The Billie Joe Armstrong who stares out from the cover of the most recent Rolling Stone magazine looks sober, serious, subdued. Flecks of gray dot his spiky black hair.
"Billie Joe," reads the headline, "The road back from hell."
That road reaches a critical juncture Friday when Armstrong, the charismatic East Bay rock star, and his band mates in Green Day, one of the most consistently successful popular music acts over the past 25 years, perform a major concert at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas.
The eyes of the music world will be watching to see if the band can rebound from Armstrong's late-2012 stint in rehab for substance abuse ' which Armstrong details with striking candor in Rolling Stone ' as well as from surprisingly lackluster sales of its three new albums.
"Comeback" might be too strong a term for what's happening Friday. Green Day has rarely tasted failure in a 25-year career that includes selling more than 75 million albums, playing sold-out arenas and stadiums worldwide, and even conquering Broadway with the Tony Award-winning musical "American Idiot."
While it's not new for a big act to play SXSW ' Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., Metallica have done it ' Green Day is different in that it is coming off a recent losing streak. Is the band looking at a career in decline? Probably not, but fans and industry insiders will breathe easier if they see a healthy Armstrong and his band mates on Friday deliver one of their characteristically fierce stage shows.
(The band performed a two-hour, small-venue warm-up show in Pomona this past weekend and was scheduled to perform two other such shows this week. Reports on the Pomona show were largely positive.)
"This should be the next step in the Green Day story," says BamMagazine.com Editor Dennis Erokan, who began watching the band even before its major-label debut, "Dookie," came out in 1994. "I'm betting on Green Day. I'm betting on Billie."
But it likely won't be easy.
Signs of trouble emerged in September at the iHeartRadio festival in Las Vegas, when Armstrong, angered that the band's set was cut short, let loose an expletive-filled meltdown. He smashed his guitar onstage and yelled, "I'm not (expletive) Justin Bieber."
Soon after, the singer enrolled in a treatment program at an undisclosed clinic. Any illusions that Armstrong just needed to clean up a little were shattered in the recent Rolling Stone piece, which was the only interview he gave on the subject.
"I couldn't predict where I was going to end up at the end of the night," he recalled of the period leading up to the meltdown. "I'd wake up in a strange house on a couch. I wouldn't remember how. It was a complete blackout."
The much-publicized Las Vegas fiasco, which reportedly came a week after Armstrong rebuffed his manager's pleas to get help, finally forced Armstrong to confront his demons ' even if it meant derailing Green Day's plans to support its three new albums, "Uno," "Dos" and "Tre," and scuttling a small-venue warm-up tour that included dates in Santa Cruz and San Francisco.
"I remember tiny things," Armstrong told Rolling Stone of the Las Vegas incident. "The next morning, I woke up. I asked (my wife) Adrienne, ' How bad was it?' She said, ' It's bad.' I called my manager. He said, ' You're getting on a plane, going back to Oakland and going into rehab immediately.' "
Now Armstrong must lead his band through what may well be the busiest time of Green Day's career. Besides trying to pump commercial life into its three new albums and prepping for a world tour of arena-size venues that kicks off this month, the trio has two films debuting at SXSW.
The more highly anticipated of the two is "Broadway Idiot," which chronicles the band's adaptation of its 2004 concept album, "American Idiot," to the stage ' from its Berkeley Repertory Theatre premiere to its Broadway run, which resulted in two Tony Awards.
' Big time' for band
"Broadway Idiot" will have its world premiere Friday at SXSW. The second film is "Cuatro," a documentary about the making of Green Day's ambitious trio of new albums. That film also will screen Friday at SXSW.
"I think it is a really big time for the band," says KFOX-FM DJ Big Rick Stuart, who has followed Green Day since its early days. "When I heard that they were going to release three albums and do a world tour and release a documentary and I was like, ' Whoa. Are you serious?' Name another band that has done that. Even Bruce Springsteen hasn't done that."
Armstrong's personal problems don't seem to have hurt Green Day's drawing power at the gate. The band's local date on its world tour ' a big homecoming show set for April 16 at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley ' sold out in minutes.
"Green Day is such a seminal band," says Allen Scott, executive vice president of Berkeley's Another Planet Entertainment, which is promoting the Greek show. "I don't think they have anything to prove. They have really defined an entire genre of punk rock music. This band is one of the biggest in the world ' and one of the best live acts in the world."