"I'm a firm believer that at least half of the population is mentally retarded, and I think I'm being kind of nice to tell you the truth. That's from a personal perspective. I've seen a lot of morons."
At the moment, Green Day's lead singer and peroxided frontman Billie Joe Armstrong is speaking on the phone from the backstage at yet another "hockey arena," finishing yet another sound check for yet another show on a tour that seems to have no end. He is discussing the price of fame and the high cost of selling 10 million records--most of them to people who bought them because they were supposed to, because they were told this was The Most Popular Band in the Country and if you don't own their records, you're going to be left behind.
Just a few years ago, Green Day was performing in the tiny clubs, playing to the underage regulars for whom Armstrong's odes to growing up and jerking off were words of wisdom. But now, Armstrong says, now...
"When you get in those big-ass shows, you know, it feels like a jock fest. You know, it's more like a bunch of frat guys wanting to beat the crap out of each other. But there's a lot of good people there, and that's who we're playing for. We're playing for the people that get it, you know? And that's about it."
Green Day might be that one-in-a-hundred hit band that's popular because of what they say and not just how they say it--if not spokesmen for their audience (and who would want that lousy job?), then at least one of the few voices on commercial radio that makes any sense at all. Armstrong doesn't hide his words behind incomprehensible chords, doesn't mask the meaning by singing them too loudly or too quickly; you can hear, understand, and appreciate every word on a Green Day record.
Armstrong is the ultimate rock and roll songwriter in attitude if not in practice, part of a grand tradition that dates back to Chuck Berry (the man wrote nothing but songs about how he hated school and despised work), Pete Townshend (who penned disenfranchised teen anthems well into his 30s), Joey Ramone (who pretended to be dumber than he really was), and Joe Strummer (who pretended to be smarter than he really was). Green Day, the Who--not much difference there in sound (see: Dookie's "Chump" or the "My Generation" cover on 1991's Kerplunk) or style, teenage angst knowing no age restrictions.
And there's no mistaking: Green Day's songs are filled with middle-class angst and teens without spirit, about nothing more than suburban frustration and bedroom masturbation but also about nothing less. They're anthems for the hopeless, deceptively motivating songs about people (like you, yeah, you) who'd rather sit around and bitch and moan and whine about their lousy lives than do a goddamned thing about it.
Which is what makes last year's Dookie such an unexpectedly great album, the kind that only becomes great after you put it away for a year and come back to find it actually said something profound when you thought it said nothing at all. Opening with "Burnout"--in which Armstrong declared, "I'm not growing up, I'm just burning out"--it's a half-hearted wake-up call that keeps hitting the snooze alarm. For every song like "Having a Blast" (about a boy with explosives taped to his body, ready to take "all you down" in a suicidal housecleaning), there's a handful like "Longview" or "Welcome to Paradise" or even "Basket Case"--the come-downs, the reality checks, the shrugs wrapped in grim power chords and catchy pop beats.
Those songs screamed the frustrated words of a young man who figures he's never gonna change because no one--not his mom, not the shrink, not even a (possibly male) prostitute--is going to let him. So he'll watch TV, aimlessly wander the streets, waste your time and his life. Armstrong doesn't completely give up the fight--"Don't get lonely now," he cautions on "When I Come Around," so "dry your whining eyes, I'm just roaming for the moment"--but he always hides behind the fact he's a "loser and user."
Less than a decade ago, Armstrong and bassist Michael Dirnt and drummer Tr Cool were kids from the suburbs of the suburbs, bashing away the hours on old guitars and drum kits; they were the latch-key children of junkies and waitresses who fell into the all-ages punk culture in Berkeley, California, spending so much of their time at a place called the Gilman Street Project (where the kids have since "disowned" Green Day because they sold out).
Armstrong and his bandmates are the successful losers who win despite themselves. Where the first two Green Day albums (1990's 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours and Kerplunk) were modest indie successes that barely hinted at any future at all, the third record struck gold, then platinum many times over. Dookie sold 10 million albums in less than two years, and now Green Day's ubiquitous faces show up on every rock and roll glossy magazine cover while their videos and concerts and interviews air on MTV like Swedish porn loops. They're the unexpected pop stars, garage punks who became family men who became world-famous millionaires.
"I started getting into music because it was fun," Armstrong says. "And the last thing I ever thought was that punk rock was going to get popular--it had already been proven a fact that it wouldn't be. That was in 1988. You know what I mean? I still enjoy myself. I mean, that's really all it was--for fun and to express myself. I don't think it runs that deep. You know, I don't really expect anything out of it. I never have."
And yet the just-released Insomniac is almost the typical post-initial success album--the one on which new rock stars gripe about newfound fame, wealth, success. Like Nirvana's In Utero, Insomniac is the darker side of its predecessor, the confused and even bitter rantings of a man who never thought he'd be successful at anything until he woke up in a bed of gold.
"All of my songs are autobiographical--things about myself, mostly, and sometimes about other people," Armstrong says. "A song like 'Brat' [from Insomniac] is kinda like my ode to the college students, somebody who just waits for their parents to die to get their inheritance, and just freeloads off them and lives in the dorms or whatever. Living in Berkeley, I grew up around people like that. It kinda turned from envy to straight-up jealousy, to tell you the truth." He laughs. "Plus, my son will probably be singing the song one day."
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In the end, the loser of Dookie instead becomes his own "worst friend [and] closest enemy" on Insomniac; and the paranoia of which Armstrong sang on "Basket Case" proves well-founded in songs like "86" and "Brat." The record literally seethes with references to self-destruction (through drugs or ego), death, old age; it's angrier, more sneering, tighter, leaner. "My wallet's fat," Armstrong sings on "Walking Contradiction." "And so is my head."
"I definitely think a lot of the lyrical content on this record is a reaction to what has happened to me in the past year," Armstrong says. "A lot of it's just really schizophrenic in a lot of ways, though I'm not schizophrenic or anything. Just playing live can really get out a lot of different kind of aggressions--if you're pissed off, if you're in a good mood, if you're constipated. It's all different things, and that's what I get out of it. I feel like accomplishing something within myself. I don't really know what that is, but every day it's something different.
"It's just there subconsciously. Don't get me wrong, we're still having fun. But when this isn't fun for us anymore, then fuck it. And when I feel like I can't vent any kind of aggression through music anymore and it all just seems the same, then I'll just forget it. I don't even want to pretend I like what I'm doing."
Green Day performs December 9 at the Fair Park Coliseum. The Riverdales open.