There Ain’t Nothing Like the First Time: Blink 182 – Nine, Riot Fest, Barclays Center

Photo: Mike Henneberger

“First love, first high. There ain’t nothing like the first time.”

With almost 25 years of music behind them, there are thousands of words to reference when writing about pop punk patriarchs, Blink 182. I haven’t googled it, but I’m sure “What’s My Age Again?” and “Dammit” are probably the goto’s for the lazy folks. And I don’t just mean lazy writers, but also lazy Blink 182 fans. Maybe I’ve procrastinated with this review of a show that happened a little over a week ago, but it’s not because I’m lazy, but because this band means too much to me to just jump right into it.

See, Blink 182 is the first band that I’ve ever saw live––at least by choice. I’m pretty sure my mom took me to see Menudo once when I was too young to remember. Now, that might be the case for many of you reading this (minus the Menudo part), but I’m 36 years old. That makes me 10 years younger than Mark Hoppus, and, well, it doesn’t matter how much younger than Matt Skiba and Travis Barker I am because they weren’t at the show where I saw Blink for the…first time: August 12, 1996––almost a year before their album, Dude Ranch was released. Their breakout single, “Dammit,” would be released 13 months later. The show was at a small club called Backdrafts in Corpus Christi, Texas. There couldn’t have been more than a couple hundred people there, if even that. The cover was $5. I got there in time (after a 45-minute drive from my hometown) to see a British punk band called China Drum, followed by a pre-“Seein’ Red” Unwritten Law. I was 13 years old.

That night and that show remain as clear as yesterday to me, because I’ve told the story over and over as a defining moment in my life that introduced me to music, a scene and a group of people in which I finally felt comfortable for the “first time” since I’d moved to Texas from San Diego, CA five years earlier. Was it fate that this band was from my homeland? It’s because of this show, this experience in grimy bar during the early days of my rebellious skater-punk-stuck-in-a-ranch-town adolescence and the memory of Hoppus and Tom DeLonge sitting on the trunk of a car in the parking lot after the show––maybe Scott was there, too, but definitely not on the trunk––that I will always refer to Blink 182 as a pop PUNK band, no matter how many stuck up, too-cool-for-school comments my Facebook posts get like, “Punk? HA!”

So, After keeping up with the band for 23 years and seeing them again last month for the first time since their reunion tour in 2009, it was the first song on their new album, Nine, that gave me the inspiration I needed to get these thoughts in order. While many old-school Blink fans might hold on to their punk rock prejudices and decide to hate this record without giving it a shot, I’ve listened to it at least 30 times all the way through since it came out. Not because I had to, cause I didn’t. Because it’s good––from beginning to end. I didn’t feel that way about California but maybe the new trio were still working things out then. I like Nine like a Taylor Swift album––and I love me some Taylor Swift albums. Some. And therein lies the one problem I have with Nine: Much like Taylor Swift’s Reputation, and kind of 1989, Nine is great but it just doesn’t feel like the band I knew and loved. If Nine was some other band’s record, that band might be one of my new favorites and I’d probably follow their career closely. Or if Blink 182 changed their name and started a new band with Skiba and this was that band’s album, I’d be super excited.

I loved Boxcar Racer and liked +44 and both of those bands were 2/3 Blink. Now don’t get me wrong, I got nothing against a band evolving. This might confuse the hell out of you, but my favorite Blink record is their self-titled album. That was evolution and it was the first time I had grown up enough to appreciate a band growing up with me. Nine is great and I’ll listen to it without skipping a song another hundred times, probably. But it’s not evolution, it’s a different band. Not as far removed as the resurrected Fall Out Boy, but still.

So…based on all of that, I should be excited that the Blink boys are touring on Enema of the State’s 20th Anniversary, right? You’re right. And I was. I first saw them play it at Riot Fest. It was my first time seeing the band perform with Skiba and the band is solid as ever, maybe even more so since a little sloppiness from a Mark, Tom and Travis show was excused by the fun everyone seemed to be having on stage. It makes me sad to say that, solid or not, there would be no excuse for sloppiness now. To me it didn’t seem like anyone was having fun up there. I chalked it up to the distance and the tens-of-thousands of people between me and the stage. Maybe they had smiles on their faces and I just couldn’t see from that far. Maybe body language isn’t always telling. But it was all I had to go on since nobody spoke to each other, only Mark spoke to the crowd and anything said was so obviously rehearsed, unfortunately unfunny and sometimes even repeated verbatim from the band’s 2000 live album, The Mark, Tom and Travis Show. It broke my heart to see what looked like a band phoning it in––albeit on a super flashy, expensive phone that sounds great and shoots fire in the air.

I wasn’t planning on seeing the band again, but I wanted to give my heroes the benefit of the doubt, so I went to see them at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY, on the night of their album release, and on the final night of their tour.

I had only been to Barclays two or three times before, but only for one other band: Postal Service, when they reunited back in 2013. My seat wasn’t bad, so I knew that unlike Riot Fest, I’d get a clear observation of what happened on that stage this time.

I was happy to be there for Lil’ Wayne. I’m not a huge fan, but every time I hear one of his songs out in the world, I almost always Shazam it to find out that, hey, maybe I would be. Fortunately and unfortunately he started an hour late. So, Fortunately I got to see his set, but unfortunately, his delay resulted in all of the bars in the arena closing down three songs into Blink-182’s set because they have to close 45 minutes or an hour before the show is scheduled to end––even if it runs late. That’s right, we were all expected to watch Blink-182 without drinking.

The experience did not have much promise as I waited for the stage to change over and “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys started playing over the house speakers and EVERYONE sang along. I was a long way from that dirty dive bar where I first saw the band.

As expected, when that first guitar riff that opens Enema of the State and “Dumpweed” rang out, the crowd went crazy and of course it took me back and the good feelings came along with it. The main stages at Riot Fest faced a vast open space in which the sound from the stages just kept going and going, up, over and out past the audience. I found out for myself, and heard many others express, that the main stage sound was much better at the back of that open field where a wall of vendor tents finally stopped it. This was different. This was captured in an arena, a bowl of seating made for nights like these to perfectly house the power of Travis Barker’s drumkit and for a riff like that to ring around and around. I will not dispute the energy that these songs hammer into you.

I won’t go song by song because they played the album, as Mark said, “just like I wipe my ass, from front to back.” So, just like on the album and just like on their live album they went from “Dumpweed” straight into “Don’t Leave Me.” And just like on the live album and just like they did at Riot Fest, right after the last line of that song––“Just drop me off at home and I’ll be fine”––Mark added “You will be fine, you f-cking asshooooole.” And, just like that, I was taken out of the moment. I was no longer seeing my high school heroes on stage, I was seeing working stiffs punching in to work the assembly line. Going through the motions until it’s time to clock out.

Before “Adam’s Song” began, Mark gave the same speech he gave at Riot Fest. It’s easy to remember when a 47-year-old says, “Put up your cell phone flashlights,” because it immediately placed the image in my head of that Steve Buscemi meme, where he’s in a hoodie and backwards cap, holding a skateboard saying, “How do you do, fellow kids?” It’s even more mind-branding when he follows that with telling people to put up their vape pens, and then makes a hacky joke about millennials holding up their avocado toast. I’m not offended as a millennial, I’m offended as someone who used to do stand up, but also, you know, writes. Was the origin of that joke:

“What do Millennials like?”
“I saw a thing about avocado to…”
“Avocado toast! Done. Moving on.”
“But maybe there’s a better punchline if you just spend a little…”
“Moving on and on and on!”

See what I did there? And you can believe me or not, but that shit was off the top of my head. So, if it sucked, well, it’s because I didn’t care enough to spend more time thinking of a better punchline. But I’m not performing in front of 19,000 people. I’m writing something that no one’s going to read because it’s longer than 500 words, and for no pay. Blink 182 used to be funny. They used to be fun. I know it wasn’t all Tom. They used to look like their was some freedom and spontaneity in their set. Even if there wasn’t they sure as hell made it look like it so well that they had us fooled. Were we fooled? Do they care less now? Is it just a job? There was no banter like the old days. In fact, I don’t remember Mark and Matt exchanging any conversation, not even scripted lines. Are they just coworkers?

After that, I don’t remember anything Mark said. I don’t know, maybe it was defense mechanism to keep the hurt minimized. And thankfully so, because I didn’t listen to Nine until the next day, and I honestly love that record. In fact, I wish they were touring that album, and would’ve had the guts to play it the way Mark wipes his ass, from front to back, the way Taking Back Sunday did when they toured their last album Tidal Wave. Make the fans listen to the new stuff, then give them the hits. And you know what, I came to love Tidal Wave, when I might not have ever given it a chance.

I would’ve enjoyed seeing that show more, and maybe Blink 182 would’ve enjoyed playing those songs more, since those songs belong to those guys. I talk to a lot of bands, and nearly all of them appreciate the fans’ loyalty for loving the old stuff and caring about it through decades, but nearly all of the ones I’ve met also want fans to love the new stuff just as much. So maybe that’s what Blink 182 is dealing with. Maybe playing 20-year-old songs doesn’t excite them. One thing I do know very well, and maybe they’re just learning, is that when you clock in to a job that doesn’t inspire passion or doesn’t get you excited, when you’re doing work that you don’t love because it’s what someone else wants, or because the money is too good to not do it, sure, maybe you can make it through your shift, but it’s really hard to convince anyone who’s watching that you’re happy.

It probably didn’t help that I saw Angels and Airwaves a few nights before. The night I saw Tom DeLonge play a venue with a sold-out crowd that was maybe a tenth of the size of Blink’s, his new album hadn’t been released, but rather news of him filing for a divorce from his wife of 18 years had. It was also the same day that the Navy confirmed that footage DeLonge had was an “unidentified aerial phenomena.” While he addressed the latter, the former wasn’t mentioned. But, you know what, I’d have to spend a lot of time thinking of another time I saw someone connect with an audience the way DeLonge connected with his that night. He was open, he was vulnerable (about some things), and when he talked about leaving Blink because he wanted to make music that made people feel, we all knew it was true because he was succeeding with every note. It was the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the Blink 182 show.

I left Barclays center disappointed––not because it’s a different band or a different sound, but a different spirit. Does it make me like the band any less? No. Will I listen to their music any less? No. Did it send me spiraling into an existential crisis, examining whether or not happiness is truly attainable––and if not by a pop punk band who has called their own shots for decades, then by who? I love music so much, that I can write 2000 words inspired by one experience. So much that I started my first band less than a year after that Blink 182 show in a small bar in south Texas, which led to seven years fronting bands, three national tours, and then 15 years of music journalism, and realizing dreams like contributing to Rolling Stone, Billboard and SPIN. And when I celebrate those things, I always say it all started at that Blink 182 show. That 13-year-old would freak the fuck out if he saw where he was at 36, but who knows where that life would’ve gone if this Blink 182––just going through the passionless motions––was the one he saw that night.

About Mike Henneberger

Mike Henneberger is a video producer/director and music journalist with more than a decade of experience. He’s put his live music addiction to good use by contributing to Billboard Magazine, SPIN, and Rolling Stone. You can follow his adventures and misadventures at @mikeyleerock and @abergerjoint on Instagram.

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