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American Idiot

By Russ Smith | Posted 9/7/2005

It might seem like a stretch to note similarities between the Maryland State Fair and a Green Day concert, but having attended both events just four days apart the only real difference I detected was that the former occurred in daylight hours, the latter at night.

Our family drove out to Timonium on Aug. 26 for the fair, and after wrangling a parking spot we merged into the masses and stopped first at a carny who tries to guess your age or weight. It’s a sure bet for me: The fellow operating the booth this year incorrectly pegged my age at 56—more than half a decade north, mind you—and so I got to choose a stuffed animal worth about 15 cents for a prize. Par for the course, but the ultimate insult came from my son Nicky, who patted me on the shoulder and said, in all seriousness, “Dad, you don’t look a day over 52.”

Except for the rides—I once got stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel at the fair for a half-hour and haven’t considered another excursion since—I enjoy Maryland’s fair immensely, probably more than the rest of the family. Who can resist chucking baseballs in an attempt to break a plate and win another useless prize? The atmosphere is electric in a corny sort of way, with the pros shouting out to passers-by that “Everybody’s a winner!,” kids getting sloppy from melting candy apples, and stalls of pigs, horses, sheep, and ponies. My kids have always lived in cities, so the sight of someone milking a cow is pretty exotic.

We needed several bags to bring home not only our games-of-chance booty, but barbecue sandwiches, turkey legs, saltwater taffy, and a couple of fliers from the “Jews for Jesus” booth. My wife had been craving a corn dog for months—she grew up in Los Angeles, where that “delicacy” is inexplicably popular at the Santa Monica Pier—but unfortunately drew an especially greasy dog that, even slathered with mustard, was inedible. I suppose one trip to the fair is enough to slake our interest each year, but a return trip for a pit beef sandwich isn’t out of the question.

As for Green Day, the immensely popular lite-punk band from Berkeley, Calif., that hit the rock-star jackpot during the mid-1990s, its concert at Columbia’s Merriweather Post Pavilion on Aug. 30 was, unlike the utterly unpretentious State Fair, a jumbleýof amusing confusion. Merriweather remains one of the best music venues, run with machinelike precision that can be overbearing but supremely efficient. Check-in to concerts have changed over the years with post-Sept. 11 security in mind. It doesn’t bug me, but it clearly exasperated fans who mistakenly brought cameras and were told to “either take it back to your car or hide in the woods.”

Once inside, my kids were amazed at the array of food booths (not unlike Camden Yards), vendors selling all sorts of Green Day paraphernalia, and the wide age differential that defined the attendees. Unlike a recent Mars Volta show that Nicky and I attended at 1st Mariner Arena, where I was the oldest and he was the youngest, Green Day attracted kids with rainbow haircuts who looked to be second-graders as well as graybeards with tattered Grateful Dead T-shirts. Despite the anti-Bush, anti-corporate, anti-media shtick of Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day’s millionaire frontman, this was hardly a radical crowd.

When Armstrong introduced the band’s song “Holiday”—a Clash ripoff in my opinion, but still the best song on the excellent American Idiot album—he yelled, “This is for all the rednecks.” The kids—meaning those under 25—saluted Armstrong with their fists and cigarette lighters, while older folks like me remained silent and kept an eye on our children.

A Green Day show is like a carnival, one reason I find so many similarities to the State Fair, and while the band’s music is often riveting, Armstrong is muffing his opportunity to be a serious force for his generation. The frontman is obviously very bright, penning memorable and raucous songs like “Jesus of Suburbia,” “St. Jimmy,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Whatsername,” and “When I Come Around,” but instead of playing a straight two-hour set, he felt compelled to put on a vaudeville show. Which means the audience witnesses a giant rabbit drinking a beer, Armstrong pretending to jerk off between songs, his call for volunteers to play the drums and guitar, and spraying water into the crowd.

It could be that he doesn’t believe his fans will listen to the new songs and they need to be egged on to sing along, but he’s blowing it (artistically, if not monetarily). Armstrong has the means to emerge as a leading anti-war spokesman with a megaphone that reaches millions of young Americans, but he chooses to be a carny instead. Had he not struck it rich in rock ’n’ roll, it could’ve been Billie Joe himself barking at fair-goers to win a prize by popping two balloons with darts.

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