September 3, 2006
Written By: Niki Lee
I am a 47-year-old punk rock groupie who entered the fold at 45.
Do the math and you’ll find JFK hadn’t even been elected president when I entered this world. Eisenhower held that title in June of 1959.
I’m not sure how that would strike Green Day, the band that catapulted me out of whatever I thought middle-age was supposed to be with their now ultra-famous album American Idiot. My transformation from hermit-like suburbanite to world-traveling geek was stunning. That pissed-off opening guitar riff of the title song nailed me nearly two Septembers ago, causing my whole body to surge backwards in my black swivel chair, hands involuntarily flying off my ergonomic computer keyboard shot full of electricity. It was the most satisfying rock music I’d heard in over 15 years. It is the music I adore.
In this retro age of homogenization, punkers Green Day -- Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool -- were able to outwit corporate B.S. rock to produce a masterpiece.
The album gave the middle finger to the ‘powers that be.’ I hadn’t realized how much I’d been craving that kind of expression. And I wasn’t alone.
Where did I first hear this opus? Why, on the Howard Stern show of course! It’s well- documented that the majority of forty-five-year-old white middle-class women are dedicated Howard fans.
And a Baba Booey to y’all!
I bought American Idiot and listened to it like a mental patient for the following year. It is brutal beauty: honest and poignant. It’s pure genius. Furious guitars, insanely catchy pop tunes and searing lyrics make this album one of the greatest of all time. Not to mention the themes of isolation, anger, love, lust, betrayal, and just for kicks, death and resurrection: a brave risk that paid off. The first shows I went to in 2004 were empty compared to their summer shows in 2005 as news of the album erupted around the world. The band had been languishing for several years. They even considered calling it quits. When the master tapes for a new album were “stolen” from their studio, they saw an opportunity to go out on a limb and try something different. And that difference launched them into a second wave of fame after their first ride in 1994 with the release of Dookie.
Before Green Day and American Idiot converted me into full-on freaky fan, I was a shut-in. Having never learned basic socialization skills from my bipolar, manic-depressive, paranoid schizophrenic parents, I’ve had to unravel most of life’s challenges on my own. Difficult as this continues to be, it’s made me independent and that’s a good thing. That small germ of self-determination has helped me out of many a twisted moment.
It was quite handy when I had to pull myself back from the brink of becoming a sloppy drug addict with severe health, relationship and job problems. The never-ending pain of a severe case of sciatica got me addicted to painkillers, cigarettes, Bailey’s Irish Cream and Cocoa Puffs. I could barely walk which increased my anxiety and depression. It was a slippery slope. I’d wake up at five a.m. to do my job on my home computer, light up a Camel, pour myself a huge mug of ¾ Bailey’s and ¼ hot chocolate, pop a pain pill, and top it off with a Xanax. After I’d crushed the cigarette, I’d fill a bowl (or two) with Cocoa Puffs and milk to finish the cycle. Later, it was more expeditious to pour the Bailey’s straight on the cereal, skipping the milk altogether. I’d be drunk by 10 a.m. crawling back into bed to sleep for the rest of the afternoon.
When none of my clothes fit, visits to the liquor store became embarrassingly frequent, and my paper recycling was filled with boxes of that ‘Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs’ bird, I saw the light. I put myself on a 30-day rehab plan and got off everything. (I’d read in some self-help book that “IT ONLY TAKES 30 DAYS TO CHANGE A BAD HABIT! YOU CAN DO IT!”). I had to do it. I couldn’t end up being some fat, out-of-shape, road-hard-put-up-wet 50-year-old. Staring down the double-barrel of that shot gun is the American Nightmare. During that transition, I started paying attention to the world outside of my own drama. I noticed Yoga and it saved me. Well, Yoga and years of therapy. Yoga helped mentally, physically, and socially. It gave me the strength to “soften around what is,” it gave me skills to take risks and it threw me into situations where I had to interact with others; like putting my purple yoga mat less than 6-inches from someone else’s sweaty butt. I tried to hide in the very front of the yoga class, nose to the front wall so I couldn’t see anyone. Sensing my terror, my teacher thought a good remedy would be to throw my mat dead-center in the class. Sink or swim.
Swimming is good.
I broke off the miserable relationship, got a couple of tattoos and started over.
American Idiot was the final slap in the face that ratcheted up my recovery ten-thousand notches.
Just weeks after my A.I. epiphany, and six-months after my self-imposed rehab, Green Day came to D.C. I bought a front row seat. Not the real front, that space is reserved for the mosh pit, a holy place for the hard-core fans. I was in the first row of the bleachers. I had no desire to fling myself into a pit of pulsating teenagers. The seat was just fine.
My devotion only skyrocketed as soon as the three took the stage. I couldn’t believe how excited I was. I mean, there they were, right there! Several songs in, lead singer, songwriter and outward conscience of the band Billie Joe took a head-first stage dive into the frantic pit and was nearly strangled by some whack job who grabbed his skinny red tie and started pulling him downward into the crowd. A gigantic security guard scooped Billie Joe up and gently set him back on the stage. I was stunned. Didn’t he know how famous he was? Didn’t he worry that he might get killed? Eventually he got it because in the eight shows I saw that year, in the U.S. and abroad, I never saw him do that again. (That’s right, I said abroad.)
Green Day’s live show has been called unparalleled -- a mix of high-theater and pyrotechnics played out against a rock-and-roll backdrop. As a unit, they kill. Drummer Tre and bassist Mike are stellar musicians and candid performers. But for me, it’s all Billie Joe. He is a force I’m not quite sure I’ve ever witnessed before. He is Charlie Chaplin. He is Jim Morrison. He is Mister Rogers. He is Elvis. He is sex. He is exploding white light in his tight black rock-and-roll gear, spiked ebony hair and perfectly smudged eye-liner. And he owns the crowd. He is so charismatic that if he used his powers for evil instead of good, we all might be in big trouble.
To see the band I had to travel and I hated to travel.
Traveling is good.
I tricked myself into having fun by knowing that at the end of each anxiety-producing journey I had a show to look forward to with my people -- freaks like me in different places with different accents.
My first out-of-town trip was to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Day-dreaming on the Internet one afternoon I thought, “hey, a lot of people probably just fly to Las Vegas to see a show, why can’t I?” It was perfect timing as that very day $1000 landed in my lap after a company stole a piece of information off my personal Web site for their profit. The band was playing American Idiot from front-to-back in a special show at the Hard Rock. Flying, especially after 9-11, totally freaked me out. I went anyway because I was sick of hating to fly and sick of thinking that only other people went on adventures. The cherry on the top of that Sin-City-hot-fudge-sundae was when drummer Tre Cool stopped the action at our craps table to compliment me on my Green Day tattoo. I believe, “that is so cool!” were his exact words. “That’s right, Tre Cool thinks I’m cool,” I kept bragging to myself as I stood in line at the grocery store, the drug store and the bank the week after I came home.
Then there was Europe. I was set to conquer the world. I bought a $40 ticket to see the band in Lyon, France. Hey, I wasn’t doing anything else that summer. A friend of mine was so amused by my desire to travel with absolutely no funds that she gave me a free first-class British Airways ticket to cross the great Atlantic. The trip to Lyon turned into a tour of four countries in six days in which I saw the band three times. I took the Chunnel between England and France, something that I NEVER EVER EVER would have considered before that. Much too dangerous! My last continental stop was Berlin, making me only the second person in my family to even think of going back to a country that wiped out most of our lineage. By that July’s Live 8 concert in the old Communist city I was an experienced pit member surrendering my body to mass of the true believers.
This past May, I went to an Elvis Costello tribute in Atlantic City. Fiona Apple, Death Cab for Cutie and Billie Joe were paying homage to Costello, my first punk hero. I had a crappy ticket. On the night of the show, I checked online and found a bunch of unsold, very expensive seats. Inside the venue, I skirted security and bee-lined it to the front, nicking a seat next to some cool people who also happened to be friends of the show’s producer. They invited me to an after-party on the 49th floor of the Trump Taj Mahal in the Maharaja Suite: two stories, spiral staircase, grand piano, open bar, fabulous food, super-models and Billie Joe.
All told, my favorite Green Day moment was having a brief interaction with Billie Joe at a New York Times interview in New York. I got to ask a question in the Q&A period. I asked him if he’d sing something. The reaction of the intimate audience shocked me. Everyone went insane screaming out their favorite Green Day songs.
He looked back at me and said, “sing something?”
I said yeah, that I would even take one of the show tunes he told us he used to sing for hospital patients when he was a kid. With trepidation he started singing “Chicago, Chicago that toddlin’ town…”
The crowd went nuts. He was noticeably distressed.
“Is that sort of what you wanted?” he asked.
“Well, actually I was hoping you might sing a little of Wake Me Up When September Ends.”
He shuffled a bit and sang the first few lines of the American Idiot ballad with great vulnerability.
Then it got weird. He started obsessing about how nerve-wracking this was and how he’d wished he’d had his guitar. I felt horrible, that I’d sort of upset the room. I sat back down and the woman next to me said, “Great question.” I didn’t think so. I felt like a jackass.
Later, when I was standing in the meet-and-greet line smushed between the two 30-something sisters who had knitted color-coordinated scarves for the band and a greasy-faced 13-year-old boy who was desperately trying to put his paws all over my special edition American Idiot hardback booklet, I felt a bubble had burst. Billie Joe was human; he was not immortal. He was as scared and anxious as I.
When I got to the table where he was signing autographs, he looked up at me and his face fell.
“I’m really sorry about that singing thing,” he said.
I stood there in shock over the fact that he even recognized me.
“That’s OK,” I said not knowing what else to say. And then I whispered, “I saw you guys in Las Vegas,” as he scribbled his signature on my booklet.
I reached out my hand and he shook it with a sweet and weary smile.
Fill in any cliché about meeting a hero at this point:
I couldn’t move-
I couldn’t breath-
Time slowed to a crawl-
Time rushed by-
I’ll never wash this hand again…
Scratch that last one. After all, I was in Manhattan, island of bacteria. The hand had to be washed.
American Idiot upended my life so exquisitely that after years of fear I was liberated. I learned how to have fun by myself and with others, how to fly without panicking and how to infuse my own music and life with spirit and guts. Now when something overwhelms me I get in touch with my inner Billie Joe.
I thought people would peg me as a complete weirdo for going on these trips alone. Instead, to a person, the response was, “wow, how cool. I could never do that.”
And no one ever asked how old I was.
Death and resurrection.
Great art has no boundaries. American Idiot is great art and I’m glad I got to catch that monster wave right along with the band, riding it out until the very last crash landed on my middle-aged shoreline.
“And in the darkest night, if my memory serves me right, I’ll never turn back time; forgetting you but not the time…”
Billie Joe Armstrong, ‘Whatsername,’ American Idiot.
Note from GDA: Parts of this article were featured in Balitmore Magazine. Our sincerest thanks to Niki Lee for allowing us to publish this amazing article on GDA.