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Green Day’s East Bay

From Gilman Street to the Hall of Fame, one of rock’s greatest acts never really left where it started.


Published:

by Marina Chavez

Before they were “the guys from Green Day,” Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt had to bum a lot of rides to get to 924 Gilman Street. Armstrong and Dirnt were teenagers when the Berkeley music club, created in the spirit of the People’s Park movement of the 1960s, opened in 1986, and became the place for East Bay kids to plug in guitars and play punk songs in front of a crowd.

The future rock legends, who lived a few miles away from the all-ages club, were initially denied when they tried to book a gig at Gilman. They were told their sound was “too pop” to play the ultraprogressive club, which emphasized community and creativity over commerce. Armstrong and Dirnt weren’t discouraged: They volunteered at the venue until it was their chance to play, happy to wait their turn because Gilman had a magic that was missing from the boys’ lives 15 miles away in Rodeo.

“Looking back, it really was an amazing place,” says Armstrong’s older sister Anna, who gave the boys a fair share of those rides to Gilman. “It was a place for all these creative kids from all over the area to get together.”

But 924 Gilman became more than a gig for the guys from Green Day. It was a creative Shangri-la that shaped not only Green Day’s music but the very ethos of what would become one of the most successful music acts in the world over the past two decades. This month, those teenage rockers who wanted a spot on the bill at Gilman more than anything will be playing a gig at a very different venue, this one in Cleveland—when they are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

As Green Day gets ready to celebrate its inclusion with rock’s greatest bands on April 18, Diablo looks at how the band that toured the world never really left home.


 

19-year-old Billie Joe Armstrong onstage at 924 Gilman Street, circa 1991 / by Murray Bowles

The Early Years

During the 1970s, Billie Joe Armstrong’s large family fit snugly in the three-bedroom house in Rodeo, where mother of six, Ollie, still lives. It was a close-knit family in a blue-collar town, with kids sleeping in bunk beds, Brady Bunch-style.

Armstrong’s dad, Andy, drove a truck for Safeway, and Ollie worked as a waitress at a local ribs restaurant. The large family had a happy and intensely musical life; Andy was a jazz drummer who shared his love of music with his kids. By all accounts, young Armstrong was a musical prodigy whose talents were recognized early, says one of his first music teachers.

“He came into my music studio with his older sisters one day, and my husband said, ‘He looks like a Botticelli angel—we should see if he can sing,’ ” says Marie-Louise Fiatarone, owner of Fiat Music Company, where the Armstrong kids took weekly lessons. “I asked him if he knew any songs, and he liked ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.’ He was able to sing it perfectly. Even when I changed the key, he stayed right in tune.”

The Fiatarones took young Armstrong out to perform at local convalescent homes and hospitals, where he entertained elderly audiences with Broadway show tunes and Frank Sinatra songs.

Music was Armstrong’s deepest passion: Ollie remembers the living room being littered with every kind of musical instrument imaginable.

Now, that living room doesn’t provide many clues that a rock legend grew up here. You have to look hard to spot the Diamond Award trophy—which recognizes more than 10 million sales of a single record—on a bookshelf covered with family pictures. Armstrong gave his mother the trophy as a keepsake. “Not many people have a Diamond Award,” Ollie says, with a smile.

“When Billie Joe was in elementary school, he had an assignment to write an essay about his future,” says Ollie. “He wrote, ‘I am going to be a rock star,’ and planned it out step-by-step. It all came true.”

Green Day’s rock-and-roll fairy tale, as sweet as it is, started soon after tragedy. In the early 1980s, when Armstrong was 10, his father was diagnosed with aggressive cancer and passed away within months.

“It was very tragic when his father died,” says Kensington resident George Cole, who gave Armstrong guitar lessons at Fiat Music. “I felt very close to [Billie Joe] because my father had also passed away from cancer a few months earlier. He was such a sad little boy, and music was the one thing that was like a tonic for him.”

Around the same time that Andy passed away, Armstrong met a boy at school who would become his friend and bandmate for life. The child of a single mother who struggled with heroin addiction, Mike Pritchard (later nicknamed “Dirnt,” after the sound his unplugged bass made when he slapped the strings) had been placed into foster care at six weeks old. He was adopted by a family in El Sobrante, but divorce in that family made for a troubled childhood. That started to change when Dirnt met Armstrong in the cafeteria at Carquinez Middle School. The boys bonded over their love of rock acts such as Van Halen and Ozzy Osbourne.

By the time Armstrong and Dirnt were students at Pinole Valley High, they were so tight that Dirnt moved into a small room in the Armstrongs’ garage, when his mother decided to move out of the area. That way, Armstrong and Dirnt could keep their band—originally a four player group called Sweet Children—together, and their dreams of rock stardom alive.

Cole explains it this way:  “Some kids get sports, some get religion. [Billie Joe and Mike] got music.”

Ollie helped Sweet Children book its first gig, in a banquet room in the Vallejo ribs restaurant where she worked. “People liked them right away,” she says. The band set its sights on playing 924 Gilman Street.

“In the early 1980s, there were two prevalent kinds of gigs around the East Bay,” says Corbett Redford, a friend from west Contra Costa whom Green Day recently hired to direct Turn It Around: the Story of East Bay Punk, a documentary about everything that led to 924 Gilman and Green Day’s success.

“There were pay-to-play metal shows, and there were violent shows. Both were corrupt or dangerous. Gilman Street was something different. It was a place where bands could play, and kids could see music, and no one got in a fight,” says Redford.

While waiting their turn to play, Armstrong and Dirnt volunteered weekends at the club during shows by seminal Gilman bands Operation Ivy and The Mr. T Experience, and continued to practice at home, school, and house parties during the week.

“If there was a couch with two people on it, those guys were willing to play,” says Redford, who was a freshman at Pinole Valley High when Armstrong and Dirnt were seniors.

Eventually, Sweet Children was booked at Gilman, and it made a big impression. Independent record producer Larry Livermore told the band he wanted to cut a record. Just before going into the studio, the band changed its name to Green Day, as a nod to the players’ fondness for marijuana. In 1989, Green Day released its first EP, 1,000 Hours, for Berkeley-based Lookout! Records.

“I remember hearing a tape of that record and being introduced to Billie Joe,” says Lafayette resident Dennis Erokan, founder of BAM Magazine. “I was impressed by how good the songs were: It wasn’t just kids blasting away on their guitars.”

Between 1989 and ’93, the band recorded several more records for Lookout!, including Kerplunk, one of the best-selling independent label records of all time. Kerplunk featured drummer Tré Cool, who has played with Armstrong and Dirnt since 1990. The day Dirnt graduated from Pinole Valley High (Armstrong fell just short of graduating), the band loaded up a van and toured the country, coming back to play frequent gigs at 924 Gilman Street and Berkeley Square for a growing legion of fans.

“It got to a point where they had a lot of fans, who would go into record stores and find that the albums had sold out,” Redford says of the band’s early popularity. “When people wanted to buy their records and couldn’t get them, it was time to go to the next level.”

The next level meant signing with a major label—but that was going to be a problem. In the communal culture of 924 Gilman Street, signing with a corporate label was giving in to The Man. When Green Day signed with Warner Bros. Records’ Reprise label in 1993, the band was banned from playing 924 Gilman Street.

“It was heartbreaking for them because they loved that place,” says Armstrong’s sister Anna. “It was so crazy; these kids that they had grown up with were holding up signs and protesting them.”

Despite those troubled times, Green Day never turned its back on 924 Gilman Street and the local community. As the musicians’ careers exploded, they took Gilman bands with them on the road and hired an East Bay artist to design the album cover for their major label debut. Years later, the band even donated a state-of-the-art sound system to the Berkeley club so future musicians (including Armstrong’s son Joey) would have a place to play the way Green Day did.

Green Day at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre in 2013 / by Peter Crooks

 

Continued Success

Throughout the 1990s, Green Day remained one of rock’s biggest acts, touring the world and making well-received records. The band’s major label debut record, Dookie, sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and won a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Rock Performance. Armstrong’s intensely personal songwriting continued to connect with audiences on subsequent albums, in songs such as “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” which would become one of the band’s biggest singles, getting airplay across the FM dial and on the final episode of Seinfeld.

“Billie Joe played ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)’ at my sister’s funeral,” says Ollie. “It’s amazing how he has been able to write so many songs that affect so many people in a deeply meaningful way.”

With millions in the bank, Green Day could easily have headed for Hollywood or another flashy city to live the rock star lifestyle. But the sense of community (cultivated at 924 Gilman Street) and the band’s deep roots in the East Bay proved unbreakable. Armstrong, Dirnt, and Cool bought homes in Oakland, became parents, and chose to raise their children close to the family members and culture that nourished them through the lean years.

“I look at Mike and Tré and what we’ve done, and I look at our fans and how everything is just still intact and our relationship is still there,” Armstrong told Rolling Stone last December. “Me and Mike live a couple of blocks from each other. We’ve lived a couple blocks from each other our whole lives.”

And though they’ve rocked stadiums around the world, the band still loves to play in front of its hometown fans.

“Green Day showed up one year at the Bammie Awards in Oakland and brought their families,” recalls Dennis Erokan. “Early in the gig, Billie Joe came up to me and said, ‘Hey, we’d love to play tonight.’ We didn’t have any of their equipment. So I spent an hour running around trying to set them up with equipment. They closed the show. No rehearsal—they just came out and played. And they just blew the room away.”

 

Courtesy of Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Broadway Bound

In 2004, Green Day recorded rock’s first punk opera, American Idiot. The concept album was an angry response to the Iraq war and the cultural apathy that Armstrong felt was pervading the country.

The band wrote the album at a time when most music artists were silent about a war that would eventually prove to be unpopular. Green Day decided it was time to exercise some Berkeley free speech by taking listeners on a searing journey through the American experience of the new century: Armstrong’s lyrics involve a cast of damaged suburban souls who search for love, face demons, and raise a middle finger to a warmongering establishment.

“I think some people were surprised by how political that album was—but with all the time they spent in Berkeley, of course they are political,” says Redford. “I think they are the best kind of political: They’re not racist; they’re not sexist; they’re not homophobic. They’re good dads, and they care about their community and their country. All of that came through on American Idiot.”

The album is also a wildly ambitious creative work: Characters drift in and out of songs like “Jesus of Suburbia,” a nine-minute epic about an angst-ridden suburban teen, which Armstrong has said is the best song he has written.

“‘Jesus of Suburbia’ is all about growing up in Contra Costa County,” says Redford. “I still get very emotional when I listen to it because it’s so real and so true. I mean, I have stopped at that 7-Eleven so many times when I should have gone home instead.”

Another track, “Wake Me Up When September Ends” is a haunting elegy to Armstrong’s late father. The song also served as a touching ballad to a nation recovering from the tragedy of September 11, 2001. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” won a Grammy for Record of the Year and received heavy play across the FM dial. In all, American Idiot was a massive success, selling 15 million copies worldwide and winning the 2005 Grammy for Best Rock Album.   

American Idiot also inspired one of the most successful productions in the history of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, when it was turned into a musical in 2009.

“Green Day is such an important part of local history,” says Berkeley Rep’s Artistic Director, Tony Taccone. “American Idiot was a touchstone production for us—a hit with audiences and with the critics. It was a triumph.”

The show went on to Broadway the next year. Armstrong joined the cast for a run of performances in New York. His siblings and mother were there to watch this kid from the suburbs of Contra Costa—who got his start singing Broadway show tunes in convalescent homes—star in a Broadway rock opera based on a book of songs he had composed.

“That was incredible, to get to see Billie Joe perform with that giant cast on the Broadway stage,” says Ollie. “Of course, he had sung those songs in concert many times. But singing them on Broadway was something new.”

 

Still Where It Started

Over the years, the band has only dug deeper roots into the East Bay: Dirnt is an owner of Rudy’s Can’t Fail cafes in Emeryville and Oakland; and Armstrong formed his own label, Adeline Records—named for a street in Berkeley and Oakland—which started as an outlet to support up-and-coming bands from around the Bay Area. The band also bought Jingletown Recording in Oakland so the members can cut records close to home.

Green Day also supports myriad local charitable causes, including UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, Music in Schools Today programs, and many others. The band’s charitable outreach is usually creative—an exclusive line of Green Day skateboards was created to support Children’s Hospital programs—and focuses on causes close to its members’ hearts.

“Billie Joe was asked to sign some guitars for a fundraiser for the arts in Piedmont schools,” says Anna. “He agreed to do it, as long as half the money went to arts programs at John Swett High School in Crockett because they really needed support for the program.”

Nearly three decades after that first gig at 924 Gilman Street, Green Day continues to connect with new generations of fans: For years, administrators at Pinole Valley High have received requests from students to be assigned Armstrong’s former locker. Of course, Green Day’s original fan base—Ollie, and Armstrong’s five siblings—continues to be the band’s most dedicated supporters.

The Armstrong family will be in the audience in Cleveland on April 18 to watch Green Day go into rock history beside the Beatles, Stones, and Ramones, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

“We’re all so excited to be able to be there,” says sister Hollie. “It’s also a wonderful payback for all those rides we gave him to Gilman and for going to all those early shows.”


 

Ollie and Billie Joe Armstrong / Adam Trujillo Photography

Green Days: 25 Years of Hits

April 1989: Green Day releases 1,000 Hours, its first EP.

April 1990: 39/Smooth, Green Day’s first full-length album, is released by Berkeley-based Lookout! Records.

August 1990: The EP Sweet Children, titled after the band’s original name, is released.

January 1992: The band puts out its second LP, Kerplunk, which becomes one of the best-selling indie albums of all time.

Spring 1993: Green Day begins work on Dookie for Warner Bros.’ Reprise record label.

February 1994: Dookie is released and goes on to sell more than 20 million copies worldwide.

August 1994: Green Day’s infamous mud fight with the audience attending Woodstock ’94 is seen on television by millions of music fans.

March 1995: Dookie wins a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Rock Performance.

October 1995–October 1997: Green Day follows Dookie with Insomniac and later Nimrod. Both albums go double platinum.

April–May 2000: Green Day records its next album, Warning, at Studio 880 (which later becomes the band’s Jingletown Recording) in Oakland.

Summer 2003: The band records 20 tracks for Cigarettes and Valentines, but decides to shelve the project when the album’s master tapes go missing, and begins work on American Idiot.

September 2004: American Idiot is released and goes on to sell more than 15 million copies worldwide. It receives two Grammys and seven MTV Video Music Awards.

September 2005: Green Day sells out AT&T Park in San Francisco, with the biggest concert audience in the stadium’s history.

September 2006: Green Day teams up with U2 to record a benefit single for Music Rising, which helped raise money for musicians’ instruments lost during
Hurricane Katrina.

April 2008: Using the nom de plume Foxboro Hot Tubs (named for Jacuzzis in a Hercules apartment complex), the band releases the album Stop, Drop, and Roll!!!

May 2009: American Idiot’s follow-up, 21st Century Breakdown, is released. The album sells five million copies, and wins the Grammy Award for Best Rock Album.

September 2009: Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of the stage musical American Idiot.

April 2010: American Idiot opens on Broadway; it goes on to win two Tony Awards and is nominated for Best Musical.

February 2011: American Idiot wins the Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.

September–December 2012: Green Day releases a trilogy of albums, ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré!

December 2014: Green Day is voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the band’s first year of eligibility.

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