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Welcome to paradise: Finding identity and inspiration in Green Day’s ‘Dookie’

Tré Cool, Billie Joe Armstrong, and Mike Dirnt of Green Day, back in the era of 'Dookie.'
Tré Cool, Billie Joe Armstrong, and Mike Dirnt of Green Day, back in the era of 'Dookie.'Ken Schles

by Cristalle Bowen

February 01, 2024

Green Day released their major-label debut, Dookie, on Feb. 1, 1994. On the 30th anniversary of the pop-punk classic, here is a collection of memories of that time from a queer Black teenager who was bumping more than just rap.

In 1994, I was a 13-year-old high school freshman. I was questioning my sexuality, I had incredibly large jeans, I had a body brimming with the angst only a teenager provides, and I was filled with disdain for society at large. Of course, I was listening to Green Day at full volume through my top-of-the-line Sony cans. 

Music was my refuge and had been for years. I grew up in a house with a guitar-playing bluesman and a gospel-singing grandmother. By age 12, I had completely given my life over to music. A tune was never far from my ears. I always had a journal, which would eventually turn into a poetry book, then a rhyme library. For me, that was the ’90s.

Sometime during the spring of ’94, I saw the video for “Longview” on MTV. I’m an ancient millennial who grew up during the heyday of what has become an extremely dull music channel. Between MTV and The Box, I saw many major video releases in my most formative years, which was a blessing. Because, my god, when Green Day dropped? Nothing else really mattered. “Longview” was in heavy rotation on MTV for months. It was inescapable. 

”Longview” was definitely the first Green Day music I’d ever experienced. Let’s be clear: By this point in my young life, my rock sensibilities were classic and sparse. My late uncle Randy had a collection of Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Aerosmith, etc. that I listened to in my free time. By 1991, when I was 11, everything was coming up Nirvana. My school friends were in tune, and I was right there, too. That was darker, grungier stuff. So, imagine my surprise when one day, after school, I was pacing the floors and watching MTV at home on the South Side of Chicago and got sucker punched by this instant classic. This was fast, punk, pop, degenerate fun: perfect for a 13-year-old. I distinctly remember going to school the next day and discussing the video by the lockers and discovering that — gasp — the song was about diddling yourself. 

Masturbation?! Oh, this was classic material! Even though I had heard iconic tracks like “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones and “Anarchy in the U.K.” by the Sex Pistols, it wasn’t until the whiplash of Green Day’s come up that I took serious notice of this punk rock stuff.

Shortly after seeing “Longview” I bought Dookie on cassette tape. Then I bought the CD. I even had to go back to their previous album Kerplunk and really nerd out after I was hooked. When the subsequent Dookie singles inevitably climbed the charts, I was along for the ride. 

I’d traversed the South Side of Chicago to buy the tape at Coconuts — the now-defunct and sorely missed record store chain that I frequented as a teen. It was in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood — a hood so terribly trendy yet historically important to the city. It was one of the first places I saw Black affluence IRL. After I bought Dookie, it rarely left my tape deck.

At 15 tracks and a running time of 38 minutes, it was easily digestible and the perfect soundtrack for getting to school on the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority). It took about an hour to get to school from my house, so I was listening to this album two or three times a day for at least a year. Between Weezer’s blue album and Dookie I felt like the only kid in the hood not bumping rap. By summer, me and my big-ass jeans were hopping Chicago buses, sneaking around town to see my extremely secret almost-girlfriend and playing air drums to my favorite rock jams. Who knew these jams would be the precursor to so many kids finding themselves musically or otherwise? 

For a sexuality-questioning, music-adoring, honor roll student from one of the most notoriously dangerous places in Chicago, this music fit right into me not fitting in.

For example: the end of “Chump” having such controlled, chaotic drum work intrigued me. I was a novice percussionist, so I was hooked and the tom tom transition into “Longview” had me in its clutches. (As well as the lyric “No time for motivation / Smokin’ my inspiration.”) There’s something magical about albums that have interesting canals into the big single. It makes “Longview” sound even better in the context of the album.

The track “Welcome to Paradise” also ripped — with that sinister buildup/breakdown which, ironically, was the perfect backdrop to commuting through tougher Chicago areas. The lyric “I want to take you to a wasteland I’d like to call my home / Welcome to Paradise” was a hit because although I loved my home, there was much to be desired. Billie Joe Armstrong really made me feel like he understood me with that one. My socioeconomic status was not ideal, but these kids from across the country, who looked nothing like me, could relate. That was big. Although white people occupy every tax bracket, most of my white classmates at the elite schools I bussed to, due to my good grades, were much wealthier than my family.

Finally, “Coming Clean” is teen distress in a bottle: “Skeletons come to life in my closet / I found out what it takes to be a man / My mom and dad will never understand / What’s happening to me.” This was the soundtrack to my life. That summer, I was sneaking around with a girl who made me all sorts of confused, and I was literally hiding the notes she wrote to me in my closet. I just knew my mom would never accept me being queer, though thankfully I was proven wrong later in life. This was a little too on the nose for someone full of fear and angst about my burgeoning bisexuality.

A teenager wears a camouflaged T-shirt and conch necklace
A portrait of Cristalle Bowen back in the mid-‘90s.
Provided by the author

In my hood, it was weird to listen to Green Day. It was even weirder to dress like you listened to Green Day. Some kids even fixed their mouths to suggest I was “acting white” by listening to rock when gangsta rap was so prevalent, but I was listening to some of that, too. I was listening to everything I came across on MTV, VH1, or The Box. When you spend your teenage years in a “bad” “hood,” just trying to make it out, you find solace in music of all kinds. Green Day couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. 

My white friends were right there with me in our Green Day worship. I had a couple of friends who started a band. (I use this term loosely.)  All we did was cover Green Day and Weezer songs in one of the kids’ mom’s basement. Word got around that I knew how to play drums — a skill I’d picked up from years of boredom at church — and could serve as drummer. All respect to Tré Cool because I certainly butchered his stuff to hell in practice. 

A regular rehearsal went a little like this: I called my secret almost-girlfriend on my house phone. (There weren’t many cell phones in my life at the time, go figure.) I let her know we were gonna rehearse, and she should come too since we were all friends. I’d tell my mom I was going to study or something, then I’d hop the Ashland Avenue bus for several miles north of my neighborhood — crossing lines of segregated blocks from the underserved to the overserved — and arrive at my friend Dan’s house. He was a white kid with a huge basement, a practice space, and parents who were never home. I almost lost my virginity there but that’s a story for another time. 

We’d congregate around his parents’ kitchen table and listen to the Green Day (and usually Weezer) albums until we were confident enough to start practicing. We’d start with Weezer’s “The Sweater Song” as a warmup and then it was all Green Day. We’d play through the album, and no matter how bad it sounded, we’d just keep playing. I distinctly remember being pretty good at playing “Pulling Teeth” and “When I Come Around” with their slower tempos but being awful at the drum fills in “Basket Case.” It was laughable.

I was trying new things and being bad at new things and not feeling the constant scrutiny of being a queer Black teenager in urban America. This was ages before I ever considered rapping (more on that here) and before I had any self-confidence. Getting sweaty and wearing weird clothes and listening to Green Day at insane volumes with other “weirdo” kids made me feel like being different wasn’t so bad — that it could even be cool. 

Listening back to Dookie 30 years later almost brings a tear to my eye. The kid that was blown away and so inspired by this band can look at the woman I’ve become and smile. I’m still making weird music, I’m finally openly queer, I don’t give a rat’s ass about what people think about my music, style of dress or taste, and I can still butcher “Basket Case” on the drums like nobody’s business.