the top of Evangelina’s head and my left boob. SAD. Fear not though, because Evangelina recognised the bathroom wall from a Longshot selfie (the one used to announce their show there, no less), so we got another to add to the Rodeo sign.
The 1-2-3-4 GO! Records bathroom wall featured in a Longshot selfie
I’d say eating mac & cheese and watching local bands (well, Prima Donna, aren’t quite so local) was a pretty good way to end our trip. I even have a new jam, Feral Children.
So, the next morning, it was time to pack our bags and head back out over 80 to the airport. I’d never wanted to stay so much. My head was spinning from everything I’d taken in over the last week and a half. Still, we were missing some crucial bits and pieces… so we’d just have to come back.
For your comparison: arriving back in England
I knew this trip would be special. I could never have imagined quite how deeply it would immerse me in music I thought I already understood so well. In finding the roots of the three people and art that inspired me, gave me hope when there was none – I’ve found another part of myself. People ask me why I love Green Day. That’s why. Because they embody a culture, one that could have been forgotten in one tiny club in Berkeley, so much it reached this lonely kid looking for a purpose in England… and I know I was one of many.
Now, I’ll return to my own center of the earth; but unlike the graffiti in the bathroom stall, these memories will confirm it’s not quite the end of the world. I don’t know about you, but I’d disagree that Billie Joe never made it as a working-class hero.
Note this tour is missing (alphabetical order): Art of Ears Studio (Kerplunk), Christie Road, Hyde Street Studios (Insomniac), Passalacqua Funeral Home, Rod’s Hickory Pit (now a gas station), Ruby Room and Stuart/Telegraph (Stuart & the Ave.). If all goes to plan, you’ll get a second instalment later this year!