1994: “Basket Case” (Green Day, Dookie)
The mid-90s were a pretty rough time for me. I was coming out of a pretty disastrous relationship that was emotionally and financially damaging, a lot of things that had seemed to be coming so easily were now like constantly running up hill, and life in general was just sort of there. So when Green Day came along and put that very same mix of frustration and ennui into musical form, I was particularly receptive to it.
I’ve never really classified Green Day as real punk; they always felt far too laid back to claim the name in its purest sense, less angry than peeved. A real punk would go out and break some windows because he was pissed about his lot in life, not sit on the couch and smoke pot and ask you to “listen to me whine.” They also sound too good, too precise for the ragged anarchy of real punk. It’s pop punk, and while it may not sound like it from what I’ve just said, it’s perfectly acceptable and oftentimes downright entertaining. And when it hits you at a time when it seems Billy Joe Armstrong is singing about you, it’s easy to cut them some slack on their punk bona fides.
“Basket Case” does embody one of the core tenets of punk: it doesn’t matter if you’re good if you’re fast and loud. It comes and goes in the space of about three minutes and never really lets up from Armstrong’s frantic opening riff. It happily thrashes along even as Armstrong sings about his anxieties and his paranoia, one of the most upbeat songs about a panic attack ever written. And it’s that surging energy that made the song so cathartic for me at the time. This guy was about as glum as I was, and yet there he was jamming away with drums pounding behind and a throbbing bass holding him up. It was a sort of primal scream therapy in 4:4 time, and if it didn’t actually improve my situation — and really, how could it — it made it a little easier not to dwell on it for a bit.
It wasn’t until American Idiot that Green Day found their real punk anger. Maybe it was a combination of having something to be genuinely angry about and the maturity to be genuinely angry about it, because despite — or maybe thanks to — liberally cribbing from every musical source they can get their hands on, they managed to be tuneful and motivated. They weren’t sitting around navel-gazing anymore. They were mad about something bigger than themselves.
The monstrous success of Dookie was probably the worst thing for the band, because they sort of lost their way afterward, not really regaining it until their focused sharpened on Idiot. I wouldn’t hold Dookie up as an all-time great album, but as a much-needed shot in the arm at the time I first heard it, it’s got some importance for me. I won’t say Green Day solved my problems — that came about through my own hard work, not Armstrong’s chords — but they sure did make those problems seems a lot less daunting. And whole lot more catchy.