As I remember it, Raygun couldn’t interest any of their usual writers in interviewing Green Day about the band’s fifth album, Nimrod, in 1998. I had to be talked into it myself. The interview wasn’t exactly confrontational, but there really wasn’t a lot to ask them about the songs themselves, and the band members didn’t have much interest in a wider-ranging conversation exploring their motivations or their place in the musical cosmos. So eventually they decided to put on a show, doing some minimal damage to the hotel room their label had booked for the interview. It felt kind of small and kind of sad, which was how I felt about the record. Two albums later, of course, they swallowed their humility and went big with a genuine rock opera, whose commercial success matched (or maybe even outstripped) its artistic ambitions. Good for them.
There’s plenty to admire about Green Day. For three teenage buddies who fell down the rabbit hole of multi-platinum success, they’ve managed to keep their wits. On their way to mega-stardom, they also managed to keep a lot of the promises implicit in the brand of anthemic punk rock they’ve perfected. Even while they were filling arenas, they found a way to hold ticket prices down without crowing about it, and they made a point of inviting fellow-travellers from the Gilman Street scene that nurtured them, such as Pansy Division and the Mr. T Experience, to share the bill.
The second half of a one-two punch that began with Nirvana, Green Day transformed major label rosters and Top 40 playlists into stomping grounds for the honest, angry, ego-less strain of rock and roll that made a big splash in 1977, and then spent a decade and a half bubbling unthreateningly on the margins of commercial acceptance.
Yup, there’s lots to say for Green Day. There isn’t, unfortunately, all that much to say ABOUT them.
A nicer way to phrase that would be this: their music does its best to resist analysis. Dookie, their breakout third album, was simple, aggressive, and catchier than the common cold. You could lose both your legs and one of your arms and still have two digits more than you need to count the chords in each song. The CD came with a lyric sheet, but it wasn’t really necessary, since the songs rarely developed ideas beyond the point that snagged your attention on the radio: “I think I’m cracking up” kind of sums them all up.
Insomniac, the follow-up, sounded a lot like Dookie without any of the mid-tempo songs. “I think Dookie was a pop record and Insomniac wasn’t,” singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong says. “That’s the only difference between the two.” Well, that and the fact that it only sold about a third as many copies as its predecessor. Of course, that still makes it a pretty damn successful disappointment. You have to remember, we’re talking about a type of music that was never supposed to sell ANYTHING.
“We just write our songs, and whatever happens, happens,” Billie says. “It’s not up to us to figure out what’s disappointing. We sold more records than we could even possibly fathom when we started this band. I was listening to Husker Du and The Replacements at the time, and to think the music we played could sell even 500,000 copies was just out of the question. And when we got further into the punk scene, the biggest band to us was Fugazi. Until Nirvana came along. Even then, Nevermind was a rock record.”
Bassist Mike Dirnt chuckles. “If we fail at four million records, well, let us fail and fail again.” But he considers Insomniac‘s sales figures a triumph: “I think it’s more how excited we were to know that over four million people could handle such a hard-driving, aggressive punk record. And love it.”
Green Day have now released their fifth album, Nimrod. There’s a song here, “Redundant,” the first verse of which goes, “We’re living in repetition/content in the same old shtick again.” That could be about Billie Joe’s relationship with his wife, or it could be about Green Day. Which is it?
“Both,” Billie says. “You get into sort of this routine of a relationship where it seems like you do the same thing over and over every day, and sometimes in a long-term relationship it loses its spontaneity. It’s the same thing with the band. That’s sort of what this record was about, it’s just sort of break from the norm, before you get too comfortable and things get boring.”
Oh, so have Green Day decided to get ambitious? Not really. Nimrod features a band that’s still digging in its heels, musically. Everything I’ve read about it says this record represents a “maturing” Green Day, but don’t you believe it. There are a couple of new touches here, but Nimrod has eighteen songs, so the band has basically just recorded another fourteen Green Day songs, then tossed in four selections that try to do something a little different, to wit: one acoustic ballad, one surf-y instrumental, one song that kind of swings and has a violin at the beginning, and one song with a harmonica. If this is Green Day stretching, let’s just say they’re having a hard time touching their toes. For Christ’s sake, even the reliable old Ramones were taking more chances on THEIR fifth record, the Phil Spector-produced End of the Century.
But that’s part of Green Day’s appeal. They’re all passion, no pretension — an attitude Billie, Mike and drummer Tre Cool confirm quickly when we sit down to speak in Los Angeles’ decidedly un-posh Le Parc hotel. Still, they are official rock stars. Don’t they ever feel the urge to act like it?
BILLIE: I think of rock star, I think of Led Zeppelin, I think of David Lee Roth.
MIKE: Yeah, when I think of rock stars, I think of like a rich asshole. Which I might actually be both of. But not in the same context other people would think as. I don’t have a Maserati, I don’t have gold chains, I don’t do blow every day. My deal is, I just sort of enjoy being who I am, you know? Got to buy Mom a house, you know, my daughter will get to have medical insurance and shit like that. I just enjoy living the way I do.
TRE: We get to keep playing music all day long. We don’t have to do anything but play music.
BILLIE: Much more than being a rock star, it’s really important to me to just write the best songs I possibly can, and be as honest as I possibly can. It’s pretty simple. I mean, it’s a hard thing to do, it’s a lot of hard work for me. I love playing shows, I love playing in front of people that are totally enthusiastic. I love parties. I like when we have our friends around, people that we know, and we can give everybody free booze, and people are smoking and drinking and having a good time. But that’s basically the extent of it. Other than that, it’s hard work.
RAYGUN: This is a relatively unassuming place. No hotel room trashing or hobnobbing with celebrities for you guys?
MIKE: We tear shit up occasionally.
BILLIE: We’re here because we couldn’t stay at the Marquis.
RAYGUN: What happened at the Marquis?
MIKE: A 27 inch TV went out a second floor window or something.
TRE: Third floor.
BILLIE: Destruction is always fun. I love destroying things.
TRE: And not getting caught.
RAYGUN: So there are benefits to being a rock star, if you can do all that with no consequences. What happens the next day?
MIKE: You go to a different hotel. Or you do it on your last night there.
RAYGUN: What’s the record company say?
MIKE: Nothing. We pay for it ourselves. Comes out of our pocket. Anyone says anything about my life can fuck themselves.
BILLIE: What do you mean? What’s the importance of it?
RAYGUN: I imagine if you’re not Green Day, and you trash a hotel room, you may get in deep shit.
MIKE: You could go to jail.
BILLIE: Well, we were doing the same thing that we’re doing now, but before we were doing it in people’s houses. We’ll do whatever we want despite what our financial status is. It’s never been a problem to go destroy something and completely not have a conscience. We’ve done the same thing that we’ve been doing the entire time.
TRE: I got home from the last tour, I got done with this beer, I was about to throw it across the room and I went, “I’m home. I’d have to clean that up.”
RAYGUN: Did you have any plans when you went in to make this record?
BILLIE: We had forty tunes. We didn’t really know what we wanted to do. We thought about doing the double CD thing, but Smashing Pumpkins and everybody sort of jumped on that bandwagon and it became kind of trendy. We decided maybe we should put out a weird record, maybe we should put out the same kind of record we’ve done before. We sort of took all those elements and put it into one CD.
RAYGUN: I wanted to talk about that, especially since you mentioned the Smashing Pumpkins. Billy Corgan’s an example, he really wanted to make an “important” record. That was obviously a goal. I admire the balls of that, if not the record. But you guys have been telling me, “We’re just musicians. We just want to write songs and put out good records.” A good record, as opposed to a big one.
MIKE: I think the difference is that we’ve put out five important records, and didn’t focus on putting out one important record.
BILLIE: I think it’s just awfully pretentious for someone to sit there and say, “I want to be pivotal.” Write your fucking songs and shut up. Because half the stuff that’s on that record is fucking bullshit anyway. OK, maybe you’re being “creative” and you’re being your little artsy-fartsy self, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any good. I don’t want to get into ripping on Smashing Pumpkins.
RAYGUN: I don’t bring it up to get you to slag on them. It just seems like such a different impulse. This desire to be big, to be taken seriously.
MIKE: We’re a band. You know?
TRE: Some people come from band backgrounds, some people come from art school backgrounds. And that’s cool, too.
BILLIE: To be big and to be “important,” it’s really not up to the musician to decide. It just really comes down to good songs. No matter which way you package it. Half of the David Bowie stuff is great. Half of it is complete shit. As far as I’m concerned. Same with a lot of bands. Look at Sandinista. It’s a pile of shit. I just want to write good songs. Of course, I put everything I possibly can into my songs. I do everything I can to make it the best song I possibly can. As much power, passion, and go to the depths — to even sometimes where I sacrifice friendships, and even my own wife and my son. I’ve sacrificed everything for this band, and everything I can for every song I’ve ever written. And I’ll continue to do that as long as we’re still together. After that, it’s not really for me to decide.
RAYGUN: In a way though, just by acting important, you become important. You attract enough attention if you take that leap of faith–
MIKE: Our thing is, you can take a leap of faith, but you get to preview your leap before you actually dive. We tried some new things on this record, but if they sucked, they wouldn’t go on the record.
BILLIE: I think everything on our record is equally very strong. I don’t know about what Courtney Love and Billy Corgan do, I really don’t give a flying fuck what they do.
MIKE: In a lot of way they’re our peers, you know, they write–
BILLIE: No. They’re not our peers. Maybe they’re on the same magazines. My friends’ bands, my friends are my peers. The three of us are our peers.
RAYGUN: You called the Nirvana record a rock record, which is interesting, since you seem to define punk in musical terms as opposed to philosophical or, you know, “spirit” terms.
MIKE: That’s because before you put any punk rock image or facade or any of that shit in front of us, Billie’s a songwriter, and we’re all musicians.
RAYGUN: But it’s interesting, because when I think of punk, it’s more a starting point. The idea, first of all, that anyone could do it, and second of all, that anyone could do whatever the fuck they wanted. So I want to follow up this boundary you see, where Nirvana’s rock. What’s punk and what’s rock, to you?
BILLIE: Well, you know, it’s where I come from. The Gilman Street scene. It’s about community, it’s a scene, you know. Of people that come together, and, you know, create music and art and, you know, destruction or whatever. Good friendships come out of it, and good memories, stuff like that. It’s about, like, fanzines. It’s about, good punk rock music that has depth behind it, and honesty. It’s about people pretty much doing whatever they want, because somewhere in their life they couldn’t do it, before. We wrote pop music, or real poppy sort of punk rock, and we kept doing it regardless of what anybody ever said in the punk rock scene, because that within itself is punk rock. There was all these people playing this aggressive music, and we were outcasts in the punk scene. People talked shit about us there because our music was too poppy and girls liked to come see us play. Which is ridiculous. We’re gonna keep being ourselves.
MIKE: All we know is how to play our own direction of music, our own interpretation of rock and roll, punk rock and roll, and that’s it, really.
“Doing the same thing” and “being ourselves” are mantras for Green Day. Those two phrases get repeated constantly during the interview, and they’re supposed to signify honesty. But there’s a point where just being honest stops being admirable, and starts looking like a cop out.
Sales figures aside, Insomniac is pretty important to my understanding of Green Day, if only because there’s something troubling about the way Billie and Mike describe it. Insomniac is really more of an argument than a record. Although they like to present it as a dare to the audience (“OK, Dookie fans, let’s see if you can handle this”), Insomniac mostly comes off as insecure. All its relentless swagger just begs the question: what the hell kind of fucked-up kids sell ten million records and then act like they have something to prove? It was the first hint that Green Day might be sticking to their musical guns not simply because they’re cool guys who are chock full of integrity, but also because they either a) don’t know any better or b) are just scared.
Normally, I wouldn’t care. I happen to have more respect for bands that stick with what they’re good at than ones that fly off to Africa to record with bushmen drummers. And, if I haven’t made it clear enough, Green Day are fantastic at what they do. But when I listen to Nimrod, which nods in the direction of growth without honestly demonstrating any, I don’t hear three rebels sticking up for everything that’s honest about rock and roll. I hear the next generation’s Sha Na Na.
That might sound like I’m accusing them of posing or something. I’m not, or not exactly. There’s just something Bowser-like about their stance, some uncomfortable mix of nostalgia and rebellion. It’s telling that Billie is still playing the same blue guitar his mom bought him when he was eleven (“I think it’s contoured to shape my body now,” he says), and it’s too perfect that he supposedly has a spare with the exact same stickers in the exact same places. (Or so a friend of mine who saw them when they were touring on Dookie tells me. I don’t confirm this story with the band because, frankly, who wants anything so pesky as facts to interfere with an elegant journalistic metaphor?)
Billie might say punk “is about people doing whatever they want,” but the fact is he’s clinging to its form, rather than its potential. He gives me a little run down of Gilman Street bands to demonstrate how flexible the concept can be, but he doesn’t have much patience for acts outside the scene that used punk’s spark to light their own little musical fires: Mike Watt, for example, is “pretentious” and The Meat Puppets are “a country band.” Punk is mostly a musical idea to Green Day; they borrow just enough of its spirit to justify the more anti-social aspects of their individual personalities.
The funny thing is, they’re all from working class backgrounds, and they actually have a lot of the righteous class resentment that fueled punk rock’s initial burst back in the seventies. They just don’t sing about it. “You talk about punk,” Billie says, “but it’s so impossible to bring someone to where I’m from.”
“It’s true,” Mike chimes in. “I can’t show you the squat that I used to live in.”
Actually, it’s probably not impossible for Billie Joe Armstrong to bring people to where he’s from: he’s got the ear of several million kids, and he could show them any damn thing he pleases. I don’t think he has any obligation to do so (and, given his lyric skills, I don’t think he’d be particularly good at it anyway, since he favors a garden-variety kind of social criticism that contents itself with labeling other people “plastic” or “hypocrites”). But I’m fascinated by the gap between the freedom Green Day profess to see in punk and the trap they’re actually building for themselves. For all their talk about kicking down walls, they spend a lot of time hiding inside them.
The dark secret at the heart of Green Day’s music is that it celebrates anarchy without ever threatening to succumb to it. Their songs — short, perfectly crafted blasts of power — could be dismissed as excellent singles if it weren’t for all the rage they contain. They sing about a kind of amorphous discontent that’s the universal property of teenagers everywhere, and they make stoner boredom sound a hell of a lot more exciting than it really feels. Billie’s genius is putting a form and shape to the chaos in his head, thereby getting some measure of control.
It may seem as if history is against me, here. After all, Green Day have been known to cause pandemonium: their mud fight with the audience at Woodstock made them legends; they also caused a near riot when they played a free show at Boston’s Hatch Shell; and later on in this interview they will get me stoned and leave me to watch helplessly while they trash the hotel room. But to me, that still just means they’re the tape you play in the getaway car after you rob a bank. They’re not the band that makes you want to rob the bank in the first place.
For their own reasons, they’re content with just being a soundtrack. They’ve given a voice to the isolation and frustration of several million kids without ever once stopping to harness, examine, or question that energy. And I can’t help thinking that’s a minor tragedy. I always considered punk a new way of thinking. For Green Day, it sounds like a substitute.
There’s a song on the new disc which kind of sums up my disappointment: “King for a Day.” It’s an upbeat, horn-driven chant-along about dressing up in women’s clothes, and Billie told Billboard the whole idea was to get frat boys to sing it without understanding what they were saying.
Consider that. Billie’s got the world listening to him. But he’s convinced some of his fans are assholes. He could have thought, hey, if they like this stuff, maybe they’re not all bad. Or he could have said, man, I’ve got a chance to make them think. Instead, he decides to pull a dinky little prank.
I want to explore that impulse, but the guys do everything they can to avoid contemplating their motivations too deeply. Here’s where Green Day are honest: they captured that bored stoner vibe so perfectly because that’s really what they are. Mike rolls a joint early in the interview, and passes it around. (I should admit it’s entirely possible that my whole little tirade about the need to grow and change is merely the result of the following sad little discovery: just because you’re a multi-millionaire from Northern California doesn’t mean you have decent pot.) The conversation devolves. We discuss the merits of Speed Racer versus the Laff Olympics. Billie mentions that he watched his son get circumcised, and opines that the penis can be a very traumatizing feature. Tre grins slyly and says, “I have a Traumatizer,” which breaks Billie up into a giggling fit. Suddenly, it seems very hard to ask serious questions.
RAYGUN: OK. What’s the most adult thing you’ve ever done?
BILLIE: The most adult thing? I went to my son’s nursery school meeting,
TRE: Ding ding ding ding! We have a winner. That’s adult.
BILLIE: Me and my wife went.
MIKE: That’s a trip, dude. You’re the first one of us to do an adult thing.
BILLIE: That’s about as adult as you can get. It’s pretty relaxed, it’s like this lady’s back yard. Her name’s Dianne. Print Dianne. Dianne’s pretty fucking rad.
RAYGUN: I want to ask about “King for a Day,” something you said in some press.
BILLIE: Oh no, it comes back to haunt me. Go ahead, let it happen, just fucking hit me, go ahead!
RAYGUN: You were talking about getting frat guys to sing along with it without realizing what it was about.
BILLIE: Yeah, that’s something I thought would be funny, to think about a bunch of fraternity guys singing about being in women’s clothing.
TRE: A lot of those guys dress up in dresses to get in. They get spanked with paddles.
RAYGUN: Are there members of your audience you don’t like?
TRE: I haven’t met everybody.
MIKE: Just journalists. I can’t fucking stand journalists. There’s assholes everywhere. Every once in a while you’ll see a fucking moron so big and so out of control in the crowd, and they’re wearing a fucking mouthpiece or something.
TRE: That was in Virginia.
BILLIE: No, no, in Georgia.
TRE: He probably had the mouthpiece cuz he was so inbred his jaw clapped together whenever he walked.
At this point, Billie picks up some of the glossy magazines on the coffee table. “I hate fucking Los Angeles bullshit like this. Makes me want to fucking throw up.” He stands up, and starts hurling them across the room. Tre feeds them into the gas fireplace. “They should NEVER give us fireplaces!” he laughs.
Tre runs off to the bathroom, then returns with an ice bucket full of water. He heads for the fax machine. “I gotta send a fax,” he says. Mike looks worried.
“No, dude, it’s plugged in still. You’re gonna burn down Le Parc, dude.”
Tre chuckles. “I’m just trying to fax some water.” He empties the bucket over the fax machine.
“You should unplug that, Tre,” Mike says. Then he does a double take. “That was responsible.” He turns to Billie. “Bitch! That shit’s catching! Motherfucker!”
Tre moves on to the little kitchenette, where he finds another appliance to assault: the microwave. He places it on its back, opens the door, and tries to fill it with water. Mike jumps up.
“Oh, man. All right. I’m getting out of here.”
“Oh, shit,” Tre says sadly. “Microwaves aren’t water-tight.”
I tell Mike I’m sticking close to him, since he appears to be the responsible member of the band.
MIKE: Shit. I’m responsible for my well-being. If you’re in my way on the way to the door, you’re going down.
TRE: Man, that microwave mistake kind of blew. I’m afraid to touch it.
BILLIE: Is it plugged in?
TRE: Fucking right.
BILLIE: Dude, why don’t you unplug it?
TRE: Cuz I might get shocked.
BILLIE: Do it, but wear rubber gloves.
MIKE: Just grab it and unplug it, dude.
Tre does so. We all duck. There’s no explosion. Tre asks to borrow my pen, which I’m reluctant to give him. “Are you afraid forensics is gonna come in here?” Mike teases. Actually, yeah, I’m now stoned and very paranoid and wondering just where a journalist stands, legally, when he witnesses a crime. But I give Tre my pen, and he proceeds to write “Nimrod” on the wall behind the hanging mirror.
The strangest thing about watching Tre trash the hotel room is how boring and rote the whole endeavor seems. He giggles a little bit, but he doesn’t look like he’s having very much fun. Even though I know it’s gonna make good copy, I think it’s pretty pointless. Which is ultimately the way I feel about Nimrod. Sounds great; so what?
The guys in Green Day get frustrated when they sense fans and critics holding them to some undefined standard of punk rock meaningfullness. It’s possible they’ve been over this same territory so often they’re simply bored with the subject, but if that’s really the case, you’d expect them to have some perfectly thought out answers by now. Instead, they merely sound defensive.
BILLIE: Can I ask you a question? Have you interviewed a lot of punk rock bands? Do you ever find that you have to be confrontational if the person comes from punk rock? Cuz I’ve noticed some journalists do that. I think we’re looked at as a punk rock band. Which we are. And they want to argue.
MIKE: They want to run our entire existence into a Catch-22 as to why we shouldn’t be or can’t be or something. You can argue fucking punk rock till you’re blue in the face, just like anything. Opinions are like assholes. I’m an asshole, I have an opinion. Let me have my opinion. That’s all I ask for.
TRE: What good is it? You get paid money to pick the punk rock scene apart. Why are you writing in the first place?
RAYGUN: That’s like saying why are you singing in the first place?
BILLIE: At least I’m singing about myself.
RAYGUN: You don’t think someone writing about a band is really writing about himself?
BILLIE: I think it’s self-promotion. Through other people.
MIKE: But a person can get an angle before they go in, and pretty much structure a confrontational conversation, and expect that to go some certain place.
RAYGUN: What do you guys talk about all day?
TRE: We talk about music.
RAYGUN: Right. So, someone writing an article about music is just having a conversation with people he hasn’t met.
MIKE: Yeah, but it’s a structured conversation. It’s weird. It’s a little uncomfortable at times.
RAYGUN: Going to a cocktail party is weird. Going to your nursery school meeting is weird.
BILLIE: Being a rock star is pretty weird.
When it suits him, Billie will insist that Green Day is just a rock and roll band, but he doesn’t say it with much conviction. Mostly he’s just tired of mohawked idiots telling him he can’t be the genuine article because he’s sold too many records. The most poignant moments on the last two albums occur when Billie sings about how uncomfortable he feels returning to Gilman Street these days, and that’s all the evidence you need for how important punk rock is to him. It’s also one more example of how punk can be a prison when you treat it as a destination, rather than a vehicle: what’s it mean if a guy gets most emotional when he’s singing about the very music he plays?
I get the impression that, despite all the money and acclaim, Billie and his partners feel the loss of that cozy scene pretty profoundly. All they’re left with is each other and, I think, their shared refusal to take too close a look at the movement they’ve given themselves to. In a way, having a bunch of morons accuse them of selling out is a blessing: it gives them the opportunity to link arms and say no, we haven’t. The more they get to deny that Green Day are tools for some conspiracy of market analysts and MTV programmers to package rebellion for mass consumption, the less time they have to wonder if maybe they’re something even scarier: a lie they’ve sold themselves.
Of course, all my intellectualizing doesn’t stop Green Day from being a fantastic band; despite my reservations as to what Insomniac, for example, MEANS, it’s still a very good record. I say that partly because, when I was stoned, and we were bonding about life in the Oakland hills, I told Green Day what street my house is on, and I really didn’t like the way Tre giggled and said, “I know where you live, dude.” But I’m also saying it because it’s true, and because of one brief moment: the introduction to “Panic Song.” The bass rumbles, Tre pounds his toms, and Billie sounds for all the world like Pete Townshend on stage at Leeds. It’s big, it’s bombastic, it’s beautiful. And it gives the barest hint of what these guys could do if they ever decided it wasn’t enough to simply not suck.