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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.

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