Green Day: From Punk to Platinum

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Privacy was one thing that Tré didn't have to worry about as a kid in Willits, Calif., an isolated rural community more than two hours north of Berkeley. After a sister six years his senior moved out at 18, he felt like an only child. "I got my own room; I got the attention," Tré says. "I had my drum set, and I could play drums." His parents also let him, at age 12, play drums in a punk band called the Lookouts, formed by their closest neighbor, Lawrence Livermore. "We were out in the mountains," says Tre. "We used to jam with solar panels and a fuckin' Peavey amp." Livermore later started Lookout! Records, and the rest is history. Five years later, after Green Day had already released their 1,000 Hours EP and 39/Smooth, Tré replaced Green Day's first drummer, Al Sobrante (a.k.a. John Kiffmeyer), most recently with the disbanded Isocracy.

Although he's blown away by the events of the last 18 months, Tré claims it was a bigger leap from the Lookouts to Green Day. "When we put out Kerplunk on Lookout!, it was like 'My drumming's going to be on a CD!'" While Tré has been playing in bands since he was a pre-teen, recent events have made matters for the Oakland resident a trifle more surreal. "Sometimes I have to remind myself that I'm in a band," he says. "I was walking my dog this morning, and I suddenly thought to myself, 'I have a really weird job.'"

Armstrong points to a vista off the highway. "See all these refineries right here?" he asks. "That's my elementary school right there." His hand moves slightly to the left. "See how close they are?"

Green Day's main songwriter is at the wheel of his jet-black Ford Fairlane, a handsome '62 classic customized with leopard-print upholstery and scarlet fringe window treatments. A small crucifix dangles from the rearview mirror by a string of beads. While his life has changed in myriad ways during the last year, Armstrong looks as frazzled as ever. His brown striped T-shirt is ripped at the sleeve; his cropped, bleached-blond hair is curling under and turning orange; and dark circles rim his eyes. But appearances aren't always what they seem – this isn't rockstar stress brought on by touring and drug abuse. Armstrong, 23, owes his current addled state to his son, Joey.

"My body clock is all screwed up because I got a kid now," Armstrong says. "Most of the new songs were written in my basement in the middle of the night. I wouldn't be able to sleep, so I'd go downstairs."

It's a couple of weeks before the release of Insomniac, and Armstrong is giving his visitor a tour of Rodeo, Calif., his hometown. Located northeast of San Francisco, Rodeo is nestled in the duster of brownish, easy-rolling hills that dot the eastern bank of San Pablo Bay, an area known accordingly as East Bay. Although it's only a 15-minute drive up the freeway from Berkeley, the prosperous, cosmopolitan college town where Green Day got their start, Rodeo feels like another country.

Remote and sleepy, the community exists to house employees of the gargantuan oil and chemical refineries that surround it. According to Armstrong little has changed in Rodeo since his years growing up here. But cruising Rodeo's tiny downtown, it's difficult at first glance to spot the inspiration for Green Day's countless paeans to adolescent boredom and disaffection. The modest tract homes are invariably neatly kept, and a few have American flags hanging from the front porch.

Armstrong, the youngest of six children, was raised here. His father made a living as a jazz drummer and later as a truck driver; he died of cancer when Billie Joe was 10. His mother and one of his sisters still live in the house he grew up in.

"I didn't really have anything to be proud of, living around here," Armstrong says. "I lived around American pride and stuff with all these hicks and shit, but they really don't have anything to be proud of living out here. There's nothing here. They talk about how much pride they have – hometown pride, school pride, being patriotic but I think pride like that breeds a lot of prejudice."

Down one hill in Rodeo is a pleasant-enough-looking grocery store called Super Stop with a small parking lot in front. "That's kind of a speed hangout right there," Armstrong says without a trace of emotion as we pass. Even as a kid, he was aware of the role illicit drugs, particularly locally manufactured methamphetamine, played in his town's daily activities. "It was around our neighborhood so much. It was always like 'Why are those big fucking dudes across the street up all night long working on their cars?'"

The football field at John Swett High School, in nearby Crockett, where Armstrong spent the first year and a half of his ill-fated secondary-school career, is similarly a postcard-perfect vision of Stars and Stripes normalcy. "I wasn't the kind of kid that was beaten up or anything in high school," he says. "I think I was more invisible. I didn't really exist."

"This is Tight Wad Hill," announces Armstrong as we reach a cul-de-sac that looks down over the whole school campus. "This is where all the losers, the cheapskates, would come up and watch the football games without paying for them. It's actually the best view in the whole place." The song "Tight Wad Hill," from Insomniac, imagines a "drugstore hooligan" who makes the spot his outpost. "A lot of tweakers come and hang out up here, the crank victims and stuff."

It was disparities like these – between the way things were supposed to be and the way things actually were – that first drew Armstrong to punk music. Unlike parents or teachers, punks told the cold, unvarnished truth."They knew how to express themselves better," Armstrong says. "Besides, I always thought anger was a lot more interesting than feeling good about yourself."

Back on the highway, a car veers across two lanes and sidles up beside the Billiemobile. The driver, a clean-cut, jockish fellow, starts honking his horn and giving Armstrong a thumbs-up sign. The singer flashes a brief, toothy smile and then stares straight ahead, trying to talk over the disturbance.

"Personally I like playing big places a lot," Armstrong says in a cheerier vein. "We got a chance to be playing these arenas, and I'm really grateful for that. I'm not going to sit here and say, 'Fuck our fans, man, they're not true Green Day fans because they heard us on MTV.' These people are paying to see me play. A lot of those kids have never heard the kind of music that we play before, and a lot of them are from some where where there's a single parent that works their ass off to give them 12 bucks to go out and see us play this show. The last thing I want to do is slag on them for coming out to our show. They made us as big as we are."

In 1995, the mammoth success of Dookie took Green Day where no punk band had gone before. Now they're dodging as many young credibility seekers offstage as they are dirty sneakers onstage. "You won't ever see me walking into a room and saying, 'Who here could benefit my career?'" Armstrong says with a sneer.

On the surface the grouchy Armstrong and his band mates have nothing to complain about: Adoring fans, world travel and oodles of money aren't most people's idea of a raw deal. Yet Armstrong says that despite the fact that his band now represents punk rock to everybody in the world who before last year never knew what punk rock was, little in his day-to-day existence has changed. "I'm human still," he says. "I'm probably angry at least five days out of a week just like anybody is. Everybody gets sick of life. It's human nature."

Armstrong wrote a song addressing this conundrum called "Walking Contradiction," and it begins with the lines "Do as I say, not as I do because/The shit so deep, you can't run away."

On a tour this size, the only way to maintain total control is to bring it all yourself, which means that a fleet of vehicles carrying everything from a catering staff to a customized sound system and stage shadows Green Day's tour bus from venue to venue. But the band members are quick to point out that their priorities have stayed the same. This tour, Green Day are sleeping on the bus instead of in hotel rooms. The saved expense contributes to keeping ticket prices down, plus the guys get to avoid the kind of awkward, embarrassing encounters that chronic recognizability encourages.

Dirnt recalls one such incident in England, when he was rushing toward the idling tour bus. "This guy grabs my hand and squeezes it as hard as he can," Dirnt says. "He's squeezing my hand really hard and saying, 'Why don't you give something back to your fans? I think you owe us.'" The chap apparently wanted nothing less than to hang with the band in the back of its rig. "So I looked at him and said, 'You know what? Fuck you! You think that because you bought one record that you own me?'"

So while Green Day's current sphere of existence can't possibly be as bleak as the world portrayed in their songs, it seems that for this bunch of politically correct former punks, mainstream rock & roll fame has provided a fresh batch of reasons to be pissed off. Not that anyone's complaining.

"Every once in a while I have to say, 'Fuck, we're the biggest punk band in America right now,'"Armstrong says. "It sounds like I'm tooting my own horn, and if you print it, that's how it's going to come out. But every once in a while I just feel that."

This story is from the December 28, 1995 issue of Rolling Stone.

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