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Friday, Dec 18, 2009

After five potent doses of heady pop-punk, “Pulling Teeth” is the first track on Dookie that really allows the listener to catch his or her breath. Drawing inspiration from an episode where Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt broke his arms while having a pillow fight with his future wife, the leisurely-paced “Pulling Teeth” features a character who is physically tormented by his girlfriend. The narrator is trapped in an abusive relationship, noting wryly “She comes to check on me / Making sure I’m on my knees / After all she’s the one / Who put me in this state”. The track is pure black comedy wrapped up in electric ballad form, as exemplified by the Beatles-esque delivery of the chorus “Is she ultra-violent? / Is she disturbed? / I better tell her I love her / Before she does it all over again / Oh God she’s killing me”.


Sandwiched between album highlights “Welcome to Paradise” and “Basket Case”, the song easily falls prey to “album track syndrome”, where a listener is prone to skip over it in order to get to another, more familiar tune. I certainly do that every time I listen to the record, partly because it’s not one of my favorites, but more importantly because it kills the momentum the album has been riding out up to that point. I know “Pulling Teeth” has its fans, but I’ve always found it a bit boring.


It’s not a bad song per se. Like the tracks preceding it, “Pulling Teeth” displays Green Day’s knack for musical interplay and lyrical character studies. Based on a standard rock ballad structure, the band adds touches like dual lead vocals that harmonize throughout and one of the album’s few proper guitar solos in order to play up the song’s subversive intent. However, Green Day delivers the song predominantly in a chugging groove that moves slower than all other songs on the record save “When I Come Around”. Such grooves are rare in Green Day songs, as the band moves best when it’s jumping around syncopated chord changes at a breakneck pace. The band has a harder time keeping its performances interesting when it slows things down (this is why for all its merits I don’t think the group’s American Idiot megahit “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is all that great). Here, it almost sounds like a chore for Green Day to keep from speeding up and busting loose. Unfortunately, the backing performance can’t be too adventurous, as the lyrics are undoubtedly the main focus of the track. As a result, the appeal of the song primarily rests on the listener finding its gender-tweaking “battered male” concept amusing. If you don’t think that a woman abusing her boyfriend is inherently funny (and why should you?), “Pulling Teeth” loses its center and becomes a two-and-a-half-minute slog that sits between you and “Basket Case”. Despite being a nice exercise for the group, these hindrances make it hard to classify the song as one of the album’s essential tracks.


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Friday, Dec 11, 2009

“Welcome to Paradise” first surfaced on Green Day’s second album, the 1992 Lookout! Records release Kerplunk. Re-recorded for Dookie, the 1994 version packs a much more effective punch than the original. As the composition is unaltered, the Dookie incarnation demonstrates what wonders better production and an extra two years of practice can do for a song. Here, the guitar tone is less brittle, the drums hit with a greater wallop, and Billie Joe Armstrong’s vocals have more conviction and less of a warbling quality compared to the performance on Kerplunk. Reprising this song for Dookie (where it fits in naturally, despite having been written for another album) almost note for note was the best piece of evidence Green Day could produce to shut up holier-than-thou punks who criticized the group for “selling out” by signing to a major label.


In both forms, “Welcome to Paradise” is an exhilarating listen, a sheer roller coaster of musical momentum that knows how to deliver at the right spots. Opening with a verse riff that vaguely recalls The Clash’s “Complete Control”, the band then launches into a sharp drop at the start of the chorus, rising up and down as the chords change, and ultimately screeching to a halt for a brief instrumental pause (during which Billie Joe Armstrong sarcastically utters the title phrase) before setting out for another go-round. As usual, Armstrong carries the song’s melody with his vocals; this allows him to twist simple lines like “It makes me wonder why I’m still here” into indelible hooks that burrow into the listener’s head. The highlight of “Welcome to Paradise” is the interlude section, a demented surf/punk breakdown centered on chromatic chord progression that builds up in intensity until all three musicians in the band are blazing away on their instruments at full charge. That section alone made “Welcome to Paradise” my favorite song on the album for years.


Lyrically, the song was inspired by Armstrong’s crash pad experiences in the rougher areas of Oakland, California. The song’s verse structure relies on a basic framework where key lines are repeated throughout, while certain words are swapped out for others over the course of the composition for effect. For example, in the first verse Armstrong is singing “Dear Mother can you hear me whining”, but by the last verse the line has become “Dear Mother can you hear me laughing”, which highlights his gradual acceptable of “a wasteland I like to call my home”. This approach may give the impression is that Armstrong is playing lyrical Mad Libs, but the end result is more accomplished than that implies. He isn’t hindered by the framework he has set up, and he’s always willing to swap his patterns for evocative lines like “A gunshot rings out at the station / Another urchin snaps and left dead on his own” when necessary. Using these techniques, what Armstrong is ultimately able to convey is his gradual acceptance of living away from his parent’s place, going from trepidation to exhilaration in the process.


“Welcome to Paradise” is one of the highlights of Dookie, but it remains its most underappreciated single. This probably has to do most with the lack of a music video. The band refused to let Reprise do a huge promotional push behind the track, in spite of receptive rock radio airplay (it peaked at number seven on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart, and reached number 20 over in the United Kingdom). For Armstrong, the song reflected a certain period of his life and that was that; he didn’t care if there wasn’t a music video to help make the song a monster hit like “Longview” and “Basket Case” had been. Despite its lower profile compared to the album’s other hits, “Welcome to Paradise” is an excellent track that proved that Green Day lost none of its spark by leaving its indie label roots behind.



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Friday, Dec 4, 2009

In 1994, alternative rock ruled rock music.  At the time, some in the music press occasionally remarked that punk rock had finally “won” due to the mainstream breakthrough of alternative bands like Nirvana, but that ignored the fact that as a genre alt-rock had long ago become a distinct form from its progenitor. Sure, alt-rock retained punk’s do-it-yourself ethos and its disdain for the iconography and excesses of mainstream music, but anyone who was familiar with the sound of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols (a sound that continued to breed and develop in places throughout the world such as Berkeley, California’s Gilman Street scene) sure wasn’t going to find it replicated by Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins, or Nine Inch Nails. While some called 1991 “the year punk broke” (a term based on a widely misinterpreted reading of the title to a Sonic Youth concert video), the music press quickly had to shift the headlines a bit when in 1994 punk truly claimed a victory on the pop charts after over a decade of hiding underground. Green Day’s Dookie was primarily responsible for this turn of events, and it all started with the album’s first single, “Longview”.


Like many compositions on Dookie, “Longview” features a character that’s unsatisfied with his life. While Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong has at various points indicated an affinity for crafting characters to inhabit in his lyrics, the jaded slacker at the center of this song is undeniably a distorted version of Armstrong himself. Explaining the inspiration for the track during a 2002 interview with Guitar World, Armstrong said, “I guess it was just living in the suburbs in a sort of shit town where you can’t even pull in a good radio station. I was living in Rodeo, California, about 20 minutes outside of Oakland. There was nothing to do there, and it was a real boring place.” Armstrong stated that feelings of “loneliness and isolation” form the core of the tune. He commented, “I think everyone has felt those things, either right at this moment or at some point in the past.”


What sets the narrator of “Longview” apart from the other characters that populate Dookie is the utter disgust he harbors for his situation. Reflecting on the period that inspired the song, Armstrong told Rolling Stone, “I really didn’t care—for a time I was wallowing in my own misery and liking it. The lyrics wrote themselves.” However, the final product doesn’t contain any sense of contentment.  In “Longview”, Armstrong is plainly sick of sitting around all day doing nothing but watching television, smoking pot, and playing with himself, but can’t be bothered to do anything about it, which in turn bugs him even more. It’s a cycle he can’t escape, and his self-loathing is palpable with every emphasized curse word and lyrics like “I’m sick of all the same old shit / In a house with unlocked doors / And I’m fucking lazy”. Even the baser pleasures have lost their appeal, as he explains in the classic line “When masturbation’s lost its fun / You’re fucking breaking.”



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Sunday, Nov 29, 2009

How many times in your life have you have loathed that one guy just because you “knew” he was an utter tool (not like you ever bothered to actually get to know him)?  “Chump” is all about that sort of knee-jerk irrational prejudice. Backed by a distorted ringing guitar that recalls 1980s underground rockers Hüsker Dü (one of Green Day’s biggest acknowledged influences), Billie Joe Armstrong kicks off the third track on Dookie by sneering “I don’t know you but I think I hate you” and going on from there.


In the song, Armstrong takes the perspective of someone who knows he utterly hates another person before he has even met them.  The character’s disdain towards the subject of his woe is the sort of all-consuming preoccupation that tends to inhabit adolescent lives, best evoked by the couplet “You’re the cloud hanging out over my head / Hail comes crashing down welting my face”.  Armstrong’s character is perfectly fine in laying blame for all his misery at the other person’s feet, but notes “It seems strange that you’ve become my biggest enemy / Even though I’ve never even seen your face”.  He’s quick with the insults (“Magic man, egocentric plastic man”) but short of actual reasons.  In fact, all he has is a series of “maybes” that he lists off in the chorus, describing the whole situation as “A circumstance that doesn’t make much sense”, finally conceding “maybe I’m just dumb”.  It’s the song’s final cry of “I’m a chump!” that reveals who’s really the jerk in this story.


“Chump” essentially ends at the 1:25 mark.  At that point, the band segues into a two-chord instrumental jam that lasts about a minute.  It’s rather simple: Armstrong bashes out a few chords over Mike Dirnt’s ambling bassline, progressively shortening the number of rests between beats until the music becomes a flurry of guitar strumming and drum rolls.  Let’s not forget that these guys are punk rockers; they know how to craft an engaging musical section with the barest essentials.  And sometimes just smashing the hell out of instruments in the right fashion is all that’s needed.  After the chaos subsides, a shuffling drumbeat emerges that leads into the next track and the first of Dookie’s many hit singles…


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Thursday, Nov 26, 2009

“Having a Blast” highlights one of the great fascinations that frequently captivates adolescents: the thrill of blowing things up.  Green Day lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong uses this as the basis for a revenge fantasy where a frustrated bomber plans to take everyone else out with him.  When Dookie was released in 1994, the song’s lyrics were mere cathartic fantasy, about as serious an issue as the pyromaniacal antics of the animated stars of Beavis & Butthead (that is, more idiotically dangerous than truly threatening).  In the intervening years, however, school violence involving troubled, alienated teenagers who have no qualms about unleashing retribution on their classmates has become a fixture of the news media.  In the light of tragedies like the murders at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999, “Having a Blast” has since become Dookie’s most uncomfortable track.


It’s important to note that in no way is the narrator of “Having a Blast” admirable; few characters on Dookie are.  The protagonist is extremely self-centered—with “explosives duct-taped to [his] spine”, he insists, “Nothing’s gonna change my mind”.  He says, “I won’t listen to anyone’s last words”, explaining in the chorus:


“Well no one here
Is getting out alive
This time I’ve really lost my mind and I don’t care
So close your eyes
And kiss yourself goodbye
And think about all the times you spent
And what they’ve meant
To me it’s nothing”


While he rationalizes his actions by stating “I’m taking it all out on you / And all the shit you put me through”, the song’s narrator is ultimately very selfish.  He doesn’t care about all the people he’s about to kill, and he won’t listen to anything else they have to say to try and save themselves.  Everything is “nothing” except the “loneliness” and “anger” that consume him.


As Armstrong sings, he utilizes palm-muted strumming during the verses, gradually building up intensity until he switches to regular strumming for a fuller sound.  This evokes the burgeoning tension of the protagonist, who’s literally ready to go off at any moment.  After the second chorus, the song forgoes repeating the verse chord progression a third time in lieu of an extended bridge section featuring several dramatic pauses to underscore Armstrong’s vocals.  Here, Armstrong employs a songwriting trick he will use throughout the album: introducing a twist into his lyrics to change the listener’s perception of the characters.  Armstrong poses a series of pointed questions, culminating in the clincher: “Do you ever build up all the small things in your head / To make one problem that adds up to nothing”, which insinuates that the song’s protagonist is making a big deal out of insignificant slights in life.  The protagonist of the song may want to “mow down any bullshit” that confronts him, but Armstrong concludes the track by questioning whether or not it’s anything actually worth blowing everything to hell over. 


By ending “Having a Blast” with the chorus refrain “To me it’s nothing”, Armstrong argues it isn’t.


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