The rock star’s mom says she lives in a “party house.” Sounds sensible, because everybody knows partying is what rock stars do.
But not like this.
“Every Tuesday we have dinner at that table,” said Ollie Armstrong, nodding toward the long wooden table occupying the small, knickknack-filled dining room. “Sometimes we have 20 people here. I cook all day and if I don’t, I send out for food.”
From the driveway, where kids’ names are scrawled in the concrete, to the large wooden kitchen sign simply declaring “Strawberries,” “here” is a homey, comfortable place. The Tuesday “parties” include any of Ollie’s six children or 24 grandchildren — all of whom are pictured pretty evenly throughout the Armstrong family home of more than 30 years.
One member, Billie Joe — who looks a lot like his mom, down to his thin stature (and occasional on-stage eyeliner) — obviously gets the most attention from outsiders. They’re used to it. It’s what happens when one is among the world’s most recognizable rock stars.
But in this house, the Green Day frontman is still just Ollie’s youngest. Or somebody’s little brother, uncle, even dad. And although Billie Joe and his band invariably get the spotlight, in some ways Ollie is an even better story.
At 75, there’s hardly any relaxing for Ollie — by choice — both as a waitress and as the glue holding the Armstrongs together. She’s obviously still the family traffic cop in the same home in which most of them were raised.
Earlier that morning, daughter Anna, 39, came by with one of her children on her way to work at UC Berkeley. Oldest son Alan, 56, a retired West County school district employee and recording studio owner, stops in about 10 a.m. Asked about Ollie’s relationships with her children, Alan revives the family joke about 37-year-old brother David being her favorite, drawing a mock scowl from his mother.
“That’s only because he told people that,” she said, adding that partiality “would be a terrible thing. I love all my kids so much.”
Ollie was one of 12 children (another died at childbirth) whose dirt farming family came from Oklahoma during World War II to work in the Richmond shipyards.
“We were so poor we had to use a jar and a stick to make butter,” she said. Her mother, who worked night shifts, was one of the storied “Rosie the Riveters” to whom a monument stands near the Richmond waterfront. Four of Ollie’s brothers ended up fighting in World War II. Her youngest brother died fighting in Vietnam two decades later.
Ollie was married to her first husband and had Alan — whose last name is Oller — by the time she was 19 (Alan’s siblings insist that no one refer to him as a half-brother).
“There’s a difference of 18 years between me and mom,” Alan said, “which is less than me and Billie (21 years). Me and mom grew up together.”
Among Ollie’s early jobs was roller-skating gas station attendant in the 1950s and waitressing at Mel’s Drive-In in Berkeley, “the best job in the world,” she said. “We’d wait on the Hells Angels. They were so good to us. I still wait on them at Ember’s (a Pinole restaurant).”
She divorced in her early 20s (“I was so young”) and eventually met Andy Armstrong at a Slim Slaughter show at the Melody Club in Albany. Described as a “bear of a man,” Andy was a truck driver and jazz player who introduced his children to music via his drum set in the living room.
After Ollie and Andy married, she kept waitressing at various places (including Rod’s Hickory Pit in Vallejo, where Ollie persuaded her boss to let her teen son’s band play its first gig). They went on to raise five children together.
“I think the biggest influence my mom has had on me is her work ethic,” Billie Joe said via e-mail. “She embodies her job and created a lifestyle out of it. She’s always been a waitress, but for some reason she’s never really had a boss. She’s her own boss, and her energy always insinuates that she loves her work. And to do that, and raise three daughters and three sons on her own, is remarkable. She is a survivor, and I love her for that.”
Ollie, whose frequent, doting smile belies her assertion that she was a disciplinarian, beams about her children and how they turned out, despite some rough times — though never as rough, she says, as what’s been written in books about Green Day.
“All these stories about (Billie Joe) coming from a dysfunctional family, that he was from a broken home” she said, frowning at two books on a nearby table. “How do you stop someone from dying?”
That someone was Andy, who died of cancer in 1982, leaving her with four children still at home. Suddenly, Ollie needed a second job, and the older children had to help with the younger ones.
“I buried myself in work,” she said.
Alan steps right in, saying: “She had to work. She had all these kids to support, and Andy practically left her with nothing.”
By then, her two oldest children were out starting families of their own. Marci, the second oldest at 43 with two grown children — including one serving with the U.S. Air Force in Kuwait — says her father’s death shaped her mother into the family rock.
“It just seemed like she tightened up the belt, white-knuckled it, and did what she had to do,” Marci said. “She was a very strict, independent lady, and I’ve become the same way because of her.”
Anna said, “She’s really intuitive when it comes to people. Of all my friends, she knew the good ones and the bad ones. She knew who was up to no good. But she’s also very open-minded and giving. She’s almost spiritual that way.”
Ollie was also the type of mom who, though strict — though not necessarily with the three youngest ones, says Marci, laughing — would take on all comers over her children.
Marci remembers a family picnic and softball game when she was a teenager in which she got into an argument with an adult from another family. Things got heated and “my mom tore out there onto the field and got right in her face. It was one of those moments you realize how much your mom cares about you.”
Alan, who has 14 adopted children, remembers calling home once after being arrested on a case of mistaken identity that was later dropped. “She said, ‘Let me talk to those guys down there. You’re not a criminal.’”
“That’s my mom,” Alan said. “We can fight with each other all we want, but you better not get in the middle.”
“These kids will tell you I put the fear of God into them,” Ollie said, pausing before breaking into a laugh. “I punched out David once.” She looks at Alan, shaking a small fist. “I punched you out, too.”
The topic of discipline seems to be a never-ending source of amusement for the Armstrongs. Daughter Hollie, 40, says that when the children would get too rowdy in the family station wagon, Ollie would promise spankings all around when they got home.
“We’d try to be quiet so she’d forget,” said Hollie. “But then Billie Joe would always cry about it. Billie Joe could never keep his mouth shut.”
Whenever the topic switches to another member of the Armstrong clan, Ollie is off the sofa, grabbing a photo for visual effect. She picks up last year’s Christmas card showing Billie Joe’s two sons, explaining that their dad is also an assistant baseball coach. “That little one hit it over the fence,” she said. “Billie Joe called me the other day and said ‘Mom, you wouldn’t have believed it.’
“He’s a good dad. All my kids are good parents.”
The baseball coach, obviously, gets a lot of attention. But the Armstrong home sports less evidence of Billie Joe’s success with Green Day than your average 17-year-old fan — aside from the Green Day lunchbox in a corner. OK, and the gold record over the living room piano. And the Madison Square Garden poster in a bedroom.
OK … and the car in the garage.
“(When Green Day got big), he offered to buy me a new house,” Ollie said proudly. “I don’t want a new house.” She pauses, then points toward the garage. “But he keeps me well supplied in cars. He just gave me a Lexus.”
Which may or may not stick out in the suburban East Bay neighborhood — the inspiration for much of Green Day’s last record, the Grammy-winning “American Idiot.” Billie Joe gave her one of his Grammies, but she gave it back, not wanting it to be stolen.
Even more cherished is her copy of “Look for Love,” a single recorded by 5-year-old Billie Joe by the owners of nearby Fiatarone’s music store, whose owners “discovered” him when Ollie took him in for piano lessons. “‘New York, New York,’ you should’ve heard him sing that,” she said. Her smile gets bigger as she remembers what her son did after receiving his first big paycheck in 1995.
“When their first record came out, I was working at Ember’s, and he and his wife came and got me and said ‘You’ve got to come outside.’ I said I was working and he’d have to wait. Finally, I went out and there was a 1995 Acura in the parking lot with a red bow around it.
“He supports me. I don’t have to work. I get what I want. But I quit for a year and couldn’t stand it. I tried traveling. I go away, but I want to come home.”
Which won’t stop her from spending Mother’s Day at Disneyland with Hollie, Anna and five grandchildren. She has gone to award shows and met celebrities such as Wynona Ryder and Matthew Fox from “Lost,” although she admits often not knowing who they are until later. She sometimes receives visits from Green Day fans at the restaurant, including a kid who once came from New Jersey.
Nobody expects her to stop being at Ember’s any time soon.
“I don’t like being alone,” she said. “I’m getting used to it now, but I work. How long? Forever. As long as I can carry dishes. I’m healthy as hell. The only thing I worry about is if something happens to me. I’m afraid that’ll split (the family) up.”
Considering how many years she has spent keeping them glued together, that hardly seems likely.
– Courtesy of the East Bay Times