Eyes wide as a barn owl's. Spines stiff with anticipation, like a hungry scorpion. The two teenage girls sit stock-still in their booth at a posh Berkeley diner, practically bursting with excitement, but without the faintest clue how to handles it. Clueless, you might call them. A few feet across the linoleum aisle--with his back to them, oblivious to all the oh-my-gawd facial expressions--sits the object of their adulation, dressed in unassuming black jeans, black T-shirt, shredded black Converse, and a beat-up black baseball jacket. But even with his once-green dreadlocks tamed to a short black business cut, Billie Joe Armstrong--yes, the snaggle-toothed MTV ragamuffin from megaplatinum neo-punkers, Green Day--is as easy to spot as Michael Bolton at a Rogaine convention. Although the kids want to leap up from their seats and race over for an autograph or a jittery hello, they don't dare. Instead, they're forced to deal with their seething emotions as if they were eating post-tonsillectomy ice cream: a lot of numb gulping and a quick pain chaser.
This is the blessing of being Billie Joe Armstrong. Alas, it's also his curse. By the time you read this, the irascible little rocker will have turned 24. And exactly two years ago, he and his wacky bandmates--drummer Tré Cool and bassist Mike Dirnt--lolled around the trashy basement flat they shared, getting stoned and sneering at the idea that Dookie--their just-released "sellout" on big-time Reprise--would ever amount to more than a nice drink coaster. Fame? They were more preoccupied with their bong collection, stacks of rock 'n' roll bubblegum cards, and a thriving sea monkey tank displayed prominently on a window-sill. Most of their furniture had springs poking through--they didn't care. Armstrong regularly picked boogers from his gold-ringed nostril and then flick them onto the scary shag carpet--what did he have to worry about? Too bad he couldn't have foreseen the all-too-near future.
Green Day happened to be in the right place at the right time. The three-chord slam-a-rama Dookie--a pop-edged return to decade-old punk ethics--became the surprise hit of '94, going on to sell over 11 million copies. Armstrong, accustomed to frenetic club performances, began translating the group's infectious energy to larger and larger venues. Demand continued to grow at a staggering pace; Green Day fought back. They turned a satellite MTV Video Awards performance into a "spit-cam" fest by urging the crowd to gob any camera lens it could ("[The cameramen] tried to make it look like it was cool, but it wasn't"). Last October, Armstrong and company issued their 32-minute follow up, Insomniac, almost as an afterthought, with little promotion, a visually offensive video (for "Geek Stink Breath") and--at least initially--a strict no-interview policy. Simultaneously, they ditched their high-powered Cahn-Man management team and are now virtually managing themselves.
Along the way, Armstrong married his long-time sweetheart Adrienne and last March fathered a son, Joey. In typical down-to-earth fashion, the couple spent their honeymoon a few blocks from home at Berkeley's prestigious Claremont Hotel, not on some exotic island. Beginning to see the problem here? How does a street-smart kid from humble beginnings skyrocket to world-class notoriety and yet--with his music in millions of homes and his privacy suddenly a right that needs defending--still adhere to the simple ideals, the simple lifestyle that spawned him? Is "successful punk" an oxymoron? Insomniac provided few clues--it was more of the same slacker-ennui sentiment, more defeated, disenfranchised grousing set to speedy, memorable hooks. Or, as Armstrong barks in the aptly-dubbed "Walking Contradiction," "My wallet's fat and so is my head...I'm a victim of a Catch-22." And that, in essence, was the topic this tortured artist wanted to discuss at the diner. The old "be careful what you wish for" adage. The classic "problem with success is finding someone to enjoy it with you" truism.
Armstrong, who takes occasional sips from a vanilla milkshake, but mostly stares morosely at the floor, seems to be dealing with superstardom in a relatively normal way. Don't be fooled by the steady stream of negative vitriol that follows; he's analyzing it, breaking it down, figuring out ways to disconnect his kinetic career. Or at least turn down the volume for awhile.
RIP: We know what's going right. But what's going wrong? BILLIE JOE ARMSTRONG: Lots of things, really. Actually, when I came here today, I said I didn't wanna talk about anything good, because I don't really have anything good to talk about. Goin' on tour pretty soon--don't really wanna go. Just because I've been kinda torn. I wanna stick around at home. I don't like playing arenas, and I realized I didn't know what I was getting myself into on the last tour, but I went into it being positive and getting excited about it. But I didn't realize that I was the kind of person to whom it's too much of an event and not really a personal thing anymore. And I started to realize how much I liked being the background music to this scene at the club. And now it's.... I dunno. People expect so much. It's cool and stuff, and it can be a lot of fun, a really good experience. But when you play that many arenas.... The first time we ever played those big kinds of shows at the Shoreline (Amphitheater in Mountain View, California), there was weirdness--we were playing for a lot of f?!kin' people. And I hate to say it, but sometimes it just feels like another gig. We played every day, 50 gigs this last leg, and it just wears on ya. There's all these people, and they think "Alright. I paid my $15--you better impress the f?!kin' shit outta me right now!" And I realized that for Joey, the rock and roll touring life is not a good atmosphere for a kid. I tried to make it to where it would be, bringing lots of his toys out. But there are no familiar surroundings for him. And he likes all the attention--people come up and say hello to him every day, people who are on tour with us. But he doesn't have his own room or a home to go to every day. So, no more touring for Joey.
RIP: Turned on Regis and Kathie Lee this morning to find their gossip columnist dishing dirt on Green Day. How Insomniac didn't do nearly as well as predicted, how it was a disappointment to the label. A failure, supposedly. BJA: Well, it's like, we didn't set up this record. We didn't. We didn't do any promotion beforehand, we completely quit doing interviews, and basically we just wanted to go on into it. We weren't even sure if we wanted to do a video. And then when we did a video, it got yanked from daytime rotation because people were getting grossed-out by it. So I think we did alienate a lot of people. So that was expected, that it wasn't going to sell a lot of records.
RIP: NOFX have taken it one step further. They refuse to talk to press, make videos, pander potential singles to radio. They don't want to get any bigger. BJA: I dunno, maybe I'm just getting jaded or something. But I just got cable again and I can't stand anything. Six years ago you could hear something that was different and know that it was different. So it'd be "alternative" or whatever. But now it's like you get this Joan...Osborne? With the ring in her nose, waving the alternative rock flag, when she's just...not, ya know? And I'm thinking, I hate all this music that's coming out now--the past year was just hell for music. But people are buying it, so then I'm thinking, Maybe they're the ones that are good and I'm the one who sucks? I just don't know if I really wanna be involved in the rock world anymore at all. Period. I don't necessarily have anything against a big record company or people who what to join up with a big record company. It really is right for some people, but more and more, I don't think that I'm really meant to. And I hate to sound like that, because I don't like taking things for granted. I don't like to talk about my problems when there's some kid struggling in his garage somewhere saying "F?!k him! He's just taking it for granted. Shit, I wish I could do something like that, but I'm just stuck here in Biloxi, Mississippi, and I can't even get a gig." I'm so confused right now.
RIP: It must be odd to know that, with all those millions of albums sold, drunken frat boys are probably staggering around to your music right now. Your audience grew far beyond your control. BJA: Oh, totally! We became what we hated. Which is, the people I despised in high school--and now--are buying our records. We initially became a trend, so there was no way I expected to sell as many records with Insomniac as with Dookie. That's one of the biggest-selling records of the decade. We get slagged by the punk rockers, and it's like, I don't blame them. If you draw that much attention to yourself, that's what you're gonna get--attention--and it's not personal anymore.
RIP: Ever think about giving it all up? BJA: There isn't a day goes by in the past year and a half that I haven't thought about quitting. I went to this party on New Year's Eve, and this band Juke, and another band, the Tantrums, played in a friend of mine's backyard. And a lot of my old friends showed up, and everybody was just dancing. And I was dancing, and getting really muddy, and I was having a great time. I can't remember the last time I sat down and listened to a record from beginning to end and felt this incredible spine-chilling music. And it's because I haven't been able to go out and watch bands play at my free will. I'm not gonna live in a closet, I'm not gonna vegetate myself.
RIP: But it has to be difficult, when tons of kids know your face. You're on your way to Michael Jackson-dom, where you have to wear a disguise in public. BJA: If you think about the Beatles, at that time all people had to go by were the photographs on the records and every now and then a television appearance. So when they'd come to town, people would just flip out--it became this huge public event every single time. Whereas now, everything is so saturated kids don't even have to leave their home to go to a show anymore. They can sit in the comfort of their living room, and your favorite rock star is gonna be entertaining you while you sit down and have your microwave burrito.
RIP: The Milwaukee cops weren't pleased with aspects of Green Day's Milwaukee show last November. Why were you arrested? BJA: I dropped the pick and--actually, I even forgot about it--I just mooned the crowd, which is pretty harmless compared to what I've done before. And I wasn't even thinking about it--I just went out and started playing again. Then I went backstage and was hanging out with Adrienne, and this guy Jimmy who does security for us goes "Come on--there's a car waiting for you outside right now. You've gotta get out of here!" I said "What's wrong?" and he said he didn't even know. So we get in the car and all of a sudden about ten cops come walking over, fully surrounding the car. So the guy puts the cuffs on me, throws me in the car, and I get tossed in the holding tank for two, three hours. I wasn't in the bullpen--I was in with the other ones, the not-so-bad ones. They made me take all my jewelry out. And my shoestrings, so I wouldn't hang myself or something. I dunno. I just don't know how to fit into rock music anymore. I don't know what I like about it anymore. I don't like anything about it anymore, to tell you the truth. To tell you the real truth, I'm a pretty miserable person right now. I'm totally depressed, and my wife can vouch for that because she's around me. In fact, she's the only person who's really around me. I dunno, the whole thing with the mainstreaming of punk rock. I just feel lost in the whole thing...I don't really know...I don't wanna...I dunno...It's miserable, it really is. It's f?!ked up.
RIP: For every original voice that comes along, there will be countless mad signing dashes for any and all sound-alike artists, with no thought given to the artist's longevity. Just throw the record out quickly and hope it sticks. BJA: The thing is, a lot of musicians have gotten so comfortable with this big so-called "Revolution in Rock Music" over the past decade. First it was like, "F?!k the corporations! F?!k the corporations!" And then people just sorta got cozy with that, and forgot that these bands are getting lost in the shuffle. And I'm talking about the ones that never get noticed at all and just get kinda bitter. The 15 minutes of fame is getting shorter and shorter. And now music is totally going backwards--the first half of this decade, there were a few things going on that were interesting. It wasn't my favorite kind of music, but it had a sensibility about it. If you think about Nirvana and Pearl Jam and that whole Seattle scene, and even the Offspring--there was this thing going on that was more honest, in a lot of ways. It wasn't like, beer, drugs and pussy, like what went on through the '80s with all the hair bands. But now what we've got is Hootie & the Blowfish....
RIP: Who are probably a lot like you. They seem like nice, regular guys who--through no real fault of their own--are suddenly assimilated into pop culture. BJA: Yeah, but that's the problem, is that they are nice regular guys. And they're totally comfortable with that, and they sort of put that out, to where they don't really have...I dunno, there's a certain amount of attitude that, say, someone like Cobain or Vedder has that they don't have. But it's becoming way not...real anymore or something. Maybe not real to me. It's just turning back into what it was in the '80s. It's like, "Hey, everyone! We're Huey Lewis and the News!" I dunno. Maybe nobody knows what the f?!k I'm talking about anymore. BJA: I get so irritated by people. I think I'm more bitter than I've ever been in my whole life, to tell you the honest truth. I think Insomniac is much more of a bitter record than Dookie. And I think the older people get, the more they kinda get angry. I think a lot of people feel like they get cheated by lief somehow--no-one is ever completely satisfied. There's maybe a few. But I mean, I'm in a place where I don't really wanna be. It's like, sometimes I feel like we're losing our passion for playing music. And that's the f?!ked-up thing, when you lose passion for what you love, then it's like, Is this marriage headed for divorce or what?
RIP: Theoretically, you can fight back a couple of ways. Like Cobain, you could make a record almost calculated to offend all the bandwagon-jumpers. Or take as much time off as you'd like. Who says you can't go live on a desert island for two years? BJA: That'd be nice. I'm just not enjoying life right now. I'm really not. I'm so cluttered, I can't even speak. Yeah, I do feel like I'm getting old, and I'm kinda bitter about that. I'm not excited about being onstage anymore, and I was really trying to convince myself that I was. Really. Before we did this last U.S. tour, every time I did an interview--I don't know if you read the last Rolling Stone piece--I was like "Yeah! I'm excited! I wanna play these arenas!" and stuff. And then just every night, it started sucking, it felt like a routine or something. It felt almost choreographed in a lot of ways. And I was yelling "f?!k you!" to people, but I didn't know who I was yelling "f?!k you" to anymore.
RIP: Last time we spoke, you said you went out of your way to change every single show, make each one different. BJA: Well, I think it's just the stress of getting up in front of all those people all the time, every day. It's like, "Do I really feel like downing another f?!cking pot of coffee and a bottle of wine before I walk onstage to do this again? Just to get myself ready to go?" You know, for all those people. And every night I always do something different and stupid. But at the same time, it'd be really cool to just say "F?!k you!" to people and like, walk off. And then they'd get it. It's like, "I'm really telling you to f?!k off this time! Time to pack up and go home." It'd just be so nice to start from scratch again.
RIP: In many ways you can. That's the music-making system trying to program your behavior. And obviously you've broken quite a few rules already--you don't even have to be talking to me right now, actually.... BJA: Oh no. I really wanted to do this interview, just because the last interviews that I've done, I've been miserable, and I was pretending not to be. I really was, I was lying. Not to the reader, not to the person I was doing the interview. But I was lying to myself, convincing myself that I was really happy with how everything is going.
RIP: So you always knew what you wanted, and now you've got it, in spades. You're having trouble figuring out what's next? BJA: I didn't even know what I wanted back then. I really didn't. I didn't know if I wanted to be huge, totally successful. I never knew that. I was struggling so hard even to sign that f?!king contract--when I was sitting there, I was contemplating, "Should I just run outta here right now? Am I making the biggest mistake of my life?" A lot of people say, "You're totally disillusioned with what money can do for people," but money never meant shit to me. There's something very passionate to me, very romantic, about living on the street in a lot of ways. Just because I really like my lifestyle back then. I was totally content, in retrospect. A lot of it has to do with the fame. I dunno, I'm trying to talk right now and just totally stuttering.
RIP: It's not like you chose music--it chose you, and you can't help it. BJA: Yeah, it's cool when people really get it. But what a lot of people don't understand is that we're a band that's been around a lot longer than people know. And that's the thing. The difference between this and what happened between Kerplunk and Dookie--in a year, I got married, I had a kid, and I sold 11 million records worldwide. That can do something to ya, ya know? BJA: Sometimes I think it'd be cool to just hang out with my friends, drink beer, smoke cigarettes. The more I think about it, the more I'd be really happy with that. I don't think that we're feeling quite like a band anymore--that's one problem we have. There was this certain rock 'n' roll underdog think that we always had--we always drove for something, always drove from town to town in a small van. And you know, I f?!kin' like touring like that--it's like culture shock, really, driving around in a van, setting up my amp when I get there, and playing. That's rock 'n' roll, that's what it started out as. A bunch of sweaty pigs in some tiny f?!kin' bar having a hootenanny, that's what punk rock was to me, that's what drove me to it. I love rock music in its simples, rawest form. And I think we're the only band, really, that plays rock 'n' roll.
RIP: Has all this put a strain on your old friendships? Do your pals treat you a little differently now? BJA: When I come up to friends I haven't talked to in a while, there's a weirdness. And the ones who are really close to me don't really bring up anything, but that thing is still there; it's still in the air. And sometimes I'll just not say anything the whole time we're hanging out. I'll be totally quiet, because the only thing I'll have to talk about is my band, and I get so sick of talking about my band and myself. So I'll just be quiet, since that's the only thing there is to me, except for my son and my wife.
RIP: Pretty soon, you'll be boring everyone with slide shows--"There we are at Yosemite!" BJA: Ha! Adrienne was telling me the other day, "When you were in there dancing with all your friends, while the band was playing, you were so happy because you were so in your element." And I've even gone as far as saying we're not a punk band anymore. But no matter what, that's still gonna stick with me forever, because I love the music, I love the energy of a new band coming out that creates this sense of urgency about 'em. I'll never be able to kick that habit. I love hangin' out with my friends who have small fanzines--kids just writing their guts out about whatever the hell's bothering 'em, and putting it on a Xerox machine and then handing it out for a quarter apiece at shows or at a party. All I wanna do is just try and work it out. I was sitting there the other day, counting all the records that the Replacements put out, stuff like that, Dan thinking how [Paul] Westerberg totally came across to his audience and did everything, everything that the wanted to do in music. He wasn't extremely successful for it, but the guy has influenced people, and a lot of 'em don't even know that they are influenced by him. All I wanna do is just write good songs and stick to it. I wanna develop--not being experimental--but go into different styles, go across my boundaries of the two-and-a-half minute punk song with a three-and-a-half minute jazz song, or maybe get into a little bit of swing or rockabilly.
RIP: With such staggering success, you could walk into Reprise and tell 'em you're doing an album of saxophone solos and they'd allow you that creative luxury. BJA: Well, I never wanna be that experimental. I don't wanna get into synthesizers and shit like that. The thing that was cool for me with Insomniac was that I think we definitely set a foundation for ourselves, because we put out our hardest record to date, totally in-your-face all the way through, and now we're able to go anywhere we want. We can do that now--we do have that going for us. That is, if people are still interested. Which is kinda weird for me to say....
RIP: Your craft will always remain the most important thing of all, even if you're just writing for your own amusement. BJA: Yeah. No matter what, I'm gonna be writing songs for the rest of my life. I mean, I already have a shitload of new songs right now. But I just wanna do some other things with it. We've sold a million of Insomniac so far. But I definitely want to be respected as a musician. Well, more as a songwriter than as a musician. I wanna be f?!kin' normal, is what I wanna be. The thing is, I've seen so many freaks and so many weirdos and crazy punk rockers and drunks and junkies. But for a lot of those people being weird is easy. It's so easy to be strange--the hard thing is to try to be normal. There's no such thing as normal, ya know.
RIP: How's your mom feel about all this? BJA: She's kinda worried about me. She doesn't know what to think of everything. We have a hard time communicating with each other, just because I don't like to talk about it that much. So she feels like she has to walk on eggshells around me all the time.
RIP: You buy her anything cool once the money started rolling in? BJA: Nah--she doesn't want anything. I've asked her. She's been living in the same house for over 20 years, and she's content living there. But I did give her a trip--she went to Hawaii, her and her boyfriend. And I think travelling is really good--if you paid for someone to travel, so they can go and explore and see some things they've never seen before. But I think that's probably where I get it from. I get so content with not having much. And then you get all this stuff, all this attention, and you don't really know what to do with it. You don't know how to channel it.
RIP: Most outrageous thing you've bought for yourself? BJA: I got my car primered! And one thing I did do was build a home studio. So I've been recording all my friends' bands for free. I produced this band called Dead and Gone, and Social Unrest, Fetish and the Criminals. And I have this side-project called Pinhead Gunpowder--nothing's up with it right now, but we played at the beginning of '94 a few times.
RIP: Sounds like you've got more than enough pressure valves to let off the steam. Still, do you worry about death? BJA: Yeah, I do. But I have too many reasons to stick around. One is my son and my wife. And I don't feel like I'm finished yet. I'm not done, ya know? And the beauty of it is that death is forever and your problems aren't. And that's why I'm talking about my bad shit, because you vent that, you get it off your chest and you can move on to something else. There's gotta be a positive side to all this--so you just sort of try and dig it out. Get rid of all the bad--out with the bad air, in with the good air.
RIP: You said about Green Day that you think your "bandwagon is coming to a close and all that's gonna be left is just a band. Hopefully." So then will you start writing happy songs? BJA: I thought about writing a totally sarcastic song called "I'm So Goddamn Happy," just talking about how happy I am. Actually, I'd like to put out a double record--I'd like to put out tons of music. But I never wanna become an egomaniac. I just wanna keep things down to earth, so I think it's really important for us to take a long break after all this stuff. We just put out two records back to back, one year after another, and now we can sit back and work on ourselves as people again. So we don't parody ourselves. And it's so hard to be a father and a musician at the same time. If I get into one thing and I pay close attention to it, like if I'm with Joey and I start neglecting my music, then I feel like I should play more often. So I start playing my music, and then I'm going, "Am I neglecting Joey?" So it becomes hard to do everything at the same time. BJA: I wanna create a very mellow and sound atmosphere for him, because I don't wanna make any mistakes for him--I want him to be able to make his own mistakes. And even when it comes to swearing--I don't cuss in front of my kid. I'd rather him get it from some dirty-mouthed kid at school. Then at least I'd know, I could go "Thank God--my kid is in a real world and he's learning these things from his surroundings." That'd be a good thing. Because the best things you ever learn are the things you learn in kindergarten.
Finally, after more than an hour worth of gut-spilling, Armstrong suddenly observes four brace-faced girls, each no more than 12 years old, idling over by the cash register. They're there on the pretext of getting change. In reality, they just want to ogle punk icon and pin-up darling Billie Joe, stare at those caterpillar eyebrows and chiselled cheekbones up close. Another oh-my-gawd event. "I gotta go--it's gettin' weird," the reluctant rocker whispers, literally leaping up from the booth. "I can feel eyeballs all over me already...." And as fast as that, he's gone. "Was that...was that...B-B-B-B-Billie Joe?" stammers one swooner. "No," says the waitress, with a subtle smile. "That was just some guy who usually eats here alone, nobody famous at all. You know, just an average guy." A little white lie to herd the young 'uns out. But nevertheless the truth.