By J. Freedom du Lac
Sunday, March 18, 2007
THE GIRLS ARE WAITING -- a ritual whenever Benji and Joel Madden are working in rock-star mode.
It's a Saturday afternoon at XM Satellite Radio's headquarters in Northeast Washington, and the identical twin brothers have just finished performing some of the songs they've written together for their band, Good Charlotte. Just two voices and an acoustic guitar, the way it was in the beginning, when they were 16-year-olds from Southern Maryland hellbent on becoming famous. This concert taping is an important promotional date for the brothers, who are hoping to generate interest in a new Good Charlotte album even as they wonder whether their band's moment has already passed.
There are a couple dozen people milling around outside XM's studio theater, and they tend to fit a particular demographic: young and female -- Good Charlotte's base of support. It's a sea of hair dye and heavy mascara.
Hadasse Ryland, a 15-year-old home-schooled student with "Kiss Me" written on top of her left shoe, "Kill Me" on the right, fits right in. There's a swath of fuchsia in her hair, and she's wearing fingerless gloves and a giddy grin. She's huddled with Angie Tiano, a 27-year-old medical claims processor wearing black and so many bangles wrapped around her forearm that it looks as though she's wearing a Slinky.
Ryland and Tiano met in line before a Good Charlotte concert in North Carolina more than two years ago. They became close friends despite their differences in age and geography: Ryland lives in Kingsport, Tenn., Tiano in Beckley, W.Va. What they have in common is a deep, emotional connection to Good Charlotte's anthems about alienation .
"Sometimes, you feel like it's the only thing you have," Ryland says of Benji and Joel's songs, which describe myriad teenage traumas, including their father walking out on them one Christmas Eve. "And if they could make it through all the stuff that they've been through, it gives me hope. They've definitely helped me get through some hard times."
Tiano nods and says Good Charlotte's albums saved her life. "Twice. Honestly, I wouldn't be standing here right now if it wasn't for them. I live in West Virginia and have purple hair. People stare at me and give me a hard time. Joel and Benj know what it's like to be a total outcast and a misfit. They made me proud to be different."
On cue, Joel Madden saunters by, jeans sagging off his hips, a fedora perched atop his head.
"We're talking about you!" Ryland squeals, her eyes bulging.
Joel raises an eyebrow. "Bad things?"
"NOOOOO! All good stuff."
Joel smiles, then continues down the hallway in search of a restroom. Tiano exhales.
"I was about ready to give up," she says. "If it wasn't for their music . . ." Ryland puts her hand on her friend's back. "I've really wanted to tell them this," Tiano says.
Maybe tonight. Good Charlotte is playing at the 9:30 club, and she's on the list for the preshow meet-and-greet. Or, "maybe I can tell him now."
Joel is coming back through the corridor, dragging his Chuck Taylors across the carpet, and this time he stops. "What do you want to tell me?"
He puts his arm around Tiano, who is starting to convulse. "Don't cry on me," he says. Tiano waves her hand in front of her face, tries to compose herself. Inhale. Exhale. "My life would be horrific if it wasn't for you," she says, explaining how Good Charlotte's songs saved her.
"Awwww," Joel says softly, popcorn-size diamond studs gleaming from each ear. "Thank you."
He gives Tiano a hug, poses for a picture. Hugs Ryland, too.
"It's so nice to meet you girls," he says. "Thanks for coming today." Later, he'll say that he sometimes struggles to process all the pain Good Charlotte's fans share with him. "You can't get away from it. It creates this heaviness that just [messes] you up. It breaks my heart."
Tiano can't summon any more words as Joel leaves the brick building through a back door, climbing into the passenger seat of a black SUV. "She's wanted to do that for-EVER," Ryland says. "Ohhh. Myyy. God."
Tiano is still shaking. "I can't believe it." She and Ryland embrace.
"I'm having a full spaz," Ryland says. "I am SOOOO freaking out." She giggles. "I'm never washing my gloves again."
YOU REMEMBER GOOD CHARLOTTE, RIGHT? Or maybe your kids do? Five-piece band from La Plata High School by way of Annapolis, singing about a world populated by judgmental jocks and discouraging teachers and snooty girls and deadbeat dads. Punky with serious pop sensibilities, specializing in catchy, sometimes sarcastic and often autobiographical songs about alienation and isolation, family dysfunction and romantic confusion -- sort of like Green Day before that group turned serious and started singing about war and American idiots. The Maddens mixed a little bit of hip-hop and reggae into their music, and they portrayed themselves as outsiders sentenced to serve their adolescence in a small-minded small town, which could have passed for any suburb. And then, somehow, they escaped their tortured existence and landed in a rock-and-roll fantasy world. They became radio and MTV fixtures in 2002 and 2003, with "The Anthem" and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" and "Girls and Boys." They had a Top 10 album and appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone. Big draw in concert. Their T-shirts and posters and stickers were bestsellers at Hot Topic, the mall clothing chain that caters to angsty, alternative youth cultures.
The hardcore punks called them poseurs. The critics dismissed them as a punk-rock boy band. They'd officially arrived. The misfits had gone mainstream!
It all seems so unlikely. A couple of working-class kids from a broken home in La Plata recruit some friends and wind up winning the popular-music lottery, crashing the celebrity strata. How does that happen? And what happens when the numbers don't come up winners anymore?
Good Charlotte's last album was a disappointment: Released in September 2004, "The Chronicles of Life and Death" sold 1.1 million copies domestically, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It went platinum, but the band's earlier, career-making CD, "The Young and the Hopeless," had sold more than three times as many copies just two years before. Illegal downloading alone didn't erode the band's sales by two-thirds. Something went wrong. The hits weren't there. Fans had gone elsewhere.
Now comes Good Charlotte's fourth album, "Good Morning Revival." It will be released at the end of this month by Epic Records. Nobody in the band's camp knows quite what to expect. That's especially true, given that the group disappeared for more than a year, with no tours, no new music. Just all those tabloid headlines about Joel's dalliances with teen starlet Hilary Duff and tabloid magnet Nicole Richie.
Though the 28-year-old twins say they needed the breather, it was an awfully long layoff for a rock band with such a young and fickle fan base -- a demographic that David Massey, the Epic executive who signed Good Charlotte in 1999, calls "very problematical."
Says Steve Feinberg, the band's manager: "They're facing a real challenge."
Just about every recording artist is struggling with the turbulence of the modern music business. Illegal downloading continues to eat away at CD sales, which have fallen by 25 percent since 2000, and the chatter about new distribution models, new revenue streams and new paradigms has become deafening. But Good Charlotte must also deal with its own shifting standing in the pop music hierarchy; its lyrical themes are hardly unique, and the band has lost ground to groups whose songs about teen angst and alienation and confusion resonate even more loudly with kids.
"There's a minute where you're the new, hot band, and that minute's over for us," Joel says, rubbing the monochromatic Sacred Heart tattoo on his arm. "We're not the hot band anymore. We still have a lot of fans; we haven't gone away. But we have to prove ourselves. We have to make great records."
Says Benji: "There's definitely pressure. I don't know where we stand anymore, I don't know how we fit in. Like, hmmm, this is going to be weird."
Look around the Hot Topic store at St. Charles Towne Center in Waldorf. You'll find Fall Out Boy figurines and My Chemical Romance messenger bags and Panic! at the Disco T-shirts but not a single item bearing Good Charlotte's logo. Not even in Good Charlotte's own home town.
The sales statistics aren't just numbers on the band's balance sheet. Paul Thomas, the bass player who was the band's first recruit; Billy Martin, a guitarist and keyboard player; and Dean Butterworth, the latest in an ongoing series of drummers -- they might be in it for the art, the adrenaline, the money. But Benji and Joel Madden crave attention and approbation, a need driven by their father's decision to walk out on the family when the boys were teenagers. Some people with abandonment issues seek the presidency; others aim to go on tour with their favorite bands and play their songs in sold-out arenas. The motivating forces are the same.
"What my dad did," Benji says, "it made me who I am."
"It was absolutely a source of drive and creativity and wanting to belong to something," Joel says. "There's something in me, obviously, that needs attention because I'm the singer in a band. I'd be lying if I said I don't like attention."
It just so happens that the twins exist in an industry in which it's possible to measure the level and volume of love they're receiving by using various metrics. How many album sales has SoundScan tracked? Where does the new single rank at iTunes? How many radio plays is Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems reporting? What of their MySpace friends? And ticket sales? And fan mail volume? The data line up like so many columns in a box score.
How will the results look once Good Charlotte's new album is released? Will the singers of self-described loser anthems be winners?
IT'S CROWDED AND CACOPHONOUS IN GOOD CHARLOTTE'S DRESSING ROOM AT THE 9:30 CLUB. Because this is a homecoming show, there's a long list of people with access to the band's inner sanctum, with friends and relatives and friends of friends and relatives powering through booze and popcorn. Somebody is smoking pot, and there's beer spilled all over the floor. It's a Henry Diltz still come to life.
Joel Madden stands against a wall, taking long, deliberate drags from a Camel Light as he soaks in the scene. His sister, Sarah, 1 1/2 years his junior, wants to talk about her new tattoo.
"I got broccoli on my foot," she says. "Look." She removes her shoe and shoves her foot in her brother's face.
He's nodding like a bobblehead doll. "That's awesome," he says.
Sarah lives in Washington and works at the Rock & Roll Hotel, a nightclub. She's close to her rock-star brothers -- "much closer than most people are with their siblings," she says. Benji and Joel's fame hasn't changed the relationship, she says, but for the fact that she can keep up with them now by leafing through the celebrity glossies.
Sarah and Joel are joined by another sibling, Josh, who is 1 1/2 years older than the twins but could pass for their triplet, especially when he purses his lips. He's wearing a hooded sweat shirt under a sleeveless denim jacket with a giant Ramones patch on the back. He lives in New York, where he works as a stylist on fashion shoots and owns a clothing line with his brothers, DCMA Collective.
Josh marvels at the thought of his little brothers playing in front of 60,000 people at a festival and having dinner with the guys from Green Day; but at heart, he says, "Benji and Joel are just regular dudes."
Benji has ducked into the bathroom to change, and he's brought some help in the form of a lithe, leggy blonde in a short denim skirt. It's his newish girlfriend, Sophie Monk, an Australian actress, pop singer and model with bee-stung lips. (In a few months, they'll be engaged, a development reported by the tabloids in breaking-news e-mail bulletins.) Benji emerges from the bathroom wearing a sleeveless collared shirt that shows off a mural of Technicolor tattoos and some slightly bulging biceps.
"You're all muscle-bound," Josh says, throwing a green, leopard-print hoodie at him. Benji blushes and bites down on his pierced lower lip as his siblings laugh.
All 1,200 tickets to the 9:30 club show in October sold shortly after going on sale, suggesting that Good Charlotte's fans haven't abandoned the band en masse. The group, which has sold 9 million albums worldwide, is playing clubs on this 22-city tour instead of arenas because it needs to reintroduce itself to its core devotees after the long layoff.
The show begins with one of Good Charlotte's signature hits, "The Anthem," all power chords, tumbling drums, crashing cymbals and angsty lyrics. High school, Joel sings, "felt more to me/Like a jail cell, a penitentiary."
And here in the real world? "I'm gonna get by and just do my time/Out of step while they all get in line/I'm just a minor threat, so pay no mind."
The caustic song culminates in a group chant: "Another loser anthem! Another loser anthem!"
The shrieking crowd is all wide eyes and awkwardly moving female arms. (The twins' bad-boy good looks have always attracted a mostly female audience, though their lyrics appeal to both sexes.) Fans are snapping pictures with cellphones and digital cameras. Somebody in the middle of the room is waving a glow stick, as if they're all at a Backstreet Boys concert.
Joel is twirling at the center of the stage, lost in song. Benji stands to Joel's left, wielding a guitar and flicking custom picks into the crowd. (His is the one with the coffin printed on it.) Paul Thomas, the lumpy bassist, is lurching around behind Benji, whipping his long, stringy hair like a lasso, spraying the stage with sweat. Billy Martin, long and lean with a curtain of black hair and a raccoonish amount of eyeliner, is moving spasmodically as he riffs on his guitar. Drummer Dean Butterworth is threatening to take off his shirt.
Benji makes an admission. "I'm messing up a lot tonight because I'm seeing all these people I know. And I'm like: 'Hey, what's up?!'"
There are more singalongs, more songs, including "Little Things," the first track on the first album. In recorded form, it opens with a dedication: "To every kid that got picked last in gym class; to every kid that never had a date to no school dance; to everyone who's ever been called a freak." Another loser anthem. On stage, the band's version of "Little Things" emphasizes the twins' experiences growing up, from "the time in school when we got free lunch and the cool kids beat us up" to "the time that girl broke up with me cause I wasn't cool enough." There are also references to broken-down cars, public transit and the night their father disappeared. "And that same year on Christmas Eve, Dad went to the store/We checked his room, his things were gone, we didn't see him no more."
For the Maddens, it must be a strange thing to hear hundreds of people sing along with this lyric. But none of the siblings flinch. It's as if they've become anesthetized to it. Josh says it was, in fact, weird when his family's business first became available in the CD section at a Wal-Mart near you. "When a song comes out that tells your life story, and people are coming up to you at a bar singing the song, saying, 'Yo, did that really go down?' You know, it's weird. But it's all true information. And it doesn't bother me. It's cool."
When Good Charlotte plays "Keep Your Hands Off My Girl," a new song from the unreleased CD, Feinberg, their manager, leans forward from his perch on the side of the stage to gauge the crowd's reaction. The band needs to generate new fans without alienating its core following, and the upbeat song is a risk: a frivolous tune with a dance rhythm, rapped verses and references to designer labels, mean-mugging hipsters and "brass knuckles hanging from my neck and my chain." It's a long way removed from "The Anthem," thematically and sonically.
But the song is received warmly. Most of the female fans pressed up against the barricade below the stage even seem to know the lyrics, having heard the tune on Good Charlotte's MySpace page.
After the performance is over and the club has been emptied of fans, Joel emerges from behind a black curtain, coughing and inhaling a bag of Cracker Jacks. "Dinner," he says. It's 10 o'clock, and Sarah wonders when the twins are planning to leave for Love, the cavernous hip-hop club in Northeast Washington, where Benji is scheduled to guest-deejay. (Though they're known as rock musicians, the Madden brothers are enamored of rap and have even been moonlighting as hip-hop producers.)
"I gotta sign first," Joel says. "I can't not sign."
Sarah can't believe that anybody would still be waiting outside for an autograph or a hug. It's been maybe 45 minutes since the show ended. "I guess I'd do it for Oasis if I was still 16," she says. "Maybe."
The twins leave the club through a side door, walking through an alley toward V Street NW to meet their public. Squeals, flashing cameras, outstretched arms. There are two dozen fans waiting behind a barricade, again mostly young and female. Good Charlotte's bodyguard, Mehdi Rabii, stands off to the side, arms folded, eyes scanning, as Benji and Joel work the crowd, thanking everybody for waiting for them, for supporting the band.
"I love you guys," somebody shouts.
"We love you, too," Joel says.
BENJAMIN COMBS WAS BORN FIVE MINUTES BEFORE JOEL ON MARCH 11, 1979. Their father, Roger Combs, was a butcher, their mother, Robin Madden, a homemaker. They were a working-class, church-going family, living in Waldorf and La Plata and elsewhere around Charles County, a fast-growing suburb where woods and grassy fields buttress the endless strip mall that is U.S. Route 301.
Growing up, the brothers were inseparable, sharing a bedroom, friends, interests. They played on the same baseball teams, worked together at Pizza Hotline, tried to take the same classes in school. They prayed with their parents at Calvary Gospel Church in Waldorf, served on the student government and participated in spirit week. They generally seemed like normal, well-adjusted kids.
"They were nice little guys," says Garth Bowling Jr., their principal at Piccowaxen Middle School in Newburg, about 20 miles south of Waldorf. "There wasn't anything negative associated with them at all."
Bowling produces a pair of paperback Piccowaxen yearbooks from 1990-1991 and 1991-1992 -- sixth and seventh grades for the twins. In the former, the boys wore matching sweaters and turtlenecks on photo day; they also dressed in identical UNLV sweat shirts for a picture with some other Piccowaxen twins. In the seventh grade, they sported matching buzz cuts and looked innocent, adorable.
"I just remember them as cute boys, very popular," Bowling says.
The twins made an impression at La Plata High School, too. Two of their former teachers are sitting at a table near the back of the school library, a decade after the twins graduated. Oprah and Shaq and Denzel are peering down from wall posters, encouraging everybody to read. It's Friday after school, and most of the students have spilled out of their classrooms, into the weekend. There are stickers around the school, declaring: "You can't hide that Warrior pride."
This is the place that felt like a penitentiary?
In another Good Charlotte song, "I Just Wanna Live," the twins recall a recurring conversation: "Stop messing around, boy/Better think of your future/Better make some good plans, boy/Said every one of our teachers."
Mary Hasemeier and Sue Craig roll their eyes when reminded of the lyrics. Hasemeier had Benji in an 11th-grade psychology class, when Good Charlotte was just starting. Craig had the twins in 10th grade for driver's education. (Benji was the superior driver, she says; behind the wheel, "Joel was a little more on the sweaty, nervous side.")
"There was nothing existential about their existence here," Hasemeier says. "They were fun kids, full of mischief, like little Dennis the Menaces going down the hall."
"They were very outgoing," Craig says. "Some kids their age are so sullen, but they were always laughing. They didn't seem miserable, though with high school kids, you don't always know what they're really feeling. They were having problems at home, and I think they had a rough time with that."
Hasemeier nods. "It might have been an inner roughness, stemming back to the problems they were having with their father. The abandonment, these unfulfilled needs."
The twins say they loved and admired their dad growing up. He taught them about baseball and the Bible and instilled a blue-collar work ethic in them. "He was the hardest-working man I've known," says Benji. "He was tired because he was always working. But he raised four kids. We had an amazing childhood."
There were problems, though. Robin had been diagnosed with lupus. Roger was struggling to support his family on a grocery-store salary. There was marital strife.
Benji and Joel's home life turned volatile during their freshman year of high school. The twins say that their father was an alcoholic. The parents fought bitterly.
Eventually, Roger walked out, and Robin went to work as a receptionist at a hair salon. The family got evicted. Josh left home to live with friends.
"It was pretty traumatic," Benji says. "We went from working class to poverty, and it was probably at the worst time possible. It's happening when I'm in the ninth grade, which is a really tough year, and my mom is having health problems, and my older brother, Josh, he was like: 'I'm outta here.' We didn't know what the [expletive] we were going to do. I was angry."
Music offered an escape from the turmoil. Someone at church had given Benji a secondhand guitar, and he learned to play chord progressions from a book of hymns. The brothers started writing together. Their first song -- about a girl -- wasn't profound poetry, but it was melodic and well-structured. At La Plata, Benji and Joel put out the word that they were starting a band. Joel decided he should be the lead singer, and Benji agreed. (Joel was also going to play the bass guitar, but he never got around to learning the instrument.) They dubbed the band Good Charlotte after a children's book they'd once read and announced their intentions to become rock stars. Then they got tormented by other students who kept asking why they weren't famous yet.
During that period, Roger Combs returned to the family and tried to work things out with his estranged wife. He stayed for about a year, Joel says, before finally leaving for good when the twins were 16. The reference in "Little Things" is true, Joel says: Roger walked out on Christmas Eve and never contacted the kids again.
"I didn't know where my dad was," says Joel, who remembers being filled with fury. "I was living in this [bad] little town, where nobody knows what's cool. I wanted to play sports, but I wasn't good. I wanted chicks, and chicks didn't like me. I wanted to have friends, but I didn't get to go to the parties. I had to work 40 hours a week to help my mom pay the bills. It was all this stuff, like a tornado."
The Beastie Boys, Green Day, Rancid and Weezer provided salvation. "It was a fantasy -- like, this is what we want to be," Joel says. "It gave us something to aspire to . . . I wasn't the freak kid that everybody beat up, but I wanted to be popular."
In their 1996-1997 senior yearbook, the one whose cover says "We Know a Thing or 2" in glittery lettering, Benji and Joel are wearing tuxedos and Caesar cuts. Joel's hair is dyed blond. He is also included in the junior prom court picture, and both brothers are photographed with the varsity baseball team. The most notable archival image in the book, however, is the band practice photo of Good Charlotte: There's the bassist Paul Thomas and a former drummer, Aaron Escolopio, with Joel and Benji looking clean-cut in shorts and T-shirts and tennis shoes without a single tattoo showing.
"What they were then is not what they look like now," Sue Craig says. "They're not your average Charles County kids anymore."
After high school, the brothers moved to Annapolis, where there was an emerging alternative rock scene; a local band, Jimmie's Chicken Shack, had even signed a major-label recording deal. Benji and Joel shared a one-bedroom apartment and worked minimum-wage day jobs, including a stint as shampoo boys at a hair salon; by night, they chased girls and made music.
The brothers were playing an acoustic set one night at a coffee shop when they met Martin, a gangly, pierced kid with long, heavy dreadlocks. Martin was a student at Severna Park High School and played in a hard rock band. He couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"Here's Benj and Joel with their shaved heads, playing these little love songs on an acoustic guitar," he says, "and they're some of the catchiest songs I've ever heard."
Benji and Joel moved in with Martin, in a shack adjacent to the new house his mother and stepfather had built. When Martin's band, Overflow, broke up, he was invited to join Good Charlotte.
The band worked relentlessly writing songs, recording demos, performing whenever and wherever possible. The money wasn't exactly the stuff of MTV's "Cribs." Sunday night gigs at Armadillo's Bar & Grill were worth $200, to be split among the four or five members of the band, Joel says. The brothers made another $100 each performing acoustic sets together on Monday nights at Acme Bar & Grill, where Benji had a job waiting tables.
Then the breaks started coming. Good Charlotte's demo tape somehow landed in the lap of Mike Martinovich, a regional promotion manager for Sony, who was certain he'd stumbled onto something special. He called a friend in New York, talent manager Steve Feinberg, to tell him about his discovery, and Feinberg, a former punk-rock musician himself, flew to Annapolis to see the boys perform. "It was this really catchy punk," Feinberg says. "And I was captivated by Benji and Joel." Feinberg agreed to help the group.
Two major East Coast radio stations began playing the demo version of Good Charlotte's "Little Things" -- WHFS (99.1), the Annapolis-based alternative-rock station, and Philadelphia's Y100 (WPLY-100.3), on which the band won a nightly contest of new songs for three weeks running.
"Actually hearing our music on the radio, after all these people laughed at us and said we were throwing our lives away, it was this big ball of energy and probably the most exciting time of my life," Joel says. "It was this feeling like it's really going to happen!"
In 1999, two years after Joel and Benji's high school graduation, Good Charlotte signed with Epic, a Sony subsidiary.
"They were a young band with fantastic ideas," says David Massey, who was then executive vice president of artists and repertoire at Epic. (He now holds the same position for the Sony Music Label Group.) "Benji and Joel's songwriting is a God-given talent. They can say something enormous but in an accessible way with these phenomenal melodies. There's depth and simplicity together, and that's extremely hard to do."
The band's multi-album deal with Epic resulted in a thrilling windfall for the Madden brothers. "We got a big check -- not millions, but it was enough to buy an apartment in D.C.," Joel says. "Me and Benj both bought one, and we bought our mom an apartment, too, and still had money in the bank to live on while we toured."
Before the band's first album was completed, the twins decided to stop using their father's surname. The credits on that CD read, simply: "All songs written by Benji and Joel."
Released in 2000, the album wasn't exactly a smash: "Good Charlotte" sold just over 300,000 copies while the band toured the country in a van for the better part of two years. But the group struck gold (actually, multi-platinum) with its second CD, 2002's "The Young and the Hopeless." It contained multiple hits, including "The Anthem" and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," and turned the band, and particularly its twin frontmen, into youth-culture icons. They knew they'd truly arrived when they got the call that they were going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. "I mean, dude, I sing about that magazine in my songs," Joel says. "That's the pinnacle for a big band."
The album spent 95 weeks in the Billboard Top 200 and made the twins rich, sending them down the road of rock star cliche.
"I became a millionaire after that record," Joel says. "It was a pretty crazy experience . . . it was like I was at an all-you-can-eat buffet and could have anything I wanted. I was definitely overindulgent with my spending. I was really stupid for about 18 months."
Adds Benji: "When you're a kid who didn't have any money and suddenly you're making a lot of it, what do you do?
You buy six cars?
"Um, nine. Vintage cars, Escalades, Lexuses, Mercedes, all tricked out. But I've gotten rid of a lot of them. Right now, I have five."
There were other excesses, too. "Girls, booze, everything," Benji says. "I definitely did it all."
Joel: "I drank a lot. Had chicks . . . did drugs. I never did cocaine, and I didn't smoke weed. I just did pills, painkillers."
Benji: "But that was never our agenda. I hear young bands talk about that being their dream: sex, drugs, rock-and-roll. Our dream was writing songs that people would remember. It was never our intention to fall into that other stuff. But when you're these kids starting out from a small town, and you go on tour around the world, you're going to do things. And you'll make some mistakes."
Joel: "I wasn't in the gutter, but I struggled with it. Benj struggled, too. I made a choice two years ago to straighten up. I got clean."
Benji: "My drinking was out of control. And I don't drink anymore for that reason."
Their brother, Josh, doesn't drink anymore, either. Neither does Sarah. I ask the twins whether their decision to get sober was driven by their family history, by their memories of a father who struggled with alcohol abuse.
"Absolutely," Joel says. "My dad's an alcoholic, straight up. I definitely learned from his mistakes."
By the time their second album was released, Benji and Joel had adopted their mother's maiden name. Their sister and older brother soon followed suit. The twins were still thinking about their father, though, and included an open letter to him on that CD, a song called "Emotionless."
"It's been a long, hard road without you by my side/Why weren't you there all the nights that we cried?/You broke my mother's heart, you broke your children for life/It's not okay, but we're all right/I remember the days you were a hero in my eyes/But those are just a long-lost memory of mine/I spent so many years learning how to survive/Now I'm writing just to let you know we're still alive."
Roger Combs, in fact, has a recurring role on Good Charlotte's first three albums, usually as the target of the siblings' scorn. "Stabs," Benji calls them. But things are different on the new CD, "Good Morning Revival." At one point, Joel even sings, "Father, can we start over?"
In fact, they already have: The artistic olive branch was precipitated by a real-life reconciliation between father and sons. It began two years ago, when word got back to the twins that their dad had asked their aunt about them. For about a year, Benji and Joel debated reaching out to him, unsure whether it might ease or exacerbate their pain.
It was Benji who finally made the call. "He's way more forgiving than I am," Joel says. "At the same time, he's also more sensitive. He gets wounded. It's really deep with Benj. He longs for closure. He wants the relationship. He always sees the good in people. He's also the one who does the hard stuff. He's always leading the way for us. He called my dad first."
The twins invited their father to have dinner with them a year ago. They won't talk much about the meeting itself. But they say they've maintained contact with their dad and continue to see him when they're in the area.
"I wouldn't do what he did," Benji says, "but everyone makes mistakes. We're cordial. It's not exactly, like: 'I love you, Dad.' We won't ever have that normal father-son thing. Does it suck that we don't have that relationship? Yeah, that would be a great thing to have. And I used to be real mad about it. But I'm an adult now. And I know he's a not a bad dude. He's just human."
Says Joel: "We're not best friends, but we're not angry at each other. So you don't hear that anger on our new record. It's gone, dude."
Reached at home in St. Mary's County, Roger Combs hangs up immediately after I've introduced myself as a reporter.
BRAWLING BROTHERS HAVE A SPECIAL PLACE IN THE ANNALS OF ROCK-AND-ROLL, where there's a long tradition of fraternal feuding. The Everly Brothers imploded when Don and Phil's sibling rivalry came to a head. The Kinks became famous for the fights between Ray and Dave Davies. There was no brotherly love lost, either, between the likes of Chris and Rich Robinson from the Black Crowes, Phil and Dave Alvin from the Blasters or Liam and Noel Gallagher from Oasis.
But Benji and Joel have never been the kind of brothers who smolder with unresolved sibling rivalry or battle each other for creative control or the spotlight. Oh, they squabble and poke and prod and sometimes prey on each other's insecurities. But the brothers and people close to them insist that they don't have knock-down, drag-out fights that do lasting damage to their relationship or their band. If anything, Joel says, the shared experience of sudden fame and the subsequent roller coaster of celebrity has brought the brothers even closer together.
"The way they fight, because they're twins, it's entertaining," says guitarist Martin. "When they fight, Paul [Thomas] and I just get a soda and popcorn. And it's really amusing to see them push things past where they should go. They'll have a fight about something that happened between them 10 years ago. And an hour later they're like: 'I love you, man, let's go to dinner.'"
Their worst fights, the twins say, are usually centered on girls. But it's not what you might think.
"A few years ago, Joel moved to San Jose for six or eight months to be with a girl, and we weren't hanging out that much," Benji says. "We'd have a week off. I'd go back to Maryland, and he'd be [in San Jose], and I hated it. And we'd go back out on tour, and there'd be all this stress, and we'd have a fight. I'd be like, 'I'm not even close to you anymore; you live so far away!' But then later that night, or the next day, we'd be hugging each other and saying sorry and really hearing each other out."
Says Joel: "When we're in a relationship with a girl, because Benj and I are so close, our girlfriends have to be open to that. There was one girl he was with who didn't like that we were so close. He didn't see it, and I was hurt by it. And I called him on it. I wasn't like: 'Her or me.' But I said some things, and we had a really big blowup." The brothers were so mad that they didn't talk to each other for (gasp) a day, give or take a few hours.
"There's been probably three times in my life where we didn't talk to each other for a whole day because we were mad," Joel says. "Okay, maybe not 24 hours, but eight or nine hours. But we can't be mad at each other for that long. We always apologize."
When they're collaborating on new songs, the twins generally go through the same head-butting drill, Joel says. They'll write a little bit, get frustrated with each other, and then "fight for, like, an hour" about whether the ideas were any good to begin with.
"I'll be like: 'This sucks. I don't want to do this.' And Benj will say: 'No, it's good. Let's keep going.' We'll take out our frustrations on each other, and then we'll get over it and get back to work. And something good always comes out of it."
Usually, the boys fight fair. But not always.
"If there's anyone who knows how to push buttons, it's me and him," Benji says. "I know everything he's insecure about, and he knows everything I'm insecure about. We know where to go."
Benji's instrumental work, for instance. "Joel can really piss me off if, in the heat of the moment, he says something about my guitar-playing. He really knows what to do to make me mad. But I wouldn't trade it. There's a reason I can finish a song he started. I know exactly what he's saying because I know exactly how Joel feels about everything."
Though they're identical twins, they're far from identical people. Benji is more shy, sensitive and introverted than Joel, who's outgoing and gregarious, collecting friends wherever he goes. Joel tends to avoid confrontation in personal and business relationships, while Benji embraces it. And Benji is the more responsible and organized of the twins. Always has been. He helped Joel finish his homework in school, covered for him at work, paid the bills when they were living on their own, pushed his brother through the songwriting process.
"He has a really short attention span," Benji says.
Joel: "We wouldn't finish songs if it wasn't for Benj. We write together. But he starts the songs, and he finishes them. He kind of created this whole thing. He puts the nuts and bolts together and does all the work.
"I definitely lean on him."
The brothers revel in their closeness, their twinness. They even live on opposite sides of the same street in Glendale, Calif., just down the block from bestselling rapper Jayceon "The Game" Taylor.
"We're still pretty inseparable," Benji says. "We still do a ton of things together. Even when it comes to waking up in the morning, I'll talk to Joel and ask him what he's doing. We've never really wanted to do anything apart. I don't know if that's healthy, but that's the way we are."
That can be tricky for the rest of Good Charlotte. Not only do Martin, Thomas and Butterworth have to deal with the usual bandleader-supporting cast dynamics in which the front men get a disproportionate amount of attention and the other musicians are shoved into the shadows, but there's also a band within a band: Sometimes, Benji and Joel, the group's creative catalysts and principal writers, disappear into what Martin calls "that twin place," where they're inaccessible to their bandmates or anybody else. "They close up shop and don't hear you," Martin says. "They go away to that twin place and have their twin conversation and then come back."
"I think it's a challenge" for the rest of the band, Joel acknowledges. "We're really lucky to have the band that we have."
Thomas doesn't disagree. "Billy and I deserve some respect because we toughed it out," he says. "A lot of people with big egos wouldn't have been able to hang in a band with those two. Sometimes it's been hard dealing with them, but I've always trusted their decisions."
IT'S SUNDAY MORNING ON BALTIMORE'S EAST SARA-TOGA STREET, in the shadow of the Jones Falls Expressway. About 20 people are sitting on the dirty sidewalk outside Sonar, where the final U.S. show of the club tour will be performed tonight.
A gold Saturn with New Jersey plates is parked across the street. Good Charlotte-centric phrases are scribbled on the car's windows in bright shoe polish. The rear passenger's side window is an especially busy message board: "I Get Down With GC," "I got brass knuckles hanging from my neck" (a lyric from the new album) and "DCMA" (the name of Joel and Benji's clothing line) all scrawled in electric yellow. The messages are accented by glowing pink hearts.
The inside of the car has been transformed into a beauty salon. There's even a pink straightening iron plugged into the cigarette lighter. The girls are getting ready for Good Charlotte.
"I've liked them since their first CD came out," says Mary Beth Wescoat, in between applications of lip gloss. "I can pretty much safely say that I listen to them every single day. Especially 'The Anthem.'"
Wescoat, the owner of this car, is from Pine Hill, N.J. She's 19 and bears a passing resemblance to Kelly Clarkson, the American Idol. Her hair is a punk-rock napoleon: pink, brown, blond. This will be her fifth show on Good Charlotte's club tour. She's also seen the band in Philadelphia, New York, Allentown, Pa., and Sayerville, N.J., each time joined by Clarissa Pagan and Ally Mallick, both 18, and students at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.
Mallick, who has been holding the group's place in line, has been following Good Charlotte through her entire adolescence. "I got introduced to them when I was 12," she says. "I saw them on MTV, and they just seemed cool. I liked the sound. And they're really cute."
Pagan, the otherwise silent one with the rack of braces, giggles.
The band's tour bus is parked across the street, and Joel is sitting inside alone, leafing through a copy of Car Kulture DeLuxe magazine. A bunch of freckled bananas, a bottle of dish soap and a pack of Camel Lights are on the counter, as is the current edition of People magazine. There are beds and a shower in the back of the bus, a table, mini-kitchen and couches in front. It's customized but not Four Seasons.
Joel slept on the bus last night, but Benji stayed in Annapolis, in a renovated 1890s rowhouse he owns. Joel owns the house next door.
"I love coming back to Maryland," Joel says. "I love the peace here. I can definitely see myself coming back some day to settle here, but it has to be when I'm done with everything. There's not a lot of work here for what I do. That's why I like living in L.A., because I can go to the studio and produce another artist or work all day with my band and still go home at night. Maryland is awesome, though. I can't let go of it."
He takes a sip of Diet Coke from a plastic cup. "Wanna hear some music?"
His iBook is rigged up to the bus's sound system, and "Good Morning Revival," which is being released March 27, comes pouring out of the speakers at high volume. The first song he plays is called "Misery," which is funny since he'd earlier described the new album as "happy" and "fun."
"Misery's my company," he sings over a percolating beat and buzzing guitars.
"Misery is looking for me."
He cues "The River," a song about living in Los Angeles. There are references to coming from a small town, to growing up fast, to evil coming disguised as a City of Angels. The roaring song features vocals and guitar parts from members of the popular hard rock band Avenged Sevenfold and will later be announced as the album's first single.
The rest of the album plays on, and Joel mouths the words -- lyrics about relationships and breakups and suicidal tendencies. There's hard rock and dance-rock and triumphal anthemic rock and a pipe organ, with echoes of U2 and Coldplay and Depeche Mode and Duran Duran.
Outside the tour bus, the girls start to scream. It sounds like an amusement park, beneath the roller coaster. Benji has just arrived from Annapolis, he's being greeted with the appropriate level of approbation.
Will the love last?
"I love our fans," Joel says. "But if I put this record out, and every one of my fans says, 'I hate it' . . ." He shrugs. "I love this record," he says, and it reflects where he's at in his life." I'm happy right now, dude. I love my life. That's why I don't drink and do drugs anymore. I don't have any kind of pain to kill."
But the new album isn't exactly the sound of sunshine. There's still a tinge of sadness in the lyrics and music. Even "Beautiful Place" is somewhat melancholy, with yearning verses punctuated by the aching sound of slide guitar.
"I have that chord inside of me that's always going to be dark and sad," Joel says. "So does Benj. I think there's something sad about most people who write songs. But you can be happy and still have that on your records."
After he's done previewing the album, Joel gets on his Sidekick to call Hilary Duff, to tell her he loves her. They're making plans to see each other soon in Istanbul. A month later, though, the tabloids will report that the couple has broken up. And then, shortly after that, an update: Joel is on the rebound, having been romantically linked to reality-TV star Nicole Richie.
When I check in with him on the phone, he says that he's not inclined to talk about the breakup with Duff, only to say that "I think I'm doing really good after being on a roller coaster for three or four months." And he most certainly won't discuss his latest Hollywood hook-up.
"I've made some mistakes in the past and opened up too much," he says. "But I've made a decision that from here on out. I'm going to really keep my personal life closed. There are some things you can't avoid, but you can protect certain things. Maybe the attention will go away, maybe it won't, but I'm not going to contribute to it blindly by talking about it."
So about Nicole . . .
He laughs, then says: "No comment."
Joel's newfound reluctance to discuss his dating life will hardly keep his personal business out of People and Us Weekly. When Thomas, Good Charlotte's bass player, calls to talk about the new album, he mentions that he hasn't seen much of the twins lately, but he knows what they've been up to.
"I just put on E! Entertainment news every now and again and see how my boys are doing," he says with a snicker. He mentions that the paparazzi were hovering around a recent Good Charlotte video shoot because Richie was on the set.
"It's so crazy, but Joel had to know" that Richie would be irresistible to the tabloids, he says. "I asked him, 'You gonna do another high-profile relationship?' 'No way, man. I don't want to do that anymore.' Then here he is with Nicole Richie, and I'm like: Oh, wow. All right. Party on."
STEVE FEINBERG HAS BOARDED THE GOOD CHARLOTTE BUS to make an important announcement: "It's roadie Friday!"
One of the band's guitar techs howls in anticipation. There's no show tomorrow and, therefore, no work -- just a long ride to Toronto, where there's a concert scheduled in two days. This is a designated party night for Good Charlotte's support crew, if not the band itself.
"Guys," Benji declares, "I'm getting waaaasted tonight."
" . . . on Diet Coke," he adds.
There are a dozen people crammed into the front of the bus -- roadies, managers, musicians. The band is getting ready for a photo shoot, and it's a blur of activity. Martin is applying mascara; Thomas is tousling his hair just so; Joel is putting on a jacket; and Benji is trying on different combinations from his bottomless stock of hoodies and sleeveless black T-shirts.
After he's settled on an outfit, Benji reaches into his backpack. "Hey, guys, I have a little gift from Australia." It's a package of Tim Tams, chocolate biscuits hand-delivered by his girlfriend. "These things are awesome," he says, offering a treat to his twin. Soon, everybody on the bus is munching on cookies. All that's missing is the milk. A sweet moment on Good Charlotte's comeback trail.
J. Freedom du Lac is the Post's pop music critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.