Green Day: Working Class Heroes

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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."

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