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The people's punks

June 05, 2003|Natalie Nichols | Special to The Times

THE members of New Jersey pop-punk band Good Charlotte really don't care whether record-store clerks, rock critics, punk pundits or anyone else thinks their music isn't cool. The Epic Records group also doesn't care whether industry weasels think their music is cool.

The only opinions that matter, says lead singer Joel Madden, 24, are those of their young fans, the kids who queue up to talk to the proud-to-be-accessible group after concerts, who pour out their hearts to their young heroes, and who helped push the band's sophomore album, last year's "The Young & the Hopeless," over the 1-million sales mark.

This makes sense because Good Charlotte, which plays Saturday and Sunday at Universal Amphitheatre on a co-headlining tour with New Found Glory, is a band of the people. It has earned little critical respect and weathered the skepticism of "authentic" punks for a plethora of reasons, not least among which are that Joel and his twin brother, guitarist-singer Benji Madden, are the co-hosts of MTV's "All Things Rock" and have their current tour sponsored by Honda.

As far as Joel is concerned, such things only help Good Charlotte -- which also includes guitarist Billy Martin, bassist Paul Thomas, and new drummer Chris Wilson -- reach the people that really matter.

"When I talk to kids, it reminds me of why I got into music," he says. "I loved music when I was a kid, and I'm still a fan of music.

Despite hard-won commercial success that's come after five years of hard touring, the band members aren't lining up to buy mansions. They're proud of their working-class roots. Indeed, Joel attributes GC's fortune to hard work more than sheer talent.

"We've seen so many [celebrities] mistreat other people," Joel says. "No matter how much success we get or how much money we make, we never wanna, like, not wait in line with everybody else."

As teenagers, the Madden brothers were especially dependent on music. Their father left home when they were 15, and tough times ensued for the twins, their mom and younger sister.

Their Christian faith, held quietly but fiercely to this day, helped them turn toward the positive no matter how bad things got -- a key characteristic of Good Charlotte's songs. But they still vented anger and pain, and their personal soundtracks included such groups as Green Day, Rancid, MxPx and Gold- finger, along with classic punk by the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Benji also gravitated to Social Distortion -- "He worships Mike Ness," notes Joel -- while Joel was attracted to the more gothic Smiths and the Cure.

Good Charlotte can sound quite Blink 182-esque, but all of the Maddens' favorites find their way into the mix, making for some surprises. Although they don't dwell on their childhood hardships, their experiences give real emotional weight to such autobiographical "Young & the Hopeless" selections as the cautionary "The Story of My Old Man" and "Emotionless," a heart-on-their-sleeve letter to an absent dad.

"I don't want anyone to pity me," Joel says. "I definitely don't pity myself. I just tell stories, because that's really what I have to write about. But it's never to feel bad or to prove what I've been through."

Many Good Charlotte tunes say nothing about the brothers' history and everything about their attitude. "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous" mocks whining celebrities, complete with a video featuring Kyle Gass, Mike Watt and 'N Sync's Chris Kirkpatrick. The sardonic "Girls & Boys," a deliberately Cars-like, cheesy new-wave rocker, sneers at the superficial dating criteria of phony people.

The Maddens' working-class values have made them deeply suspicious of the sort of luxury many successful musicians end up taking for granted. Yet they've already experienced enough emotionally harrowing interactions with fans -- to say nothing of fending off barbs from unimpressed critics and other punk rockers -- to have left them jaded, if they weren't such resilient people.

"We toured the last record for 2 1/2 years straight," Joel says. "[We were] talking to kids every single night. Kids would come up and tell me that they were thinking about killing themselves, or that if it wasn't for our music they would kill themselves. It was just like this burden that kept building up and building up. Every time I met a kid, it just got heavier on my shoulders. Like, all these kids thinking about killing themselves all the time."

These thousands of confessions left the self-described sensitive Joel feeling frustrated and powerless.

"You just have to get on your bus and go to the next city and meet another kid that tells you they cut themselves, or they wanna kill themselves," he says. So he wrote the anti-suicide song "Hold On" for the second album. Typical of Good Charlotte's messages, the tune doesn't present a rosy picture but does offer hope.

"It's saying, 'Yeah, [it's bad] right now but it can get better, so just hold on,' " says Joel.

"It hasn't stopped," he adds. "I still hear from kids every night. It breaks my heart sometimes. But at least I did what I can do."


Good Charlotte

Where: Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Los Angeles

When: Saturday, 7:15 p.m.; Sunday, 6:45 p.m.

Cost: $28

Info: (818) 622-1440

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