Green Day: From Punk to Platinum

With 'Insomniac,' Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool rebuff cries of Johnny Rotten-cum-lately

December 28, 1995
Green Day RS 724/725
Green Day on the cover of 'Rolling Stone'
Mark Seliger

Don't throw your sneakers at the band. Seems like common sense. But there's no persuading the crowd during a Green Day show at Maple Leaf Gardens, in Toronto. Even a string of obscenities from singer Billie Joe Armstrong can't stop the footwear from flying.

Then all of a sudden, Armstrong stops thrashing his guitar – smack in the middle of a searing rendition of "2,000 Light Years Away" – to beckon one barefoot fan onstage to collect his rightful property. No hard feelings, Green Day's leader appears to tell him. The stage-struck kid scrambles up, takes a nervous bow and bends over to lace his shoes. He ought to be watching his back, though: Armstrong is behind him, wearing a boar's head Halloween mask and brandishing a butcher's knife. The crowd roars, and the kid, unharmed, leaps back into the snarling mosh pit.

Minutes later, Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt bounds toward his microphone to add harmonies to a rousing cover of Operation Ivy's "Knowledge," only to get smacked in the forehead by a wayward high-top basketball shoe. This time, Armstrong doesn't even notice. He's too busy ripping chords from his blue Stratocaster and contorting his face through a rogues' gallery of grimaces, gauging each one for maximum audience response. Then he turns his back to the arena and drops his pants.

Photos: Green Day Through the Years

That's entertainment, Green Day style. Pretty soon panic-stricken security personnel are chasing down kids who have jumped from their assigned seats to the general-admission floor, dragging them out the exits. Has the evening finally gotten totally out of control? We'll never know. "Thanks a lot, because we don't take this shit for granted!" Armstrong shouts, and the band walks off.

In the dressing room, Armstrong heads straight for a sofa in the corner and clams up. Bored? Perhaps. Exhausted? Most likely. But don't expect stereotypical rock-star behavior of the sort that Jon Bon Jovi displayed after a New York benefit last December that included both the New Jersey rocker and Green Day.

"A representative from his entourage comes over to our room and goes, 'Yes, Jon would like to have a beer if it's at all possible,'" Armstrong says. "We were like 'Well, tell Jon to get his fucking fluffy ass in here and get himself a beer.'"

"There's nothing punk rock about hockey arenas and coliseums and shit," says Dirnt as he rolls the afternoon's first joint on the skin of an upturned bass drum. It's three weeks earlier, and Green Day are sitting in a circle on the floor of their practice space, a windowless 12-foot-square room concealed within a small Cape Cod-style house on a quiet suburban street in East Oakland, Calif. The blank walls are decorated only with lists of song titles footnoted with facetious tempo directives ("Must pop Valium for this one"; "Must take crank for this one"). It is here that Green Day developed and rehearsed most of Insomniac, their anxiously awaited fourth album and the follow-up to the 8 million-selling Dookie.

No other group sporting punk values and playing music in a raw punk style – not even Nirvana – has ever flown this close to the sun without its wings melting. But rather than let financial success soften their attack, Green Day have returned with Insomniac, their fastest and darkest album to date. "It sounds angrier than the last record," Armstrong says, "and not really on purpose."

Today, Green Day rebuff the cries of Johnny Rotten-come-lately by insisting that they're no longer punk rock, and in many ways their claim is truthful. While Green Day have made their reputation peddling hard, fast bullets of adolescent aggression, it's Armstrong's uncanny knack for writing one impeccable two and a half-minute pop song after another that has endeared the band to the masses. For example, "Geek Stink Breath," Insomniac's first single, is such a brisk, infectious piece of verse-chorus-verse that one hardly has time to realize it's actually a harrowing account of a body decaying under the effects of methamphetamine abuse.

But Green Day don't want to be labeled a drug band. Besides, it's babies, not speed, that have been keeping two-thirds of the band wired as of late. Now that Tré and his wife, Lisea, have an infant daughter, Ramona, he says, "I can hit the drums harder than I ever thought I could. Having a kid is trying – you have to watch your temper all the time – but it enhances the experience of playing in the band."

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