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For the love of Green Day

NLR native has a big year with the band.

by and

NLR GUITAR MAN: Jason White (left).
  • NLR GUITAR MAN: Jason White (left).

I admit it. I love Green Day.

That admission must be followed by the admission that I loved Jason White, the North Little Rock native who for years has played guitar and toured with Green Day and who, with his increasing visibility in their videos, live performances and recent DVD, seems to have become the trio’s unofficial fourth member. Jason was my high school sweetheart. I can’t remember how long it lasted — two years? A little less? A little more? I do know we met about 15 years ago.

I have loved Green Day, the trio of Billie Joe Armstrong, Tré Cool and Mike Dirnt, all that time. If you’ve turned on your television or seen a magazine lately, you know it’s been a big year for Green Day.

Of course, it’s been a big year for Jason White. But back to him in a moment.

First: The Green Day Year. Their current album, the ubiquitous “American Idiot,” was released in September 2004; it sold 267,000 copies its first week and debuted at No. 1. It has been certified platinum four times over.

Three singles have reached No. 1 and even now, a new one, “Jesus of Suburbia,” is making its way up the charts. They have played live more than 200 times this year (but not in Little Rock; the group’s closest shows were Dallas and Oklahoma City). Their concert DVD, “Bullet in a Bible,” was released to rave reviews on Nov. 15.

Indeed, it’s probably been Green Day’s biggest year ever, and they have had some mighty years, including 1993, the year they went from punk-scene kings to MTV darlings with the release of their major label breakthrough, “Dookie.” Or 1998, when “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” sat at No. 1 on the pop singles charts for weeks, became the official theme for the 1998 PGA Golf Tour, and was featured on the final episode of “Seinfeld.”

Everything is different for Green Day now.

This year is bigger by far, though, because this is political, this matters to them in a visceral way — their hearts have always been on their sleeves, but now they beat visibly, right out of their chests. Right into the audience.

An addictive confection of joyous, pop-punk rock, “American Idiot” was the right album at the right moment — a serious antiwar rock opera. To the careful critic, Armstrong’s lyrics are perhaps too broad, don’t cut to the quick, rely on inflammatory words to make a point. Ultimately, though, they are daring and moving.

Everything is different for Jason White now, as well. Green Day’s commitment to him, solid for years and public since he began recording and touring with them in 2000 with the album “Warning,” is obvious to anyone watching. He is highlighted in their two most recent videos. He is thanked by name with every award won. There is speculation that he plays in a “secret” band with Green Day and members of Devo called The Network, and he appears regularly in casual photos and on film with them. On the DVD he is featured both on stage and off, clearly part of the band — and introduced as such to the crowd of 65,000.

He recently told me that his official position with the band is uncertain. What is certain: He will continue to record, tour and work with them. He has been asked to move back to Green Day’s headquarters, the Bay Area in Northern California, after the current tour, and to continue to be featured in their videos and performances — basically, to take on a larger role in the band, though none of these issues are yet set in stone. What is uncertain: whether he will become an official member of the band. He says that no matter what agreement they reach, he’s “not going anywhere — not leaving Green Day.”

Green Day hasn’t played in Arkansas since the summer of 1993, when they filled Vino’s Brewpub to the rafters. Jason White, however, comes by now and again. I saw him at Vino’s on a recent Friday night. When we first glimpsed one another, for the first time in at least eight years, I froze. He smiled. A high five. Finally a careful hug, for Green Day, for Central High, for high school love.

I loved Jason White. Everything about him.

What I remember most about the relationship is the music. I also remember the first kiss, which, bear with me, leads back to the music.

On the day in question Jason had bought a copy of the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique” on vinyl — a treasure. We drove straight to his house and listened to it turned all the way up. And then the kissing started.

And then record began to skip. I did not notice. I wasn’t listening to anything to but him.

“Don’t move,” he said, “I have to fix the needle. The record is skipping.” I didn’t notice the record. I didn’t hear the music. That would be the last time I didn’t hear the music, didn’t listen for it. I envied the way he loved it — the attention he gave it. I never let a record skip again.

I loved everything about him. His walls, covered in photocopied fliers for punk-rock shows — no airbrushed pop stars, no NFL posters. The fliers were usually hand-drawn, elegant and streetwise at once. His wardrobe, all thrift-store cool and rare band T-shirts. His floor: an old stereo with a finicky record player, shoe boxes full of 45s and milk crates full of LPs. I’d never heard of the bands. Their names seemed to me like an inside joke I would never understand. Drive Like Jehu. Trusty. Fugazi. Jawbreaker. Operation Ivy. Spit Boy. Neurosis. The Queers. Crimpshrine. Shudder to Think. The Mr. T Experience. Econochrist. All too familiar now, back then they all sounded exotic and cool. It wasn’t just the names. It was the music: fresh and filthy, raw, murky and clear, moving and numbing. You wouldn’t have heard it on commercial radio. The top radio single that year was Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love.” CDs suddenly seem boring. This music came on vinyl. It was at once Brand New and Old School. He made sure I got the joke. And that I understood it was no joke; it was who he was. He let me wear his Green Day T-shirt.

I remember one night driving around with Jason, listening to a tape recording of a Green Day song over and over until we missed curfew. As if it were urgent for us to hear them — an emergency or an urge we could not suppress. I suppose it was. It was his future. Somehow he knew.

Although they weren’t so explicitly political back then, Green Day led me to Bikini Kill, the leaders of the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s, who were unfashionably political, feminist, and without the pop breeziness of Green Day. Their lead singer, my teen-age idol, Kathleen Hannah, is featured on “Letterbomb,” a song on Green Day’s “American Idiot.” Some things come full circle, I guess. Jason White comes back to Vino’s.

We talked that Friday at Vino’s. “How are you?” I asked, unnerved to see him in person rather than on television.

“Good. On break from touring. Jana’s teaching. My family? They’re good. Back in North Little Rock. How’s your mom? In the same house? Tell her hello. I’m glad to see you.”

“It’s been so long,” I lied. I’d seen him on VH1 that afternoon. I saw him again Saturday night, this time with his wife, Jana. We all laughed and danced. High school and how I had loved him was safely out of reach.

Although we’d listened to them for some time before, we made friends with Green Day the summer of 1991 when we saw them perform back-to-back nights in Memphis and Little Rock. Well, Jason made friends with Green Day. I innocently entertained the drummer, Tré Cool, at a party after the show in Little Rock. Armstrong and Jason talked about music. Later Jason and I had a terrible fight about Tré Cool. The beginning of the end, perhaps.

They came back the next summer. Standing room only this time. No party. Green Day was soon to leave its independent label, LOOKOUT!, to sign with a major label, Reprise. Before long it would be impossible to see them in a club that size. They played once more at Vino’s, in 1993, but neither Jason nor I were living here then and we both missed in the show.
Another band, Monsula, came to town the summer of 1992 and proved to be important — and the reason Jason missed the 1993 show in Little Rock. Jason made friends with Monsula, too. And he made an impression.

His own band, Chino Horde, which included Burt Taggart, now owner of the local label Max Recordings, was popular. Monsula surely knew of them — Taggart likely produced the show.

Jason breaks my heart. I watch him on TV.

Jason was recruited to replace a member of Monsula who had to leave the tour. Off he went, ending up in Oakland. He lived with members of Spit Boy and roomed with a member of Crimpshrine. Jason became fast friends with Green Day, playing in the band Pinhead Gunpowder and running Adeline Records, a small label owned by Armstrong.

We had broken up by the time he left, but I had not wanted the split and was crushed when he told me he was leaving.

The next time I saw Jason, he was making out with his new girlfriend in one of Green Day’s first videos, “When I Come Around.” I sat on the couch and watched it with my mother. “Tell Jason his hair looks strange,” she said, not noticing my tears.

Life went on, as it does. College, graduate school, work, other men, other bands.

I stopped noticing Green Day.

I forgot Jason as best I could.

But this year I remembered. It would have been impossible not to. Green Day won the “Best Rock Album of the Year” Grammy and six MTV VMA’s. Armstrong’s face was recently featured on the cover of Rolling Stone. (The single “Holiday” is featured in primetime cell-phone commercials almost every night.) As I write this article it is close to Nov. 11 -- Jason White's birthday. I had forgotten that, too. True Green Day fans had not.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY JASON WHITE! covers the fan sites. How do they know, I wonder? I even saw a photo that seemed to be of his first dance with Jana at their reception. He may not be an official member of the band according to the label, but to those in the know, he certainly is.

“I’ve gotten used to the publicity,” he told me. “It can be fun and, really, it’s just part of the job.” He avoids the Internet, finding the gossip and rumors unreliable and occasionally offensive. “Generally, though, it’s all good. When it’s accurate. I’m not sure I have any secrets left, though.”

Green Day recently received eight Radio Music Award nominations, and already I hear VMA predictions in honor of “Wake Me Up When September Ends” — a video that features Jason’s position in the band prominently.

This time he’s not kissing anyone.

I break up with Green Day. They don’t notice.

He’s been on television so often that Jason has aged before my eyes. Not quite a mirror, but a measure of my own progress. We’ve both thickened. He wears a wedding ring. I don’t. His hair line is receding. Mine has flecks of gray. It pleases me to see him on television. I turn the music up. I forget how I loved him and it seems like just some old thing — someone I once knew.

We’re all completely different now. Me, too. The music still matters. But, now, for me, it’s about books. What are you reading? Who’s your favorite? Mind if I look at your bookshelves? Music is secondary. It always was. Jason knew that back then, too.

But music was my way into Jason’s heart. Now I wait for a man to pick up a book and find his way into mine.

Watching their new DVD gave me pause. Green Day is more potent than they have ever been. They are all showmen with heart. Armstrong is the Ramones, Iggy Popp, Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury and even Madonna all at once. But Jason, he holds back. He’s not there to hog the spotlight, yet he is in it. He always was. His performances at 18 with Chino Horde here in Little Rock were always understated, though fraught with masculine power and awesome talent. It’s no wonder Green Day and Spit Boy and Monsula all took him under their wing. He’s somehow more understated now on stage, but he may simply be bowing out of Armstrong’s way or even still adjusting to the size of the stages, which are now set up in stadiums, not Vino’s.

I won’t, actually, give up Green Day. But now Noam Chomsky moves me more than Green Day or Jason White ever did.

I give Green Day to someone who deserves them. I hope they notice.

Recently I met a man with a son who loves Green Day. He knew I had a distant connection and sent an e-mail on behalf of his son: If you ever speak to Billie Joe Armstrong, tell him that Stephen Jones, 12 years old, of Little Rock, thinks he’s a poet.

I wrote back: Billie Joe and I don’t speak, but I’ll try to pass it on.

That night I went through photos I had taken of Green Day at Vino’s that night in 1992. I chose a few and took them to Stephen’s father. An early morning e-mail read: Thank you for the photos of Green Day in their early years. I like them a lot. They are cool. Those photos are a piece of history. Thanks again, Stephen.

Jason White? A favor? Let it be known that Stephen Jones, 12 years old, of Little Rock, thinks Billie Joe Armstrong is a poet. And a piece of history. Would you let him know?

And Stephen? I’m no Billie Joe Armstrong, but hear me out. There are many kinds of poetry. Some that don’t require record players. If you ever love a girl who cares for that type of poetry, grab a book and find your way into her heart.

Right now, though, while you are Stephen Jones, 12 years old, of Little Rock, keep finding that poetry that you can turn up and, man, turn it ALL THE WAY UP. It might change your life.

Remember, though, just let the record keep on skipping when the girl comes over and the kissing starts.


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