Billie Joe Armstrong: 'I'm Still Trying to Figure Out If What I Do Is for Real'

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How did you first get into music?
I had some friends – these brothers, Matt and Eric – and one of them was older than me, and one of them was my age. Their parents were split up. And their dad lived in Rodeo [Calif.], and that was right up the street from my house. So they would come out every weekend and bring all these new tapes. I remember listening to Too Fast for Love by Motley Crue a lot when I was 11 or 12. Then they started getting into punk rock – they brought out D.O.A. records and TSOL and the Dead Kennedys, stuff like that. Then they started riding skateboards. And I was like 'Wow, these guys are cool.'

Do you think rock & roll fans are less snobbish than they used to be in terms of only listening to one style of music?
I think rock & roll is dead. It gets regurgitated in so many different forms that the basic Chuck Berry or Eddie Cochran way of playing is just not around anymore. And it's not what everybody listens to.

If rock & roll is dead, then what are you guys doing?
I guess it's all just music the way I look at it. It's hard to call it rock & roll anymore. It's gotten so complex. In the beginning it was just banging out three chords. In the '60s it started branching off and doing all these different things, which was great, but at the same time I think it separated people from each other. Now there are all these different factions. Which is cool – I love a lot of different kinds of stuff. But at the same time, you kind of wonder who's for real and who isn't.

Can't serious listeners tell the difference?
No. Sometimes I can't tell the difference. I kind of figure out the difference later on. I mean, I'm still trying to figure out if what I do is for real. I get really confused as far as punk rock goes. The subculture has suddenly become really fashionable, and here I am calling myself a punk.

Is what I'm doing really punk rock? Staying at the Sheraton and doing a Rolling Stone interview? Is that necessarily punk rock? For me, it's more a state of mind, but I guess on the surface it's maybe a little bit contrived. I think what I'm trying to say is that rock & roll is in one big identity crisis. It's not necessarily dead, but I think a lot of people don't know who they are. So if they try to relate to rock & roll music, and when the people who are making it don't really know who they are either . . . maybe if people sang a little bit more about 'I don't know who the fuck I am,' then people would kind of get it a little more. Then everybody could be cultural morons together.

What kind of music did your parents listen to?
My dad was a jazz drummer. He would go to bars, play, smoke pot with his friends, what people in jazz do. I never really knew him too well. And my mom was into country music; she always listened to Hank Williams. I don't think they disliked rock – they were really into music in general. I have a lot of older siblings; I've got a brother who's old enough to be my father. And he's listened to a lot of stuff from the Guess Who to the Who. And my mom was kind of an Elvis freak, so the first album I ever bought was Elvis Presley's The Sun Sessions.

Has something been lost from Green Day's early days?
Yeah, I have lost something. I lost the scene where I came from. Not necessarily friends – I know who my friends are, who I'm going to be hanging out with for the rest of my life. I lost the feeling of a community. Not just in terms of music but artists and 'zine writers, too. Not really friendships but relating. A lot of people can't get our older music because there were a lot of inside jokes involved in the music and in the lyrics.

How do you make sure it all stays real?
Well, I don't know – you get married. Find some reality in your life. That was the most real thing that's happened to me all year, getting married. The rest is kind of a blur. And you end up with these big numbers at the end – 2.2 million records. All you've been doing was playing. Then people suddenly think of you as this voice of a generation. And you kind of go, 'Huh? All I was doing was pulling my pants down – more like the butt of a generation.'

This story appeared in the November 17, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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