I prefer my punk in a club. It’s an aural thing: Big metal power chords sound really bitchin’ in a huge place, but that fast, choppy stuff just gets lost. So I wasn’t really psyched about seeing Green Day at the Saitama Super Arena, but my man Toshi promised it would be “better than Motorhead at the Budokan.” Coming from anyone else that would be sacrilege, but I decided I had nothing to lose but my prejudices.
Prejudices caused at least a little bit by my kid brother, who plays in a Green Day cover band called Sniveling White Assholes. They really suck, but it’s difficult to tell if they suck because Green Day’s songs are all about the same depressing things and contain the same three chords and the same rhythms, or because they just suck.
Toshi lent me some CDs. I tried a few cuts but, frankly, Billy Joe Armstrong’s nasally voice makes my skin crawl. It’s like listening to my mom laugh at Jay Leno. Still, it was difficult not to be blown away by the crowd. Twenty thousand people bought tickets to the Green Day Festival on March 31, but apparently about a fourth of them were housewives from Omiya who thought it was a gardening convention. For security reasons, the floor was divided into five standing sections — Heaven, Hell and the three stages of Limbo. The housewives were all in Limbo 2. Toshi and I were in Limbo 3, but we decided we’d try to sneak into Heaven, which was closest to the stage.
The “festival” part was the three Japanese punk bands who opened: Going Steady, Mongol 800 and Snail Ramp. The first band is from Yamagata, and they sing their songs in the Yamagata dialect, which I didn’t get but Toshi thought was a riot. “Imagine the cast of ‘Hee-Haw’ doing a Black Flag tribute,” he explained. They even ended their 25-minute set with a supersonic version of “Country Road.” Mongol 800, on the other hand, is from Okinawa, which means, of course, their punk songs contain Okinawan musical phrases. Snail Ramp isn’t from anywhere. They did some ska stuff, which was OK, but the only song I’d pay money for was something called either “My Monkey” or “Mike Tyson,” I couldn’t tell which. It sounded like the theme from “Exodus,” but with fuzz boxes.
I’ll have to admit, Tokyo punks know how to party. Even during the crappy songs, they were pogoing and slamming and spitting oolong tea into each other’s faces. During Mongol 800’s set, we managed to slip into Limbo 3. Unfortunately, the housewives had set up a huge mosh pit — we got caught in it and catapulted over the barrier and sent back to Limbo 2. I got a pair of pruning shears out of it, though.
While the kids in the stands were doing the wave, Green Day came out, accompanied by sirens and flashing cherry tops and explosions. Billy Joe was in black with a white tie. All 20,000 ticket holders started jumping in place as they played “Welcome to Paradise,” chanting along in perfect unison and making the balconies wobble up and down.
After “Hitchin’ a Ride” and “Castaway,” Billy Joe made the kids in the stands do the wave again. He introduced the bassist, Mike Dirnt, the drummer, Tres Cool, and the horn section: Way Cool, Super Cool and Extra Dry, dressed as, respectively, a bunny, a monkey and a bee. Personally, I think having horns in a punk band is like Yngwie playing that guitar concerto with the Czech Philharmonic; I know you shouldn’t pigeonhole art, but I’m a purist. You just don’t mix apples and oranges. Or bees and bunnies.
Things got much better with “Geek Stink Breath,” which Toshi claims as his personal theme song and which rocks harder than almost anything else Green Day does. During the craziness, we managed to sneak through Limbo 2 and into Limbo 1. We got caught in another mosh pit, but this time were catapulted all the way over into Heaven. Friggin’ A! This was where the action was. Those pruning shears came in handy.
We arrived just in time for the Superhits medley of “Longview” and “Brain Stew.” “You all know the words,” Billy shouted. Everyone but me, of course. He picked up a water cannon and started spraying the audience, and then looked around in front of the stage for someone “who can play guitar.”
I couldn’t believe my eyes. A bunch of goons had pulled Toshi out of the pit and dragged him onstage. Billy Joe stapled a Stratocaster onto his emaciated body, taught him the changes and let him rip while they finished the song. Actually, Toshi used to play lead in a Slayer cover band called Cribdeath, so for him playing punk is like Julia Child making instant ramen, and, in fact, he got carried away, turning the coda into a note-for-note solo from “The Anti-Christ.” It took two roadies and a priest to make him stop, after which they wrote him a check and tossed him back in the crowd.
In the slam-frenzy that started with “Basket Case” and continued on into Billy’s song about queens, “King for a Day,” I lost Toshi to the true believers. The songs were so fast now that the pogoers had accelerated to a standstill, like that episode from “The Twilight Zone” where the guy’s moving so fast everyone around him seems to be frozen. But as soon as the band went into “Minority,” they unfroze and started marching in place. Blew me away! It was “Triumph of the Will,” only in color and without any Germans.
The three-song encore got really hairy, with smoke bombs going off and Tres destroying his drums and the housewives throwing bags of top soil and Billy Joe checking messages on his cell phone. I haven’t seen so much activity at an arena show since Metallica played with the Rockettes. Just goes to show. Never judge a book by its cover band.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.