This song is dedicated . . .
To every kid who ever got picked last in gym class . . .
To every kid who never had a date to no school dance . . .
To everyone who's ever been called a freak . . .
This is for you.
--"Little Things," by Good Charlotte
Sitting in a chauffeured van in the parking lot of La Plata High School, the members of Good Charlotte reminisce about the high school agonies they've not yet forgotten.
All five of them attended La Plata High: Twin brothers Benji and Joel, the band's songwriters and oldest members, graduated in '97. Billy, the youngest, graduated last May. So they all vividly remember the way their schoolmates taunted Benji because his black nail polish defied Southern Maryland convention. The time some jocks taped Joel to a locker room bench and rubbed Bengay on a part of his body where Bengay doesn't belong.
Kids also used to torment the marching band. "It was totally that kind of school," says Joel. "The band would march around the parking lot after school, and the cool kids would all hang out and throw bottles at them."
"Where are all those kids right now? They're either in jail or workin' on cars, livin' with their parents, doin' construction," says Aaron, the group's drummer (Class of '98). "Isn't it weird, like the majority of cool kids in our class are now working construction?"
"Not that it's a bad thing," says Joel.
"Yeah, but they laughed at us," says Benji.
" 'Did you guys make it big yet?' 'You guys rock stars yet?' Every day, we'd get crank phone calls at our house. They would call and be, like, 'Yeah, we're Atlantic Records and we wanna sign you guys.' My mom would call me--'Joel! Joel! Atlantic Records called! Get home, they want you to call them back!' Then I knew who it was, and I was just, like, man--" Joel shakes his head.
"Those types of things hurt," he says. "It's funny now, but back then it sucked."
No Last Names
Like the time in school when we got free lunch, and the cool kids beat us up . . .
And the rich kids had convertibles, and we had to ride the bus . . .
Like the time we made the baseball team, but they still laughed at us . . .
Like the time that girl broke up with me, 'cause I wasn't cool enough . . .
Atlantic Records never did call Good Charlotte. But Epic Records did: The label released the band's self-titled debut in September. Now "Little Things" is a modern-rock hit that seems destined for the top of the charts, and the single's video is getting airplay on MTV. The influential music video channel has big plans for the band: Good Charlotte just finished recording the theme music for a new animated series MTV will debut next spring. The band is currently touring the country, winning over audiences with what Benji calls "rock-and-roll with options"--punk-propelled rock with some hip-hop and reggae flavor.
The ascent of Good Charlotte plays like one of those impossible '80s teen movies, in which the geek who gets picked on in school turns out to be, like, rilly, rilly cool. Imagine the journey of 21-year-old Benji and Joel: Three years ago, in high school, they withstood the taunts of jerks and jocks. At home, the brothers--who now refuse to use their father's last name--endured the dissolution of their parents' marriage and the financial hardship that followed. Now Joel, the band's lead singer, and Benji, its guitarist, are rock stars on MTV. Their band's first single, which looks back at those difficult years, is a hit. And on it, they get to call their dad a word that can't be printed in this newspaper.
In the "Little Things" video, the band members commandeer the public address system at "Waldorf High Secondary School," a stand-in for La Plata High. "There's no such thing as Waldorf High School," notes Benji. "But when we made the video, we made all the signs say 'Waldorf High School,' just so we could represent Waldorf," the town north of La Plata in Charles County. Teen queen Mandy Moore plays the snobby girl, a cameo Benji characterizes as "awesome."
La Plata High band director Timothy Bodamer taught the twins in guitar class during their junior and senior years. "I think that their video is . . . very pertinent to the way they were," he says. "I'm sure that would have been them in their first couple of years of high school." Bodamer remembers the twins as eager students who were brimming with enthusiasm. Once, he says, they came to class particularly hyped. "They were all excited, saying that they invented a new chord," he says. "Well, it was a C major chord. I was, like, 'Guys, that's been around since Beethoven.' "
Good Charlotte's beginnings can be traced further back than Mr. Bodamer's guitar class. Benji and Joel say that they knew they wanted to be pop stars the night they attended their first concert, a 1995 Beastie Boys show at the Patriot Center. "We listened to the Beastie Boys since we were in first grade--when I was in grade school on Rock Star Day I dressed up like Mike D," says Benji. "We got the last two tickets for that show, so we had horrible seats. . . . But we knew every word to every song and it was just awesome."
By the following year, the twins had formed Good Charlotte, enlisting drummer Aaron and bassist Paul, and later, a second guitarist, Billy. (In deference to the twins, the other band members don't use their surnames professionally either.) They named the group after what Benji calls an "old-school" children's book they read when they were small. "It was an insignificant book in our lives," he adds. "It didn't change our lives or anything. The big story with our band name is that there's no big story."
Mostly their influences have been musical. The Beasties, of course, but also contemporary punk bands like Green Day and Rancid and rappers Missy Elliott, Eminem and New Orleans's Cash Money crew. They've also been inspired by vintage acts. The band's debut album contains homages to the Sex Pistols and the Clash, bands the twins discovered along the way. "I found out about a lot of my influences through newer bands," says Benji. "Like the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Minor Threat. I didn't know who they were until I started listening to Rancid. Then I'd read any Rancid interview I could find, to find out what they liked, and then I'd go out and buy it. I think that's how a lot of kids find out about older bands."
When the twins graduated from La Plata, they decided against college, opting instead to pursue a career in music. "It was kind of a hard decision," says Joel. The band members spent several difficult years working dreary jobs and trying to land gigs. "We definitely struggled," says Benji. The twins worked as shampoo boys at an Annapolis hair salon, and before that one or both of them worked at Target, Borders Books, Up Against the Wall and other stores at the local mall, St. Charles Towne Center. The job cycle usually lasted a few months--which is how long it would be before one of the brothers overslept after a gig and got fired. After Benji landed a job waiting tables at the Acme Bar & Grill in Annapolis, the restaurant/club became a regular Good Charlotte venue. Owner Roy Dunshee still likes to call the band members "the punks next door."
Annapolis-based WHFS was also an early supporter, and the band has returned the favor. The album's "Festival Song" was named after the HFStival, at which Good Charlotte has performed twice. The station's staffers discovered Good Charlotte playing at an Annapolis bar. Program director Robert Benjamin says he was smitten, both by the band's music and by its members. "Benji once told me they wanted to be a combination of the Backstreet Boys and Minor Threat," he says. "They want to be big, they want to be famous, but they also have real punk rock roots, and that's really important."
The station started playing a demo of "Little Things" before the band even had a record deal. Benjamin was convinced the song would become a hit. "Everybody's a geek in high school--or at least feels like one," he says. "The other part of the appeal is that it all seems real. They're not made-up stories. They grew up in Waldorf, and the album comes off that way. In that way it's very different than the Orange County bratty punk rock bands. This is a little bit more working-class."
But even before Good Charlotte landed the HFStival slots, the twins were supremely confident: Early on, the group posed for its first-ever photo shoot (the photographer was the twins' little sister), and the photographs were included in promotional packages Benji sent to various record labels. "I wrote, 'You can sign us now for cheaper or you can sign us later,' " he recalls. "We didn't get any responses."
Undaunted, Benji and Joel wrote the album's "Waldorf Worldwide," a reggae- and hip-hop-style declaration of their frustration, ambition and optimism. "We wrote it at a time when we were really broke," says Joel. "I was eating soup for, like, a year because I couldn't afford to go to the dentist."
"The only way we got through was daydreaming about making it big," adds Benji. "I knew that all this would happen. From the day we started the band I knew--not in a cocky way, but it was just a feeling. A very comforting feeling. So it was exciting when it happened and it was, like, amazing, and it was really crazy, but it wasn't unexpected."
In the spring of '99, a guy who worked in the mailroom of Sony's mid-Atlantic branch in Beltsville handed a Good Charlotte demo tape to regional promotion manager Mike Martinovich. "I couldn't believe these kids that were 19 or 20 years old were writing songs that were so mature, thoughtful and unaffected," says Martinovich. "They were writing about their own lives as they were happening. Almost every song they write is autobiographical. . . . Good Charlotte is very attuned to their surroundings, their family, their friends. This is coming out of suburban America."
Epic's executive vice president of A&R, David Massey, signed the band to the Sony-owned label within a year. "It was one of those signings that was a no-brainer," he says. Massey compares Benji and Joel to another pair of brothers he signed several years ago--Oasis's Liam and Noel Gallagher. "They have similar . . . blue-collar backgrounds, where they made their own luck and created their own opportunity through determination and blind ambition."
Benji keeps a written list of his career goals. "It's a list of dreams, things I want to do, and every time something happens, I cross it off," he explains. "In the last six months, I've crossed out a lot of things."
When Dad Didn't Come Home
Like the time Mom went to that institute, 'cause she was breakin' down . . .
Like the car we had that wouldn't start, we had to walk to get around . . .
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 . . . .
Benji and Joel are identical twins, born five minutes apart. They don't look identical--Benji is heavier, with a shock of dyed-pink hair and many piercings. But they've been best friends for as far back as they can remember and, in conversation, they have a tendency to finish each other's sentences. Their songwriting collaborations usually come easily, but "Little Things" was different.
The song's lyrics are all true, they say, including the ones about their parents. The boys' mother, who lives nearby in Calvert County, declined to speak for publication but confirmed the twins' account of their upbringing. Their father did not return repeated phone messages, and a spokesman for his employer, Giant Food, said that he refused to speak to the press about his sons.
"When we were writing the song," says Benji, "I threw in the part about Dad leaving and the part about my mom, and Joel's, like, " 'Dude, I don't wanna sing that.' And I'm, like, 'Dude, it's a good part to the song.' We actually argued over if we should sing about that."
Joel says when he's singing "Little Things," he blushes. "It's not because I'm embarrassed totally, it's because it sounds pretty bad. After we wrote the song and I really looked at it, I was, like, 'Whoa. This all sounds pretty bad.' . . . The part about my mom, the part about my dad--that's where it's really sensitive because it's not me anymore, it's someone else." (The boys are close to their mother, who has no objection to the song. "My mom's very cool," says Benji. "She's, like, 'It's the truth, and I'm not ashamed of it.' My mom's the strongest lady that I know.")
The boys say that they were 16 when their father left. Around the same time, their mother was diagnosed with lupus, became very ill and had what family members refer to as "a breakdown." Soon after that the family was evicted from its Waldorf home. "Those were little things to us. They weren't big things," says Joel. "People go, 'Oh, those are big things,' but the song is 'Little Things.'
"The only thing I cared about in the last two years of high school was the band--that was the big thing. That's probably why we were able to go through those things and consider them little things."
Fans all over the country are connecting with the song, and if you log onto the band's Web site, www.goodcharlotte.com, you'll find dozens of entries from unhappy high schoolers. "I got, like, 'My dad just died two days ago, and I haven't talked to anyone about it, but I feel like you know what it's like not to have a dad,' " says Benji.
"I get e-mails every day from kids that are, like, 'You wrote that song about me,' " adds Joel. "I got an e-mail from a kid in Florida, who was, like, 'I heard your song and now I listen to it every day before I go to school. It helps me get through the day because everyone at my school hates me.' There's these kids listening to our music--"
"And it's helping them get through their days," Benji continues. "I remember listening to music that I liked, and I remember hanging on to every word, listening to it over and over in my room. I remember feeling songs so much that other people wrote."
"Music is supposed to be an escape," adds Joel. "It's supposed to be somewhere you go, where you can be yourself, or be whatever you want to be. Above anything that happens, we want kids who come see us for that hour to totally forget about high school, to totally forget about everything, to just have an awesome time."