Billie Joe Armstrong: Idiot Savant
By Shana Naomi Krochmal
"American Idiot,� the song, is the opening shot of Green Day�s own �Howl.� Much like the poem by queer beatnik Allen Ginsberg, the taut, tense explosion of punk rock politics decries the loss of a generation to drugs, war, hopelessness, and the �sub-liminal mindfuck� of a nation ruled by infomercials and imbeciles.
Fifty-five seconds into the three-minute manifesto, Billie Joe Armstrong delivers a different kind of mindfuck: �Maybe I am the faggot America,� he sings, and for six years every kid at the band�s stadium-sized shows has sung right along, fists in the air.
Maybe he is, and maybe he isn�t, but he makes one thing clear: �I�m not a part of a redneck agenda.� To paraphrase our former idiot-in-chief, you�re either with us or you�re with them. Armstrong is with us.
If American Idiot, the Broadway rock opera based on Green Day�s last two albums, is not quite a call to arms, it is undeniably about surviving the worst our world offers us in the name of the American dream. �It�s about moving two steps forward and three steps back,� Armstrong says. �There�s always a lesson somewhere on a path to nowhere.�
The band�s Oakland studio is at the dead end of a shabby street, tucked under a freeway. The parking lot and storage containers make the space feel like a chop shop, with drum kits, motorcycles, and stage gear all sharing space. The room where they�ve begun work on a cast album -- the band will play backup, Armstrong will produce -- is far more polished, with a baby grand piano and dozens of guitars.
An enormous American flag covers one entire wall. �I�m not a two-bit finger pointer,� Armstrong says. �I�m not into that kind of politics.� And though the Bush administration�s war on terror is the backdrop for the show, �It�s not just a lefty point of view. It�s a story.�
It�s the story of Johnny, the self-described �Jesus of Suburbia� (played by Spring Awakening�s John Gallagher Jr.), a burnout bumming around in a band with his two best friends. When one buddy gets his girlfriend pregnant and the other gets sold on a stint in the U.S. Army, Johnny strikes out on his own to the big, bad city, where he falls for a girl called Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and struggles to resist the seductive, addictive escapism offered by St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent).
The collaborative reinvention, helmed by Tony Award�winning director Michael Mayer, opens in April at St. James Theatre after a record-breaking run at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Prime-time product placement in the form of a Grammy performance helped spur nearly $1 million in ticket sales in less than a week. It has a hint of Rent, of Hair, of Mayer�s Spring Awakening, even West Side Story, but unlike those relatively traditional musicals, more than 20 songs -- divvied up for a cast of 24 by Mayer and arranged by Tom Kitt -- are stitched together by only a few monologues drawn from letters included in the CD�s liner notes.
�I didn�t know I was writing songs for women to sing,� Armstrong says. �I�ve just used my own voice, which is not as dimensional as what they do. I feel like it legitimizes us as songwriters and as a band in a whole new way that I�d never really imagined. People who had subscription seats to Berkeley Rep, these little gray-haired ladies, are giving standing ovations.�
In 2004, Mayer was directing the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham�s A Home at the End of the World, which meant he spent a lot of time in his car on the Pacific Coast Highway. His soundtrack was American Idiot, the album that was -- to almost everyone�s immense surprise -- a great leap forward from Green Day�s irreverent, increasingly irrelevant catalog of hits. An offhand comment Mayer made in an interview about how the album was �rock opera�ready� led, eventually, to Armstrong giving Mayer free rein to make it work.