An hour before showtime at Philadelphia's Spectrum, Billie Joe Armstrong is telling a joke: "How do you get a dog to stop humping your leg?" The Green Day frontman — gathered with his band-mutes backstage — pauses for maximum effect. "You pick it up and suck its dick." Everybody cracks up.
The three members of Green Day are well into their 30s, but their dressing rooms decked out to the band's specifications, are a teenager's dream. Posters of the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Iggy Pop hang on the walls. A Jerry Lee Lewis collection spins on the turntable, next to several crates of records, including Queen. Elvis, Minor Threat and the Wailers. There are coolers full of Stella Artois, the band's beer of choice; a PlayStation stocked with Rock Band and Tiger Woods PGA Tour; and a full bar. The trio's pre-show drink of choice? "Tequila," says drummer Tré Cool. "I get more fun when I drink tequila."
For three weeks, Green Day have been selling out arenas behind the new 21st Century Breakdown, a highly politicized rock opera built around a teen couple lost in Bush-era America. "It's really frightening, because you don't know how the new material's going to go over in front of people," says Armstrong, "but you know you have to be committed to it."
Onstage, the trio — girded with bonus guitar, keyboard and sax players — put on a supercharged, pyro-heavy two-and-a-half-hour show that manages to combine the giddy three-chord pop punk of their early records with the Queen-size arena rock of their last two. "It's a marathon every night," says Armstrong. "I know people say they put 100 percent into their shows, but I think we go beyond the 100 percent a lot of bands actually put into their shows."
Since the group's earliest club gigs, crowd participation has been a staple. A young woman named Jackie is yanked onstage to sing the American Idiot track "Holiday," and a succession of fans storm the stage to sing verses of the 1994 breakout hit "Longview" — including a dude in a Ramones T-shirt who plants a lingering kiss on Armstrong's lips. Before "Jesus of Suburbia," the front-man grills audience members to find one who can play guitar. "Do you fucking swear you know how to play it? What key is it in?" he asks a doughy teen in baggy shorts. "C-sharp!" screams the fan, and soon he's onstage, duckwalking his way through the Idiot track.
"It's always been about breaking down barriers and trying to get it to be intimate again," says bassist Mike Dirnt, who seems to pogo higher when the band tears into older uptempo cuts like "Welcome to Paradise" and "Basket Case." "I get excited," he says. "Some of the old stuff, when you're only playing three chords, you can go ballistic."
During the retro section of the set, Armstrong attacks the crowd with a Super Soaker, a contraption that shoots spiralling ribbons of toilet paper, and a halftime-style T-shirt launcher. "I just trip on watching the crowd freak out every night," Armstrong says backstage.
On "King for a Day," the singer dons a pink boa and a cop hat, wiggles his hips and moons the crowd. The shows are physically demanding — Armstrong constantly leaps skyward, eventually hurling himself to the ground to sing from flat on his back. "I just don't want to let anybody down," Armstrong says, referring to the band's live shows and to its ever-more-ambitious albums. "I've got bruises on parts of my body I didn't even know I could bruise. There's a fear of being complacent. I made a vow to myself and the band that we'd keep moving forward."
This story is from the August 20th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.