Wake Me Up When September Ends (2005)
When the stars align perfectly, a painfully personal song will become an anthem for an era, even a generation. The ‘60s were frothy with such songs. 2005’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” measures up to the best of them, fixed in its special moment in time.
On its first, and most primal level, “Wake Me Up” is about the death of Billy Joe Armstrong’s father. (Armstrong is one of the collaborating songwriters of, and the front-man for, Green Day.)
A song with many lives
Armstrong was not able to explore the intense loss until five years after his father had passed away in 1982.
As the song opens, Armstrong exposes the still-raw emotions, sounding younger than his years, conveying the broken inner child who cannot believe what happened, how his world fell apart.
Summer has come and passed
The innocent can never last
wake me up when September ends
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
The song is touching in the deepest way, conveying the sense of a bird on a wire that just can’t free itself only able to fly short distances. But through the raw and powerful majesty of the song and the help of his bandmates, Armstrong does grow up and at least gives vent to his agony, if not fully sloughing it off his shoulders. We are left with the thought that some hurts never are fully healed.
This was a period in which Green Day without a doubt matured creatively and conceptually as a group. A too-long adolescence led up to the changes, but the bursting forth on American Idiot, the album where “Wake Me Up When September Ends” appears, made it well worth the wait.
Armstrong said once: “If there’s a song on there that veers away from the story for the album, it’s that one. It’s a personal thing. I’ve never tackled an issue about that – singing about my father. It’s hard to sing, but definitely therapeutic, because it deals with the passing of someone that you love.”
The album has a riveting anti-war tone to it. For the generation coming of age in the post-9/11 age, it has a particular biting feverishness. Beyond the adventuristic wars that the Bush years gave us, we were also handed a paranoid, us-or-them legacy. Instead of narrowing its national focus to capture and bring to justice a handful of murderers, we waged war in distant Asian countries for dubious reasons. This absurdity was not lost on Baby Boomers either, who had already lived through one asinine, social-fabric-ripping war in a far-off land.
“Wake Me Up,” via its long, overwrought “official” video, became an anti-war song of the first order – although blood, guts and gore, the waste of money, the waste of lives, are never specifically mentioned. (The video sketches the way the war in Iraq tears apart a young couple.) In spite of its fairly obvious flaws the sweetness-of-youth video gave the song a second life, socially and artistically.
“Wake Me Up” accidentally evolved to become both seriously anti-war and deeply patriotic. The personal had become public.
The coincidental allusions to 9/11 are not lost on anyone who listens to the song in the context of what happened in that awful September of 2001. As something more than a footnote, Armstrong’s son was born that September 12th.
The music is impressive, veering from electric-acoustic Folk to Punkish riffs and hard-hearted drumming that hark back to early Green Day material while serving as preludes to the instrumental centerpiece of the song, its guitar solo. Drums kick down the door with an ominous pounding a full 1:30 into the song.
Armstrong’s voice is beguiling and beckoning. We are involved with his personal drama and then ride on the express train the band serves up with gusto. Guitars wail, sound builds into a thick wall of angst and resentment.
As soon as it begins, the song drops back into the folkiness, switches back to the Punk extravaganza, then back to Folk, cycling through emotions like gears on a racing bike hitting a hilly course. It closes musically on a long fuzztone chord fed through a number of reverb chambers. It’s difficult to explain what music can make us feel. The best a listener might say is that the end of the song is “sobering.”
Amazingly, the history of the song was to take another turn.
As if charmed, “Wake Me Up When September Ends” took on yet another life in the aftermath of the tragedy and travesty of hurricane Katrina in late August of 2005. (The song had been released in June of that year.)
The new chapter is all thanks to a video made by a vlogger and posted on YouTube. The New York Times on September 24, 2005 said this:
“…It’s the same old song with a different meaning. Two weeks ago, Karmagrrrl, a blogger also known as Zadi, paired the Green Day ballad with television news coverage of Katrina and posted it at her Web site, smashface.com/vlog [no longer active]. Her video fits the lyrics like a glove.” (View it in the Video Library.)
President George W. Bush is heard speaking over portions of the instrumental breaks in his faux good-old-boy speaking rhythms:
“I want the folks there on the Gulf Coast to know that the federal government is prepared to help you. Right now the days seem awfully dark to those affected, but I’m confident that with time, you’ll get your lives back in order.”
The passage of time tells us that 90,000 citizens of New Orleans have yet to come back, about 20% of the pre-Katrina population.
The neglect, the poverty and depression of much of New Orleans was thrust into the national and international spotlight as the city was swamped by the high water and broken levees.
The poor, the downtrodden, those least able to rebuild and recover, were sent on an exodus to neighboring areas. That their faces were primarily black brought scrutiny as intense as any that had zeroed in on the South since the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and ‘60s. Those who had very little promptly lost even that overnight.
Karmagrrrl added a quote to the video long after the music stopped. It is from the President’s mother. She comments on the refugees who were brought in and then subjected to a nightmare in the New Orleans Superdome:
“So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, and this is working very well for them.”
“Wake Me Up When September Ends” is a landmark – because of its three lives and because it marks the maturation of Armstrong and his band, turning them from guys who sang about their dicks into guys who sang about death, loss, and inadvertently about the gruesomeness of two terrible American tragedies, both of which were 99% preventable.
British poet W.H. Auden said in a poem written in memory of Irish poet William Butler Yeats:
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living
Armstrong did not know when he put pen to paper that he was commenting on so much more than the death of a beloved parent.
Ring out the bells again
like we did when spring began
wake me up when September ends
- Billy Joe Armstrong’s son was born on September 12, 2001, bringing even more poignance to “Wake Me Up.”
- The Green Day was masterminded by Samuel Bayer, who directed Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. Jamie Bell and Evan Rachel Wood star.