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Flashback: Green Day and the Palace of Wisdom

From issue #646 (December 2005). How did the booger-obsessed punks grow up to write a rock opera and become the biggest rock band in the world?

In commemoration of Green Day’s recent induction into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, here’s our original feature from issue #646 (December, 2005).

“Let every redneck in America hear you,” yells Green Day guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, and 5,000 British fans respond with a chant of “idiot America!” It’s early 2005 and Green Day are playing London’s Brixton Academy two weeks into a European tour that sold 175,000 tickets in less than an hour. In April, the band began a world arena tour of their massive American Idiot, the album that debuted a Number One on the Billboard charts in September 2004 and hovered around the U.S. and Australian Top 40 ever since. The album that took on George Bush and the war in Iraq (“We did everything we could piss people off,” explains Armstrong, who performed the title track in a Bush mask in the weeks leading up to the U.S. presidential election). The album that won the band seven MTV awards and a Grammy for album of the Year. The album that made Green Day superstars again.

Onstage at Brixton, Armstrong is like a wind-up doll gone crazy, constantly moving. Drummer Tré Cool keeps getting up to circle his drum kit while banging on his cymbals. About the only person in the place who’s stationary is Dirnt, though even from the back of the crowd you can see the veins pop put of his neck. “This song is a big fuck-you to the American government,” Armstrong says before the band plays “Holiday”. “This song is not anti-American, it’s anti-war.” The giant video screens behind him light up with images of helicopters stopping bombs.

Almost an hour later, Green Day encore with an utterly sincere cover of Queen’s “We Are the Champions”. The entire crowd sings along. It feels like Green Day are not just celebrating their return to the top of the charts; they’re lending a rock & roll resistance movement.

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Young, blood and bad in 2000.

When Green Day first hit it big with Dookie in 1994, they were three kids from a grimy punk-rock collective in Berkeley, California. They sang about teen ennui, masturbation and bring couch potatoes. Dookie sold 10 million copies but drew the scorn of the punks they grew up with. By 23, they were all millionaires and all married. They kept making records but stopped talking to one another. Before long, between them they and five kids and three divorces.

In 2001, they put out a greatest-hits album and went on the road. Ant eh story could have ended there. “Breaking up was an option,” says Dirnt. “We were arguing a lot and we were miserable. We needed to shift directions.”

So they spent a year working out their differences and learning to make a new kind of music. Armstrong confessed to Dirnt and Cool that he had a secret, not very punk ambition: to write “the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ of the future”. Soon they were working out the nine-unite suites that form the heart of American Idiot, “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Homecoming”. Word leaked out that they were making a rock opera. “I looked on the message board,” says Armstrong, “and some kids thought we were crazy. It’s like, ‘Fuck it, take the message board down.’ We decided we were going to be the biggest, best band in the world or fall flat on our faces.”

It’s a day after the Brixton performance. Armstrong has sunk down into a lime-green char at his London hotel. He’s the only member of Green Day who still looks younger than his age (all three celebrated their 33rd birthdays this year), though today he’s tired from a tour schedule so relentless he’s sworn off alcohol for the month. The singer remains a drinker but no longer gets stoned – a major change in a band that named itself after a song they’d written about spending the day smoking pot, though not a surprising one for a guy with two sons: Joey, 10, and Jakob, 7. He’s relaxed and talks slow, with a weary confidence.

According to Armstrong, Green Day spent the three years following 2000’s Warning “not talking about things, and not wanting to rock the boat”. What had started as three 17-year-olds getting high and bashing out punk tunes had become a business, and over time a declining one. Resentment built, none of it articulated. Armstrong is the group’s natural leader, a quiet take-charge guy, but he mentions in passing that he can see how Dirnt and Cool began to view him as the band’s Nazi. He, in turn, became so mired in their resentment that he was afraid to show his bandmates new tracks, because they’d immediately attack them. He was blocked, and he resized “to be in the greatest band in the world, we have to work on the small stuff”.

So in 2003, when it came time to make a new record, Green Day decided to ass one thing to their daily band-practice schedule: mandated weekly conversation time. It was Armstrong’s idea, and it worked. “We bared out should to one another,” explains Dirnt. “Admitting that we cared for each other was a big thing,” says Cool. “We didn’t hold anything back.” They don’t want to discuss the grievances they aired, just the results. “Before, Billie would write a song, get stuck and then say, ‘Fuck it.'” says Cool. “The imaginary Mike and Tré in his head would say, ‘That song sucks. Don’t waste your time on it.’ He stopped doing that and became totally fearless around me and Mike.”

For Armstrong, that meant leaving behind the bratty attitude of early Green Day songs such as “Basket Case” and “Geek Stink Breath”. “I felt like I was too old to be angry anymore,” he says. “I didn’t want to come across as the angry older guy. It’s sexy to be an angry young man, but to be a bitter old bastard is another thing altogether.”

In an effort to find a new groove, they recorded polka songs, filthy versions of Christmas tunes, salsa numbers. The goofs opened up the way to real songs, and after four and a half months at their studio in Oakland, California, they had 20 finished tracks. Then one day they came in to find the masters has been stolen. “We were really pissed,” says Armstrong. “But it ended up being good because we were readying ourselves to go where we hadn’t gone before.”

But first Armstrong took off for New York to get more wasted than he’d been in a long while. He left his wife and two young sons for a month and “drank a lot of red wine, and vodka tonics”, he says. “I was searching for something. I’m not sure it was the most successful trip.”

“He was really questioning what he was doing,” says Adrienne Armstrong, his wife of 10 years. “It was scary, because where he had to go to get this record wasn’t a place I’m sure he wanted to be.” And it wasn’t until Armstrong came home and the hangover haze began to clear that he found his subject, while watching TV footage of the U.S. troops invading Iraq: politics.

Armstrong grew up in the East Bay, northeast of San Francisco, and remembers singing in front of audiences when he was as young as five. “I learnt show tunes as a kid,” he says. “My dad was a jazz drummer, and I used to go to veterans’ hospitals and sing.” He started piano lessons when he was eight. “I wanted to play guitar, but they said my hands were too small.” When he was 10, his father died of cancer (a loss he addresses for the first time on American Idiot‘s “Wake Me Up When September Ends”), leaving Armstrong and his five siblings to be raised by harried waitress mother and, when she remarried two years later, a stepfather they detested.

At 14, he formed his first band, Sweet Children, with Dirnt, his best friend since he was 10. Born to a heroin-addicted mother who gave him up for adoption, Dirnt is the only member of the band to graduate from high school. His adoptive parents divorced when he was seven years old, leaving him torn between his prosperous father, a white computer programmer, and his struggling mother, a Native American who didn’t hide her racial animosity. “I grew up with my mum hating the white man and loving me,” he has said.

Dirnt left home at 15, and he and Armstrong started having at Berkeley’s Gilman Street Project, a graffiti-splashed, fire-code-skirting club that was home to a burgeoning teenage punk scene. Sweet Children turned into Green Day, and after their first tour they took on a new drummer: Gilman Street veteran Tré Cool.

Cool was form Frank Edwin Wright III, the son of a Vietnam veteran who started a trucking company. He grew up in Willits, California – a town in the Mendocino mountains so rural that his neighbour was 1.5 kilometres away- and began playing drums with his first band, the Lookouts, when he was just 12 years old (the band’s singer, Lawrence Livermore, later founded Green Day’s first label, Lookout! Records).

After the success of Dookie, the scene they;d found a home in condemned them as pop-punk traitors. “The backlash, our hometown feeling like we sold out, we were playing into that,” says Armstrong. “Ninety-nine per cent of it was good, and we were focusing on the one per cent that wasn’t. That’s the one thing I wish we could have changed. Who gives a shit?” Alienated from the makeshift family of Gilman Street, they started families of their own. Bt 25, they were all married with children.

Armstrong’s marriage has survived. During the European tour, his sons were back home with their grandmother, but his wife was never far from his side, “I love that she still watches out shows,” he says. “The thing that’s great is that the music still gets under her skin in the same way that it affects me.”

For Cool and Dirnt, things have been different. Cool has endured two divorces and, more recently, a failed romance with Donnas drummer Torry Castellano. He has two children, one from each of his former wives and is, he says, “still trying to work it all out”. American Idiot helped. “There were a lot of waterworks making this record; I went through the worst time of my life,” he says.

Dirnt, too, went through a very painful separation during the American Idiot sessions. “My ex-wife told me she was leaving me the say we finished the album,” he offers. Dirt has moved on and now has a new girlfriend by his side. He talks about lavishing attention on his eight-year-old daughter but calls the divorce “a blessing but just an emotional drain”. “It was horrible and great,” he says. “When we mastered the record, I cried through the entire thing.”

In May 2003, Green Day went back to work in their Oakland studio. They left behind 20 songs they’d lost and started from scratch with a demo for a new song Armstrong had come up with on long walks around his neighbourhood, “American Idiot”: “Don’t want to be an American idiot/One nation controlled by the media/Information age of hysteria.” Soon more songs came and a story emerged: a kid – the Jesus of Suburbia – making his way through the world of punk-rock with a drunken prophet named St. Jimmy as his guide. There are drugs, music and a girl, Whatsername, whom the singer calls “every girl I’ve been involved with”.

And there’s something else: an indictment of the Bush administration and of the reality-TV-obsessed media. “We were in the studio and watching the journalists embedded with the troops, and it was the worst version of reality television,” Armstrong says. “Switch the channel, and it’s Nick and Jessica. Switch, and it’s Fear Factor. Switch, and people are having surgery to look like Brad Pitt. We’re surrounded by all of that bullshit, and the characters Jesus of Suburbia and St. Jimmy are as well. It’s a sign of the times.”

American Idiot careens from old-school punk to Motown should and Who-style anthems. Armstrong credits a wide variety of inspirations: “I used everything I knew about music. Show tunes, musicals like Grease and the struggle between right and wrong, The Joshua Tree – I tried to soak in everything and make it Green Day.

“The atmosphere can be anti-Bush, and I definitely had that in mind, but when you get down to it, it’s a human story,” he adds. “In the U.S. that puritanical feeling takes over: ‘It’s not your business who I vote for.’ It stops people from thinking so much. They develop a hard-nosed opinion, and then suddenly they stop taking in information. I don’t have a million things against conservatives. Johnny Ramone was a very nice guy but a total fucking Republican. I still liked the guy. That’s where it gets screwed up. If someone believes one thing, it turns into ‘us against them’. This album is about feelings. I didn’t want to make a Rage Against the Machine record. I wanted to make an album of heartfelt songs.”

Backstage, prior to a gig at the Manchester Evening News Arena, Green Day have gotten unto their uniform: matching black shirts and red ties. Tré Cool holes up with a drum set in a practice room with sea-green walls and a red floor. He spends an hour jamming with the backing musicians: two horn players and a guitarist. He often spends the bus rides after shows jamming lie this. “Fuck video games,” he says gleefully. “We’ve got jazz improv!”

Billie Joe Armstrong warms up by running the halls listening to his iPod. When he runs, he kicks his ankles to his butt. Mike Dirnt has a light meal in the catering area – he’s getting over a cold – and talks about his love of stand-ip comedy. Last year, he got onstage at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. “I killed for three minutes out of four,” he says.

The band takes the stage to the theme song from 2001. Tonight’s show is the largest of the European tour – 15,000 people screaming approval for an hour and a half. “This is the best fucking tour we’ve ever done,” Armstrong announces from the stage. The centrepiece of the show comes when Armstrong brings three audience members onstage, gives them instruments and leads them through “Knowledge”, a three-chord punk classic by Operation Ivy, one of the Gilman Street bands Green Day rose with. The crash-and-bash simplicity is a beautiful counterpoint for the musical complexity of the American Idiot material – it shows where Green Day started and how far they’ve come.

“There’s a sense of underdog and politics, but the party is a lot of fun, too,” an elated Armstrong says of the Operation Ivy cover backstage afterwards. “To connect with the kids like that is so important.” The singer, drenched in sweat, sits next to Adrienne on a couch. When she makes a comment about getting back to the hotel and “doing nothing tonight”, he looks at her adoringly.

Then years of uneasy living, career crises and emotional breakdowns have brought Green Day to this point. “For the first time in our career, it’s all about the music,” Armstrong says. “There’s no bullshit, no reality shit, no nostalgic trip. That’s what makes the last 10 years more worth it. Plus the fact that we all dress pretty sharp.”

Top image: Green Day at Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne in March 2005. Credit: Martin Philbey.