Billie Joe Armstrong: Idiot Savant
By Shana Naomi Krochmal
'I felt like, if these mainstream kids who are seeing us on MTV are going to accept us, then they have to accept that where we come from there's a lot more to the scene,' he says now. 'There were a lot of people who didn't accept it, who were homophobic.' (Fans still fill message board threads with fights about just how gay Armstrong actually is.) 'The fact that it's an issue is kind of phobic within itself. At some point, you gotta think, this should be something that's just accepted.'
After almost 16 years of monogamous marriage to the same woman -- a minor rock 'n' roll miracle itself -- he says he's not sure if he'd still call himself bisexual. 'But I'd never say that I'm not,' he quickly adds. 'I don't really classify myself as anything. And when it comes to sex, there are parts of me that are very shy and conservative. I want to respect my wife.'
His wife doesn't seem particularly disrespected by Armstrong's tendency to grab whatever guy is closest during a show and kiss him, whether it's a bandmate or one of the many fans they bring onstage to help sing and play. 'My wife Googled 'Billie Joe Armstrong bisexual,' ' he says, laughing at the completely predictable outcome. 'She's like, 'Yeah, there are about 20 pictures of you kissing different guys.' There's one side of me that thinks of it like the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, where he plants one on Elmer J. Fudd. But there's that other side of it, like, Wow, you're doing that in an arena somewhere like Hartford, Connecticut. It resonates in different ways.'
'On the Kinsey scale, I don't think there is a perfect 1,' Mayer says of Armstrong. 'He's so completely who he is, and I find that to be maybe the biggest turn-on of all. He's so absolutely in his skin.'
When rock radio stations began playing 'American Idiot,' many of them whittled it down to 'Maybe I am the bleeeeep America,' even though it's clear the faggot Armstrong is referring to is -- at the very least -- himself. He was offended, if unsurprised, by the censorship. 'It's just the hypocrisy that goes with being in America,' he says. 'I love fucking with the English language. I thought of it as a bold statement. When I'm writing lines like that, I'm trying to reverse the word to something that means power.'
Though he still looks like a young punk, Armstrong is 38, and his two sons are now almost 15 and 11. 'You have this image of yourself that you're kind of stuck with -- you know, I still wear Chuck Taylors, and I wear pegged pants, and I play rock 'n' roll, and my friends still talk shit. And all of a sudden you're like, 'Oh no, you're young. I'm not.' When I hit 35, I was like, I'm 15 years from 50. I was a terrible math student, but when it comes to age, I'll count the days.'
Mostly he's trying to figure out how to raise two boys in the bleak world he writes about without succumbing to its old expectations. 'You have to watch yourself,' he says. 'It's very easy to repeat the bullshit that you were taught as a kid. You worry, How is my son going to turn out? Is he going to be successful? Is he macho enough? And then I'm like, Oh my god, what am I even thinking right now?'
He's reliving the most miserable years of his adolescence through the eyes of his oldest son, and all Armstrong can think to say is, 'Look, man, I'm not gonna lie to you. This is gonna be a bad year.'
Michael Mayer sees a similar tough-love answer in American Idiot's message to its audience, be it gray-haired grannies or kids taking the train in from the suburbs: 'As fucked up as the world that you inherit is, you can come out the other side with a little bit of clarity.'
A little bit. Maybe. In comparison to the crucible of anger in 2004 that forged the album's boldest proclamations, 'I feel more confused by the world,' Armstrong says. 'It seems to be one thing after the next. I don't want to be a burden on this country. I want to figure out how to be helpful. And that's where I get the most confused. What do you do? Where do you even begin?'
American Idiot opens at New York City's St. James Theatre on April 20.
For a slide show of photos from Armstrong's cover shoot -- including exclusive web-only images -- click here.
For exclusive extras from Armstrong's interview -- including his thoughts on masculinity, his queer influences, and meeting Lady Gaga -- click here.