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.
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