"Let every redneck in America hear you," yells Green Day guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, and 5,000 British fans respond with a chant of "idiot America!" It is January, and Green Day are playing London's Brixton Academy, two weeks into a European tour that sold 175,000 tickets in less than an hour. In April, the band begins a one-month U.S. arena tour behind American Idiot, the album that debuted at Number One in September and has barely been out of the Top Ten since. The album that took on George Bush and the war in Iraq ("We did everything we could to piss people off," says Armstrong, who performed the title track in a Bush mask in the weeks leading up to the presidential election). The album that earned the band seven Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year (winning that one, says bassist Mike Dirnt, "would restore my faith in rock & roll," to which Armstrong adds, "I feel like we deserve it"). The album that made Green Day superstars again.
Onstage at Brixton, Armstrong is like a windup doll gone crazy, constantly moving. Drummer Tré Cool keeps getting up to circle his drum kit while banging on his cymbals. About the only person in the place who's stationary is Dirnt, though even from the back of the crowd you can see the veins pop out of his neck. "This song is a big fuck-you to the American government," Armstrong says before the band plays "Holiday." "This song is not anti-American, it's anti-war." The giant video screens behind him light up with images of helicopters dropping bombs. Almost an hour later, Green Day encore with an utterly sincere cover of Queen's "We Are the Champions." The entire crowd sings along. It feels like Green Day are not just celebrating their return to the top of the charts; they're leading a rock & roll resistance movement.
When Green Day first hit it big with Dookie in 1994, they were three kids from a grimy punkrock collective in Berkeley, California. They sang about teen boredom, masturbation and being couch potatoes. Dookie sold 10 million copies but drew the scorn of the punks they grew up with. By twenty-three, they were all millionaires and all married. They kept making records but stopped talking to one another. Before long, between them they had five kids and three divorces.
In 2001, they put out a greatest-hits album and went on the road. And the story could have ended there. "Breaking up was an option," says Dirnt. "We were arguing a lot and we were miserable. We needed to shift directions."
So they spent a year working out their differences and learning to make a new kind of music. Armstrong confessed to Dirnt and Cool that he had a secret, not very punk ambition: to write "the 'Bohemian Rhapsody' of the future." Soon they were working out the nine-minute suites that form the heart of American Idiot, "Jesus of Suburbia" and "Homecoming." Word leaked out that they were making a rock opera. "I looked on the message board," says Armstrong, "and some kids thought we were crazy. It's like, 'Fuck it, take the message board down.' We decided we were going to be the biggest, best band in the world or fall flat on our faces."
It's the day after the Brixton show. Armstrong has sunk down into a lime-green chair at his London hotel. He's the only member of Green Day who still looks younger than his age (all three celebrate their thirty-third birthdays this year), though today he's tired from a tour schedule so relentless he's sworn off alcohol for the month. Armstrong remains a drinker but no longer gets stoned – a major change in a band that named itself after a song they'd written about spending the day smoking pot, though not a surprising one for a guy with two young sons: Joey, 10, and Jakob, 6. He's relaxed and talks slowly, with a weary confidence.
According to Armstrong, Green Day spent the three years following 2000's Warning "not talking about things, and not wanting to rock the boat." What had started as three seventeen-year-olds getting high and bashing out punk tunes had become a business, and over time a declining business. Resentment built, none of it articulated. Armstrong is the group's natural leader, a quiet take-charge guy, but he mentions in passing that he can see how Dirnt and Cool began to view him as the band's Nazi. He, in turn, became so mired in their resentment that he was afraid to show his bandmates new songs, because they'd immediately attack them. He was blocked, and he realized "to be in the greatest band in the world, we have to work on the small stuff."
So in 2003, when it came time to make a new record, they decided to add one thing to their daily band-practice schedule: mandated weekly conversation time. It was Armstrong's idea, and it worked. "We bared our souls to one another," says Dirnt. "Admitting that we cared for each other was a big thing," says Cool. "We didn't hold anything back." They don't want to talk about the grievances they aired, just the results. "Before, Billie would write a song, get stuck and then say, 'Fuck it,'" says Cool. "The imaginary Mike and Tré in his head would say, 'That song sucks. Don't waste your time on it.' He stopped doing that and became totally fearless around me and Mike."
For Armstrong, that meant leaving behind the bratty attitude of early Green Day songs such as "Basket Case" and "Geek Stink Breath." "I felt like I was too old to be angry anymore," he says. "I didn't want to come across as the angry older guy. It's sexy to be an angry young man, but to be a bitter old bastard is another thing altogether."
In an effort to find a new groove, they recorded polka songs, filthy versions of Christmas tunes, salsa numbers. The goofs opened up the way to real songs, and after four and a half months at their studio in Oakland, California, they had twenty finished tracks. Then one day they came in to find the masters were stolen. "We were really pissed," says Armstrong. "But it ended up being good because we were readying ourselves to go where we hadn't gone before."
But first Armstrong took off for New York to get more wasted than he'd been in a long while. He left his wife and two young sons for a month and "drank a lot of red wine, and vodka tonics," he says. "I was searching for something. I'm not sure it was the most successful trip." "He was really questioning what he was doing," says Adrienne Armstrong, his wife of ten years. "It was scary, because where he had to go to get this record wasn't a place I'm sure I wanted him to be." And it wasn't until Armstrong came home and the hangover haze began to clear that he found his subject, while watching TV footage of U.S. troops invading Iraq: politics.
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