A mere two years ago, Green Day were playing the tiny clubs of the East Bay hardcore scene in Berkeley, Calif. Today, they’re an MTV staple, instant generational icons. In the weeks after the California punk trio appeared on the Lollapalooza tour and at Woodstock ’94, sales of their first major-label release, Dookie, inched past the 2 million mark. On “Longview” and “Basket Case,” frontman and primary songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong, 22, depicts a young man at odds with himself and the world around him. He still spits out lyrics with the same punk passion; it’s just that the world doesn’t fight back like it used to. In another sea change, Armstrong recently got married. He and his wife, Adrienne, are expecting their first child in March.
Was Woodstock ’94 what you expected?
Going into it, I thought that the nostalgia reasons behind the show were kind of a joke. I mean, at least they could have come up with something new. So we went in thinking, ‘This is lame.’ But then it turned into something that was completely different from what I’d expected.
To tell you the truth, it was the closest thing to total chaos I’ve ever seen in my life. The audience took over everything. I saw police and guards throwing down their badges, quitting on the spot, saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ Technically it was a human disaster. Everybody was living like dogs, pretty much.
Did anything positive come out of it?
I don’t know, but if in another 25 years they have a Woodstock Part III, we’re probably going to be the only band from this one that’s going to be able to play it – because everybody else is going to be old or dead.
Would you guys do it?
That depends on if we’re going to be around for the next five years. I mean, that’s a lot of energy for a man in his 40s to put out. Last thing I want to do is look like Steven Tyler doing backflips and stuff on the MTV Video Music Awards. Or like the Rolling Stones.
There’s nothing wrong with aging gracefully with your music and just doing it – I think Tom Petty has a lot of class. He looks great. And every time he has this new, refreshing start. He writes the songs and doesn’t give a shit about anybody else. And he doesn’t try to act like a 50-year-old sex symbol, which is the whole Mick Jagger thing. It’s like “Come on, man, act your age!”
Is there a political aspect to Green Day’s music?
More personal politics. It is a little more about getting used to yourself or changing yourself or coming to grips with yourself, like the song “Coming Clean.” Kids will always stop to think about the fact of the possibilities of not knowing what their sexuality is all about: ‘Am I homosexual? Am I bisexual? Am I heterosexual? Am I no sexual? Or am I just plain sexual?’ People don’t know what the fuck they are. I still struggle with that, too – it’s part of adolescence and growing up.
Do you think that music can change people’s opinions?
Definitely. I know it’s changed my opinions on a lot of things. The Replacements, for example, gave me a new respect for drinking a lot. They took drinking a lot to this new art-form level – not about being a total idiot but about being this beautifully perfect drunk. I know that when I drink, it makes me able to relax and not care as much, and when I write lyrics, it allows me to go at it with no holds barred and attack what’s on the paper. When I’m sober, I think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t.’ It’s kind of pathetic, but. . .
What kind of father are you going to be?
Adrienne asked me what I was going to do when our kid wants to drop out of school. But what can you do? You can’t change their mind. You can try to talk them out of it, but at the same time I know how evil school is. I fucking spent the worst years of my life in high school. It held me back from doing what I wanted to do. And nothing in it was interesting. Opinions are force-fed to you. You’re forced to read – which is evil. You can’t force someone to read. That’s no way of dealing with people in society: ‘Do this, or suffer the consequence.’
I write a lot about being a loser because I was conditioned to think that way. I was brainwashed to think that I was nothing as compared to these people who are so-called geniuses that were teaching me all this crap. So I was like ‘OK, that’ll be my art form: being a fucking idiot, being a loser.’ If that’s what I was trained to think I am, then that’s what I’m going to do, and I’m going to do it the best way I possibly can. Now, I’m ‘losing’ in a big way.
How did you first get into music?
I had some friends – these brothers, Matt and Eric – and one of them was older than me, and one of them was my age. Their parents were split up. And their dad lived in Rodeo [Calif.], and that was right up the street from my house. So they would come out every weekend and bring all these new tapes. I remember listening to Too Fast for Love by Motley Crue a lot when I was 11 or 12. Then they started getting into punk rock – they brought out D.O.A. records and TSOL and the Dead Kennedys, stuff like that. Then they started riding skateboards. And I was like ‘Wow, these guys are cool.’
Do you think rock & roll fans are less snobbish than they used to be in terms of only listening to one style of music?
I think rock & roll is dead. It gets regurgitated in so many different forms that the basic Chuck Berry or Eddie Cochran way of playing is just not around anymore. And it’s not what everybody listens to.
If rock & roll is dead, then what are you guys doing?
I guess it’s all just music the way I look at it. It’s hard to call it rock & roll anymore. It’s gotten so complex. In the beginning it was just banging out three chords. In the ’60s it started branching off and doing all these different things, which was great, but at the same time I think it separated people from each other. Now there are all these different factions. Which is cool – I love a lot of different kinds of stuff. But at the same time, you kind of wonder who’s for real and who isn’t.
Can’t serious listeners tell the difference?
No. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference. I kind of figure out the difference later on. I mean, I’m still trying to figure out if what I do is for real. I get really confused as far as punk rock goes. The subculture has suddenly become really fashionable, and here I am calling myself a punk.
Is what I’m doing really punk rock? Staying at the Sheraton and doing a Rolling Stone interview? Is that necessarily punk rock? For me, it’s more a state of mind, but I guess on the surface it’s maybe a little bit contrived. I think what I’m trying to say is that rock & roll is in one big identity crisis. It’s not necessarily dead, but I think a lot of people don’t know who they are. So if they try to relate to rock & roll music, and when the people who are making it don’t really know who they are either . . . maybe if people sang a little bit more about ‘I don’t know who the fuck I am,’ then people would kind of get it a little more. Then everybody could be cultural morons together.
What kind of music did your parents listen to?
My dad was a jazz drummer. He would go to bars, play, smoke pot with his friends, what people in jazz do. I never really knew him too well. And my mom was into country music; she always listened to Hank Williams. I don’t think they disliked rock – they were really into music in general. I have a lot of older siblings; I’ve got a brother who’s old enough to be my father. And he’s listened to a lot of stuff from the Guess Who to the Who. And my mom was kind of an Elvis freak, so the first album I ever bought was Elvis Presley’s The Sun Sessions.
Has something been lost from Green Day’s early days?
Yeah, I have lost something. I lost the scene where I came from. Not necessarily friends – I know who my friends are, who I’m going to be hanging out with for the rest of my life. I lost the feeling of a community. Not just in terms of music but artists and ‘zine writers, too. Not really friendships but relating. A lot of people can’t get our older music because there were a lot of inside jokes involved in the music and in the lyrics.
How do you make sure it all stays real?
Well, I don’t know – you get married. Find some reality in your life. That was the most real thing that’s happened to me all year, getting married. The rest is kind of a blur. And you end up with these big numbers at the end – 2.2 million records. All you’ve been doing was playing. Then people suddenly think of you as this voice of a generation. And you kind of go, ‘Huh? All I was doing was pulling my pants down – more like the butt of a generation.’
This story appeared in the November 17, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.