‘American Idiot’ turns 15, but the Green Day punk opera still prevails
Maybe it’s the aroma of stale pizza and potato chips that hangs grease-thick in the air. Perhaps it’s the lighting system, dimmed to an eye-squinting level that approximates late evening, right before dusk drops into night. Or it could be the piles of empty candy wrappers and drink cans that clog the place, giving it the appearance of some toga-partying frat house. But there’s no mistaking it: There’s definitely an atmosphere of dark oppression that hangs over the dim Hollywood recording studio Green Day are inhabiting for American Idiot sessions this particular summer afternoon.
And in the center of this murky maelstrom, on a tattered old leather couch, sits a musician who’s feeling suitably oppressed.
Black. Everything is black about 32-year-old Billie Joe Armstrong today. A black pork-pie hat and black leather jacket rest beside him on the sofa. His eyebrows and short, wavy hair are dyed jet black, and his outfit—skinny tie, short-sleeved dress shirt, jeans and tennis shoes—is the inkiest of ebony, as well.
“But my socks are striped in red and black,” he cracks, pointing to his ankles. His grin quickly fades into set-jawed determination.
The world outside, Armstrong believes, perfectly matches the shadowy mood of this studio. And his multi-platinum punk trio, Green Day, are here for one important reason: To put the finishing touches on an album that mirrors the temper of our turbulent times, a self-dubbed “punk-rock opera” called American Idiot that contains several nine-minute, multi-part epics and is easily the most ambitious undertaking of the group’s 15-year career.
You don’t have to read between the lines to pick up on one of the disc’s central themes: George W. Bush and his truth-twisting, war-mongering, Halliburton-tied cronies have got to go. Or, as Armstrong tersely puts it, “People are so frightened right now. The only thing they wanna do is get this guy out of office, and that’s what the whole upcoming election is based on. But isn’t that scary within itself? You can’t vote with your heart this time, and it’s almost an overambition to go on your gut instinct.”
Absent-mindedly, Armstrong stares down at his sinewy, heavily tattooed forearms. One tat reads “Joseph,” inked in elaborate script inside kiddies’ building blocks; the other spells out “Jakob.” He rubs the art affectionately. These are the names of the singer’s two sons, 9 and 5, respectively, who are both old enough to attend school and old enough to start asking serious questions about the world around them.
Which is why Armstrong’s been doing his damnedest to keep them away from the television and its blood-spattered images of 9/11, international terrorism and the war in Iraq. And it’s why he refuses to let them plug into violent video games. And ultimately, it’s why Armstrong composed this album—out of strong parental concern, a sense of legacy, a fear for the type of world the next generation will inherit. What kind of father would he be if he didn’t speak up for what’s right?
Hence, American Idiot paints no rose-hued, pretty picture. Rooted in the rafter-rattling, often marching rhythms of drummer Tré Cool, 31, and bassist Mike Dirnt, 32, the collection explodes like a powder keg on the title cut; over crackling power chords and a monstrous metal guitar bridge, Armstrong (who’s also contributed music to Fat Wreck Chords’ recent Rock Against Bush anthology, as well as posting an internet petition opposing the war in Iraq) spits out his vitriolic invective like cobra venom: “Don’t wanna be an American idiot, one nation controlled by the media/Maybe I am the faggot America, I’m not part of a redneck agenda/Now everybody do the propaganda and sing along to the age of paranoia.”
It’s a two-minute-56-second sociopolitical blast that sets the stage for the next surprise: “Jesus Of Suburbia,” a nine-minute-plus suite in five movements that tells the semi-autobiographical tale of a restless California teen raised on “a steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin,” who decides that “to live and not to breathe is to die in tragedy.” In the final arc, “Tales Of Another Broken Home,” the small-town prophet sets off to see the world and “leave behind this hurricane of fucking lies.” The idea being that this “Jesus” will somehow find himself, and possibly a sturdy belief system.
And the cover art—a Posada-stark print of a heart-shaped hand grenade gripped in a blood-soaked fist—underscores the set’s spleen-venting catharsis.
“This is just such a crazy time,” Armstrong murmurs, shaking his head somberly. “And I think our last record [2000’s Warning] was very heartfelt and thought-provoking. But with this one, there’s much more of an instinct thing happening, just running with instinct and going for it. But we live in a really fucked-up time period, and I don’t wanna see my kids…” He pauses, momentarily at a loss for words.
“Well, it’s this culture war, and the country’s divided, split right down the middle, and there’s a lot of confusion,” he continues. “And to be a kid growing up nowadays has gotta be pretty scary, because there are a lot of different things pulling you. Whether it’s ‘Wear this fucking deodorant or else you’re gonna smell like shit’ or ‘Watch this reality TV show with this guy putting his head in a big vat of blood!’ And this war that’s going on in Iraq that’s basically to build a pipeline and put up a fucking Walmart. It’s a lot of information, and it’s not only confusing just for my kids; it’s confusing for adults, too.”
No matter who you are, no matter where in America you reside or what your political leanings, Armstrong adds, “Everybody just sorta feels like they don’t know where their future is heading right now, ya know?”
As his career progressed from Green Day’s 10-million-selling 1994 breakthrough Dookie, Armstrong—like his “Jesus Of Suburbia” character—began feeling pressure, a new need to step up to the lyrical plate in his peppy punk compositions. He began writing about politics, almost despite himself.
“And still, there’s a fear about covering it, because you’re raising an argument,” he reckons. “Or that’s what people think. But politics is basically a conversation—there’s no one person that’s right, no one person that’s wrong. So if someone is a Republican, I don’t necessarily think that they’re a bad person or that their political views are what embody their whole personality and character.”
Live and let live? Why not, shrugs the singer. Just as long as they’re a dove, not a hawk. “As time has gone on, and because of the climate around me, I’ve just felt more responsibility,” he says. “But I’ve always written about what’s around me, whether it’s about being a kid masturbating in front of the television or now being scared to death in front of the television.”
A full decade ago, while discussing Green Day’s big-time break from the hip punk indie Lookout! (for which they’d recorded two discs), Armstrong was coiled on another couch, an even rattier one in the basement of the East Bay digs he then shared with Cool and Dirnt. Springs jutted from it at dangerous, ass-poking angles, and duct tape held its stuffing in place. At the time, Armstrong was a scrawny, malnourished kid with a headful of tiny, macaroni-curled tufts of dyed-green hair and a habit of picking his nose, then carefully examining the booger for any abnormalities.
The room was a memorable one. A Twister game mat was thumbtacked to a wall. A Sea Monkeys tank occupied the window sill. And, in keeping with their pot-themed moniker, a 4-foot-long smoking device dubbed Bongzilla beckoned from a cluttered corner. One of Armstrong’s yet-to-be-tattooed arms was plastered with gauze and a huge bandage.
Patting it, he proudly purred, “Blood test, dude!” And he wasn’t kidding. Surprising all of his 924 Gilman-scene friends, this young punk was getting married to his sweetheart, Adrienne: a nice, soft-spoken girl who would go on to become his closest confidant, his creative sounding board and, within a year, the mother of his first child. Probably the last possible career move you’d expect from a just-blossoming artist.
But Armstrong knew what he was doing. Having left his own broken home at 17, he didn’t want to play the field, having no interest in groupies whatsoever. His driving ambition back then was to give himself the rock-solid family foundation he never experienced as a child. (The experience is echoed on “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” a touching ballad from Idiot that’s an elegy to his late father, who passed away in September 1982.) Armstrong’s grim demeanor suddenly brightens. He still can’t quite get over the brash decision.
“It’s been 10 years,” he says, smiling. “And I couldn’t believe it when we first got married—it was one of those things where you’re like, ‘Hey! I’ve got a crazy idea! Let’s get hitched, and we’ll do it in the backyard!’ Her parents never knew me or anything like that, so it was just this strange, wild thing that we did. Looking back on it 10 years later, on how it’s evolved, it’s definitely had its ups and downs. But Adrienne is truly one of the sweetest people on the planet.”
Dookie, of course, would go on to launch a sound, an attitude and a melodic-punk aesthetic that’s being aped almost note-for-note to this day. Thanks to the mainstream popularity of Green Day, the once-underground movement of punk rock was now flourishing on the surface. And like a mole blinking against daylight, it seemed that the only thing it really wanted to do was tunnel underground again.
“Nobody was talking about punk rock before Dookie came out,” longtime band producer/confidant Rob Cavallo says, “and what Billie Joe did at that time was create a sound and style of music that’s been influential to so many kids. And he did this simply by taking a sonic snapshot of what it was like to be a 17- to 21-year-old guy living in a city. I still think he’s probably the best rock artist out there, and today, with American Idiot, he’s poised to do it all over again.”
Since then, Green Day haven’t followed any predictable star-making pattern. Truth be told, they struggled forcefully against fame instead of welcoming it. In 1996, after the self-imposed press blackout surrounding Dookie’s follow-up, 1995’s less popular Insomniac, Armstrong huddled in a Berkeley diner one winter night while three giggling teenage girls ogled him from a nearby booth. Visibly uncomfortable, he sourly noted that he was already thinking of retiring, moving to some desert island with his Dookie dough and never recording again. He was that disgusted with the music business and its attendant pitfalls.
The phase naturally passed. But it was a telling gauge of the young man’s moral compass: He’d rather hang out in his home studio with his wife and son Joey than view all the world’s wonders from the window of a tour bus. Through 1997’s Nimrod (which single-handedly made it OK for punks to croon power ballads via the smash “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)”) and Warning, Armstrong’s motives became even more altruistic.
“I’ve really learned to stop feeling guilty about where my band has gotten,” he says, “and I’ve realized that the reasons I wanna do this are because I wanna play music for the rest of my life, and I wanna be as creative as humanly possible. I’ve also learned how to—how to breathe a little bit better.
“I just do the best I can with what knowledge and background I have, which can be difficult because I don’t have much of a family background. Well, I do, but a dysfunctional family background. So I’m making this shit up as I go along. And with this album, all of a sudden, we looked at the clock, and it’s 15 years later, and we started looking at each other like, ‘What are we gonna do now?’
“There was a lot of talking going on with this record,” he continues, “and a lot of the growing-up process for us was like, ‘Dude, you’ve been saying the same thing to me since you were 15, and I’ve been hating it for 15 years!’ We just let it all out and declared our places and then felt comfortable in our places. And it was a very big deal, because now the weird thing is, we feel younger and more revitalized, and we’re having more fun than we ever had.”
[Photo by: Chapman Baehler][/caption]Rewind to 24 hours earlier. In the spacious lobby of the same recording studio, Cool comes in, decked out in jeans and a flashy green dress shirt, with two 40-ounce green bottles of Mickey’s Malt Liquor tucked under his arm. “A present!” he declares, handing one over and cracking the other open for himself. A few swigs and he’s ready to tell the rest of the colorful American Idiot story.
To look at Cool—impish gleam in his eyes, smirk perpetually plastered on his lips—is to see trouble coming, to spy the fox exiting the henhouse with feathers still stuck between his teeth. He is, in a nutshell, Green Day’s resident comic relief, a talent he also balances with fatherhood (recently divorced, with a son and daughter back home). He’s always good for an outrageous yarn, and it’s often hard to turn his personality-plus dial back down to ‘serious.’ Once there, however, he doesn’t mince words.
“I’m hoping that we’ll be able to make the world a little more sane within the next few months,” he says with a wink. “If the numbers go the right way and we get certain people out of office, that’d be a great start. I mean, Bush is sending over the kids of the people who voted for him and getting them killed. That can’t be good for business. That’s why we think absentee ballots are a great idea, ’cause it’s like a take-home test, and you can take your time, vote in your living room.” (The members of Green Day and their entourage will be filing such ballots, he says, since they’ll be performing in Toronto on Election Day.)
Cool adds that he’s pleased with the wild experimentation on the new record. The songs’ shifting time signatures and nearly one-hour duration make it the most strenuous set he’s ever played. But American Idiot had its genesis as a result of two distinct, separate incidents.
The first occurred in November 2002, when, from underneath their very noses, the rough-demo master tapes of a full album’s worth of material were stolen. Band members claim they still have no idea what happened to those closely guarded tapes; no ransom note was received, no bootlegs have appeared and no tracks have been file-shared on the internet.
“We wanna grow older, and we wanna be men, and we wanna do it in style,” Dirnt asserts. “We don’t wanna have to be bratty punk-rock kids for the rest of our lives.”
Fortunately, Green Day’s metamorphosis into maturity isn’t taking place overnight. Lest you think punk’s most playful pranksters have gotten, y’know, boring, we offer this little rundown of some of their recent feather-ruffling shenanigans which occurred at the Hollywood hotel where they’d been staying during the five-month American Idiot sessions.
Although he’s the breadwinning father of two, Armstrong readily admits that, “My life feels really split down the middle lately, because there’s this other side of me that’s like this raging lunatic. So it’s been hard to balance the two at the same time. So, all the trouble usually happens out of Tré’s hotel room, and about 80% of the time, I’m there in the room with him. I’m no longer the instigator.”
What kind of trouble? There was the evening when the drummer of a respected British band was occupying the suite next door to Cool. The snooty arteest wanted to sleep; Cool and his kooky minions wanted to party. Suffice it to say, it didn’t turn into the meeting of percussive minds you’d expect. The enraged guest burst into Cool’s room (the door being regularly left ajar to keep the parties flowing) and yelled, “Turn down the music! I’ve got a gig tomorrow!”
“So I hear from hotel security the next day that one of this band’s guys got locked in his room during the night,” Dirnt cackles. “Somebody apparently tied a rope around his door handle, then tied it to a nearby handrail.”
How could someone perform such a trick? Cool’s eyes are already twinkling. “See, you just do a slipknot on the doorknob,” he explains. “Then you pull it really tight against the handrail and do a good sailing knot. I’ve got a boat and stuff, so I’d know to tie a knot like that really good.”
“And you can come back a year later and know that knot’s still gonna be there,” Dirnt praises. “So, this famous guy got locked in his room, and then he had to endure having his own music intentionally blared at the party next door.”
Dirnt has also taken in his fair share of decadent hotel life. “It was 2:30 in the morning the other night,” he wistfully recalls. “And this gal comes in from next door, and she looks just like the gal from The Bourne Identity and Run, Lola, Run. I’d swear it actually was her. She was in boxer shorts and a T-shirt, and she comes in and says, ‘Could you please quiet down? I’ve really gotta get some sleep!’ So I went back in and said, ‘OK, guys. You’re gonna have to quiet down or the really hot girl from next door is gonna over and complain again!’”
Cool, who hadn’t heard this story yet, then pounds knuckles with his partner in prankster crime. “I like the way you operate, my man! Nice one!”
The second momentous occasion? “When Billie wrote the song ‘American Idiot,’” Cool figures, as Dirnt—clad in a muscle tee and jeans, his dyed-blond hair moussed into spiky quills—shuffles over and pours himself a glass of beer. “Then Mike wrote this 30-second song when we were all out of the studio, then Billie added his own 30-second song after that, and I tacked a 30-second song on, too.”
Dirnt is already chuckling at the recollection. “We each did a 30-second song and tried to make ’em as grandiose as possible,” he says. “And I was like, ‘Damn! That thing sounded huge for 90 seconds! That was really fun!’ Connecting ’em all became this really fun exercise. And once Billie wrote ‘American Idiot,’ he hinted that he really wanted to go in that direction. And we were like, ‘You know what? We can totally fucking do this. It’s within our capabilities.’”
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The direction? Dirnt gulps before mouthing the words. “A punk-rock opera. And we were so afraid to say that for a long time. We wouldn’t define it. We were like, ‘Let’s just go in and start doing crazy things.’”
And the earlier MIA record? “We just let it go,” Cool sighs. “It was like, ‘What are we gonna do? Start all over on it again?’ We were already chasing these new songs, but still we couldn’t help thinking, ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck!’ The weird thing is not knowing where that album is and hoping it doesn’t turn up on our release day, Sept. 21.”
Producer Cavallo picks up the thread. Green Day had rented rehearsal space in Oakland, he says, “and Billie asked me to come up there to help guide their creation and raise the bar on what they were writing. And there was one point where I said to him, ‘If ‘American Idiot’ was the first song on the record, what would the concept be for the rest of it?’
“And we’d talked about this years ago; Green Day always wanted to have a Beatles-like arc to their creativity. Billie had said that to me when I signed him way back in ’93. So my role was to say, ‘Hey, remember how we used to talk about that? So why don’t we do a punk-rock opera?’”
The workout-trim Dirnt is looking scrappy. He’s feeling it, too. Remarried five months ago, he also fears for the future safety of his daughter, especially after seeing Michael Moore’s scathing Fahrenheit 9/11. “It’s a fucking eye-opener,” he says of the film. “And there’s a lot of shady shit going on. The government has thrown so much information at us that we’re all throwing our hands in the air going, ‘I don’t know! I don’t know!’ But I’ll tell you one thing: You don’t have to analyze every bit of information in order to know that something’s not fucking right and that it’s time to make a change.”
“Punkvoter.com!” Dirnt growls, pounding his fist on the table. “Get the vote on!”
Or, as comedian Janeane Garofalo recently put it, “A vote for Bush right now simply has to be considered a character flaw.” And thanks to Bush’s world-angering actions, it’s now so unsafe for Americans traveling abroad that many (including quite a few touring musicians) attach Canadian-flag patches to their luggage to imply a more neutral stance in global affairs. Armstrong says he first noticed this anti-Yankee animosity a couple of years ago, when he and Dirnt were sharing a London hotel lift with a young Middle Eastern woman. “She looked like this hardcore, radical Muslim lady,” he recalls. “But she was huddled in the corner of the elevator, scared to death of us! And I mean, really frightened.
“‘Freedom fries?’” Armstrong can’t stifle a guffaw. “We can’t sit around and blame other countries for the things that we instigate. And we can’t go around telling people that we’re the greatest country in the world, because it’s not true. And it’s fine to be patriotic.”
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Armstrong cites a Scottish audience Green Day recently entertained, which, before the encore, sang their national anthem in unison while the band waited respectfully in the wings. “And that’s a different kind of patriotism, something that comes more from the heart, that sticks up for the underdog. But in America, all this ‘red, white and blue’ stuff just becomes....becomes....well, just because we’ve got McDonald’s doesn’t make us the greatest country in the world.”
Meanwhile, Americans can numb and/or distract themselves à la the American Idiot anthem “Give Me Novacaine,” with puerile television and its cadre of shallow reality-show stars. One memorable episode of Fear Factor featured contestants gobbling rancid cheese globules that were squirming with live maggots. Most immediately barfed up the goo, then host Joe Rogan barked at them to reswallow their own vomit in order to win. This is not entertainment, Armstrong grumbles.
“These are our gladiators in the colosseum,” he says. “American television has turned into that, and we’re not really getting informed about anything when it comes right down to it.” Does our country truly require two separate programs filming the lives of subpar singing siblings Ashlee and Jessica Simpson? Armstrong thinks not.
“And what scares me about those girls is how Christian they are,” he continues. “They’re saying all their prayers, and their father is this Southern Baptist or whatever. But they’re really pushing sex. He’s pushing his daughters to be these complete sex objects with this super-good-looking moron that’s with [Jessica], so what’s Christian? Just because you’re in the missionary position,” he chuckles, “don’t make you no missionary.”
Armstrong doesn’t want listeners to sit by while American Idiot burbles like melancholy Muzak in the background. “That’s why I like using really powerful words,” he claims. “So when I say something like ‘faggot America,’ I’m describing me and other disenfranchised people, because maybe I feel like I’m not being fairly represented. And that’s a pretty belligerent statement, but people are smart enough to understand that maybe I am the opposition.”
Years ago, he adds, he hand-stenciled the word “idiot” on a T-shirt, with an arrow pointing up to his face. “Partially, it had a lot to do with my self-deprecating sense of humor. But now it’s come to represent my general confusion about what’s going on in society.”
Don’t wanna be an American idiot. Hell, who would? Green Day will shortly prove confusion and punk rock seem to make fine aesthetic bedfellows. And who knows? Armstrong muses. Perhaps some young, visionary filmmaker will transform his work into an actual feature-length flick.
“I feel like I’m on the cusp of something with this,” he believes. “And judging by some of the stuff loaded onto this record, maybe I’m on the cusp of an assassination attempt. But I really feel delirious about this album, like we’re really peaking right now.”
The creation of the album so consumed Armstrong’s time, he had to temporarily close shop on his home-recording cottage industry, producing hot punk combos such as the Criminals, Dead And Gone and One Man Army. It’s rumored that Green Day have another active side project, though, a secretive masked new-wave group dubbed the Network whose existence, Armstrong says, slyly, “I can neither confirm nor deny. I only know that they’re supposedly on Adeline Records—I’ve never actually seen them.”
One of the band’s sound techs throws open the studio’s back door, letting in a radiant, almost blinding beam of light before Armstrong politely asks him to leave. The frontman’s Jakob/Joseph tattoos are perfectly illuminated for a minute, and they tug at his conscience.
He frowns. “I haven’t been the most hands-on parent lately, thanks to our recording schedule,” he admits. “And it’s a weird life, because I’m easily the youngest father, as far as the people [with children] in my kids’ school or baseball team. And I’m also in that stage where my oldest son is smart enough to know what it is that I do.
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“And sometimes he’ll ask me, ‘Dad, are you famous?’ And I’ll go, ‘Well, what does ‘famous’ mean?’ And he says, ‘I dunno. People come up to you at the grocery store and ask for your autograph or say something nice to you.’ And the weird thing is—especially when I’m out walking with him—all of a sudden, some kid with a giant mohawk will come up and go, ‘Fuck, yeah! Green Day!’ And Joey will just look at me and go, ‘Who’s that that guy?’”
At which point Armstrong can only shrug meekly and confess the truth to his astonished kid. “‘That was just a guy who really likes your dad’s band,” is what he tells Joey every single time.
And once American Idiot shakes the punk-rock world to its foundations, Joey had better be prepared: Pop will become even more famous. And the question “Green Day?” will have only one logical response: “Fuck yeah!”
This cover story originally appeared in issue #195. Check out more issues here.