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american idiots & the new punk explosion
By Ben Myers
The Disinformation Company Ltd.Copyright © 2006 I.M.P. Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved.
"Go west, young man, go west!"
– Advice given by Indiana newspaper writer John B. L. Soule in 1851, later adopted as a mantra for Nineteenth Century American migration.
Oakland, California, has a rich and colorful history, and that color is predominantly gold. The land that surrounds San Francisco's Bay Area was first settled upon some 1,200 years BC and inhabited by transient tribes for centuries upon centuries before Spanish explorers became the first Europeans to visit the East Bay in 1772. Within thirty years the Mission de San Jose had been established in the settlement of Fremont and imposed Spanish jurisdiction over the area that would one day be called Oakland. A man named Don Luis Maria Peralta was awarded a 44,800-acre land grant from the King of Spain that spanned most of present-day Alameda county; the first non-Native American dwelling was built in 1821. And that was that for a number of decades. The Spanish had staked their claim for this corner of California and their legacy still looms strong today, not least in street names and surrounding towns. The white man had arrived to irrevocably change the area forever.
Quite how much the landscape, economy, psyche and psychogeography of Oakland would be changed over the coming decades – or indeed the coming two centuries – could never have been predicted but, in 1848, change it did.
When James Marshall, described as "a dour, paranoid carpenter from New Jersey," discovered a pea-shaped lump of gold in a sawmill ditch in Coloma (near Sacramento) in January 1848, the course of American history was changed forever. "Boys," Marshall told the group of laborers who were helping him build the sawmill, "By God, I believe I have found a gold mine."
Times were hard, and nothing captures the imagination of the poor quite like the accidental discovery of gold. What followed was one of the biggest mass migrations on record, as 90,000 people flocked to California from all over the country – and from places as far-flung as Chile and Mexico – in the two years following Marshall's discovery; the average journey took five months. California, as we now know it, was born.
By 1854 the total of migrants numbered over 300,000 optimistic prospectors – one in nine of every American citizen. The census of 1850 found that seventy-three percent of California's population was between the ages of twenty and forty, and ninety-two percent were males. These people came not to settle, but to take. The mortality rate was high, as many young men died from accidents, disease or conflict with their neighbors. Among the first places they flocked to was one of the largest towns, San Francisco, and the surrounding Bay Area. The influx spread sideways and new settlements appeared across Oakland. In the stampede, California became a state of strangers, of prospectors – or, more likely, failed prospectors – ensuring that it was a place quite unlike anywhere else in America.
But before the Gold Rush, Californians were occupying themselves with other pursuits, one of the most popular being rodeo, a pastime that combined practical elements of the frontiersman's life with a showy machismo-based form of entertainment, and which spawned a town of the same name, Rodeo (pronounced Row-day-oh) in Contra Costa county, a suburban county in San Francisco's Bay Area. The rodeo was like a primitive precursor to rock 'n' roll, a chance for young men to show off their physical and sexual prowess in the most obvious and no-brainer way possible – by wrestling livestock in the dusty Californian dirt in front of excitable crowds of ranchers, farm-hands, livestock owners, rustlers, hustlers, thieves and their families. It was – and in many areas of the country remains – a great American tradition. America loves its meat, and the rodeo was just one more byproduct of an alternative economy to gold, that of beef. Welcome to cowboy country.
And it was here – on a dusty plain or in a newly built pen or on the back of a bucking bronco – that the American Dream was born.
Resting some fifteen miles north of hip college town Berkeley, the actual town of Rodeo is home to less than 9,000 people and a little over 2,000 families. It is a town born out of the livestock round-ups of the late 1800s, when in March of each year the cattle that had roamed freely on the unfenced plains were rounded up ("rodeo" comes from the Spanish word "rodear," meaning "to wrap up, to circle, to encompass"). The town was officially founded in 1890 by the Union Stockyard Company on land once a part of Rancho el Pinole, for the sole purpose of canning and packing the meat that only days earlier had been roaming the plains freely and quite obliviously.
Town planners set to work on designing a neat, functional town, and soon shops and the odd hotel were being built to cater for the increase in trade. Special train tracks were laid down to carry citizens from all parts of the Bay Area to inspect this new town, many of which marveled at the then-hi-tech packing plants and Southern Pacific spur track that sent the meat off around the country. On the outside, business was booming, but it was a venture that was ultimately to fail. Within a mere twelve months, the packing plant had failed to cope with such a rapid expansion and subsequent heavy outgoings, and was declared bankrupt in 1895. Ten years later, an earthquake leveled the entire town, and Rodeo's enterprise truly came to an abrupt end when its bricks were sold off for construction of newer, more successful towns and cities.
Rodeo is still small by any town's standards, its Main Street a dreary strip of boarded-up storefronts and regulation housing overshadowed by the industrial buildings that are still the beating heart of the area. It is, as Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong would later describe it: "A smudge on the map of California." As of the year 2000, the racial makeup of Rodeo was fifty percent white, the other half a combination of black, African-American, Native American, Asian, Hispanic, Latino, etc., a third of its citizens under the age of eighteen. Geographically, Rodeo is hemmed in by the bay and the larger cities that surround it. Things have changed little since that initial failed influx of investment in the latter years of the Nineteenth Century. An oil refinery, a lead smelting company and a lumber company provide work for thousands of local men, from Rodeo and beyond. The town failed to live up to its early economic promise, but as Elaine Pond, Chamber of Commerce for Rodeo proudly states, "while Rodeo will never be a big city, for physical reasons, it would be hard to find a more pleasant community."
Interestingly, also in 2000, animal rights group PETA petitioned Rodeo to change its name, reasoning that it evoked images of the blood sport after which it was named. Their alternative suggestion of "Unity" and their offer of donating $20,000 worth of veggie burgers to local schools should the town comply found little favor with the citizens of Rodeo, who rejected the group's ideas outright.
So ... a Californian town of tract homes, dime stores and diners, whose history is full of tales of both success and failure – of gold-hungry prospectors and idealistic industrialists, of sudden wealth and widespread poverty – whose stature is forever cast in shadow by the more cosmopolitan climes of San Francisco. Rodeo is, in many ways, unremarkable. In fact it is typical of so many of the towns and cities that A long overdue social and cultural change was coming, whether America liked it or not. sprung up in the wake of the expansion of the American frontier and the boom-time days of the gold rush, the type of place that Rolling Stone's Chris Mundy would later describe as "a town that flashes by in the time it takes to change the radio station." There are many more like it, and their importance lies not in the Spanish street names or the refineries, but the spirit that lies within both its distant past and its near future. That desire to explore, expand, to change both the landscape and the way of thinking of the citizens who inhabit it. To make something out of nothing and build from the ground upwards, to better things for everyone. Rodeo (and its many Californian counterparts) is a great metaphor for one particular rock 'n' roll band who took what little they had and turned it into something quite magnificent, something that even plunging economies, earthquakes and the numerous schemes of town planners would struggle to destroy. A place where only one in a million would strike gold.
1972 was a good year for rock 'n' roll.
Rock music was shaking off its hippie hangover from the Sixties and getting harder and more excessive. Vietnam was still happening, Charles Manson and his followers had hacked the psychedelic hippie dream to pieces and the Rolling Stones had witnessed violent death at Altamont.
A long overdue social and cultural change was coming, whether America liked it or not, and it was the rock bands of the day who acted as the cat's eyes on this dark road into the unknown future.
The Stooges and MC5 had already pointed to a more psychotic, hard-edged sound just around the corner, an anti-social cacophony to challenge the boundaries of taste and convention. Albums released that year included future rock classics like the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street and Alice Cooper's School's Out, glamorous pre-punk deviant masterpieces such as David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and Lou Reed's Transformer and key hard rock/proto-metal albums like Black Sabbath's Volume 4 and Deep Purple's Machine Head. Chuck Berry had his first and only number one hit, "My-Ding-a-Ling," and "American Pie" by Don McClean was the biggest selling single of the year.
In the wider world, Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit China and Moscow, before being disgraced when it was revealed he was behind the Watergate scandal in Washington, D.C. later in the year; Arab terrorists murdered eleven Israeli athletes at the Olympic games in Munich; and The Godfather was the highest grossing movie of the year.
Rock music, like politics, was in a persistent state of flux. The art and culture of the Sixties had failed to change the world in the multifarious ways it had promised – perhaps the Seventies would require more drastic measures. Peace and love had failed, so what next? Hate and war?
Yep, things were changing all right.
It was into this cultural climate that Billie Joe Armstrong was born, on February 17, 1972, in Rodeo, the youngest of six children. His oldest sibling, Alen, was twenty-two years older than him, and born into a wholly different era. Their father Andy's collar was as blue as the vast California skies spanning off across the dustbowl and into America's heartland. He drove trucks for a living, while his wife Ollie, who gave birth to her youngest son at the age of forty, worked as a waitress at a roadside barbeque joint, Rod's Hickory Pit, on Lincoln Road in nearby Vallejo. Then owned by Richard and Alison Cotton, Rod's Hickory Pit was formerly Terry's, Pinole's premier coffee shop since 1936 – but for Green Day's story, it was so much more.
In the years to come, Ollie Armstrong's workplace would double up as the venue for the debut performance by Billie Joe's first proper band, who, despite showing a keen ear for melody at an early stage, were more about raw energy and goofing off. Contrary to popular belief, Green Day's future frontman was never named William Joseph Armstrong – Ollie, originally from Oklahoma, was inspired by her beloved country-and-western to choose such a name for her youngest son.
Music was in Billie Joe Armstrong's blood from the time he learned to read and write. The signs were there from the age of five when he occasionally sang in children's hospitals and old people's homes, a cute kid keen to entertain California's immobile citizens. He was certainly a beautiful child blessed with wide eyes, a cherub face and thick ringlets.
"Billie Joe was a good kid," remembers Richard Cotton, owner of Rod's, speaking to San Francisco magazine. "He'd sing and dance for the seniors in our banquet room. I told Ollie, 'I'm going to see this kid's name in lights one day ...'"
The fact that he was never more happy than singing merrily along to songs made the young Billie Joe all the more charming. At the age of five – when the outside world of 1977 was reeling from the sound of the Sex Pistols and the Clash – young Billie Joe's cuteability led to him making his recording debut when he went into a local recording studio and sang a song called "Looking for Love," written by a James J. Fiatarone and Marie Louise Fiatarone.
In the shape of punk to come, the song was subsequently released as a seven-inch single limited to 800 copies on the songwriters' own small label, Fiat Records. The B-side was a mock-interview entitled "Meet Billie Joe," a five-second snippet of which can be heard at the beginning of Green Day's later International Superhits! compilation: "Billie Joe, it's certainly exciting to meet you here at the recording studio right after you've just made your very first record, how does it feel?" gushes the female "interviewer."
"Hmmm ..." he wonders with chipmunk-style chirpiness, as if he can already see thirty years of hi-jinks ahead of him, "wonderful!"
The single was released in a plain sleeve with a songbook insert and a picture of the budding singer sporting his thick set of curls. Suddenly, by way of a lack of competition, Billie Joe was inadvertently one of the world's youngest solo artists! Everyone agreed it was a cool thing to do and "Looking for Love" got plenty of spins on the Armstrong residence's turntable and made for a great Christmas gift to relatives.
It could all just as easily have ended there – which five-year-olds don't love to make a noise and be the center of attention? The record was, after all, just one step up from any kid discovering the home stereo's microphone function for the first time.
But music was in Billie Joe's blood – and once in there, that stuff is indelible. Looking back now, there seems a strange inevitability to the chain of events that led from singing along to the radio and his siblings' record collections, to writing his own compositions, to performing them and releasing them as records all within a period of little over a decade. Music would always be there in the future, soundtracking Billie Joe's every teenage moment – every tentative sip of beer, every girl kissed, every joint smoked. It was what got him out of the life he was leading and away from the neighborhood from which he might never have otherwise left. But we're seeing all this with the benefit of hindsight, that device that is sadly not available to adolescents, in a time when a bit of perspective on life is most needed. At the age of ten no one knows what their life may bring; all you can do is hope and dream ...
It wasn't just Billie Joe that loved his music. When he wasn't driving trucks, Andy Armstrong was a keen amateur jazz drummer. "He would go to bars, play, smoke pot with his friends – what people in jazz do," Billie Joe later explained. "I never really knew him too well."
As a counter to his father's love of jazz, Ollie Armstrong was more of a country fan and "Elvis freak," as so many Americans were in the early Seventies, when the revitalized, self-styled "King" was at his commercial peak. God-like country singer Hank Williams was also never off the stereo either. Being the youngest of six allowed Billie Joe to fill his rock quota by plundering the record collections of his elder siblings: "I've got a brother who's old enough to be my father. He listened to a lot of stuff like Guess Who by the Who. Because my mom was kind of an Elvis freak, the first album I ever bought was Elvis Presley's debut, The Sun Sessions. I lucked out on that one. I had just seen one of his movies – Double Trouble, I think – and got it because he looked good on the cover. Even then, I wasn't into the jumpsuits though ..." Soon, as he would get older, another of the Armstrong siblings, sister Anna, would be schooling her younger brother in more alternative music. It was an eclectic mix.
Aside from his early flirtation with a recording career, for the first ten years Billie Joe Armstrong's life was relatively normal. He attended school, he sang songs. He did kids' stuff. As the youngest of six he arguably got away with more than his eldest siblings, as many youngest children so often do, though he was far from spoiled or over-indulged.
Growing up in California in the Seventies and early Eighties was colored by classic rock radio, by emerging New Wave bands, by Sesame Street and Starsky & Hutch and skateboards with the old polyurethane wheels. Fictional heroes came in the form of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo (depending on whether you went for the plucky underdog or the cocky loudmouth), Christopher Reeve's Superman or, for the more sensitive kids, maybe Elliott from ET. The usual schoolyard antics prevailed – like the time two girls beat up Billie Joe in an attempt to get him to be their boyfriend (a sign of the adulation that was to follow years later, perhaps?).
But in 1982, when Billie Joe was just ten years old, things changed forever in the Armstrong household, when husband and father Andy passed away from cancer. Billie Joe suddenly found his family set-up changing at a time when an adolescent needs stability most. There was still parental love, of course, but from the dawn of his teenage years and the onset of puberty, Billie Joe, already restless, had even less reason to conform to an orthodox life.
"Our family changed a lot, because my parents had been very kid-orientated, and all of the sudden my mother withdrew and threw herself into waitressing," Anna Armstrong told Chris Mundy of Rolling Stone in 1995, in what remains to this day one of the finest articles on the band. "The family structure broke up. Then my mother remarried about a year or so afterward ... I'd say we were as dysfunctional as any family with the death of a father, a stepfather ... and almost losing our mother at the same time. We were a very physical family. There was a lot of fighting amongst the siblings, a lot of hitting. I don't know where the anger came from." Given the tragic turn of events that had befallen Billie Joe's family, it is perhaps entirely understandable where any friction within the house came from. Coping with the loss of a parent and the arrival of step-relatives is never going to be an easy challenge for any kid.
Excerpted from GREEN DAY by Ben Myers. Copyright © 2006 I.M.P. Publishing Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of The Disinformation Company Ltd..
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