ON GREEN DAY'S new album, the first words out of Billie Joe Armstrong's mouth are "Don't want to be an American Idiot / Don't want a nation under the new mania / Can you hear the sound of hysteria? / The subliminal mind [expletive] America / Welcome to a new kind of tension / All across the alienation / Where everything isn't meant to be O.K."
Later, on "Holiday," Armstrong notes "there's a flag wrapped around a score of men / A gag, plastic bag on a monument . . . Zieg heil to the president gasman / Bombs away is your punishment / Pulverize the Eiffel towers who criticize your government."
Even the cover of "American Idiot" -- an agit-pop bleeding heart transformed into a hand grenade -- suggests that, just 10 years after "Dookie" jump-started the pop-punk movement, this isn't your older brother's Green Day. We're a long way from "Basket Case," "Geek Stink Breath" and "Poprocks & Coke."
And though "American Idiot" has its share of pummeling punk anthems, it's also musically ambitious: "Jesus of Suburbia" and "Homecoming" are both nine-minute suites, each with five disparate but strung-together song elements.
Did we mention that Green Day has dubbed "American Idiot" a "punk-rock opera"?
And that it's not even the album Green Day set out to record?
That album was stolen -- 20 finished tracks that have yet to see the light of day and that, according to bassist Mike Dirnt, bear little relation to the sound or ambition of "American Idiot."
"It was definitely hard rock," Dirnt says. "On all of our records you can see the progression, and that probably would have been the progression people would have expected of us, though still more on the personal politics side of things. It was harder rocking, kind of splitting the difference between [1997's] 'Nimrod' and [their last studio album, 2000's] 'Warning.' "
The theft of Green Day's hard drives proved both devastating and inspiring, partly because of the timing: Armstrong wrote what would become the album's scathing title song around the time the United States began invading Iraq. The war, the media's coverage of it, the government's actions, the apathy of the younger generation and the moral confusion of the album's central figure, Jesus of Suburbia, would end up as dominant themes, though Dirnt is quick to point out that Green Day is not "out to topple President Bush," as some journalists have suggested in writing about the album. Bush, in fact, is never mentioned by name anywhere on the album.
"Where that comes from is outside of the United States," Dirnt says. There, he says, "it's all about the war, and any chance [the news media] get to put a nail in this coffin, they're going to do it."
Yet even Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president, has made some assumptions: When Green Day performed "American Idiot" on the "Late Show With David Letterman" on Sept. 20, the band had a brief greenroom meeting with Kerry, Letterman's main guest that night. Kerry reportedly told the group he was interested in hearing its "anti-Bush song."
"People draw that conclusion immediately, but the song is actually more of a personal perspective of feeling disenfranchised and losing your individuality, about being pissed off and scared and all of that," Dirnt says. "It doesn't have an agenda so much as, like 'Minority' on 'Warning,' not saying what it wants so much as what it doesn't want."
Still, there is a section of the album's story where the teenage Jesus of Suburbia (the product of a broken home, "raised on a steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin") finds himself at a political rally, and, Dirnt says, "there's a part of that song that definitely declares ourselves the opposition. Whatever we're saying, we're saying it more directly than most people, and I think that's what's shocking people."
Though not shocking them unpleasantly, it should be pointed out: "American Idiot" opened at No. 1 here as well as in Canada, England, Japan and Australia.
Looking back, the theft of Green Day's master tapes was a blessing in oh-it-still-hurts disguise, Dirnt says. The lost album could have been reconstructed from fragments, "but we sat down and said, 'Do we want to rerecord this stuff, do we want to delve into those ideas?' The few times we kind of pulled those ideas out, it wasn't really reaching up to the bar that we'd set. At that point, it was 'Let's just move forward.' We didn't really care how long it took for this record to come out, and quite honestly, radio hadn't had a long break from us."
Likewise, Green Day, appearing Sunday at the Patriot Center, hadn't had a break from touring pretty much since 1994's "Dookie" blew up, selling 8 million copies and setting off the punk-pop explosion (say thank you, Blink-182, Sum 41 and Good Charlotte).
After 2002's Pop Disaster tour with Blink-182, "we came off tour and needed to reevaluate ourselves as individuals and as friends," Dirnt says. "Not in some crazy Metallica therapy way, but just opening up dialogue with one another, saying, 'I'm older now. Some of the stupid jokes we've had on tour for 10 years now aren't funny anymore. Can we go forward? What do we want to do, what do we want to be as men and as musicians?' Once we were able to do that and knock down the walls and talk to each other about the most difficult things, we cleaned the slate, really, and then we started recording."
Which took a lot of time, even before the theft of the first album.
"Not since we did 'Dookie' had we been able to dedicate five to seven days a week, 12 hours a day, to music in a completely no pressure, fun environment," Dirnt says. "We didn't have to think about touring or the business side of anything for a couple of years. We got to focus on nothing but music."
The notion of a "punk-rock opera" wasn't on anybody's mind until a day when Armstrong and drummer Tre Cool abandoned Dirnt in the studio while they ran errands.
"They said, 'Write a 30-second song and we'll be back in 40 minutes,' " Dirnt recalls. "So I wrote this sort of grandiose vaudeville piece that started off real small and got a lot bigger, like the beginning of some sort of rock opera. When they came back, they thought it was hilarious, and Billie wanted to connect [another element] to it, so he did one, then Tre did one. . . . And at the end of the week we had this 10-minute piece ['Homecoming'], and it had this arc to it that had gotten more serious.
"That's when we stopped and said, 'This is really fun, it has all the energy we were looking for like 'Dookie' or 'Nimrod'; this is where we should be going.' It was scary and challenging, but we had to make a conscious decision as to whether we wanted to go in this direction. A week later, Billie came up with the line, 'I'm the son of rage and love, the Jesus of Suburbia,' and that was basically the character he'd come across to channel the story through."
Eventually, Dirnt says, "there were a lot of pizza boxes and crepe paper lying around with storyboarding. It was kind of like writing a script and scoring a movie at the same time."
"American Idiot" is complex and sometimes hard to follow, but it's also surprisingly coherent, though its songs can also stand alone -- which is exactly how Green Day envisioned it. "We wanted to keep the record open enough, yet somewhat ambiguous, so it can be interpreted on a personal level or you can follow the story line and actually draw your own conclusions," Dirnt explains. "We like the idea that it opens a discussion because that's really what politics are, a series of discussions, but we really just wanted to further rock 'n' roll."
So who decided to call it "a punk-rock opera"?
"All of us," Dirnt says. "Or maybe Billie, because if there's somebody with a degree in music history, that would be him. I think 'concept' was the first word that came up. It all sounds so pretentious!"
Wait until the movie version.
This makes some sense, since Green Day used the Who's "Tommy," the 1969 rock-opera template, as a model for "American Idiot" (according to Rolling Stone, they also spent time with "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," "West Side Story" and "Grease," but thankfully resisted those influences). But, Dirnt points out, " 'Tommy' is so much more scripted, even if you just look on the record. I love 'Tommy,' but you can jump in on this record anywhere and feel like it's still an album as opposed to this story and that was a conscious effort."
Still, Dirnt confirms the band is talking to a number of scriptwriters and points to the deluxe collector's edition of "American Idiot" that included a 52-page booklet. "It gives more passages, journal entries, comments of characters that Billie put in to give more insight into the story. It's really a matter of one of the scriptwriters getting a hold of that book and channeling it, getting on the same page where we were coming from. Either that or having an amazing interpretation of their own. It's all kinda there."
[Note to Green Day: Do not return calls from Ken Russell.]
After a quartet of theater shows featuring the new work in its entirety -- "We did it as 'Green Day Performs American Idiot,' and it was a little more theatrical," Dirnt says -- Green Day has assimilated the new album into its considerable repertoire. "We play so much and our sets are getting so long it's almost turning into a punk-rock Springsteen set," he jokes. "They're gonna have to pull a cane out to get us off stage nowadays."
GREEN DAY -- Appearing with New Found Glory and Sugarcult Sunday at the Patriot Center. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Green Day, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)