In his new autobiography, Dancing With Myself, Billy Idol confesses to consuming all sorts of mind-altering pharmaceuticals during his 1980-90s heyday.
What kind of drugs did he take? Heroin, coke, crack, smack, tuinals, ecstasy, acid, marijuana, booze….you name it.
A shorter list would enumerate whatever substances the rebel yeller didn’t abuse.
“It seemed like every few days I was recovering from yet another wild binge, and it took three days to feel normal again,” writes Idol in the tell-all tome.
“The only way to feel any kind of relief from the pressure was to get blotto, avoid all human feelings, and reach back into the darkness once again. Somewhere in that darkness, I told myself, there was a secret of the universe or some hidden creative message to be found.”
Available now on Touchstone, Idol’s lascivious memoir begins in medies res, with our favorite bleach-blonde rabble-rouser at an all-time personal nadir despite being at the very zenith of his commercial success. On the eve of the release of his 1990 album—the ironically-titled Charmed Life—the inebriated singer gets in a horrendous motorcycle accident that leaves him with shattered bones and a gaping wound in his leg. The crash (and long recovery) becomes a major turning point for the self-destructive superstar, who finally has an epiphany.
“It’s neither the first time nor the last that William Broad will be held to account and asked to pay a heavy price.”
From there, Idol rewinds, taking readers back to his youth and providing a provocative guided tour through his teens years as a streetwise (but fashion-savvy) punk, his ascent to fame with Generation X, and his glory years as a fist-pumping, lip-snarling MTV poster boy.
Idol notes he was born in Middlesex two months after James Dean died, back “when giants walked the earth,” to hardworking Englishman William Alfred Broad and pretty Irish lass Johanna O’Sullivan. His father’s job as a medical equipment salesman saw the family relocate to New York during Idol’s toddler years, causing the boy to feel like a stranger in his homeland upon their return to the U.K. at the dawn of the Sixties. His earliest sense memories were of T.V.’s Captain Kangaroo and Swamp Fox, of air raid sirens in Eisenhower years, and his mum’s adoration for J.F.K. (Idol himself had a fascination with Winston Churchill). The househould record collection consisted of jazz greats Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and musicals like My Fair Lady, Camelot, The Music Man. But Idol would soon take to Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tex Ritter, whose sparse acoustic guitar and ragged held magical appeal.
Idol claims he excelled at reading and history but—like most boys—he enjoyed sci-fi (Dr. Who) and comic books (X-Men, Fantastic Four). He couldn’t afford The Beatles first single, but he was captivated by the lads’ “Mersey Beat” and scrimped enough to purchase “From Me To You” and “She Loves You” later on, and began supplementing his listening with a transistor radio stuffed under his pillow.
“Suddenly, it was great to be British!” he gushes, recounting the Fab Four’s impact.
“Most ten-year olds were playing games, not instruments. But here, right in front of me, were kids barely older than me, realizing their own dreams by putting on a show.”
Idol’s tenure at Worthing High School, Ravensbourne School for Boys, and Orpington College is accompanied by the strange sounds of psychedelic music (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Are You Experienced?) and maiden forays into drug use (cigarettes laced with hash). Billy busied himself by writing Tolkien-like fantasy stories in a notebook, and receives encouragement from a headmaster who comes by Billy’s work when the journal goes missing.
He wanted to play guitar, but his folks forced him to take violin lessons and join the Boy Scouts. Soon enough, however, Idol saved up for his own guitar (an Epiphone Riviera), got booted from the scouts for necking with a girl, and began frequenting rock shows with his buddy, Laurence “Lol” Satchel. Zeppelin, Hendrix, Bowie, The Velvet Underground, MC-5, and T-Rex provided the soundtrack to Idol’s life as he hung with the longhairs and hid from pugnacious Shawfield Park skinheads. He saw Roxy Music in concert, formed a band that played the school cafeteria on Fridays, and indulged in acid trips with friends.
“Today I’m sure I would’ve been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD,” Billy reflects. “Dad didn’t talk to me for two years.”
Still known as the younger William Broad, Billy worked at his pop’s tool company while perusing Melody Maker adverts for bands in need of a singer. He fell in with Siouxsie Sioux and the “Bromfield Contingent” of Sex Pistols fans—traveling as far as Paris to watch Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones rip it up in concert—and took residence at lesbian clubs like Louie’s. The teenage hooligans designed their own look by frequenting thrift stores and repairing old clothes with safety pins and tape; Billy feels this DIY aesthetic formed the core of the punk movement.
“This was protest music retooled by youthful frustration and ambivalence, aggression with no outlet. It gave us hope and made us feel that something special was afoot.”
Forming an alliance with guitarist Tony James, Billy falls in with his first band—Chelsea—which morphs into Generation X after singer Gene October moves on. The upstarts woodshed at Acme Attractions warehouse in a neighborhood populated by dreadlocked Rastafarians. Waiting for “Jah to come down” with musical inspiration, the lads pen “Ready Steady Go,” “Youth Youth Youth.” Billy changes his surname to something catchier, in deference to an old teacher who accused him of being “idle,” and in homage to 1950’s rocker Billy Fury. Joined by lead guitarist Bob “Derwood” Andrews on lead guitar, James and Idol attend lots of Clash shows—including the one where The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan got his earlobe bitten off—and keep in step with their mentors in The Sex Pistols. The influence of punk on British culture becomes clear after Rotten curses like a sailor live on Bill Grundy’s Today Show on the BBC.
Generation X become regulars at The Roxy (former gay club Chaguaramas), turning the venue into a Southeast London version of Max’ Kansas City or Cavern Club with their incendiary live shows. Billy continues experimenting with drugs, gallivanting with women named Jeanette and Zowie, and takes comfort in the mélange of blood, sweat, and spray paint in dingy concert clubs—even when audiences start “gobbing” their spit to show their approval. He also takes stock of the subversive reggae sounds produced by groups like The Culture, whose rhythm-laden Two Sevens Clash album had a marked influence on his later solo work.
“Bands kept sprouting like grass after a rain shower,” he recalls. “As in the Wild West, in punk rock, the uglier the scene was, the more romantic it became.”
Wanting to create “a new optimism” rather than wallow in the Pistols’ brand of negativity, Generation X modeled their eponymous debut LP after their live shows. Unlike other punks, they liked The Beatles, The Who, and The Rolling Stones and allowed their influences to carry over into the music. At independent Chrysalis Records, James and Idol found allies in the charismatic terry Ellis and no-nonsense Chris Wright—who’d helped break Blondie stateside. Idol favored spiky bleached blonde hair, a military jacket with Russian propaganda appliques, black jeans, dirty sneakers, and got a tattoo of Russian heroine Octobrania on his arm. Arriving late for a T.V. appearance on Marc Bolan’s show, Gen X is defended by the host—who threatens to walk if the band isn’s allowed to play. On Top of the Pops, Billy sings “King Rocker,” enhancing his already-iconic profile. Visiting New York on a promotional tour, he checks out The Cramps at CBGBs and The Germs at Whisky a Go Go.
“I knew music’s impact was international,” Idol reflects. “There were scenes breaking out in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, L.A., and San Francisco. It wasn’t just the U.K. Punk was a rock ‘n’ roll war!”
Inspired by narcissistic kids contemplating their own reflections in the mirrors of a Tokyo dance club, Billy pens “Dancing With Myself” with Tony on a fire escape for Generation X (it wouldn’t become a solo hit until its re-release on Idol’s first EP, Don’t Stop). Contemplating their next career move, the guys jokingly decide they should hire “whoever manages KISS,” and fortuitously align with Bill Aucoin himself. Around this time, Billy meets with his first true love, Hot Gossip dancer / model Perri Lister, commencing a torrid nine-year relationship that culminates with the birth of his son, Willem Wolfe. When Generation X’s last album (Kiss Me Deadly) stalls and Tony’s anxiety takes a turn for the worse, Billy entertains an offer to go solo and jumps a flight back to the Big Apple—arriving in all-too familiar environs with a Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar in his hand and a pink Elvis-style jacket on his back.
Aucoin suggests working with disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder to capture the primal beats Billy hears in his head, but Moroder in turn recommends Keith Forsey (“Hot Stuff,” “Flashdance”). Aucoin also encourages Billy to hook up with guitarist Steve Stevens (ex-Fine Malibus), who helps Idol create magic on his first few albums. It’s in these middle chapters that the singer really gets into the nitty-gritty of his solo material, expounding upon the origins for the both the music and lyrics of such future hits as “White Wedding” and “Hot in The City.” Old habits die hard, however, and soon Idol himself embracing the junkie lifestyle between deli stops and recording sessions:
“I liked the twenty-four hour nonstop feeling the city had and decided to become one with it.”
Billy slums with a college coed nicknamed Fish, but comes out of his drug-induced “womb” long enough to remake The Shondells’ “Mony Mony” (because he’d heard the song playing during one of his first sexual encounters and loved the song’s propulsive beat). He wrote “Hot in The City” after spotting a gold copy of Nick Gilder’s “Hot Child in the City” on an office wall at Chrysalis, and drafted “Rebel Yell” after partying with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards—whose bottles of Southern bourbon mash bore the slogan on their labels.
“It was a new direction for me, combining the disco beats of the New York club scene with punk-rock guitars and choruses,” he says.
Idol also met with Lou Reed at a favorite pizza place to discuss a partnership, but the “Wild Side” singer wanted money to collaborate: “It was cool to meet him, but I got the punk message reaffirmed right there: Fuck heroes. Write your own goddamn songs.”
Relocating to the West Coast, Billy and friends are accosted by the L.A. police on their first night in town (for once, he’s got nothing on him). At Westlake Studios, he ekes out the chords to “White Wedding” in a flash (“Keith couldn’t believe I had come up with something that quickly”) and takes to wearing scarves and cowboy boots—and little else—at home. Taking receipt of his first order of personalized guitar picks, Stevens proceeds to tile his hotel room with the plectrums, resulting in a move across Sunset Boulevard to Chateau Marmont. Desperately missing Perri (who mailed him his methadone), Idol ups his drug intake even as fledgling music video channel MTV springboards his album into the stratosphere.
A guilty conscience (from his infidelity to Perri) and “bum acid trip” of cough syrup inspires the confessional “Eyes Without a Face.” Contemplating the “fool’s paradise” of liberal sex in a pre-AIDS world (and a similarly-titled Edward G. Robinson film), Idol whips up “Flesh For Fantasy.” And the album is done, Billy holds the master tapes hostage until Chrysalis removes a background blemish from the cover art was fixed to remove a blemish in the background. He even left the tapes with his heroin dealer “for safekeeping” and threatened to bootleg the album himself. On tour, Idol and Stevens blow headliners Flock of Seagulls off stage. On New Year’s Eve they jam with The Stray Cats. Later, they shoot a live video for “Rebel Yell” at Capitol Passaic in NJ, bussing drunken kids in for the show. When Billy lands on the front page of Rolling Stone, he’s clad in a leather loincloth. The interview inside is a sham, with the wasted singer putting down the magazine and everyone affiliated with it.
“Could I live beyond the hubris that rock journalist Robert Hilburn had predicted would eventually doom me?” he wonders, embarrassed by his impulsive, obnoxious former self.
Dubbing his addiction “The Lioness” and “Zuul,” Billy makes like Caligula on his world tour, entertaining groupies and partaking in every substance offered to him. In Rochester he’s barely acquitted of sexual deviance charges, and in Japan he and Stevens turn up late to morning meetings because they’d been fraternizing with models at Lexington Place. Idol’s lurid escapades on his private jet read life soft core pornography. “My career was riding an amazing wave of success and I was plowing through it seemingly unscathed despite my best efforts to destroy myself,” Idol realizes. “I can see I was on a tightrope…but I didn’t care. I ignored the dangers.” When his record goes gold, he gives one to his father—who hadn’t approved of Billy’s rock and roll dreams—to rub it in.
“I can see now I still had a big chip on my shoulder about my dad’s view of my chosen profession. Today I can appreciate a bit more about where his generation was coming from. We could dream big only because of what they went through.”
Ultimately, it’s Idol’s father (and mum) who come to his rescue when he finally hits rock bottom.
The hedonism hits new highs after Aucoin passes away, Hollywood passes on Billy’s noir movie concept, and Perri moves out of their Barrow Street apartment. Idol tweaks William Bell’s Memphis classic “I Forgot to be Your Lover” as “To Be a Lover” as a means of coping with the loss—but he fills Perri’s absence with more drugs, switching from heroin to cocaine (and smoking it because his nose was constantly bloody). Keith stages an intervention during sessions for Whiplash Smile (with an assist from Aucoin staffers), but Idol checks himself out of Beth Israel rehab after only ten days. In Majorca, Spain, he hacks up mucus while turning his hotel room inside-out. He OD’s on heroin, becomes a belligerent drunk, squanders therapy with psychologist Dr. Trigg, and his caught in a crack cocaine police sting at Washington Square. Disappointed publicist Howard Bloom tells Billy that’s “not that kind of press” he was hoping for when Idol’s arrest hits the news.
Relocating to Astral Drive in L.A., Idol tries jump-starting his relationship with Perri, hires Tony Dimitriades (Tom Petty, Yes, Stevie Nicks) as his manager, and takes to riding Kawasaki and Harley-Davidson motorcycles to revel in the freedom of the open road. Perri absconds to England, leaving Billy to his own devices—and a new relationship with Linda Mathis, who produces daughter Bonnie Blue.
Following his catastrophic bike crash, Billy is shot from the waist up (inside a picture frame) in his “Cradle of Love” video because of his mangled legs. Doctors put him back together over the course of seven surgeries, and the singer’s electronic muscle stimulator earned him the title “cyperpunk” at the hospital. Recuperation cost Idol a bigger part in Oliver Stone’s film about Jim Morrison and The Doors (and the role of the slithery T-1000 in Terminator 2), but he scored another chart hit with Doors cover “L.A. Woman” and channeled his energy into the then-burgeoning Internet subculture. His next album, Cyberpunk, failed to win over a post-grunge marketplace, but nevertheless marked several firsts in the industry: Idol made most of the music on a MacIntosh computer (presaging Pro-Tools), included a digital press kit with the CD, and invited listeners to contact him via email.
“Being an artist is about putting aside your fears and going for it,” writes Idol on the so-called misfire. “This was my code in 1976, and in 1993, and it still is today.”
Despite his pride, Billy wouldn’t make another studio album until 2005’s Devil’s Playground. And if his book has any major flaws, it’s in the way these later chapters shuffle quickly through the last two decades (1994-2014) compared with its immersive early sections on Idol’s youth and first brushes with fame. We learn about Idol’s contribution to the Speed motion picture soundtrack, his pivotal cameo in the 1998 Adam Sandler comedy The Wedding Singer, and reunion with Steve Stevens in the mid-2000s. We’re left with the impression that he’s a devoted, responsible father now (he’s sworn off drugs and liquor), but come away feeling like he’s left a few gaps in the timeline.
As for strengths, Dancing With Myself benefits from Idol’s willingness to lay himself bare (quirks, faults, sins and all) and own up to how profoundly his self-destruction affected those who cared for him the most. It’s also noteworthy that Billy—true to his punk ethos—wrote everything himself, apparently without coauthor coaching.
The book wraps as Idol puts the finishing touches on his latest effort—Kings and Queens of The Underground (due later this month)—and braces for a return to the marathon touring of old.
“I am hopelessly divided between the dark and the good,” concludes Billy. “The rebel and the saint, the sex maniac and the monk, the poet and the priest.”
Bravo, Billy, bravo!
Read excerpts here http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/preview-billy-idols-candid-me…
…and here http://www.esquire.com/blogs/culture/billy-idol-dancing-with-myself-stor…