About Me

Monday, May 11, 2009

My Secret Crush

I’m in love with Billie Joe Armstrong. There, I’ve said it. Not the man, I don’t know the man, but the man he represents in my mind. I’ve written about him before, though I kept his identity hidden.

If you don’t know his music, you may remember the uncharacteristic ballad, The Time of Your Life, also known as Good Riddance, written by Armstrong and performed by Green Day, played at the end of the closing credits for the final performance of the TV show, Seinfeld. Or you may know him from the successful rock opera album, American Idiot. He has been my inspiration for three-novels-in-progress (one realistic and two speculative fantasy), one lengthy short story, one play, and what I call a “character study” poem.

How can all of these men have black hair and green eyes? How can they all be strong, flawed, yet achingly vulnerable? How can they all share the same face, and yet have different back stories, different patterns of speech, and different ways of functioning and moving about in this world (well, the worlds of their stories). How can they all have the body of another man who shall remain nameless, because I can’t remember his name, the athletic, muscled body of a gymnast (unlike the real man, I suspect, though during the American Idiot tour, at 33 years old, Billie Joe Armstrong, lean and dynamic, was in his prime; and at 37, he's fit for the next). How can they all have a voice, diction, and mannerisms, completely different from the real man (except when he’s performing on a stage)?

My husband and I became interested in Green Day, after hearing the song, and then the rock opera theme album, American Idiot, during some of the worst days of the Bush administration (weren’t they all the worst days?) after 9-11 and the “war” had been declared. We never listened to Green Day in 1994, when they became famous for songs such as Basket Case and Longview and When I Come Around, focusing on teenage angst. We had never heard of them, and had nothing in common with them, or so we would have thought, those “boys” of 21 and 22 years old, and in 1994, I was busy giving birth to my son, then nursing him through traction and then surgery for dislocated hips. In 1994, what did we know about “dookie” except for changing diapers?


Grammy Award, Best Alternative Performance, 1994

August 26th, 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina buzzed South Florida with a near miss (and no one knew yet the horrors it would cause New Orleans), to celebrate our wedding anniversary, my husband and I saw Green Day perform at a terrible venue, then called The Bank Atlantic Center (coincidentally the same venue where we heard Barack Obama speak while he was running for president, generating the same energy as a rock concert). After Katrina, we were one of the lucky ones, with power and air conditioning. The roads were clear, and a friend without electricity came to our house to stay with our son, then eleven years old.

My husband and I sat in our rafter seats, as far from the stage as a body could get, trading a pair of Leica binoculars, when we both became mesmerized, energized, couldn’t stay in one place, singing the words at full volume, as Billie Joe Armstrong took control of the audience. (If you’ve ever seen the DVD, Bullet in A Bible, of Green Day’s concert at Milton Keynes in England, performing in front of 130,000 faithful fans, you’ll know what I mean.) And, I became aware, that this man, for a man, is near as small as me. (By some accounts he is 5’4’’ tall and I am 4’10”, about the height of his wife.) He stood on boxes, he jumped, he gyrated, he ran across the stage, challenging the apron, and he admonished the hungry audience to roar.

Because of the hurricane, the audience was down by a half, but he, and Mike Dirnt (Mike Pritchard) the bassist, and Tre Cool (Frank Edwin Wright), the drummer, friends and band members since they were twelve and thirteen, played as if they were at Milton Keynes. And that is what I have read about them. From the time they were teens, playing to an audience of five, or fifty, or twenty-five, they played their hearts out, like the Beatles at Shea Stadium. And that is what we witnessed, what impressed us, that these men gave their performance 6,000%, and they wanted to connect with their audience, and give them the best experience they could possibly share.

For American Idiot, Billie Joe Armstrong wrote Wake Me Up When September Ends, about his father dying when he was ten years old. So, even though Green Day allowed a video of the song to become an emblem for loved ones separated by the Iraq War, don’t you believe that when you hear Armstrong sing the song. He’s singing for his father, he’s singing for himself. When you know that, and hear it, you can feel it in his voice, you can see it in his face. He writes virtually all of Green Day’s songs, and just like my poems, most of his songs are inspired by autobiography, even if the details change in the rendering.

Do I have anything in common with the details of his life? No. I’ve never been on drugs. I don't smoke. I’ve never been an alcoholic and gone to rehab. I’ve never been a young child who lost a parent. I don’t have a single tattoo. I’ve never been the youngest of six siblings (though I am the 4th of 5). I’ve never been a pop punk rock star. Can I relate to the emotions he portrays in his music?: Self-Doubt, Disillusionment with Government, The Desire for Fulfillment, Love, Anxiety, Hope, Knowing You’re On the Cusp of Something Grand but It Just Hasn’t Happened Yet.

Well, it happened in 2004, for him and his group, with the release of American Idiot, when he won the Grammy for Best Rock Album, and in 2005, Record of the Year, for Boulevard of Broken Dreams. And now they have a new album coming out in May 2009: 21st Century Breakdown, reviewed favorably by Rolling Stone. I hope he succeeds with this album, and in the tour that accompanies it, or I will personally “ache” for him. (Armstrong, and his bassist, Mike Dirnt, came from hardship and poverty, and for their perseverance, I can also admire the members of Green Day.)

One of my favorite Armstrong songs appears on Warning (Reprise, 2004), a lesser known album with acoustic influences, panned by some of his punk rock fans. The song is called Waiting, and there is an upbeat video to match it. Amazingly, the song is a cross between Mary Tyler Moore’s optimism in the intro to her ancient show where she lands a job at a TV station and throws her hat in the air, and Petula Clark’s performance of the song, Downtown. And here is an excerpt of his song: “I’ve been, waiting a long time, for this moment to come. I’m destined for anything…at all... Downtown, lights will be shining, on me like a new diamond, ring out under the midnight hour. I’m so much closer than I have ever known…Good luck, you’re gonna need it, where I’m going, if I get there at all.” The words are simple. It’s the melody, Armstrong’s singing voice, the bass and drum line, and the pure passion, that makes the song live.

Above all, I relate to the emotion in Billie Joe Armstrong’s songs and in his voice when he sings them, accessible, energetic, and lyrical. In 2006, at a pre-game show in New Orleans to officially re-open the Lousiana Superdome, Armstrong had the pleasure (I’m sure he would term it in this way, though I do not know him) to share a stage with Bono of U2, doing a duet with Bono of The Saints Come Marching, a single for Music Rising to benefit musicians in New Orleans.

When he is quoted, Armstrong doesn’t have Bono’s silver tongue, and it is obvious he is not as well read. He dropped out of high school, and by all accounts, never sought a higher education. But you can’t do what he does without being intelligent. I sometimes wonder how his lyrics would soar, if he’d ever expanded his horizons, but what anyone can relate to is what he’s been through in his life. Who hasn’t experienced a sense of loss and betrayal of trust? Who hasn’t wished for something more?

Armstrong has been married to his wife, Adrienne, for fifteen years. The day after they married, they found out they were pregnant with their first son, born just a year younger than my son, in 1995. A few years ago, when his son was twelve, Armstrong was quoted (in an article I can’t locate) as saying, in effect, what can his son possibly do to rebel, considering he’s the father. (By all accounts, Armstrong is a good father, but his point was, I dropped out of school, I’ve done the drugs, I've got the tattoos and the crazy hair…)

Armstrong may not be the perfect role model for my son. But he is a role model for me: giving 6,000 %, believing in yourself, learning from your mistakes, and sharing your life in ways that matter. It’s not his performance at the live concert I saw that inspires me to write the characters that look like him. It’s not reading about his life. I wrote my first story involving a character with his face after looking into his eyes and expressive (air brushed) face on this cover of Rolling Stone:


Rolling Stone, Issue 987, November 17, 2005

If I get stuck writing a story involving characters inspired by Armstrong, I just look at his image on my opening computer screen, and gaze into those green eyes. I may not know what my character will do next; but I know how my character is feeling, and how my female lead feels about him.

Of the three novels-in-progress, featuring a variation on the themes of alienation, indomitable spirit, and the redeeming power of relationships, the one that will be published is the one I finish first (so that I’ll just have to give the male character a radical makeover in the novel I finish second). He is not the only main character; there is always a flawed and innately powerful young woman, equally challenged by potentially crippling circumstance. I know the story I finish first will be good because I won’t submit a completed manuscript to any publisher or agent until I’ve given the book my 6,000%.

4 comments:

  1. Awesome! I love reading about inspirations for writing. Some people have told me they only want to see the finished product, but not me. I love the background. To me, it's all part of the creative process, which fascinates me.

    Billie Jo Armstrong sounds like a fascinating person. I love rebels, and I admire anyone who has the strength to overcome and learn from mistakes. You have made me want to learn more about him. I'm so glad you got to see him in concert.

    It would be awesome if he could read this. I think being the positive inspiration for artistic work is one of the highest compliments a person can receive. I look forward to reading your novels!

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  2. He sure sounds inspirational. And the genius of music can make anyone look like an Olympian god.

    My characters always come from real life too. I never make them up. Real people are too inspiring.

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  3. I'm so glad I found your blog! Green Day's music can be enjoyed on such a deep level - the songs are a lot more meaningful than many people give them credit for and it's good to see someone writing about their music so intelligently.

    "Waiting" is also one of my favorite songs! As someone who's just about to turn 20, I think it really captures that feeling of youthful anticipation - the feeling that something awesome is just over that horizon.

    I find it fascinating that we can admire someone so much without really knowing them. In interviews, Billie Joe seems so intelligent and I love the way he explores his song-writing process. He puts so much into his music. I've watched so many live videos of Green Day performing and Billie Joe's energy is just so incredible. You can tell he truly loves his fans and loves what he does.

    I love that you listen to Green Day as a family. You, your husband, and your son. My mom and my sister aren't really fans, but my dad is taking me to see them in Detroit in August and I just think it's great to share something like that with your parents. Though, he doesn't philosophize about their lyrics as much as I do.

    Green Day's music has always inspired me to think for myself and to be my own person and I really think that that's a very positive message.

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  4. Hi Julie and TomC,

    Well, I never said you'd enjoy the music! Maybe, maybe not. The earliest work, they were practically kids, and there's an energy there that's affecting. Dookie is filled with all kinds of "objectionable" material, and the next two albums are equally "disturbing," but many of the tunes are memorable and enjoyable, and so is Armstrong's voice. My favorite albums are when they started to get "political," (which their early fan base hated) starting with the album, Warning, but I don't like every song.

    American Idiot is filled with language and ideology not everyone can agree with; but I identify, as I said, with the emotion, and the political statements. American Idiot is a chronicle of the disaffected, who turn to drugs and alcohol for solace, but by the end of it the character, "Jesus of Suburbia," is looking back, from presumably a better place.

    Sorry to ramble so long! So, it's not so much that Armstrong is my hero, and it's not his life (there's a lot about him I don't like at all); but the energy on the stage and that one expressive photograph that inspires me to model several characters after him (though the characters are all different, sharing a physical resemblance).

    My son is only 5'4", too, but he's just turned fifteen, and he'll probably grow to be his dad's height, about 5'8". Tom, I'll be sure to check out your son's band. I wish him all good things.

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