Billie Joe Armstrong: Idiot Savant

3.14.2010

By Shana Naomi Krochmal

Two queer storylines emerged in Mayer's work, which were then workshopped with Armstrong (they share credit for writing the show's book). In one, Johnny's bandmate Tunny is enticed to enlist in the army after watching a muscular striptease commercial starring a character who calls himself the 'favorite son.' 'It becomes a kind of homoerotic transference for Tunny's ambivalence about who he is in the world,' Mayer says. 'And the irony is that in this age of 'don't ask, don't tell,' he gets seduced into the Army.'

The other centers around St. Jimmy, the charismatic, cultish drug dealer who vies for Johnny's attention and affection when he comes to the city. 'I thought a lot of the guys [who auditioned] were too masculine,' Armstrong says. 'And they weren't seductive enough.' Plus there was a deeper philosophical question: Was St. Jimmy truly his own man -- or merely an alter ego? Ultimately, they decided St. Jimmy was 'an extension of Johnny's need,' Mayer says, like Brad Pitt to Edward Norton's character in Fight Club. Still, the struggle between Whatsername and St. Jimmy, especially as played by the scene-stealing Tony Vincent, feels all too real. 'There's a way to read it as a love triangle,' Mayer says.

'These songs were a wakeup call: Let's take our lives back,' Mayer adds. 'That was very powerful to me. I have not always had the greatest relationship with this country. Being a gay man, how could I? Sometimes it's enough to be able to look in the mirror and say, as Johnny does, 'This is my life,' and accept that. All of those identity politics are at the core of this.'

Armstrong found his identity politics at age 15 in the punk rock scene at 924 Gilman, an all-ages collective-slash-venue in Berkeley. He'd been singing since he was a kid, the youngest of six raised by a single mom who worked as a waitress (his dad died when he was 10), but he kept his hobby to himself. The friends he had were in the Boy Scouts or busy trading baseball cards. 'I was a singer,' he says. 'That's something that your sister did. I was too scared to tell them.'

Stuck in a shitty suburban high school in one of the roughest parts of the Bay Area, Armstrong -- along with future Green Day bandmates Mike Dirnt and Tr' Cool -- threw himself into the music and 'question everything' ethos. 'There was a lot of queerness in the punk rock scene in that time, from Bikini Kill to Pansy Division,' Armstrong says. 'It was just in the air. And I felt like a part of it.'

When Armstrong was 21, the band made the leap to a major label, released Dookie, and sold more albums in a few months than probably every band they'd ever played with put together. In 1994, Green Day took their former indie labelmates Pansy Division out on tour with them, and Armstrong told The Advocate, 'I think I've always been bisexual. It's ingrained in our heads that it's bad, when it's not bad at all. It's a very beautiful thing.'

He'd just married his wife, Adrienne, and had a kid on the way. With the list of other out musicians who could headline arenas at exactly two -- Elton John and Melissa Etheridge -- it wasn't the most obvious career choice to make.

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