5 Years Ago: Billie Joe Armstrong’s 21st Century Breakdown
“Strong for too long” is a situation faced by too many people in the modern world – and anyone who’s felt that way could empathize with Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong when three years of constant hard work got the better of him on stage in 2012. The band hadn’t stopped rolling since the release of their smash hit concept album 21st Century Breakdown in 2009.
Challenged to top its success, they’d prepared not one or two follow-ups, but three. ¡Uno! was to be released four days after their appearance at the iHeart Radio Festival in Las Vegas, with ¡Dos! to arrive in November and ¡Tre! in December of 2012. And of course a huge number of tour dates had either been announced or were under discussion as the band’s corporate connections aimed to secure a return on investment.
Armstrong had already been struggling with his identity for some time, partly as a result of Green Day’s recent astonishing success. That same year he’d been listed as the 42nd richest singer in rock – with an estimated value of $55m, he was allegedly worth more than Liam Gallagher, Vince Neil of Motley Crue, David Lee Roth of Van Halen, Geddy Lee of Rush and Rob Halford of Judas Priest. As the Occupy protest movement that had sprung up across the world fought to draw a distinction between the one percent of super-rich and the rest of us, he told Rolling Stone: “I feel like a 99, but technically I'm a 1. I know that's where I come from, the 99, even though I can afford for my kids to go to a good college."
The train was bound to come off the rails; it was just a question of when. The answer came on Sept. 21, towards the end of Green Day’s 25-minute performance at the iHeart festival. As they performed signature track Basket Case, they were faced with a warning message that told the band they had one minute left before they had to vacate the stage. Armstrong stopped the song.
“Aw, f–– this s––,” he said, turning to bandmates Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool. “I want to play a f––ing new song. F–– this s––.” Turning to the audience he went on: "Give me a f––ing break – one minute left? One minute left. You're going to give me f––ing one minute? Look at that f––ing sign right there. One minute.
"Let me f––ing tell you something. I've been around since f––ing nineteen-eighty-f––ing-eight. You're going to give me one f––ing minute? You've got to be f––ing kidding me. What the f––? I'm not f––ing Justin Bieber, you motherf––ers. You got to be f––ing joking. This is a f––ing joke. I got one minute, one minute left – oh, now I got nothing left."
He took off his guitar and said: "Let me show you what one f––ing minute f---ing means,” before smashing it off the stage, and Dirnt did the same with his bass. As the band walked off the frontman gave a one-finger salute as he told the crowd: "One minute! God f––ing love you all. We'll be back." He threw his microphone away as he left.
Of course, the video clip went viral. No one outside the band's organization could tell for certain whether it had been a classic punk rock publicity stunt, or whether there was more in play. Speculation continued until, a few days later, Dirnt and Cool said in a statement: “Billie Joe is seeking treatment for substance abuse. We would like everyone to know that our set was not cut short and to apologize to those we offended at the iHeartRadio Festival. We regretfully must postpone some of our upcoming promotional appearances.”
It was later confirmed that Armstrong would remain off work for at least five months, meaning that tour dates would be cancelled and the release of ¡Tre! would be moved from Jan. 15 to Dec. 11. Cool said: “If we couldn't be there to play it for you live, the least we could do was give you the next best thing."
Strong for too long. Green Day clearly needed time off and hadn’t asked for it, in an environment where it wasn’t going to be offered. Armstrong and his colleagues had done well under difficult circumstances, but some kind of collapse had been inevitable. If the onstage meltdown hadn’t happened, the band might not have survived – but they did, and they came back better.
A year later Dirnt admitted they’d been working too hard to look after each other’s health. “When Billie showed up, it was, ‘You’re not right. What’s going on?’” he told Rolling Stone of the festival incident. “Me and Billie don’t play like 12-year-olds any more, but at one point I was like, ‘Let’s goof around.’ We ended up wrestling backstage; I thought, ‘If I can just get some of this out of him…’ But with the mood depressants and alcohol, it doesn’t end up a jovial party.”
Dirnt remembered supporting the spirit of Armstrong’s outburst. “I actually agreed with the rant – but I was watching my friend and going, ‘You’re out of your f––ing mind.’ And we were dealing with a s––show.” He continued: “We were forced to stop, let the dust settle and reflect on everything in our lives, not just our accomplishments. The backstage doesn't need to be a bar – that's just time-killing, coping mechanisms.”
Armstrong said last year: “The thing about someone who’s losing their mind is that they don’t know they’re losing their mind. I thought my life was completely normal. And it wasn’t. I was on drugs – and people aren’t acting rationally when they’re on drugs. So, I had to take care of myself. I had to kick that, and I did. Then we took a long break which was totally necessary.”
In an expression of solidarity that helped refocus the band’s energies, Dirnt said: “My thing is: good, bad or ugly, I gotta support my boy. I'm going to back him up, and then I'm going to take it the next step further with him. And we're going to do it offstage, too." That attitude has taken them from strength to strength and meant they were still working together when they were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2015, and went on to release Revolution Radio – their first album since the 2012 trio – last year. Strong for much longer.
Watch Green Day at the 2012 iHeart Festival