By Gabe Meline
The last time Mike Dirnt played Petaluma's Phoenix Theater, in 1994, his band Green Day had just signed to Warner Bros. and a small group of protesters calling themselves the "punk police" picketed near the front doors, accusing the band of selling out. Emblematic of the shunning Dirnt and his band mates suffered from their critics, peers and even former friends when they signed to a major label, the stunt, one would think, would still sting.
But 17 years and a lot of water under the bridge later, Dirnt is returning this weekend with his side project, the Frustrators, to the Phoenix Theater. It's a place Green Day played at least a dozen times in the early 1990s, and a former stomping ground for which Dirnt still clearly has love. Last week, visiting Steve Jaxon's show The Drive on KSRO in Santa Rosa to talk about the show, Dirnt ran down a list of reasons he chose the Phoenix for this mini-tour, starting with the obvious.
"Tom Gaffey," he says, resolutely. "Lifers, you gotta love 'em. People like Tom Gaffey are in it for the love of what they do. You don't do anything like that to make any cash. You do it because you love it."
What's the secret to the longevity of clubs like the Phoenix, I ask? "Honesty," Dirnt answers. "And that you're in it for the right reasons. If you're not in it for the right reasons, you're going to burn out."
Sixty-five million records sold, four Grammy awards, enormous stadium productions, a Broadway musical—plenty has changed in Dirnt's world since that last Green Day show at the Phoenix in 1994. So it's relieving to hear Dirnt remember Tom Gaffey so fondly; to quote lyrics from local bands like Nuisance off the top of his head; to have an instant recollection of playing the cafeteria at Piner High School in 1991 for $50. ("Back then, $50 was a lot more than gas money," he laughs. "That was a new tire on the van.")
Yes, this is relieving, because as music fans, we want stars like Dirnt to remember their roots. Even in 1989, when Green Day made a splash with their first Sonoma County show at the River Theater in Guerneville, it was clear that something special was underway. By their second visit, just one month later, in the banquet room at the Los Robles Lodge on Halloween, a group of new fans rushed the stage to sing along into the band's microphones. The writing, as they say, was on the wall.
Green Day would eventually play just about anywhere in Sonoma County, from Andrews Hall in Sonoma and the Cotati Cabaret to a house party on Highway 12 and yet another lunchtime show at Santa Rosa High School. But it was the Phoenix Theater the band played most. Though Dirnt has been back to the Phoenix since—to take his daughter to see Hilary Duff, in 2003—he hasn't set foot on the stage. This weekend, Dirnt won't just be remembering his roots, he'll be actively honoring them. "A lot of these venues are a home away from home," he says, "or a home back home. It's really sweet."
It wasn't always so sweet at the Phoenix. Once, at a 1991 show with Bad Religion, Green Day's first drummer John Kiffmeyer showed up and demanded to play the show instead of new drummer Tre Cool.
"It was awkward," Dirnt recalls. "I remember the drama backstage. We had really gelled with Tre at that point. Tre was our guy. We not only blended with him as a friend and hit it off on all sorts of levels, but we were just really starting to make strides playing a lot of shows with him. And our drummer came back down and was like, 'This is my band! I want to play the show!' And it was really tough. It was a big show for us. So being the mediator that I've always been, I ended up calling the deal and saying, 'OK, fine. John, you can play the show. But Tre gets all your cash.' Neither one of them was happy."
These days, the chances of Green Day ever playing the Phoenix again are probably slim. That's one of the reasons Dirnt's resurrected the Frustrators, after a nearly nine-year hiatus—so he can play small clubs again. Huge arena shows they're decidedly not: this weekend's festivities feature a classic-car derby outside and cannibal burlesque dancers. "We're definitely trying," Dirnt smiles, "to make this show a freak fest."
The Frustrators play with Star Fucking Hipsters, the BillyBones, Mystic Knights of the Cobra and Bobby Joe Ebola & the Children McNuggits on Saturday, Feb. 19, at the Phoenix Theater. 201 E. Washington St., Petaluma. 1pm. $12. 707.762.3565.