American Idiot, 10 Years On

October 8, 2014

“The motion keeps my heart running.” ~ Keane, “Can’t Stop Now”.

The nervous energy of cities gets under my skin, and it hums loudly in my ears.  I feel as though I can never be still.

The suburbs are too quiet.  Searching for solid ground, I have found dead space.  So I put my headphones on and start to walk.  I scurry up the street to the main road.  I can’t talk to the neighbors right now.  There is too much in my head that I need to unspool.  I crank up American Idiot.  It has been ten years since its release, and I want to see if still holds its power.

Silly question.  Every note and word comes back to me from where it was carefully stored in my brain.  It doesn’t matter that I know it all by heart.  I still love it, and I walk faster.  God, that guitar solo in the title track, and the driving beat.  It runs straight into “Jesus of Suburbia” and  the classic line, “And there’s nothing wrong with me/ this is how I’m supposed to be/ in a land of make believe/ that don’t believe in me”.  Underscored by power chords, that might as well be gospel to a generation without cause for rebellion.

I was barely 16 when American Idiot came out.  It seems impossible that I’m now 26.  I’m probably glad that I didn’t get the words to “Dearly Beloved” tattooed down my back, but I understand the girl who did.  This album defined my teenage world.  I’m surprised to find that my (semi) adult world is not so different.

On the surface, people around here seem to have themselves together.  They seem enviably centered, whereas I am flying around grabbing at stray ends.  I worry that my threshold for catastrophe is too low.  But I wonder if theirs is much higher.  As I watch more closely, I see the routines and patterns that give them grace.  Black coffee, two sugars.  Home on the back roads in the car they never get to drive, not really.  One of these days it might just sink into the asphalt of the train station parking lot.  They are no more free than I am, and no less weary.

I don’t want to give in to this.  None of us do.  And yet, they slip back under, each a face in a swiftly moving current.  I feel like the last one left standing over it all.  “Give Me Novacaine” kicks in as I step out of the crosswalk toward the long way home.  Years ago Terry Gross interviewed Billie Joe Armstrong and asked him what “a throbbing toothache of the mind” was supposed to mean.  A beautiful turn of phrase gone straight over her head.  Did she not know that weary, nagging sense that something is just out of reach?  Something you could name, you swear it, if you could just dig its name out of your head?  And then take it in both hands, rear back, and throw it like a shooting star in the daylight sky?  I do.

Then and now, I know it and I have to fight myself to keep from running toward it.  Because there is no grand answer that explains everything, no piece that will put everything right.  I have to live in the maze of puzzle pieces spread out in every direction from my feet.  Around them there is only blankness.  That’s the hardest lesson American Idiot has to teach.  You can run, you can hide, but in the end you have to go back to face what you ran from.  You can’t wipe out the future or whitewash the past.

“Wake Me Up When September Ends” begins as I wait for a break in the traffic, pacing.  Home is just across the street.  I’ve walked that nervous hum right out of me.  It followed me from the city to the shore.  It took miles, but I’ve finally run it into the ground beneath my feet.  I hope it was many strides ago and that I left it there.  I will find my balance in this place.


For the Record

September 27, 2012

This guy will always be my favorite rock star.

Rock on, Billie.


Gloriously Demented

September 6, 2012

The Foxboro Hot Tubs live!  Only now they are called Green Day.  (See what I did there?)  This is “Kill the DJ”, the second new song from Uno!  It’s great stuff.

Fair warning: NSFW.  Go home and use the good speakers.


Nerves Jenga

November 16, 2011

The doorbell rang, and like a good Pavlov dog I took a step toward it.  Doorbell rings, I answer.  Cookie please!  But before I could go another inch the rest of my brain caught up to me like a freight train.  Wait! it screeched.  Don’t answer the door!  No one else is home yet!  The implication being that there is no one here to see you die.

I checked the time.  I would wait five minutes, and if the ringing had stopped I would stick my head around the corner.  Maybe it was just the UPS guy.  The doorbell rang again.  I waited.  The ax murderer (for naturally I assumed it was an ax murderer) began to knock loudly on the door with the metal knocker.  It occurred to me that houses are just structures made of wood.  Enough banging will break right through.  Now I was trapped and trying to calculate how long a bit of dead tree can hold up against a steady onslaught.  I envisioned it splintering everywhere as the hordes of ax murderers rushed angrily through.  Yes, the monster had multiplied.  The more vulnerable I felt, the more my brain refused to help.  Naturally.

I tried to plan my next move.  Should I call 911?  That seemed over-dramatic.  What was the regular number for the police?  Where would I find it?  The knocking began again, louder.  I didn’t have time to leaf through a phone book. The police would be really mad if I made them drive all the way here just to assuage my fear.  If it kept me alive, did I care?  That doorbell had pulled the rug out from under my nerves.  They just lay there twitching, tripping up my thoughts.  Do something! yelled the part of my brain who could still talk.  A clever part, it had barricaded itself in the back with a case of Twinkies.  Go!

I was halfway through dialing my neighbor when the phone rang.  Human!  yelled twinkie face.  A human wants to talk to me!  Outta my way!  It jumped up and smashed its way through its own barricade, racing to shout up at the phone.  “Hello?”

“It’s me!  I’m outside.  I’ve been ringing and knocking forever.  Are you there?”

It was my friend, who had come over to hang out.  As she has every week since I was tiny.

I’d left her out in the cold, in the gathering darkness, because I am insane.  Move over, scarecrow, I need that brain.


One Eye Open

August 27, 2011

It rained before and I thought that was it.  Then the rain stopped, as if it were a harmless summer shower.  Hours later the sky remains a strange bright white, sunny but overcast.  Now we just wait for the storm to hit.

Tingles like tiny electric shocks are zipping through my veins, here one moment and gone the next.  This is jumpy way beyond too much caffeine.  This whole thing is new.  Untested.  I can’t imagine if the windows will smash open or the streets will flood.   The chaos exists only in theory, and my brain leaves lots of fuzzy edges.  Half the state in ruins does not, will not compute.  And I thought last winter turned the world on its head.

I’ve never dealt well with prolonged problems.  Every time a doctor comes near me with a needle I say, “do it now and do it quick so I don’t have to think about it”.  Irene is making me think about it.




Weight, Mass, Acceleration

June 4, 2011

“This is the ramshackle day parade
of all those lost, unborn and unmade”

~ “Ramshackle Day Parade” by Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros

It seems like a silly place to put a prison.  An island just a few minutes’ ride from the piers of San Francisco, so close that you can hear the revelers laughing every New Year’s Eve.  There’s another island nearby too.  Hell if you were really crafty you could get someone to bring a boat out into the bay, and then swim to it once you were free from the rock.  In theory it’s not very hard.

But it is.  The water is cold, the winds are fierce and the currents interfere with even each other.  A human would be tossed about like a leaf.

The true genius of an offshore island prison sinks in at the yard.  I chased my curiosity down the steep stairs and immediately wished I hadn’t.  The smooth gray walls rose miles above my head, completely blocking out my view and my spatial perception.  Above the wall was only an expanse of bright white sky and blinding sun.  It was like being left at the bottom of a disused holding tank.  I scrambled back up to the door.  The rows of cells brought with them something like relief.  At least in a space that small no one could lose you.

Back in the city, as the weather turned cold and windy I dug out my fleece.  Wearing it while the bouncy sundress stayed in my bag seemed like a metaphor for the whole trip.  I came out west to chase the same thing I’ve chased to China and the middle of Vermont; a moment to stand there and feel absolutely still.  The last year (or maybe years) felt like falling.  Twisting and tumbling through the air without ever hitting the ground.  The nervous dread became ingrained, and after a while it was hard to think.  I tried to get everything done, every step finished.  Maybe without those gremlins hovering the tilt-a-whirl would stop.

Or maybe it’s all in my head, and if I didn’t get so wide-eyed about everything it wouldn’t drive me nuts.  It’s hard to tell when the town around you thinks anything less than spectacular is just that.  Come back when you’ve invented a singing cure for cancer.

I should have known that wherever I go, I take those snide eyes with me.  Real or imagined, I pick up their strings and haul them slowly forward like a horse with a sleigh.  I see them giggle when I fall.  So when I go somewhere new I try not to leave a lasting impression.

But there was one place where I never worried: Amoeba.  The perfect place to be a music dork, which is to say, me.  A real live record store.  They’re pretty rare in the wild these days.

It sits in a refurbished bowling alley not far from Golden Gate Park.  The “bowling” sign is still there behind the store’s own marquis, though the inside bears no traces.  Instead it has stacks upon stacks of cds; on the shelves, under the shelves, in a sea marked $1 that made me never want to leave.  There were eight stacks of used cds under “P” alone.  In FYE that would have been the whole section.  God I had fun.

The best thing I found was Streetcore.  It has barely left my cd player since I’ve been home.  Cranking up the volume I’m absorbed in “Burning Streets” and “Ramshackle Day Parade”.  I love the way the voices rise up behind Joe’s in the chorus, like people materializing in doorways to join him for a march through cold grey predawn streets.  I get up to follow and as we measure our strides we feel the impulse rise and fall with our feet, gently propelling us forward.  Forward to sort this all out and turn drifting into freedom.



April 27, 2011

I blame the SATs for my brief flirtation with this song several years ago.  I think they drove me out of my head.  Actually I know they did because I ended up on the floor, my brain stuttering over the decision between more time to study and sleep.  I even bought the album and wandered the halls of my high school with it ringing in my ears.

I remembered this song out of the blue just now.  It’s pretty in a plaintive sort of way.  That or I’m too far gone in nostalgia to think straight.  A really warm day in spring always reminds me of staring out the open window of a classroom counting the minutes until summer.  Or sitting at an old banged-up desk in the library looking for any excuse to avoid a paper.  Sometimes I only touched books to shore up the piles of them teetering over my laptop.  Actually reading one was near impossible.  I’d be really interested for a page and half.  Then I’d seize an errant thought and run away with it, planning my great summer adventure.

I knew perfectly well the real summer wouldn’t be an adventure.  I would just sleep, goof off and sit around.  But I miss the sense of staring down an endless open space.  The last time I was lucky.  The summer went on so long I almost forgot what school was.  It was beautiful.

They always say you shouldn’t worry about being older, because soon enough you will be old, and you’ll want all the younger years back.  So now I’m old and I can see they were right.  I’ll stay here in the echoes of too much caffeine and polished tile floors a minute longer.  The music helps it not fade away.


Castle Walls

March 27, 2011


The shells are piled up like fortifications of a miniature military camp, strewn with rocks and broken rushes.  Crunching along I’m surprised at how steady I am after a morning of doing taxes.   Another few scrambles and I’m inches from the water.  A fragment of hollow log, maybe an old piling or a piece of driftwood, stands upright in front of more rocks like a grand castle wall.  Everything reminds me of walls today.  Not the kind that trap and are impossible to climb, but the kind that are protective.  For the first time in years there is no negative connotation.

Suddenly the wind blows something fierce and the light windbreaker I brought (“it’s fine, it’s fine”) feels like paper.  So I do the only thing I can do.  Stuff my hands in my pockets and go on.  It has been months since we could see the surface of the beach.   I’m not done yet.

The water is such a shade of blue that I want to take pictures at every turn.  I’ve never seen it so richly sapphire.  Relieved of ice, swept of snow, the world feels stable again.  Things have just the right amount of weight to keep them where they should be, nothing more.  For once I might too.



Necessary Evils

March 5, 2011

Well this looks interesting.  It’s a documentary about punk rock guys growing up to be fathers and watching their whole lives change.  Suddenly they have to reconcile a fiercely independent lifestyle with a responsibility to look after their kids.  In a world drowned in complications, one of these things does not exist with the other.  Does it?

Buying a house means getting a mortgage, which means having a good credit rating.  Going for a check up means having health insurance, which means wading through reams of paperwork.  Let’s not even think about taxes.

They don’t make it easy.  The problem is that slogging through that bureaucratic mess is often the best option because it’s what people expect.  You can buy a house or pay a dentist with cash, but you might have a hard time finding someone who doesn’t get suspicious.  That, or you have to go to the bank all the time to get more piles of money.  Why bother when you can get a little white card with a bunch of numbers explaining everything?  This is my plan, this is my copay, give me my bubblegum toothpaste.  So you start with the basics and before long you’re a fully integrated member of the system.  The hated, awful, backwards system.  Something has gone very wrong.

And you’re stuck with it for the sake of your kids.  Well crap, the movie seems to say, what do we do now?

I have no idea.  I couldn’t tell my kids to play it safe.  I did.  The results are not bad, but not great.  It’s nowhere near as much fun as taking the stage to pound out some music.  It’s just easier to be in the system if you’ve never been out.  There are no gaps to fill.  Just a bumper sticker that says, “I’d rather be crowdsurfing”.

It’s a rat’s nest.  I’ll be interested to hear what the guys in the movie have to say.  The premier is at SXSW.  For now the website doesn’t list any other screenings, but I’m sure there will be more.

Use this to unravel the knots in your head:




Quick Detour

February 6, 2011

Punknews seems pretty divided about Social Distortion’s new album Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, and I can see why.  At first it left me confused.  But that impression doesn’t last.  The more I listen to this thing, the more I like it.

It takes patience.  These songs don’t roar out of the speakers the way Social Distortion usually does.  The country music influences are much stronger.  It tends to ramble.  After years of solid, reliable punk rock this detour is surprising.  It’s a bit like falling asleep on a road trip to Vegas and waking up halfway to Phoenix.  It’s the same country and the same weather but it’s not really the same thing.

Then, just as suddenly, it’s amazing.  Change is great once the shock wears off.  To hell with plans and dusty rulebooks.  Let’s just go.  That’s exactly what Social Distortion did, with just as much swagger and snarl as before.  It’s a beautiful thing to hear.  The drawn-out note at the end of “stranded here in Bakersfield…” oozes heartache and sorrow.  You can almost feel the scorched air and blazing sun of a lonesome truck stop.

Another gorgeous moment comes in “Writing on the Wall”.  Sometimes you know exactly what you have to do and why.  You might even know exactly how to go about it.  It’s actually doing it, taking that final plunge that is incredibly hard.  It looks so much more peaceful on this side of the line, in this space you know so well.  Out there could be a hell of a jungle.  And yet you can’t avoid it any longer.  “They say if you love someone you gotta let them go/ and if they return to you that’s surely how you’ll know/ oooh, I can read the writing on the wall/ oooh but I can’t let go” Mike Ness sings softly.  There’s a familiar demon.

The only song I don’t like is “California (Hustle and Flow)”.  It wanders too far toward country music for my ears.  Maybe it’s the backing vocals.  I’m still getting used to hearing them and Social Distortion in the same breath.

It helps that I’ve been feeling lost lately, which makes me identify with this album even more.  Regardless it really is good music, from the lyrics to the flawless guitar.  All it needs is a little leap of faith.