The banner that greets visitors at Sweden's spotless Gothenberg Airport proclaims: "Welcome to Liseberg Amusement Park: So Much Happiness." The promised happiness, though, like misplaced luggage, doesn't seem to have made the trip. Billie Joe Armstrong, 23-year-old singer-guitarist for America's preeminent brats, sits, alone, on a concrete bank of steps at the far end of the Liseberg Amusement Park Arena. The dank concert hall, which in a matter of hours will be filled with spotless blond teenagers pogoing to their punk rock heroes Green Day, is now eerily still, save for the thump-thump-thump of a drum roadie.
Armstrong is bored. Bored shitless. "This shit's boring" is how he puts it. "People don't realize how boring it can be on the road," he continues, mostly out of boredom. "They expect to see mounds of ocaine or something." I watch as Armstrong gingerly pushes a puddle of drool over his bottom lip and toward the ground, only to slurp it back up into his mouth before the connection gets severed. He repeats the gross-out parlor trick again and again, solely for his own amusement. I contemplate looking into that mound of cocaine.
Befitting his funk, Armstrong's dressed all in black: black cashmere sweater, black Dickies-"I've had these pants for four years," he boasts-and a black-on-black pair of canvas Converse. His 5'7" frame, downsized further by a perpetual slouch, keeps him soft and approachable, cuddly even. A plain silver choker with a guitar pick for a pendant circles his neck. Currently he's a bottle blond, but you get the feeling that the tint of his hair could prove as fleeting as the pall over his mood.
Fighting a cold he came down with on the bus ride from Stockholm to Gothenberg-"Maybe that's because 15 kids spit on you every night," teases his friend Ben Weasel from opening act the Riverdales-Armstrong fidgets with his chain, stares up at the ceiling, and plays with his saliva some more. His usual Cheshire grin is noticeably absent. With his wife Adrienne and their 10-month-old son Joey not set to join him for a couple of days, and with best friends and bandmates Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool, both 23, off splashing around the amusement park in a steady downpour, Armstrong looks lost, like those doe-eyed kids who get separated from their parents at the mall.
A year or so of being probed, prodded, and paraded as punk-rock poster children couldn't help but leave a scar, and Insomniac, the gutsy follow-up to the band's breakthrough album Dookie, presents a hardened Armstrong and Green Day. It's no less bouncy than Dookie, but substantially bleaker, like someone dosed the Hawaiian Punch. Lyrics such as "The world is a sick machine / Breeding a mass of shit," or "Class structure waving colors / Bleeding from my throat" are not likely to be scribbled in the loose-leaf notebooks of ninth graders.
"Everything's become so confusing," concedes Armstrong. "As soon as you get rid of problems that you had before, like financial instability, you inherit something completely different. I don't want anyone's sympathy. I just want to be understood."
Dirnt and Tre finally come in out of the rain, and the band and I hop in a van and motor to a nearby cafe for some nourishment. Instantly, Armstrong springs to life, touting a favorite Bay Area fanzine called Cometbus, detailing the CD art for Insomniac-"There's no photo of us," he brags, "people know what we fucking look like"-and sharing some laughs with his longtime buds over the previous evening's Stockholm spit-fest.
The devotion the members of Green Day show to one another reminds me of kittens raised in the same litter who adoringly lick each other clean. Green Day finish each other's dick jokes, stick up for each other's parents, and share the same noisy electric razor for instant misshapen buzzcuts. "No single member of Green Day is more important than the others," says Armstrong modestly, and in the time I spend getting to know them, I'm offered little reason to doubt his sincerity. Rock'n'roll camaraderie is nothing new, of course-Led Zeppelin, most famously, shared far more than an electric razor-but it's the Krazy Glue that's held this band together when other '90s pinups might have come apart at the seams.
It's hard to believe that only 18 months ago Green Day was the opening act on the second half of the Lollapalooza tour. Against its better judgment-"We were conned into it by our management," says Dirnt-the band helicoptered in from Lolla to play the second stage at Woodstock '94, and the rest, as they say, is a detergent ad. Green Day quickly graduated from nightclubs to hockey rinks, keeping ticket and T-shirt prices dirt cheap without breaking a sweat or testifying on Capitol Hill. A free lunchtime concert in downtown Boston was cut short when roughly 40,000 more fans than anticipated turned up. MTV, not content with endlessly airing the band's three videos, endlessly aired an hour-long broadcast of a live show from Chicago. Green Day booked queer popsters Pansy Division as openers for its arena tour, and later would help place them, as well as other Lookout! artists Tilt and the Riverdales, on this fall's Angus soundtrack. Then came Saturday Night Live, and a headlining benefit concert at New York's Madison Square Garden where Billie Joe got naked. And, oh yeah, Billie Joe and Adrienne got married in July 1994 and had a son, Joseph Marcicano Armstrong; Tre and his girlfriend Lisea had a daughter, Ramona, and got married in the spring of 1995; and Mike just became engaged to Anastasia, his girlfriend of three years. They bought modest new homes, opted to fire their management and represent themselves, and struggled mightily to not lose sight of who they are and where they come from.
The romantic tale of three or four lads growing up in the same nabe, getting chased out of school, feeling lost and vaguely dissatisfied, grabbing guitars, making a racket, hitting the road, toughing it out, and striking it big is quintessential rock lore, and quintessentially English. The Beatles, Stones, Who, and Clash all shared a youthful boy-bonding that screamed "us against the world," erecting a secret clubhouse with its own password, initiation rites, and big Keep Out sign plastered on the door. Green Day, like its neighbor Rancid, is often accused of plundering the dialects and pop-tones of late-'70s Brit-punk, but what it has drawn from is less the sound of that period than its spirit-working-class loyalties and esprit de corps. In a time when soulless alternaclone bands clog the airwaves and the Internet stands in for community, it's easy to see why three nose-picking fuck-ups from Berkeley, California, have stolen our collective teenage heart.
It takes a teenage heart to stir a teenage heart, and Green Day, especially onstage, is a basket case of overactive hormones. "I don't like to be super-serious all the time," Armstrong understates. "But now people expect me to pull my pants down and wiggle my penis in front of their face, just because they heard about it on MTV." Of course, later that evening, Armstrong does precisely that, dropping trou to the delight of the crowd, and to the dismay of the roadie who's forced to hitch those pants back up. Tre, who once attended a clown school run by Woodstock '69 MC Wavy Gravy, takes a perfect face-first fall a la Chevy Chase immediately following his vocal turn on the faux-hick encore, "Dominated Love Slave." And Dirnt, when he's not wildly jerking himself to and fro, gleefully clomps his head into his microphone during the occasional lulls in the set.
Crammed around the noisy cafe table, guzzling caffeine or, in Armstrong's case, nursing a hot cup of herbal tea, things are somewhat more subdued, although Tre insists on paying tribute to his Scandinavian fans by donning a silver plastic Viking helmet topped with horns. At times, it's hard to believe that Armstrong and Tre are married with children, or that Dirnt will get hitched next August. But when Armstrong opens his wallet and shows off a photo of Adrienne and a Sears portrait of Joey, fussed over in a black-and-white-striped bowtie, you realize that, hell, maybe all you need is love. "I may be immature, but I am responsible," says Armstrong, and the sparkle in his eyes when I catch him gazing at those snapshots snuffs any doubts I might have harbored. At their core, the members of Green Day desire nothing more than to build for themselves, their wives, and their children the kind of family they've hungered for all their lives.
"I know what it's like being a kid," says Armstrong. "Being a kid fucking sucks. The last thing I want for Joey is for him to be known as my son. I'd rather keep the magazines and the fame away from him. Which will be impossible, but I think it's really important for him to develop his own identity. Let him make his own mistakes. I'd rather be the station wagon kind of parent, you know, like going to Wally World. I just want to be a normal dad."
Armstrong draws a deep breath. "Being a parent is the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my whole life. I'm totally self-conscious all the time, making sure I don't scream in front of Joey, trying to keep some sort of comfortable atmosphere for him. I'm not used to that. I'm usually like 'arrrgghh!' "
"Yeah," squeaks Tre, whose little girl, Ramona, just turned 11 months old. "You just can't pull out the gun and blow away the telly anymore when there's something on you don't like, 'cause the baby might be sleeping."
"I'm trying to keep up my end of the bargain," says Armstrong. "It takes two, you know, a mom and a dad. Adrienne's an amazing mom. Mothers have got the worst jobs in the whole world. And I never realized that until I had a kid. I don't care what you do, or what job you complain about. Try to be a mother. You won't last a fucking day."
"It takes so much more than physical strength," marvels Dirnt. "It takes an emotional and mental strength that I don't think guys possess."
Armstrong and Dirnt, friends since the fifth grade, were essentially raised by their moms. "I'm the epitome of a latchkey kid," says Armstrong, the youngest of six children. "By the time my mom, who had me when she was 40, got around to raising me, she was like, 'You do what you want, I'm sick of being strict all the time.' " Armstrong's dad, an itinerant jazz musician, died of cancer when he was ten. Left to his own devices, Billie spent most of his time scratching out songs with his newfound pal, Mike-"At first we didn't like each other," admits Dirnt, "because we were both class clowns"-or hanging out at Rod's Hickory Pit in Vallejo, where Billie's mom slung hash. "She's been a waitress since she was, like, 16," says Armstrong. "She's still a damn good one, too," says Dirnt admiringly.
The two boys grew up 15 miles north of Berkeley in Rodeo, which, despite its posh name, is the kind of shit town where you pick up a guitar hoping it could be your ticket out. Dirnt, formerly Michael Pritchard, lived in poverty, born to a heroin-addicted mother and adopted by a Native American mother and a white father. When Dirnt was seven, his adoptive parents divorced, and Dirnt bounced between the two until finally settling in with his adoptive mom and older sister. That, too, was short-lived, and soon Dirnt struck out on his own, working, among a handful of jobs, as a cook at the aforementioned Rod's Hickory Pit.
Instead of bitching and moaning about their lack of economic opportunities, Armstrong and Dirnt relish their blue-collar roots, and the work ethic that goes with them. All three get riled up when I ask if they still consider themselves working class. Armstrong: "I definitely work my ass off." Dirnt: "We work super hard not to have to work." Tre: "We put in some serious fucking hours to be considered slackers."
This scorn for "slackers" reaches a fevered pitch when the topic of Berkeley, California, comes up. Home to the Gilman Street Project, the earnest all-ages punk rock nightclub and collective that was the epicenter of Green Day's universe up until Dookie, Berkeley is also a university town densely populated with feel-good activists and trust-fund Deadheads.
"I fucking hate college students, to tell you the truth," spits Armstrong, "because they've been able to go to school, get an education, live in the dorms, and get a free ride from their parents. I'm also envious, because I never had that opportunity to learn. I wrote a song on the new album called 'Brat' about waiting for your parents to die so you can get your inheritance. Which," he reckons, "my son will probably be singing one day himself."
Another new song from Insomniac, "86," closes the book on the band's bittersweet relationship with the coterie of punk purists that comprise Gilman Street. "It's kind of about this conversation I had with someone when I went back to Gilman last December," says Armstrong. "I ran into this old friend of mine and all he could say was, 'Wow, what the fuck are you doing here?' " Armstrong, who habitually begins his songs with the personal pronoun, here assumes his friend's callous posture. "What brings you around," he sings. "Did you lose something the last time you were here? / You'll never find it now / It's buried deep with your identity / So stand aside and let the next one pass / Don't let the door kick you in the ass."
If Armstrong's now-familiar beat-up blue guitar, purchased by his mom when he was 11, was his ticket out of Rodeo, then Gilman Street was the ideal destination. "It saved me from living in a refinery town all my life. Everything that I have now pretty much branched from that whole scene." It's there that Armstrong and Dirnt, in need of a new drummer, hooked up with Gilman Street fixture Tre Cool.
Tre Cool, born Frank Edwin Wright III, grew up in the Mendocino mountains, where his father, a Vietnam vet, raised Tre and his two siblings. Tre's dad built many of the houses in the area, including that of Lawrence Livermore, Tre's nearest neighbor and the founder of Green Day's original record label, Lookout! At the age of 12, Tre joined Livermore's pop-punk band, the Lookouts, recorded an album, and began gigging regularly at Gilman. When John Kiffmeyer, the drummer on Green Day's debut 39 Smooth, left the band, Tre, with Livermore's blessing, hopped aboard, and the new trio became immediate Gilman favorites. With the release of Kerplunk, though, and dogged cross-country and European touring, the band's popularity began to swell, and that proved an unpardonable sin in the eyes of the staunchly insular Gilman crowd. When, in 1993, Green Day jumped from Lookout! to the Warner Bros. affiliate Reprise Records, it was no longer welcome in its "home away from home."
"I can never really go back there again," says Armstrong, his voice laced with equal parts regret, anger, and understanding. "I'll cherish it for the rest of my life, but things are different now."
Indeed. The three near-perfect singles from Dookie-"Longview," "Basket Case," and "When I Come Around"-and their accompanying Mark Kohr-directed videos presented a spunky, brightly colored alternative to an audience that had begun to tire of the soggy grays and smacked-out dolor of grunge. Like the Beatles, whose insouciant charms invigorated an America devastated by Lee Harvey Oswald's expert marksmanship, Green Day's cartooned mayhem helped relieve the tension created by Kurt Cobain's trigger finger. Like the Ramones a generation before, Green Day made rock'n'roll fun again, finding humor in their own self-loathing, and honoring the short attention spans of high-schoolers. Unlike the Ramones, though, Green Day sold over eight million copies of Dookie. That'll buy an awful lot of fat neckties and baby formula.
"One question we get asked a lot now," grouses Dirnt, "is 'How much money do you make?' When I was younger, I actually asked that question to my mom's friend. My mom took me and slapped me in the face and said, 'Do not ask that question! It's none of your business.' Sure, we make money. We make plenty of money. And it's peace of mind for me to know that I've bought my mom a house, and that my little sisters don't have to live in a trailer anymore."
Armstrong, as the band's focal point, has suffered most from the disorientation of sudden stardom. "The fucked-up thing about being famous and having money is that if you complain about something, people are like, 'What the fuck are you complaining about? You don't have to work a real job. You don't have to worry about money, or a place to live.' I feel like I don't have anyone to vent my frustrations to because they won't understand."
Those frustrations are writ large on Insomniac, an often-chilling riposte to the zit-poppin', spitball-hurlin', mud-slingin' abandon of Dookie. "It's a lot harder, a lot faster, and a lot angrier than Dookie," says Rob Cavallo, who, along with the band, produced Insomniac over a six-week period in July and August. "There's no 'When I Come Around' on this record, that's for sure." Though Armstrong's melodies are as bubblicious as ever, and Insomniac sounds even leaner than its predecessor, the growing pains of the past couple of years are felt throughout.
Take "Armitage Shanks," for example, the opening track on Insomniac. "When I wrote that song," says Armstrong, "it was right before Dookie came out, and I was really at odds with myself. I was ike, man, do I really want to do this? A lot of the time I was thinking about suicide, how it's so easy to kill yourself, but so hard to stay alive. I was in a break-up with my then-girlfriend, a total, raving punk rocker who didn't approve of me being on a major label. She moved down to Ecuador, saying she couldn't live in a world with McDonald's and such. It was fucking me up pretty bad."
Such loss of innocence fuels much of Insomniac's rage. While in the past the band has spoken freely, even eagerly, of its affection for drinking and drugging, their words now come tinged with caution, as evidenced on the album's first single, "Geek Stink Breath," a brutal depiction of a life corroded by methamphetamine. "It's an ugly song for an ugly drug," says Dirnt. "We have a lot of friends hooked on speed. They're so tweaked out, man, it's ridiculous."
The sadistic dental-appointment-from-hell concept for the "Geek Stink Breath" video was Armstrong's. "Billie Joe called me one day," recalls Mark Kohr, the video's director, "and said that a friend of his with a history of drug problems and a real sweet tooth was having his teeth pulled out, and he wanted to know if I could film it." After viewing the clip, the band wasn't quite satisfied. "They kept asking me for more bubbling blood," laughs Kohr.
Armstrong, who no longer uses speed, refuses to attach a moral weight to "Geek Stink Breath." "It's not really for it, and it's not really against it. It just describes a state of mind, and the destructiveness it had on me personally." The drug's initial appeal still resonates, however. "I liked speed because I wanted some rocket fuel. I wanted to think. That's the difference between us and the grunge scene: We wanted to go faster." As Green Day learned, however, life can get too fast, speed or no speed. Dirnt rolls up his sleeve and points to a dramatic tattoo of a snake wrapped around a dagger. Inscribed is the word "brother." "Jason had the same one," says Dirnt. "I got mine in his honor after he died." Dirnt's referring to Jason Andrew Relva, a close friend whose fatal car crash inspired the song "J.A.R." on the Angus film soundtrack. "He was going 95," Dirnt recalls unflinchingly. "I think he committed suicide."
"J.A.R." also contributed to the recent split between the band and its managers, Elliot Cahn and Jeff Saltzman, who began representing Green Day shortly after Kerplunk's release. This past July, beseiged by persistent rumors that Cahn and Saltzman had leaked "J.A.R." to the powerful Los Angeles radio station KROQ prior to its official release, in order to gain leverage for bands on their newly formed 510 label, Green Day handed Cahn-Man its pink slip. Most industry insiders uphold Cahn and Saltzman's innocence with regard to the radio leak, but do concede that the pair, whose time is divided among management, legal, and now record company duties, may not have fulfilled their primary responsibilities as Green Day's managers. According to a legal spokesman for Cahn-Man, on August 29 Cahn and Saltzman filed suit in Alameda County Superior Court, claiming that the band illegally reneged on its contract, and that it owes Cahn-Man $165,000 in back wages. (A lawyer for Green Day did not respond to SPIN's request for an interview.)
Green Day now proudly considers itself self-managed, with dreadlocked former guitar tech Randy teffes acting as its liaison. It's a defiant-some might say naive-attempt to keep their lives and careers their own, to reaffix the keep out sign on the clubhouse door. "The only three people who know what's best for Green Day are me, Billie, and Tre," says Dirnt, a sentiment echoed repeatedly by his bandmates. "We know sometimes that all we really have is each other," concludes Armstrong. "This is the three of us, and this is what you get."
Two nights later, before their sold-out gig at the Sportshalle in Hamburg, Germany, I'm politely asked by the band's publicist not to venture backstage. Adrienne and Joey have arrived, as have Lisea and Ramona, and the guys and their families need some time together. They hope I understand. What's not to understand?
Green Day play their hearts out that evening. Tight to the point of airlessness, Armstrong, Dirnt, and Tre blast through songs from all four of their records, in addition to spraying the frenzied crowd with a few licks from Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger." "Geek Stink Breath" sounds like a smash, and the hits from Dookie threaten to shear the roof off.
Armstrong is near delirium, scampering from one end of the stage to the other, leaping in the air like Angus Young in long pants, chewing his hands in mock nervousness while Tre nails his fills, egging on the smitten thousands. The fog that had been dogging Armstrong has clearly lifted; tonight, he's enthralled with the noise and the adulation, overjoyed to be playing loud, fast music with his closest friends. And from a lighting platform way in the back of the arena, Adrienne smiles and cheers.