Pop Go the Punks

UPDATED 03/20/1995 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/20/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

MOST PEOPLE THINK SUCCESS IS A PRETTY fine thing. But when the neo-punk group Green Day performs in the San Francisco Bay Area, where they got their start, some punk fans seem less than pleased that these local boys have made good. "Sellouts!" they heckle. "Green Day sucks!"

The feeling is hardly unanimous. A yearlong tour—highlights included an onstage mud fight at Woodstock '94 and a show in New York City, where singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong gigged in the nude—rocked the world of rock. And their major-label debut, Bookie (slang for excrement), which sold more than 6 million copies and even earned the group a Grammy, has drop-kicked Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool, all 22, from punk-rock obscurity to the top of the pop charts. Says San Francisco deejay Steve Masters: "They have that awesome punk rock energy that makes me want to smash beer bottles on my head."

Indeed, for all their punk theatrics—bassist Dirnt likes to jump into mosh pits, and Armstrong spits and snarls in an ersatz Johnny Rotten accent—Green Day was built for pop success. "They have all the elements," says producer Rob Cavallo, who signed the group to Warner Bros, in 1993. "Great lyrics, great melodies, interesting influences—the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Kinks, the Beatles."

The Beatles'? Like the Fab Four, say longtime Green Day fans, the lads were lovable even in their early days. "They're just a bunch of nice guys," says a Berkeley club booker. "They're polite. They never put holes in the wall. Never vomited onstage."

Lately, in fact, the boys, who have returned to the Bay Area since their world tour ended in December, are getting downright domestic. Both Armstrong and Tré have purchased new homes in quiet residential neighborhoods. And while Armstrong and his wife, Adrienne, are expecting their first child this month, Tré's girlfriend, Lisea, gave birth to a daughter, Ramona, on Jan. 12. "The sweetest thing in the world was the night she was born," says Tré's mom, Linda Wright, 48, a Willitts, Calif., bookkeeper. "Tré held her all night in his arms. Every time she looked at him, he said, 'See? We're bonding.' "

While such scenes of familial bliss are something new for both Armstrong and Dirnt, who grew up poor in broken homes in depressed Rodeo, Calif., outside Berkeley, Tré (né Frank Wright III) enjoyed a close family life in rural Willitts. Linda and her husband, Frank Wright, 49, a bus driver and former Army helicopter pilot, didn't complain when their son, who had begun sawing the violin in second grade, adopted his trés cool stage name and started drumming for a local punk band at 12. "It was pretty noisy," Linda says, "but a definite improvement on the violin."

After Tré joined Armstrong and Dirnt, who had been playing together in various bands since their early teens, in 1990, the Wrights not only approved but Dad went along for the ride. "We always fretted when they went far from home," says Linda of the group's endless touring. So her husband bought a used bookmobile, built bunks and equipment racks and installed himself behind the wheel for the group's first tours. Says Linda: "Frank wanted to be sure they had a good driver."

Now that they've arrived, the three band members, who only about a year ago were living in shabby Berkeley basements, just shrug it off when punks call them sellouts. Said Armstrong to a friend recently: "I don't come from that world where you can afford to turn down cash."

STEVE DOUGHERTY
MICHAEL SMALL in San Francisco

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