Between the Grooves: Green Day – ‘American Idiot’

Part social commentary and part fictional narrative, Green Day's American Idiot came out of nowhere and impressed with its biting political subversion, exploration of teenage angst, love, and uncertainty, and perhaps most importantly, brilliant structures, transitions, and overall cohesion.

American Idiot
Green Day
21 September 2004

12. “Homecoming”

The narrative of American Idiot began in a grandiose fashion, with the multilayered “Jesus of Suburbia” working as a suite of mini-songs that introduced listeners to the themes, sentiments, and, of course, central character of this stunning punk rock opera. It makes perfect sense, then, for Green Day to conclude this story (well, more or less) with another lengthy epic, and that’s precisely what the record’s 12th track, “Homecoming”, is. Having faced and conquered an existential crisis whilst traversing the City of the Damned, as well as suffered the rejection of both his disciples and his first love (Whatshername), Jesus is ready to return home, face reality, and start anew.

In terms of its timeline, “Homecoming” takes place on October 19th, roughly 40 days after he finally broke down and hoped for a second chance in “Wake Me Up When September Ends”. Since then, it seems as if Jesus has realized the error of his ways, accepted the disappointments he’d been dealt, and decided to see the world with a fresh perspective and sense of purpose. In this way, “Homecoming” acts as an ingeniously complex yet poignant moment of closure for a character and tale to which listeners couldn’t help but become attached.

The first section, “The Death of St. Jimmy”, begins with the archetypical American Idiot burst of rebellion: sharp guitar riffs and angst-ridden vocals (courtesy of singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong). Interestingly, the production sounds a bit old-fashioned here, as if we’re hearing it through a vintage radio—or a phone, as the first few lines are spoken by the protagonists mother, who tells him, “My heart is beating from me / I am standing all alone / Please call me only if you are coming home / Waste another year flies by / Waste a night or two / You taught me how to live”.

From there, the sonic quality becomes clearer as drummer Tre Cool and bassist Mike Dirnt burst in with frenzied rhythmic accompaniment. Armstrong now narrates the circumstances and mental state of Jesus, telling him, “In the streets of shame / Where you’ve lost your dreams in the rain / There’s no sign of hope / The stems and seeds of the last of the dope”. With subtle backing harmonies making the instant more operatic, he alters the melody a bit to ask several rhetorical questions: “What the hell’s your name? / What’s your pleasure and what’s your pain? / Do you dream too much? / Do you think what you need is a crutch?” It’s in this instance that Jesus reflects fully on who he wants to be.

Of course, as the title suggests, this portion is centered on the demise of Jesus’ alter ego, which is described with biting inferences, using both of the aforementioned melodic patterns: “In the crowd of pain / St. Jimmy comes without any shame / He says, ‘We’re fucked up’ / But we’re not the same / And mom and dad are the ones you can blame / Jimmy died today / He blew his brains out into the bay / In the state of mind / In my own private suicide”. And just like that, our [anti]hero has resumed a sole personality for good.

The second chapter, “East 12th Street”. maintains a similarly hurried trajectory, as Armstrong belts out “Nobody cares” repeatedly over different riffs. Following this, we find Jesus at a police station after either getting arrested or turning himself in for his crimes/sins. He’s “filling out paperwork now / At the facility on East 12th St.”; however, he understands that he’s not happy there either. In fact, he feels tense and regretful, wishing he were still hanging out with his friends in the City (especially Whatshername): “He’s not listening to a word now / He’s in his own world and he’s daydreaming / He’d rather be doing something else now”.

Remarkably, acoustic guitar chords break in suddenly here (evoking the style of Pete Townshend, of course). Armstrong says, “”Somebody get me out of here” several times, which acts as a vocal bridge to a more chaotic surge of emotion and instrumentation, as Jesus is screaming inherently behind Armstrong, who articulates his panic more tactfully: “So far away / I don’t want to stay / Get me out of here right now / I just want to be free / Is there a possibility? / Get me out of here right now / This life-like dream ain’t for me”. With those last few expressions (which are complemented by intricate rhythmic flourishes), Jesus comprehends that he simply can’t fall into this “normal” routine either.

“Nobody Likes You!” segues in with bells and marching percussion, which offers a stimulating stylistic alteration. It finds Jesus continuing to question his choices; specifically, he misses Whatshername. We hear him repeating the taunt she issued at the start of “Letterbomb” in-between his own confession: “I fell asleep while watching Spike TV / After 10 cups of coffee and you’re still not here / Dreaming of a song when something went wrong / But I can’t tell anyone ‘cuz you’re not here / Left me here alone / When I should have stayed home / After 10 cups of coffee, I’m thinking/ Where’d you go?”

The word “go” is then echoed as Cool’s metronomic beat transitions into the fourth entry, which, with an awesome overarching homage to classic rock ‘n’ roll (including horns and a biting guitar solo), describes a letter St. Jimmy receives from one of his former underbelly friends/followers, Tunny, who clearly doesn’t know that the St. Jimmy persona has been, well, murdered. In it, Tunny exclaims how well he’s doing as a rock star. He yells, “I got a rock and roll band / I got a rock and roll life / I got a rock and roll girlfriend / And another ex-wife” and “I got a kid in New York / I got a kid in the Bay / I haven’t drank or smoked nothing in over 22 days / So get off of my case.” Like the ending of the previous part, this last phrase is repeated as the instrumentation shifts (via an exciting new chord progression) into the final phase. Seeing how rebellious Tunny still is (while Jesus is stuck in his mundane but socially acceptable existence), Jesus decides to stop all the bullshit daydreams and uncertainties and do what he knows is right: go home.

In this way, “We’re Coming Home Again” serves as the ultimate concession from him, as he consents to (and even feels a bit triumphant about) his return, knowing that he matured and leaned from his excursion. As the saying goes, “There’s no place like home”, and he is ready to face the future as a brand new Jesus (okay, that sounds a bit funny). As he approached his old neighborhood, he feels joyful, watching as the people he grew up with “come marching down the street / Like a desperation murmur of a heartbeat / Coming back from the edge of town”. In addition, he appreciates that life is full of struggles:

“Nobody ever said that life was fair now / Go-carts and guns are treasures they will bear / In the summer heat / The world is spinning around and around / Out of control again / From the 7-11 to the fear of breaking down / So send my love a Letterbomb / And visit me in Hell / We’re the ones going home”.

Fascinatingly, this last sentiment alludes to the idea that Jesus has gotten over Whatshername; after all, she’s from the past, and he’s gearing up to face the future. Musically, it’s quite anthemic and rich, with hypnotic melodies and rhythms enticing listeners to sing along.

The last half of the song evolves into a gripping militaristic decree. The band repeats “Home / We’re coming home again” (with thick harmonies) before and after the following final admittance from Jesus: “I started fuckin’ running / Just as soon as my feet touched ground / We’re back in the Barrio / And to you and me, that’s Jingletown!” With this, we finally know the [nick]name of his hometown. The song concludes with a voice saying, “Nobody likes you / Everyone left you / They’re all out with you / Havin’ fun”. which is a nice way to bring things full circle.

By the end of “Homecoming”, American Idiot has pretty much ended. The plight of its narrator is over, having reached closure by returning to where he started with a fresh, optimistic outlook on life. Considering how tragic elements of Jesus’ adventure were, it’s very endearing to see him contented with, and excited for, life in Jingletown once again. Of course, as is often true in real life, this momentary burst of enthusiasm will give way to more permanent feelings of regret and longing, as well as daydreams about what could’ve been. As we’ll see, the New Year will open an old emotional wound for Jesus, forcing him to reflect on the one unfinished conflict in his life: Whatshername.