A mop and pail were Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman's keys to the chamber of secrets. To support himself and his guitar habit while he was in his twenties, Noodles worked as a custodian at the high school he had attended in Orange County, California. The job was like a backstage pass. He had access to all the school's forbidden zones, like the teachers' lounge. The curtain was lifted; he discovered that the imperial figures of his youth were, as he always suspected, manic depressives groping each other in the shop room.
"You knew the teachers were fucked up," Noodles says; "you just didn't have the information to prove it."
Noodles was still working as a janitor when the Offspring's 1994 album Smash clanged into MTV's buzz bin. By then, the guitar player was the head custodian at an elementary school where "me and the secretary essentially ran the school." The school was near a bus stop used by high school kids. Recognizing his face from the band's video, they started pointing, asking questions. Suddenly, the janitor dude with the thick glasses and the coveralls was the coolest man on campus.
Noodles, now 35, won't be scraping Bubble Yum from locker doors any time soon. The Offspring's fifth album, Americana, has quieted the rock-is-dead talk for a little while by camping out in the Billboard Top 10. Yes, Lauryn, Foxy, and Britney, that stained wife-beater T-shirt belongs to someone. Before the release of Americana, the Offspring looked like a band about to be crushed by the more threatening breed of Korn and the like, a band whose hits "Self Esteem" and "Come Out and Play" would reappear ten years from now on a late-night commercial for Time/Life's Punk Hits of the '90s! But Americana's first single, "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)," is the Offspring at the height of its powers (however limited). Ten seconds don't pass before the ears have feasted on a Def Leppard sample, a drum roll, fly girl pleadings, and singer Brian "Dexter" Holland's screeched er-ha, er-ha's. The song, if you've been living in a teacup the last three months, pokes fun at anyone whose Tommys hang too low around his thin white ass. "Friends say he's trying too hard/And he's not quite hip/But in his own mind/He's the dopest trip," Holland sings. Rockers have been thinking "Pretty Fly" thoughts ever since Axl Rose went mad and kids started looking for their heroes in rap CDs; the Offspring simply came out and said it.
"We knew that song was a standout," Noodles says, "but we had no idea it was going to do what it's done." A Rolling Stone critic recently took a swipe at the band, accusing it of race baiting, which Noodles rejects. "I think that's bullshit," he says. "The song could be about anything. It could be about punk rock. It's really about wannabes or any kid who tries to be something they've never done."
But the lyrics and the video are directed squarely at hip-hop honkies. Noodles says the song isn't about pitting rock against rap. He does, though, shake his head at suburban kids who appropriate street culture: "I'm sorry, but I see these kids on the TV saying, 'Fuck, bitch.' They look foolish to me."
"Pretty Fly" is but one of the blunt statements the Offspring makes on Americana. Dangnabbit, we got us a concept album here. Americana sees the nation as a place crusting with wannabes, fast-food joints, drive-thru tattoo parlors, SUVs, telemarketers, trash television, and girlfriends who turn the bedchamber into a pop psychology workshop. The Man feeds us scraps, which we attack hungrily. Nothing revolutionary, to be sure. The world didn't need another Vanilla Ice joke or a hard-edged cover of "Feelings." But there is something to admire about a punk-spirited band that wants to talk about something other than sniffing glue or plunging a shiv into the school principal's gut.
Noodles says Americana didn't begin as a concept album. The Offspring looked at what it had recorded and saw the material pointing a weary gaze at accelerated culture. The band--rounded out by drummer Ron Welty and bassist Greg Kriesel--wrote a few more songs, including the rage-against-the-suburban-machine title track, to flesh out the vision. "It says that everything is there, everything is there for the asking," says Noodles of "Americana." "Nobody wants to work hard. Nobody has the patience."
The timing is perfect for Holland's simple, declarative prose. Pop audiences are embracing clarity. Barenaked Ladies and the New Radicals cheerfully pepper their hits with pop-culture references. Everclear's "Father of Mine" is as subtle as a mudslide. Jewel's schoolgirl bromides could appear on coffee mugs or cat posters. The cryptic has fallen desperately out of fashion. On "Why Don't You Get a Job?" Holland sings, "My friend's got a girlfriend/Man, he hates that bitch." No mysteries there.
"I think that comes from Dexter's basic hatred of poetry," Noodles says of Holland's direct style. "He writes very poetically, but he hates poetry." He adds, "I love Nirvana. I love Nirvana's music. But Kurt Cobain was supposedly this voice of a generation, and I, honestly, never understood a thing he was trying to say."
When the Offspring went into the studio to make Americana, the band members had a relaxed attitude. The complaints that they'd sold out by jumping from Epitaph to Columbia were dying down. The previous record, Ixnay on the Hombre, was considered a slump for not matching Smash's eye-popping sales. The spotlight wasn't hot; the pressure was off. The one mandate they imposed on themselves was to finish on time. Today, Noodles sounds like a man half-envious, half-sickened by fellow punk revivalists Rancid, who can finish an album faster than the milk in your fridge goes bad. "We do tend to take a long time," he says.
Punk bands are not known for their craftsmanship, but it's probably best not to think of the Offspring as a punk band; it's a rock band that happens to be influenced by punk. Noodles says he got into punk as a kid because he wasn't a jock or involved in student government: "We were the ones who got beat up in the hallway for what we listened to." After high school, Noodles thought of becoming a teacher; he attended college but didn't finish. He fooled around in a couple of local bands, learning at the knee of SoCal punkers like TSOL, the Adolescents, the Vandals, and Social Distortion, before hooking up with Holland and the others.
The band has been together fourteen years. One reason the Offspring has such stamina is that it doesn't obsess about street cred. "We don't care if people call us punk," Noodles says. "We really weren't trying to present ourselves as these great champions of the cause."
Noodles also doesn't seem to mind that the band's fortunes rise and fall with the resonance of the jokes on their singles: "Not really, because I think this too shall pass. We all are someday going to go our own ways and do our own thing. We focus on the flip side, and we enjoy it while it lasts."