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Growing pains

Music | His behavior may not reflect it, but Billie Joe Armstrong’s music shows him maturing

Issue: "Race to the finish," Nov. 3, 2012

If dying is the ultimate publicity stunt, checking into a rehab facility is sometimes the penultimate one. And Green Day’s frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong, has pulled it.

A day after storming off the stage at a Las Vegas music festival, Armstrong removed himself from all promotional activities associated with his band’s new album, iUno! (Reprise), the first in a series of a promised trilogy. The reason: to deal with “substance abuse.”

The story is plausible. Aside from his Las Vegas meltdown, which one source close to the pop-punk trio has attributed to heavy drinking, Armstrong has at least one DUI arrest to his name.

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But these are hyperreal times. And it wouldn’t be shocking for a veteran band with a new album to conclude that a public outburst followed by a period of professionally overseen sobriety might go further publicity-wise than one more round of PR.

So questions about the timing, if not the actual truth, of Armstrong’s going off the rails are warranted.  The more interesting question: Was it necessary?

iUno! is in many respects a typical Green Day album. For 42 minutes, catchy, tightly wound pop-punk propels inarticulate bursts of emotional infantilism, much of it profane. iUno! adheres, in other words, to the same formula that has helped Green Day rack up awards, land a Broadway musical, and sell over 50 million albums worldwide since its major-label debut 18 years ago.

Yet Amazon’s decision to sell downloads of the album for $5, thus guaranteeing it a good chart showing, gave rise to talk of performance anxiety. And, to the extent that such anxiety is justified, it might have to do with the suspicion that at 40 Armstrong may not have many miles left on the tires of his angry-young-man act.

Several iUno! songs do in fact find Armstrong grudgingly acceding to maturity. In “Nuclear Family,” he likens the family’s “breaking down” to a “Chinese drama and conspiracy,” neither of which he seems to consider salutary. And in “Kill The DJ,” he’s dismayed to discover the extent to which Central Park at night has become a “Sodom and Gomorrah.”

It’s “Sweet 16,” however, that most threatens to dislodge Armstrong’s smirking mask. Sung by a man to the love of his life from the vantage point of longtime commitment, it pays heartfelt tribute to emotional verities at odds with the condition of being perpetually aggrieved on which Green Day has heretofore built its success.

Excellent art

Robin Marchant/Getty Images

Armstrong is not the only musician making news for erratic public behavior. Art Garfunkel recently bailed on two scheduled concerts in Sweden, returning to the United States without informing his Swedish hosts. And, as with Armstrong’s rehab, Garfunkel’s timing could not have been better.

Columbia/Legacy has just released The Singer, a two-disc compilation of the 70-year-old’s many career highlights and the first to mix his solo and Simon & Garfunkel hits. Good—indeed, revelatory—though it is, there’s little doubt that Garfunkel’s Swedish vanishing act has gotten him more attention than his going on with the show would have. The best Garfunkel could’ve done, after all, is excellent, and, as The Singer amply demonstrates, excellence would be nothing new for him.

The husky shimmer of his instantly identifiable voice has never been a rock ’n’ roll sound per se. It’s too delicate, for one thing. It has, however, proven ideal at keeping songs by Hoagy Carmichael, Rogers and Hammerstein, Sam Cooke, and Jimmy Webb alive during the rock ’n’ roll era and in so doing served as a “bridge over troubled water” in more ways than one. —A.O.


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