Guy Cohen is pretty fly for a white guy.
In fact, he's the fly white guy featured in the video for the Offspring's hit single "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)." Cohen is now touring with the California punk-pop band, making a cameo appearance as you-know-who when the Offspring launches into the song toward show's end.
And that's all the 19-year-old actor does on this tour, which comes to the Patriot Center on Wednesday.
"It's kind of boring," Cohen says of his three minutes of fame. "I talk to security a lot. But it's my career!"
"Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)" is a good-natured dressing down of mall-bound suburbanites trying to get with hip-hop culture through clumsy approximations of urban music, language and fashion.
Our subject isn't cool but he fakes it anyway/ He may not have a clue and he may not have a style/ But everything he lacks, well, he makes up in denial.
Cohen obliviously embodies his character--"a white kid trying to be black"--but that's only because he grew up in Los Angeles. "I saw it on a daily basis, believe me," he says.
Growing up in the exalted suburbia of Orange County, Bryan "Dexter" Holland saw it on a daily basis, too. Now his wry commentary on cultural appropriation--delivered as a hilariously whiny rap, with barrio rhythms and a gleeful skeezer chorus of "Give it to me baby, uh-uh uh-uh"--has made "Pretty Fly" a staple on both pop radio and MTV, and kept "Americana" (Sony Music) in the Top 10 since its release in November.
The group's fifth album has sold more than 2 million copies, which has led some to dub the Offspring the great rock hope in an era where pop charts seem dominated by rappers, pop divas and teen idols.
"Rubbish!" says Holland, 33. "Rock is back because of this one record? Just like swing was the next big thing or ska, it so happens that 'things' happen at certain times. We're fortunate that our record's doing well, but that's all it is--a record that's doing well."
Well enough to ensure three sellouts at Manhattan's Roseland Ballroom, where 1,500 kids create an gigantic amoeba-like mosh pit during the Offspring's performance. Observing from the balcony: punk godfather Joey Ramone. The Offspring cover the Ramones' classic punk anthem, "I Wanna Be Sedated," for an upcoming horror film, "Idle Hands."
"When I saw Joey in the balcony, it sent chills up my spine," a sweat-drenched Holland says, pacing around his dressing room after the final show. "The guy's a legend!"
And a proud papa, apparently.
"They're my . . . offspring," Ramone beams. "With Rancid and Green Day, they're keeping the punk spirit alive and that's what it's about. Everybody takes themselves so seriously today, it's pretty pathetic. Most bands today are into the mainstream [expletive], and the quick dollar, and there's nothing imaginative about them, whereas the Offspring are kinda cool, kinda fun."
And kinda popular, which wasn't always the case. After all, when the Offspring started out in the late '80s, they were turned down by every independent rock label they sent demo tapes to. Eventually, they gained some recognition by placing classifieds in such alternative music fanzines as Flipside and Maximum Rock 'n' Roll.
Since then, it's been a slow process. The band's self-produced debut, released in 1989, sold 3,000 copies, with 1993's "Ignition" selling 100,000. Then 1994's "Smash" proved to be just that. Propelled by MTV and radio support for "Come Out and Play (Keep 'Em Separated)," "Self-Esteem" and "Gotta Get Away," the album sold 4 million copies here and another 7 million overseas. In the process, it became the biggest selling indie rock album ever, and, along with Green Day's "Dookie," helped usher the punk revival into the mainstream.
Punk, of course, had never really died. In fact, the Offspring are third-generation California punk, in the tradition of '70s progenitors like Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys and such '80s progeny as Social Distortion, Bad Religion, TSOL, Suicidal Tendencies and Agent Orange. What bound these bands together was shared commentary on the middle-class suburban malaise peculiar to California, and to Orange County in particular.
Orange County is affluent, predominantly Republican (it's the birthplace of the John Birch Society), as well as the kind of community where high schools field competitive surf teams. As Holland puts it, "It looks like 'Happy Days' on the outside and feels like 'Twin Peaks' on the inside." Holland and his band mates--guitarist Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman, drummer Ron Welty and bassist Greg Kriesel--all grew up in Garden Grove, about an hour south of Los Angeles.
"Some people think it's a paradox for punk bands like us to come out of Orange County," Holland concedes. "But if you think about it, it's a reaction to the conformity and the Norman Rockwell lifestyle, a way for kids to rebel against the boredom and the feeling that they must fit a certain mold."
It's that mix of ennui and anger that inspired New York's Ramones in 1974, London's Sex Pistols in 1976 and California's Black Flag in 1978. But from the start, the Offspring favored the more melodic punk of such country forebears as TSOL, the Adolescents and Agent Orange, and skipping back several more generations, the sun-drenched twang of the Beach Boys, Ventures and Dick Dale.
Those '60s bands had also been obsessed with middle-class teenage life. But where the Beach Boys were happily fixated on girls, cars and fun, fun, fun underneath the California sun, punk bands seemed to operate under storm clouds of pessimism, which translated into speedy, thrashy music that underscored massive teen angst.
In fact it was their inability to get into a Social Distortion concert that led Holland, Kriesel and two other high school friends to form the Offspring in 1986.
"We ended up drinking some beer and going to a friend's house whose parents weren't home--a typical teenage thing to do," Holland recalls. "We were sitting around, bored in the back yard, and somebody said, 'Why don't we start a band?'
"It was kind of a lark, but we got into it and divvied up the instruments right there and then. 'What do you want to do?' I grabbed a guitar. I guess every band's got to start somewhere and that's how we did it."
A year later, Holland had learned to play the instrument, and the band--originally named Manic Subsidal--had gravitated to the hard-driving surf-punk sound that would characterize its first few albums, what was once described as "Sex Pistols meet the Ventures and Blue Oyster Cult."
In high school, Holland was cutting an entirely different figure: president of the math club, cross-country runner, and at graduation, class valedictorian. To hear him tell it, going to college was as viable an option as being in a band when it came to arresting his own adolescence.
"I went to college because I enjoyed it and partly because I didn't want to grow up," he admits. "I didn't want to have a real job. Staying in school was a way to avoid that."
And so Holland went to USC, getting a master's in molecular biology but shelving plans for a PhD when "Smash" started living up to its title.
Holland laughs when he's reminded that he once described L.A. punk as "smart kids trying to pretend they're not." Certainly the Offspring has a higher cumulative GPA than your average band: Drummer Welty has an electronics degree and bassist Kriesel a finance degree while the band's original drummer, Jim Benton, made a career move from musician to physician. Holland needs only to do his dissertation for that doctorate. "I'd like to finish it," he says, "but I would need about two solid years to do all the research and write it up."
Which is not likely to happen any time soon. Holland left USC when "Smash" started storming the charts, mostly due to "Come Out and Play," whose hard beats, chunky hooks and rapped verses were a stylistic precursor to "Pretty Fly."
"It was a crazy time because it kept picking up speed and rolling," says Holland, calling the album's success a total surprise.
"We accidentally reached more people," he insists. "We were never opposed to having a larger audience, but we certainly weren't going after it. We were on an indie label, so we never thought we would have a large audience."
Those "more" people were different from the Offspring's original skater-surfer-snowboarder-punk constituency; they were uncommitted pop fans swept up by constant exposure to the "Come Out and Play" video, which in turn opened up the radio airwaves. And even though the music hadn't changed, Holland looked out one day and realized the audience had.
"It was kind of an uncomfortable feeling at first," he admits. "At some point, it's almost as if some of the people you probably wouldn't like in regular life were coming to see the shows. Where I make sense of it is that the whole thing about punk when it started was that it was supposed to be a tolerant kind of thing. And it really was in the beginning, when you had bands like Black Flag playing with the Go-Go's. I certainly wouldn't want to be elitist and say who's cool enough or not cool enough to listen to our music. Now we just say the more the merrier."
In some integrity-obsessed punk circles, however, the Offspring were dismissed as Herman's Hermits to Green Day's Beatles and Rancid's Rolling Stones. Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, which fixates on independently produced music, stopped writing about the band when it signed with Epitaph. Worse, the Offspring were subsequently perceived as commercial sell-outs when they left that label to sign with Columbia. But where similar moves by Green Day (Lookout to Reprise) and Nirvana (Sub Pop to Geffen) were followed by multi-platinum growth, the Offspring's 1997 major-label debut, "Ixnay on the Hombre," sold only 2 million copies.
Now that "Americana" is reinvigorating the Offspring's commercial profile, Holland is having to endure taunts both musical--several Orange County punk bands body-slam the Offspring in song--and sartorial. Holland used to sport long blond dreadlocks--all the rage in recent years--but now favors a short spiky hairdo ("when Isaac from Hanson got 'em, I had to cut 'em off," he explains).
"It's almost the nature of the music to tear down anything that's established, so I don't really blame anyone," Holland says. "But I also don't let it get to me."
Rolling Stone described "Americana" as "a raw, ragged indictment of American culture," but Holland insists it didn't start out that way.
"The way we work, songwriting-wise, is I always do lyrics at the last minute 'cause I have the toughest time with lyrics," he explains. "The song's written, it's recorded, I know what the melody's going to be, but I don't know what the words are going to be. The first few songs I write were 'Pretty Fly,' 'Get a Job' "--an indictment of slackers--"and 'The Kids Aren't Alright,' " a catalogue of broken dreams. "And all of a sudden I had a theme without even really realizing it."
Blistering social critiques are hardly new to punk, or to the Offspring--earlier songs like "Beheaded," "Tehran" and the "Baghdad" EP showed an obsession with Middle Eastern politics. But in new songs like "She's Got Issues," "Get a Job," "Staring at the Sun" and "Walla Walla," the dominant theme is another punk staple--assuming personal responsibility for one's own life. Or as Holland sings in "Pay the Man": "How am I going to find my own way as an individual through the world?"
Call it a different point of view, the punk at 33 looking back at the punk of 18.
"It isn't radically different," Holland insists. "I think kids are very smart and aware of what's going on. I might have known that I didn't like certain things, or things were paradoxical to me, but I may not have actually been able to say anything. Luckily for me I've had this outlet of a band to examine things and try and put them into words.
"After a while, you learn to place your shots a little bit better. Hopefully, I'm articulating a little bit better than I did before. And as you get a little bit older, you can take it with a grain of salt, laugh it off a little bit more. You don't have to be so angry about it. Accept what you want and cast off what you don't like about society or the world. . . . I think that's a healthier way of doing it."
CAPTION: Behind the onstage angst and sinister get-up is a well-educated band. Dexter Holland, right, has a master's in molecular biology, drummer Ron Welty has an electronics degree and bassist Greg Kriesel, left, a finance degree.
CAPTION: The Offspring's Kevin Wasserman, left, and a roadie who goes by the name of Lumpy performing at New York's Roseland Ballroom last week. The band's fan base has expanded with the release of "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)."
CAPTION: "Some people think it's a paradox for punk bands like us to come out of Orange County," says the Offspring's Bryan "Dexter" Holland. "But if you think about it, it's a reaction to the conformity and the Norman Rockwell lifestyle."