Uncle Sam Wants Punk: Blink-182 in the Mideast

NORTH ISLAND NAVAL AIR STATION, SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, LATE APRIL: Tom DeLonge, guitarist for Blink-182, was at the airport at 6 A.M., with American flags sticking out of his pockets and red, white, and blue paint on his face. DeLonge’s sung hits such as “All the Small Things,” but on that April day, he was just the brother of a Navy lieutenant returning from the Gulf War. His brother, Shon Kitchen, is with Navy Special Warfare–or as DeLonge says, “My brother always beat me up as a kid–he’s perfect for special warfare.”

Also waiting at the airport for his own brother was Matt Heller, a freelance producer who had previously arranged a Middle East handshake tour for the cast of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. When he asked DeLonge if Blink-182 would like to do something similar, DeLonge immediately agreed–and promptly forgot all about it.

The next day, DeLonge got a frantic call from the band’s manager: “What did you agree to? The Pentagon‘s been calling me!”

The band wanted to play a show for the troops in Baghdad, which turned out to be a bad idea for safety reasons: too many surface-to-air missiles are still floating around Iraq. So they decided they would visit the Middle East, but focus their attention on the sailors, performing one free concert on an aircraft carrier, and another on a naval base in Bahrain (a small island-nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia). Blink-182 have many family connections to the Navy: in addition to DeLonge’s brother, most of his in-laws are Navy, as is bassist Mark Hoppus’s stepfather. “My little sister’s CIA,” claims DeLonge, “my mom’s an assassin, and my dad’s Special Forces massage therapy.”

THE USS MEMPHIS, DOCKED IN BAHRAIN, AUGUST 25, 0910 HOURS: The members of Blink-182 stroll towards a nuclear submarine. Drummer Travis Barker is wearing baggy shorts, sunglasses, and a t-shirt cut down to the waist on either side of his chest, exposing a multitude of tattoos. The band is greeted by a neatly pressed public affairs officer with a military-issue pouch of water strapped to his back. Nobody bats an eye at anybody else’s appearance.

The officer says, “I’m Lieutenant Kasper, but call me Ghost and I’ll roger up. Living on a nuclear submarine is like being on a tour bus with the windows blacked out for 60 days and never leaving.”

As the band members walk through the sub, they are full of questions, many derived from watching Discovery Channel documentaries on the military:

“Is it cold on the bottom of the ocean?”

“Do you guys drill in the middle of the night?”

“Is this the door to outside?”

Blink crowds into the sonar room, where young sailors show them the screens and their headphones, telling them that shrimp sound like Rice Krispies. “Basically, we sit around and do math all day,” one says. On the bridge, the crew details the various periscopes and hear various alarms, distinctive sounds for fire and flood and casualties. “These are all bad alarms,” DeLonge notes. “They’re all really gnarly-sounding.”

Hoppus crawls into a torpedo tube and mugs for photos. When he emerges, he looks at the three seats for the commanding officers and asks, “Where’s your drink holders?”

“Right next to the left leg,” Kasper informs him.

“Oh. Well, my joke’s not funny, then.”

THE MANAMA NAVAL BASE IN BAHRAIN, 1900 HOURS: If not for the 120-degree heat, this American military base could pass as a University of California campus. The band’s stage is set up on the quad between the sandwich shop and the volleyball courts. On a UC campus, of course, they don’t play “Colors” at 6 pm, a bugle call requiring everyone to stop what they’re doing and turn in the direction of an unseen American flag.

The band has a makeshift backstage area, a tent just to the side of the stage. On the deli tray, the cheese has melted, a casualty of the one-minute voyage from air-conditioned building to air-conditioned tent. The band isn’t receiving any payment for their week in the Middle East, but the shows are costing the Navy’s MWR department (Morale, Welfare, Recreation) about 250 thousand dollars, which covers the group’s plane flights (a Navy DC-9), accommodations (the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Bahrain), and their road crew’s salaries.

At showtime–8 pm sharp–an officer reminds the crowd that moshing is not allowed by the military. Instead of bouncers, the stage is surrounded by military policemen. The Navy have asked Blink-182 to provide a “G-rated” show. But twenty seconds before they go onstage, DeLonge decides that sailors have heard cursing before, and so the hour-long show begins with the ditty “Family Reunion,” to which the lyrics, in their entirety, are: “Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits, fart, doody, twat.”

Despite not being able to mosh, the crowd reacts with real passion to the hour-long survey of Blink’s hits. Many of the sailors are just 18 or 19 years old. They don’t get much in the way of A-list entertainment; the last musicians to play here were Dexter Freebish and Dishwalls, months ago. So they seem intensely grateful for the band’s presence in a way that a paying audience never would be.

Between songs, the band tells the sailors how much they appreciate them serving under difficult conditions thousands of miles away form home. Or as DeLonge puts it, “My mom will sleep with everyone here. She says you gotta do what you gotta do to support the military.”

Before finishing the show with “Dammit,” Hoppus tells the crowd, “We’re going to play one more song, and then I’m going to write my senator about getting you some more air conditioners here.” As they leave the stage, they throw some custom-made guitar picks into the crowd. One side is emblazoned “BLINK 182,” the other “I FOUGHT TERRORISM AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS PICK.”

SHAIKH ISA AIR BASE, BAHRAIN, AUGUST 27, 0910 HOURS: If you fly to an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Oman on an MA-23 helicopter, you pay attention to the safety briefing. If they’ve made you don life vests and safety helmets first, you really pay attention. That’s why the band is listening raptly to Navy pilot Cephas Taylor.

“In the event of an emergency, don’t inflate your life vest until you get outside,” he instructs us. “Do not stand at the back of the helicopter–there’s a pretty big opening there. And if you do venture to the back, hang on. Any questions?”

DeLonge has one: “Is there a train that gets us there?”

On the helicopter, the band and crew buckle in along the two walls, with all their luggage piled in the middle. The helicopter taxis forward, and 120-degree air washes in from outside, hotter air than you’ll ever find on C-Span. “I was just on the phone with my girl,” Barker shouts over the rotor noise. “She’s nine months pregnant today. I told her we were flying in a helicopter, and she just started bawling. It broke my heart.”

The helicopter lifts vertically, about ten yards, and then lurches from side to side. Green industrial fluid is dripping from the ceiling. Everyone looks at each other with the expression of men who aren’t sure whether they’ve updated their wills recently. The helicopter lands on the runway again–and then glides into an elegant takeoff, banking over the sparkling blue waters of the Persian Gulf.

ON THE BRIDGE OF THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS NIMITZ, SOMEWHERE IN THE GULF OF OMAN, 1325 HOURS: Marveling at the ship’s overwhelming size, the band is led through a maze of passageways and steep staircases. Sailors who catch a glimpse of them stop and stare. On the bridge, Captain Gilman shows the band various control screens pinpointing the ship’s location. “That dotted line, that’s Iran’s territorial waters,” he says.

“What if there’s another ship coming in your space?” DeLonge asks.

“We intercept them, usually. It’s serious business, but we’re not interested in escalating any conflict. The Iranians are very predictable: every Wednesday morning, they come and take a look at us. Sometimes we escort them, other times we let them fly by. They’re very professional.”

THE USS NIMITZ, 1800 HOURS: After signing thousands of autographs in one of the ship’s mess hall, the band relaxes in the captain’s stateroom before their concert. DeLonge and Hoppus chat comfortably with the ship’s officers. Hoppus shares some of his recent brainstorms. He has, for example, concocted a way to catch Saddam Hussein: Blanket western Iraq with broadcasts at a frequency above the range of human hearing but within the dynamic spectrum of audiotape, so if Hussein tapes a message, we can trace it back to his location. He’s also figured out a way to improve Nimitz morale: every day, for one hour, have an officer walk through the hallways in an animal costume.

Blink-182 say they support the troops; they say it so often it becomes one of their two mantras for the week. (The other one is “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”) But I wonder how they feel about the Gulf War itself. Barker pleads a lack of knowledge, saying he doesn’t even watch TV. Hoppus has an opinion but doesn’t want to share it. “I’d rather keep it to myself. It’s not my place to say what we should or shouldn’t do.”

DeLonge supports the war. “I’ve read a lot of books about geopolitics,” he says. “Terrorism isn’t about us being imperialistic; it’s symptomatic of bad government. In order to make peace, you’ve got to let oppressed people have a comfortable life and not live under an overzealous regime.” He concedes that wasn’t how the war was represented by the Bush administration: “I think the idea was correct, but they didn’t have faith in the American people to understand that concept. It’s politics–they needed to sell it.”

THE USS NIMITZ, 0500 HOURS: The band staggers out to the flight deck, where their plane will be catapulted at 3 Gs towards the United Arab Emirates, the first stop on the long trip back to the States. None of them slept after the show; Barker got himself “juiced” by being injected with a cooling saline solution, just to see what it was like. On the plane, the band has to assume the crash position for takeoff; smoke billows up around their feet, making them look like they’re in a Stevie Nicks video. “I’ll never do this shit again,” DeLonge mutters. “I’ll quit the band before they make me do it again.” Then he thinks about the sailors he’s leaving behind and says, “I almost feel like a dick, because I get to go home.”

Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published (in a somewhat shorter version) in Rolling Stone 934 (October 30, 2003).