Don't wanna be an American idiot
Don't want a nation under the new media
And can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The subliminal mind-fuck America
Welcome to a new kind of tension
All across the alien nation
Where everything isn't meant to be okay
Television dreams of tomorrow
We're not the ones who're meant to follow
For that's enough to argue
Well maybe I'm the faggot America
I'm not a part of a redneck agenda
Now everybody do the propaganda
And sing along to the age of paranoia
In doing my research for this post, I was startled to realize that the album, American Idiot, actually came out in 2004, which seems rather later than I thought. But I guess that is kind of the way it often works for me, given my, um, complicated, relationship with popular music. Maybe I should back up a bit and explain.
Music is one of the most important parts of my life. I do not remember a time when I didn’t love music, and care deeply about music. Classical music in particular has been meaningful to me my entire lifetime. When I was very young, I remember snuggling in my parents’ bed after dark, listening to the classical program sponsored by a local utility. Somewhere around age 6, I saw a little friend of mine play a recital on violin, and I was struck by the idea that maybe I too could learn to play. I pestered my poor parents until they gave in and got me a violin and lessons for my 7th birthday. My mom probably deserves a sainthood for putting up with those first years until I got to the point where my playing was bearable. We didn’t have much money at that time, so even lessons were a stretch. But my mom also found a way to get a set of classical albums from a grocery store promotion, and from then on, classical has been a part of my listening. I worked my way from youth symphony to the grown up version around age 20, and have enjoyed making music with friends most of my life.
So that’s the classical side.
My dad always had a love for classic pop and rock from the 1960s, particularly The Beach Boys. I gained an introduction to that era from listening to the radio while driving around with him.
Unfortunately, as I got to the age where I might learn the music of my own generation, my parents got into a bizarre bit of religious fanaticism on the subject of music. I don’t even remember the source or speaker on the tapes, but it basically tied all music that has an “African” origin - jazz, rock, pop, modern country, etc. - to “the devil’s music.” This idea was also a core part of Bill Gothard’s teaching, which dominated our family from my mid-teens onward.
This led to a huge tension in my life. I learned enough of the drums to play for our youth group and even fill in for the adult service. But I had to (more or less) lie to my mom that I played on beats 1 and 3 (God’s preference) rather than on 2 and 4 (the Devil’s beat). Which is - as any legitimate musician would know - utter bullshit. The history of Western music (and more) is that of bass on beats 1 and 3 and treble on 2 and 4. Basically, this whole thing was racism applied to music. Damn n----r beats, of course.
So, my teen years were kind of a pantomime, in a way. Once I got my own car and license, I listened to stuff I liked (mostly learning the 60s and 70s on a good oldies station Bakersfield had at the time), playing music on drums, electric guitar, with actual syncopation. (Like, um, every classical composer too…) And, at the same time, trying not to freak my mom out any more than I had to. Which meant that I had to stay fully clear of anything actually modern on the radio. And certainly never listen to anything with a parental advisory on the cover.
After I finally got a place of my own at age 22 - by which time the Internet had arrived - I had to go back and discover my own generation’s music. It has been a...process, shall we say. One thing I have had in my favor is a baseline of musical knowledge, which, along with a decent memory, allowed me to learn quickly.
I do remember the first time I really listened to Green Day. It was around 1999 or so, when I was visiting friends (ironically, fellow Gothardites) who were a few years younger. We drove around Sonoma County in their Bronco and listened to forbidden music like Nirvana and Green Day - those were the two that stood out the most. Okay, and Weird Al Yankovic.
It is hard to believe that American Idiot didn’t come out until a few years later, after I was married and had a couple kids. Somehow, the songs run together with the older ones of my first memory.
So all this to come to the present. My eldest is, like me, a musical omnivore. This has meant a heck of a lot of fun, honestly. We saw Bohemian Rhapsody together (she’s a huge Queen fan), and we go to concerts and sing along with all the songs we know from the 60s to the 90s. When we saw that there was going to be a local production of American Idiot, we knew we had to go see it.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the show. I got busy and didn’t have a chance to go through the album in detail and figure it out, so I had to kind of follow things as they came.
The basic idea of the musical is a very barebones plot to hold together the songs themselves. The album is even more vague than the musical, of course. It has a basic idea, and the beginning of a plot, but it never really figures out what happens. Which is fine: it’s a concept album that just happens to have some amazing songs that have aged really well.
If I had it to do over again, I would have gone ahead and read the Wikipedia plot summary first, to make things easier to follow. Basically, this is what it is: three friends growing up in a suburban dystopia decide to leave for the big city to find themselves. One ends up staying behind after his girlfriend gets pregnant. Another tires of the city quickly and joins the army, getting seriously wounded in Iraq. The third spirals down into drug addiction before deciding to return home. Which is what all three end up doing after their escapades.
TES publicity photo
Obviously, the plot isn’t the main point here. The songs are the thing, and they have stood up to time surprisingly well. Written three years into the Iraq War - which has turned out to have been the first in an 18 year (and counting…) debacle of absolute self-fuckery. The poets have turned out to be prophets in the end.
To me and those like me, this wasn’t obvious at the time. I was all in on the war, having seen the towers fall. It was rah, rah, shock ‘n’ awe and this was totally going to work and be over fast and not turn into another Vietnam because this time we weren’t going to leave but were going to blow the bad guys to kingdom come and fuck the naysayers because the liberals were all a bunch of pansies and…
Well, here we are 18 years later. My children have never known a time we weren’t at war. We have caused, in all likelihood, well north of a million civilian casualties - innocent victims we euphemize as “collateral damage.” Saddam and Osama have been replaced by ISIS and others, and I can’t honestly say that any place in the Middle East is better off than before we intervened. (Although, to be fair, our disastrous interference dates back to World War I…) We have a generation of soldiers (as in Vietnam) who are traumatized by their experiences, causing ongoing issues with homelessness, suicide, and general dysfunction. And, as problematic as George W. Bush was (and I voted for him, twice, don’t judge), now we have gone far beyond him to the delightful combination of idiocy and virulent hatred that is personified in Trump. And it sure looks like Green Day was prophetic about the future, with Fox News and racist rednecks and bigoted theocrats in power. Good god. The poets (and musicians) have been and continue to be our prophets.
So, a bit about this production. First, the bad. I found the vocals to be uneven, with some intermittent pitch issues. Combined with this (and perhaps causing it) was the challenging logistics. The Empty Space is a very small venue, in an older strip mall. Although they used mics this time - most shows have been pure acoustic - there is still no way to get around the acoustical challenges of the venue. For some shows, the vocals have been outstanding, but others, not so much. This one was a mixed bag. Interestingly, the best parts were the ensemble numbers. I get the feeling that the members of the ensemble cast were more comfortable singing under difficult conditions than the leads, and were able to carry the pitch. So, as a musician myself, there were some moments where I really wished the pitch had been better.
On the more positive side, I loved that TES got some live musicians. In particular, Alex Mitts (who has been a favorite of mine as an actor and singer in past productions) rocked it on guitar and general enthusiasm in the on-stage band. (Two guitars and bass were placed at backstage behind a chain link fence.) Kudos as well to Scott Deaton and Luis Velez (who also act!) - I’ve played for musicals myself, and it is a freaking difficult and thankless job.
The most major change that TES made from the original was flipping the gender of the lead character. Johnny, and part of the alter-ego “St. Jimmy,” were performed by Gari Galanski, which meant a lesbian love scene, and a somewhat different take on the character. Maybe it is just our culture, but I found her version less offensive than it might have been with a male lead. The love story with “whatshername” seems more equal and less “hump and dump” than with a guy, and the drug use more tragic and less “hey, look at me, I’m a heroic druggie!” than I have seen with male-oriented biopics. (Think the difference between, say, Hendrix, and Amy Winehouse…)
Johnny (Gari Galanski) and "whatshername" (Nancee Stieger) shooting up.
Oddly, I knew a heck of a lot more about heroin as a kid than I did about contemporary music...thanks to The Cross and the Switchblade and other religious books about drugs and gangs.
I should at least mention a few of the other performers. Kelsey Morrow carried the vocal duties for “St. Jimmy,” and she was the best vocal lead in the production. Jake Wattenbarger as Tunny captured the anguish of of war and injury - and looked a hell of a lot like Billie Joe Armstrong, although Armstrong never played that particular part. Nolan Long, a regular at TES, was rather strong as Will, the pothead loser who stays home. I don’t think I had ever heard him sing, but he was pretty good. And amusing as usual. Nancee Steiger who is good at everything, shined in her part as “whatshername.” And a few in the ensemble who always bring an amazing energy to the dance numbers. (Please don’t take it wrong if I don’t mention you - the ensemble was excellent and everyone contributed.) Corissa Garcia, Aron Clugston, Markelle Taylor, Kiera Gill, and Elizabeth Bomar, you guys stood out for energy and engagement. Rock on.
Will (Nolan Long), Johnny (Gari Galanski), and Tunny (Jake Wattenbarger)
St. Jimmy (Kelsey Morrow)
As usual, I must commend The Empty Space for fantastic set design. From the floor (which had the entire song list) to the rolling couch to the slogans and posters on the walls, the atmosphere was perfect. Kudos to directors Perrin Swanson (no relation, but proud to share the name) and Mystie Peters for their vision for this.
This show runs through the 23rd, so local folks might want to see it. TES is criminally inexpensive, so I never feel bad about grabbing a ticket and a cocktail or coffee there. Give it a shot.
Some personal stuff:
During my first real crisis of faith this decade, a few Green Day songs have been meaningful to me. None more so than the quintessential misused graduation song, “Good Riddance.” That song was kind of my own personal anthem to both persons and institutions that were abusive to me and mine. Naturally, it has a badass violin part. If I hadn’t had a symphony concert in the middle of the run, I would have accepted the invite to be part of this production. Sigh. The sacrifices we make for art…
Anyway, I’ll just mention “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Holiday,” “Extraordinary Girl,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” and “21 Guns” as additional favorites as songs from the musical. Again, “Holiday” seems to anticipate the Trump era in so many ways. Yeah, let’s embrace authoritarianism, wrap ourselves in the flag and faith, throw the Nazi salute at Il Toupeee, and kill the “fags” who disagree. Yeah, fuck that.
So many of these songs speak to me. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is one of my all time favorite songs, and the video was filmed in my beloved Mojave Desert. It has been a source of bonding with my eldest.
But is has to be “Good Riddance” that has been the genuine soundtrack for my break from, well, a lot of things. Evangelicalism, of course. But really, Billie Joe Armstrong wrote it as a breakup song for an ex, and it really captures the bittersweet essence of breaking up with...whatever. I have never had a nasty romantic breakup (that goes along with marrying your first real girlfriend - who is an amazing woman who you truly want to spend the rest of your life with), but I have had some truly traumatic breakups with my religious tradition and certain members of my extended family, some of whom I have retained a relationship with - in a decidedly modified form - and others of which I have no relationship with because of their abusive behavior. And ditto for a few people in my religious history who went behind my back to propagate hate.
Yet, when I look back, my personal and religious background also made me who I am.
So take the photographs and still frames in your mind
Hang it on a shelf in good health and good time
Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial
For what it's worth it was worth all the while
That’s absolutely me. I am, for better or for worse, a product of my upbringing. The good and bad of my parents, religion, religious leaders, politics, and extended family. My 40 years spent in Evangelicalism, my upbringing in Cultural Fundamentalism. Those memories and dead skin on trial - they made me who I am. Were they worth it? Hell if I know, but it’s not like I had a choice when it came to my family. And I can’t say I really should have known to reject my religious tradition until it became obviously toxic. There were good times too. It made me what I am, for better or for worse.
But, as I have deconstructed things over the last decade or so, “Good Riddance” has been on my playlist for those late nights when I have been working through my baggage. In some ways, it has been permission to let go of those ideas - and people - who have been toxic in my life.
Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
So make the best of this test and don't ask why
It's not a question, but a lesson learned in time
Those moments, those turning points in my past (and I can think of specific dates…) were indeed moments when time grabbed me by the wrist, and I had no real choice where to go. It wasn’t so much that I had a real decision to make, as that I had to learn a lesson. Evangelicalism wasn’t some benign religion, but a fucking white supremacist political movement. My family wasn’t ever going to truly accept the choices my wife and I made, but would insist on imposing 1850s gender roles and expectations on us. It was a lesson learned in time. I don’t really have to ask why (although I certainly do ask why, as a matter of theological necessity to myself), but I do have to learn the lesson. I hope I have.
But at every major turning point in the road over the last decade, I have played this song as I have tried to deconstruct my own trauma. There is something about it, the combination of rejection of the past with the acknowledgement that who we are is totally about the reality we were raised in, that resonates with us Fundie survivors today. I wouldn’t give up who I am, even as I acknowledge how my past has traumatized me. And yes, Green Day is part of who I am as well. And for that I am thankful.
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