Hey, America, what’s going on over there? Just a few days before the US presidential election, Jonny Ensall asks Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong to explain why a man who grabs women by the p***y might end up Leader of the Free World
On September 28 of this year, Green Day were playing at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey. Billie Joe Armstrong was belting out the lyrics to ‘Holiday’, a song he wrote over a decade ago to stick it to the Bush administration and protest against the war in Iraq. Politics has changed since then, but not necessarily for the better. Halfway through the song, during the breakdown, drummer Tré Cool and bassist Mike Dirnt slow their playing to a steady, rousing thump as Armstrong grabs the mic and leans out over the audience.
“You guys been watching the news lately?” he asks. “What do you think of our candidates for the presidency of the United States?” There are boos. “What do you think of New York’s finest, Mr Donald Trump?” The booing gets much louder. “No racism!” Armstrong shouts. “No racism in this f**king room right now! We are coming together to call bulls**t on all the f**king politicians!”
The crowd loses it. They holler their support. They are united in their animosity towards Trump and fed up with the rise in misogyny, xenophobia and outright racism in the US. Music has brought them together, Republicans and Democrats alike, to ask the same question: what the f**k happened to the American Dream?
In the UK we can sympathise, even if we don’t quite understand. The result of the EU referendum exposed some deep rifts in this country, as well as bigotry that most of us hoped was long behind us. But at least we’re not facing up to the possibility of being ruled by a serially bankrupt, pathologically narcissistic demagogue with a face like a two-week-old satsuma.
If it takes the raw power of punk rock to cut through the bulls**t and make sense of all this, then the rock star we need right now is Billie Joe Armstrong. Green Day released ‘Revolution Radio’, their 12th studio album, in October. Like all of the band’s best records, the playing’s tight and the feeling’s angry. It’s the sound of a downtrodden American underclass raising a collective middle finger to anyone who thinks that ruling a country is just about making money and winning wars. With the polls narrowing as we race towards the election of a new Leader of the Free World on November 8, can he explain, please, what the hell is going on?
“Ha!” he laughs. “Well, I’ll do my best, but I’m trying to figure out the whole damn thing myself.”
We’re talking on the phone. Or rather, Armstrong is in full flow and I’m listening as the incredulity pours out of him. “I’m just confused. I have anxiety about the whole thing,” he says. “You wake up every morning and think, what now? What stupid thing’s going to be said? What new email hack are you going to read about (1)? What racist comment? A lot of my songs come from… not really anger, but anxiety. And feeling lost in the whole game.”
I ask him for the story behind ‘Revolution Radio’, arguably the most political of all Green Day’s albums – more so, even, than 2004’s Bush-bashing rock opera ‘American Idiot’.
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“A couple of years ago, in the spring of 2014, I wrote the song ‘Bang Bang’,” he explains. “I wrote it coming from the viewpoint of a mass shooter [after what] happened in Santa Barbara (2). This young man was clearly deranged and had a Facebook manifesto about how ‘no girls will f**k me so I’m going to kill everybody’. The song just came out really powerfully… I thought, ‘Wow, this feels like Green Day.’”
The lyrics to ‘Bang Bang’ include the line “I wanna be a celebrity martyr”. That word, ‘martyr’, we tend to associate more with suicide bombers in the Middle East than with American gun nuts. Did that occur to him when he wrote the song? “I think human nature is something we all live with,” Armstrong responds, thoughtfully. “I tried to find the ties between what we call terrorism, whether it’s ISIS or whatever, and the militia mentality that Americans have and their entitlement to arms (3). For me, I look at it and it confuses the s**t out of me, because I’m like: what’s the difference?” He goes on: “The world changed after 9/11. George Bush said, ‘You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists’ – and there’s the beginning of the split in our country.”
George W Bush can’t take all the credit for America’s issues, however. We’ve been skirting around it, but there’s a big, orange elephant in the room that we now have to look full in its saggy face: Donald Trump, Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States of America. The man who once said, “It doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” Does he have any shame?
“He has no compassion,” Armstrong shoots back. “He has no empathy for anything except power. That’s all he wants, and he’ll step on anybody to get it. And the thought of a guy like that having his finger on the nuclear button is pretty f**king scary.” Does Armstrong know any Trump voters? What is it that they find appealing about The Donald? “I’ve got family members from Oklahoma that are big Trump supporters. And there’s no clear answer on why they’re supporting him because he doesn’t even have any policies. How can you have an opinion about who you want for the Leader of the Free World when the guy running doesn’t have answers to any questions?” He does want to build a wall to stop the Mexicans getting in, I remind him. “Except for a f**king wall! That’s never going to happen, give me a break.
“You know, dude, I just think it’s been mass manipulation,” he continues, with some degree of sadness. “Your grandparents have been hijacked by Fox News [who are] getting their information from the National Enquirer (4) [and] tabloids that are saying, ‘Hillary Clinton adopted an alien baby’. I’m not kidding you. Like, an alien from outer space! They’re grasping at straws to do anything to destroy her.”
Armstrong was a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders, the socialist candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, whose rise to prominence in the US coincided with Jeremy Corbyn’s in the UK. Now, with Sanders endorsing Clinton, Armstrong thinks she’s the “only choice” – though there are very few people from his background who would agree with him. Some polls have Trump leading by 76 per cent to 17 per cent over Clinton among white men without degrees.
“The biggest Trump supporters are uneducated white working-class people. And that’s the problem right there,” he argues. “There’s this white nationalism that’s been brewing under the radar for a long time. But now [Trump’s] been able to cause people to lash out and blame minorities and it’s really confusing. I mean, blatant misogyny going on at the same time.” Earlier this year, Armstrong suggested Trump was taking his cues from the Nazis. “That’s f**king Hitler, man,” he said of the property-mogul-turned-politician’s attitude towards immigrants. “The comparison is that he’s using scare tactics against minorities – Muslims and Mexicans and African-Americans. There could be race wars,” he adds, grimly.
In 2014 America had a taste of what might be to come. There were riots in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an African-American civilian, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. The news channels broadcast war-like scenes, with the cops putting on a show of military force while parts of the city burned into the night. “When you watched on TV there was this military state,” remembers Armstrong. On the song ‘Somewhere Now’ he sings, “I put the riot in patriot”. So, does he think that rioting is ever the right way to go? “I think that’s a justifiable demonstration by all means,” he says, of Ferguson. “They’re throwing tear gas at people – what the f**k do you expect is going to happen?”
There’s another song on ‘Revolution Radio’, ‘Outlaws’, that recalls a very different time in Armstrong’s life: his wild youth spent smoking weed and getting into trouble. Now, at 44 years old, he’s an advocate for the #BlackLivesMatter campaign (5). He’s the patron of a wildlife charity: Project Chimps. He’s got two children, whose future he worries about on a seemingly constant basis: “They’ve dealt with recession and war, non-stop war, never ending war… I think a lot of people are just like, ‘F**k, I can’t believe we’re still alive!’”
Armstrong had his own near-death experience in 2012. Or, as he prefers to call it, “a near-death experiment”. At a festival show in Las Vegas, he threw an epic tantrum when the band were told they had just one minute left to finish off their set. “I’ve been around since f**king nineteen f**king eighty-f**king-eight,” he raged. “I’m not f**king Justin Bieber, you motherf**kers!” Less than 48 hours later he’d checked into rehab to begin the process of recovery from years of alcohol and prescription drug abuse.
“The pharmaceutical industry is just a bunch of drug dealers,” he tells me now. It feels as if Armstrong’s most reckless days are behind him. Over the phone he sounds energised and open-minded. A man with a lot to live for. A man who wants to change the world in some positive way, through moments of unity at gigs like the one in New Jersey.
But it’s not an easy thing to do, inspiring people to stand up for what they believe in. Voter apathy’s a problem in the UK, especially among the young. But it’s just as serious an issue in the States, where turnout among voters under 30 has dropped to an almost unprecedented low (6). When young people in America are just as disillusioned and disenfranchised as Armstrong was when he formed Green Day nearly three decades ago, how is it possible to connect with them on a political level?
He sighs: “I don’t know how to get people fired up, [but] searching for some kind of justice in the world is ingrained into Green Day… The only thing I would say to a young person is: look for the truth and find your own.”
(1) In July, WikiLeaks published 19,252 Democratic National Committee emails, including many sent by senior Democrats. Some suspect the Russian intelligence services of being behind the hack. Separately, Hillary Clinton is being investigated by the FBI for using her family email server to send government emails.
(2) In May 2014, a college student named Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree around California, killing six and injuring 14 others. According to the Gun Violence Archive there is, on average, a mass shooting in the US on five out of every six days.
(3) The second amendment of the US Constitution grants the right to bear arms and suggests groups of armed civilians (or militias) are a good idea for national security. Some Americans (mostly Trump supporters) have organised militias to help prevent voter fraud. Others think that having people with guns outside polling stations is voter intimidation.
(4) The National Enquirer is a salacious American tabloid magazine that pays sources for tips on celebrity stories.
(5) The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag emerged after the fatal shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin by neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in 2012. Black Lives Matter has since grown to become an international activist movement.
(6) Less than 20 per cent of Americans under 30 turned out to vote in the 2014 midterm elections.