I’d flown over New York City once. My knowledge extended little further than a night shot from Top of the Rock I’d seen – a view I dreamed one day I would see with my own eyes, or better yet, photograph myself.
On February 22nd, 2011, on a plane stuck in a gate at Heathrow Airport, I wasn’t sure I’d ever get there. After a failed take off, rows of anxious people waited several hours to learn the fate of our flight. The de-icing system was probably alright, the crew said. They’d try taking off again. We were in the air after two more attempts. When I saw steam coming out of the wing, I was pretty sure we were going to die, or at least miss the evening performance of Green Day’s American Idiot.
Despite my self-reassurance that I’d at least go down for Green Day, we got to New York alive. Signs directed us to the restroom, elevator, told us not to use our cell phones. Welcome to the United States, a recorded voice announced over and over. The queue stretched all around the room; my excitement died down a bit as it moved increasingly slowly, nudging forward every five minutes or so.
Homeland Security were, as always, convinced my mum was a criminal and directed us into a side room. Today’s excuse was ‘the system isn’t working.’ All we could think of was the show that would begin in a few hours. When they let us go, we ran out of baggage control, into the American air and in a panic, threw our luggage into a yellow cab. It rolled away from the airport, along highways, past dark, sprawling neighbourhoods. As the twilit skyline came into view, for some reason, this foreign place felt like home.
Our panic was unfounded. We made it to the St. James Theatre with half an hour or so to spare. I looked up at the sign that read, in neon lights, St. James: American Idiot. With this trip being very challenging to fund, then all our travel troubles… finally being here was surreal. I was no photographer back then – I just had a crappy (borrowed) phone camera and had no idea that one day, I’d be a professional making the documentary I’d always dreamed of – but I was certainly eager to document it as best as I could.
We wandered across the street, taking it in. A black car pulled up beside us. Billie Joe Armstrong, arriving to play the character of St. Jimmy, climbed out. We could have tapped him on the shoulder, certainly approached him, but he looked exhausted. It was enough to be reminded that this was real, that we weren’t just going to see our favourite band’s musical, but starring him. We left him alone.
As doors drew closer, the street outside the theatre became a meeting place, packed with excited fans and theatregoers from around the world. People who’d never met, but knew each other from the fan community online, were united for the first time with hugs. The energy there was an experience in itself.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the musical. Part of me expected to hate it, to be disappointed by how it didn’t live up to its iconic inspiration. What were the chances someone could get such a huge venture right?
I knew, as soon as the first song began, that I was wrong.
Tré Cool once described it as closest he’d ever get to seeing Green Day live. I think that’s pretty accurate. It took the emotion of American Idiot, the live energy of Green Day that no other (living) band can match, and channelled it through a talented and passionate cast. I was seeing, hearing the album that introduced me to Green Day in a way I’d never seen or heard it before. These people sang and danced this every night, twice a day sometimes, but you’d never know it wasn’t their first or final performance. I knew, by Holiday when I was on a visceral journey to a city of dreams with Johnny and Tunny, why people were seeing it countless times.
Watching Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Are We the Waiting, the lights and effects that looked so like New York City itself; these words resonated with me in a way they never had before. A disillusioned teenager, I felt just like Johnny – running from a dirty town burning down in my dreams, to find salvation in these starry nights, city lights of a lost and found city bound in my dreams. I was an English kid with no knowledge of American culture, but in Favorite Son, watching the dancers in the colours of the stars and stripes, tempting Tunny to join the army – I was as immersed as anyone else.
I couldn’t have imagined this stage any more alive, until the thudding drums that preceded St. Jimmy, when the whole theatre waited with wide eyes; for the roar of ‘one-two-three-FOOOOOUUUUUR!’ that was Billie Joe’s entrance. I couldn’t judge the chorus of screaming fans. His stage presence was overwhelming. I had never imagined St. Jimmy as a small man staggering around, wiping his nose and tossing glitter with a ‘RAWR!’ – but this was him from now on. He was sweet, in a bizarre way that was enticing like the addiction he embodied, but for the same reason, extremely menacing. When he looked out at the crowd, he caught my eye and grinned. It would be hard to forget my stupid hairdo after it showed up in Costa Rica.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of the 21st Century Breakdown songs that were mixed in, either, but Last of the American Girls complimented She’s a Rebel in a way that was more invigorating than the original tracks. Especially when St. Jimmy reappeared, questioning Johnny about whether he’d choose Whatsername or drugs; before climbing the steps to serenade him over a scene of the pair shooting up in Last Night on Earth. The gut-wrenching ballad was followed by the cheery intro of Too Much Too Soon. It showed Heather finally leaving Will – who’d remained in Jingletown getting high, living ‘every waking moment as a means to an end’ – with their newborn child. In Before the Lobotomy, we learned of Tunny’s demise. He laid now in a hospital bed, lamenting days of laughter. Extraordinary Girl was a moving, visceral portrayal of his morphine-induced hallucinations, flying freely with the pretty nurse who treated him.
The lights faded and Johnny was illuminated by a lone spotlight. In a rare moment of lucidity, he picked up his guitar and sang an emotional When It’s Time to a sleeping Whatsername. However, St. Jimmy was never far. Billie Joe’s green eyes seemed luminous as, unblinkingly, they watched the quiet serenade. Then he leapt up to yell ‘do you know the enemy?’ at the top of his lungs. Johnny was terrified as St. Jimmy ‘rallied up the demons of [his] soul,’ trying to talk him back to drugs; while Will, alone on a couch in Jingletown, asked himself the same question, before insisting ‘there is nothing wrong with me.’ As the song closed, St. Jimmy was in control, separating Johnny and a frightened Whatsername. She was left emotionally beginning 21 Guns, as he laid unconscious on the bed they shared.
In the meantime, a now lucid Tunny was finally aware he lost a leg and his dreams, of fighting for his country, amounted to nothing; while Will lamented now that ‘the hangover doesn’t pass’ and he, too, was left with nothing at all. Johnny sat up, refusing to face Whatsername’s chorus of ‘did you try to live on your own? When you burnt down house and home? Did you stand to close to the fire, like a liar looking for forgiveness from a stone?’ At St. Jimmy’s command, he pinned a letter, telling her he never liked her anyway, on the bathroom door.
As he stumbled away, a now-glamorous Heather reappeared, singing the iconic intro to Letterbomb. This song, now a girl power anthem, belonged to Whatsername. Screaming at Johnny that ‘the St. Jimmy is a figment of your father’s rage and your mother’s love, made me the idiot America,’ her words destroyed them. Billie Joe, wearing a ‘happy birthday’ tiara, was knocked away from Johnny onto a sofa. After Whatsername left him with a cry of ‘I’m leaving you tonight!’ Johnny, Will and Tunny were left with reflection in Wake Me Up When September Ends. As the song closed, screens showed the face of St. Jimmy fading back to Johnny.
By Homecoming, St. Jimmy was left alone, asking ‘please call me only if you are coming home.’ Though it was entirely unrelated to the story, I watched him singing ‘you taught me how to live’ and thought wow, you really, really did. He remained a looming temptation to Johnny; but eventually ‘blew his brains out into the bay,’ with a gun that said ‘bang.’ He flopped from atop the steps into the arms of the mourning swing. Of course, because it was Billie Joe, he looked back and waved as they carried him away. Truly free, Johnny took a dull day job to get home.
Will waited alone on a couch, lamenting that ‘everyone left you, nobody likes you’ until Heather appeared with her new ‘rock ’n roll boyfriend.’ Michael Epser (Will) interrupted ‘and another ex-wife’ with ‘somebody get me a knife’ which isn’t on the cast album, but it should be.
Johnny headed home, reunited with Will and eventually, Tunny, who introduced them to his new girlfriend; his nurse, Extraordinary Girl. Will – having made peace with Heather – introduced them to his newborn. The entire cast, all reunited, finally gathered to sing a roaring chorus of ‘nobody likes you, everyone left you, they’re all out without you, having fun!’
Years later, Johnny had moved on, but could not forget Whatsername. He could recall nothing but his regrets as she peered out from a window above; only to disappear as he turned around. The shadow of St. Jimmy appeared, too, to disappear before Johnny caught his eye. As the curtain fell, we were left with him wishing desperately to turn back time.
The show ended with a full cast rendition of Good Riddance (Time of Your Life). Looking up at the colourful stage, I was moved beyond anything I could have imagined. I was level with Billie Joe, and he grinned at me and winked. I smiled back, thinking yes, I truly did have the time of my life.
We walked out to a glittering New York night. It was then that I experienced, for the first time, how New York City does not need the stars. It has its own, each one with a story as complex, beautiful and ugly as any up in the sky. Unsure where we were going, just buzzing from the show, we wandered up West 44th Street into Times Square, where the towering buildings dazzled in vibrant colours. I’d never seen so many ads in one place. Shops, hotels and restaurants blared their names out in neon signs, fighting for attention. The air buzzed with countless languages and accents. Scalpers bellowed from corners, still selling tickets for sold-out Broadway shows. Tourists took photos, spilled out from the sidewalks onto the road; cars honked at them to move.
We realised we needed to eat and crashed into the McDonald’s there, where we avidly discussed how good the show was. My favourite part was in Last of the American Girls/She’s a Rebel, when St. Jimmy screamed at Johnny to talk him out of Whatsername. My mum’s was the glitter ‘RAWR!’
The next day, we got very lost searching for the Pokémon Center (now sadly just Nintendo World), which we eventually found with the help of some very kind locals. I wasn’t coming all the way to New York to miss out on catching ’em all, after all.
We acquired Lugia, Flareon and Raikou plushies, who joined us at Top of the Rock. Standing atop this city, looking out over the sea of skyscrapers, was that moment in Are We the Waiting; when that dirty town was burning down in my dreams, searching for the lost and found city bound in my dreams. It wasn’t the glowing nighttime vista I once saw a photo of and dreamed of seeing myself; but I knew, already, that I was in love with New York City, and the show we could not resist returning to later that day. Despite the money we spent on tickets being reserved for food, but who needs to eat when you have Green Day, right?
At the theatre’s box office, the vendor asked if we’d really come from England just for this musical. When we told him yes, he laughed and wished us a great night.
Outside the theatre we met, for the first time, our longtime friend Micheal from Georgia. My mum got to know him when she bought a green 39/Smooth vinyl from him on eBay, and now by pure coincidence, here we were. We also made a new friend, Dao from Venezuela who was studying photography in New York.
A fan since the Insomniac era and Green Day collector, Micheal brought his #001 numbered copy of Dookie on vinyl for Billie Joe to sign. The streets were becoming increasingly packed as he arrived, though, and we couldn’t catch him as he went in.
Even with a partial view from the mezzanine, the show blew me away. It was as fresh and exciting as the previous night. Before Good Riddance, Billie Joe sang a snippet of Basket Case and dedicated it to ‘a kid that was waiting outside of a record shop in 1994.’ That kid was Lady Gaga, who watched the show from the front row and strutted out in heels that would probably break both of my legs. I texted one of my friends in England, a huge Gaga fan. She was freaking out too. There was sadly no chance for Micheal’s Dookie now. Fans were leaving well in advance of the show’s closure to secure their photos and autographs.
Seven years later, I got a Wild One tattoo in New York from an artist who told me how sick he was of tattooing Billie Joe's autograph in 2011.
The three of us walked back to Times Square, then to the Hard Rock Café where Micheal kindly bought us dinner. We kept ending up back at the Church of Scientology. A sign? I hope not.
The next day, we were booked on a cruise we got talked into by some guy in Times Square. It’s a good thing the staff were nice, because we got lost and missed our boat. While we waited for the next one, we ate cream cheese bagels in P.D. O’Hurley’s. Maybe it was because we were frozen and it was warm in there, but those things were good. The pale imitations in Tesco do not compare.
While the boat’s captain told stories of a plane that landed in the Hudson River, my mum fell asleep. I woke her up so she could charge out to photograph the Statue of Liberty. One of us had to man our nice window seats, because this thing was as rabid as a Green Day show, except full of tourists with cameras they were confused by.
Later, of course, we went back to the theatre. We only meant to see this bloody thing once. Now we were destined for a diet of soda pop and Walgreen’s crisps (get it?). All that was left were balcony tickets, which were certainly easier on our wallets, though the view wasn’t great. It was still exciting to see the show from another different angle, and the bad view didn’t change the energy. It didn’t change the raw talent. I found myself relating to the character of St. Jimmy in a way I never had before. Not its literal meaning, but what he represented could be interpreted in a hundred different ways. For me, it was perhaps the ‘demons of your soul’ that he sent to torment Johnny in Know Your Enemy. When I prepared myself for hating this show, I never thought I’d want to see it again and again; let alone that I would leave each night with a different, more personal and emotional interpretation of the album that introduced me to Green Day.
After the show, I bumped into Rebecca Naomi Jones (Whatsername) and got a brief chance to tell her how incredible she was; which she acknowledged with a smile and gracious thanks. She signed my playbill and so did Michael Esper (Will), who was perhaps my favourite non-Billie cast member, though only by a small fraction. I just loved his voice and portrayal of Will. My mum’s was Stark Sands, who played Tunny.
February 25th and this was a routine now: wander, theatre, repeat. Apparently when we wandered Times Square that day, Annabelle – my now-fianceé, who I first met at a Green Day show in 2009 – ran after me but I disappeared into M&Ms World. At least I established early on that souvenirs I can’t afford come first.
That evening, I met Michael Esper properly. I was able to tell him he was my favourite, he replied ‘really? Thank you so much!’ and he was kind enough to take a photo with me.
Before every show, the theatre held a ‘lottery’ for $25 front row tickets. We put our names in every time, of course, thinking we’d probably never win anyway; until the lady pulled out the first slip of paper and announced ‘Maria Gloria Harvey?’
I couldn’t help but scream. There was a lady with her daughter who was so happy for us, saying we were huge fans and deserved it. I was shaking and I couldn’t stop laughing. Inside the box office, our friend on the desk served me with a grin. This trip was not getting tired. It was getting better.
I remember in American Idiot, looking up at the stage, just inches away and my face stretched by an ear-to-ear grin; and one of the cast members seeing it as he slammed his fist onto the floor, and smiling back. This was an entirely different experience, where every pivotal moment truly shook me. When Billie Joe stood in front of us in St. Jimmy, he slobbered all down my face. Thanks for that, mate.
It’s hard to describe exactly what this meant to me. To be sitting there in New York, so close to this energy and talent I had fallen totally, unconditionally in love with. Before the curtain fell for the last time, Stark Sands approached my mum and firmly placed his pick in her hand, saying ‘for you.’ Everyone involved treated us with such kindness I will never forget.
The next day, February 26th, offered both a matinee and evening performance. Our friend in the box office got us decent seats, in a box on the right, but the evening was sold out. That was OK. We would just enjoy the matinee even more.
Looking down from above, I was struck again by Boulevard of Broken Dreams: the imagery of Johnny, alone with his guitar, before the vast city until he finds Whatsername. It was the first Green Day song I ever heard, and I’d overplayed it to the point I never listened to it anymore; yet it was one of my favourite moments of the musical. Van Hughes, who would later play Johnny, played Will this time. I was watching the heartbreaking renditions of 21 Guns and Whatsername with tears in my eyes now. I’m pretty sure I’d sob, a lot, if I ever saw this cast again.
Outside, people were selling tickets for the evening performance, but we were almost out of money. Our haggling was unsuccessful. We were walking away when one of the guys approached us again. My mum asked if we could just buy one. When he heard that, he took pity and reduced them both. We were in.
This was Christina Sajous (Extraordinary Girl)’s last performance, before she went across the street to Baby It’s You. Extraordinary Girl that night was the best so far, and though unrelated, so was Last of the American Girls/She’s a Rebel. That moment I loved so much, when the song is taken over by St. Jimmy – Billie Joe put more gusto into that than he ever had before.
We were planning to go to the party organised by Green Day Community in a nearby bar, but I was sick at this point (the diet of soda pop and Walgreen’s crisps was not a sin I got away with), so we just went to rest. They’d invited Billie Joe and several cast members, though, and they actually showed up! Apparently Billie wanted to be ‘closer to the fans.’
February 27th was not only our last day, but John Gallagher Jr., Michael Esper and Billie Joe’s last, too. After begging the hotel for our deposit back, my mum and I got separate tickets. I was in the side orchestra; she was, according to the usher, in the ‘best seat on Broadway,’ which the guy who sold it to her for $50 clearly didn’t realise. The family next to me asked where I was from and of course, if I’d really come from Nottingham, England just for this. Then when my mum came running down to ask if I wanted to swap tickets, they exclaimed ‘there are TWO of you?!’ We weren’t the only ones, though – people had come from all over the world ‘just for this.’ I stayed with my new friends, who kept asking to hear my accent, anyway.
Last Night on Earth became more emotional every night, as Billie Joe screamed the words louder, from deeper within his heart. With just his raw voice, no glitter, no wiping his nose, St. Jimmy seemed frighteningly human. I not only saw American Idiot in a different light; but also 21st Century Breakdown, my favourite album of all time, that I never imagined could become more than it was.
After the curtain fell, the family asked me if the show was worth it. I said yes, of course, and they agreed.
We were high up in the mezzanine for the final performance. After St. Jimmy, Billie Joe accidentally let out a ‘HEEEY-OOOOOH!’ and despite this having no place on Broadway, the crowd obediently responded ‘HEEEEEEEEY-OOOOOOOOH!’
The applause after St. Jimmy went on and on, until Billie Joe and John gave in and laughed. I’m not sure what the theatregoers who weren’t Green Day fans thought, but oh well. In Homecoming, when Billie drew the St. Jimmy heart on his chest, he stopped halfway and smudged it. It was the little things that made the shows individually special. The whole performance was packed with emotion; both John and Michael cried at points, knowing they were leaving for good. I was desperately trying to take it all in because I knew this was the last time I’d ever see this cast, and possibly any of Green Day for a very long time.
After a tearful Good Riddance, Billie Joe asked Michael if they could play Walking Out On Love, which he played for Theo Stockman’s departure the previous month. Michael said yes, so Billie proceeded to sing it into their faces, then kneel down to serenade John. Then they waved goodbye, the curtain fell, and it was all over.
Before our flight, we walked with our bags to the St. James Theatre to see it one last time. Of course, to say goodbye to our friend in the box office, too, who was the only reason we got into most of those shows. Other fans were there, heads bowed, as if paying tribute. It brought tears to my eyes because I knew it meant something different to all of us; but that we were the same in how much it meant to us.
On our flight home, the pilot announced that his name was Captain Heritage. He was very proud of this, and kept repeating it. He also claimed we’d land in London an hour early, before the British Airways flight that just left. To do this, he strayed from the usual route into bad turbulence. The flight staff were thrown around until they had to sit down, quite frightened and yelling at us to keep our seatbelts on at all costs. Anyway, we landed in London late. British Airways had long been at the gate. I’m not quite sure what Captain Heritage was trying to achieve, but he probably shouldn’t try again.
When I opened my bag, I found a note telling me that Homeland Security ‘deeply regretted’ this, but had to break in. Clearly, they thought I was a Pokémon smuggler.
I’d heard rumours that Billie Joe would return to Broadway in April. A woman in the lift at our hotel insisted on it. So did Annabelle. A few weeks later, it was confirmed. I still haven’t learned to listen to Annabelle. Anyway, this was perhaps the first time in my life I burst into tears of pure joy. We bought tickets for the closing night as soon as we could. Not only would we see Billie Joe as St. Jimmy again, but we would see this incredible show close. As we pieced the money together, we bought tickets for the matinee and the two shows the day before.
Flights were not cheap, though and despite our best efforts, we could not get the remaining money together. After a lot of tears, we sold our tickets. Then, with about 24 hours to spare, we were able to borrow the money. We booked it, threw all we needed in a suitcase, I took a bath, the heating exploded, my mum went to my aunt’s house to dye her hair, we made a run for the bus to the airport… and that is how we went to New York with 24 hours notice.