On the road with the nation's most passionate punk-rock protest singers
It's the second-to-last night of Green Day's U.S. tour behind the album American Idiot, and they're playing a packed concert at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville. If you can call it a concert. In reality, it's pure Brechtian political theater – mixed with a punk-rock-fueled anti-government rally. Singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong – a tiny dynamo clad in black, eyes rimmed with kohl – plays the role of a strutting Great Dictator who, between songs, marches around the stage with his guitar at shoulder arms and introduces himself to the crowd as "George W. Bush – but my friends call me asshole!" Massive concussive explosions (rigged by the band's pyrotechnics team) periodically shake the house and unnervingly call to mind the attacks in New York, Madrid, London and Iraq. Four songs into the show, the houselights go out and the arena is plunged into blackness. Armstrong, lit by a satanic red spotlight, pans a hand-held searchlight over the crowd and recites, in menacing tones, the Pledge of Allegiance, while bassist Mike Dirnt pumps out a paranoia-inducing bass line and drummer Tré Cool taps his snare rim like a bomb ticking down to detonation. They explode into "Holiday" – an incendiary anti-government song in the tradition of Dylan's "Masters of War." And when, near the end of the show, they play the plaintive ballad "Wake Me Up When September Ends," a curtain of sparks pours from pyro devices above the stage, a beautiful and elegiac sight. Armstrong tilts his head up and watches as the fire rains down onto what Green Day have convinced you is a country, and world, in serious trouble. But before they leave the stage, Armstrong roars over the crowd: "They don't have the power! You're the fuckin' leaders! We elect these people into office! Don't let them dictate your life or tell you what to do!" For a moment, he sounds like a presidential candidate.
That's no accident. With the release of American Idiot in September 2004, six weeks before the presidential election, Green Day served notice that they had left behind their identity as the goof-punk California trio who first went to Number One in '94 with a song, "Longview," about spacing out in front of the TV and choking the chicken. American Idiot was huge in ambition and scope, and sounded like a direct call to arms to oust the country's most powerful idiot from the Oval Office. Though the album didn't quite succeed at that, it has gone on to sell 10 million copies around the world, and earned Green Day a Grammy and a sweep of the MTV Video Music Awards. Called the world's first punk-rock opera, American Idiot is something more: It is a fearless and politically astute rock album, a richly melodic song suite that gives voice to the disenfranchised suburban underclass of Americans who feel wholly unrepresented by the current leadership of oilmen and Ivy Leaguers, and who are too smart to accept the "reality" presented by news media who sell the government's line of tear and warmongering – "a nation under the new mania," as Armstrong snarls on the ferocious title track.
The transfiguration of Green Day from punk-pop jesters into outspoken political agitators was mystifying – except to those who knew anything about the band members' respective childhoods, and their early forging as a band in the cauldron of the gritty Berkeley, California, punk-rock scene, a back story that, in retrospect, makes the emergence of American Idiot, and its attendant rebel-rousing riot of a stage show, seem all but inevitable.
Born 33 years ago in Oakland, California, Billie Joe Armstrong was raised in the blue-collar San Francisco suburb of Rodeo. The youngest of six children of a truck-driver dad and waitress mom, he was a prodigiously gifted singer. At age five, on the urging of a music teacher, he cut a single, "Look for Love," on a tiny local label and went on to play gigs with his part-time drummer dad, Andy. It was a happy childhood, until, when Billie Joe was ten years old, his dad died of cancer. His mother was left to raise Billie Joe and his five siblings on her salary waiting tables at a twenty-four-hour restaurant called Rod's Hickory Pit. "She worked a lot of graveyard shifts," he says. "My brothers and sisters were put in a position where they had to grow up really fast and become parents to me." Then his mom married a man that Billie Joe and his siblings loathed. He retreated into music, and by the time he entered Carquinez Middle School in the fall of 1982, at age 11, he thought about little else than mastering the guitar. One day, he fell into conversation with another eighth-grader, a skinny blond kid and fellow music fanatic, Michael Ryan Pritchard – better known today as Mike Dirnt. "The first conversation we ever had was about music and songwriting," says Dirnt. "Right there in the lunchroom."
Dirnt describes himself as someone who has always felt like he's on the "outside looking in." Born in 1972 to a heroin-addict teenage mother, he was given up for adoption at six weeks old. His adoptive parents divorced when he was seven, and he wound up with his mother, a Native American, who had to work three jobs to support the family. "We just never saw her," Dirnt says. "She had to work all the time." Like Armstrong, he took refuge in music, playing guitar in his room. After the friends linked up at Carquinez, they set up a rehearsal space in the Armstrongs' living room and bashed through Van Halen and Motley Crüe covers. When Dirnt's mother went broke, lost their home and moved from the area, Dirnt moved into the Armstrong family's garage.
"Your politics, when you're a lad, are just basically whatever your parents are bitching about around the house," says Dirnt. "I remember when I was a little kid hoping that Jimmy Carter would win. I don't know why the fuck I was hoping that. I didn't know him from anything."
But when they were 15 years old, Armstrong and Dirnt first ventured to the punk-rock all-ages club 924 Gilman Street Project, and everything changed. Located beside a canning shop in the gritty warehouse district of Berkeley, 924 Gilman was a graffiti-etched nonprofit drop-in center for legions of tattooed and mohawked punkers who ran the place on a volunteer, Co-op basis. Gilman was where Armstrong and Dirnt first fell in love with punk music, and it's where they cut their political teeth.
"We were all pretty much in the same ballpark when it came to politics," says Jesse Townley, a longtime volunteer at the Gilman who has known the members of Green Day since the late 1980s. President Ronald Reagan was in his second term, and he was a target for the rage of American punkers everywhere, especially those in California, who had already suffered eight years under his governorship of the state. "It wasn't just Reagan," Townley points out. "It was an examination of the corruption of the politics of the United States, late-twentieth-century style: the quest for the almighty dollar, and the quest for conformity. You can hear that in all kinds of bands from that time and that scene."
Armstrong and Dirnt became regulars at the Gilman and soaked up the ideologies of the myriad punk subsets who hung there. "There was an aggro faction," says Dirnt, "a goofy faction – everything from bands like Gwar to people that were literally like Weird Al with an acoustic guitar and a fried-chicken bucket on their head."
"There was the straight-edge scene of kids who hewed to a hardcore anarchist line," says Armstrong, "then there was that Germs side of it too, just total nihilism. There was the really educated people, as well as leftover burned-out hippies. And lots of local punk-rock kids. We sort of represented the teenage runaway faction." He laughs.
It was impossible to hang at the Gilman and not become politicized. "It was everything from the bands we were listening to," says Dirnt, "to fanzines, to just sitting around in coffee shops or behind buildings drinking beer and talking about things with friends who had political leanings." One day someone gave Dirnt a cassette of a band called Crimpshnne, who had a song titled "Free Will." "It had the lyrics 'Question everything,' and I thought that was really great," he says. "Don't accept things without thinking about it." Armstrong recalls a band called Sewer Trout who had a song called "Wally and Beaver Go to Nicaragua" – a tune about the lead characters in the TV sitcom Leave It to Beaver debating the Reagan administration's war in Central America. "That summed up a lot of what Gilman Street was all about," Armstrong says.
Apart from their political awakening, something else happened at the Gilman that would have an incalculable effect on their future. They met a fellow teenager, and Gilman regular, who already bore the stage name Tré Cool. Of the three members of Green Day, Tré (invariably referred to as the band's "comic relief" for his twisted sense of humor) grew up furthest from the mainstream of American society. Born Frank Edwin Wright III in 1972, he is the son of a Vietnam-vet father who, after the war, retreated with his family to a remote mountaintop home near the tiny town of Laytonville, three and a half hours north of San Francisco. The house, which the family built, had no electricity, TV or plumbing. Tré was eleven when he was recruited to play in a band led by a punk-rock-loving mountain neighbor who taught him to drum to his self-penned song "Fuck Religion."
Tré wound up in the Gilman scene after dropping out of high school. He, too, eagerly imbibed the punk politics of Gilman Street. "It was the way people were political at Gilman," says Tré, "which is something that we walked away with. Be very bold with your statements. Like, a band flier with a simple cut-and-paste that an eighth-grader would do but with Ronald Reagan's head cut out, and put in a tank and having him mowing down Gandhi's followers. Shit like that."
By 1990, Armstrong, Dirnt and Tré had coalesced into Green Day (named in honor of a daylong weed binge) and were one of the biggest draws at the Gilman, pulling in crowds of fans for their punky three-chord rave-ups about life as latchkey teenage potheads. The band released Kerplunk on the tiny indie label Lookout! Records in 1992, and a bidding war broke out among the majors. Green Day signed to Reprise, and in February 1994, they released their major-label debut, Dookie, which made them, in their early 20s, instant stars and MTV staples, selling 8 million copies in the United States. They followed up with the pummeling Insomniac (1995) and the more friendly Nimrod (1997), at which point the band seemed to run out of steam. With all three members then married with kids, Armstrong's lyrics increasingly turned inward, expressing navel-gazing fears that he was getting old, boring and apathetic – a "grouch sitting on the couch," as he put it on Nimrod. Three years passed before they released Warning, in 2000. The title track and the song "Minority" ("down with the moral majority") showed the band reaching for wider themes than middle-aged angst, but the music was lackluster and so were sales. By 2003, Green Day were asking themselves if they even wanted to continue as a band.
Then Armstrong wrote "American Idiot" – a song in which he found himself addressing things that had been building up in him over the previous few years. The terror attack in New York, he says, was a catalyst. "It completely changed the climate," he says, "and it's impossible not to be affected by that and everything that it spawned: this war, more paranoia, the terror alerts with the different colors." The tentative political themes that had begun to emerge on Warning now leapt to the fore, and his early training at the Gilman energized his lyrics. He insists that he began writing the album not as Bush-bashing or with the intent to preach. He wrote the songs as both a "purging" and as a way to understand what was happening as events spiraled out of control.
"I write songs to figure out what I do think," he says. "You go through periods where no one's talking about anything. That was happening in the lead-up to the Iraq War. I was thinking, 'Give me a debate.' I mean, I wonder sometimes, 'Am I a conservative? I have kids and I don't want them watching stuff on TV that's not appropriate. That's a conservative position. I have friends who are conservative. So what am I? What do I actually feel and think? Let's talk; give me an argument.' I was debating with myself in those songs." In "Holiday," he wrote the chorus: "This is our lives on holiday." The line, he says, is about people "just being stupid, tuning out and not paying attention to what's going on." The inflammatory spoken-word middle section of the song ("Zeig Heil to the President Gasman") used techniques from the old Gilman days: "I think about that middle part being like a punk-rock flier, a fucked-up collage," he says. "It's like Nazi Germany with France and California and the Senate, this apocalyptic way of writing."
The songs, with their overt political commentary, were an abrupt departure for the band. So it was with trepidation that Armstrong broke the news to Dirnt and Tré.
"The first time we heard 'American Idiot,' we were like, 'Whoa! OK,'" Dirnt recalls. "Billie said, 'Do you mind that I'm saying these things?' We're like, 'Say more. We like it. Go for it.'"
And no wonder. It would be difficult to overstate the band's loathing of the current administration and its leader.
"Look," Dirnt says, "if Bush is morally and politically right, then I was screwed from the get-go. I come from a world he couldn't ever understand. Drugs and fighting and divorce. If he's right about what's correct in this world, with his oil buddies and his Ivy League schools, then I'm just fucked anyway. If heaven is this giant party where none of my friends are gonna be, I don't think I was invited from the start."
"The thing about Bush," Armstrong adds, "is that the way he did grow up misrepresents an entire majority of middle-class and working-class and poor America. The way that he handled something like Hurricane Katrina was reflective of that. He didn't know how to handle it because he doesn't know what it's like to be working-class or poor. Or black, for that matter. Whereas if you think of someone like Bill Clinton, the way he came up – and I'm not going to be Mr. I Love Clinton or anything – but he had a messed-up childhood; he worked his way up through the political ladder. There was a working-class way that he climbed his way into politics. With Bush, it's like old royalty."
"Well," says Tré, who can always be counted on to go a little further than anyone else, "he's got an agenda to serve himself and his elite buddies. People say he dropped the ball with Hurricane Katrina. But there's also people who say that there's a whole way of thinking in that elite circle where they say, These things are supposed to happen. Overpopulation has to be dealt with some way. War. A flood.' That's the way they think."
Armstrong laughs. "Yeah," he says, "the only thing Bush didn't say was that he was going to build an ark."
For Armstrong, the president's born-again religiosity is a particular danger. "The war on terror plays right into the kind of war that the supposed terrorists want to have with this jihad," he says. "Because they're looking at this war coming from this religious guy, George W. Bush. All of a sudden it's not about terrorism. All of a sudden it becomes Christianity against Islam – and nothing can get the blood boiling of the fundamentalist Muslims than something like that."
Green Day's anti-war stance derives in part from their personal histories. All three come from the socioeconomic level – blue-collar and working-class – from which the vast majority of soldiers are culled. "My mom's brother, my uncle Jay, died in Vietnam," Armstrong says. "He was shot in midair, parachuting in. My mother used to talk about it. From the youngest age I can remember, I thought, 'Going in the military equals death at a young age.' That scared the shit out of me and made no sense to me whatsoever." Tré's experience growing up as the son of a Vietnam veteran did little to foster a pro-war attitude in him. "After the war, my dad didn't like talking about it," he says. "But certain things would remind him. Like, if you burn hair around him, he freaks out. It smells like dead, burning bodies."
Last summer, Green Day released the video for the ballad "Wake Me Up When September Ends." The lyrics were written by Armstrong about the death of his father. But for the video, director Samuel Bayer came up with the idea of doing an Iraq War theme.
"Sam said he had asked a bunch of soldiers, 'What was it that made you go ahead and sign up and join the military?'" says Tré. "Eighty percent of them were like, 'You know, there's this commercial … ' So he said, 'We gotta fight dirty. There's no strong imagery being presented for the other way.' The video is like a commercial for free thought – or peace – using the same tactics that the government uses to get people in the Army. We turned the machine on itself."
Asked if they worried about being accused of exploiting the war in an entertainment context, Dirnt jumps in before the question is even out.
"Rock & roll should be dangerous," he spits out. "When it's not, that's when it's mundane – you can see right through it, you want to change the channel. It should be striking and stir questions, and I think that that video, at the end of the day, comes down to that core emotion of loss. It's something we've all experienced, and the further and further we get into this war, more people every day are experiencing that toss."
Armstrong points out that the video was a number-one pick among teenagers who voted for their favorite clip on Total Request Live. "Those are the people that are looking at a possible 'Could I get drafted when I'm 18 years old?'"
Before showing the video to his parents and sister, Tré deliberately did not tell them the story line, which concerns a pair of young lovers separated when the boy (convinced that a stint in the Army will lead to better opportunities for them) enlists and goes off to the Iraq War. "As soon as it came to the part where the guy comes out of the bus and [the drill sergeant] yells at him, my mom's like, 'Oh, my God,'" says Tré. "My whole family was teary-eyed. She lived through that. She waited for my dad."
This family history would certainly seem to give a guy like Tré the right to "exploit" the Iraq War for a music video. But voice this to Armstrong and he shakes his head in disagreement.
"We're Americans," he says. "All of us have the authority to make a video like that."
If American Idiot was about venting their political fury, it was also about embracing another crucial aspect of their identity: They are full-fledged rock stars. At the Gilman, the pure punk ethos made a desire for rock stardom anathema.
"As soon as we signed with a major label," says Armstrong, "we weren't allowed to play there ever again. For a lot of years, we felt self-conscious about being rock stars. For the first time, with American Idiot, we accepted it. We said, 'You know what? This is who we are; let's have that fourteen-year-old mentality of the fantasy of being Pete Townshend doing windmills or being like Keith Richards. But the wild thing about it is that as soon as we accepted that, our statements became that much more powerful. We became that much more bold as songwriters, and let the message speak – and it became more intellectual." Today, Green Day make no apologies. "My job description is that I'm a rock star," Armstrong says. "And I'm good at it, you know? That's what I love to do. I'm such a fan of music. I geek out on the Beatles and the Clash and Bob Dylan and Replacements records. When I'm dead, I want some kids to be geeking out on my records, going, 'You know you can really see in Warning where they start to make the change into American Idiot.' And for the first time in our career too, we can look back on this arc. I can see the change and evolution, and our old records make more sense now than they did."
It's midnight, and Green Day, leaving Nashville, board buses for the all-night haul to the last stop on the tour, Dayton, Ohio. Tré and Dirnt hop on one bus, Armstrong and Jason White (the band's close friend from the Gilman days and its backup touring guitarist) board another. Now in their midthirties, Green Day have dramatically reduced their hard partying on the road. Dirnt watches his booze intake; Armstrong no longer partakes of the weed, and all three eat well and exercise to keep their energy up. But Armstrong is still cranked from the Nashville show, and he's already "mourning" the fact that the band's fifteen-month-long tour is almost over. They'll perform on Late Night With Canon O'Brien to mark the release of the tour document Bullet in a Bible and finish up with two overseas dates in December. Then in January, they are renting studio time to start woodshedding ideas for a new album.
Tonight, instead of bunking down in one of the bus' six sleeping compartments, Armstrong stays up until dawn. A bottle of chardonnay in front of him, he drinks, smokes cigarettes and talks through the night. He covers a range of subjects, from the brilliance of Martin Scorsese's recent Dylan documentary ("We watched it three times") to his awe-struck conversation with Paul McCartney side by side at a urinal ("It was fucking Paul!") to the thrill of co-writing two songs with Iggy Pop for Iggy's last album, Skull Ring ("He's a really great guy, a real American"). Armstrong is the kind of rock star who, when 5 A.M. rolls around, starts talking not about shagging groupies but about the beauty of Adrienne, his wife of eleven years. He kneels in the aisle and sings an a cappella love song he recently wrote for her, then fetches a photo of her and their two kids, Joey, 10, and Jakob, 7. "I just want them to be normal East Bay boys," he says. It's 5:30 A.M. when he finally weaves his way to the back of the bus and passes out.
Fifteen hours later, Armstrong and his bandmates take the stage at the Ervin J. Nutter Center at Wright University in Dayton. Despite his long night on the bus, Armstrong explodes with energy. Pacing the stage, he announces that not only is this the last night of their U.S. tour, it also marks the 17-year anniversary, to the day, that Green Day played its first show, back when they were teenagers. "So we're gonna play the entire album of American Idiot, front to back," he shouts. "Something we haven't done live in months." They're halfway through the blistering show when Armstrong stops to introduce the band. Every other night, he has introduced himself as "George W. Bush" to a chorus of boos. But tonight, for whatever reason – acknowledgment that it's nearly time for him to return to life as husband, father and American citizen, or perhaps as a recognition that his nemesis is imploding on a series of political scandals and gaffes – he departs from the script. After introducing Dirnt, Tré and White, he holds his guitar aloft and shouts, defiantly, "And I'm . . . Billie Joe Fuckin' Armstrong!"
The applause is deafening.