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Forty Years of Rolling Stone: Billie Joe Armstrong Looks Ahead

'This war has got to stop. There's no draft – that's why none of the kids give a shit. They'd rather watch videos on YouTube.'

November 15, 2007
billie joe armstrong green day
Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day.
James Devaney/WireImage

You have two young sons. What kind of America will they inherit?
This war has to finish before something new blossoms. There's no draft – that's why none of the kids give a shit. They'd rather watch videos on YouTube. It's hard to tell what's next – there is so much information out there with no power to it. Everything is in transition, including our government. Next year, it's someone else in the White House. There's no way to define anything. It's Generation Zero. But you gotta start at zero to get to something.

Is there anyone now running for president who gives you hope for the future?
Barack Obama, but it's a bit early to tell if this is the guy I like. I get sick of the religious-figure thing. People don't question their rulers, these political figures, just as they don't question their ministers and priests. They're not going to question George Bush, especially if he goes around talking about God – "I'm going to let God decide this for me. He's going to give me the answer." The fear of God keeps people silent.

When did you first vote in a presidential election?
In 1992. I was twenty. I voted for Clinton.

Did you feel like you made a difference?
Yeah. The Eighties sucked. There was so much bullshit that went along with that decade. I felt like Clinton was a fresh face with fresh ideas. There were times when he was dropping bombs, and I'm thinking, "What the fuck are you doing?" But he became a target. We have this puritanical vision of what a leader is supposed to be, and that's what makes us the biggest hypocrites in the world. We got so inside this guy's sexual habits. Now we have a president going around, killing in the name of what? In the name of nothing.

Photos: Green Day Through the Years

What did you accomplish with your 2004 anti-Bush album, American Idiot? He was re-elected anyway, and the war in Iraq is still going on.
I found a voice. There may have been people disenfranchised by it. People have a hard time with that kind of writing: "Why are you preaching to me?" It does sound preachy, a bit. I'm a musician, and I want to say positive things. If it's about self-indulgent depression or overthrowing the government, it's gotta come from my heart. And when you say "Fuck George W. Bush" in a packed arena in Texas, that's an accomplishment, because you're saying it to the unconverted.

Do you think selling nearly 6 million copies of that album might have an effect on the 2008 election? A kid who bought it at fifteen will be voting age next year.
I hope so. I made it to give people a reason to think for themselves. It was supposed to be a catalyst. Maybe that's one reason why it's difficult for me to write about politics now. A lot of things on that record are still relevant. It's like we have this monarchy in politics – the passing of the baton between the Clintons and the Bushes. That's frightening. What needs to happen is a complete change, a person coming from the outside with a new perspective on all the fucked-up problems we have.

How would you describe the state of pop culture?
People want blood. They want to see other people thrown to the lions. Do audiences want rock stars? I can't tell. You have information coming at you from so many areas – YouTube, the Internet, tabloids. Watching Britney Spears the other night [on the MTV Video Music Awards] was like watching a public execution. How could the people at MTV, the people around her, not know this girl was fucked up? People came in expecting a train wreck, and they got more than they bargained for.

She was a willing conspirator. She didn't say no.
She is a manufactured child. She has come up through this Disney perspective, thinking that all life is about is to be the most ridiculous star you could be. But it's also about what we look at as entertainment – watching somebody go through that.

How do you decide what your children can see on TV or the Internet? As a dad, even a punk-rock dad, that can make you conservative in your choices.
I want to protect them from garbage. It's not necessarily the sex and drugs. It's bad drugs and bad sex, the violence you see on television and in the news. I want to protect them from being desensitized. I want them to realize this is real life, not a video game.

The main thing I want them to have is a good education, because that's something I never had. Get smart. Educate yourself as much as you can, and get as much out of it, even if the teacher is an asshole.

Do you regret dropping out of high school?
Life in high school sucks. I bucked the system. I also got lucky. My wife has a degree in sociology, and there are conversations she has – I don't have a lucking clue what they're talking about. College – I could have learned from that.

But I was the last of six kids. At that point, my mother was fifty-eight, and she threw up her hands – "I'm through with this parenting thing." Also, I could not handle authority figures. But I wouldn't say I'm an authority figure for my kids. I provide guidelines, not rules.

What is it like being a middle-aged punk? Isn't that a contradiction in terms?
It's about the energy you bring with you, the pulse inside your head. I want to get older. I don't want to be twenty-one again. Screw that. My twenties were a difficult time – where my band was at, getting married, having a child. I remember walking out of a gig in Chicago, past these screaming kids. There were these punks, real ones, sitting outside our tour bus. One girl had a forty-ouncer, and she goes, "Billie Joe, come drink with us." I said, "I can't, I've got my family on the bus." She goes, "Well, fuck you then." I get on the bus, and my wife says, "Did that bitch just tell you to fuck off? I'm gonna kick her ass right now." I'm holding her back, while my child is naked, jumping on the couch: "Hi, Daddy!" That was my whole life right there – screaming kids, punks telling me to fuck off, my wife getting pissed, my naked son waiting to get into his pajamas.

There's nothing wrong with being twenty-one. It's the lessons you learn. At thirty, you think, "Why did I worry so much about this shit?" When I hit forty, I'll say the same thing: "Why did I worry about this shit in my thirties?"

What have you learned about yourself?
There is more to life than trying to find your way through self-destruction or throwing yourself into the fire all the time. Nihilism in punk rock can be a cliche. I need to give myself more room to breathe, to allow my thoughts to catch up with the rest of me.

Before Dookie, I wasn't married and I didn't have kids. I had a guitar, a bag of clothes and a four-track recorder. There are ways you don't want to change. You don't want to lose your spark. But I need silence more than I did before. I need to get away from the static and noise, whereas before, I thrived on it.

Are you ready for the end of the music business? The technology and its effect on sales have changed dramatically since Green Day's debut EP – on vinyl – in 1989.
Technology now and the way people put out records – everything comes at you so fast, you don't know what you're investigating. You can't identify with it – at least I can't. With American Idiot, we made a conscious effort to give people an experience they could remember for the rest of their lives. It wasn't just the content. It was the artwork, the three acts – the way you could read it all like someone's story.
Is music simply not important to young people now the way it was to you as a kid?

People get addicted to garbage they don't need. At shows, they gotta talk on their phones to their friend who's in the next aisle. I was watching this documentary on Jeff Tweedy of Wilco [Sunken Treasure]. He was playing acoustic, and he ends up screaming at the audience: "Your fucking conversation can wait. I'm up here singing a song – get involved." He wasn't being an asshole. He was like, "Leave your bullshit behind. Let's celebrate what's happening now."

We need music, and we need it good. I took it very seriously. There's a side of me where music will always send chills up my spine, make me cry, make me want to get up and do Pete Townshend windmills. In a lot of ways, I was in a minority when I was young. There are people who go, "Oh, that's a snappy tune." I listen to it and go, "That's the greatest fucking song ever. That is the song I want played at my funeral."

Now that you've brought it up, what song do you want played at your funeral?
It keeps changing. "Life on Mars?" by David Bowie. "In My Life," by the Beatles. "Love," by John Lennon.

Those are all reflective ballads, not punk.
I disagree. They are all honest in their reflection. The punk bands I liked were the ones who didn't fall into clichés – the Clash, the Ramones. The Ramones wrote beautiful love songs. They also invented punk rock. I'd have to add "Blitzkrieg Bop" to the list.

What is the future of punk rock? Will it still be a voice of rebellion in twenty years?
It's categorized in so many different ways. You've got the MySpace punks. But there is always the subculture of it – the rats in the walls, pounding the pavement and booking their own live shows. It comes down to the people who are willing to do something different from everybody else.
You are in a different, platinum-album world now. What makes you so sure that spirit survives?

I'm going on faith – because I was there. Gilman Street [the Berkeley, California, club where Green Day played early shows] is still around. And that's a hard task, because there is no bar – it's a nonprofit cooperative. It's like a commune-this feeling of bucking the system together, surviving and thriving on art. Punk, as an underground, pushes for the generation gap. As soon as you're twenty-five years old, there's a group of sixteen-year-olds coming to kick your ass. And you have to pass the torch on. It's a trip to have seen it happen so many times. It gives me goose bumps – punk is something that survives on its own.

This story is from the November 15, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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