I wrote this Green Day story for the Brazilian edition of Billboard in July 2012 after venturing to Newport Beach to interview the threesome about their Uno, Dos, Tre album trilogy (which Warner Bros. still has not got around to sending me). The only opportunity to hear the albums was at the beach house where Green Day politely chatted with a steady stream of foreign press for several days, so this was not an ideal way to prepare. It’s a sign of how shitty and totalitarian the celebrity interview process has become, or sad recognition that journalists are just pawns in the PR game. I don’t remember any of the songs cited in this story.
Billie Joe Armstrong seemed normal enough at the time, but then he had a mid-concert meltdown in September — about two weeks after the above photo was taken — and disappeared into rehab, putting the kibosh on a large part of the marketing plan for the trilogy. I don’t know what has happened since then. I always liked Green Day, though. I remember wearing a Dookie t-shirt about the time the breakthrough album of the same name came out in early 1994, and some kid rushed up to me in the Santa Monica Promenade wondering if I was in the band. They had a show at the Palladium and the mosh pit swirled furiously with very young kids. As I exited the show, a crowd of parents awaited outside to take their little devils home. They probably have their own devils now.
Green Day have come a long way from the sweaty clubs they played as high school kids more than two decades ago. To be exact, they have ventured 680 km down the California coast from the hippie enclave of Berkeley to the conservative city of Newport Beach. This affluent outpost is where the members of the punk-rock trio bring their families each summer for a surfing vacation. Riding the waves has become a vital part of the Green Day tradition, a chance for frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool to get away from it all, to commune with nature and … perhaps plot their latest plan for world domination.
They are about to get three more shots at global glory, beginning in the spring with the release of the first album in a rare trilogy. Uno! will be followed by Dos! and Tre! Altogether, they represent 37 songs clocking in at just over two hours. It’s a feast for those with short attention spans: only seven of the tracks are over four minutes. And the longest song, a seven-minute mini-opera called “Dirty Rotten Bastards,” which you might sing along to while drinking copious amounts of beer, is among the standouts in a selection virtually free of any clunkers.
There is method to the three-part madness, the trio patiently explains to a troop of journalists who have ventured to Newport Beach to listen hurriedly to the highly classified albums in the upstairs apartment of a rented beachfront duplex before being led to their brief interviews in the downstairs apartment. Politely attentive to a fault, the three amigos hold forth as cyclists ride along a bike path separating the row of million-dollar homes from a swathe of pristine sand and the gleaming Pacific Ocean. Welcome to Paradise, indeed.
Armstrong, befitting his role as the group’s musical visionary, does most of the talking, but not after his bandmates have offered some cryptic reminiscences of Brazil. “I have a lot of special memories from Brazil,” says Dirnt. “Ranging from spider monkeys in my room to girls not quite from Ipanema. You name it.”
In very simple terms, each album has a different musical theme. ¡Uno! is packed with the sort of power-pop songs that made Green Day famous. ¡Dos! has a garage-rock flavor. ¡Tré! – home of the aforementioned “Dirty Rotten Bastards” – boasts an epic nature. Taken together, the albums present Green Day at their most musically ambitious. Forget the broad scope of their massive 2004 concept album American Idiot and its 2009 successor 21st Century Breakdown, the trilogy embraces funk, soul, rockabilly, and classic rock. Listen carefully and you can hear a Sam Cooke or an Eddie Cochran vocal styling here, a Jam bass line or a Stooges riff there.
“I don’t think anybody expected rock ‘n’ roll to last as long as it has,” says Armstrong, whose own band has defied the odds to see its 25th anniversary fast approach. “But I think it’s gone into so many different areas, sub-genres of rock ‘n’ roll music. For us, to be a band and be able to play something like soul music or Motown or power pop or garage rock — I think that we tackled all that stuff but tried to put it through a Green Day filter. Whether it was something that was inspired by Sam Cooke or something that was inspired by the Kinks or something like that …”
Not surprisingly, Green Day look to the Rolling Stones’ similarly sprawling Exile on Main St. as their template. “That was sorta like the ultimate kinda party record,” Armstrong claims, although Mick Jagger might beg to differ.
And not coincidentally, each album represents a different stage of a party — as a metaphor for life in general: getting ready, the fun of the event itself, and the aftermath.
“Are we all too young to die?” Armstrong sings in the celebratory “Carpe Diem,” the scene-setting song on ¡Uno!
“It’s just kinda getting the most out of life that you possibly can, not necessarily for selfish reasons but trying to enjoy life and others around you,” he explains. (The “too young to die” sentiment is repeated on the ¡Tré! track “Sex, Drugs and Violence,” bringing the trilogy full circle.)
The rockabilly tune “Makeout Party” sums up the hedonistic ethos of ¡Dos! And, it’s a true story. “It was a group of people in a room that were drunk and … it wasn’t quite an orgy, but everyone started to make out together,” Armstrong recalls.
But ¡Dos! wraps on a sobering note with the Amy Winehouse tribute “Amy.” The ballad – mostly Armstrong strumming an acoustic guitar and asking if he can “have this last dance by chance if we should meet” — has been previewed at a handful of shows. It seems inevitable that it will garner the same sort of mainsteam attention that the acoustic “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” did after its release in 1997.
“I never met her,” Armstrong said of Winehouse, who died almost a year ago to the day. “You know that her roots were based in things like Otis Redding and Billie Holiday. She had this deep love of old music and bringing it into the modern era. You can hear that. I think that was something that was missing in R ‘n’ B and soul music. Now that she’s gone … it was just a big colossal loss. It’s just sad, and so I wrote a song about it.”
Armstrong revives the spirit of the equally ill-fated Cooke on the plaintive ¡Tré! track “Brutal Love,” which confronts “anguish and shame” with some Stax-style horns and a string section thrown in for good measure.
Record labels are generally not thrilled when their artists deluge them with new material. Mention of double or – gasp! – triple albums sends shudders through their marketing departments. They cost more, while fans and critics usually complain – with justification — about the throwaway songs. But it helped that the chairman of Green Day’s Warner Bros. label is also their longtime producer. Rob Cavallo has produced all but two of Green Day’s albums since their 1994 major-label debut Dookie, which sold 16 million copies worldwide. The only real issue was how to release the albums — Separated by one week? By six months? Or somewhere in between? The label went with the latter option.
At a time when the music industry revolves around pop-driven singles created for iTunes customers and when people seem content listening to music on their cell phones, ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tré! represent a welcome boost for the album as an art form.
“Our culture’s moving a lot faster musically. Everything’s a click of a button,” says Dirnt. “Putting three records out the way we’re doing it is very much a way of embracing the times, as well … On our own terms, but also introducing people to where we come from, the album culture.”
And Tré Cool’s advice to fans who are short on cash? Buy the first one “and download the other ones for free!”
Yes, Green Day may be multimillionaires. But they’ll always be rebellious punk rockers first. While the album is largely apolitical, they throw a bouquet to the anti-capitalist “Occupy” movement with the ¡Tré! song “99 Revolutions.” Armstrong wonders in one of the verses, “How the fuck did the working stiff become so obsolete?”
“That’s where we come from, we’ll always feel that’s in our DNA,” says Armstrong. “The Occupy movement, the catalyst of it and the heart of it — outside of the dumbass anarchists — is a really great movement. It not only deals with left-wing radicals, but also working people, like firefighters and cops and nurses and teachers and things like that,” he added, inadvertently forgetting that the generous benefits paid to such public workers are one of the causes of the fiscal strain in the United States.
While he remains a fervent supporter of President Obama, Armstrong worries that he is straying from the liberal path. “My hope is that Obama doesn’t compromise with the right wing people anymore. I think a lot of these Republicans want him out of office just for the simple fact that he happens to be black.”
“He’s black?” Dirnt exclaims, restoring some levity to the proceedings.
It was Dirnt who heralded Green Day’s return to its power-pop basics, in the process shedding the political commentary that came with American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. The subject matter of the trilogy is generally more personal. Indeed, the new albums could be seen as a coming-of-age manual for Generation X. Armstrong and Dirnt turned 40 earlier this year, and Tré Cool will catch up with them in December. It’s hard to believe that the snotty kids who named their first big album after a piece of poop, and swallowed each other’s spit on stage are now family men with seven children among them. One of Armstrong’s teen sons has his own band, Emily’s Army. And of course, many of their long-time fans will have kids of their own.
And some people did not make it this far. A friend of Armstrong’s committed suicide a few years ago, prompting some inevitable soul-searching – as well as the ¡Tré! song “X Kid,” whose opening line will strike a chord with any adult who still feels young at heart, “Hey, little kid, did you wake up late one day? And you’re not so young, but you’re still dumb.” Yet again, Armstrong returns to the “carpe diem” theme of making the most of life.
Green Day have no special plans yet for celebrating their silver anniversary, which is a flexible notion anyway. Their first gig was in 1987 when they were briefly known as Sweet Children. They released their first recording, a four-track EP, in 1989, and Tré Cool joined the lineup in 1990. Remarkably, Green Day got to where they are today without any major disasters. No one died, no albums flopped, no feuds erupted in public. It’s been a pretty steady upward trajectory with sharp spikes from Dookie and the Grammy-winning American Idiot. Maybe it’s because they still feel “underground” and conduct themselves accordingly. They feel energized more by indie rock bands such as Best Coast, the Biters and the Cloud Nothings than, say, their labelmates the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “I don’t really get anything out of what they’re doing,” Armstrong says. “It just doesn’t really appeal to me.”
The last big scandal occurred last year when Armstrong was kicked off a flight on budget carrier Southwest after a “redneck flight attendant” complained that his saggy pants exposed too much flesh as Armstrong reached up to put his bag in the overhead compartment. It’s more This is Spinal Tap than Gimme Shelter.
“I think we’ve had maybe personal, individual meltdowns,” Armstrong says. “But I think the thing that separates us is that we are there for each other. We do it out of friendships. We like to write music and our music is just as powerful as our relationships are with each other. Without any one individual member of this band, there wouldn’t be a Green Day.”
And Armstrong promises that Green Day are just getting started.
“I think we’re different from a lot of bands where I feel like we hit our stride when we got into our 30s,” he says. “In a lot of ways we have more in common with a lot of jazz musicians or blues musicians, because we keep doing it and we work really hard at it. Our records have become more ambitious and I think right now we’re in our prime, and hopefully that prime will continue for a long time.”
NOTE: My gossipy rock bio, Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles, is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 2012, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING