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Green Day: P*ssed Off and Better Than Ever

Two punks, dressed in black, get on a plane. They are famous, as punksgo. They make a very nice living at what they do. But when they have tofly somewhere to do it, they tend to fly coach, and they tend to flySouthwest Airlines, which offers nothing but coach. It’s tempting toread larger implications into their preference for this mostegalitarian of carriers-things about punk principle, aboutworking-class sympathies, about a desire to breathe the same recycledair as everybody else who needs to get to Utah on a Friday afternoon.But we won’t. Two punks get on a plane, and it happens to be aSouthwest plane because Southwest flies out of Oakland, California,which is close to where they live.

The captain has turned off the fasten-seat-belts sign, and themiddle-aged woman next to me asks if the man sitting across the aisleis a musician. The man in question is wearing a black suit jacket, ablack T-shirt that reads Oakland in Olde English lettering, blackpants, and a studded belt. His hair is dyed the color of squid ink andtwisted into gluey spikes; the faded tattoo on his left hand spells outp-u-n-x. He is probably not a tax attorney.

The woman’s eyes light up when I tell her it’s Billie Joe Armstrong,singer/guitarist for Green Day. She knows Green Day, or at least sheknows her daughter-a five-foot-11 distance runner who goes to school inUtah-likes Green Day. She knew they were musicians the minute theyboarded, Armstrong and his traveling companion, Green Day bassist MikeDirnt, a gangly guy with bottle-blond hair, now seated a few rows up.Armstrong reminded her of Elvis Costello; Dirnt was working “more of aBilly Idol thing.”

A couple of years ago, the woman’s husband, a commercial airlinepilot, had the Backstreet Boys as passengers. They bought every seat inthe first-class cabin, waited until the last minute to board, thenpulled the curtain so nobody could bug them. This is better. Thedistance runner’s mom asks if I think it would be okay with the manacross the aisle if she asked him for an autograph for her daughter.I’m in no position to speak for him-I’m here to follow his band aroundfor a few days, watch what happens, and draw some conclusions-but Itell her I’m sure it wouldn’t be a problem.

If it is, Armstrong is gracious about it. He says, “Sure,” anddouble-checks the spelling of her daughter’s name-V-e-r-a-and in asecond she’s back in her seat with a piece of paper that reads, “VeraBillie Joe Green Day 04.”At this point Vera’s mom becomes curious about Green Day. They’ve beenaround for a while, I tell her. Seven albums. They’re well-respected.Sort of elder statesmen in their field.

“Elder statesmen?”

Vera’s mom takes another look at Armstrong. He’s flipping through the SkyMallcatalog (pricing humidors, maybe, or cognac?), one leg extended in theaisle, Conversed foot bobbing, a length of red-and-black striped sockexposed.

“Really?” Vera’s mom says. “He looks so young.”

“What did you call us? Elder statesmen?” Armstrong will ask when weland, sounding both surprised and amused. Armstrong and Dirnt are both32; Green Day drummer Tré Cool is 31. They are hardly old. But they’vebeen young for a long time. They were young when they made their firsttwo albums for the Berkeley punk label Lookout!. They were young whenthey signed to Warner Brothers’ Reprise Records, young when Kurt Cobainkilled himself, young when music-industry executives and people at MTV,angling to fill the Cobain-shaped hole in their marketing plan, decidedto push “Longview”-a song about a bored teenager on a couch, trying andfailing (with pot, masturbation, television) to make a summer afternoongo by faster. A song they’d written as bored teenagers yawning throughinterminable summer afternoons of their own.

They were young when that song-with its odd, foot-dragging dynamics,its exuberant power-chord tantrums-caught the attention of boredteenagers across America. Young when their major-label debut, 1994’sDookie, went platinum, eventually selling ten million copies. Young asthey made more records-good ones-and lived down the charge that theirsuccess constituted a betrayal of the scrappy, deeply doctrinaireunderground-punk scene that had birthed them. Young that night in 1998when Armstrong called his manager, freaking out, as St. Louis CardinalMark McGwire, who’d just broken a home-run record, ran a victory lapinside Busch Stadium while Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of YourLife),” a lump-throated acoustic ballad off their 1997 album Nimrod, blasted from the P.A.

All three members of Green Day have been married. Armstrong’s been withhis wife, Adrienne, with whom he co-owns a small indie label, AdelineRecords, for ten years, and has two sons. Two members have beendivorced: Cool twice; Dirnt once, recently.

But while they’ve spent a decade dealing with increasingly grown-upconcerns, they remain as viable a commodity as ever among discerningconsumers of that which is young, loud, and snotty. “American Idiot,”the title track and first single from their seventh and latest album,is a radio hit. According to Phil Costello, senior vice-president ofpromotion at Reprise, radio programmers responded to the record with adegree of enthusiasm unheard-of for a band that scored its first hitsten years ago. “I have nothing to compare it to,” he says. “This never,ever happens.” And on Green Day’s current tour, longtime fans will haveto fight for space in the mosh pit with 14-year-old newcomers-kids whogot into the band via the countless other punk outfits who’ve learnedfrom Dookie’s example, kids who were in Barney the dinosaur’s core demographic in 1994.

Cool sums up this peculiar state of affairs by paraphrasing Wooderson,the post-high-school lech Matthew McConaughey played in the stonerclassic Dazed and Confused. “We get older,” he says, “and our audiencestays the same age.”

But if, along the way, they’ve also become mature-“I hate thatword,” Armstrong says-it’s a condition that’s crept up on them,something else to rebel against.

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