Mossman on music: American Idiot

The Green Day-inspired musical reviewed.

The new Green Day musical reminds me of the bit in Naked Gun 33 1/3 where they’re reading out the Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress. “Fatal Affair: One woman’s ordeal to overcome the death of her cat, set against the background of the Hindenburg Disaster”; “Basic Analysis: One woman’s fight against a yeast infection, set against the background of the tragic Buffalo Bills season of 1968”. Billie Joe Armstrong’s two-hour stage show is one man’s failure to put his trousers on, set against the backdrop of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.

It is churlish to criticise the plot of a Juke Box musical. Queen’s We Will Rock You follows a group of “Bohemians” fighting against “Radio Gaga” (processed music, boy bands) and searching for the elusive “Brighton Rock” (a guitar buried in a cave); Rock Of Ages has developers trying to knock down the club where all the characters hang out, simply to facilitate a segue into Starship’s "We Built This City". In many ways, the worse the link, the more fun that moment of recognition.

But there’s something grim about Green Day’s attempt to turn their Grammy-winning concept album (“a response to the realities of the post 9/11 era”) into a stage musical – not because the subject is too heavy, but because, judging by how fearfully they tiptoe around it on stage, the “promise” of 9/11 has simply been used to put bums on seats.

Of course you don’t want to see people dancing round the Twin Towers (and you don’t). I’m not living in America: perhaps this masterpiece of vaguery worked better there – it managed 421 nights on Broadway, though Armstrong had to start appearing in it himself in order to up the ratings. But two dozen TV screens broadcasting a garbled narrative about all sorts of nasty things like AIDS and earthquakes (and terrorism) while lead character Johnny cries “I’m fed up of afternoons of shit-talking and blah-fucking-blah” is not a poignant rumination on an era, and shouldn’t be billed as one.

In Green Day’s original 2004 album, Johnny was called Jesus of Suburbia. He met a punk freedom fighter and fell in love with a woman (called Whatsername) who represented “mother revolution”. It wasn’t Bertolt Brecht but it meant something – it was impassioned, and ambitious, and bold for a snarky little punk rock band to come out with a song called "Wake Me Up When September Ends".

It’s assumed that the musical-going public are too thick to handle allegory, so rather than those abstract figures we’ve got Johnny, Tunny and Matt. The former becomes a junkie, and when that doesn’t work out he comes home deducing, “She was right, I am an idiot … This is my rage. This is my love. This is my town.” Apart from its visualisation of chronic loserdom in Johnny, the show’s political content is focused on Tunny, who is seduced into war with the baffling libretto “[his] dream turned red, white and blue! But I thought that good guys don't wear red, white, and blue! Nobody seems to agree on anything these days!” The stage is briefly awash with dancing soldiers but no actual war is mentioned, just as no president is mentioned (there’s a truncated clip of George Bush’s “you’re either with us…”) and no real-life, world-changing event.

Stage shows generate regular cash and introduce your back catalogue to a new audience. Billie Joe is not exactly up the dumper – Green Day’s new album ¡Uno! has been met, as the saying goes, with a mixed critical reaction, he’s now 40 and he went into rehab last month following a meltdown on stage in Las Vegas: it’s not hard to guess why someone thought this musical would be a good idea. But Green Day, unlike Queen or Abba, don’t have enough hits to fill a full-length stage show – just three or four; they’d have been better off harnessing their “slacker” thing and going down the Avenue Q or Loserville route, if they really wanted to see their name in lights. And maybe there is a “post-9/11” musical to be written one day – by Stephen Colbert, or David and Amy Sedaris, or Jon Stewart, or maybe all four of them together. Well, maybe.

Green Day’s "American Idiot" is at the Edinburgh Playhouse next week and on a national tour, ending at London’s Hammersmith Apollo in December.

Billie Joe Armstrong on Broadway with the cast of American Idiot. Photo: Getty Images.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit