Good Charlotte: The Polite Punks

The band of brothers love their mom, don't do drugs and are delighted to be on 'TRL'... What the hell happened to punk rock?

Good Charlotte on September 23rd, 2003 in Chicago, Il. Credit: Paul Natkin/WireImage/Getty

By the time Good Charlotte enter the lobby of La Plata High School, outside of Waldorf, Maryland, one snowy afternoon, most of the school's 1,500 students have left for the day. The band members aren't too old to pass for high schoolers, but with their dyed hair and copious tattoos, they stand out from the wrestlers, runners and assorted stragglers roaming the halls. Slowly, the students start to recognize the band, then rush the foursome like fans let loose backstage. Benji and Joel Madden, the twin brothers who front Good Charlotte, writing all of the group's songs and hosting a daily video show on MTV, attract most of the attention, but all four members are hounded for autographs and photos.

The irony of this scene is not lost on Good Charlotte: This is a band that sang about how much it hated this place on its debut single, "Little Things" (which recalled, among other injustices, "The time in school when we got free lunch/And the cool kids beat us up"). Now here they are getting mobbed by the same kind of jocks and over-achievers who made their lives miserable. But sitting in a nearby diner, from which you can see a sign advertising the La Plata High School Mulch Sale, the band seems more amused than bitter about the bad shit that happened back then. It's not just the minor high school stuff, like when bass player Paul Thomas got expelled for threatening to punch the principal in the face, or when kids would leave messages with Benji and Joel's mom saying they were label executives offering a record deal, but also the seriously traumatic stuff, like when Benji and Joel's dad walked out one day without even saying goodbye or when the family was evicted from its suburban house and left temporarily homeless.

One reason Good Charlotte don't complain about the past is that they've already exacted revenge on Waldorf and its attendant bad memories. While their former classmates are getting married and working dead-end jobs, these unlikely successes — all between twenty-one and twenty-four years old — have become megapopular pop punkers, and their second album, the vibrant, hook-filled The Young and the Hopeless, has produced two TRL-topping singles and sold more than a million copies. All four are nice, regular hard-working guys whose tattooed, don't-give-a-fuck image belies their incessantly polite behavior. There's Benji, the guitarist and former bully who sometimes sounds like a guidance counselor preaching to wayward teenagers; Joel, the sweet, chatty singer who fills his lyrics with punk-rock rants but worships Morrissey; Thomas, the doughy bassist and band smartass who lives with his parents and has a serious relationship with his hairstylist girlfriend; and Billy Martin, the gothed-out guitarist who has a Nightmare Before Christmas tattoo covering his right arm, and whose idea of a good time is staying up late playing video games.

"We live pretty much the anti-rock & roll cliché," says Martin. "We're supposed to tell you about all of our drug problems and all this stuff. But, unfortunately, we don't have any." What they do have is lots of energy, dogged determination and a devout work ethic. So glad are they to have put bad day jobs and family troubles behind them, so tenaciously polite and dedicated are they to their working-class values, that the mere thought of acting less than totally appreciative of their situation repulses them.

Case in point: After Benji mentions that an unnamed singer in a different band behaved like an asshole during the last Warped tour, Martin delivers a lecture on the importance of humility. "It just seems like common sense that when someone does something nice for you, to say thank you," he says. "I don't know. Maybe it's because my parents were divorced. I was pretty much raised by my mom and my sister, so it's probably made me a little softer, you know?" Benji concurs: "There's no room for rock stars in this band. What's cool about shitting on people?"

When They Weren't at band practice or at work during their teens, Good Charlotte could often be found at the St. Charles Town Center Mall, where they spent thousands of hours — "probably like a year if we added it all up," figures Benji. As soon as we enter the mall this afternoon, Joel heads for a watch shop, where he does something rare for a member of Good Charlotte: He spends money on himself, buying a $500 Fendi watch. As if ashamed by Joel's sudden splurge, Benji makes a peace offering to the God of Good Manners, buying a $100 watch for his mom.

This kind of spending is new for the Madden twins. When Benji and Joel were kids, their dad (whose surname the twins ditched in favor of their mother's maiden name) bounced around from job to job, mostly as a butcher and a house painter, struggling to support the twins, their older brother Josh and younger sister Sarah. His bad temper and dissatisfaction were exacerbated by his drinking, and he often took his frustration out on his family, particularly the boys' sweet-tempered, devoutly Christian mother. "If he came home and his shoes weren't in the right place." Joel says, "he would just start going off. One time I saw him rip a phone, like, in one motion, rip the phone off the wall and throw it at my mom — like he was pitching a baseball."

Then came Christmas Eve 1995. "My parents got into a big fight," Joel says. "Then we heard my dad getting stuff together downstairs and we didn't know what he was doing, and we heard him slam the door. I was like, 'He's probably just going for the night.' We got up the next day and it was Christmas, and we didn't really do anything except go with my mom to my aunt's house. And then we came back and my dad was gone."

Joel and Benji were sixteen then, and it was the last time they saw their dad. Only Benji has spoken with him since. "I tried to call him and say, 'Hey, now that I'm nineteen, we can be friends, even though we had all these problems in the past.'" Benji says. "I was willing to put it all aside. And basically he was like, 'I'm trying to start a new life. 'I'm trying to forget about you guys.' The last time I ever talked to him was on the phone that day."

With their dad gone for good, things went from bad to worse. First, the family was evicted from its rustic two-story house set back in the woods of Waldorf- the only place where Benji and Joel had ever had separate rooms — and the family went to stay with nearby relatives. "There were a few kids that would point out the fact that our family didn't have anywhere to live, repeatedly," says Benji. "And that was just a bummer; like, how can you get a date with a girl when you don't even have a house?" Eventually, the Maddens found a small farmhouse. "This farmer guy basically let us live there for nothing," says Benji.

Then, Benji and Joel's mother, who was working as a receptionist and a hairstylist, suffered a recurrence of lupus, a stress-related disorder that kept her in and out of the hospital, often for weeks at a time. With their mom laid up, the twins took jobs to support the family. Benji estimates he and Joel each had about fifteen jobs before they turned twenty, including stints as busboys at "probably all the restaurants" in Waldorf and as shampoo boys at a local salon. When they should have been studying or hanging out, the twins worried about more urgent things — "like the electricity getting cut off or the car breaking down or the phone getting cut off," Joel says. "Or oil running out, for heat. Sometimes there was no heat for four or five days till you could get more oil,' cause it's, like, a hundred dollars."

As the stress mounted at home, the differences in the twins' personalities became apparent. Benji, brawnier and more quick-tempered than his brother, put up a toughguy front, and Joel, the more sensitive of the two, pined for girls and moped around the house. "When my dad left, I was always the one that was kind of, like, crying about it, like, 'Why us, why us?'" Joel says. "Lucky for me, I had Benj. We've always been sidekicks. The chip he had on his shoulder was more out of necessity back then. But we always had each other all the time to say, 'Man, don't worry. It'll be all right, it'll get better.'"

After attending a Beastie Boys show in early 1996, Benji and Joel vowed to start their own band, and they began writing songs together. They befriended Thomas, the son of a Waldorf cop, who shared their love of Green Day, Rancid, Nirvana and Silverchair. And Good Charlotte was born.

When the band played its first gigs, its members were still learning to play their instruments, and Joel was so embarrassed onstage he sometimes sang with his back to the audience. But that didn't stop Benji and Joel from deciding that Good Charlotte was the most important thing in their lives. "I failed my social-studies class because we were doing this whole semester about getting ready for college, and I was like, 'I'm not going to college. I'm gonna be in my band,'" Joel says. "The day we started the band, the question was when we were going to make it, not if we were gonna make it.

"Our whole goal was getting signed," Joel continues. "So anything we could do, like reading books about getting signed, reading magazines — you know, The Musician's Guide to Touring and Promotion. We'd come home from work and stay up till two or three or four playing guitar or making the things we sent to the record labels. You know, doing anything for the band. Then we'd have to get up at 6 or 6:30 to go to school."

"They never let their home life show," says Timothy Bodamer, the La Plata High School music teacher who taught the Maddens to play guitar. "They never bitched about anything. They knew exactly what they wanted. They were talking about agents — this is high school."

Benji and Joel almost dropped out of La Plata High several times but stuck with it because they didn't want to disappoint their mom. After graduation, they moved to Annapolis, Maryland, a bigger town with an active music scene. There they met Martin, a fellow Silverchair enthusiast who soon joined as a guitarist. "A friend of mine said, 'You got to come down on Sunday night. These twins have been coming up from Waldorf, and they're really good,'" says Jimi Haha, the leader of the Annapolis band Jimmie's Chicken Shack. "We were always endeared by them, because they prayed every day. We would throw coasters at them while they were onstage, just to harden them. They were unashamed of being cheeseballs."

Good Charlotte got their first break opening for the ska-punk band Save Ferris, in Philadelphia in 1999. After their show, the band left behind a demo of "Little Things" that got into the hands of a DJ at Y100, a Philly modern-rock station. After several spins, the song became a local hit. Labels started to show interest, and a showcase in New York in early 2000 led the band to Epic Records. "It was a very exciting time," Benji says. "My first time in New York I was so intimidated by the size of the city, I wanted to go home. I wish I had videos of me and Joel and Billy and Paul. I mean, looking back, we were so little; we had never been anywhere. So getting signed, the way everything came together, was exactly how I dreamed."

Released in the fall of 2000, Good Charlotte resulted in little airplay and quickly fizzled. But last September, The Young and the Hopeless spawned "Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous," their breakthrough hit. "I was like, 'I can't finish this song,'" Joel says. "Me and Benj would get into fights about it. And then one day I went in alone and I just finished it in a matter of twenty minutes. When we gave our record company the album, they were like, '"Lifestyles" is a great song.' And I was like, 'Really?'" Backed by chunky guitars and a drumbeat lifted from Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life," the single is essentially a dis of over-privileged celebrities who "piss and moan inside the Rolling Stone." And as they note more than once as we drive around Waldorf, Good Charlotte are trying their hardest today to avoid doing just that.

The tour of Waldorf Ends At Ledo's pizza parlor, another old hangout. As we eat what turns out to be a free meal (courtesy of the owner, a Good Charlotte fan), the band drinks Coke and talks about old friends and favorite rappers, especially Jay-Z and Master P. When the subject turns to partying, they speak with quiet awe of their friend Tony Lovato, the singer for the pop-punk band Mest. "One night everyone's on tour and everyone's drinking," Benji says. "And everyone threw up in this pitcher. Pissed in it. Put cigarette butts in it. Spit in it. Anything possible. Tony drank it. And he couldn't sing for three days because of the stomach acids from the vomit."

Compared with this kind of debauchery, Good Charlotte party like soccer moms. Though Thomas, Martin and Joel drink occasionally, they rarely get out of control, and none of them drink when they're around Benji. That's because Benji was dogged by his family's demons even after Good Charlotte scored their record deal, drinking heavily and frequently getting into fights on early tours. "Alcoholism runs in the family," Joel says. "Benj is an alcoholic. My dad's an alcoholic, his dad's an alcoholic. Benji doesn't like talking about it. But he had to stop. He counts his months. He's been sober for a year and a half."

The band doesn't really mind if its nice-guy image hurts its punk-rock credibility, either. "You know, it's funny," says Joel, eating a slice of thin-crust pepperoni. "You're probably the first person who hasn't focused on why we are or are not punk this whole interview. It's very cliché for rock & roll journalists to go, 'Well, you're not punk.' We don't care if we are, we don't care if we aren't."

There are, of course, many things about Good Charlotte that are not very punk, starting with the fact that they're really psyched about appearing on TRL. Thomas still lives at home, and they all admit to loving their moms very, very much. "A lot of people get a shitty deal: They got a fucked-up dad and then they have a shitty mom," Joel says. "We got lucky. We had a fucked-up dad but a great mom." Besides writing her a thank-you song on their first album, Benji and Joel bought her a house near Waldorf with their first big royalty checks.

To its credit, the band isn't afraid to show off its sensitive side on songs such as "Emotionless" and "The Story of My Old Man," both of which address their dad. "Even though we might blush when we sing and we might get embarrassed because the songs are so personal," Joel says, "I think it's worth it."

"Growing up definitely sucked," Benji adds. "But if it wasn't for all that stuff, we wouldn't have started our band. And you know, I can't even count how many letters I got from kids whose dad left them. That's pretty much the most fulfilling thing you can get."