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Dawn of a different Day

Green Day wants 'American Idiot' to shake things up.

September 16, 2004|Steve Baltin | Special to The Times

Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong has had it with the rules of rock music.

"People play by the rules so much," the guitarist/vocalist says, adding in a mock monotone: " 'This is our 12, 13 songs; here's our single; here's our video for the single; hopefully the radio will play it and then we'll go on tour.' "

In true punk-rock fashion, though, Armstrong and his Green Day brethren -- Mike Dirnt on bass and Tre Cool on drums -- are fighting the homogenization of rock with "American Idiot."

The album (due in stores Tuesday) is, by the band members' own description, their most ambitious work yet. A nearly 60-minute punk-rock opera that begins with a blistering indictment of the media in the form of the infectious title track, "American Idiot" crackles with familiar Green Day pop hooks and energy. Such standout tracks as "She's a Rebel," the thrashing "St. Jimmy" and the rhythmically melodic "We Are the Waiting" carry cohesive thematic elements that hark back to the days of classic rock concept albums, a la The Who's "Tommy" and Pink Floyd's "The Wall."

"We're trying to bring back something that hasn't been done in a long time," Armstrong says from the Oakland rehearsal space where he and the rest of the trio are preparing for upcoming shows.

When the band plays tonight at the Henry Fonda Theatre, the album will be performed in its entirety -- a strategy that Armstrong concedes is a little intimidating. "It's really exciting, but it's a bit nerve-racking too because nobody knows these songs," he says. "People are gonna know 'American Idiot' and that's pretty much it. But it's good. We need to be able to do things that are challenging. It makes us a better band."

Despite a sparkling track record -- including four straight Top 10 albums, a 1994 Grammy for best alternative music performance, several KROQ anthems (such as "Welcome to Paradise" and "Basket Case") and a surprise crossover hit in the ballad "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" -- the trio did not rest on their laurels for this album, their first all-new studio collection since 2000's "Warning."

Back in May of this year, as the threesome recorded at studios in the famed Capitol Records building, they spoke about the desire to push themselves on "American Idiot."

"I think a lot of bands have a problem with putting themselves out there. They're kind of afraid to," Armstrong says in an upstairs loft, under the watchful eyes of photos of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. "We've definitely been victims of that too. But look at OutKast, you can't even define what ... it is they do."

Added Dirnt: "They push the envelope and they challenge themselves. It's fun and it's personally gratifying when you challenge yourself."

The course for the album was set early, once the trio wrote the nine-minute-plus "Jesus of Suburbia," a song in five distinct parts whose structure calls to mind Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." The lyrics in one of the song's five suites, "City of the Damned," conjure images of Bruce Springsteen's epic "Jungleland."

"Once you write a song like 'Jesus of Suburbia' there's no turning back," Armstrong says, laughing.

Though Armstrong says early conversations about the album have centered on the politics of "American Idiot," in which he declares, "Don't want to be an American idiot / One nation controlled by the media," the album is more about the politics of disenfranchised citizens. "I think everybody's confused about the climate nowadays," he says. "It's about the confusion of what it's like to be an American."

In an election year when young voters are aggressively being courted and rock musicians are taking on the role of lobbyists, Green Day might be one of the few acts to have an actual effect on the target demographic.

Though Armstrong has his personal preference ("The guy is obviously better than Bush," Armstrong says of Sen. John F. Kerry), he has no desire to tell people how to vote. "You can't guilt people into voting. I always felt like you're not going to get anybody to vote by telling them they don't have a right to complain. I understand why people wouldn't want to vote. There are a lack of choices."

Now 32 and a father, Armstrong doesn't lack for opinions in the political realm. With "American Idiot," he and the rest of Green Day have put themselves out there.

But it's also evident that after all the initial hoopla and discussions about the album, he is ready to move on. "I can't wait for this thing to come out just so we can start getting back to something a bit more normal," he says.

So, which part up to this point hasn't been normal? Armstrong responds with a laugh: "Probably the last 32 years of my life."


Green Day

Where: Henry Fonda Theatre, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 7 tonight

Price: Sold out

Info: (323) 464-0808

Steve Baltin can be reached at

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