Song Of The Week: Green Day, “Basket Case”

The first CD I owned was the 2-track single for Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit.”  It was a present from my aunt.  I was (maybe) seven, and it briefly made me the coolest kid in class. Prior to owning this single I was possibly the coolest kid in class. I had a Zack Morris haircut, an actual girlfriend, I could run fast, and my teacher hated me.  In 2nd grade this makes you empirically cool.  Throw in ownership of a rap CD and I was, for a moment, untouchable.

Then Doc Martens and Lucky jeans became popular and I was the kid in hand-me-down Gap khakis (Ghakis?).  It’s all been downhill since.

Anyway, that was the first CD I ever owned.  But the first CD I ever bought?  With my own money that I saved up myself?  Green Day’s Dookie.

Song of the Week: Green Day, “Basket Case

When 96X was created, its format was “alt-rock,” but in the early 90’s, that mostly meant “Seattle grunge.”  My Brother began collecting those tapes and CDs, so I became a fan by association.  Pearl Jam’s Ten and R.E.M.’s Automatic For the People were staples in his room, but I loved them too.  There was no need buy my own music; I stole his.

Green Day’s Dookie was a dividing line.  It was the first time I liked a band that my brother didn’t; hence, it the first time I had to buy a CD myself.  But, bigger picture: 1994 was approximately when 96X’s “modern rock alternative” format expanded from “pretty much grunge and R.E.M.” to “anything that wouldn’t have been popular in the 80’s.”

Specifically, the “alternative rock” genre splintered in a dozen different directions, each focusing on their own flavor of Gen X idiosyncrasies and loserdom.  Beck and the Beastie Boys were blending rock and hip hop in exciting new ways.  The Cranberries and Hole were fresh female voices in the rock mainstream.  The jammy Horde contingent was starting to gain steam (Dave Matthews, Blues Traveler, etc).  Second-iteration grunge bands (STP, Smashing Pumpkins) were already huge, popularizing their own version of the “it” sound.

And then there was Green Day, carving out a place for California pop-punk that continued long into the 2000’s.

In so many (probably misguided) ways, I still think of Green Day as Nirvana’s deranged step-cousin.  Both were three-piece bands led by the singular vision of their singer and songwriter.  Both were essentially punk bands that wrote pop songs within that idiom.  Both focused on boredom, self-loathing, and alienation.  Both were funny.  Both touched on social commentary without being political.  Both were unpredictable live.

But while the aspect of punk Nirvana most adopted was its nihilistic freedom, the aspect Green Day cherished was its populism.  Specifically, smart songs that sound dumb.  Take “Basket Case” or “Longview.”  These aren’t just hits: they’re mission statements.  Billy Joe Armstrong has always been invested in talking “about nothing and everything all at once.”  It was true in 1993, and it’s true in 2013.

Being Green Day is tricky.  By straddling the line between self-deprecating goofballs and relevant band, they’ve always run the risk of being massively popular but not taken seriously.  For example, “Longview” is an immediately likable song about (among other things) masturbation.  The question is, can a goofy song about masturbation also be a smart song about loneliness?  Just because a song’s overtly funny, does that mean it’s not serious, too?

So, Green Day has always been taken with a grain of salt, a knowing chuckle, a roll of the eye.  Their ingrained silliness is the reason my brother didn’t like Dookie and the reason American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown were met with mixed reviews.  But music’s alone in this respect.  We adore movies that realistically marry comedy and drama.  No serious critic would claim that Seinfeld was actually “a show about nothing.”  Like “Basket Case,” it was about nothing and everything.  All at once.

But with music, we need our smart artists to act like smart artists.  We associate “inaccessible” with “deep.”  If we don’t understand, we assume it’s over our heads.  Look: I write, sing, and think about songs all day.  I’ve done it, too.  I’ve used that crutch.

I admire Green Day.  It is a very real, very valuable gift to simply say what you’re trying to say.  Ever since Dookie went diamond in 1994, Green Day has done the hard, honest work of writing smart songs that anyone can relate to.  And if humor lets more people in, they’ll fearlessly make themselves the butt of the joke.

Quick postscript: In 2009, I went to see Green Day in Nashville for the 21st Century Breakdown tour.  Brother, now a long-time convert, sat next to me and loved every second.  And after the show, I stole his copy of American Idiot.


Song Of The Week: Counting Crows, “Round Here”

counting_crowsAs I’ve mentioned before, I was introduced to a lot of music riding in the car with my parents.  Mom was into 60’s R&B and pop (Motown, Stax, Beatles, Beach Boys), Dad loved roots-influenced solo artists (Dylan, Elvis, Willie Nelson, Gram Parsons, Paul Simon).  They both loved Emmylou Harris, but who the hell doesn’t.

Every summer, Mom, Dad, Brother, and I would pile into the Oldsmobile and take a roadtrip.  Usually, we drove West Virginia to see our extended family.  Sometimes, we went Elsewhere.  Occasionally, we went to West Virginia and Elsewhere.  During these marathon drives, we took turns picking music (specifically, the next CASSETTE): Dad first, the person riding shotgun next, and around we went.  On a long drive, you could count on at least one George Jones selection from Dad.  Mom always worked Martha & The Vandellas into the rotation.  Brother’s pick was forever and always Use Your Illusion until, aged fourteen, he officially became too smart for everything that wasn’t Bob Dylan (if this sounds a little like confirmation, it was).

One summer, Brother’s friend made him a mixtape for our drive to West Virginia (or Elsewhere).  I can still see the tracklist scrawled on the insert.  The tape was full of soon-to-be 96X staples (10000 Maniacs, Crash Test Dummies, R.E.M., etc).  But listed #1 was a song I’d never heard by a band I’d never heard of, with an asterisk and “awesome!” written in the margin.*

And, in my memory, it was the first 96X song that all four of us openly liked.

Song of the Week: Counting Crows, “Round Here

Adam Duritz has spent much of his life battling depression.  According to Duritz, his first battles with major depressive disorder began in his early twenties after a bad LSD trip.  Passionate about music (and clearly talented), he struggled to make music a consistent, full-time enterprise.  It’s hard to start a rock band if you can’t get out of bed.

Still, he dabbled with different sets of San Francisco musicians, and he slowly found his voice as a songwriter.  In the midst of an experimental, jammy incarnation The Himalayans, Duritz wrote a song called “Round Here.”  By the time the song we know reached completion, Duritz had focused on a new band with an all-star cast of Bay Area musicians.  His voice, combined with their musicianship and professionalism, became Counting Crows.  The rest we (kind of) know.

“Round Here” became a massive hit in the 96X-era for a lot of reasons: it’s catchy, the production and execution are great, it was wisely marketed to a moody early 90’s alt-rock crowd desperate for more “smart pop,” etc.  It’s a marriage of talent, inspiration, and great timing.  But I think its best attribute is urgency.

Some of the best songs simply had to come out.  This is more than talent, and this is more than inspiration (though it’s both of those, too).  These songs sound like the feverish tick-tock of a time bomb.  They sound like they arrived fully-formed out of sheer will and desperation.  They’re breathless, and they’re some kind of perfect.  They strain to say everything at once, and usually do. They’re hard to describe, but–a wonderful testament to the way audiences receive pop music–we know it when we hear it.

“Mr. Jones” is inspired; “Round Here” is urgent.  It sounds like what it is: an explosion of talent after years spent bottled up, hung up, and clinically depressed.

(More examples: Of the 96X era, “Losing My Religion” has this quality.  Pearl Jam’s “State of Love and Trust.”  A classic example is “Like a Rolling Stone.”  Outkast’s “B.O.B.”  The Clash’s “London Calling.”  In many cases, the artist had bigger hits, but this was the song that initially broke them to a new, wider audience.)

“Round Here” is the sound of a breaking point.  The song deftly builds to its climax–specifically, Maria’s ledge.  Duritz’s outcry that “she must be tired of something,” remains deeply affecting nearly twenty years later.  It’s a moment of silence finally voiced, inarticulateness deftly-articulated, helplessness trying to lend a hand.  Everything in the song has built to this point, and the line is both explicitly hollow and implicitly fulfilling.  Alongside “The Bends” (“I wish it was the sixties/I wish I could be happy/I wish…something would happen“) and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (its entirety), this moment of “Round Here” stands as a definitive moment of 90’s rock.

It was catchy enough for Mom to love it, lyrical enough for Dad to like it, cool/relevant enough for Brother to sign onto it, and accessible enough for me to appreciate it.  In 1993, it was the perfect single for anyone smart, landlocked, and scared of mosh pits.  “Round Here” is a quintessential song of the 96X era, and Counting Crows’ finest hour.

Unfortunately, that hour was also their first.

But this series isn’t just about remembering the 90’s–it’s about connecting the dots to 2013.  And it’s a shame that New Counting Crows have been disappointing enough to actually compromise appreciation of Old Counting Crows**.

I’ll point the finger at myself.  I distrust and hate Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings (2008) so much, so viscerally, it colors the way I’ve ever viewed the band.  I could go on speculating the reasons Counting Crows were once that good and are now this good***.  I could write circles about whether I should’ve seen this coming.  I could question what trust even exists between a band and their fanbase.  I could rhapsodize on burning out, fading away, etc.

But I won’t.  I’m wrong to retrospectively dislike Counting Crows, and I’m not going to.  I’ll let Rasheed Wallace and Robert Plant guide me: ball don’t lie, and the song remains the same. “Round Here” is a great record, even if it’s full of ghosts.

Same time next week: Volume 5!

*Might not have said “awesome!”  I can’t remember.  Maybe “tubular” or “cowabunga” or some other 90’s radness.

**Should be mentioned: I think Recovering the Satellites is a fantastic record, This Desert Life has great moments, and “Up All Night” (from Hard Candy) is one of their best songs.  We’re not talking about Maria jumping off a ledge here; more like slowly, methodically, falling down the stairs.

**OK, I’ll bite.  The short version: I think it’s hard on a band’s development when its most talented member is also its most volatile and least musical member.  This lends itself to early, inspired highs and later, misguided lows.  The Killers (of whom I’m also a fan) are another example.  A counterexample is R.E.M.  The difference is R.E.M. were a “band that mattered” long before (and long after) they were a “band that was hugely popular.”  Their hits were more incidental than integral.

96X Anthology Continues

Hey fine folks.  This week’s Nashville showcase derailed my usual blog routine.  The bad news is that Song of the Week will return May 16 with Volume 4 of our 96X Anthology.  The good news is that it will feature one of my favorite songs of all-time.

Here’s the one:

So, build a desert tent (?) and camp out til next week.

Move and nobody gets hurt,