Green Day: Working Class Heroes

On the road with the nation's most passionate punk-rock protest singers

November 17, 2005
green day rs 987
Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day on the cover of 'Rolling Stone'
Albert Watson

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.

Photos: Green Day Through the Years

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.

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: American Idiot

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."

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