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Billie Joe Armstrong, From Green Day To Broadway

The frontman for the pop-punk band Green Day details the group's early days in Berkeley an describes what it's been like to see American Idiot, a new Broadway musical based on one of his albums.

42:51

Other segments from the episode on May 27, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 27, 2010: Interview with Billie Joe Armstrong; Review of the album "Louie and the Lovers: The Complete Recordings."

Transcript

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Billie Joe Armstrong, From Green Day To Broadway

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In 2004, Green Day, the punk-pop band fronted by my guest, Billie Joe
Armstrong, released a Grammy-winning album called "American Idiot."
Instead of looking inward for his material, as Armstrong had done when
he wrote songs about his anxiety, relationships and panic attacks on the
albums "Dookie" and "Nimrod," he decided to write about politics,
specifically the alienation and anger he felt during the presidency of
George W. Bush.

The punk-rock opera, as the album was called, was recently adapted into
a Broadway show with virtually no dialogue and with the actors telling
the story largely through movements on stage. Armstrong says that
watching his musical vision come on the stage was a transformative
experience.

We're going to start with Green Day's version of "American Idiot,"
followed by the version on the new Broadway cast recording, which
features singers from the show accompanied by Green Day.

(Soundbite of song, "American Idiot")

GREEN DAY (Music Group): (Singing) Don't want to be an American idiot.
Don't want a nation under the new media. And can you hear the sound of
hysteria? The subliminal mind (bleep) America. Welcome to a new kind of
tension all across the alien nation, where everything isn't meant to be
okay. Television dreams of tomorrow...

(Soundbite of song, "American Idiot")

Unidentified People: (Singing) Don't want to be an American idiot, one
nation controlled by the media. Don't want to be an American idiot, one
nation controlled by the media (unintelligible) calling out to idiot
America. Welcome to a new kind of tension all across the alien nation,
where everything isn't meant to be okay...

GROSS: Billie Joe Armstrong, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you play on the
soundtrack of a Broadway cast recording, but the cast sings. What would
you say are the main differences between the Broadway versions of your
songs and your versions?

Mr. BILLIE JOE ARMSTRONG (Musician): Oh, you know, I mean, it goes from
a three-piece band to a 20-piece vocal ensemble, you know. When we did
the album the first time around, it was me, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool
doing everything. And then this time it was, you know, dealing with the
string section and dealing with how all the characters were kind of
coming out and as far as the play or the musical, if you will, were
involved.

GROSS: One difference I've noticed, I think the Broadway singers
enunciate more clearly than you do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: That was a big - yeah. That was a big deal when - you
know, being a rock singer, I can get away with a lot, you know, because
most of the time people don't know what the hell you're saying anyway.
That's why we have lyric sheets, you know.

GROSS: And there's a long tradition of that in rock.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, and then - but the tradition, you
know, we were in the studio with Michael Mayer, and...

GROSS: He's the director.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Who's the director, and Tom Kitt's the arranger. And when
they were listening to the singers, they were saying things like, you
know, can you please - I can't hear the T in this particular word. And
we were looking at him. You know, we're like I can hear it fine, you
know. But that's just the difference between theater people and rock
people, I guess.

GROSS: I bet no one has ever said to you: I can't hear the T.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, no, I don't think so.

GROSS: So the songs on "American Idiot" are rooted in part in the Bush
administration era, and I'm wondering what performing for you was like
then, particularly performing songs from "American Idiot."

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I think I felt a sense of empowerment. I think I was -
you know, in the beginning, you know, right after, you know, 9/11 and
then watching sort of the tanks going into Iraq and everything sort of,
you know, these embedded journalists, you know, going in, you know,
live. It felt like a cross between - it was a cross between war and
reality television.

And so I just felt this, like, great sort of confusion, and I was, like,
someone needs to say something. I don't really know - you know, I don't
know how it's going to come out, but, you know, whatever it has to be,
it's got to be something very bold and get someone's attention
immediately.

Just as - you know, because if you're so distracted, you know, by what's
going on on television, you're just watching it, it's like, but in
reality what you're doing is you're sitting there on the couch and just
sort of seeing, you know, the world unfold and explode and lives being
lost right in front of your very eyes.

So for me it was just – I kind of felt this moment of just, it was like
rage and patriotism, I guess, if you'd want to call it that. And I just
wanted to write something that was, you know, it just felt very - that
wrote itself in probably 30 seconds.

GROSS: I want to play another song from "American Idiot," and this is
"Holiday." Would you put this song in the context of what you've been
talking about politically?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, you know, it's - when I think of "Holiday," it's,
like, fragments of sort of political confusion. And it takes the English
language and it kind of - it's like it goes again, you know, using
English words against itself or something, you know, especially, like,
sieg heil to the president (unintelligible) which actually was German
also.

But it's - yeah, it is, it's kind of another one. Like it was sort of -
after the song "American Idiot," then doing "Holiday," you felt even - I
felt even more empowered to write something like that.

GROSS: So here's "Holiday" from the Green Day album "American Idiot."

(Soundbite of song, "Holiday")

GREEN DAY: (Singing) Hear the sound of the falling rain coming down like
an Armageddon flame, the shame, the ones who died without a name.

Hear the dogs howling out of key to a hymn called Faith and Misery, and
bleed, the company lost the war today.

I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies. This is the dawning of
the rest of our lives on holiday...

GROSS: That's "Holiday" from the Green Day album "American Idiot," and
of course now there's a Broadway musical called "American Idiot,"
featuring the songs from the album.

"American Idiot" is in part about the anger and discontent of young
people entering the larger world, and the Broadway show, it's also
about, you know, one of the characters having to fight in Iraq. How far
away does that part of your life seem when you were in your teens or
early 20s, finding your place in the world?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: For me, I mean, you know, when, you know, the first time
that you escape from home or the small town that you live in or
whatever, you know, there's a reason the small town is called a small
town, because not that many people really want to live there.

So to try to get out and see something more, and, you know, for me, I
had a place called Gilman Street, and it was a club, a punk-rock club in
Berkeley, and I was just introduced to a lot of new ideas. And...

GROSS: So that was your escape?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I think that was my escape. And there was this sort of
feeling of, like, I felt there was another moment in time where I felt
empowered and because I was getting an education and that I wasn't
really getting being at home anymore, or from the schools that I had to
go to. It was sort of this feeling of just like, oh, I'm out of prison,
you know.

But in the musical there's a lot of - you know, the guy Johnny, or Jesus
of Suburbia, you know, as he's finding this sort of self-righteousness,
he ends up finding sort of some self-destruction, and I think those are
the bumps in the road that you take because you have to take bruises as
you get older or coming of age.

GROSS: Did you have that problem, self-destruction?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Oh, yeah. I mean, I still do, you know. Any time that you
challenge yourself or you take risks, you have to deal with scars, you
know, and the only thing you can do is look down and learn from them and
keep moving on, you know.

GROSS: There's a lot of anger in the songs in "American Idiot," and I
assume anger is an emotion that you're familiar with.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah.

GROSS: So when you were a teenager, where - what was generating most of
the anger?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Feeling lost. I always say that - in every song I write,
whether it's a love song, or it's a political song or, you know,
something, or a song about family, the one thing that I find is feeling
lost and trying to find your way.

I think a song like "American Idiot," it's a series of questions. You
know, I think "Holiday" is a series of questions. It's like, it's -
you're trying to battle your way out of your own ignorance, and that's
where it's personal. It's like, you know, I don't want to be an American
idiot. What I want to be is I'm not sure. I just want more. And I'm
willing to take the risk to try to get out of that, you know, or to try
to find something more.

So that's - I don't know, so it's just lost and trying to dig your way
through all the sort of, you know, the mental wrecking yard, I guess.

GROSS: I know your father died when you were young. How old were you?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Ten.

GROSS: And he had cancer of the esophagus. Did that contribute to you
feeling lost, do you think?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I think so. I mean, I think it went, you know, beyond
that. You know, I remember I was always the kid that got lost in, like,
the shopping mall or, like, I got lost in Santa Cruz, you know, walking
the boardwalk when I was, like, five or six. I was always just
daydreaming constantly, and I still am.

You know, I have a lousy sense of direction in so many different ways,
and you know, I think losing someone, you know, that young, it's hard
because, like, when you deal with death, like when you lose someone when
you're young, and you're dealing with death, you suddenly realize that
death is a part of life.

So when death comes knocking again at a certain time, or if it's a
friend or a loved one, you just, you start to not get used to it, you
know, you just, you just see it, and when you see it over and over
again, you just realize, like, that it, like I said before, that it's a
part of life.

But it's hard because you see this very strong, strong-willed man, it's
like you see him crumble within a matter of three months. It's just,
it's like, you know, it's the beginning of summer, and then at the end -
by the end of the summer it's a completely different person, and then
they're reading his last rites to him. So it's just a lot to take in,
you know.

I worried about my mother. I worried about a lot of things that I think
it's unfair for kids to worry about because - but you have to, you have
to man up, and for a 10-year-old to man up on something like that and
sort of - you know, my brother was 13. He had to man up too, and it was,
you know, that's a really young age for someone to sort of have to grow
up very quickly.

GROSS: So it's interesting, you know, that you discovered punk, and it
meant so much to you. So once you got deep into punk, did that, did that
also bring on any kind of, like, physical transformation just in terms
of how you wanted to look physically and what kind of, like, attitude
you wanted to present to the outside world?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I think so. You know, I mean, there was definitely - it
wasn't really a dress code. I think the time when I was getting into
punk, there wasn't really - I think the uniform was gone, you know, in
the scene. You know, I mean, I wore stuff that my dad wore as a truck
driver.

You know, I mean, I wore dickies and Ben Davis shirts and derby jackets
and flipped-up baseball caps and Chuck Taylors and with, you know, a
pile of bleach on top of your head. You know, it was, you know, you went
around and you borrowed eyeliner from girls that were around the scene
at the time, and it was, it was just, you know, it wasn't really a dress
code. I mean, that was just what we were into in the punk community, you
know.

GROSS: So you mentioned that you would borrow eyeliner from the girls.
Why couldn't you buy it? Why'd you have to borrow it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I think it was just good conversation, you know? You
know, it was - I think that's sort of almost where it came from. And you
know, there were the girls that were around. You know, I think all,
well, not all, but I think a lot of women like to see what guys look
like dressed up like women. So - you know, or just put makeup on them or
whatever, you know.

So it was, it was just kind of a fun little activity, and I think it
just sort of stuck throughout the years.

GROSS: My guest is Billie Joe Armstrong, the front man of Green Day.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Billie Joe Armstrong, the
lead singer, guitarist and songwriter from the band Green Day, and Green
Day's album, "American Idiot," is now the basis of a Broadway show by
the same name, which features all the songs from the original album. And
on the cast recording, the band Green Day actually accompanies the
Broadway singers.

So some of your songs are also about psychological issues. Like one song
mentions soda pop and Ritalin. There's a song "Basket Case," the song
"Give Me Novocain." And I'm wondering, like, how much of that is about
you, if you were, like, medicated at all or in therapy or told you
should be in therapy when you were in your teens, in school.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Not so much. You know, I think I tried to mix humor with
mental health. You know, a song like "Basket Case" is sort of about
panic attacks. And, you know, "Give Me Novocain" is just, you know,
where you self-medicate, whether it's with alcohol or weed or speed or,
you know, whatever your drug of choice is. You know, it's just kind of
falling into that, experimenting with that, you know, escapism in
unhealthy ways.

But I think when I was a kid, you know, a lot of - there was a lot of,
you know, it was just, it was drinking and acid and mushrooms and...

GROSS: Did you do a lot of acid?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I did my share.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Tell me what your trips were like and whether you saw them as
kind of like spiritual, you know, meditative, exploratory things, or
whether it was more about music or more about, like, something else
altogether and whether they were good trips or bad trips.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: It kind of depends on the moment of the trip, you know. I
think the first part of a trip is always - is the funnest part.

GROSS: When you feel it coming on?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, yeah, and then there's about the two or three hours
where you're completely confused and, you know, and there's certain
hallucinations that are happening that I'm not particularly fond of.

But then there's the, you know, the comedown, which I always enjoyed
also. But the whole experience itself was never really - I don't think
it ever really contributed to music. I think, you know, it cracks open
your brain a little bit, but in the long run, you know, in seeing sort
of all the casualties around Berkeley and San Francisco because of it,
it was - it was always kind of something it was like I never got
completely into.

GROSS: So you never played while you were on acid?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I did. The first time I ever dropped acid, I played. I
played with this band called Blatz, and I remember they were a local
band, really crazy. It's like - they were basically like the B-52s on
acid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: There were two female singers, and there was one male
singer. The male singer always - this guy Jesse Luscious always ended up
naked on stage. It was a very memorable experience, you know, to see
guitar strings that were - started kind of wrapping around my neck a
little bit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Seems funny now, maybe not so much then.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Well, it wasn't - that was part of the downside, which
when I was coming down, it was like oh, this is kind of fun, you know,
but not really something I ever did with Green Day.

Mike and Tre, you know, they definitely did their share of playing. I
think we played the Gorge outside of Seattle, Washington, on
Lollapalooza, and they dropped acid then, and that was, you know, an
interesting experience to see a rhythm section look at each other and
giggle for, you know, 45 minutes.

GROSS: So the guy who used to take off his clothes while he was
performing, could you ever imagine yourself doing that?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, I did.

GROSS: You did?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I used to do it a lot when - you know, right after
"Dookie" came out. I was arrested for it in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I did
it at Madison Square Garden, because I didn't know if I was ever going
to play Madison Square Garden again. So I, you know, I said, well,
there's one way to remember this occasion, is to be the guy who was
naked on stage at Madison Square Garden.

And then, you know, and then it came down to a point where everywhere we
played, the cops started showing up and saying, you know, if this guy
gets naked on stage, he's going to be arrested immediately. You know,
and sure enough, it happened eventually in Milwaukee.

GROSS: So what statement were you making by taking all your clothes off?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: It was, like, this non-statement statement. You know, I
mean, there was no - I just was - it was, you know, old enough to know
better but too young to care, you know, kind of attitude towards it.

GROSS: So let's hear another song, and this is "Give Me Novocain," and
there's a line I particularly like in this: Bittersweet migraine in my
head, it's like a throbbing toothache of the mind. I like the throbbing
toothache of the mind. I think most of us have had a throbbing toothache
of the mind. So "Give Me Novocain" reminds me of The Ramones title "I
Want to Be Sedated." Were you thinking about that at all when you wrote
it?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: No, I mean, that's definitely a kind of poetry that I
definitely relate to, you know, a song like "Now I want to Sniff Some
Glue" or something like that, it's, you know, I think that was a new way
of, you know, writing lyrics and just, like, straight, right to the
point, you know exactly what's going on.

GROSS: My guest, Billie Joe Armstrong, the front man of Green Day, will
be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Give Me Novocain")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with Billie Joe
Armstrong, the front man of Green Day. The band's 2004 album, "American
Idiot," which won a Grammy for best rock album, has been adapted into a
Broadway show and is nominated for a Tony as best musical.

One of the amazing things about Green Day is that you met Mike Dirnt
from the band, the bass player in middle school so...

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. Ten years old.

GROSS: It's kind of amazing, like very few relationships withstand the
test of time from middle school to adulthood.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I remember the first conversation we ever had was in -
because we ended up in the same class. It was Miss O'Connor's class. And
I met Mike pretty much the first week in school and then we, you know,
he just ended up coming over to the house all the time and we just
became really close. You know, I think somehow I think sometimes my
father dying and Mike coming into my life at the same time sort of
coincided.

But I think it was around we really - when music really started hitting
us both together playing at the same time was around I think 7th grade.
And we started learning like, you know, heavy metal songs together and
just, you know, jamming together all the time. He'd come over with his
guitar and I'd go over to his house with my guitar and it just sort of,
you know, lasted till now.

GROSS: So Tre Cool, who's the drummer with the band, he grew up in an
unusual way. He grew up in a home without electricity, no television, I
don’t know if he had radio or probably not a stereo or anything. So I
think, stop me if I'm wrong here, that his father was a veteran who
wanted to kind of like move away from the world when he got home and
that's why they moved to like a mountain or something? Is that close
to...

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. They moved up to the mountains up in Mendocino
County, basically like a back to the land kind of family way, you know.

GROSS: I see. Okay. Okay.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: And I think Tre had a lot of freedom growing up up there
and, you know, he didn’t have a typical childhood at all, you know. I
think, you know, if you talk to him and hang out with him for a while
you would understand he's not a typical guy at all, you know. He's -
but, you know, he ended up playing in a band called The Lookouts and,
you know, the first time I ever saw The Lookouts play, you know, he was
wearing an old woman's shower cap and he had like a tutu on or something
like that, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: And I remember thinking that he was an amazing drummer.
So it was a difficult transition going from our old drummer to Tre, just
because Tre was just a showoff, you know, and so it was kind of - but I
knew that the way that he played and the different beats and the
background and because he had a background in jazz and he could play any
sort of particular beat or that you wanted that I knew I can - as a
songwriter - I know that I can always write a song that he's going to be
able to play immediately, you know. So it kind of opened up my world at
the same time.

GROSS: Now when you started touring, Tre's father, your drummer's
father, was driving. So, yes or is that incorrect? Yeah?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Oh yeah. He started - well, we started touring in 1990.
We, you know, we did the van tours first. This is before Tre's dad came
in. So we did three, four tours before that and then when we got a
little bit of money together we bought a bookmobile but someone needed
to have a trucker license to be able to drive this thing. And so Tre's
dad knew how to drive it so, or he had the license for it. So he became
our driver when we were touring. We opened up for a band called Bad
Religion, then we ended up going on tour all through, you know, the
United States again after that in a bookmobile, you know, that we just
converted into this little touring bus.

GROSS: So did it feel funny to be playing punk music and having one of
the band member's fathers having to drive you?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: No. No. I mean Frank was - Tre's dad was, he was one of
the guys, you know. There was no rules or anything like that we had to,
you know, that most kids had to abide by so, you know, we just - it
wasn’t like he was, you know, he turned into everybody's parent or - he
wasn’t even Tre's parent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: He was just, you know, he just kind of let us just roam,
do whatever the hell we wanted. And, you know, we would go out and get
tattoos and he would get a tattoo with us and he would, you know, it was
not really like a, you know, a typical, you know, he was just, he
someone that you could relate to. And I remember when this band Tribe
Called Quest would go up and play during Lollapalooza and there would be
these big low-end subs that would go out and it would just shake the
entire backstage and it's just like this really boom, you know.

And I remember one time Frank going oh, I don’t like that noise. And
we're like why? He said because that reminds me of dropping napalm in
Vietnam. And that was like, it was like oh my gosh, you know. So there
was a whole different - he kind of added a whole different perspective
and he wasn’t just Tre's father but he was this, I don’t know he was
this kind of this cool guy at the same time.

GROSS: My guest is Billie Joe Armstrong, the front man of Green Day.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Billie Joe Armstrong, the front man of Green Day.
Green Day's 2004 album "American Idiot" has been adapted into a Broadway
show and is nominated for a Tony as best musical.

Well, let's hear another song. For this one we'll go back to "Dookie,"
which won the Grammy for best alternative music album in 1994. And I
want to play "Basket Case," which has a line about being neurotic to the
bone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Can you talk about writing this song?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I remember that song being hard to write. It wasn’t an
easy song to write. And, you know, the lyrics kept changing and it
started out as a relationship song and then it got the idea for it to be
more neurotic and a panic attack song, and it seemed to hit home. And I
didn’t even expect the song to actually be a single. It was just seem
like it was just a difficult song to play. But then, and then it got
released and then, you know, I guess I was wrong about that.

GROSS: Well, it had a video too.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, a video. Like we were in a band in an
insane asylum, you know, and that was pretty heavy to see just all the
different, you know, there would be scratch marks on the walls of people
trying to climb out and it was very like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's
Nest," you know, kind of moment. It was like, you know, there was - the
ghosts that were in that place were just it was kind of terrifying
really.

GROSS: Okay. So this is "Basket Case" from the Green Day album "Dookie."

(Soundbite of song, "Basket Case")

GREEN DAY: (Singing) Do you have the time to listen to me whine about
nothing and everything all at once? I am one of those melodramatic
fools, neurotic to the bone, no doubt about it. Sometimes I give myself
the creeps. Sometimes my mind plays tricks on me. It all keeps adding
up. I think I'm cracking up. Am I just paranoid or was I stoned?

I went to a shrink to analyze my dreams. She says it's lack of sex
that's bringing me down. I went to a whore. He said my life's a bore so
quit my whining because it's bringing her down. Sometimes I give myself
the creeps.

Sometimes my mind plays tricks on me. It all keeps adding up. I think
I'm cracking up. Am I just paranoid? Uh, yuh, yuh, ya.

GROSS: That's "Basket Case" from the Green Day album "Dookie," and my
guest Billie Joe Armstrong is the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter
for the band. And, of course, now on Broadway is the show "American
Idiot," that's based on the Green Day album of the same name.

I'm wondering what it's been like for you to basically become a man on
stage. In other words, when you started performing you were a teenager,
you were probably in your 20s when the bad started taking off. Is that
about right?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, 22.

GROSS: Yeah. That's pretty young. And so, you know, and then you became
a father, you have two children, so you’ve grown up a lot since you
started performing. But, you know, a lot of your songs are about the
questions and the problems of being young and of like, finding your
place in the world. But you’ve kind of found your place. You’ve grown
up. You’re the father of two. Do you feel like you’ve been able to grow
and change on stage? You know what I mean? Growing up - like becoming a
man in a public way like that.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, I think so. It's kind of one of those rare things.
I think I've become better at being on stage through the years,
especially right around when the record "Nimrod" hit. I think, you know,
especially with big audiences there were certain things that I had to
learn to, you know. I think there's a more of an emotional thing that
happens at our show. It's not just about chaos and out of control and,
you know, I think it becomes about people dancing and people having a
really great time and knowing that I'm responsible for that.

So it's a, and it's become sort of this gathering and you see all the,
you know, one thing about our show is that what I try to do is to have
the dynamics of it. And I'm not just talking about when music gets loud
and music gets soft. It's also I think like concerts for me they do
become about anger. I think they become about sadness and then they
bring you back to some sort of conclusion and the crowd feels involved.
It’s not just about the singer or it's not just about the band.

GROSS: Is performing cathartic for you? Do you feel like you undergo
some transformation during the course of a concert?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. I mean I think if there's a place to die then I
guess on stage would be the, you know, it's like a lot of people would
die in their sleep. I think I would rather die on stage. I just put
everything I possibly can into a show, you know, and just make sure that
I walk away with the same experience, you know, where I'm not, it's not
just about the maybe the performance of it but it's like you sort of
guide the audience too or where, you know, or where the audience has
guided me to, you know, at the same time.

GROSS: Is it ever a problem that life itself isn't as vivid as life on
stage can be?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Sometimes it’s hard. You know, when you’re at home on
Sundays and there's not much going on, becomes a little tough, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I think because those are such extreme highs that you go
through. It's an addiction, you know, being on stage. So finding those
moments, it takes a lot to find those moments of silence, you know.
Sometimes it's trying to find moments of silence when you’re actually on
stage where you look out and you go and you think to yourself I have to
make sure that I am enjoying every second and just notice that no one is
sitting in their seats.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: You know, everyone is up and I'm just trying to take it
all in, you know. And then when you’re at home, it's just trying to take
in where it gets really silent and it's like whoa this is a kind of a
mundane experience, you know. And it takes an adjustment. It takes me a
week or two to adjust from being, you know, when I get home from tour. I
mean sometimes I think Adrienne, my wife would, you know, she's like,
you know, when you come home why don’t you stay at a hotel for a week or
something like that, just for the transition, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like coming up from the bottom of the ocean and getting the bends
or something.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, totally.

GROSS: So you met your wife at a Green Day show. Was she a fan?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I don’t know if she - no I don’t think she was a fan. She
was just a girl in Minneapolis that was part of the Minneapolis-Mankato
punk rock scene. And, you know, I met her, we played in a basement and
she happened to be there and then we played at this place called the
Varsity in Dinkytown a couple of days later and she showed up there and
everyone was - we got everyone to come up on stage and start dancing and
she was the only one sitting down in the audience. And she came up to me
after because we ran out of - we had these EPs that we were selling and
she asked me for an address where she could get one and then I just gave
her my address. And then, you know, we started writing letters back and
forth to each other from Minnesota to California.

GROSS: Oh. Interesting. And then you actually started spending time in
person together.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. We were talking on the phone and we were writing
letters. And I was just like, I got to go back and see this girl. I
haven't seen her since the summer before and I think it was around
spring of '91 and then I had to see her again. So we had this mini tour.
It was like five shows that we had to drive all the way out to the
Midwest. We played in Beloit, Wisconsin, Sioux Falls, and then we played
in Minneapolis and we played in Mankato.

And then she showed up in Sioux Falls, and then she just grabbed me. She
said Billie Joe? And I turned around and my first, I was just, I had to
remember what she looked like because I couldn’t - it just didn’t
register at first. I remember her voice just from the phone. And she
turned and looked at her friend and goes, he doesn’t remember me. And I
felt like the biggest tool at that second. I was, oh my god. I can't,
you know, I was like, yes I do. And so we, I don’t know, then we went to
there was a dumpster out in the back and we just talked all night long
and so that was 20, almost 20 years ago.

GROSS: Dumpster. Sounds very romantic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. Well, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And so you were sending real letters to each other, not emails.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: No. This was I don’t even think I got an email address
until about two years ago. So we were yeah, we were just writing letters
and, you know, running up large phone bills.

GROSS: So I'm thinking about how much you’ve seen the music industry
change. Like you started as this, you know, punk band and an Indie band,
and now you’ve got a Broadway show and you’ve got like a new rock band
video game coming out that will be called "Green Day Rock Band." So I
don’t know. It seems like you’ve seen both extremes.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, it keeps evolving and I like kind of being on both
extremes too. I would never abandon one. You know, I still, I love
playing clubs and doing these different projects for something like the
Foxboro Hot Tubs or Pinhead Gunpowder or something like that. It's just
I still get the same charge out of ita and then putting out EPs and
things like that. But I also like the opposite extreme of doing things
like rock operas and getting into, you know, musical theater and, you
know, and seeing where, what different formats that you could put
records out on. Whether it's vinyl or a CD or digital downloads or a
video game. So it’s a, I don’t know and it just keeps changing and you
just got to be open to those ideas.

GROSS: Well, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Billie Joe Armstrong is the front man of Green Day. Their 2004
album, "American Idiot," has been adapted into a Broadway show that's
received a Tony nomination for best musical.

You can listen to several tracks by Green Day, including "Basket Case"
and "American Idiot" on NPRmusic.org.

Here's "Welcome to Paradise" from Green Day's album "Dookie."

(Soundbite of song, "Welcome to Paradise")

GREEN DAY: (Singing) Dear mother, can you hear me whining? It's been
three whole weeks since that I have left your home. This sudden fear has
left me trembling 'cause now it seems that I am out here on my own. And
I'm feeling so alone. Pay attention to the cracked streets and the
broken homes. Some call it the slums. Some call it nice. And I want to
take you through a wasteland I like to call my home. Welcome to
paradise.

GROSS: Coming up, recently discovered and released recordings by an
obscure band from the late '60s that our rock historian Ed Ward is a fan
of "Louie and the Lovers."

This is FRESH AIR.
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Louie And The Lovers: The Slow 'Rise' Of A Lost Treasure

TERRY GROSS, host:

Louie Ortega isn't the name which springs to mind when the subject of
Mexican-American contributions to rock n' roll history comes up, but for
some people he's a legend based on a band he put together in Prunedale,
California in the late 1960s. Now an anthology from Bear Family Records
collects all their recordings, including tapes of their long-rumored
unreleased second album.

Our rock historian Ed Ward has been a fan of Louie and the Lovers since
he first heard them many years ago.

(Soundbite of song, "I Know That You Know")

LOUIE AND THE LOVERS (Rock band): (Singing) Last time you just wrote me
a letter, telling me that you might be gone. Last time you just wrote me
a letter. I know that you that you know that I’m wrong. I know that you
that you know that I’m wrong.

ED WARD: In 1970, I worked at Rolling Stone magazine and got to know
Doug Sahm, the eccentric Texas rocker and leader of the Sir Douglas
Quintet. He was living in Marin County, California; he was uneasy in
what he considered the big city. One day, he vanished, and I was told
he'd gone to Vancouver. But it wasn't true. He called me out of the blue
and said he'd discovered a great band out where he was living now:
Prunedale. This turned out to be about five miles north of Salinas,
smack in the middle of what was then violence-ridden agricultural
country, where Cesar Chavez was organizing the farm workers and meeting
resistance from the big growers.

Doug wasn't telling the strict truth. In fact, it had been his wife
Violet who'd discovered Country Fresh, as they were themselves, a band
that had formed in high school around Louie Perez's songwriting talents,
Frank Paredes' guitar, Steve Vargas' bass and Albert Parr's drums.
Vargas knew someone who knew Violet Sahm, and so she got a copy of a
tape the band had made to help them get gigs. One listen and she knew
she had to get Doug to listen to it, which wasn't easy.

Once he did, though, he flipped, and started agitating to get them a
deal. Epic Records took the bait, and Doug told the band he'd
rechristened them Louie and the Lovers in the course of contract
negotiations. He hustled them up to Columbus Studios in San Francisco,
where he was also recording the Sir Douglas Quintet, and he produced a
mammoth 18-hour session that resulted in their first album, "Rise."

(Soundbite of song, "Rise")

LOUIE AND THE LOVERS: (Singing) Rise to the sound of Malihe(ph) won't
say goodbye. Rise, yes, my eyes they are weeping. These are my eyes. If
you have such say I'm up here (unintelligible). But now you throw me the
(unintelligible).

WARD: Doug saw to it that Epic didn't release the album until the four
boys graduated from high school, but then nothing happened. Two singles,
"Rise" and "I Know That You Know," were released, and the latter was
praised by Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone. There was no tour, but I saw
them play at Keystone Berkeley one night, and it was a magnificent show
until Doug decided he'd make it even better by jumping onstage, plugging
in and turning up to 11, drowning out the band.

But Epic believed in the guys enough to fund another album, which Glen
Kolotkin co-produced with the band. A single survived from this, and
it's pretty good.

(Soundbite of song, "Tomorrow Just Might Change")

LOUIE AND THE LOVERS: (Singing) Today, I'll just waken to what yesterday
was tomorrow. Today my life feels more complete. I don’t feel quite as
hollow, as when I feel when I'm all year round or when life is one long
bound. Today and tomorrow just might change.

WARD: Little Georgie Baker and "Tomorrow Just Might Change," showed that
Louie was still writing memorable melodies. Doug had disappeared back to
Texas, but since Louie and the Lovers were a big deal in and around
Salinas, they worked a lot.

Then, legendary producer and co-owner of Atlantic Records, Jerry Wexler,
came on the scene. He was crazy about Doug and signed him to Atlantic,
and Doug raved about this band he knew in Prunedale. Wexler sent his
private jet to fly them to Florida to record — the first time any of
them had flown. And when they got there, they found not only Doug, but
the Memphis Horns and another friend of Doug's, the legendary San
Antonio accordionist Flaco Jimenez on his first trip out of Texas.

(Soundbite of song, "Ya No Llores")

LOUIE AND THE LOVERS: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

WARD: To my ears, that was about the best thing on the session. The rock
stuff sounds crowded, what with all the talent in the room. And even
though the vocals for the entire album were re-recorded in Hollywood,
after spending tons of money on it, Atlantic shelved it. Back in
Prunedale, two of the guys left for day jobs, and Louie and Frank
Paredes soldiered on playing around Salinas and making a living at it.

One day in the early '80s, Louie found himself at a Doug Sahm show at
the Whiskey a Go-Go in Los Angeles, and Doug called him on stage to sing
"I Know That You Know." Shortly thereafter, Louie got a call from Doug
asking if he could go on tour. The next day, he was on a plane to the
Midwest. From then until Doug died in 1999, Louie played not only in the
various versions of the Sir Douglas Quintet, but later in the Texas
Tornados, the supergroup Doug formed with keyboardist Augie Meyers,
Freddie Fender and Flaco Jimenez.

He's still writing and recording songs, living in San Luis Obispo. As he
told me a few years ago, he can work seven days a week if he wants to.
Cesar Rojas of Los Lobos is a fan. Me, too.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the South of France. He blogs at
wardinfrance.blogspot.com.

You can hear three songs by Louie and the Lovers, including "Tomorrow
Just Might Change" on our website freshair.npr.org, where you can also
download podcasts of our show.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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