Skip to content

Green Day: The 2004 ‘American Idiot’ Cover Story

[This article originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of SPIN.]

Two punks, dressed in black, get on a plane. They are famous, as punks go. They make a very nice living at what they do. But when they have to fly somewhere to do it, they tend to fly coach, and they tend to fly Southwest Airlines, which offers nothing but coach. It’s tempting to read larger implications into their preference for this most egalitarian of carriers — things about punk principle, about working-class sympathies, about a desire to breathe the same recycled air 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 a Southwest 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 the middle-aged woman next to me asks if the man sitting across the aisle is a musician. The man in question is wearing a black suit jacket, a black T-shirt that reads OAKLAND in Olde English lettering, black pants, and a studded belt. His hair is dyed the color of squid ink and twisted into gluey spikes; the faded tattoo on his left hand spells out P-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 she knows her daughter — a five-foot-11 distance runner who goes to school in Utah — likes Green Day. She knew they were musicians the minute they boarded, Armstrong and his traveling companion, Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt, a gangly guy with bottle-blond hair, now seated a few rows up. Armstrong reminded her of Elvis Costello; Dirnt was working “more of a Billy Idol thing.”

A couple of years ago, the woman’s husband, a commercial airline pilot, had the Backstreet Boys as passengers. They bought every seat in the first-class cabin, waited until the last minute to board, then pulled the curtain so nobody could bug them. This is better. The distance runner’s mom asks if I think it would be okay with the man across 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 around for a few days, watch what happens, and draw some conclusions — but I tell her I’m sure if wouldn’t be a problem.

If it is, Armstrong is gracious about it. He says, “Sure,” and double-checks the spelling of her daughter’s name — V-e-r-a — and in a second she’s back in her seat with a piece of paper that reads, “Vera Billie Joe Green Day 04.”

At this point Vera’s mom becomes curious about Green Day. They’ve been around 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 SkyMall catalog (pricing humidors, maybe, or cognac?), one leg extended in the aisle, Conversed foot bobbing, a length of red-and-black striped sock exposed.

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

“What did you call us? Elder statesmen?” Armstrong will ask when we land, sounding both surprised and amused. Armstrong and Dirnt are both 32; Green Day drummer Tré Cool is 31. They are hardly old. But they’ve been young for a long time. They were young when they made their first two albums for the Berkeley punk label Lookout!. They were young when they signed to Warner Brothers’ Reprise Records, young when Kurt Cobain killed himself, young when music-industry executives and people at MTV, angling to fill the Cobain-shaped hole in their marketing plan, decided to push “Longview” — a song about a bored teenager on a couch, trying and failing (with pot, masturbation, television) to make a summer afternoon go by faster. A song they’d written as bored teenagers yawning through interminable 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 bored teenagers across America. Young when their major-label debut, 1994’s Dookie, went platinum, eventually selling ten million copies. Young as they made more records — good ones — and lived down the charge that their success constituted a betrayal of the scrappy, deeply doctrinaire underground-punk scene that had birthed them. Young that night in 1998 when Armstrong called his manager, freaking out, as St. Louis Cardinal Mark McGwire, who’d just broken a home-run record, ran a victory lap inside Busch Stadium while Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” 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 with his wife, Adrienne, with whom he co-owns a small indie label, Adeline Records, for ten years, and has two sons. Two members have been divorced: Cool twice; Dirnt once, recently.

But while they’ve spent a decade dealing with increasingly grown-up concerns, they remain as viable a commodity as ever among discerning consumers 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 of promotion at Reprise, radio programmers responded to the record with a degree of enthusiasm unheard-of for a band that scored its first hits ten 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 have to fight for space in the mosh pit with 14-year-old newcomers — kids who got into the band via the countless other punk outfits who’ve learned from 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 stoner classic Dazed and Confused. “We get older,” he says, “and our audience stays the same age.”

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

Four years ago, on Election Day, Armstrong and his wife went to a polling place in a church near their home, both planning to vote for Al Gore. But in the booth, Armstrong pulled the lever for Ralph Nader. “It was about conscience,” he says. “I thought that if 5 percent of the population could vote for this guy, there would be another party. Can you imagine America with three parties? But now you can’t vote with your conscience. You have to vote for whoever’s going to get the right wing out of office. And that’s what dives me crazy — there’s no other choice.”

“Blood or ketchup,” Cool says. “You vote for blood, or you vote for ketchup. I’m votin’ ketchup.”

We’re sitting in a room at the Radisson Hotel in Park City, Utah, where the members of Green Day have checked in under the names “Rumple Stiltskin,” “Joe Lies,” and “John Ritter.” Tomorrow, they will headline a Pepsi Smash gig at a ski resort down the road. But right now, they’re smoking cigarettes, sipping wine, pulling at the tablecloth, doodling on notepads, and explaining how they came to write “American Idiot,” a sarcastically peppy one-finger salute to the “redneck agenda” and the most explicitly political song they’ve ever released.

“We always wanted our music to be timeless,” Armstrong says. “Even the political stuff that we’re doing now. I would never think of ‘American Idiot’ as being about the Bush administration specifically. It’s about the confusion of where we’re at right now.”

“The world’s in a confused state,” Dirnt agrees. “I’m pissed off, and I’m angry, and I feel like I’m not fully represented.”

Dirnt says he swelled with pride when he turned on the TV in Holland the previous week and saw 250,000 people marching in the streets of Manhattan, protesting the Republican National Convention. “I was like, fuckin’ A, man. I’m not there right now, but I’m totally fuckin’ there right now.”

“The weirdest thing, though, is that there’s not 250,000 people marching in Salt Lake City right now,” Billie Joe says. “And that’s what America really is.”

Whether or not their rabble-rousing plays in the Red States, Armstrong feels that by speaking out, the band is merely doing what good punks — and good Americans — are supposed to do. He says he’s putting into practice things he learned the first time he walked into Gilman Street, the legendary, no-rock-stars-allowed Berkeley punk venue where Green Day played some of their earliest shows.

“My education wasn’t school,” says Armstrong, who dropped out of high school. “My education was punk rock — what the Dead Kennedys said, what Operation Ivy said. It was attacking America, but it was American at the same time. Patriotism isn’t about being pro-anything. It’s not about being pro-Bush or pro-Kerry. It’s about what you stand for and what you think America represents.”

But the antiwar bent of “American Idiot” — and other songs on the new album, like the anthemic “Holiday” (“Another protester has crossed the line / Too bad the money’s on the other side”) — isn’t just the pro forma punk rebellion. Though it’s been a while since Green Day were working class, they all come from working-class backgrounds, from the kind of families who bear a disproportionate amount of the tax burden of foreign wars, and whose children make up a disproportionate percentage of the forces who end up fighting them.

During the “American Idiot” video shoot last August, Cool got a cell-phone call from his 18-year-old nephew. “He’s got a bit of a fucked-up family situation, and he can’t find a job,” Cool explains. “He’s like, ‘I’m about to join the Marines.’ And I’m like ‘No you’re not. Get the fuck out of there. Because the Marines are the first guys to get killed.’

“I finally talked him down off that ledge,” he continues. “He was trying to commit suicide in a way, ’cause his life was so shitty, and he was thinking, ‘Fuck — I could get a check tomorrow and give it to my mom.'”

“Maybe I’m naive,” says Dirnt, who has a seven-year-old daughter, “and I don’t understand how the world works, but I do know that life is precious. And my kid means a lot to me. And that means somebody else’s kid means a lot to them.”

He pauses for breath — suddenly aware that he and his bandmates have been talking politics for the better part of an hour — and then says, “So anyway, I play bass.”

Somewhere, there’s another new Green Day album, or most of one, that the world may never hear. The project was well under way in November 2002 when the band showed up at Studio 880 in Oakland, where they’d been working for several months, to find that the master tapes had disappeared.

Unsure of how to proceed, the band huddled. Rob Cavallo, who signed the band to Reprise in 1993 and has produced all their albums (except for 2000’s transitional, vaguely rootsy Warning, which he executive produced), came up from Los Angeles and spent time with the band as they debated their next move. “There was definitely a conversation at one point,” Cavallo says, “where I looked at the guys and said ‘Tell me the God’s honest truth — did you really kill yourselves to make [the lost record]?’ And they said ‘No.'”

Armstrong tells me on our second day in Park City that the lost album was “sort of a cross between Nimrod and Warning“; he and his bandmates sound bored just talking about it.

So they started over, and one day Dirnt was alone in the studio, goofing around, and ended up writing a 30-second song about being alone in the studio. (the lyrics, in their entirety: “Everyone left the studio / Everyone left the studio / Everyone left the studio / But me-e-e-e-e-e.”) When Armstrong heard Dirnt’s effort, he wrote a half-minute song of his own, then Cool wrote one, and as they pieced them together, the record developed this arc, becoming more serious, like a rock opera.

At first, they joked about it — they were still punks, after all, and, Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade aside, there’s nothing less punk than rock opera, traditionally one of the most bloated, hubris-driven subcategories of pop music. But for Green Day, the idea of writing a bona fide rock opera proved too enticing, too unlike what they’d done before, to abandon. “Rock’s become such a conservative business,” Armstrong says. “You have a batch of songs, put out a single, do your video, hope you get played on the radio, go on tour. People like OutKast are kicking rock’s ass, because there’s so much ambition.”

American Idiot didn’t start to cohere, though, until after Armstrong had written the title track. Wondering how to follow it, he went for a walk. By the time he got home he had the first few lines of “Jesus of Suburbia,” and realized he had a story to tell: Alienated young man leaves home, moves to the city, falls in with a character named St. Jimmy (whom Armstrong describes as “really self-destructive and sexy, kind of a cross between [Germs frontman] Darby Crash and John the Baptist”), gets into drugs, then meets a girl. Torn between the lure of self-destruction and the possibility of redemption, he — well, you get the idea.

Armstrong says one of the templates for multipart mini-epics like the nine minute “Jesus of Suburbia” was the Who’s “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” another nine-minute song, about a woman who cheats on her husband with a railroad engineer, and a hint of what Pete Townshend would do on a grander scale in Tommy and Quadrophenia. “It’s not that long,” Armstrong says of “A Quick One.”

“You can listen to it like you’d listen to a song like ‘My Generation.’ That’s what we were trying to do — you can listen to this record like you would one of our short-attention-span records.”

And while the album’s story line is fictional, its themes are mostly autobiographical. “I wouldn’t consider myself an angry young man anymore,” he says. “You don’t have to leave the danger behind, but what makes you grow up is confronting the danger. And that’s what this record is really about — confronting that self-destructive impulse.”

Accordingly, while they were making American Idiot, Green Day engaged in a fair amount of less-than-mature behavior. The first few months were fueled by creative combustion: They’d write all day and stay up all night, drinking and talking about music. They set up a pirate radio station at Studio 880, broadcasting marathon jam sessions out into the East Bay ether. Sometimes they’d make crank-yanking phone calls and broadcast those, too. “Tré called this animal crematorium in Hawaii,” Dirnt remembers, “and told them he’d lost his monkey. And kept asking, ‘Have you seen any monkeys? Not even little tiny monkeys? Any spider monkeys? How about sea monkeys?'”

They may also have knocked off a nutty new-wave album, Money Money 2020 (released by Adeline last year and to be reissued, with two bonus tracks, by Reprise this fall), which was credited to “the Network,” a bunch of masked characters with names like “The Snoo” and “Captain Underpants.” Dirnt winks at this rumor when he says, “We became so fucking creative, we probably could’ve written a whole record in a day. It’s arguable that certain records were written in a day. No Green Day records, of course.”

When they relocated to Los Angeles for more recording, however, the freewheeling atmosphere of the Studio 880 sessions took a different turn. “As a songwriter, I get so deep into what I’m writing about, it’s almost like I have to stir up shit to write about it,” Armstrong says. “And I think when we were in L.A. recording the record, we were also living it out.” He won’t go into detail, but acknowledges that everyone in the band got in touch with his inner St. Jimmy. Armstrong had to schedule recording sessions for his vocal tracks around his hangovers; Cool acknowledges doing “a fair amount of partying.” “I’m not going to lie to you — shit got kinda weird,” Dirnt says obliquely. “Two dragons.

“It was kind of a conscious effort to have a lack of conscience,” Armstrong says, pouring a cup of hotel coffee. “For the first time, we separated from our pasts, from how we were supposed to behave as Green Day. For the first time, we fully accepted the fact that we’re rock stars. Not to sound arrogant, but it was like, ‘Hey, you’re only on this earth once, so you might as well enjoy it.'”

While they may have finally acknowledged their rock-star status, they can’t resist subverting the role a little. A few hours later the temperature has dipped into the low 50s, and at the Canyons Resort, a semicircle of immense buildings so high up they’re accessible by ski lift, about 2,000 Utahans have already shivered through sets by Jet and Good Charlotte. They are here because they’ve won a contest, something to do with Pepsi caps and free iTunes downloads, but when Green Day charge out of the wings — to the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey — the fans cheer like they have won a contest again.

After tearing into “American Idiot,” Armstrong announces, “Hey, fuck Pepsi and fuck everything else — this is a fucking Green Day show right now.” But the set’s most indelibly punk-rock moment comes later during a cover of Operation Ivy’s “Knowledge,” when Armstrong, Dirnt, and Cool ask for volunteers to take over on guitar, bass, and drums. Out of a fevered stage rush, they pluck three kids, who, after quick tutorials, bash their way through the song with enthusiasm if not precision. Armstrong shows his stand-in how to close strong with a flying leap off the monitor. The kid jumps high enough that, were he on a skateboard, he would easily clear a parking meter — and for as long as he’s in the air, he’s a rock star, too.

Jingle Town, a tiny, predominantly Mexican neighborhood in a hard-bitten industrial section of Oakland, is home to two businesses of note — the Lucasey factory, which make TV/VCR stands, and Studio 880, where Green Day recorded Warning and demoed American Idiot.

It’s Monday, two days after the Utah show, and it’s hot as hell in the East Bay. Zipping along I-880 in his black SUV, Cool explains the ‘hood’s name: “In the old days, the zoot-suit guys used to jingle their change, and this was their spot. It’s been held down by Latino families for 50 years. And then there’s us.”

Born Frank Edwin Wright III, Cool is the goofiest member of a pretty goofy band, a hyper, squeaky fount of dude-speak and one-liners. But get him alone, and it’s as if being away from his bandmates gives him a license to let go of his class-clown role.

We’re out on the back deck of Quinn’s Lighthouse, a waterfront bar, and Cool is going on about fishing, how it forces you to be patient, then suddenly we’re talking about children. “You gotta be a patient motherfucker to have kids,” he says. “First of all, they take nine months to be ready, and that’s fucked up. And then when they’re born, it’s like, wow, stress. My first child, I was wondering if she was going to take her next breath, every minute.

“I was also extremely young,” he continues. “I was 22, and I had Ramona, and then I got married, and soon after was divorced. And then after that, my ex-wife decided — totally against my will — that she was moving to New York City and taking my daughter with her. Which was pretty heartbreaking.” He also has a three-year-old son, Frankito, by his second ex-wife, Claudia. They divorced a year and a half ago, after two and a half years of marriage; she still lives at his house, a situation he describes as difficult but necessary: “I wanna bring my son up and be a father and take care of him, and that means making good with his mom and taking care of her, too, so that’s what I’m gonna do.”

Before the band decamped to L.A. to record, Cool was seeing both Torry Castellano (better known as Donnas drummer “Donna C”) and a shrink; neither relationship survived the move. “Let’s just say it’s hard to hold down relationships when you’re me in L.A.,” he says. “It’s hard to stay sober, too. Not that I really tried.”

But when there was nothing else, there was still the album — making it became therapy of a kind. “I’ve been in a pretty dark place the last year,” he says. “But I can get in a zone with drumming. I shut down all tangible reality — I’m not in the studio, there’s no playback in the headphones, there’s just this dance with immortality. You’re making something that’s gonna be around forever. I’m so lucky to have that.”

“The music has always been an outlet for everybody,” Armstrong tells me later that day. “It’s also an addiction. Because regardless of whatever’s going on in our personal lives, we know we have the next year and a half, when we’re gonna be on tour, to escape from everything.”

It’s late afternoon now; Armstrong’s driven me from Studio 880 to the Adeline Records office. In its seven years of operation, Adeline has released music by the likes of AFI, One Man Army, and the Soviettes, as well as the odd Green Day seven-inch. Armstrong doesn’t have much to do with the label from day to day; Adrienne and the couple’s business partners, Lynn and Jim Thiebaud, basically run it. But the space behind Adeline has become Green Day’s unofficial clubhouse, a large, appealing musty loft with a DJ booth, a Guinness kegerator, and an enormous wooden half-pipe. Sometimes the band throws parties here — Dirnt decanting selections from his vast collection of 45s, everybody drinking and dancing and staggering out at dawn. It’s the kind of place an old young punk dressed in black dreams about, where you can lock the door and stop the clock. Armstrong hasn’t spent much time here lately. But as he shows me the place, I get the feeling he likes knowing it’s around. Welcome to paradise, or the closest thing to it.