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."
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