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.