Green Day has always been guilty of over-thinking things.
It’s kind of been their dirty little secret; the reason they’ve always struggled with the follow-ups to their biggest albums (anyone remember Insomniac or 21st Century Breakdown? ), and why their career has followed the same cycle for nearly three decades now — a breakout, world-uniting album, a slow fade into the background, then a bracing, bold return to prominence. Even when they’re supposedly playing fast and loose, like on 2012’s ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, ¡Tre! trilogy, you can tell they’re still caught up in their own heads. There truly is nothing Green Day does without deep consideration … for better or worse, there is always a method to their madness.
That’s not meant to be a slight. In fact, it’s part of the reason they’ve enjoyed such longevity, and why they’re a great band.
But it hasn’t always been this way. For proof, go back to their breakout album, Dookie, which was released 20 years ago this month, and still stands as a testament to a band operating without a net or a plan. Partially because, at the time they made it, they were too young to know any better, but also because they were probably too baked, bored, or buzzed to even form a cohesive thought.
There are shortage of stoned, slacker missives — everything from their classic “Longview” and the anthemic apathy of “When I Come Around,” to songs like “Burnout,” “Chump,” “F.O.D.” (you know, “F–k Off and Die,”) and, of course, hidden track “All By Myself,” a true testament to in-studio dickery — and even heavier moments, like “Coming Clean” (where Billie Joe Armstrong discusses his bisexuality) and “The End” (which is about his mother,) are delivered with a snotty sneer, and they’re over before you even have time to connect the dots.
In other words, this was not meant to be a serious album (I mean, it’s called Dookie,) and in that regard, it stands alone in Green Day’s back catalog. When they made it, Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool were all in their early 20s, and had spent the past five years attempting to navigate the ins and outs (and ethos) of the punk scene, with varying degrees of success. When they signed with Reprise Records, they were branded sell outs, and famously “banned for life” from the non-profit 924 Gilman Street punk club … so it sort of makes sense that they’d end up recording an album like this, with both feet firmly planted in punk, and both hands reaching for the bong. They were still too young to drown out their detractors, yet worldly enough to realize there was nothing they could do about them. So they decided, “F— it, let’s get stoned.”
Which is to say that Armstrong, Dirnt and Cool were exactly like every other twentysomething on the planet, a fact that hasn’t changed at all in the two decades since Dookie was released. Subjects like frustration, fear, apathy and nihilism fuel the album — though, appropriately, Green Day do their best to hide them beneath a veneer of spit and jerkoff jokes — and those topics were just as relevant in 1994 as they are in 2014. In that regard, it makes sense the album was so huge … and why it’s still being discussed and discovered today. It’s a classic ode to second-decade malaise. Its sentiments are universal.
So, yes, it would be easy to dismiss Dookie as little more than a brainless blast. But twenty years later, after more listens than I can possibly count, I’ve also realized that it’s much more: Like American Idiot (or, to a lesser extent, 21st Century Breakdown,), it’s also a concept album, a series of songs about being old enough to know better, yet too young to do anything about it.
The difference is, back in 1994, Green Day didn’t think about these things before the plugged in. They didn’t need to. On “F.O.D.,” Armstrong sings “Your head trip’s boring me,” and you have to believe he meant it … after all, at that point, he’d been analyzed and crucified by the deep thinkers of the punk scene, and you can probably guess what he thought about intellectuals. Yet, like everyone his age, he couldn’t ignore the feeling of purpose gnawing at his gut, or deny the fact that the future seemed like an impossibility. What’s worse, the ways he chose to deal with those insecurities — weed, booze, hourly self-love sessions, etc. — only added to his feelings of apathy. Life in your twenties is often a vicious cycle, after all.
And that tug-of-war is what makes Dookie a classic. If you’re like me, you can listen to it now and marvel at just how far you’ve come. If you’re hearing it for the first time, you’ll be shocked at how much you relate to Armstrong’s struggle. Either way, there’s no denying it’s timeless, the kind of album that rocks and reels and reeks, the kind that’s proudly anti-intellectual, yet connects on deeper levels than you’ll ever realize. The kind of album Green Day could only make once, no matter how many second (or third) acts they’ve earned in their career.
After all, how many times can you sing about masturbation before it loses its fun?