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.