Throw Up Your Arms

In Billie Joe Armstrong’s lyric for the song “Know Your Enemy?” in American Idiot, the drug dealer St. Jimmy, Johnny’s “dark half” alter-ago, tries to tell Johnny that he is his own worst enemy, that only he is standing in his way. This starts a sequence of songs tracking the descent of our three heroes to rock bottom.

“Enemy” segues into “21 Guns,” the three women’s poignant attempt to reach their men. This is a song about hitting rock bottom, about “letting go and letting God” essentially (just without the god part). The script says at the beginning of the song, “Whatsername decides to make one last plea to Johnny, who is soaring on junk, to embrace the authentic relationship between the two of them rather than the spiraling self-destruction of St. Jimmy and his addiction.” She’s trying to get him back to reality, to stop searching for escape, to stop struggling against life…

She sings to Johnny:

Do you know what’s worth fighting for,
When it’s not worth dying for?

That’s some intense shit, especially right off the bat in the first two lines. In other words, she’s saying, do you have the ability to recognize what is valuable enough to fight for, but not valuable enough to die for? Is the search for that answer frustrating and confusing? Does the weight of that question overwhelm you? Can you even draw that line? Are you too far gone? Or, as the lyric asks:

Does it take your breath away,
And you feel yourself suffocating?
Does the pain weigh out the pride?
And you look for a place to hide?
Did someone break your heart inside?
You’re in ruins.

What a powerful description of the spiritually lost Johnny, Tunny, and Will. You’re in ruins. Ruins can’t be restored. You have to start over from scratch. Ruins is certainly rock bottom. The post-9/11 years left a generation, if not a country, in spiritual ruins.

But it’s often only when a person reaches rock bottom that they can climb back, only when they are in ruins, only when ego and pride have been broken down.

Extraordinary Girl pleads with Tunny to stop struggling against life:

One, twenty-one guns,
Lay down your arms,
Give up the fight.
One, twenty one guns,
Throw up your arms into the sky,
You and I.

The lyric works on both a concrete and metaphorical level, all at once. She’s asking him literally not to go back out on the battlefield, but also to stop struggling against his own life. Green Day fans all seem to agree that the first line of the chorus has to do with military funerals. This is because Billie Joe Armstrong said in an interview, “It brings up 21st Century Breakdown in a lot of ways, and the 21-gun salute for someone that’s fallen, but done in an arena rock ‘n’ roll sort of way.” And here in the show, she’s singing to a wounded soldier.

But according to Wikipedia,

In 1842, the United States declared the 21-gun salute as its Presidential Salute… the U.S. Navy full-dresses ships and fires 21 guns at noon on 4 July, as well as on Presidents’ Day. On Memorial Day, batteries on military installations fire a 21-gun salute to the nation’s fallen…

Today, a 21-gun salute is rendered on the arrival and departure of the President of the United States… A 21-gun salute is also rendered to former U.S. Presidents, foreign Heads of State (or members of a reigning royal family), as well as to Presidents-elect… A gun salute is not to be confused with the three-volley salute often rendered at military funerals.

Of course, what matters here is what Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer meant by this lyric, more than what Wikipedia says. Maybe in this context it’s a remembrance of the part of Tunny he left behind on the battlefield with his leg. The plea is a literal one, to lay down actual arms, to give up an actual fight, but it stands as a metaphor for all three of our battered heroes.

There’s an obvious reference here to this new, already bloody, 21st century, the nightmare forest of the title of the song’s album, 21st Century Breakdown. Maybe “21 guns” also refers to 21 centuries of bloody human wars, implying both that humans must learn to stop settling conflict with arms, and also that Johnny and Will and Tunny must face life as it is, and stop trying to escape this world in which they feel like outsiders, like The Others, strangers in a strange land.

Their curse is our national curse, fear of the chaos of life, and confusion in the topsy-turvy world of post-9/11 upside-down, Orwellian logic. But living is about embracing the chaos of life, not running or hiding from it, not raging against it or trying to control it. They don’t know it, but these women are trying to teach these men how to be Zen. But these men are deeply damaged and lost, and comforting words aren’t gonna cut it…

Tunny sings:

When you’re at the end of the road,
And you lost all sense of control,
And your thoughts have taken their toll,
When your mind breaks the spirit of your soul…

He’s in a very dark place, where the terrible truth of the world has shattered him, where what he knows (“your mind”) has destroyed what he believed (“the spirit of your soul”), a place where the outer lives of these three men have crushed their inner lives. Now all three men are singing, soon joined by all three women:

Your faith walks on broken glass,
And the hangover doesn’t pass,
Nothing’s ever built to last,
You’re in ruins.

Talk about vivid images! The phrase, “Your faith walks on broken glass,” may be a dense, complicated metaphor, but the images are so powerful, that you instantly know exactly what it means on a gut level. But think about it – how do you walk on broken glass? Nimbly, carefully, painfully, maybe desperately. Now apply those words to your faith. Add to that a metaphorical “hangover” that lasts forever, lasting pain that forever reminds you of past misdeeds.

They’re all in ruins. We’re all in ruins.

Tunny and the three women repeat the chorus. Adding Tunny here makes even more obvious the connection between the horrors of literal war and interior psychological war.

One, twenty-one guns,
Lay down your arms,
Give up the fight.
One, twenty-one guns,
Throw up your arms into the sky,
You and I.

The phrase “You and I” is so important. These women are saying to their men, You aren’t alone. I’m here with you. You can do this. Whatsername asks of Johnny:

Did you try to live on your own
When you burned down the house and home?
Did you stand too close to the fire?
Like a liar looking for forgiveness from a stone…

In other words, the path he’s on is a shitty one. He’s stumbling through his life, leaving destruction everywhere he goes, still a selfish, irrational child inside, chasing pleasure and escape rather than enlightenment, and not giving a shit who he hurts in the process. He has to grow up.

(And by the way, can we pause for a second and look at the outstanding craft here? There’s alliteration in “try to,” “house and home,” “Like a lair looking,” and “for forgiveness from”… I particularly love “for forgiveness." There’s only a little rhyme here, which makes sense for a song so emotional, but there’s a beautiful interior rhyme in ”…too close to the fire? /  Like a liar…“)

Extraordinary Girl sympathizes with Tunny. Maybe she really does understand him. But then again, is she real or just in his head? If she’s just in his head, it’s not a surprise she understands him. Or maybe it’s an even bigger surprise that she does…

When it’s time to live and let die,
And you can’t get another try,
Something inside this heart has died.
You’re in ruins.

And the whole cast sings that last line with her, again, first introducing a situation in the most intimate, personal way, then universalizing it out to the full ensemble, standing in for all of us. This is a plea to all of us, to stop fighting. In this era of fierce, ugly, angry political polarization, it becomes a lesson specific to these three men’s journeys, but also one we should all take to heart.

One, twenty one guns
Lay down your arms
Give up the fight
One, twenty one guns
Throw up your arms into the sky,
You and I.

The song ends (not counting the freaky little tag) with everyone on stage singing, "You and I.” This is a song – this is a story – about all of us, and our shared experience as Americans.

But significantly, the women can’t make these choices for the men. Johnny, Will, and Tunny haven’t quite hit rock bottom, and until they do, they can’t find themselves again. They’re going through a necessary part of the Hero’s Journey, traveling to the “Underworld” to meet and do battle with their own dark sides (like Luke Skywalker on Dagobah).

Just a few songs later, in “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” now the three men have hit rock bottom, and only now can their new, more adult, more self-aware selves (“becoming who we are”) be born out of the destruction of their child selves (literalized by Tunny’s lost leg).

As the song begins, Johnny has just lost Whatsername, and he sings:

Summer has come and passed;
The innocent can never last.
Wake me up when September ends.
Like my father’s come to pass,
Seven years has gone so fast.
Wake me up when September ends.

Billie Joe Armstrong originally wrote this song about his father, who died of cancer in September 1982, when Armstrong was still a kid. At his father’s funeral, Billie cried, ran home and locked himself in his room. When his mother got home and knocked on the door to Billie’s room, he simply said, “Wake me up when September ends.” Seven years later, Armstrong formed a band which would later become Green Day.

It’s an interesting lyric because it expresses both the desire to hide from the horrors of life, but also the understanding that the darkness will end. September will end. In the context of our show (and arguably, even on the album), September also comes to represent the 9/11 attacks, all the anniversaries of those attacks, the ugly politicization of those attacks, and the culture of paranoia and lies that was born from the attacks.

Our three main characters are finally coming to an adult understanding of the world. They are growing up. Bad shit happens. You have to continually meet that challenge. But those challenges shape you and make you the person you become. You can’t become a fully formed adult without all the bad shit that has helped shape you.

Will sings:

Here comes the rain again,
Falling from the stars…

Tunny – significantly, “fitted with a new prosthetic leg" – sings:

Drenched in my pain again,
Becoming who we are.

The three sing, first individually, then together:

As my memory rests,
But never forgets,
What I lost,
Wake me up when September ends.
Summer has come and passed;
The innocent can never last.
Wake me up when September ends.

They are becoming different people. They are becoming who they really are. They continue, but now in much more hopeful imagery about rebirth:

Ring out the bells again,
Like we did when spring began.
Wake me up when September ends.

Here, instead of the waking up referencing the horrors from which to be escaped, now waking up looks forward to a new morning, a new beginning, and a new perspective that accepts both the good and parts of life – not because the lyric has changed, but because the context has subtly changed.

Here comes the rain again,
Falling from the stars.
Drenched in my pain again,
Becoming who we are.
As my memory rests,
But never forgets what I lost,
Wake me up when September ends.

Even though this is a lyric that we’ve already heard, it takes on subtle new meaning here. Once Armstrong introduces the idea of spring and rebirth, this stanza feels more like an acceptance of the yin and yang of life, rather than a struggle against all that.

And significantly, they are putting the pain of their journey ("my memory”) aside, with the new understanding that pain is not meant to be escaped from, but learned from. They will “never forget what I lost.” And they have gained important knowledge. You can’t stay a kid forever. You have to grow up.

Summer has come and passed;
The innocent can never last.
Wake me up when September ends.
Like my father’s come to pass,
Twenty years has gone so fast.
Wake me up when September ends.
Wake me up when September ends.
Wake me up when September ends.

When the song ends, there’s a single line of dialogue, as Johnny says, “Time to wake up.” Exactly.

American Idiot is a fable that teaches us about ourselves both individually and collectively. It teaches us about our times and our reaction to them. But most of all, it teaches us one of the oldest of human lessons – as Bill Finn put it in Spelling Bee, “Life is random and unfair.” If life is random, then by definition it can’t be fair. To embrace life means to embrace all of life, the good and bad alike, because it’s all part of the same whole.

All of it is beautiful and all of it teaches us something. The magic of the Hero Myth is that it’s a metaphor for a human life, so any good story based on the Hero Myth model is automatically universal. American Idiot sure is.

So much richness to mine in this amazing show..

Long Live the Musical!
Scott
from The Bad Boy of Musical Theatre http://newlinetheatre.blogspot.com/2016/01/throw-up-your-arms.html

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