Welcome to Paradise: the Bay Area’s Green Day history
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
When I got into Green Day, I was a typical new fan: watching interviews, old performances, vacuuming up every bit of history I could get my hands on. I wanted to understand my new favourite band. Plus, it was fascinating. The East Bay was another world… and it may as well have been tucked away on Mars. My chances of ever visiting seemed that remote.
Green Day brought that culture, that background I’d immersed myself in, to their live show. It was as beautiful and welcoming as my research promised. Through Green Day I met my now-fiancée, Annabelle, who grew up in that very culture and would be my tour guide when I eventually made it. Even as I grew up and forgot all I’d learned, the fascination remained.
My mum – a huge Green Day fan – and I briefly visited Oakland for the first time last year. We saw a few of the Green Day sights: the Fox Theatre, the Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café there, Broken Guitars, 1-2-3-4 GO! Records and the Bay Bridge. It barely scratched the surface, really, but I still didn’t want to leave. I knew this dirty city I’d never visited so well. Being there felt like the homecoming I expected. Pun unintended but let’s go with it.
So when The Longshot – Billie Joe’s new band – rescheduled their California shows, it was finally time. You know how my mum is always detained by Homeland Security? Even though she’s a disabled 60 year-old with no criminal record? San Francisco Airport just let her in. See, we were meant to be there.
Annabelle met us in Arrivals. We drove through San Francisco and across the Bay Bridge to Oakland.
We caught our first California sunset in the Target parking lot. I also tried to get in a shopping trolley and failed. I hope when people next see Annabelle at Target, they remember this English person, silhouetted against a Best Buy sign, climbing on a trolley while Annabelle shouted ‘no, Maria, you’ll roll off into the road!’
While my mum and Annabelle were in line at Starbucks the next day, a lady complimented my leggings and backpack. I thanked her. She asked if I had a cell phone. When I said yes, she promptly had me post on Facebook that it was a beautiful morning in Oakland, then installed her ‘brain’ so I could take it back to England.
‘Welcome to Oakland.’ Annabelle said as we left.
We sat on a wall, recovering from the brain installation, singing Love is for Losers (I don’t remember why, but it was great) and working out what we were doing. Then we drove up Adeline Street – the street Billie Joe’s now-closed record label and clothing line were named after – to Berkeley. Annabelle pointed us towards a quiet, unassuming street. Hills rose up to the blue sky in the distance. It was completely, utterly normal. We glanced around, wondering which of these houses was the one, until Annabelle announced ‘here we are.’
So this is the ‘Longview house,’ also known as the ‘Ashby house’ – where Green Day’s Longview music video was recorded in the basement. The sofa was rolled in just to be destroyed, but everything else was real. Green Day were living (squatting) there at the time, sharing their space with another band called the East Bay Weed Company. Much of Dookie was composed here. It served as their base while they dealt with record companies in the build-up to Dookie. In the apartment upstairs was Billie Joe’s ex-girlfriend Amanda, who inspired She, Sassafras Roots, Stuart & the Ave., Good Riddance, Whatsername and, of course, Amanda to name a few. Many of the street’s residents were UC Berkeley students, who weren’t fans of the band’s rehearsels disturbing their studies.
‘The record company guys would come to see us rehearse in the basement and their wives would go shopping on Telegraph Avenue. And when we went on tour we would come back to discover these crusty punks had squatted our place, and every single thing we owned was gone. And my love letters ended up on the Internet...’ - Tré Cool, Green Day: American Idiots and the New Punk Explosion, p.82
Looking at the unsuspecting house – the window that’s actually visible in the Longview video – was beyond surreal. Perhaps the most striking thing, though, was just how normal this street was. The house is so loaded with meaning for any Green Day fan, yet there’s nothing to say it’s more than a regular home. We walked back to the car feeling stunned.
I could almost have walked past 924 Gilman Street. Then I looked up. Once I realised what this squat building was, it was like a punch to the gut. The number above the door; the caning shop sign; the graffiti on the windows and the door – unlike the ordinariness of the house, just that frontage embodied everything 924 Gilman was. I could feel what Billie Joe, Mike and countless other kids must have felt, walking through that doorway for the first time and thinking this was ‘salvation’; because that was me, 6,000 miles away at 12, discovering the culture Green Day brought from here to the world.
‘Armstrong and Dirnt began living for their weekends at the Gilman Street Project. Run out of the back of a caning-and-wicker-shop, the club would go unnoticed by anyone passing by. For those familiar with the side entrance, however, the shop opens into a world that Armstrong refers to as "salvation": dilapidated wood floorboards; graffiti splashed across every inch of wall space; band after band with the look and sound of early British punk like the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks.’ - Rolling Stone Magazine, 1995
Much of the fan graffiti in the doorway was Green Day-related. It went from thanking them to referencing drama between fans. Some might call that ironic considering Green Day’s eventual negative reception at the club, but I suppose that’s what punk’s all about: doing whatever you want regardless. So of course, we went and added our own with our crappy biro pens we picked up in airports and hotel rooms.
‘Growing up and going to shows around Gilman Street was the best education I got. Walking through that door the first thing I saw was a sign saying “No Sexism, No Racism, No Homophobia,” and I think that’s had an impact on me for the rest of my life. Now when people come to our shows the main thing is I want them to feel like they’re in a safe space. If you’re gay, straight, white, black, brown, transgender, if there’s one place you feel you can go to, it’s a Green Day gig.’ - Billie Joe Armstrong, 2016
We pulled up on another quiet, unsuspecting Berkeley street. Opposite was a building that looked quite a lot like my primary school, identified only by the word ‘Fantasy.’ On the corner was a stop sign, illuminated neon red by the bright sunlight. This was Fantasy Studios, where Billie Joe recorded his first single Look for Love and Green Day later recorded Dookie. It must have been quite the fantasy for those kids squatting in warehouses and basements, coming home to find their space invaded by crusty punks.
‘[Fantasy Studios] definitely had that Seventies coke-y vibe, mahogany and strange dead wood around the place. We would go into the vaults and see all of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s master tapes. But I felt we belonged there. Our first album cost $700 to make. Kerplunk! was like $1200. “Let’s record these as fast as we can – because we don’t have a choice.” This time, I learned how to dial in good sounds, get the best guitar tones. I was able to take a little time doing vocals. I loved that experience.’ - Billie Joe Armstrong, 2014
Annabelle had been wanting to show me Berkeley Marina for a long time. Of course, it’s also referenced in The Ballad of Wilhelm Fink, from Fat Wreck Chords’ Short Songs for Short People compilation. The clear day offered views of Oakland, San Francisco and both bridges. Students learning to kayak crowded the paths, though the crowds thinned out before the closed-off pier. We walked as far as the sundial and decided we’d come back another day with a picnic.
Before we flew, my mum saw Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café advertising a performance of the American Idiot Musical. So that was our next stop: the Flight Deck on Broadway. It would be performed by Bay Area Zeta Players, a theatre company run entirely by local high school students. I was impressed with the set design as soon as we walked in. They’d fit the vibe of a huge production into a tiny room. Check out more photos and my review here.
Seeing American Idiot performed in Oakland – having been to the band's squat in Berkeley, 924 Gilman and knowing I'd go to the warehouse Billie Joe lived in the next day – gave me a whole new understanding of where this album came from and, as a European, a real insight into the country it's based on. Boulevard of Broken Dreams was the first Green Day song I ever heard. I loved and related to it so much when I discovered it at 12 that I overplayed it to oblivion. Every time I've seen the American Idiot musical it's still managed to give me goosebumps, but this was something else. I relived every moment of how Green Day changed my life while watching this show. Can’t wait to see these guys in something else. If you get the chance, you totally should.
Our next stop was the original Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café in Emeryville. Owned by Mike Dirnt, it opened in 2002 with the Oakland location following in 2011. The tables outside were packed. We ate at the Oakland one last year, so we took photos and left. Sadly, since we got home, the Oakland location announced its closure. Wish we’d gone there again now.
Before continuing our Green Day tour, we stopped to get some snacks in Trader Joe’s (I also just wanted to visit a Trader Joe’s because the one I went to in DC was the best). Sadly, this one wasn’t quite as exciting and instead, Annabelle and I spent a good hour in Sephora testing eyeliners and lipsticks all over our hands.
We got back out of the car at West Oakland BART Station – where ‘a gunshot rings out at the station’ in Welcome to Paradise. Annabelle walked us down 7th Street, ‘the cracked streets and the broken homes’ and we stopped outside a patched-up old warehouse. This was the squat Billie Joe had just moved into when he wrote Welcome to Paradise.
‘Billie Joe left home at 17, and he lived on couches and in a scary live-work band space. He once lived in an old brothel and hotel, located on a desolate block in West Oakland under the BART trains.’ - Spin Magazine, 1994
The BART track is right outside, hence the line about the station. When Billie Joe lived here the bathroom was infested with rats, so he chose to use a cat litter instead. It’s also referred to in Sweet 16 – ‘throwing down a bottle of Old English back in the warehouse.’ One of My Lies was written here.
‘I was living in West Oakland at the time. It was my first time ever being out on my own, out of my parents’ house and I just tried to capture that feeling - sort of frightening but at the same time you come to the conclusion that it’s freeing and you can end up growing as an individual.’ - Billie Joe Armstrong, 2005
Seeing this was a sobering reminder of where Green Day came from and how hard they worked to be where they are now – but also a powerful reminder that it’s entirely possible and, as Billie Joe said, that it can even empower you.
With these photos I’d like to include Annabelle’s story from the We Are Revolution Radio book. They grew up in a similar setting, and their story makes great points about how Green Day inspire fans beyond the music.
Our next drive was to Jingletown, a real neighbourhood near Fruitvale. In a dead-end by the highway is Studio 880, also known as ‘Jingletown Studios.’ This is where Warning, the Foxboro Hot Tubs’ Stop Drop and Roll!!!, the ¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tré! trilogy and parts of American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown were recorded. It got the name ‘Jingletown’ when the Foxboro Hot Tubs used it to cover up their identity.
21st Century Breakdown is my favourite album of all time and the only record I’ll ever claim changed my life. So seeing the studio where recording began, and also where the album art – a massive inspiration to me at 14, which probably still shows today – was painted; it was emotional and left me a bit shaken in the best way. I also bonded with an old guy across the street when he waved to me.
You might recognise the parking lot if you’re a Green Day fan. It appeared in the ¡Cuatro! documentary and several of the ¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tré! promo videos. Much of the 21st Century Breakdown album art was painted on the walls, but sadly now it’s been sold and from what I could see, it's gone.
The studio is on 27th Avenue, which likely gave the Foxboro Hot Tubs song 27th Avenue Shuffle its name. Jingletown itself is also, of course, the name of Jesus of Suburbia’s hometown in American Idiot.
This store was an unintentional Green Day reference. I took a photo because it said Jingletown, but it also has a brief cameo in the ¡Cuatro! scene That Just Happened (around the 0:22 mark).
Despite Annabelle saying ‘we need to get your photos then get the hell out of here,’ we spent the evening eating 29¢ cakes in the Food Maxx parking lot. It felt a whole lot like we were Johnny, Will and Tunny. We even escaped alive. Peak Jingletown.
Before we headed back, Annabelle drove us to see the sunset at Lake Merritt. We were a bit late, but it was still looking cute.
The next day, we headed to San Francisco for the Longshot show. People diss Oakland but right now, San Franpissco smells like a toilet and Oakland doesn’t. I’m also yet to have a hobo spit in my face in Oakland (yes, this actually happened as soon as I got out of the car). Still love u SF, but East Bay = Best Bay.
Our last stop before postponing our tour for Longshot was Powell St. BART Station: so we could go do what we liked, making sure we did it wise. This is the phone (or the only usable one on the same wall) Billie pulled off during that line in the When I Come Around video.
I’ll write about the two Longshot shows in a separate post, so if you’re not interested, you don’t have to scroll through it. If you are, a recap is on its way and you can read my DC and Baltimore one in the meantime. My make-up stayed intact for three days, tho.
On arriving back in Oakland from Orange County, I found two guys I recognise in a Visit Oakland magazine.
We went for dinner at Homeroom, one of Annabelle’s favourites they’d been nagging me to try for two years. My vegan GFF did not disappoint. Afterwards, we passed Broken Guitars and went to 1-2-3-4 GO! Records which is, of course, a Green Day reference. Here they played an early show – the ‘Bay Area Music Fan Appreciation Event’ – for ¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tré!, The Longshot played their first show and Billie built the stage with his son Joey. They’re currently selling Turn It Around: The Story Of East Bay Punk.
The guy working was kind enough to show us the back room, where the stage is. It looked so much smaller than it did on photos. Its official capacity is 49.
They also have a Live at Maxwell’s doormat in there, which confirms its status as the best record store in Oakland. We spent the remainder of our evening talking on various benches, moving regularly to avoid drug dealers and men with mini America flags non-ironically attached to them (and not wanting to look creepy when we sat near Broken Guitars).
Next, we finally ventured out of Oakland to Pinole. Knowing the area inspired Jesus of Suburbia, I expected it to be a shithole. Like a mini Oakland, because that’s what the suburbs no-one wants to live in are like in England. Instead, the city dissolved into an endless vista of rolling hills, scorched by the sun. Sleepy streets led into the town. Annabelle drove on to park in an equally sleepy shopping centre.
To us, it was just pretty, but I could see why it felt like the end of the world in a completely different way to Kirkby-in-Ashfield. Instead of chavs grumbling outside the Job Centre, there was no-one. Just silence amongst the rows of parked pickup trucks. Now I understood exactly why the song was called Jesus of ‘Suburbia,’ and how a loser like its namesake pitted himself as Jesus; sitting in ‘my living room, for my private womb, while the moms and Brads are away.’ At the same time, though, those lyrics can still apply to anywhere. Because, for so long to me, they applied to my home so far-removed in England.
We stood for a while outside Fiat Music; a little section of the shopping centre, between Trader Joe’s and a martial arts academy. This was where five year-old Billie Joe was taught to play piano and sing, by Marie Louise Fiatarone and her husband.
‘Billie Joe’s mother brought him in because she was signing him up for piano lessons. Jim took one look at him and said, “He looks like he really belongs in show business. Why don’t you take him in the studio and see if he can sing?”’ - Marie Louise Fiatarone, 2006
With reassurance from Annabelle that we weren’t being creepy, we went inside. The building looked surprisingly modern outside, but once we opened the door, its age was clear. We were greeted by one of the kindest and most well-spoken people I’ve ever met: Mrs Fiatarone herself. Feeling embarrassed, my mum explained we were Green Day fans and knew Billie learned to sing here. Mrs Fiatarone smiled and said yes, he was one of her very successful students. She showed us the back studio, where Look For Love was composed. Propped up on the shelves was Green Day fanart by new students, inspired by Fiat Music’s past. When we said we were from England, she showed us a photo in a folder: a group of Green Day fans holding up the t-shirt from the Look For Love cover, in which we spotted one of our friends, Tony. You might know him from Bullet in a Bible – he’s the guy who comes in too soon when playing American Idiot. Even though we and Mrs Fiatarone were aware of Green Day’s ability to connect people around the world, it still seemed crazy these random English girls recognised someone in the Fiat Music guestbook.
Mrs Fiatarone then told us her own crazy story. When Billie Joe began looking into his Italian ancestry, he posted his grandfather’s birth certificate on his Instagram, asking if anyone could translate. Mrs Fiatarone’s son offered to help, since he spoke Italian. He soon found Billie Joe’s grandparents were from Viggiano, the same little town of 3,000 people, as his own. What are the chances of that?
‘I learned show tunes as a kid. My dad was a jazz drummer, and I used to go to veterans' hospitals and sing. I wanted to play guitar, but they said my hands were too small.’ - Billie Joe Armstrong, 2005
We looked at the Look For Love cover and she smiled, saying ‘he’s still that same sweet little kid.’ Then she held it up so we could take a photo.
We thanked Mrs Fiatarone, feeling like we couldn’t thank her enough, and said goodbye with a promise we’d send her the photo. Maybe one day someone else will recognise us in the guestbook.
This was by far one of my most unexpected, but surreal and incredible, Green Day experiences. We didn’t expect anything more than having a peek inside – let alone meeting Mrs Fiatarone herself and being treated with such kindness. We were just in time, too. It was about fifteen minutes before she started teaching and the next day, they were holding a concert for the 10th anniversary of Trader Joe’s. Meeting her was an absolute privilege and it’s a story I’m honoured to share.
We walked down an overgrown, cracked pathway to Pinole Valley High School – the latter high school Billie Joe and Mike Dirnt attended. Green Day also played an early show here. It’s currently being renovated, but we could make out the spot Green Day played and get a feel of the area.
Across the street was ‘the’ library from At the Library. Green Day played that the first time we saw them. It always seemed fitting considering that’s where I met Annabelle. Everything was coming full circle. Sadly, the library is permanently closed now.