Updated: Feb 14, 2019
It was my last day of training in my new job when tickets went on sale. Our trainer set us up to go for different shows: some for Washington, some for Baltimore. The biggest venue The Longshot was playing had a capacity of 750. Even with a committed team of not-so-professionals, this wasn’t going to be easy.
People must have wondered what the hell we were doing in the training room, because I was screaming and it was infectious. I had Washington. Two of us had Washington. Baltimore was gone before I could even switch tabs.
‘Sam has Baltimore!’
Sam did indeed have Baltimore. I ran to and fro with my card. I’d forgotten my Ticketfly password and had to make a new account. My heart was still pounding when it was all over. I expected something to go wrong. There’d be some reason I couldn’t keep the tickets.
I ran into the canteen to text my mum and my partner. They’d both panicked and bought Washington tickets too. It turned out it didn’t even sell out for an hour and a half. Still, there was a two ticket limit per person for every show, and the only reason ours weren’t cancelled out was that I accidentally entered the address I no longer lived at in Cornwall.
It was a week until we left when I began to feel so ill I could barely even look at my screen. When it got worse, I took the afternoon off and went to my GP. I never get sick. I once went to work photographing kids with swine flu. This was bad. The doctor debated sending me to hospital because I was so dehydrated, but eventually sent me home with a bag of medication. As I spent the evening throwing up, all I could think of was the shows. It wasn’t about the money I’d lose. It was about the opportunity I’d never have again. I absolutely adore Love is for Losers – as much as anything Green Day have released – and the thought of not making it left me feeling very angry with whoever gave me the bug.
I made it to East Midlands Airport. I've done some stupid things, but getting on a plane this unwell is somewhere at the top. Still, there was no way I was giving this trip up. Landed successfully in Dublin. So far, so good.
OK, I think it’s funny now, but I’ll admit that night in Dublin was bad. I was scared I wouldn’t get out of the bathroom for long enough to check in. With my mum’s encouragement I did. Somehow we were through security. I was feeling slightly better. The next hurdle was US preclearance. We had under an hour to clear, and we knew my mum would be detained, because she always is for no apparent reason. I rushed through separately so I could speak to the gate staff.
‘What’s the purpose of your trip?’
‘I said, what’s the purpose of your trip?’
‘Oh. I’m going to see a Green Day side band, mate.’
I had never received such a glare of hatred from a Homeland Security officer until then. He stamped my passport and let me through without a word. No sign of my mum. It would probably be OK, the gate staff said. Probably.
They were late boarding. She reappeared with time to spare. We were on the plane. It was too late for them to throw me off if I suddenly got worse, but it seemed like the Dublin episode was the last of it. That was some high quality relief.
Newburgh Stewart Airport looked less like a barn miles from civilization in the sun. I watched suburbs pass where ‘VOTE’ signs sprouted from the grass, crammed into every corner until they dissolved into the open highway. In the middle of nowhere, a huge, glass-fronted hotel rose from a clearing. That’s America.
I’d never been to New York City in summer. It was reminiscent of trying to run for a bus on Falmouth High Street after 9am, when all the tourists have woken up. We walked to Nintendo World and bought caught a Blastoise. It took longer than we expected and we realised we couldn’t make it to the Megabus stop in time if we walked. We unsuccessfully flagged down yellow cabs until a minibus stopped. He got us there just in time. Of course, the Megabus was an hour late and the minibus adventure was unnecessary.
I fell asleep at some point on an anonymous highway (on the bus, not off it). When I woke up, the sun had gone down and the bus was creeping through dimmed city lights. Clean streets were washed pink by the night-time glow. We pulled in to a strange bus station, like a parking lot, under Union Station. While my mum went for a cigarette, we made friends with a lady called Elizabeth who asked if we knew Meghan Markle or Princess Diana. Wherever we go in America, the Diana question is national.
We walked through streets of columned buildings to my mum’s first Walmart. While I stared aimlessly at cheese, probably having forgotten my own name, a guy asked where I was from and learned about The Longshot. I grabbed two packs of honey buns, some strawberry M&Ms for Sam – the hero behind our Baltimore tickets – and red velvet Oreos to take home. Finding a stupid supermarket: success.
The receptionist at our hotel thought we were a couple, and wanted to change our room so we weren’t in a double bed. Eventually he decided we looked alike and gave us the key. Mate, I’m not from Sutton-in-Ashfield.
It was a hot, sticky day when we went out to wander. We scoped out the 750-capacity Black Cat, the dodgiest building on a fancy street. There was definitely no-one camping out 36 hours in advance, so we walked on to the White House.
The White House was well fenced off, with police patrolling the street outside. Photographing and marvelling at it was a strange bunch: indifferent tourists, students and news crews filming, and sunburnt, middle-aged men in completely non-ironic Make America Great Again hats. It was hot and crowded (and the MAGA hats looked contagious), so we didn’t hang around.
DC was more like a British city than anywhere else we’d visited in America. Like a cleaner, American London. There was something quite emotional for me about visiting the capital city of my favourite country. The first time I went to America we actually landed in DC. I was 16 and Homeland Security made me cry. They held us up so long we missed our connecting flight to Phoenix and met Cone McCaslin from Sum 41. It was quite nice to make it out of the airport, having seen the last of Homeland Security in Dublin.
It especially got me at the World War II Monument, looking up at the pillars that marked the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the names of all the states. I know it has its (huge) faults, and I’m not a stupid European who naively believes in the American dream. I will probably die getting shot in America. But from Wisconsin to New Mexico, wherever I go (except LA), it’s my favourite place in the world. One day I will make it all the way out to Hawaii. OK, I’ll go back to laughing at America now.
The last stop on our tourist expedition was the United States Capitol. Everything had long shut by the time we arrived. The sun was setting, tinting it all gold.
We returned to The Walmart™ before we headed back, re-emerging with a camping chair, battery-powered fan and sun umbrella. We were ready.
It was nearly 11pm and there was still no line at the Black Cat. The street was packed with clubbers now. I’d probably have got stabbed with a stiletto if I’d rolled out my sleeping bag. We hesitated before going back to sleep and returning at 6am. I was eighth in line.
The first few hours passed quickly. We made friends with a fellow Maria, who’d brought her twelve year-old son Daniel. He bonded with eight year-old Chase from North Carolina. Both of them had been on stage with Green Day and couldn’t wait to see Billie Joe again. There were fans from Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, England, Germany and Australia behind us. Most were hardcore fans, as you might expect at a side project show, but there were lots of casual fans too.
Once the sun reached its peak in the sky and shade receded, the hours began to drag. I spent a lot of time shoving my face in free ice water from Peet’s Coffee. Chase gave us all fabulous Longshot tattoos with a sharpie – and Maria gave Daniel some incredible, detailed Green Day ones – though in the afternoon they all began to melt off. I was very glad for the fan and sun umbrella. Best $20 I’ve ever spent. I was glad, too, that the stomach bug seemed to have finally disappeared completely. Only just in time, but I made it. It felt like coming home. The fact we’d be seeing The Longshot, these songs Billie randomly decided to bless us with, in such a small venue that night, was still surreal. We were incredibly lucky, and I was struggling to believe it wasn’t all just a big joke. Maybe we were actually seeing Green Date.
Half an hour before doors, staff checked ID and stamped our hands. The stamps were our tickets. I was frightened mine might melt off like Chase’s tattoo. Outside of our little groups, the atmosphere was hostile now. Thankfully, they let us into the air conditioning early, lining us up in a corridor before the stairs. I was shocked how calmly everyone filed in. It was even more of a shock, then, when they called us up early. Now it was, as usual, every man for himself. I was sitting on the floor and before I even registered what was going on, feet were thundering past me. My mum had gone to sit down and was nowhere in sight. I leapt up, joining the stampede up the stairs. Staff screamed at us not to run but no one listened. We crashed into the front row in the exact order of the line. I was up in front of Kevin Preston’s mic. My mum was still nowhere to be seen. Carling and Lindsay from Canada helped wave to her and we ushered her in. Panic over. Now, resting our arms on the stage with no barrier, only the amps between us and the band – it seemed at least real enough to know it wasn't some huge joke.
It seemed an agonisingly long wait for The Trashbags. Then they were gone, their kit was dragged off and replaced with a shiny Ludwig kit that read ‘The Longshot.’ In the meantime, Billie opened the door behind the stage, stared at us and shut it again.
This was real.
It wasn’t like Green Day, where Billie Joe is the final, dramatic entrance. The four of them strolled on stage together, smiling and waving to the crowd mere inches from them. I was staring in disbelief at Billie, at Kevin and his setlist taped to the amp in front of me, at David behind the Longshot kit that looked so new – like it was. They tore straight into Kill Your Friends. We were slammed into the stage in a surge I’d only ever experienced in England. All the tourist attractions we’d seen yesterday were long gone. The four walls that packed us in could have been anywhere. It might as well have been England, or maybe it was Washington DC. I’d felt like I was watching Green Day through a thick screen before, many times. Somehow, so close I could see the smallest features on their faces, this seemed more dreamlike than ever. Devil’s Kind was a song I’d listened to on YouTube. Not screaming the words back at Billie in a sweaty club. By Taxi Driver, I was jumping on people’s feet and they were jumping on mine. I couldn’t breathe and I didn’t care. I don’t think anyone cared. It certainly didn’t silence the collective voice screaming the words: ‘taxi driver, I’m rolling, taxi driver!’
Next up was Happiness. I remember looking round at my mum and her face was just alight with, quite literally, happiness. Billie yelled ‘oh my God, I fucked up the lyrics!’ but that might as well have been the actual line, it mattered so little. The crowd sung along as a raucous chorus to Rockaway Beach.
Then it was straight into Soul Surrender. There was emotion in Billie Joe’s eyes and voice I’d never known before. These songs resonated deeply with me, too and I felt connected to the band in a way I’d also never experienced, at any show, before. I keep saying it was surreal, but it was.
‘This is another cover song, this song was done by a band I saw play when I was 15 years old, in San Francisco…’
I screamed because I knew this was Bastards of Young. Annabelle introduced me to The Replacements when we got together, and I’ve loved them ever since. I’d never, ever dreamed I’d see any member of Green Day playing a Replacements song. And it was perfect. Paul Westerberg would be proud of his #1 fan.
Billie Joe sang As Tears Go By with his eyes closed. It was clear it meant a lot to him, and the emotional way he played it meant everyone in the room felt whatever he felt too. Cult Hero was a proper banger. Even the Longshot songs that weren’t my favourites were more incredible live than I could ever have imagined. Now I had memories I’d recall every time I heard them.
I knew they were going to play Fell For You. I could see it on the setlist in front of me. But this is one of my favourite songs of all time. It was released at a poignant time for me, when I was in my first relationship with someone who really shouldn’t have fallen for me. I’d dreamed of seeing it live since the first time I heard it. I thought that was far less likely than any Replacements song – they were probably more likely to cover Destiny's Child. Nothing could have prepared me for it. I was losing my voice, in tears at this point. Billie caught my eye and gave me the cutest smile. I know he doesn’t have a clue how any of us feel – but I’ll say again, it’s a connection I’ve never experienced with any other musician.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Bill Schneider filming. We didn’t know, but our phones were buzzing in my mum’s bag with our friends telling us they could see us on the live stream. Sadly, I don’t think it’s saved anywhere so I never got to see it.
Whilst few people knew Walking Out On Love, it fit so well with the theme of Love is for Losers. Billie was really into it when he was in the American Idiot musical (in fact, I think they played it several times in a row at the closing night’s after party). We’d seen Green Day play it once then and I still knew the lyrics, which seemed to amuse Billie.
Body Bag was beautiful in a way a studio version just can’t capture. At the first chords of Love is for Losers, the whole crowd erupted into a screaming, dancing mess. We could have been 65,000 people in Emirates Stadium. Maybe it was after the lull of Body Bag – or maybe it was that we’ve all been there, searching the winter for the bride of Frankenstein with our delusions of lost love. In that line Billie Joe widened his eyes and spread his hands, playing the Frankenstein part. What a loser.
Turn Me Loose is, just slightly ahead of Chasing a Ghost, my favourite Longshot song. Seeing it live was everything I expected it to be, from the thumping drums to the emotion in ‘so turn me loose, but don’t call me a loser with dumb tattoos.’ Billie Joe stage dived and at some point I was pushing him off my head. What a time. Have you listened to Turn Me Loose? You should.
I was still innocent then. Before the Ultimate Trauma 2k18. A stray fan landed on the stage as they began Stay the Night. Then another. Then another. Billie beckoned more. My hair was soon being grabbed. My mum was being kicked and punched. People were trying to push her down. Kids with no idea how to crowdsurf were flailing and hurting people. Once they got up, they whipped their phones out for selfies. The crowd that seemed so unified earlier, that one collective voice, no longer cared who they hurt. They just had to get to Billie Joe. It continued through I Fought the Law to Chasing a Ghost. The stream of bodies was incessant. There was no room left on the stage. Kevin and Jeff Matika were out of sight. Billie was on the floor, three strings broken, asking ‘what the fuck?’ – but like true professionals, the music continued uninterrupted. Some guy had his hands around my mum’s neck. When I wrenched another guy’s fingers off her, he yelled ‘relax, slut!’
The kicking and punching continued until she was slumped, unconscious, over the amp. They still didn’t stop. Eventually, Carling managed to alert a staff member. To get her out, he had to shine his torch in their eyes and fight past them. In the meantime, fans on the front row were helping Billie up. When Chasing a Ghost finished and the band disappeared, we watched, completely stunned, as staff ushered fans back into the crowd. My mum and I have a pact that if something happens to one of us, the other has to stay on the front row. I hadn’t even processed what had happened yet, except that her smile so bright it lit up the room was gone.
I don’t want to vilify everyone who was up there. Nor do I want to lie or exaggerate to prove my point. It’s a wonderful idea, and a concept I have no doubt Billie loves. I know some went up just to dance or stage dive and caused no harm. But I’ve seen the ones who did touting it as everything from ‘punk’ to ‘love,’ and as someone who’s been to many loving, but still violent, punk shows – I’ve seen Green Day in Latin America and loved it, so spare me the bullshit about how I can’t handle ‘punk’ – this was 99% a rush to get to Billie Joe. No one was hurt in the name of punk. They were hurt by rabid, entitled fans. Also, no one who felt it dampened the set was ungrateful. The fans who weren’t satisfied with seeing The Longshot in a 750 capacity venue and abused that intimate setting, just for the cred of touching a celebrity otherwise inaccessible, were ungrateful.
‘That’s one thing I hate about the new mainstream [punk]: blatant violence. We get lumped into this bandwagon of this fucked up mentality. To me punk rock was about being silly, bringing a carpet to Gilman Street and rolling your friends up in it and spinning it in circles. Or having a pit with people on tricycles or Big Wheels. The whole thing had a serious message to people, but at the same time it was silly, and people weren’t afraid to talk about love. It’s a different thing going on now.’ - Billie Joe Armstrong, Rolling Stone
The band returned for the encore unfazed. Billie announced ‘fuck it, Love is for Losers one more time!’ and they played it again. It seemed a bizarre moment frozen in time that embodied the confusion of what just happened. I think I just stared blankly at the band in Ziggy Stardust. This night was surreal enough without 50 asses in my face.
The show ended with Kiss Me Deadly. This was originally going to be me and Annabelle’s first dance song. I remember watching videos of Billie playing just the intro at Soundwave in Australia, and thinking just hearing grainy audio of him playing that was enough. But I was standing there, in Washington DC, just a few metres from him and hearing it in full.
What a night.
I found my mum outside. While the staff guy helped her, apparently some girl from the stage took photos of her because she thought it was funny. Fans of various nationalities approached her, broken because their show was ruined and they knew she’d understand. Now I’m home it’s only a damper on my memories, but at the time it was awful to see.
We said goodbye to friends, thanked Taylor from Ohio for storing our camping chair in her car, and headed to Union Station. As upset as my mum was, she’s 59, disabled and she’d just got knocked out, and she was just chilling off to Baltimore. I know there are a lot of kids whining that she shouldn’t be at punk shows right now, but I think she’s more punk than all of us.
People from Baltimore told us not to line up before the sun rose. An employee was apparently murdered outside the Ottobar. Everyone else said they’d get some sleep. I’d read the stuff about how Baltimore is the most dangerous city in America. I still thought they were having us on. You know what Green Day fans are like.
We stepped off the train into a grubby station. A cop asked us if we were alright. As our Uber approached the Ottobar, we could see the street was completely deserted. They were not having us on. Our driver unloaded our luggage, unfazed by these morons about to set up for the night with a camping chair. Then he left. We were alone with some roaches and all our luggage. It was clear from the dirty street of squat buildings that this was not DC. A police car screeched past, sirens blaring. We were finally going to die. But what if we went to our Airbnb and 10 people arrived? We tried to hide ourselves behind a tree and I shoved our luggage into the shadows with the roaches. A bench I’d seen on Google Maps that said ‘BALTIMORE’ on it was opposite us, which improved the whole scene.
A potential murderer ambled aimlessly past us. Another stumbled down the street. Murderer? No, he was with a woman and they were trying to hitchhike. A few expensive cars (meaning they could afford to shoot us?) passed. Then there was total silence. I kept hoping other fans would come. None did. Eventually, more headlights glowed in the distance. They approached slowly. It was a big vehicle. Oh God. This was it. It wasn’t just one murderer, it was a bus full of them.
‘Why is it driving so slowly? Are they going to get out and kill us?’
My mum squinted at it. ‘It looks like a tourbus.’
‘Why has it slowed down