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S**t Happens: Green Day’s Explosive ‘Dookie,’ 25 Years Later

Reflections on the band’s snarky masterpiece a quarter-century after its release

Ringer illustration

On September 9, 1994, a punk band and its rowdy fans defiled a Boston landmark. That night, Green Day put on a free concert at the Hatch Shell. The outdoor amphitheater, which sits on the Charles River, hosts the city’s annual Fourth of July celebration. But on this evening, there were no picnic-blanket-toting families to be seen. In their place stood a massive bunch of teens.

“Many of those at the Green Day concert on the Esplanade last night had tattoos and nose rings, were dressed in ‘grunge’ clothing and appeared to be on drugs,” the Boston Globe reported with the stern gusto of Mr. Hand.

As a sixth-grader on the North Shore of Massachusetts back then, I had no ink or piercings, owned no “grunge” clothing (hole-free flannel shirts from Bob’s Stores didn’t count), and had never so much as taken a drag from a cigarette. But I loved Green Day. I was not among the “many” stoned zombies—my parents, one of whom went to Woodstock, would’ve told me to wait until after my bar mitzvah to ask to go to a punk show—although I desperately wanted to be there.

For the event’s now sadly defunct cosponsors, rock station WFNX and alt-weekly The Phoenix, booking the young Northern California–raised three-piece—the oldest was only 22 and a half—was a coup. The group’s new album was climbing the charts. MTV aired its playfully angsty videos nonstop. And less than a month before hitting New England, on the second stage at Woodstock ’94, the band performed a memorable set that climaxed in a mud fight.

“We know what we’re in for,” Metropolitan District Commission supervisor Angelo Tilas told the Globe beforehand. “We’ve had all our meetings with the organizers, the ’FNX people, with people representing the band and we’ve told them it’s a family-type area and they have to conduct themselves in that kind of a manner.”

As showtime approached, however, it became clear that there had been a miscalculation. That afternoon, then–WFNX music director Troy Smith watched people stream out of several nearby T stations. For hours, he told me, they poured in. By the time the headliner took the stage just after 8 p.m., the crowd had reportedly ballooned to more than 70,000, far more than the expected number.

In a clip featured in We Want the Airwaves, Jason Steeves’s documentary about the history and influence of WNFX, you can see the second when Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt realizes that the audience was much bigger than he could’ve imagined. He jumps up and down, grabs his microphone, and says, “Oh my God.” Frontman Billie Joe Armstrong then screams, “Go!” and the band launches into its opener, “Welcome to Paradise.”

At that point, the sweaty, moshing, crowd-surfing throng had already overwhelmed the on-site police officers and private security guards. In Steeves’s film, WFNX news anchor Henry Santoro says that an uneasy law enforcement official implored him to make Armstrong stop swearing. Soon, the garden lining the Hatch Shell was being ripped from the ground. Fans surged past the metal barriers holding back the crowd and rushed the stage. And then some in attendance reportedly began throwing rocks, mud, and more toward the band and at police. During the show, Smith noticed a whirring noise. Snapple, a sponsor, had passed out beverages to concert goers. What the music director heard was the sound of glass iced tea bottles spinning through the air.

In the middle of “F.O.D.,” the seventh song of the concert, the plug was pulled. Armstrong and Dirnt dropped their guitars and ran off stage. Drummer Tré Cool, after realizing what was going on, quickly followed. WFNX morning host Guy Tai then tried to calm the masses. “Listen, we had a great time tonight,” he can be heard saying in a recording of the show. “We had a set of music from Green Day. And we had a set of music from [opening band] the Meices. But now—” And at that moment, a fan with a Boston accent thicker than a Friendly’s Fribble interrupted with, “Half a set, you fuckin’ asshole!”

The night’s mayhem reportedly led to at least 45 arrests, 100 people being treated for “illness and injuries,” and 20 being taken to local hospitals. Smith compared attending that show to riding a roller coaster. “You’re looking for a near-death experience,” he said. “That was Green Day at the Hatch Shell.”

Yet while dodging projectiles, the band managed to sprint through a blistering 20-minute set. Afterward, Armstrong told the Globe that he thought the shortened Boston concert was “a little bit more memorable” than the group’s Woodstock show. In the same interview, he summed up Green Day in those days: “A band like us is basically a disaster waiting to happen.”


Redferns

Late that evening, likely after watching Beavis and Butthead, my best friend and I came across local television news coverage of the Green Day show. The story made its way to CNN. Three days later the Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy even referenced it in a column about a messy Patriots loss, writing that “the final seconds had all the calm and order of Friday night’s Green Day concert at the Hatch Shell.”

Around that time, I went to a Spencer’s Gifts and bought a Green Day T-shirt. That fall I accidentally wore it on school picture day, a fact of which I remain stupidly proud. On the front of the black tee was a print of the cover of Dookie. The record, released 25 years ago Friday, was my introduction to punk rock. Among current 20- and 30-somethings, my experience is not unique.

The Berkeley-bred goofballs’ major-label debut, their third full-length album after 39/Smooth (1990) and Kerplunk (1992), hooked a lot of kids with its accessible rebelliousness. Dookie was fast, darkly funny, and catchy as hell. In a year when three heavy-hitting Seattle bands released no. 1 albums, Green Day held its own. Whether or not you liked the frenetic band, it was different. That helped the trio stand out above a batch of comically moody alt-rock wannabes.

“There were a lot of those second- and third-rate Nirvanas and Soundgardens around—we didn’t fit that mold,” Armstrong told David Fricke of Rolling Stone in 2014. “... By nature, we’re extroverts. So that’s what came across in our songs. We knew we were entering an arena of bands that we didn’t like. It was important for us to be ourselves, no matter what, and have a devil-may-care attitude about it. Fuck it—life is pretty silly.”

Even the cover of the Rob Cavallo–produced Dookie reflected that attitude. East Bay illustrator Richie Bucher’s intricate drawing includes, in addition to poop-flinging dogs, nods to Rocket to Russia, Angus Young, and Huey Newton. In Fricke’s conversation with Armstrong, the journalist admitted that he initially struggled to get past the title of Green Day’s breakthrough album, a euphemism for shit.

The guts of Dookie, however, revealed that Green Day wasn’t just doing a juvenile impression of the Ramones. “Longview,” the album’s first single, is an ode to painful boredom. The aggressive snarl that the diminutive Armstrong makes while singing the chorus—Bite my lip and close my eyes / Take me away to paradise—during the video has stuck with me ever since.

Despite barely being old enough to drink when he was writing the album’s songs, the lead singer wasn’t afraid to let his personal life bleed into his lyrics. “Basket Case,” a three-minute-long adrenaline shot, is about Armstrong’s severe anxiety. The track’s mention of a visit to a male sex worker, Armstrong has said, was a challenge to listeners who might have harbored preconceived notions of him. “This record,” he told Fricke, “touches on bisexuality a lot.”

Billie Joe Armstrong
Getty Images

If anything on Dookie qualifies as a ballad, it’s “When I Come Around.” The video features the band moping around in San Francisco and Berkeley. (Don’t trust anyone who claims that “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” is more emotionally resonant.) “She,” the fifth and final single off Dookie, is Armstrong’s response to an old girlfriend’s poem about, he told VH1, “an empowering woman.” Once, during a performance at Madison Square Garden, he played the song wearing nothing but his bleached-blond hair.

By the end of 1994, I’d nearly worn out my Dookie CD, the product of a BMG 12-albums-for-the-price-of-one deal. In 1995, the diamond-selling record peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard 200. All of a sudden, Green Day was one of the most popular acts in the world. While the trio’s decision to sign a record deal with Reprise led to resentment from the Berkeley scene that launched the group, Green Day’s success influenced countless bands and helped lead to the explosion of pop punk.

Over the past quarter-century, Green Day has released nine more studio albums. Rock opera American Idiot, the band’s first no. 1 record, was adapted into a Broadway musical. The group has been touring stadiums for years. Now there are rumors of a forthcoming Dookie 25th-anniversary tour (to which I’d buy a ticket). While scouring eBay last month, I smashed the “Buy It Now” button on the same Green Day shirt I owned as a kid. Still, nothing feels as good as that first rush.

After Green Day’s infamous Boston concert in 1994, the city wisely chose not to try to ban rock shows on the Esplanade. In a statement to the press, the Metropolitan District Commission blamed the chaos on “an overzealous crowd reacting to an already electrified band.” In other words, it was basically a disaster waiting to happen.