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 overachievers 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 clichÈ," 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."