Green Day punk rocks the opera
May 11, 2005 - Green Day's latest CD, "American Idiot," is billed as a punk opera.
That doesn't mean the band followed the exact trail blazed 35 years ago when the Who released rock's first definitive rock opera, "Tommy."
"It's not so literal like that," said drummer Tre Cool, noting that "American Idiot" doesn't employ the linear storytelling device of most rock operas. "We have to leave it up to the imagination of the listener. Otherwise you listen to it once, and there's no underlying fabric that you can pull over and there's nothing shrouded. There are lots of like hidden things and lots of new meanings that come up after like the fifth, sixth listen. You keep hearing more and more. Even me, that's the amazing thing, I keep discovering things on this al-bum."
To say the least, "American Idiot" is an audacious statement for Green Day, which in 2004 celebrated the 10th anniversary of the release of "Dookie."
That album, with hits like "Longview," "Welcome to Paradise" and "When I Come Around," turned "Dookie" into a multi-platinum hit and brought pop-punk into the rock mainstream.
"American Idiot" appears to have set an even higher standard by being the most ambitious Green Day CD yet.
It retains the band's patented brand of hard-charging, hook-filled rock. But "Amer-ican Idiot" ups the ante, first of all, with the CD's centerpiece, "Jesus of Suburbia," which essentially strings together five mini-songs into a longer single piece.
And while most of "American Idiot" flows seamlessly from one song to the next, unlike most rock operas, most of the songs can stand alone as singles and don't suffer when removed from the context of the entire album.
The quality of "American Idiot" has translated into near-unanimous acclaim, a Grammy award for best rock album and album sales that have topped 3 million.
The CD went No. 1 on the Billboard magazine album chart — it's currently at No. 12 — while the song "Holiday" is now No. 1 on the modern-rock chart and another single, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," recently peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart.
Ironically, Green Day did not enter into the project expecting to create a punk op-era, according to Cool.
In fact, the band had recorded about 20 songs for a conventional CD and had started mixing the tracks. But then the master tapes were stolen.
Angered by the theft, the band decided rather than re-record those songs to start from scratch, they'd toss any rules they had made for themselves about songwriting.
One day, this approach prompted the three band members — singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, Cool and bassist Mike Dirnt — to playfully challenge each other.
"Out of fun came, you know, Mike wrote a 30-second song," Cool said.
"Then Billie listened to it and he put a 30-second song after it and then I put a 30-second song after it, but connected," he said.
"We were just doing that and taking turns and trying to outdo each other and trying to — it got more serious and serious," Cool continued. "After we were done, we had like a 10-minute piece that was like hilarious and funny and then thoughtful and provoking and provocative. It was great. We loved the feeling of that."
The structure of that piece triggered the idea of writing an entire rock opera, Cool said, and before long Armstrong had developed an outline for the entire CD.
"American Idiot," though, is anything but a simple work. On a lyrical level, it's multifaceted, with songs that are by turns sharply political, as on the title song, which has become a No. 1 modern-rock hit, and strikingly personal, as on "Extraordinary Girl" and "Wake Me Up When September Ends."
The CD doesn't tell a story so much as presents a series of snapshots involving several key characters, with "Jesus of Sub-urbia'' being the main protagonist.
"Definitely this album has a lot of meanings for different people," Cool said. "I would say the story of it is kind of like a timeline of just basically his (Jesus of Suburbia's) life and the stages and the choices he makes and the places he goes and the people he's with. It's sort of like a timeline and it kind of parallels a lot of peoples' lives."
Because "American Idiot" clearly IS the most ambitious Green Day album and arguably the most ambitious punk-rock album ever, it's tempting to consider it the band's attempt to stay one step ahead of the many pop-punk bands that also enjoy considerable commercial success.
But it's just Green Day being Green Day, blazing a winding path that began with the release of "Dookie" in the '90s.
Cool, while acknowledging that he's proud of the influence Green Day has had over the past decade, said competition is not what fuels the band.
"I don't know about staying ahead or whatever. It's just we don't want to do the same things over and over," he said. "Like these (other pop-punk) bands, they're all going to grow, too. They started out basically in the pop-punk genre, and then they moved to whatever they're going to do.
"Everybody has their path. You can't judge the Beastie Boys on 'Fight for Your Right To Party.' We'll see what happens with these bands. It's a great honor when a band that's hugely successful will sit there and say: 'We owe it all to Green Day.' That's awesome,'' he added.
Green Day plays Friday, May 13, at the Savvis Center, 14th and Clark Streets. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show, which also features My Chemical Romance, cost $33.