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Green Day Fights On

The scrappy punks, who became superstars 15 years ago with 'Dookie,' are now America's most ambitious rock band

May 28, 2009
Green Day Fights On

"Every song, every word, everything I write, every part of the music – I completely throw myself into it," Billie Joe Armstrong says, sitting in a soft chair in the downstairs den of his home. Green Day's singer-guitarist and main songwriter lives in a neighborhood perched on a hill east of downtown Oakland. A sliding glass door opens to a patio with an enviable view of San Francisco Bay, all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.

But Armstrong is facing the other way as he speaks. And his gaze wanders up the cherry-red wall across the room, to large framed photographs of the Who's Pete Townshend smashing a guitar in the mid-Sixties and a trio of very young Beatles – John Lennon, George Harrison and original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe – in Hamburg, Germany. "That is the thing that can fuck you up in the head," Armstrong goes on at a machine-gun clip."Here's this thing, this freedom of rock & roll. I have the opportunity to express myself for the rest of my life, which is awesome. At the same time, I'm doing it as if my life depended on it."

Photos: Green Day Through the Years

"That's the thing for me," says the guitarist, 37, whose eternal-punk-boy features and modish haircut ensure he doesn't look a day over 22, his age when Green Day's 1994 album, Dookie, made them overnight punk-pop stars, selling 15 million copies worldwide. "I have to make sure that I'm completely lost in the moment."

This is what he means: The night before, Green Day – Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool – play at Oakland's Fox Theater. The gig is one of four surprise Bay Area shows to limber up for their first world tour since 2005 (they start in Seattle on July 3rd), and the two-and-a-half-hour marathon begins with a complete performance of the band's new rock opera, 21st Century Breakdown. The album is a compound bomb of classic-rock ecstasy, no-mercy punk assault and pop-song wiles; it's like the Clash's London Calling, the Who's Quadrophenia and Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade all compressed into 18 songs.

From the start, Armstrong is way gone. In "21st Century Breakdown," he holds his guitar aloft like Bruce Springsteen and swings his power-chord arm in Townshend-style windmills. He pogos to the goose-step beat of "Know Your Enemy," punches the air during "East Jesus Nowhere" like he's boxing with God and leans over the lip of the stage for "Horseshoes and Handgrenades," belting the line "I'm not fucking around!" eye to eye with the kids in the pit. Dirnt is a key voice in the weirdly sweet harmonies lacing "Christian's Inferno" and "Murder City," and Cool drives everything like Keith Moon with Charlie Watts' swing.

Green Day Bring '21st Century Breakdown' to Life at Stunning Oakland Gig

Armstrong, who wrote virtually every note and word of 21st Century Breakdown, is the nonstop center of the maelstrom – all through a second set too, including hits from Dookie and the politically charged 2004 smash, American Idiot. And he pays for it. After the show, in a catering room backstage, dozens of friends and relatives cluster around Dirnt and Cool with congratulations. Armstrong, though, is a no-show. He stays in his dressing room, recovering.

"He must be exhausted," says his mother, Ollie, a petite woman in her 70s with curly blond hair, a warm smile and, at the moment, a fretful-mom's sigh in her voice. Billie is the youngest of her six children; their father, Andy, died of cancer when Billie was 10. "I worry about him," she says of Billie. "He puts so much of himself into his music, into performing. It takes a lot out of him." Later, Billie gets a text message from his sister Anna, who also waited for him backstage: "You have to make sure you take care of yourself." ("I was like, 'I'm good,'" he assured her.)

Butch Vig, who produced 21st Century Breakdown with Green Day, recognizes that kind of total immersion: He co-produced Nirvana's 1991 album Nevermind. "I saw the same thing in Kurt," Vig says, referring to singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain. "When he played, it was like he was free. And Billie Joe has told me that: 'When I'm onstage, I'm free. I'm not thinking.'"

Photos: Green Day Debut '21st Century Breakdown' Onstage in Oakland

Vig saw the downside of that intensity too. "They'd be working on a song, it wasn't coming together, and Billie would get frustrated. He'd put his guitar down and say, 'I'm going home'" – sometimes leaving Dirnt and Cool standing there. "Billie sets the bar high. He expects everybody to get there as quickly as he does. But Mike and Tré keep up with him. When they lock in, they play like no other band I've worked with."

Cool, 36, describes Armstrong as "gifted and tormented. Billie's brain is like 18 tape recorders playing simultaneously in a circle. Then he tries to have a conversation with me or Mike or his wife, Adrienne, at the same time. You can talk to him – 'OK, what do you think of this?' – and he'll be looking you in the eye, going, 'Huh?'"

Dirnt, 37, uses a similar metaphor: "Billie is not able to turn off the six different radio stations in his head." The two met in fifth grade, at a school in Crockett, California, north of Oakland — Armstrong is from nearby Rodeo; Dirnt was born in Oakland – and have played music together for nearly as long. They started Green Day, originally called Sweet Children, when they were 15. (Dirnt's real name is Michael Ryan Pritchard. A friend dubbed him Dirnt after the sound of his bass-playing.)

"We are a democracy with an elected leader," Dirnt says of Green Day. He and Cool, whose real name is Frank Edwin Wright III, "are there to support Billie. Because he drives himself insane. We tell him, 'We're here for you, man. We do not take lightly what you're doing.'"

At home, says Armstrong, "I catch myself apologizing a lot." He pauses, grinning. "Not a lot," he quickly amends. "Enough." For a guy who freely admits he wants to be "the rock god from hell," Armstrong strives for a normal family life. He and Adrienne – who co-owns an organic clothing and furniture store, Atomic Garden, in Oakland – have been married since 1994 and have two sons. Asked about his writing regimen for the new album, Armstrong says the first thing he did every day was "get up and see the kids off to school." In baseball season, he is an assistant Little League coach.

Still, Armstrong concedes, "I will come to Adrienne once in a while and go, 'I know I've been completely consumed and self-centered. I'm sorry that for the last 15 years all I've talked about is being in a rock band.'"

"Billie is music," claims Dirnt. (He and Cool also have two children apiece.) "If you took the music away from Billie, you would still have a good husband and father who takes care of business and is there for his kids.

"But the rest," he says, "would be a shell."

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