Posts Tagged ‘Billie Joe Armstrong’

Of all the rock albums that currently exist, Green Day’s Insomniac is one of the greatest.  Today it turns 20 years old.

“I believe that truth only has one face: that of a violent contradiction.”  – George Bataille

“I’ll be scared later.  Right now I’m too mad.” – Bugs Bunny

Insomniac‘s got nothing to prove to you, or anyone else in this sick machine we call the world- yet it’s got nearly everything to prove, and will do so gleefully.  (It’s a twisted mess of contradictions like that.)  Most of all, it’s gonna prove to anyone who’ll listen that it’s the epitome of punk-loving, no-bullshit rock n’ roll.   

Insomniac is a black sheep overshadowed by its overachieving, chart-topping, Grammy-winning brothers (Dookie and American Idiot). It’s cynical bumper sticker philosophy from a smart-ass high school dropout who had just become a husband, father, and multi-millionaire rock star in the span of a year.  It’s a live news report from the front lines of This Eternal Apocalypse, where the reporter keeps miming jerk-off gestures at the camera.  It’s Johnny Rotten Vs. Groucho Marx in a Monster Truck Demolition Derby.  It’s bouncing around a padded cell in furious figure-8s, propelled by rocket roller skates.  It’s an amphetamine-fueled kegger crashing a Dark Night of the Soul.  A jittery sugar-high at a spiritual rock bottom.  The 33-minute existential crisis of a masochistic dingbat who ultimately finds salvation in the spine-chilling, mind-boggling, gut-busting absurdity of it all.

“Do what you will, this world’s a fiction/ and is made up of contradiction.” – William Blake

“I’m a smart ass but/ I’m playing dumb” – Billie Joe Armstrong

Q: Is Insomniac “Punk”?  A: What the Hell does it matter?

I’ve heard and read much impassioned debate over what “punk” means, and whether or not that particular label applies to Green Day.  I care not to end such debates, however inane they may be, so for the heck of it, let’s examine some relevant questions through the lens of Insomniac (which happens to be Green Day’s punkiest album).  Like: Is “punk” really so much more than just loud, fast, hard, catchy tunes?  Does “punk” just need to say “Fuck It,” or wouldn’t merely saying “Fuck It” be much too lazy?  Shouldn’t “punk” value simplicity, honesty, brevity AND wit?  Isn’t “punk” about not being afraid to beg for anything in life, except maybe pity?  Shouldn’t “punk” only appear nihilistic on the surface, with a layer of giddy black irony underneath to shield the wounded, doe-eyed babe trapped at the bottom of its well of alienation?  Is Insomniac not really “punk” because it might be the shortest distance between The Sex Pistols and The Jonas Brothers?  Or because the gear doesn’t sound like it was swiped from a thrift shop?  Or because the band sounds like they rehearse four hours a day instead of four hours a month?  Or because they’ve sold roughly 85 jazillion records?  Didn’t The Ramones want to be The Beatles?  Are The Ramones not “punk” enough for you?  Is it possible Fugazi’s songs aren’t quite as enjoyable as their gimmick?

“I am large, I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman

“Hooray! We’re Gonna Die!” – Billie Joe Armstrong

Billie Joe’s often content to cut-and-paste cliches into his lyric sheet, and on Insomniac he practically trips over himself trying to demonstrate this.  Sometimes, he can just put a clever spin on an old cliche: “Better swallow your pride or you’re gonna choke on it,” and “My own worst friend and my own closest enemy,” and “Call it as I see it/ even if I was born deaf, blind and dumb.”  But just as often, there’s “Do as I say/not as I do,” and “I’m going nowhere fast,” and “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass,” and “Wish in one hand/shit in the other/see which one gets filled first.”  Yet when sung along to his exuberant melodies, and packed with the wallop of those superheavyweight guitars and drums, the cliches sound funny and fresh all over again.  This is no minor feat, I think.

“After all, what would be ‘beautiful’ if the contradiction had not first become conscious of itself; if the ugly had not first said to itself, ‘I am ugly’?” – Friedrich Nietzsche

“I perfected the science of the idiot.” – Billie Joe Armstrong

Billie Joe’s often been called a whiner- at least by the so-called Dean of the Rock Critics– and I suppose it’s a somewhat valid label.  After all, one of his most famous lyrics asks, “Do you have the time/to listen to me whine/about nothing and everything all at once?”  But his relentless, pitiless self-deprecation makes him one of the more tolerable superstar whiners of ’90s rock.  Compared to a lot of his peers- Cobain, Corgan, Cuomo- Billie Joe sounds downright stoic.  A paragon of reason, even.  And on Insomniac, Billie Joe sounds as rational as he’s ever sounded, probably because he’s genuinely at his maddest.

“Well what did you expect in an opera?  A happy ending?” – Bugs Bunny

Remember, kids, there’s a fine distinction between evolution and progress.  (Or, as Billie Joe says, “There is no progress/ Evolution killed it all.”)  Kind of makes you think: wouldn’t it be somewhat ironic if natural selection ultimately favored the Creationists?  Wouldn’t that just be a tragedy of hilarious proportions?

this post previously appeared on the site on 10/10/10, Insomniac‘s 15th birthday.

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The Leper – Rembrandt, 1631


I had tried to be fair. It is the one single thing no one will forgive you for, neither the communists nor the fascists, the rightists nor the leftists, the white racists nor the black racists… One will make more enemies by trying to be fair (marked by impartiality and honesty) than trying to tell the truth– no one believes it is possible to tell the truth anyway– but it is just possible that you might be fair.

Chester Himes, The Quality of Hurt
(quoted in Ishmael Reed’s essay “Chester Himes: Writer”)

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gif courtesy of fuckyeahreactions.tumblr.com/

Billie Joe has a lot more in common with Billy Joel besides having a similar name and a Broadway jukebox musical.  They both wrote dozens of great pop/rock songs and sold squillions of records by the time they turned 40, but to thousands of non-fans, Billie & Billy have also been go-to punchlines, a couple of phony poseurs who lack rock n’ roll cred.  Chuck Klosterman’s “The Stranger” does a fine job recapping Billy Joel’s career-long struggle with uncoolness, so I won’t go into that here.  But the question remains: Is Billie Joe punk?

For years I’ve thought this question was more irrelevant than the American Music Awards.  Isn’t “punk” just supposed to mean loud, fast, catchy songs with a frequently irreverent attitude?  And yet, in the wake of his recent tirade at a very non-punk music festival, lots of internet people are once again debating the punkness of Billie Joe, and only 63% of these people are trolling and/or being ironic.  So it seems we must settle this, once and for all, or at least until Green Day’s next album comes out in November.

Fuckin’ 19-Eighty-Fuckin-8: Billie Joe starts a band called Sweet Children with fellow guitarist Mike Dirnt. Though it starts as a 4-piece, the original bass player soon leaves and Dirnt takes over on bass, making Sweet Children a 3-piece, and we all know 3 is the punkest number of people to have in your band.  Also, while Sweet Children may not sound like a punk name, what if “sweet” is meant to describe how they taste?  That would be punk.  +3 Punk Points

1989: Sweet Children changes its name to Green Day, a reference to how much the band loves smoking weed.  Smoking weed is kind of punk, but not quite as punk as methamphetamine.  + 2 Punk Points (5 Total)

1991: Green Day releases 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours, a compilation of their earliest recordings.  The album contains a few very good songs (“Going To Pasalacqua,” “Paper Lanterns,” “409 In Your Coffeemaker”), but most of the other songs are merely fast and loud without being very catchy or irreverent.  The punkest track on the album is a cover of Operation Ivy’s “Knowledge,” which is not nearly as fast or loud as the original, which makes it extremely irreverent and thus, fairly punk.  Minus 1 Punk Point (4 Total)

1992: The band’s second album Kerplunk still has a lot of love songs and shit, but it also has very punk songs like “Dominated Love Slave” and “Welcome To Paradise.”  The liner notes include “My Adventure With Green Day,” a tale of a teenage girl who murdered her parents and butchered their bodies just so she could go on tour with Billie Joe, Mike, and Tre Cool.  Way punk.  + 5 Punk Points (9 Total)

1993: Green Day signs its major-label deal with Reprise, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers.  Many people consider it “selling out” and totally not punk when a band signs a major-label contract, yet The Ramones wanted to be huge, and they debuted signed to Warner Brothers-subsidiary Sire, and are you trying to tell me The Ramones weren’t punk?  Plus, Reprise was started by Frank Sinatra, who was almost as punk as The Ramones. +2 Punk Points (11 Total)

1994: Green Day’s major-label debut Dookie (+1 Punk Point) gets crazy hype on MTV and Top 40 radio (Minus 2 Punk Points), and two of its biggest hits are a song Billie Joe wrote about masturbation (+2 Punk Points) and another song where he visits a male prostitute (+2 Punk Points).  The band plays Woodstock ’94 (Minus 2 Punk Points) but steal the show and start an epic mud-fight with the trustafarians and frat gooches in the mosh pit (+4 Punk Points).  (16 Total)

1995: Green Day releases Insomniac, their punkest and most consistently great album (+3 Punk Points).  It has at least one song about methamphetamine, which had a video of a dude actually getting his teeth pulled. (+3 Punk Points).  Most people I knew in high school who loved Dookie thought Insomniac sucked, and Green Day now sucked, but most of those people were, in fact, the ones who sucked.  (+3 Punk Points).  The coolest of my bros knew Insomniac was rad. (+1 Punk Point).  (26 Total)

1997: Green Day releases Nimrod, an attempt at maturity with a couple folk-influenced tracks.  “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” is punk as fuck, and if your high school was like mine and chose it as its prom theme, then that was punk as fuck too because remember, the song’s called “Good Riddance.” (+2 Punk Points).  Nimrod also includes “The Grouch,” which is even punker than fuck (+ 4 Punk Points).  But then there’s “Platypus” and “Take Back,” two tracks which sound punk as fuck, but in fact try way too hard to be punk as fuck, and therefore are not that punk at all (Minus 6 Punk Points).  (26 Total)

1998: Billie Joe lets Seinfeld use “Good Riddance” to soundtrack a montage for a clip show that airs before the show’s finale.  In theory, it sounds like a punk idea, because Seinfeld was a pretty punk show.  Only problem is, the aforementioned montage is, unlike Seinfeld, extremely sentimental, and so not punk.  (Minus 2 Punk Points, 24 Total)

2000: Green Day releases Warning, an even more mature and folkier album than Nimrod.  There’s occasional cliche punk, like the trite anti-authority messages of the title track (Minus 1 Punk Point), or “Minority,” about a white dude who wants to be a minority (0 Punk Points).  Still, “Blood, Sex And Booze,” “Fashion Victim,” “Misery,” and “Jackass” are kinda punk (+2 Punk Points).  And promising to go to “Church On Sunday” for the one you love?  Mad punk. (+2 Punk Points, 27 Total)

2003: Green Day disguises themselves as a band called The Network and releases Money Money 2020, an album of Devo & Kraftwerk-inspired new wave.  Would’ve been nicely punk if the songs weren’t so shitty. (Minus 5 Punk Points, 22 Total)

2004: Green Day releases American Idiot, which wavers between insanely punk (“American Idiot,” “Jesus Of Suburbia,” “St. Jimmy”) and embarrassingly non-punk (“Are We The Waiting,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”)  Contrary to popular belief, rock operas have no inherent punk value; it’s all in the execution.  The punkest thing about American Idiot, though?  Now I don’t want to overstate its real-world importance, but let’s consider this: You know all those millions of 18-21 year-olds who voted in their first US Presidential election in 2008?  The ones who voted overwhelmingly for Obama?  Well in 2004, when they were all pissed-off at the state of the union created by the George W. Bush administration, but too young to vote against it, what album do you think was soundtracking their angst?  What album, more than any other, was pep-rallying them for 2008?  It was American Motherfucking Idiot, and that’s punker than anything you’ve ever done, motherfucker.  (+10 Punk Points, 32 Total)

2005: Billie Joe finally overdoes it with the eyeliner.  Androgyny is punk and all, but come now, no one’s mistaking Billie Joe for a woman.  It doesn’t look transgressive, just sad. (Minus 2 Punk Points, 30 Total)

2009: Green Day tries to capture that American Idiot bottled lightning one more time, only with none of the hunger, half the humor, and twice the pomposity.  They call it 21st Century Breakdown, and it’s practically the opposite of punk.  (Minus 7 Punk Points, 23 Total)

2012: Just before Green Day releases ¡Uno!, a not-quite-punk/mostly power-pop album that seems to atone for the self-important excess of 21st Century Breakdown, Billie Joe unleashes a fuck-filled rant when The Bieber-Loving Man cuts his band’s set short at something called the “I Heart Radio” bullshit.  Yes, Green Day started 30 minutes late, but what band in America hasn’t started 30 minutes late?  When you go see your work-friend’s chill-wave duo at Fontana’s, they start 30 minutes late.  It’s standard.  Smashing guitars in protest?  Yawn.  Announcing 2 days later that Billie Joe’s off to rehab?  Maybe punk, but that depends: what’s he addicted to this time?  (+1 Punk Point, 24 Total)

There you have it, folks: Billie Joe has 24 Punk Points.  Not super-punk, but still respectably punk.  Now shut the fuck up.

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