It’s been sixteen years since Green Day emerged from Oakland, California, with catchy top-40 punk songs about girlfriends, masturbation, and stoner slackerdom. But though the three still-boyish men are still dressed in Chucks, leather jackets, and skinny jeans and still sport tinted hair, they have matured a bit, drummer Tre Cool says to me while plopped on a couch at 119 Bar, on East 15th Street. Back then, “probably 30 percent of the day was, like, trying to get a burrito; another 30 percent was trying to find a place to play; and then the rest of it was playing.”
“So what percentage are we allocating toward trying to find weed and beer?” asks bassist Mike Dirnt, barely containing the giggles and quickly spawning a three-man guffaw.
“And we were definitely horny young men, too, so you have to account for that,” adds singer Billie Joe Armstrong, looking a bit like a punk-rock baby bird as he sips a Coke with lemon through a straw. Actually, come to think of it, “not much has changed, really.”
They never were urban sophisticates (they still aren’t: Dirnt is transfixed by 119’s cool tin ceiling). One of the first times they were booked to play in New York, “We pulled up and they were like, ‘Show’s canceled,’ ” Dirnt recalls. “So we drove off and then got this call hours later, ‘Man, you skipped the show!’ ” Armstrong says, “We never really played major cities back then. I mean, we come from a suburban-wasteland kind of punk scene.”
But it was a pretty sunny, goofy suburban wasteland, as their 1994 hit album, Dookie, proves. By 2003, Armstrong (who’d been fantasizing about writing “the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ of the future”) and the guys began listening more to “rock-and-roll-based” Broadway music, like Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, even West Side Story, trying to incorporate a more epic sense of melody.
With the second President Bush and the invasion of Iraq, it was hard to hide, even in pot and burritos, from the bad things happening in America. In 2004, they released American Idiot, a concept album about the disappointments and disillusionment of suburban youth. Suddenly, the band best known for singing “Do you have the time / to listen to me whine?” had something more serious to say. “It was frightening and vulnerable as hell, but it was also really empowering,” says Armstrong. When the album’s tour took them to Irving Plaza (adjacent to 119 Bar), an audience member handed Armstrong a W mask to put on. It changed him. “I felt like, we can do anything we fuckin’ want at this point,” he says, comparing it to the moment “when Alice Cooper bit the head off a chicken or threw a chicken at the audience or whatever.”
“Honestly, any rhetoric that happened at that point couldn’t have happened soon enough,” says Dirnt. “And it wasn’t empty rhetoric: It was just, Fuck this guy!” Green Day’s ethos always seemed to be giving anything grown-up the finger; now there was a particular grown-up to defy.
Green Day is in town for final rehearsals of the Broadway show inspired by that album. Armstrong wrote the book with Spring Awakening’s Michael Mayer, who is directing American Idiot. “I grew up knowing standards,” Armstrong admits. “I never wanted anyone to know, but I was like this bizarre 8-year-old singing ‘Satin Doll.’ ” The show “is not a jukebox musical,” Armstrong adds. “We’re definitely a descendant of Tommy.”
“Yeah, Tommy falling down the stairs and running into Hedwig or some shit!” Dirnt says happily.
The show tells the stories of three friends from the suburbs: Johnny, who leaves for the big city and gets a drug problem; Will, who stays home; and Tunny, who ships off to Iraq. “If I think about the character Will, sitting on a couch smoking a cigarette with a pregnant girlfriend, I’m like, ‘I know that guy!’ ” Armstrong says.
“It’s almost voyeuristic,” says Dirnt. “They’re almost naked onstage and running around doing drugs and having serious fucking emotional breakdowns!”
Sometimes, watching the show, “Tre’s the pussy, crying,” Armstrong jokes.
Cool retorts, “Strong men also cry!”