Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong talks about the band’s political and provocative new opus, American Idiot

Green Day dawns anew: Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong talks about the band’s political and provocative new opus, American Idiot

Kurt B. Reighley

Growing up around openly gay relatives would certainly seem to improve the odds of a child becoming a tolerant and open-minded adult. Well, perhaps tolerant isn’t the best adjective for Billie Joe Armstrong, the lead singer and guitarist for punk band Green Day; their new album, American Idiot, is a scathing examination of the confusion permeating American life in the early 21st century. But when Armstrong speaks of his gay uncle–“named, believe it or not, Stonewall Jackson”–it is with certainty. And pride.

“He was part of my family from the time I was born,” recalls Armstrong, 32. “It never even occurred to me that [being gay] was something that was supposed to be offensive.” Alas, not all his kin felt similar warmth. “He was my mother’s brother, and the women of my family were always more sensitive to the issue … a lot more so than my redneck uncles.”

Armstrong also cites the Berkeley, Calif., music scene as influential on his outlook. “Being from the Bay Area … it’s all about the alternative lifestyle. Punk rock was about being an individual and coming to your own conclusions.” When Green Day (which also includes bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool) broke out nationally in 1994 with the Grammy award-winning Dookie, they stayed true to those ethics, taking queer rockers Pansy Division out on tour as their warm-up act.

Yet Green Day have fallen afoul of corporate media with their hit single “American Idiot,” with certain stations censoring the couplet “Maybe I am the faggot America / I’m not a part of a redneck agenda.” “I thought that they would be more into bleeping out ‘redneck agenda,'” notes Armstrong, chuckling. Did he fret over his word choice? “There was a fear of people thinking I was using [‘faggot’] in a derogatory way, but I thought of it as empowering. Hell, nobody ever called me ‘redneck’ in high school.”

American Idiot is an ambitious, thematically unified album; some critics are already comparing it to rock operas like the Who’s Tommy. Two of the disc’s tracks, “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Homecoming,” top out at over nine minutes each–that’s an eon in punk years. “Letterbomb” features guest vocals by Kathleen Hanna of seminal riot grrrl quartet Bikini Kill and lesbian-feminist ensemble Le Tigre. “She’s one of my favorite singers in the world,” Armstrong gushes. “If they made a car called Kathleen Hanna, I would drive one.”

Public response to American Idiot has been bracing; the disc entered the album charts at number 1. Reviewing their recent spot on Late Show With David Letterman, the same night that John Kerry appeared, Charles Taylor of Salon.com noted, “Green Day played as if their music had the power to pick up Bush and Cheney by the throat and shake them lifeless.” But regardless of the election’s results, Green Day will soldier on. “I’m just going to keep singing and writing songs,” concludes Armstrong. “And, hopefully, someday Bush will be put on trial for war crimes.”

Reighley is the author of Looking for the Perfect Beat (MTV/Pocket Books).

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