What a long, strange punk-rock trip it has been
Not long after Green Day played Woodstock '94 – a performance that scored the band mass adulation – singer Billie Joe Armstrong received a letter from his mother.
"It was a hate letter," says Armstrong.
It seems Mrs. Armstrong ordered the concert on pay-per-view and had settled in to watch the event with a friend. That's when the melee occurred. Onstage, the Green Day set culminated in a titanic mud fight; Armstrong yanked down his pants; and bassist Mike Dirnt had his front teeth smashed when he was tackled by a security guard who thought he was a fan storming the stage. Finally a mud-covered Armstrong asked the fans to shout, "Shut the fuck up," and the band exited.
"She said that I was disrespectful and indecent," says Armstrong, "and that if my father was alive, he would be ashamed of me. She couldn't believe that I pulled my pants down and got in a fight onstage.
"Everything's fine now, but her letter was just unreal. She was not happy with my performance at all. She even talked shit about my wife, Adrienne, and said how she's supposed to be my loving wife, but she's never even come over and visited."
"It was pretty brutal."
Billie Joe Armstrong is not a tidy man. It's late in the band's never-ending tour, an entire season since Woodstock, and Armstrong is holed up in Los Angeles for a three-night stand. He is standing in the doorway of his hotel room – a landfill of dirty laundry and the occasional empty – talking excitedly. He is small and appears even younger than you would expect – more like a character out of Oliver Twist than like a 6-year veteran of the rock circuit. As he speaks, his eyes continually grow wider.
Armstrong leads his guest into the chamber like a kid hurrying to get to the front of a line. Across the room, Adrienne is lying in bed, wearing a pair of boxers and a bra. Destination complete. Her husband kneels next to her and rests his ear on her stomach. "Come on over here," he says, flashing his visitor a jagged smile. "Listen to the baby." Adrienne hoists herself up on her elbows and thrusts her stomach out. "We've been lying here all day," she says. "We've just been watching him move."
The him in question is the future Joey Armstrong, the son that will be born to Billie Joe and Adrienne sometime in March. It is Joey's impending arrival along with that of Ramona, the daughter that will be born to drummer Tré Cool and his girlfriend, Lisea, in January – that stands as the most life-altering event in a year that has seen the lives of the Green Day members forever altered. Just when you thought nothing could be stranger than three American kids who look and sound like they should be railing against Queen Elizabeth, circa 1977, being named 1994's Best New Band by both readers and critics – not punk rock but a remarkable simulation – the very same kids are having kids.
All three band members are 22, and sometimes it seems more like they're 17. Bodily functions, for instance, are seen as a laugh riot. At the same time, having spent the last five years touring, they can seem world-weary and savvy. When they are together, which is almost always, they fall into roles. Tré keeps a running, hyperkinetic commentary on all proceedings, replete with the appropriate dudes and mans of the native California skate punk in its natural habitat.
Dirnt, the one Green Day constituent not to have gone forth and multiplied, vacillates between being the voice of reason and nervous comic relief. In one moment he seems like a young man on a job interview, trying desperately to appear serious. The next he is the same kid, unable to contain himself and making sound effects in the back of the classroom. Armstrong, while he remains mostly silent, is nonetheless always the center of attention. Offstage he is quiet, projecting the shyness of a kid on his first day at a new school. He laughs easily, mostly with his band mates, but will then quickly grow solemn. Still, for all his adolescent sheepishness, Armstrong retains a subtle charm that is as omnipresent as his stage demeanor is over the top.
Despite Green Day's snarling image, all are unfailingly polite and likable. "There's nice guys trying to be assholes and assholes trying to be nice guys," says Armstrong. "I'm an asshole trying to be a nice guy." All came to the punk life out of an early feeling of isolation, and all possess attention spans so short they have probably already stopped reading this sentence. The line between band and audience is blurry at best.
"I don't want to grow up too fast," says Armstrong. "And I don't think having a kid and being married means that has to happen. My biggest fear is becoming domestic. It seems like when people get married, they don't have fun anymore. I totally want to walk around the streets with Adrienne. We like to Dumpster dive. That's the funnest thing in the world."
Ah, to be young and all the world's your Dumpster. It is precisely this attitude – exercising your right to be immature – that has captivated the more than 3 million fans that have snatched up Dookie, the band's major-label debut. Green Day are the nation's favorite cartoon characters. And like every great cartoon, the band has it all: exaggerated insanity, video images in brilliant, primary colors and an underlying unexplainable innocence. Not to mention the sheer speed and ferocity of the Green Day pop experience. From Dookie's opening chord, the band sets an exhausting pace and pop-punk tone that never wavers. And embedded in the breakneck noise are lyrics that talk about mass destruction ("Having a Blast"), self-loathing and insanity ("Basket Case") and hatred of the elder class ("Burnout"). It's a parent's nightmare. Which is, of course, a teen-ager's dream.
"I blow things out of proportion," says Armstrong. "When you dwell on something for a really long time, that happens. Say you hate somebody, and you sit and think about every single possible way that you could kill them. You're like 'I fuckin' hate 'em, I fuckin' hate 'em.' That's what I like to write about. Blow it out of proportion and then come back to it later and think, 'That's kind of silly.' It's a good way to get over it fast."
The irony of the Green Day revolution is that the songs on Dookie sound exactly like the tunes on 1990's 39/Smooth and 1992's Kerplunk, the group's first two albums on Lookout! Records, a small Berkeley, Calif. indie label. It's just that Dookie has sold approximately 2.95 million more copies than the first pair combined. Even stranger is the fact that Dookie's first single, "Longview," was an ode to two time-honored but none-too-marketable standbys: apathy and masturbation. Lost amid the overanalysis, however, is the fact that every selection in the Green Day catalog, despite the snotty exterior, contains a heart that is unapologetically catchy and ripe with addictive melodies and naive harmonies.
So now, since the release of Dookie, the band members have gone from living together in the basement of a student-dominated Victorian home just one block from the pristine entrance to the University of California, Berkeley – the very same dungeon shown in the "Longview" video – to being triple-platinum rock stars in a day and age in which the idea of rock stardom is seen as the equivalent of selling out or martyrdom or both, if only to rock stars themselves.
"I'm not going to say that I don't want to be a rock star," says Armstrong. "If you don't want to be a rock star, then quit. That's your best answer. Don't be one. But if I was to do it again, I'd do it differently. I want to try and make some sense of all this and not become a parody of myself. I never really thought that being obnoxious would get me to where I am right now. When I play, I'm not a nice guy. You know when you get really drunk and it's like this person inside you that wants to come out and be obnoxious? It's kind of the same thing. And then people like you for it." He smiles and shakes his head. "I don't get that."
Not that Green Day walk through this world showered in love and devotion. If they attempted to go home to the small club scene that spawned them, it's a fair bet that the prodigal sons would be pelted with rocks and garbage. Even during their tenure in Berkeley, the band was often chastised in Maximumrocknroll – the bible of everything Punk Correct in the Bay Area – for being too pop based. In these circles, and among purists nationwide, Green Day are accused of playing the kind of punk rock that could probably be purchased at the Gap.
"There's punks who know where we came from, and then there's the people whose rich parents pay for them to be degenerates," says Dirnt of his band's detractors. "They feel it's all right to feed us shit. It's funny how PC people can be when they have money. We got these fliers that said, TELL GREEN DAY TO FUCK OFF FOR BRINGING MTV INTO OUR SCENE. I've never seen one TV in the punk clubs we've played. I think your mother and father need to take your cable away, is what they need to do."
Billie Joe and Adrienne's wedding was not something snatched from the annals of a Guns n' Roses video. Held in his backyard, the wedding was attended by only a few friends and family. "I was really nervous, so I started pounding beers," says Armstrong, "and so did Adrienne. The ceremony lasted five minutes. Neither of us are any religion, so we pieced together speeches. One Catholic, one Protestant, one Jewish. It was a lot of fun. Then we went to the Claremont hotel, and we fucked like bunnies."
Armstrong laughs and begins talking faster. "Then the next day, Adrienne says that she's been feeling weird lately, so we stopped at Safeway and picked up a pregnancy test. We're at home waiting for the results and each wanting the other one to go check. Finally I said, 'Fuck it,' and went into the other room. Sure enough, we had the big purple line. It was so bold, just staring me in the face. Purple! Baby! I walked out and said, 'Hi, Mom.' I was glowing. I said, 'Are you happy?' and she said, 'Yeah, totally, are you?' And I said, 'Yeah, totally.' We just got married and find out the next day she was pregnant. What a high. But the thing is that we'd been doing it and not using protection anyway."
Rodeo, Calif., is the kind of town that, thankfully, flashes by in the time it takes to change the radio station. Resting 15 miles north of Berkeley, it is a dreary strip of boarded-up storefronts and small homes cowering in the shadow of an enormous refinery. Contrary to the lush surroundings and pervasive liberal vibe of Berkeley, Rodeo seems lost in time, closed off from the world engulfing it.
It is here that Mike Pritchard (before he changed his last name to Dirnt) met Billie Joe Armstrong. Dirnt was the hyperactive kid in school, just as likely to have his classmates laugh with him as at him. Armstrong was the youngest of six children, a musical prodigy – traveling to sing in convalescent homes and children's hospitals by the time he was 5 – who hated school and being told what he could and couldn't do. Around the time that Armstrong's father (a truck driver who spent time as a jazz drummer) died of cancer, when Billie Joe was 10, Armstrong and Dirnt became inseparable.
"Our family changed a lot because my parents had been very kid oriented," says Anna Armstrong, Billie Joe's sister. "And all of a sudden, my mother withdrew and threw herself into waitressing. The family structure broke up. Then my mom remarried about a year or two afterward, and that was a big change for the negative. I'd say we were as dysfunctional as any family with the death of a father, a stepfather who no one liked and almost losing our mother at the same time. We were a very physical family. There was a lot of fighting amongst the siblings, a lot of hitting. I don't know where that anger came from."
Meanwhile, Dirnt, born to a heroin-addicted mother and adopted by a Native American mother and a white father, had his own problems at home. His adoptive parents divorced when he was 7, leaving him to live briefly with his dad before continual confrontations sent him back to his mother. There he lived just above the poverty line and watched his older sister leave home when she was 13.
"There were all sorts of things happening," says Dirnt. "When I was in fourth or fifth grade, my mom stayed out all night, came home the next day with a guy, and he moved in. I'd never met the guy before, and all of a sudden he's my stepdad. We didn't get along for years. Later on, when I hit high school my mom moved away from us, and me and my stepdad got real close. He instilled a lot in me. The one thing my family did give me is blue-collar morals. But then he died when I was 17."
By that point, Dirnt had already moved out, leaving home when he was 15 to, among other things, live out of his truck, rent a room in Armstrong's house and reside in a punk squatter building. Soon, Armstrong and Dirnt began living for their weekends at the Gilman Street Project. Run out of the back of a caning-and-wicker shop, the club would go unnoticed by anyone passing by. For those familiar with the side entrance, however, the shop opens into a world that Armstrong refers to as his "salvation": dilapidated wood floorbards; graffiti splashed across every inch of wall space; band after band with the look and sound of early British punks like the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks.
At night the area surrounding the desolate street – an avenue featuring rows of small shabby homes lined up like gravestones – would teem with the Gilman crowd. Because the club attracts an all-ages crowd and doesn't serve alcohol, the streets would be full of young punks drinking beer or chugging Robitussin (a standard scene practice that Armstrong admits occasionally still indulging in). It was at this same time that Armstrong and Dirnt formed Sweet Children, the band that would eventually rename itself after one of its songs about hanging out and smoking pot: Green Day.
Dirnt continued to go to school, play in the band and live on his own, supporting himself by working as a cook. He almost didn't graduate from high school, however, when his mother refused to sign one of his mandatory-attendance forms.
"I took my mom aside," says Dirnt. "I said, 'This is how it is. You have so much shit going on in your life, so if once every semester you ask me if I've done my homework and jump all over my case, that's not right. Have I failed yet? No. And I'm going to graduate if you stay off my back. The one time in your life you choose to have morals, and it's going to fuck me up. Don't play mom once a year. It doesn't fucking cut it.' "
In the end, Dirnt graduated and even took more than a year's worth of courses at a community college. Armstrong did not. He and Dirnt moved into a squat in Oakland, Calif. (the inspiration for the song "Welcome to Paradise"), and having all but cut himself off from his class work and family, Armstrong dropped out of school after being encouraged to do so by his mother, herself a high-school dropout.
"I still have nightmares about being behind in my classes," says Armstrong. "I'll have these dreams where I'm getting an incomplete in class." He pauses and laughs. "When I was going in to drop out of high school, I gave one teacher my dropout slip. He just looked at me and said, 'Who are you?' "
That was just seven days before the release of 39/Smooth. With that record in circulation, Armstrong and Dirnt, then 17, along with then-drummer John Kiftmeyer, booked their own tour and headed across the country in a van. By the end of the trek, Kiftmeyer decided to jump ship. Looking no farther than the confines of Gilman Street, Armstrong and Dirnt recruited Tré Cool, a 5-year veteran of the scene who was, remarkably enough, nearly one year their junior.
Tre Cool was not always such. For the first 12 years of his life, he was simply Frank Edwin Wright III. The youngest of two children, Tré lived in the Mendocino mountains (a location notable for its high concentration of hippies and marijuana farms), where his father – a helicopter pilot in Vietnam – moved the family in order to insulate them upon his return to the States. The nearest neighbor was more than a mile away.
"It was mind-numbing," says Tre. "I'd walk around this huge mountain. It was complete wilderness." Luckily, the closest neighbor was Lawrence Livermore, leader of the punk-rock band the Lookouts and founder of Lookout! Records. When his band needed a drummer, Livermore turned to 12-year-old Wright, renamed him Tré Cool and recorded an album.
"They wouldn't even let me have cymbals for a long time," says Tre. "Lawrence locked them up, and after a while he would take them out one at a time and let me use them."
By the time Tré hit his sophomore year in high school (where he was class president), he decided he'd had enough. "I just said, 'Later,' " says Tre. " 'I'll see you on the flip side.' " He passed an equivalency test and began courses at a nearby community college. When the demands of touring intensified, however, college fell by the wayside. Tre's father, who owns a small trucking company, even overhauled a used bookmobile and served as Green Day's driver on three separate tours.
"I watched them go from a bunch of kids to a group of musicians with a work ethic," says Tre's father, Frank Wright. "On their first tour or two, it was more of a party than anything else. I still scratch my head and say, 'How in the hell did they make it?' They used to practice in my living room here – a lot of the songs they did on Dookie. You hear it coming together, and you don't expect people are going to go out and buy it. But when it does, you just say, 'Wow, that's so cool.' "
The men of Green Day have literary aspirations.
"We want to write our own rock book," says Tre. "It's going to be called Insult to Injury. It's just going to list all the injuries we've had over the past year."
A sampling: "Mike developed a heart problem," says Armstrong. "His mitral valve is too big, and sometimes it feels like someone is stabbing him in the chest. It's mostly from stress. The fact that he was born on heroin probably has something to do with it, too. Then Mike broke his teeth at Woodstock and had to have emergency oral surgery. I tore ligaments in my ankle, so I'm in a brace right now. Tré was drunk and got in a motorcycle accident in Spain. I walked into a pole and sliced open my face. Mike got in a pillow fight with his girlfriend and broke both his arms and had whiplash and six stitches in his head. Tré was drunk and fell out of a van in San Diego. Mike broke his finger. . . ."
Armstrong laughs. "It never ceases to amaze me. I think the only thing that could fuck our band up would be some freak accident with a vacuum cleaner."
For a gathering of punk-rock veterans, there sure seems to be a lot of love in this room. It's backstage at L.A.'s Hollywood Palladium, and the small cell is beginning to overflow with well-wishers. Beastie Boy Mike D has stopped by. So have the members of Bad Religion and Greg Herson of the Circle Jerks. Pat Smear, guitarist for the Germs and Nirvana, is chatting quietly with a small cluster of friends. The mood is civilized and sedate – a far cry from what it will be when the band takes the stage in less than an hour – and the three hosts are cheerful and accommodating.
At the moment, Armstrong looks like a kid at his parents' party. He socializes quietly, moving in and out of the older folks, slightly self-consciously, before settling into the corner to share a chair with his wife. Tre, who has been bouncing from a chair next to his girlfriend to the cooler to the hallway and back to his girlfriend, finally slips outside to smoke a joint. Across the room, Dirnt has been letting the party come to him, serving as host, thanking everyone for coming. He is the Green Day member who seems most at ease, most comfortable with the situation at hand. That is, until a friend congratulates him on the sold-out shows. To this he gives a perplexed look and shakes his head.
"Someone said to me before a show the other day, 'Fifteen thousand people at this arena – this is everything you ever dreamed of,' " says Dirnt. "I turned to him and said, 'Correction. It's everything I never dreamed of.'"
He and everyone else. It's 1994, and Green Day are garnering piles of the nation's lunch money. The very same segment of society that inspired the wrath of punk rock is now embracing it as their own. Go figure. MTV can't get enough of it. Record-company weasels are scouring the countryside in search of that spiky, commercial punk vibe. Aging anti-establishment bands (i.e. Circle Jerks) are getting back together to cash in on the phenomenon. It's enough to force the counterculture to start hating itself.
For Green Day the eruption has forced a re-evaluation, if not an all-out identity crisis. They worry about their own credibility, although they have a solid knowledge of their roots. To help sort through the wreckage, they persistently attempt to separate themselves from Offspring, the other group most often mentioned when the topic of nouveau punk is broached. And while it is true that the two bands come from very different genes and sound nothing at all alike, what the members of Green Day fail to realize is that no one cares about such distinctions but themselves.
For 99 percent of the population, pop music is pop music. What seems most likely – despite the fact that Green Day list as their heroes mid-'80s post-punk bands like the Replacements and Berkeley-area groups like Operation Ivy – is that the rules began to change when punk rock first stormed onto the scene in the late '70s. It was this first wave of punk bands that changed the musical landscape enough to alter the definition of what would be considered mainstream more than a decade later.
"It's humbling to read about the new punk explosion," says Armstrong. "When I read about that a few years ago, I just thought it was so fucking stupid. Now it's happening to me, and it's still pretty fucking stupid. In a lot of ways, I'm really glad Kurt Cobain's not around to see this punk-rock thing happening now."
Onstage at the Palladium, Armstrong's confusion is in full bloom. He is dressed in a lavender clown suit, hurling expletives at the crowd and knowing in his heart of hearts that all is right with the world. Nonetheless he affects an angry stance – the guitar he has owned since he was 11 years old tilted vertically, his arm pounding violently and his face twitching and contorting like a disgruntled postal worker's – while he plays with obvious bliss. Older three-chord love songs such as "2,000 Light Years Away" careen into newer, three-chord hate tunes like "Chump" without losing focus or energy. Dirnt, meanwhile, leaps around the stage, pausing only to offer pitch-perfect backing vocals or to beat his head repeatedly into the microphone.
It's perpetual motion, pop gem after pop gem keeping the teen-age crowd in a constant fury: "Basket Case," "Having a Blast," "Burnout," "Armitage Shanks." One after another, Green Day roll them out as Armstrong inches toward the edge of the stage to incite the audience. Even when berating the crowd – "Hey, you macho, homophobic shithead, fuck you. No, seriously, fuck you" – he bounds across the stage with undeniable star presence.
"People in the punk community don't like the fact that Green Day have attracted this huge audience with a lot of boneheads, but it's still a good album," says Ben Weasel, former leader of Screaching Weasel and current columnist for Maximumrocknroll. "If you liked them before, but you don't like this album, then it's for political reasons, not musical reasons."
Certainly Gilman Street – the very club that gave birth not only to Green Day but also to the myriad bands that served as their spiritual guide – is not without some clear-cut political opinions. It was at this club that a group of punks assaulted former Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra, chanting, "Rock star," and beating him so severely that he suffered a broken leg, extensive knee damage and a head injury. And it is to this club – to which all three Green Day members nonetheless pledge undying allegiance – that the band realizes it can never go home again.
"That place and that culture saved my life," says Armstrong. "It was like a gathering of outcasts and freaks. It wasn't about people moshing in a pit and taking their shirt off. That's one thing I hate about the new mainstream thing: blatant violence. We get lumped into this bandwagon of this fucked-up mentality. To me punk rock was about being silly, bringing a carpet to Gilman Street and rolling your friends up in it and spinning it in circles. Or having a pit with people on tricycles or Big Wheels. The whole thing had a serious message to people, but at the same time it was silly, and people weren't afraid to talk about love. It's a different thing going on there now."
Green Day on just saying yes:
DIRNT: I think drinking and doing drugs are very important. When Billie gave me a shuffle beat for "Longview," I was flying on acid so hard. I was laying up against the wall with my bass lying on my lap. It just came to me. I said, "Bill, check this out. Isn't this the wackiest thing you've ever heard?" Later, it took me a long time to be able to play it, but it made sense when I was on drugs. To me everybody should drop acid at least once. Well, some people don't have the right personality for it. But it is important.
Tre: When people bring weed to our shows, that's wonderful. I'm the guinea pig. If somebody throws a bag of weed onstage, Billie will watch to make sure we don't get all fucked up on it, but I dive right in.
ARMSTRONG: I think I have a bit of an alcohol problem right now. I drink every day, and I use it as a crutch to relax me. I'm not abusive, I just think I drink a little too much sometimes. The main thing of choice for us – well, Tré really likes pot – but the main thing of choice was speed. People think that we're this big pot-smoking band even though we sound like an amphetamine band, but I dabbled a lot in speed for a long time. That was the drug of choice on the scene I came from.
"I have a lot of things I need to deal with. My mom is on welfare at the moment."
It's 10:30 in the morning, and Mike Dirnt is downing a second cup of wake-up coffee. The topic is just what exactly comes next. He shifts in his chair, smiles and admits that because of his heart condition, he should really cut down on caffeine. That said, he smiles again, swallows another gulp and continues.
"People keep saying, 'You have all this money, why is your mom on welfare?' But I haven't taken a break yet," Dirnt says. "I plan to deal with that. It's stressful to see your mom and worry about her health. She and my stepsisters aren't starving, but they're living poor. I'd certainly like to take the pain of worrying off them."
It's assessment time. For Green Day the yearlong tour has ended – concluding with a performance on Saturday Night Live and a multiband show at New York's Madison Square Garden – and the moment has arrived to reclaim their personal lives, assuming they can figure out just what that means. Armstrong and Tré have each purchased homes – Armstrong in the most residential of neighborhoods, a close walk from his favorite record store and the teen-age punks and aging, bead-selling hippies that litter Telegraph Avenue; Tré in the more secluded Oakland Hills. Both are hoping to await the arrivals of their new families peacefully. Dirnt is considering a move, but he's not sure he's ready quite yet. The only certainty is that the group is taking an extended break in order to refuel.
"This tour we've all had so many of our own problems, relationshipwise and everything, that we've all kept a lot bottled in," says Dirnt. "I'm sure every one of us, in our own way this year, has wanted to blow our fucking head off. But I think we're all not that type of personality."
Amid the personal politics of leapfrogging from obscurity to stardom lie innate questions of whether a band can truly retain its value system while its external surroundings alter drastically. Shifting from virtual poverty to financial security alone raises such quandaries. Although it is too early to judge, for their part, Green Day have given two key indications that they may just practice what they continually preach. First, the band successfully took on Ticketmaster – a task perhaps made easier by Pearl Jam's ongoing battle with the ticketing giant – to ensure that prices for their most recent tour would not exceed $15. Second, and most important to the community from which they sprang, was their insistence that Lookout! Records retain 100 percent of the rights to their first two albums. With record sales sure to take off, this guarantees an overwhelming financial boom that should keep that scene funded for years.
"It's about the weirdest thing I've ever seen," says Weasel, whose current band, the Riverdales, is also on Lookout! "When we met them, Mike and Billie were 17. We stayed up in the mountains at Lawrence Livermore's with them, and we were so disgusted by these guys. We thought they were the biggest idiots we ever met. They were so drunk that they were puking, and they were constantly smoking pot. So the next time I saw them, I was pretty wary. They came up, and they were really nice and clearheaded. In terms of how they've dealt with success, amazingly they've gotten more mature and less impressed by the whole rockstar hype. They've actually become really great people."
To help facilitate that process, each band member talks separately about the need to get back to some semblance of normalcy. Tre's plan is to spend as much time as possible doing nothing. Dirnt wants to play with a wide range of musicians – jazz, funk, rock – before once again working on Green Day material. He also talks about the possibility of indulging in his dream of someday doing stand-up comedy. Armstrong, meanwhile, is set to begin Lamaze classes with Adrienne. ("One thing I want to teach my son is sensitivity to other people," says Armstrong of his approaching fatherhood. "I want to teach him not to be this macho freak.") There are also songs to write and a world of people who know him as Billie Joe Armstrong that he needs to reacquaint himself with.
"Right now, I don't know my family as much as I did a while back," Armstrong says. "That's kind of depressing. I lost contact with a lot of people."
Armstrong's family concurs. "I get mad at him sometimes because he separates himself from the family, and I'm not always sure why," says Anna Armstrong. "But he's a good boy. He's a good brother and a good uncle to my son. Success isn't going to change that. He's still the same person. I asked if there was anything he didn't want me to talk about, and he said no. He said, 'Tell him I pee the bed.' Because he wet his bed all through childhood. I said, 'You still do,' and he said, 'I know, I just did the other night.' That's Billie Joe – he's 22, and he still wets the bed."
All the more fuel for those who dismiss Green Day as kids – young brats getting paid to kick up a racket and get in trouble on the playground. Which, in turn, is more fuel for Green Day.
"I could care less if people think I'm insignificant because I'm 22 years old," says Armstrong. "That's great. We caused a generation gap. Great. Most of the bands around now, I've been playing music longer than they have, and I'm also way younger than they are."
So now, more than a decade into a partnership that truly did begin on the grade-school playground, Armstrong and Dirnt often find themselves in the most overwhelming circumstances – onstage at sold-out arenas, playing the MTV Video Music Awards, besieged by fans wanting autographs – and looking at each other, not knowing whether to laugh or run away.
"I told Bill, 'Let's just take it as far as we can,' " says Dirnt. " 'Eventually, we'll lose all the money and everything else, anyway. Let's just make sure we have one great big story at the end.' " He pauses and considers what he has just said. "I think we will." He stops again. "In a lot of ways, we already do."