After its opening chord crashes and drum beats, “Sassafras Roots” settles into a four-bar A-E5/A-A-E5/A-D-E chord progression that it relies on throughout much of its duration. Billie Joe Armstrong’s quick guitar upstroke chord changes dominate the first half of this figure, while Mike Dirnt’s noodling bassline is more noticeable in the second half. It’s an appealing instrumental passage, but honestly it’s relied on so much that it quickly becomes repetitive. Luckily the chorus and bridge sections add variety to the whole proceeding, in particular providing a setting for Tre Cool to unleash some cracking machine gun drum rolls.
The verse instrumental figure acts as a backdrop for Armstrong’s call and response lyrical template, which is deliciously self-effacing. Armstrong will throw out a line to forward his narrative (i.e. “Roaming round your house”, “Why are you alone?”, “When you could be with me?), which is dutifully answered on every occasion by the rest of the group joining in on backing vocals to assist the frontman in singing the phrase “Wasting your time”. No matter what’s going on or what they are doing, the protagonist and the subject he’s speaking to are always pissing their time away. While he has romantic aspirations, Armstrong adds a sneering edge to his quest with this unrelenting three-word putdown and lines like “I’m just a parasite”.
Despite Armstrong’s dismissive wording, “Sassafras Roots” is still is a love song, acting as a representation of ‘90s rock lyrics that often wrapped romantic topics in irony and sarcasm in order to avoid emotional directness. One of Armstrong’s strengths as a lyricist is that he can cast his ever-ready insults (be they inwardly or outwardly directed) in a light that ends up illuminating the perspective or persona he is adopting. The constant repetition of the words “Wasting your time” act to make the narrator’s intentions aloof, when in fact he desperately hopes that the person he is addressing will embrace him. He’s just too guarded to make his affections known directly. The song’s chorus lines “Well, I’m a waste like you / With nothing else to do / May I waste your time too?” concisely encapsulates this sentiment that Armstrong would love to spend time with you… uh, if you’re not too busy. Because he’s not doing much either. Just wasting time. Yep. Certainly, “Sassafras Roots” subscribes to the notion that sometimes acting like you don’t give a damn is a sign that you care more than anything else in the world.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.