Armstrong grew up in the East Bay, northeast of San Francisco, and remembers singing in front of audiences when he was as young as five. "I learned show tunes as a kid," he says. "My dad was a jazz drummer, and I used to go to veterans' hospitals and sing." He started piano lessons when he was eight. "I wanted to play guitar, but they said my hands were too small." When he was ten, his father died of cancer (a loss he addresses for the first time on American Idiot's "Wake Me Up When September Ends"), leaving Armstrong and his five siblings to be raised by their harried waitress mother and, when she remarried two years later, a stepfather they detested.
At 14, he formed his first band, Sweet Children, with Dirnt, his best friend since he was ten. Born to a heroin-addicted mother who gave him up for adoption, Dirnt is the only member of the band to graduate from high school. His adoptive parents divorced when he was seven years old, leaving him torn between his prosperous father, a white computer programmer, and his struggling mother, a Native American who didn't hide her racial animosity. "I grew up with my mom hating the white man and loving me," he has said.
Dirnt left home at 15, and he and Armstrong started hanging at Berkeley's Gilman Street Project, a graffiti-splashed, fire-code-skirting club that was home to a burgeoning teen punk scene. Sweet Children turned into Green Day, and after their first tour they took on a new drummer: Gilman Street veteran Tré Cool.
Cool was born Frank Edwin Wright III, the son of a Vietnam veteran who started a trucking company. He grew up in Willits, California – a town in the Mendocino mountains so rural that his nearest neighbor was a mile away – and began playing drums with his first band, the Lookouts, when he was just 12 years old (the band's singer, Lawrence Livermore, later founded Green Day's first label, Lookout! Records).
After the success of Dookie, the scene they'd found a home in condemned them as pop-punk traitors. "The backlash, our hometown feeling like we sold out, we were playing into that," says Armstrong. "Ninety-nine percent of it was good, and we were focusing on the one percent that wasn't. That's the one thing I wish we could have changed. Who gives a shit?" Alienated from the makeshift family of Gitman Street, they started families of their own. By 25, they were all married with children.
Armstrong's marriage has survived. During the European tour, his sons were back home with their grandmother, but his wife was never far from his side. "I love that she still watches our shows," he says. "The thing that's great is that the music still gets under her skin in the same way that it affects me."
For Cool and Dirnt, things have been different. Cool has endured two divorces and, more recently, a failed romance with Donnas drummer Torry Castellano. He has two children, one from each of his former wives and is, he says, "still trying to work it all out." American Idiot helped. "There were a lot of waterworks making this record; I went through the worst time of my life," he says.
Dirnt, too, went through a painful separation during the Idiot sessions. "My ex-wife told me she was leaving me the day we finished the album," he says. Dirnt has moved on and currently has a new girlfriend. He talks about lavishing attention on his eight-year-old daughter but calls the divorce "a blessing but just an emotional drain. It was horrible and great. When we mastered the record, I cried through the entire thing."
In May 2003, Green Day went back to work in their Oakland studio. They left behind the 20 songs they'd lost and started from scratch with a demo for a new song Armstrong had come up with on long walks around his neighborhood. "American Idiot": "Don't want to be an American idiot/One nation controlled by the media/Information age of hysteria." Soon more songs came and a story emerged: a kid – the Jesus of Suburbia – making his way through the world of punk rock with a drunken prophet named St. Jimmy as his guide. There's drugs and music and a girl, Whatsername, whom Armstrong calls "every girl I've been involved with."
And there's something else: an indictment of the Bush administration and of the reality-TV-obsessed media. "We were in the studio and watching the journalists embedded with the troops, and it was the worst version of reality television," Armstrong says. "Switch the channel, and it's Nick and Jessica. Switch, and it's Fear Factor. Switch, and people are having surgery to look like Brad Pitt. We're surrounded by all of that bullshit, and the characters Jesus of Suburbia and St. Jimmy are as well. It's a sign of the times."
The sound of American Idiot careens from old-school punk to Motown soul and Who-style anthems. Armstrong credits a wide variety of inspirations: "I used everything I knew about music. Show tunes, musicals like Grease and the struggle between right and wrong, The Joshua Tree – I tried to soak in everything and make it Green Day.
"The atmosphere can be anti-Bush, and I definitely had that in mind, but when you get down to it, it's a human story," he continues. "In the U.S., that puritanical feeling takes over: 'It's not your business who I vote for.' It stops people from thinking so much. They develop a hard-nosed opinion, and then suddenly they stop taking in information. I don't have a million things against conservatives. Johnny Ramone was a very nice guy but a total fucking Republican. I still liked the guy. That's where it gets screwed up. If someone believes one thing, it turns into 'us against them.' This album is about feelings. I didn't want to make a Rage Against the Machine record. I wanted to make an album of heartfelt songs."
Backstage, prior to a gig at the Manchester Evening News Arena, Green Day have gotten into uniform: matching black shirts and red ties. Tré Cool holes up with a drum set in a practice room with sea-green walls and a red vinyl floor. He spends an hour jamming with the band's backing musicians: two horn players and a guitarist. He often spends the bus rides after shows jamming like this. "Fuck video games," he says gleefully. "We've got jazz improv!"
Billie Joe Armstrong warms up by running in the halls listening to his iPod. When he runs, he kicks his ankles up to his butt. Mike Dirnt has a light meal in the catering area – he's getting over a cold – and talks about his love of stand-up comedy. Last year, he got onstage at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. "I killed for three minutes out of four," he says.
The band takes the stage to the theme song from 2001. Tonight's show is the biggest of the European tour – 15,000 people screaming approval for an hour and a half. "This is the best fucking tour we've ever done," Armstrong announces from the stage. The centerpiece of the show comes when Armstrong brings three audience members onstage, gives them instruments and leads them through a cover of "Knowledge," a three-chord punk classic by Operation Ivy, one of the Gilman Street bands Green Day came up with. The crash-and-bash simplicity is a beautiful counterpoint to the musical complexity of the American Idiot material – it shows where Green Day started and how far they've come.
"There's a sense of underdog and politics, but the party is a lot of fun, too," an elated Armstrong says of the Operation Ivy cover backstage after the show. "To connect with the kids like that is so important. That barrier gets chopped off." Armstrong is drenched in sweat. He sits next to Adrienne on a black leather couch. When she makes a comment about getting back to the hotel and "doing nothing tonight," he looks at her adoringly.
Ten years of uneasy living, career crises and emotional breakdowns have brought Green Day to this point. "For the first time in our career, it's all about the music," Armstrong says. "There's no bullshit, no reality shit, no nostalgic trip. That's what makes the last ten years more worth it. Plus the fact that we all dress pretty sharp."
This story is from the February 24, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.
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