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Billie Joe Armstrong: Idiot Savant


"American Idiot, the song, is the opening shot of Green Days 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 bands stadium-sized shows has sung right along, fists in the air. Maybe he is, and maybe he isnt, but he makes one thing clear: Im not a part of a redneck agenda. To paraphrase our former idiot-in-chief, youre either with us or youre with them. Armstrong is with us. If American Idiot, the Broadway rock opera based on Green Days 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. Its about moving two steps forward and three steps back, Armstrong says. Theres always a lesson somewhere on a path to nowhere. The bands 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 theyve 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. Im not a two-bit finger pointer, Armstrong says. Im not into that kind of politics. And though the Bush administrations war on terror is the backdrop for the show, Its not just a lefty point of view. Its a story. Its the story of Johnny, the self-described Jesus of Suburbia (played by Spring Awakenings 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 Awardwinning 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 Mayers 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 CDs liner notes. I didnt know I was writing songs for women to sing, Armstrong says. Ive 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 Id 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 Cunninghams 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 everyones immense surprise -- a great leap forward from Green Days irreverent, increasingly irrelevant catalog of hits. An offhand comment Mayer made in an interview about how the album was rock operaready led, eventually, to Armstrong giving Mayer free rein to make it work. Two queer storylines emerged in Mayers work, which were then workshopped with Armstrong (they share credit for writing the shows book). In one, Johnnys 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 Tunnys ambivalence about who he is in the world, Mayer says. And the irony is that in this age of dont ask, dont tell, he gets seduced into the Army. The other centers around St. Jimmy, the charismatic, cultish drug dealer who vies for Johnnys 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 werent 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 Johnnys need, Mayer says, like Brad Pitt to Edward Nortons 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. Theres a way to read it as a love triangle, Mayer says. These songs were a wakeup call: Lets 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 its 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. Hed 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. Thats 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 theyd 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 Ive always been bisexual. Its ingrained in our heads that its bad, when its not bad at all. Its a very beautiful thing. Hed 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 wasnt the most obvious career choice to make. 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 theres a lot more to the scene, he says now. There were a lot of people who didnt accept it, who were homophobic. (Fans still fill message board threads with fights about just how gay Armstrong actually is.) The fact that its an issue is kind of phobic within itself. At some point, you gotta think, this should be something thats just accepted. After almost 16 years of monogamous marriage to the same woman -- a minor rock n roll miracle itself -- he says hes not sure if hed still call himself bisexual. But Id never say that Im not, he quickly adds. I dont 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 doesnt seem particularly disrespected by Armstrongs tendency to grab whatever guy is closest during a show and kiss him, whether its 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. Shes like, Yeah, there are about 20 pictures of you kissing different guys. Theres one side of me that thinks of it like the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, where he plants one on Elmer J. Fudd. But theres that other side of it, like, Wow, youre doing that in an arena somewhere like Hartford, Connecticut. It resonates in different ways. On the Kinsey scale, I dont think there is a perfect 1, Mayer says of Armstrong. Hes so completely who he is, and I find that to be maybe the biggest turn-on of all. Hes 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 its clear the faggot Armstrong is referring to is -- at the very least -- himself. He was offended, if unsurprised, by the censorship. Its 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 Im writing lines like that, Im 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 youre 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 youre like, Oh no, youre young. Im not. When I hit 35, I was like, Im 15 years from 50. I was a terrible math student, but when it comes to age, Ill count the days. Mostly hes 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. Its 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 Im like, Oh my god, what am I even thinking right now? Hes 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, Im not gonna lie to you. This is gonna be a bad year. Michael Mayer sees a similar tough-love answer in American Idiots 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 albums boldest proclamations, I feel more confused by the world, Armstrong says. It seems to be one thing after the next. I dont want to be a burden on this country. I want to figure out how to be helpful. And thats where I get the most confused. What do you do? Where do you even begin? American Idiot opens at New York Citys 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.Send a letter to the editor about this article.

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