Green Day: From Punk to Platinum

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

Green Day RS 724/725
Mark Seliger
Green Day on the cover of 'Rolling Stone'
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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."

During the recording of Insomniac, Green Day broke another long-standing punk taboo by embracing high production values. Punk's do-it-yourself aesthetic has always demanded that the music remain simple; that rehearsing be kept to a minimum; and that recording be done cheaply, poorly and quickly. The original idea was to eschew the inflated sense of importance engendered by pompous arena-rock acts like Yes and Led Zeppelin. But these days, Green Day are playing those very same arenas. Consequently, the challenge for the increasingly proficient trio was to craft a monstrously loud and powerful sound while maintaining its trademark stripped-down essence.

According to Rob Cavallo, who co-produced both Insomniac and Dookie with the band, Green Day were after the sound of classic pop albums by groups like the Beatles and Cheap Trick rather than the sound of sloppily made punk 7-inches. "Tre changed the sound of his cymbals on almost every song," Cavallo says. "Mike had a specific idea of the amplifiers and bass he wanted to use. And Billie and I have this little ritual: We line up a bunch of guitar amps, pick out the ones we like best, and then we develop a guitar sound." But Tré bristles at the notion that studio trickery alone accounts for Insomniac's urgent wallop. He claims it was excess amounts of caffeine. "Every time we went to roll the tape, we said, 'OK, this is it,'" Tré says. "'We're going to squeeze every last drop of energy that we have, and we're going to put it into two minutes, and then we're going to rest afterward.' And if it wasn't quite all together, then we'd just wait for a little while until we got our energy back up, drink some coffee, then go back and go, 'Yeah, let's do this.'"

Thinking expansive classic rock while crafting three-and four-chord punk nuggets with nary a guitar solo produced a few startling breakthrough tracks. "Panic Song" begins with an extended cavalcade of Pete Townshend-style power chords. "Bab's Uvula Who?" (named after an old Saturday Night Live skit) translates teen self-loathing into a churning call-and-response rocker. "Brain Stew" features a sluggish three-chord progression suspiciously reminiscent of AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long."

But Green Day's gnarly punk roots are usually visible. "Brain Stew," Armstrong explains, is the nickname of James Washburn, a longtime friend of the band. "He used to have a big mohawk; now he's a total ratchethead [California slang for a car buff]," says Armstrong. "He'll say something like 'Oh, man, that guy fuckin' slipped a gear,' when someone snaps. He's a big lyrical influence on me." And the opening lines of "No Pride" ("I'm just a mutt/And nowhere is my home/Where dignity's a land mine/In the school of lost hope") are owed to "Gonna Find You," a song by another mentor, Jesse Michaels, who led the late, great Berkeley act Operation Ivy, whom Armstrong calls "a punk-rock Kerouac."

Clearly, Green Day can't shake their blue-collar punk ethics. This band's idea of a good time is kicking back at the converted Oakland, Calif., warehouse where their friends in Fetish, an up-and-coming local band, live and practice together. Matt Olyphant, Fetish's lead singer and lyricist, first met Green Day two years ago outside a local gig. "We were just hanging out afterward, talking and getting high in the parking lot," he says. After the other Green Day members got to know Olyphant, then an amateur spoken-word performer, they inspired him to form Fetish, his first band. "It wasn't so much what they were doing, it was how they treated me," Olyphant says. "They were really, really considerate."

It appears that a streak of nice-guy community consciousness runs through nearly everything Green Day do.When the band signed to Reprise, part of Warner Music Group, it insisted that Lookout! Records, the Berkeley, Calif., independent that issued the band's first two albums, 1990's 39/Smooth and 1992's Kerplunk, retain full rights to both. Then Green Day invited Pansy Division, a Lookout! act, to open a major tour; another Lookout! band, the Riverdales, filled the opening slot on Green Day's recent trek across Europe and North America. In May, Green Day played two nights at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, in Oakland, and donated all profits (including T-shirt revenues) to Food Not Bombs, which provides quality meals for the homeless and three other charities.

"They've [made good on] everything they said they would do," says Ben Weasel, guitarist for the Ramones-style Riverdales. "But I like the fact that they don't make a big production out of it."

Rather than battling Ticketmaster to keep ticket prices low, Green Day have decided to lower their own profit percentage. "We don't give a fuck about Ticketmaster," says Tre. "We're charging what we're worth, and we don't think we're worth $22.50. We take a lower cut than Pearl Jam. I'm not picking on them – I'm just saying that to anyone in general who's complaining about it. I don't go around buying tickets from Ticketmaster with my credit card anyway, so I'm not crying about that. You don't want your tickets being $27 and shit? Take a lower cut, guys. Slim your tour down a little bit."

But as Green Day's world gets bigger and bigger, keeping control isn't always so simple. Last July, when a few radio stations, including KROQ, in Los Angeles, began broadcasting "J.A.R." – a song the band recorded for the soundtrack of a box-office bomb called Angus – weeks before it was scheduled for airplay, rumors began circulating that Green Day's managers, Elliot Cahn and Jeff Saltzman, were to blame. It was assumed that Cahn and Saltzman had proffered copies of "J.A.R." as an enticement for stations to play acts on (510) Records, a new label the managers had recently started with MCA. Saltzman contends that these rumors are false.

Armstrong will not say on the record who he believes made the blunder. Regardless, the band fired Cahn and Saltzman as soon as the dust cleared. Today, Green Day are managing themselves, a practice virtually unheard of among bands at their level on a major label.

"We felt like we weren't being treated like people anymore but as assets," says Armstrong. "And so we were just like 'Fuck this.' We'll never have a serious corporate manager again."

"I'll tell you the truth – I had a lot more fun a couple years ago," says Mike Dirnt.

It's barely 12:30 on a sunny afternoon in Berkeley as Dirnt, instantly idenifiable by his quotation-mark eyebrows and ubiquitous plaid polyester pants, downs his second beer of the day at a Telegraph Avenue microbrewery."On tour we have the most exciting lives in the world for one hour a day," he says, "and the rest of the time it's the most boring job in the world."

Not that he's ungrateful. Of the three members of Green Day, Dirnt (né Mike Pritchard) appears to have experienced the greatest hardship growing up. He was only seven years old when his adoptive parents, an American Indian mother and white father, got divorced. The split threw the young Dirnt's life into chaos; he estimates he moved seven times before he left home at the age of 15.

According to Dirnt, his complicated early years ended up being perfect preparation for the precarious life of a rock star. "I had to do a lot of thinking for myself," he says. "I grew up with my more hating the white man but loving me – and call me perceptive, but I was able to figure out that my mother loved me and hated other people for political reasons." Early on, Dirnt learned to be a mediator, a role he maintains within Green Day. "I was one of those kids who'd walk around the neighborhood and talk to the adults and learn a lot. I'm good with people."

When Dirnt's father began to prosper as a computer programmer, it only confused matters further. "Monetarily, my father is higher middle class, and my mother is lower class," he says. The fleeting nature of financial stability left a permanent mark on the bassist's psyche. "I just set my life up so I could be happy regardless of what my income was. If you can set up a lifestyle where you're always going to be happy – mine was around musicians and friends – and have no other expectations, then anything else that happens is icing on the cake?

The only member of Green Day with a high school diploma (though Tré has his GED), Dirnt is also the only one who didn't get married and start a family in the middle of last year's firestorm. (He and his girlfriend, Anastasia, have set a wedding date for next August). Although he recently bought his mother a house and admits after a bit of prodding that he purchased a small one for himself as well, Dirnt laments that he'll be paying them off for years.

Armstrong seems similarly uneasy about the fruits of Green Day's chart triumphs. Not surprisingly, the band's lead singer has paid the highest price for fame. He and his wife, Adrienne, purchased a house in North Berkeley before their son, Joey, was born last March. "It was in a good neighborhood, right across the street from a grammar school," Armstrong says. "Then some kids started showing up at my house a little bit, which wasn't that big of a deal. But the fucked-up part was that some girl announced my address on Live 105 [KITS]. So I had to leave that house, which really sucked because both me and Adrienne really liked that house a lot. We had to go through all this bullshit to try to keep some kind of privacy."

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.

From The Archives Issue 724: December 28, 1995