On the way downstairs to the den, Armstrong points out some musical highlights in his home: on one wall, a framed print of Bob Dylan's painting on the cover of his 1970 album Self Portrait; on another, a photograph of the members of Green Day and U2 re-enacting the cover of the Beatles' Abbey Road, taken when the bands made a benefit single together at the London studio in 2006; and around a corner from the den, Armstrong's home studio. At one point, as he worked here on songs for 21st Century Breakdown, Armstrong recorded a cover of the Who's 1966 mini-opera "A Quick One While He's Away," singing and playing all of the parts.
"That song is one of the most perfect moments in rock theater, more inspiring than Tommy," he raves. And he can't get enough of it. Green Day have cut a full-band version, available as an iTunes bonus track with 21st Century Breakdown. At the Fox Theater, they performed the entire piece at a soundcheck.
"It's important to us that we're still looked at as a punk band," says Cool, who joined Green Day in 1991. He has his first drum kit, the one he played as the 12-year-old drummer in the Lookouts, set up in an attic room of his Oakland home. "It was our religion, our higher education." Armstrong's first favorite bands included Hüsker Dü and the Bay Area ska-punk group Operation Ivy. He fondly remembers his sister Anna taking him to see the Replacements when he was 15.
But recently, Cool says, Armstrong has "gone archival. He's looking for the architects of rock & roll, like Eddie Cochran. He's like, 'I've got this great obscure Creation record.'" While recording with Vig in Los Angeles last year, Green Day bought cheap turntables at Amoeba Records and lots of vinyl to play during breaks. Vig would arrive at the studio to work on guitar parts and find Armstrong spinning Eighties power-pop LPs by the Beat and the Plimsouls.
"Everyone's gotta get their inspiration from somewhere," Armstrong says. He talks excitedly about his research for 21st Century Breakdown, the records and artists he listened to on the way to his own songs: the Pretty Things' 1968 concept album, S.F. Sorrow, Ray Davies of the Kinks ("I love how he can make everyday life sound so grandiose"); the Doors' first two albums; Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell ("Just because it's so ambitious").
"For me, it's the whole aesthetic: harmonies, dynamics, swagger, fluidity," Armstrong continues. To make your own rock & roll history, he contends, "you take all of those ingredients and establish them to your own life, your past."
21st Century Breakdown is, like the anti-Bush vitriol of American Idiot, fiction set in current events: A punk-rock couple, Christian and Gloria, spin their wheels and fight their way through a new century already going terribly wrong. "We're in a transition, from one destructive era to something new," Armstrong says. "That is just as frightening as the past."
But embedded in the howitzer riffing and shout-along choruses is the most personal, emotionally convulsive record Armstrong has ever written. References come from close to home, like "the Class of '13" in "21st Century Breakdown" – Armstrong's older son, Joseph, 14, graduates from high school in 2013. Dirnt is certain the guitarist wrote "Last of the American Girls" about Adrienne: "She has very strong beliefs and stands up for the things she believes in." Armstrong starts the title song with his own birthday – "Born into Nixon, I was raised in hell" (he was born in 1972). When he sings about abandonment and vengeance in songs like "Before the Lobotomy," "Christian's Inferno" and "Peacemaker," he does it in the first person. "You'd be surprised what I endure," Armstrong croons in the Seventies-John Lennon ballad section of "Restless Heart Syndrome," before the psychotic wah-wah guitar blows in.
"I don't really know what I was setting out to do," Armstrong confesses. For months, while Green Day worked on the music at Studio 880, their recording and practice facility in Oakland, then in pre-production sessions with Vig, Dirnt and Cool had no idea what Armstrong was writing about. "I wouldn't tell them what the lyrics were," he says. His demos were no help. Armstrong mixed his vocals so low, behind the guitars, Cool says, that he and Dirnt "could only understand half of what he's singing." Finally, one day last year, Armstrong sat down with Dirnt, Cool and Vig and read the words aloud to them – every song, in order.
"I look at Christian and Gloria," Armstrong says now, "and it's me. Gloria is one side: this person trying to hold on to this sense of belief, still trying to do good. Whereas Christian is deep into his own demons and victimizing himself over that."
"Sometimes I feel like I'm protecting my kids from myself," he says quietly, as if he's afraid Joseph and Jakob, 10, might overhear him. (They are at an Oakland Athletics game with Adrienne.) "I'll write a song like 'Christian's Inferno' or 'East Jesus Nowhere' and fear they will look at the lyrics. Even Adrienne will look at them and go, 'Is Dad feeling OK?'" Armstrong wrote "East Jesus Nowhere," a scalding rebuke of fundamentalist religion, after attending a church service where a friend's baby was baptized. The friend later asked him, "Was it really that bad?"
Dirnt says Armstrong, who dropped out of high school in 12th grade, always wrote with "seriousness, on a personal-politics level. 'Basket Case' [on Dookie] is about someone trying to hold on to sanity."
Cool recalls the way his dad, a Marine helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, reacted to Armstrong's rendering of a father's absence in American Idiot's "Wake Me When September Ends": "He was really moved. Because that's what happened to my mom and him. They got married, she got pregnant and he got shipped off to Vietnam. That love story was his."
Armstrong talks frankly about the roots of his discontent, like the "years of disconnection" in his family after his father died. "The problem was I had five parents: my older brothers and sisters" – Alan, Marrie, Holly, Anna and David. "They were going through their own loss. Yet they had this responsibility toward me – my mom had to work graveyard shifts as a waitress. The resentment grew. And I didn't want to be a burden. I wanted to be a younger brother. It's taken us a lot of years to get through that.
"But we're all born with the same demons," he argues. "I'll see a kid at a show wearing a Green Day T-shirt and think, 'I wonder what's wrong with him. What's he going through?' There is always that part of you, on the subterranean side of society. You don't fit. You see things, and they make you angry. I internalize shit. And I spit it out."
"Ground zero for me is still punk rock," Armstrong says heatedly. "I like painting an ugly picture. I get something uplifting out of singing some of the most horrifying shit you can sing about." He smiles. "It's just my DNA."
Armstrong beams when asked if Joseph has finally heard the new album. "I had just got the mastering back, then had to split town," he says. "Adrienne said it was so funny – Joey and his friend in the car, headbanging the whole time. Sometimes I feel insecure – I want to make sure 'Christian's Inferno' isn't going on in this house. I don't think he understands everything that's going on in there. He just knows it rocks hard.
"But in the next few years," Armstrong acknowledges with a slight shiver, "he's definitely going to do some investigating."
"I could tell you what every street is down there," Dirnt says, turning on a stool at a small table next to his kitchen, looking out the glass door to a patio. The bassist lives with his wife, Brittney (they were married in March), their new son and his teenage daughter by a previous marriage in a house that sits on a ridge high over Oakland, near a state nature preserve. Dirnt often goes out back in the morning, in his bare feet, and scans the rolling hills for coyotes, foxes and bobcats.
The view from the patio, though, is even better than Armstrong's. Dirnt can see not only the whole of San Francisco Bay but, right below him, his entire life story and Green Day's early career: the houses, hangouts and clubs in Oakland and Berkeley where he, Armstrong and Cool partied and played before stardom. "I've ridden my bicycle on every street," Dirnt says. "I was born over there" – he points to the left – "a little to the northeast of downtown. It's called Oakland Highland. Nowadays, if you want to get shot, go to Oakland Highland. They're used to dealing with the trauma."
Green Day are global rock stars. The next-to-last show of their American Idiot tour, in December 2005, was for more than 50,000 people in a cricket stadium in Sydney. But Green Day consider themselves a local band. Armstrong and Dirnt grew up in the East Bay area. Cool moved to Berkeley from rural Mendocino County when he was 17. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, they were regulars in the audience and onstage at the 924 Gilman Street Project, the legendary punk co-op in Berkeley. Armstrong wrote much of Dookie in a house he and Cool shared with other musicians and itinerants at Ashby Avenue and Ellsworth Street in Berkeley. Dirnt lived nearby, on San Pablo Avenue, although Armstrong points out, "Mike's lived in every single town around here: El Cerrito, El Sobrante, Rodeo, Crockett, Albany, Berkeley. He's been everywhere."
"This is home for us," Armstrong says of Oakland, "just as much as New Jersey is for Springsteen and Dublin is for U2. We represent it. We're trying to, anyway." Armstrong, Dirnt and Cool live within 15 minutes' drive of one another. Cool has a house on a quiet, tree-lined street much closer to sea level. (He has a girlfriend, Ruri, and a teenage daughter and young son by earlier marriages.) When Green Day are not on tour, they commute regularly to Studio 880, located almost under a freeway in the rough Jingletown section of Oakland. The band's idea of a vacation, during rehearsals for 21st Century Breakdown, was to write and record an album there of Sixties garage rock as Foxboro Hot Tubs. When people ask Dirnt, "Do you have any advice for my son? He wants to be in a band," his stock response is "Play with your friends."
Armstrong and Dirnt were "inseparable," the guitarist says, from the moment they met. "Both of us felt a void in our lives at the time." Armstrong's father was dying; Dirnt, who was adopted, was bouncing between his divorced parents. At one point, Dirnt, a champion class clown in school, moved into Armstrong's house. "He was a super-high-strung kid," Armstrong recalls, "talking, insulting people nonstop." One of Armstrong's sisters, meeting Dirnt for the first time, chased him around the kitchen with a butcher knife. "I thought, 'That means you're part of the family,'" says Armstrong.
Cool was the most experienced musician in Green Day when he replaced their original drummer, John Kiffmeyer, in time to play on the 1992 album Kerplunk. Two years after Cool was born in Frankfurt, where his father was stationed, the family settled on a remote mountain near Willits, in Northern California. One of the few neighbors was Larry Livermore, a punk in his 30s when he started the Lookouts with the preteen Cool in 1985. Livermore also co-founded Lookout Records, which issued Green Day's earliest records.
"What struck me about Billie first was his melodies," Cool says. "He wasn't screaming as many syllables as you could get in a note. He had this Beatles vibe about him." Cool had trouble fitting into Green Day at first. Dirnt and Armstrong "had a Paul-and-John thing going," meaning McCartney and Lennon. Asked who was who, Cool replies, laughing, "I still don't know. I think Billie is Paul and John now."
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