Before Green Day became arguably the biggest band of the last 20 years with punk rock roots and before the band conquered Broadway with “American Idiot,” they were three kids playing basements, parties, school dances and garages in the mid to late 1980s around California’s Bay Area.
Guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt were in a band called Sweet Children while drummer Tre Cool was in the Lookouts, a punk act he joined when he was only 12-years-old.
“American Idiot” storms through West Lafayette at 8 p.m. Sept. 1 and 7 p.m. Sept. 2 at Purdue University’s Elliott Hall of Music. See www.convocations.org or call (765) 494-3933 for tickets.
The Lookouts were formed by guitarist/writer Larry Livermore, a Detroit native then in his 30s. The odd trio, which also included teenaged bassist Kain Kong, drew a following as Cool’s drumming skills soared as the ‘80s came to a close.
Armstrong donated lead guitar licks on numerous Lookouts recordings. During a long Lookouts hiatus, Cool jumped over to Armstrong’s band, which was now known as Green Day.
At the beginning of The Lookouts’ run, Livermore started Lookout Records, which gained momentum in releasing early Green Day recordings along with records from Operation Ivy, The Queers and Screeching Weasel, among many others.
Green Day was one of the first punk bands to make the jump from a true DIY, independent label to a major. Bands like the Ramones, Sex Pistols and The Clash started out on major labels or their subsidiaries. As documented in many articles and even a VH1 “Behind the Music” episode, the decision to go to a major really weighed heavily on the band. The choice of moving to Reprise Records did not sit well with the Bay Area punk scene or with Livermore at the time.
As the years passed, cooler heads prevailed and Livermore, now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., has seen “American Idiot” multiple times.
Livermore also has ties to Lafayette. Lookout bands would record at Mass Giorgini’s Sonic Iguana studios, and Livermore would pop in to see how sessions were going and how mixes were sounding. Mass Giorgini’s father, Aldo Giorgini, would become friends with Livermore. The elder Giorgini was a major influence in computer-aided art and a professor at Purdue. Aldo Giorgini would pass away in 1994, right before Mass Giorgini’s band Squirtgun would find national success on Lookout Records.
About 20 years later, Livermore came back to Lafayette to speak at a dedication of Aldo Giorgini’s mural, “A Hymn to Achievement.” The piece was installed on the second floor of Ivy Tech’s Ivy Hall.
Livermore gave a touching speech about the Giorgini family and the importance of public art, whether it is a breathtaking mural or a punk rock record.
While “American Idiot” is sure to bring Green Day’s music to new ears and a new format to longtime fans, would Green Day been discovered if not for Livermore’s label and his drafting Cool into punk rock? It’s an interesting question to ponder. Here are a few more questions that Livermore answered during a recent interview.
Question: How did you first meet Tre, Billie Joe and Mike?
Answer: Tre was literally the kid next door, although in the remote rural area where we lived, “next door” was about a mile down the road. Tre grew up there with his family, and when he was 12 I asked him if he wanted to try playing drums in this punk band I was trying to start. He turned out to be a natural, and we played together in that band, the Lookouts, for five years. In 1988, Tre set up a show for us at some high school party, and Green Day, who were then known as Sweet Children and had a different drummer, offered to come play at it. The “show” turned out to be something of a fiasco (bad weather, only five kids turned up, no electricity so we had to use a generator and candlelight, etc.), but that’s how I first met Billie and Mike. When their original drummer quit a couple years later, Tre replaced him and the rest is history.
Q: How are the Lookouts viewed 25 years later?
A: I guess that depends on who’s doing the viewing! I was just listening to a couple songs we recorded just before Tre left to join Green Day, and I thought, “Wow, we had gotten pretty good by then.” Of course a lot of the credit for that goes to Tre, who by that time had become a phenomenal drummer, and also Billie Joe, who joined us for those recordings on lead guitar and backing vocals. It was, in fact, the first time Tre and Billie ever played together. But for the most part, I’d suspect only a small number of Green Day fanatics and historical completists are that aware of the Lookouts. I think we might have a couple thousand fans out there, but we’re still pretty obscure in terms of the masses. We’re re-releasing the entire Lookouts catalog later this year or early next year, so maybe we’ll find a new audience. You never know!
Q: Have you seen “American Idiot?” If so, what are your thoughts on the show?
A: I’ve seen it a couple times, the first when it previewed on Broadway and then again a few months later when it was in the middle of its run. I was very impressed both times, but I also had the privilege of having witnessed little bits and pieces of the show coming together over the previous year. I met Michael Mayer several times, along with most of the other people who worked with him on developing and mounting the production, and later, after it had opened, also had the opportunity to meet a number of the main actors. So it’s hard for me to be objective about the play. It’s kind of like when some people you know and like start a new band: You’re kind of expecting it to be good even before you ever hear them. Personally, the only thing I would have changed would be to insert a little more dialogue between the songs, but it’s my understanding that Michael Mayer was determined to keep it to a minimum and instead focus on interpretations of the songs. And the songs, well, what are you going to say about them: some pretty amazing stuff. It’s a long way from Berkeley to Broadway, especially from the part of Berkeley we inhabited back in those days, so it was quite a remarkable and memorable experience to see our East Bay memories come to life on the big stage.
Q: What if Green Day didn’t sign to a major label? Where would their place be in music today?
A: I think they would have eventually been just as big, but it wouldn’t have happened so quickly. They probably would have developed more slowly and organically — less drama, maybe, but similar or maybe even greater substance. Personally, I think the really crucial turning point was when their first drummer left the band. They were considering breaking up at that time, but instead, they got Tre to join. And with all respect to their first drummer, Tre is of an entirely different order, and I think as much as anything or anybody else helped launch them into the next dimension.
Q: How did you get to know the Giorgini’s? What are some of your memories of your Lafayette visits?
A: Mass Giorgini first came in contact with Lookout by putting on an Operation Ivy show in Lafayette during their one and only tour in 1988, and then soon afterward began working as a recording engineer and producer with Screeching Weasel and a host of other Lookout bands. I came to Lafayette to work in the studio with Mass and one of the bands, and that’s also how I met Aldo. When Mass first told me that his dad was going to be at the studio, I sort of rolled my eyes, thinking, “Oh great, just what we need, some clueless old dude hanging around while we’re trying to work,” but within a minute of walking in, I became aware that Professor Giorgini was anything but clueless, not just with respect to his academic pursuits, but in almost every area of life, punk rock included. The guy knew stuff about punk rock that I didn’t know, and I was totally immersed in at the time, whereas it was just one of myriad interests that Aldo had, and one which I imagine he acquired primarily as a result of his sons playing in a band. From then on I made a point of spending time with Aldo every time I came to Lafayette to work, and then, when his life was tragically cut short, I came to visit and say goodbye to him a few weeks before he died. Even then, when he could barely move or talk, he was still glowing with love and passion and a determination to do whatever he could do for his boys — and, I think, the world at large — in the final hours of his life. He was — is — a great man.
Punk fans should check out a new(ish) compilation put out by Armtrong’s label, Adeline Records.