I Am The Disappearing Boy: 30 Years Of Kerplunk

Billie Joe texted to ask if I was going to write anything about the 30th anniversary of Green Day’s Kerplunk. I told him I hadn’t given it much thought, especially because the anniversary was still months away.

Billie begged to differ, and I gradually realized that almost everybody else did, too. For decades it’s been fixed in my mind that Kerplunk came out in February, 1992, right around the time of Billie’s birthday. And if anybody tried to tell me differently, I could just say, “I was there, pal, were you?”

Obviously that argument wasn’t going to work on Billie Joe, who was way more there than I was. He proceeded to remind me how I’d showed up in England just before Christmas of 1991 with 300 copies of Kerplunk that I’d managed, by some sort of muggle magic  to wheel past a befuddled customs agent in time to deliver them to the band, who were in the opening stages of their first-ever European tour.

Seems like someone didn’t have their story straight, and that someone was me. I knew Billie was right about the dates and the records, because I’d definitely delivered them to the UK in December 1991, so why had I so stubbornly clung to my (fake) memory that the record didn’t come out until a full two months later?

Probably because it didn’t make sense. Labels never released a record – especially a record that they expected to be one of the biggest releases of the year – a week before Christmas. Sure, lots of records came out with the idea that people would buy or get them as Christmas presents, but those records came out in September. By November, let alone December, the music industry was settling down for a long winter’s sleep.

But this was not just any label, this was my label, Lookout Records, and in the barely four years we’d existed, we’d already established ourselves as the kind of label that never did anything the way you were supposed to and somehow succeeded anyway. 

A lot of our success – the part that didn’t come from having some amazingly great bands – was due to our being hooked up with the greatest indie distributor ever, the late, great, and much-lamented Mordam Records. Ruth Schwartz, who’d founded Mordam with the money she’d made by releasing the first Faith No More LP, spent a lot of time patiently explaining to me how things needed to be done if we hoped to make the most out of a new record release, only to have me say, again and again, “Yeah, sounds good, but we’re going to do it this way instead.” Looking back, it’s pretty much exactly how a lot of the bands related to the good advice I was always dishing out, whether or not they’d asked for it. Ruth telling me I couldn’t release a record in December had about as much impact as when I’d told Sweet Children they couldn’t change their name to Green Day three weeks before their first 7” came out.

Lookout Records’ success up to that point had surprised just about everyone, myself included. But it was still kind of a toy label in the sense that though it made enough money to keep from going out of business, it was not yet, strictly speaking, a “business.” At least half my time went into finishing my degree at Berkeley so I could get some sort of “real” job, and the week that 10,000 copies of Kerplunk showed up at the Mordam warehouse also happened to be the week I needed to pass a statistics final that would determine whether or not I’d be allowed to graduate. So maybe it’s not surprising that the arrival of what would become one of the biggest Lookout releases ever didn’t register as intensely in my memories as you’d expect it to.

Mike got left out of the photo up top, so he gets his picture here. Both photos by the inimitable, immortal Murray Bowles, natch.

About those 10,000 copies: Ruth thought I was insane to order that many. Even if I was releasing the record in a “normal” month, she insisted, Green Day were still a young, relatively unknown band with a couple of 7”s and an LP, which had sold well, but not spectacularly. For a label at our level, selling 3,000 copies was a good result, and 5,000 was excellent. Our best-selling record ever, Operation Ivy’s Energy, was edging toward the 10,000 mark, but it had taken two and a half years to get there.

That band’s Tim “Lint” Armstrong was fond of saying, “You can tell Operation Ivy, but you can’t tell ‘em much.” Ruth Schwartz was finding Lawrence Livermore (as I was known in those days) to be cut from the same cloth. “If we don’t sell them all this month,” I argued,  “we’ll sell them next month. Punks don’t follow the record industry calendar.”

“Come back and tell me that when we have to move out of our warehouse because it’s filled with your unsold records,” she retorted.

The thing is, Ruth was usually right. She was sharp, she knew the business, and she genuinely cared about the people she worked with. I didn’t enjoy being a thorn in her side, but something told me 10,000 was barely going to be the beginning for this record. 

And for once I was right. 

What made me so sure? Part of it was just a gut instinct, the same sort of feeling that had prompted me to ask Green Day (still Sweet Children at the time, strictly speaking) to do a record within minutes of seeing them play for five teenagers in a candlelit cabin in the middle of a mountain wilderness. 

Billie and Mike were only 16 at the time, and their then-drummer, Al Sobrante was all of 18. It was only their third or fourth show ever, but there was no doubt in my mind that their music was ready for the world. It might have taken the world a little while to catch on, but three years later, it felt like that was about to happen.

A year before, Al Sobrante had left the band and been replaced by Tre Cool, who for the first five and a half years of his drumming career had played with my band, the Lookouts. I liked Al a lot, but Tre’s arrival had kicked Green Day onto a whole new level, I think at least in part because while Al had been something of a father figure (hey, two years is a lot to a teenager), Tre was the same age and temperament as Billie and Mike: three lovable goofballs who were never serious about anything except music.

But when it came to music, they were Very Serious Indeed. I was working with a lot of young bands in those days, and one thing I constantly struggled with was getting musicians to strike the right balance between having fun and making the most of their musical abilities. 

That was never an issue with Green Day. Other musicians would say things like, “We’re just a dumb punk band anyway, nobody’s gonna care what we do, so we might as well have fun.” Green Day had plenty of fun, as anyone who knew them in those days can testify, but they also wrote and played music with the quiet, exuberant confidence of artists who didn’t need anyone else’s opinion to validate them.

Similarly, while other bands often asked me for advice and occasionally even listened to it, Green Day pretty much made their own way. We got along well – I’d known Tre since he was 9 years old, after all – and they loved hearing stories about musicians and events I’d witnessed back in the Dark Ages, i.e., before they were born. But when it came to writing, producing, and performing music … yeah, they didn’t really need me butting in.

One thing they did need, and this had been the case ever since they’d pulled the “Let’s change our name from Sweet Children to Green Day three weeks before the record comes out” stunt, was help with boring details like putting together a record cover. The first 7”, 1,000 Hours, had only had a xeroxed sheet of paper for a cover, so that was easy enough to throw together at the last minute, but now that we’d graduated to printed covers, a little more art and science was involved.

Fellow geniuses Jesse Michaels and Aaron Cometbus had stepped in to produce art for 39/Smooth and Slappy, but those guys were nowhere to be found as the deadline neared for Kerplunk. This was going to be an in-house (aka in my room, which doubled as the Lookout office) affair. 

Luckily by this time two extremely gifted young artists, Christopher Appelgren and Patrick Hynes had joined the Lookout staff. Between them they could draw almost anything, but apart from a title (which, for all we knew, Green Day might suddenly change at the last minute), we didn’t have much to go on. 

“What’s this album about, Larry?” I was asked more than once, to which I could only answer, “Oh, you know, the usual: amazing songs about love and introspection and conquering the universe. C’mon, guys, you’ve heard Green Day enough times by now.”

In the end, inspiration came from a totally unexpected direction. Janelle Hessig, better known in some circles as Janelle Blarg, had just started her own fanzine, and asked me to write something for it. Janelle, like Billie and Mike, had gone to Pinole Valley High School. She was a few years younger than them, but had been coming to Gilman shows since she was 12 or 13.

On the spur of the moment, I came up with a first-person story by a teenaged girl called Laurie L., the kind of wildly enthusiastic fangirl who’d been turning up at Green Day shows lately, much to the disdain of the macho punk boys, who hated seeing their beloved pit being taken over by girls who were there to dance and show their love for the band (in punkland, you weren’t supposed to admit you actually liked a band; in fact, the more you did like them, the more you had to pretend you didn’t).

It irked me on a couple of levels. For one thing, I thought the music Lookout was putting out should be for everyone, not just aggro punk boys. What’s more, I really didn’t like the way young female fans were being none too subtly told that they didn’t belong there, that their fandom was somehow less worthy, maybe even something to be embarrassed about.

Enter Laurie L., such a hardcore Green Day fan that she killed her parents and fed their bones to the next-door dog so she could go on tour with the band. In addition to being the heroine of my story, she became the prototype for the Kerplunk girl, pictured on the front cover with a knowing smirk and a smoking gun. I couldn’t draw her, but I could describe her, and after a couple of tries, Christopher brought her to life.

It was a pretty great piece of art, if I do say so myself. Not everyone agreed at first; some thought it was “too slick” or “too silly,” or, as Tim Yohannan memorably said when he refused to give Green Day a show at Gilman, “too poppy.” But never mind the doubters; the Kerplunk girl has gone on to adorn countless t-shirts, bags, backpacks, and tattooed arms and legs around the world. 

It was never made clear (I’m still not sure myself) whether the girl on the cover and the notorious Laurie L. are one and the same. But I think it’s safe to say they’re kindred spirits. A young superfan from Aguascalientes, Mexico took on the Laurie L. name and persona, and in 2019, she posted on my Facebook: “I’m getting out of prison, can you come pick me up?”

I’d forgotten, but the internet hadn’t: in my story, Laurie notes her release date, and there were a bunch of threads where people wondered what she was going to do with the rest of her life. It was quite a shelf life for a story that I’d tossed off in an hour or so back in 1991. In large part that was because I decided, without bothering to consult the band, to print it on the back of the lyric sheet in every copy of Kerplunk. 

It’s not as if they’d given me anything else to fill that space; if I hadn’t added the story, the page would have been blank. Anyway, because the story had been pretty well received around the East Bay, I assumed the band would be happy for it to reach a wider audience. It wasn’t until several years later that Billie casually let me know that wasn’t necessarily the case.

Other bands might have thrown a fit, might have demanded that we recall all the records and replace the offending lyric sheet, but either Green Day weren’t that bothered by it, or decided it wasn’t worth the bother. Many years later, I tried raising the question again, hoping to get them to admit that the Laurie L. story had been a valuable addition to Kerplunk, but  my efforts went nowhere, so I decided to leave well enough alone. 

Which was what I was going to do about Kerplunk’s 30th anniversary, but between Billie’s text and a bunch of other people talking about how it was important to them, I began to reconsider. Then, the other day, newly arrived on the other side of the world after 35 hours in transit, an array of electronic wizardry that would have made zero sense to me in 1991 enabled me to plug into my new Apple Music account.

The first thing I saw was something called “Larry Livermore’s Radio Station.” What, I silently asked? I’d only had this Apple Music account for a couple of days, and already I have my own radio station? Curious to see that the Apple algorithm thought I would listen to, I hit play, and what should pop up but “Disappearing Boy,” complete with the lyrics I sang along with for years without ever really knowing them.

It’s always been one of my favorite Green Day songs (yes, I know it’s not on Kerplunk, so thanks for not telling me). Even if I wasn’t exactly a boy, and hadn’t been for years, I’d done a fair bit of disappearing in my time, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes simply because it was time, as Bob Dylan said, for my bootheels to be wandering (I literally haven’t worn boots since the last millennium, so don’t start on that, either). 

Hearing that song again, so far from home, got me kind of emotional, and in turn reminded me of the first time I heard Kerplunk, which was on my way back to Berkeley after having the record mastered in LA. I slipped a cassette copy into my Walkman as the plane taxied down the runway, and the opening chords of “2,000 Light Years Away” pinned me back in my seat with a force even gravity couldn’t muster. 

I knew in that instant that everything had changed, for the band, obviously, but also for their families, friends, fans, and for me and the record label I was trying to run. Up until now it had mostly been fun and games, but now things were about to get real. In good ways, mostly, but also in ways that would be impossible to predict or control.

It would be a couple years before everyone knew what I had just realized, but in my own mind there could be no doubt: the band that had produced the music cascading through my headphones was about to become one of the biggest bands in the world.

People typically assume Dookie, which came out in 1994, was Green Day’s breakthrough, but it was with Kerplunk, more than two years earlier, that the band reached escape velocity. We who had known them since the beginning could only watch in awe as they headed for the stars. 

It’s one thing to say, as I had the first night I saw them, that they had the potential to be as big as the Beatles. It’s quite another to realize, whoa, this might actually be happening. There would still be years of hardscrabble touring and basement shows where nobody gets paid; when I met up with them in the UK at the beginning of a harsher-than-usual winter, they were having the time of their lives, but they were also sleeping on concrete floors in unheated squats.

Careening around the country and then the continent, I doubt they had time to give much thought was given to what it all meant, to what their lives might look like a few years down the road. They were 19 years old and just being on tour with a band was enough. The fact that it was one of the best bands ever, and that they were in it, might have taken a little longer to sink in. 

Or maybe they knew all along. I like to brag that I did, but it’s a huge leap from a hunch, even a really strong one, to a certainty that you’d stake your life on. But remember those 10,000 copies? The ones that Ruth Schwartz told me were an idiotically large amount to press any time of the year, let alone in deepest, darkest December?

They sold out in a single day. It was one of the few times I’d ever seen her speechless. 

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