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|| music ||
Coming Clean
Woodstock ’94 star Billie Joe of Green Day goes triple platinum and lines up with the pansies
By Judy Wieder 

From The Advocate, January 24, 1995 

When Green Day, the band that emerged as the mud-drenched stars of Woodstock ’94, asked Pansy Division, the gay-in-your-face punk group, to open for them during the last leg of their 1994 tour, all sorts of worlds collided. In coast-to-coast mosh pits, sweaty hetero teenagers with pierced nipples, eyebrows, and tongues slammed against the bodies of young gays and lesbians who looked exactly like them.

“The funny thing was watching some of these guys in the audience when Pansy Division was opening for us,” says 22-year-old Billie Joe Armstrong (known to his adoring fans as only Billy Joe), front man and main songwriter for Green Day. “They were out there flexing their muscles and acting real macho, not really realizing that Pansy Division is gay. Then Chris Freeman, Pansy’s bass player, would stop in the middle of a song and say, “ So, have you guys figured out that we’re a bunch of fags yet?”

Armstrong laughs, delighted to have discovered still another way to rankle his band’s fans--who have driven sales of Green Day’s first major-label release, Dookie, well past the 3 million mark. Thanks to both Woodstock and last summer’s Lollapalooza tour, the Northern California band--made up of Armstrong on guitar and vocals, Mike Dirnt on bass, and Tré Cool on drums—has gone from the steamy clubs of the East Bay hard-core scene to 10,000-seaters and MTV heavy-rotation heaven.

“I think Green Day’s popularity is one reason they invited us to open for them,” says Pansy Division lead singer Jon Ginoli. “Now that they’re more mainstream, they have elements in their audience they’d rather not have,” he adds, shyly, referring to a certain blandness that comes with broadened popularity. “I think having us along lets them tweak that part of the audience. They’re able to get under their skin and irritate them, saying, ‘If you’re going to see us, you’ve gotta see this!’ “

Getting under people’s skin is a carefully honed skill for Armstrong. After being knocked silly by flying wads of mud during Woodstock, the sometimes-blue-haired vocalist looked over at his drummer (whose tooth had been inadvertently broken by a festival security guard trying to discourage fans from storming the stage) and bassist (who was still trying to play while laying flat on his back in the sludge) and did the only respectable thing he could think of: He mooned the 350,000 onlookers.

While punk thrives on thumbing its nose at convention, the surprisingly serious Armstrong insists that bringing Pansy Division on the road with Green Day was not just a gimmick to shock fans. Before their switch to a mainstream label (Reprise), Green Day did two albums for Lookout Records, the same label Pansy Division is on. They also share with Pansy Division a commitment to what they call personal politics.

“I think Pansy Division is the kind of band that saves people’s lives,” Armstrong says matter-of-factly. “They’re catchy, and they’re really educational. They’re honest about their sexuality, and that saves lives.”

“Sometimes it gets kind of ugly because there are a lot of ignorant dorks out in the audience, and they start throwing shit at Pansy Division,” he continues, discussing the tour. “I was kind of discouraged watching the audience flip them off. I kept thinking, Shit, these are the people who are here to see us?

Armstrong’s response was to stop his band’s show in the middle of a set and address the audience. “You’re all fucking pathetic,” he told them. “There you were, three songs into their set, really enjoying them. And then you figured out from their lyrical content that they’re gay, and now you’re afraid of them. And that’s what it is, you know. You’re afraid of them. Well, I hope you all know that Pansy Division is the future of rock ’n’ roll.”

For Armstrong, who grew up with band member Dirnt in a suburb of Berkeley called Rodeo, homosexuality is neither a new subject nor one he must defend himself against. “I think I’ve always been bisexual,” Armstrong says simply. “I mean, it’s something that I’ve always been interested in. I think everybody kind of fantasizes about the same sex. I think people are born bisexual, and it’s just that our parents and society kind of veer us off into this feeling of Oh, I can’t. They say it’s taboo. It’s ingrained in our heads that it’s bad, when it’s not bad at all. It’s a very beautiful thing.”

When asked whether this beautiful thing is something he’s ever actually acted on, the recently married (and about to become a father) Armstrong smiles. “I think mostly it’s been kept in my head,” he says. “I’ve never really had a relationship with another man. But it is something that comes up as a struggle in me. It especially came up when I was about 16 or 17. In high school people think you have to be so macho. People get attacked just because someone insinuates something about their sexuality. I think that’s gruesome.”

Armstrong’s struggle with his sexuality isn’t something that has gone unnoticed by his fans. “I’ve gotten letters because I wrote this song on Dookie called ‘Coming Clean’ about coming out,” he says with the same ease that Kurt Cobain used to show while talking about his song “All Apologies” and the now-famous lyric from it: “What else should I say/ Everyone is gay.”

“Talking about sexuality, Kurt was doing something good,” Armstrong continues. “Or k.d. lang. I admire her a lot. Or Melissa Etheridge, who was at Woodstock. She’s doing something really good and really positive. And then there are gay rockers who are really blatant about it, like Pansy Division or this San Francisco band called White Trash Debutantes. They’re not on any label yet, but they’re really erotic, and they’re made up of gay men and women.”

Although he doesn’t talk about sleeping with men, Armstrong does admit that homosexuality has definitely touched his life in very personal ways. “I have an ex-girlfriend who was bisexual,” he says softly. “I think now that she was really a lesbian. And that’s find by me. I mean, we had a relationship that was just me and her, total dedication and devotion. I’m very monogamous. At that time it wouldn’t have mattered whether she was with a man or a woman--I would have been jealous!”

Armstrong also has a gay uncle. “It was always out in the open that he was gay,” he says with some hesitancy. “I’m pretty close to him, and he has full-blown AIDS now.”

Admitting that the rock world still reeks of prejudice against gays and AIDS, Armstrong wonders out loud if he dares to approach the subject in his songwriting. “I’m not really educated enough to write about AIDS, but I certainly could write about losing someone who’s close to me,” he says, rubbing his tattooed forearm thoughtfully. “I’m more the type of person who would write about how ignorant and stupid people are about something like AIDS. I’m always telling the people in our audience to look out for one another. Yeah--I wouldn’t put it past me to write about this shit.”

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Billie Joe



Photo courtesy greenday.com

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