By Dan Weiss
With Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Today we look at Green Day’s gigantic breakthrough Dookie, which turned 20 this week.
Green Day released a flawless album 20 years ago, possibly the first flawless album I ever heard. It’s also the first punk album I ever heard, which likely goes for many other people born in and around 1985. Reconciling these two truths didn’t seem weird when I was nine, but hearing many more punk albums and somewhat fewer flawless albums in the 20 years succeeding has helped me realize. Knowing what I know now, punks were never this direct (could you even imagine if the Clash’s “White Riot” was released in the wake of Macklemore?) and they’re anything but flawless. The almost-40-minute perfection of this thing offends purists, who probably think better of oh, the Germs’ G.I.
Punks are supposed to be flawed. They’re not supposed to function in society, which makes them feel like a “tool without a use.” They’re supposed to rebel against common sense, because those who condescended and pushed it down their throat have anything but. They’re arguably not supposed to empathize, as Billie Joe Armstrong unsarcastically proclaims on “Having a Blast” in one of the most chilling choruses of the 90s: “No one here is getting out alive/ This time I’ve really lost my mind and I don’t care/So close your eyes and kiss yourself goodbye/ And think about the times we’ve spent and what they meant.” Which is sad enough until the kicker comes round: “To me it’s nothing.” This isn’t Billie Joe, this is a fantasy, a fantasy he channeled into song and melody worthy of Lennon-McCartney.
“May I waste your time too?” Armstrong asks on “Sassafras Roots,” one of a few songs here that betray a country influence he wasn’t ready to acknowledge until “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” took over the Bar Mitzvah and Seinfeld clip show circuit three years later.*
Putting country in a punk tune, or Lennon-McCartney for that matter, was an inevitability in pop. Mainstream guitars didn’t stop getting louder during the stretch from Led Zeppelin IV to Woodstock ’99, and singable not-just-verses-but-choruses have always generally helped billions of music buyers distinguish the music they remember and care about from the music they don’t. (There’s also a few million music buyers for whom this isn’t true, none of whom presumably is among the 20 million who bought Dookie).
What wasn’t inevitable was not just the talent and originality of three guys who wrote music so simple and cleanly split into neat, little parts so discrete that I noticed the bass lines in fourth grade, which is at least five years before I noticed another bass line in a another song.
Let’s talk about “Longview,” which is catchy but sounded like nothing else on the radio then or now. The boogieing bassline defies jazz, blues or punk, it just kind of walks while Armstrong talks, with Tré Cool’s** windshield-wiper drums bound and clomp. The chorus kicks into a freewheeling jaunt, where the melody goes limp to be played catch with, Armstrong monkeying in the middle and no song ever shuffling this bouncily has been a hit in rock and roll since possibly the 50s, before soft-loud, clean-distorted dynamics were invented.
While its subject of masturbation is seen to have blazed some kind of trail (though multi-millionaires like Cyndi Lauper and Prince referenced it on their bestselling albums anyway), “Longview” is more notable as the first time masturbation was viewed as a nihilistic means to an end rather than a sexual expression. There are no sex objects in “Longview,” the narrator of which is profoundly alone. He watches TV, he bars himself indoors, he begs to be peeled from his seat, he wonders if he will go blind. If that’s what he deserves. The only thing this narrator knows, in exact detail, is how to inject the quick high of an orgasm into his veins: “Bite my lip and close my eyes/ And take me away to paradise.” He could be describing heroin. This was the first single.
Of course, it’s not about heroin, which is why Green Day went on to become a Broadway musical and Nirvana didn’t. Despite the dynamite-strapped fantasy “Having a Blast,” the lead track called “Burnout,” and the inconclusive fate of the “Longview” character, Dookie affirmed life by affirming life gets us down. There’s no better band than the one who went twentyfold platinum off an album named after a poop to assure us that failure is okay.
One of the nice things about 1994 is that politics could be relied on in new rock bands. Except for Stone Temple Pilots who had the “ironic” rape hit with the bridge “Here I come, I come, I come,” Nirvana wore dresses and put vaginal imagery on everything they could assign art direction to, while Pearl Jam told any crowd or TV station that would listen that they were staunchly pro-choice. Green Day wouldn’t turn outwardly political until 2000’s “Minority” and more famously with the 2004 smash American Idiot, but the subtext was there on Dookie, of even the cynics absorbing the right attitude.
In the enormous hit “Basket Case,” Armstrong gets a second opinion from a male “whore” who tells Armstrong to quit whining because it’s bringing “her” down. “Whining” also factors into “Welcome to Paradise,” where Armstrong calls the folks six months after moving out, to report gunshots in his new “wasteland” home. Yet “Mom and Dad” are his biggest fear in “Coming Clean” as he discovers bisexuality.
By the time “In the End” figures out what one “special friend” is all about and doesn’t like what it sees, even before the mild reconciliation of “F.O.D.,” it’s clear this is no burnout’s album. This is a jaded but hopeful prisoner of his 20s who hopes to escape the sometimes “sick” rut his former friends have fallen into. It’s someone reaching the age where it’s become a necessity to separate right and wrong. Few punk or concept albums are this direct and clearly characterized, as the largely smoke-and-mirrors American Idiot would prove ten years later on such Who-garbled chorales as “Are We the Waiting.”
But back to flawlessness. Twenty years later, all 14 tracks of the endlessly listenable Dookie still neatly sum themselves up, even “Chump” with its fake arena-rock swell that ambitiously transitions into the next song, even the drummer-sung hidden track. They vary tempos more than Ramones, with both the double-time cowpunk of “In the End” and the midtempo “Nowhere Man” jangle of “Pulling Teeth,” and just two ballads that are both kind of rockers: the chugging hit “When I Come Around” and the acoustic-to-anthemic “F.O.D.” to close. Yet while they’d go on to repeat every chord change and radio-friendly tempo, none of these sound the same – just similar enough that you root for them to mature into new places. How many punk bands inspire that wish?
* Can you believe “Basket Case” and “Time of Your Life” were only released three years apart?
** Easily the worst thing about this band, and possibly the 90s, is that someone renamed themselves “Tré Cool”