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.
This story is from the November 17, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
CULTURE 14 Gonzo Masterpieces
Picks From Around the Web
blog comments powered by Disqus