Updated: Apr 5, 2019
To this day, I still get chills when I hear the intro to 21st Century Breakdown. I can still see my favourite band, as if in slow motion, running onto that stage like the heroes they were to 14 year-old me. I can see Mike thumping his heart and Tré sitting to play the show’s first beats. I can still feel the unbridled joy, the disbelief and looking back, how my life changed in that very moment.
This tour was arguably the biggest act of Green Day’s career. It was also the biggest turning point in my own life.
If you’ve read my Italy recap, you know I was unwell when I saw Green Day for the first time. For three years I’d barely left the house. I never went to school. My hope for the future was gone. While my single mum worked herself to exhaustion to support us both, my only company was Green Day’s music.
21st Century Breakdown, bringing with it the excitement of a new era, inspired me. I wanted to be like Gloria. I wanted to be able to say, one day, that I’d found a home in all my scars and ammunition and I’d never put away my burning light. Through that, I found hope. For the first time in years, I had a purpose. I could see a light at the end of the tunnel.
‘Gloria is a person that’s trying to hold the torch for staying inspired, even as you lose a certain sense of your own naivete.’ – Billie Joe Armstrong, Radio NRJ, 2009
The first British dates for the 21st Century Breakdown Tour were announced later that year. My mum, as big a fan as me, bought tickets for four shows. I didn’t know if I could even go. After all, I could barely leave the house. How could I stand in a crowd of 16,000 people?
Before we knew it, we were in our Green Day shirts on the bus to the station. The local bus was one thing. A train to Birmingham, an unknown city, was a different story. I felt painfully obvious, like my illness was on display for everyone’s amusement. Of course, it was all paranoia. There was no one lurking to laugh at me. But either way, my love for my favourite band was stronger than my fear.
We got off the train at Birmingham Airport. It was quiet. Past a lake was our hotel. To its right was the LG (now Genting) Arena, white against the overcast sky. We checked in and wandered. Kids with multicoloured hair sat on the cold concrete, lining up to secure their spots in the pit. A line soon formed for seats. No one needed to join that so early, including us, but we were too excited not to. The arena’s walls were pink inside. We bought shirts and went to find our seats. It was when I looked at the stage, saw the album art I loved so much there, it suddenly became real.
Prima Donna were supporting. They opened with the jingling piano of Soul Stripper. Singer Kevin Preston soon tossed his leopard print jacket aside. Their glam rock sound kept the crowd entertained and dancing while they waited. My chest was tight after their set. Not because I was afraid – because, to my surprise, I wasn’t. As the drunk bunny stumbled around to YMCA, it was sinking in that all the live videos I’d watched of a show that seemed so far out of my reach… I was about to experience that for myself. The bunny was gone. The Ramones’ Do You Remember Rock ‘n Roll Radio? played. Then the crackling static that introduced Song of the Century echoed through the arena. The crowd of 16,000 sang along in unison. My heart was pounding with the first chords of 21st Century Breakdown.
Tré Cool ran onstage. The Big Three. Mike Dirnt. Then, finally, Billie Joe Armstrong.
With flicks of his wrists he drew roars from the crowd. My voice was another scream in the tumultous applause. The crowd clapped along with Tré’s hits of the bass drum. With exploding pyros the show began. I was screaming my favourite lyrics, the words that lifted me from stagnation, back at my favourite band. Billie Joe commanded us all to stand up. We already were, clapping as if our lives depended on it. Green Day’s ferocious energy reached from the front row to the highest tiers. In my seat that looked down on them as specks, I felt as part of the show, the mass of bodies obeying Billie’s every command, as I ever have on the floor since. It was a sense of belonging. A sense of acceptance. I felt understood. I knew I, like the other 15,999 people in that room, mattered.
The first fan was pulled onstage in Know Your Enemy. He staged dived to the pyros. Their sound was all enveloping, like a pounding warmth that attacked every cell. Everyone, on the floor, in the seats, was dancing. We repeated Billie’s ‘whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh!’ to East Jesus Nowhere religiously. In the bridge he announced he was going to ‘save’ someone from the crowd. He stubbornly made his way up into the seats, heading for a young girl called Catherine. There was a long exchange before he returned. Unsuccessful in recruiting Catherine, he called up his own 11 year-old son, Jakob Danger (ensuring we knew his middle name was Danger). Jakob obediently waved his arms before allowing himself to be ‘saved.’ The crowd chanted his name while Billie sang ‘the sirens of decay will infiltrate Jakob!’ and he fell to the floor. Once the song ended, he tried to make a quick escape. Billie announced ‘hey, where are you going, Jakob, you little shit? Come here for a second!’ and promptly planted a kiss on his forehead.
‘Alright, see you later. That’s Jakob – Danger – Armstrong! Danger is his middle name.’
Then Billie yelled ‘do you wanna start a fucking war?’ and the show resumed with Holiday. Watching Bullet in a Bible, it was hard to imagine how chanting ‘hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!’ back at Billie in the bridge really felt. It was like a reeling high. As we screamed along to ‘the static aaaaa-aaaaaa-age!’ I just couldn’t believe I was there. The sweltering heat and my hoarse voice were reminders it was real.
Back then, we weren’t looking at setlists. My mum had no idea they were about to play one of her all-time favourite songs – Give Me Novacaine. I can still see the disbelief on her face. After all those years, working so hard she could barely wake up, she was free. Billie even announced that he was now one of us:
‘We’re still alive, Birmingham! It’s been a long fucking time, goddamn I’m so fucking happy to be back in England, you have no idea. Goddammit I’m fucking moving here, fuck this shit, I’m fucking moving. Packing my bags, I’m gonna get on a big old fucking aeroplane, I’m gonna take all my shit across the pond, and I am officially fucking English as of now! I’m bringing it back home!’ – Billie Joe Armstrong, October 27th, 2009.
Another fan came up for Are We The Waiting. With a disco ball reflecting skulls around the room, it was like being in the starry nights, city lights coming down over me. It was anthemic. That dirty town might as well have been burning down in my dreams, because nothing mattered but singing at the top of our lungs. The world outside was irrelevant.
Billie darted around the stage to St. Jimmy. It was more ferocious, more passionate than I could have imagined watching videos. The crowd was deafening through Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Then they burst into Murder City, a performance that was recorded for GreenDay.com. I didn’t expect that and I was thrilled. I was even more thrilled when, two songs later, they played At the Library. People were confused, wondering if this was a new song. We were the only ones in our block screaming every word. Now I wasn’t just seeing Green Day. They even went and played At the Library and Murder City.
When I Come Around’s old-school charm wasn’t lost in the dazzling show. Dancing to Brain Stew and Jaded, I didn’t feel I’d missed a thing by hearing them live 14 years after their release. Green Day were every bit the band they were in the 90s – except even more energetic. Everyone around us, young or old, was jumping.
As Knowledge came to a close, Billie announced a band of fans would finish the song. He sought out a drummer first. I was a drummer. I’d bought a poster before the show, which up until this point had been inconvenient. Without thinking, I waved it around. Then Billie was actually looking at me, pointing up into our seats like he did with Catherine. There was an exchange with security. Then I chickened out. I put the poster down. Looking confused, he went to find a bassist instead. Maybe he wouldn’t have picked me, even if I’d had the balls, but it’s still sort of funny.
Basket Case and She followed. The hits were every bit as invigorating as the rarities. The extended King for a Day, with all its goofiness, floor-humping and cover snippets, was a fun and amusing break in the intense set. Could anything top At the Library? Probably not.
‘It’s not written for two people. It’s written for about 20,000.’ – Billie Joe Armstrong on 21 Guns
Or so I thought, until King for a Day’s silliness faded to 21 Guns. I already loved this song. The music video was my all-time favourite. But I could never have imagined its rawness live. I was moved beyond words as I watched the fire rain down to ‘as a liar looking for forgiveness from a stone!’ and Billie’s added ‘whoa-ohs’ that seemed to come from the depths of his heart. Following that was emotional piano absent on the studio version. The band were silhouetted against the music video playing on the screen behind them. I might have been crying. I don’t remember. Billie described 21 Guns as not being written for two people, but 20,000. He was absolutely right.
Then the show was uplifted again with Minority. Billie thanks every crowd countless times after the solo, but each word remained sincere. Blue and white confetti burst from the stage, sprinkling the crowd as the song closed.
Finally, with American Idiot and Jesus of Suburbia, the show too was coming to an end. The crowd, drenched in sweat from the pit to the seats as if at the end of a journey with the band, watched the inimate Last Night on Earth, still and in awe. Billie began with an acoustic guitar. We didn’t yet know that with lights flooding the darkened stage, the full band would return. An emotional Wake Me Up When September Ends followed. Good Riddance (Time of Your Life), a hate song turned revelling closer, ended the set. The band bowed and waved. It was over. We charged down steps to scoop up confetti from the floor, filling two tissue packets before security chased us off. Green Day played hundreds of shows every tour. Yet this, my first show that to anyone else was just another city on a list of tour dates, was still so special. That, how every show is a precious memory to be treasured forever, is why I follow Green Day on tour.
We prepared to do it all again the next day. This time our seats were closer. My new-found wellness could stretch so far, though. By Holiday, a panic attack so bad I was throwing up left me listening to East Jesus Nowhere from the toilets. First aid sat me beside someone with a broken leg. There was nothing they could do. I remember passing the back of the pit, seeing the crackling gas mask image in The Static Age. As When I Come Around echoed from inside, drunks assured me I wasn’t missing anything, because Green Day suck now. It was almost comical. I didn’t want to leave, but I was too sick to stay. We returned to the hotel. It took a while, but I convinced my mum to go back. Arriving to Billie humping the floor, she recorded 21 Guns for me and saw American Eulogy, Christie Road and Macy’s Day Parade.
It was a huge setback. I was more afraid than ever to go on to Manchester. But maybe it had to happen, because it also strengthened my resolve. Mental illness would not take my favourite band from me. It could have my future, my dignity, but not my spark of hope.
We arrived in Manchester. On the bus to our hotel, we met another mother-and-daughter pair on their way to the show. I stuck six A4 sheets together to make a ‘PLAY ¡VIVA LA GLORIA!’ banner before we left.
This time our seats were on Mike’s side. Watching Prima Donna and the drunk bunny, I was nervous. But once I heard those opening chords of 21st Century Breakdown, saw my heroes run onstage, I knew I would be alright. I knew whatever plagued me in Birmingham, I had overcome. The songs I was hearing for a second, third time were as fresh as ever. Those I heard from outside in Birmingham were even better knowing nothing could take this from me.
Security followed Billie as he ran up into the seats in Know Your Enemy and East Jesus Nowhere. In Boulevard of Broken Dreams, he announced he’d split his pants.
‘Did anyone see my balls?’
After Boulevard of Broken Dreams, I held up my banner. Billie stopped and squinted. People around us were screaming ‘he’s seen it, he’s seen it, he’s seen it!’ and he pointed before yelling into the band mic. They began 2000 Light Years Away. The guys behind us were laughing, saying he misread it. I have no idea if it was really anything to do with my banner, but it was funny either way – and thrilling since they weren’t playing that regularly at the time.
Hitchin’ a Ride was followed by Coming Clean. It was a furious performance of a poignant song. I’m sure there was the odd homo/biphobe in that crowd, but everyone was dancing. This time, I noticed a stencil of Gloria was the backdrop for She. With that, the 15 year-old song joined the narrative of 21st Century Breakdown. In King for a Day, Billie sang snippets of Stand By Me, I Fought the Law and Champagne Supernova. 21 Guns remained as emotional as that first night. Maybe even more so. Because, though I hadn’t quite figured out what yet, I knew something was worth fighting for. That bridge was my favourite moment of every set.
It was all surreal. Watching the confetti spray out again; hearing a passionate Jesus of Suburbia and seeing the show close, lights dimmed and band bowing, with Last Night on Earth, Wake Me Up When September Ends and Good Riddance.
I’d reclaimed my missed show. I would reclaim it even more if I made it through the second night.
‘I like playing big places a lot. We got a chance to be playing these arenas, and I’m really grateful for that. I’m not going to sit here and say “fuck our fans, man, they’re not true Green Day fans because they heard us on MTV.” These people are paying to see me play. A lot of those kids have never heard the kind of music we play before, and a lot of them are from somewhere where there’s a single parent that works their ass off to give them $12 to go out and see us play our show. The last thing I want to do is slag on them for coming out to our show. They made us as big as we are.’ Billie Joe Armstrong, Rolling Stone Magazine, 1996
It was Halloween. I hung back while my mum looked at merch after Prima Donna. Music was playing inside. It sounded awfully familiar. Was I hallucinating? Because I was sure I could hear Stop Drop & Roll! I squeezed past people to alert my mum.
‘Prima Donna are playing the Foxboro Hot Tubs!’
My mum stopped. Listened. Then her eyes widened.
‘That’s not Kevin, it’s Billie!’
We ran from the merch stand to our seats. In our mad charge down the steps, we knocked over someone’s beer. They just laughed. Steps buckled and we almost fell. Everyone around us, as we stumbled clapping and singing into our seats, looked baffled. The Reverend Strychnine Twitch, AKA Billie, sprayed Carling beer – a British replacement for his signature Pabst Blue Ribbon – over the front row. His blond head darted all over the stage. Tré wore a leopard print shirt and Jason a fluffy white coat. In Mother Mary, Billie threw down his tambourine to leap into the crowd. Security helped him back up.
‘My name is the Reverend Strychnine Twitch and yes, we are the proverbial Foxboro Hot Tubs.’
The short set closed with Sally. Before we move on, I’d like to share another fan’s recollection of this from the We Are Revolution Radio book. I don’t think any trick or treat will ever match this for any of us!
The intro to 21st Century Breakdown still unleashed butterflies in my stomach. In Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Billie told us ‘last night in the last song I split my pants. I did that splits thing and my whole butt was hanging out after that.’ It was also the last outing of the leopard print thong. #blessed
That night, as 21 Guns faded to drum rolls, I expected Minority. Instead, in an explosion of pyros and energy Billie roared ‘MASS HYSTERIA!’ and I was swept up in exactly that; mass hysteria as I screamed along to one of my all-time favourite songs, American Eulogy, that I missed in Birmingham. In my own blurry video, I’m deafeningly loud as I bellow ‘vigilantes warning ya, CALLING CHRISTIAN AND GLORIA!’ over Billie’s ‘RIGHT HERE IN MANCHESTER!’ It was unreal. Thousands of people were in a shared ecstasy conducted by a tight performance. We watched through moments of quiet while Billie stamped his foot to solos, basking in the band’s talent and energy, religiously echoing ‘heeeeeey-ooooohhhhhh’ as Mike sang his last verse…
‘I can hear the sound of a beating heart, it bleeds beyond a system that is falling apart, with money to burn on a minimum wage…’
…and we screamed in unison – ‘I DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT THE MODERN AGE!’
…and the song exploded into its final chorus.
‘I don’t wanna live in the modern world! I don’t wanna live in the modern world! I don’t wanna live in the modern world – MASS HYSTERIA! In the modern world – MASS HYSTERIA! In the modern world – MASS HYSTERIA! In the modern world – MASS HYSTERIA! In the modern world…’
Then the music stopped and 21,000 voices, alone with Billie’s and Mike’s, echoed that we didn’t want to live in the modern world, mass hysteria… until Billie sang like an anthem, ‘nobody likes you, everyone left you, they’re all out without you, having fun!’ over Mike and, as Tré conducted with his drumsticks, we joined him.
The world could have ended then and I would have felt the bricks crashing down were healing gold dust. I could hear the sound of my own beating heart. The heartbeat of a kid stifled by mental illness now impassioned, inspired and ready to smash the silence with a brick of self control.
‘A lot of people were like, “you saved my life, you saved me from depression, you gave me hope.” All these things – it sounds cheesy to sit there and say it, but it’s true.’ – Tré Cool, VH2 Dookie documentary
As we looked for our train home, my mum was, for some reason, driven to get on the London train. She insisted it was ours. I assured her it wasn’t and even if we wanted to go and attend the Wembley show, after blowing our money on merch we had a grand total of 2p ($0.025). Turned out the Foxboro Hot Tubs played a secret show that train would’ve taken us to. Maybe she should’ve become a psychic instead of working for the UN.
I returned to school. Though I was advised not to take on more than English, Maths and Science, I insisted on taking Art, too. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be. But I knew now I wanted to be something.
‘Being in a band, you have to be a fan first. So when you meet people who have something to say about how some song affected them, those are the people I connect with. I still am that person myself.’ – Billie Joe Armstrong in Spin Magazine, 2010
We began selling our possessions on eBay. Bags of clothes and trinkets swamped our conservatory, where light for taking photos was best. With our meagre results, my mum’s savings and some abandoned bills, we booked to attend four more shows – Hannover, Manchester, Glasgow and Paris.
This was my first time, at least that I remembered, leaving England. We could never afford holidays. So we landed in Hannover, Germany, on May 29th, 2010. Google Maps and internet access abroad weren’t really things back then. We couldn’t figure our way out of the airport. Expedia told us there was a train, but the ticket machines were broken. We ended up spending half our money on a taxi.
Expedia also boasted that Hannover Expo Plaza was full of things to do and a short train ride from Hannover Zoo. We arrived to a barren square of closed-up shops. Hannover Zoo might as well have been on the other side of Germany. The only shop was a distant gas station. We had two days until the show. It resulted in us aimlessly wandering around and filming a variety of videos whirling round on chairs and dancing in the hotel room. The most exciting moment was spotting some Green Day merch and a poster through a window.
On the day of the show, we awoke to another day of Expo Plaza fun to find some American band parked outside the hotel. There, we met another British fan, Kate. Her ticket was coincidentally just two rows and a few seats from us.
Because there was so much to do in the area, the three of us hung around to see if the band didn’t mind meeting fans. We didn’t meet them, but we did meet a lovely German mother and daughter, Julia and Iris and an Italian fan, Silvia. We also met some guys who climbed on our shoulders to let us know the band didn’t care about us.
As doors approached, we waited nervously with our tickets. Inside was a display promoting Green Day Rock Band, where kids tried out the ‘instruments.’ Then we filed in to find our seats. Julia and Iris were on the opposite side to us and spotted our Union Jack flag. Next to us was a Welsh solider stationed in Germany, who never missed a local show.
German band The Donots opened. They were great. Then we waited, with excited butterflies, to be enraptured once again by our favourite band.
When my mum hears the 21st Century Breakdown intro, it’s this show she remembers. Billie running onstage in his red jeans, pointing at our flag, Tré sitting and blowing her a kiss, the pyros and city backdrop the band were silhouetted against.