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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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