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A Punk Looks at 50

Harley wrecks, legions of groupies and the Thai army can't stop Idol.
Albert Sanchez

If the National Park Service created a Mount Rushmore of '80s music -- and it's a travesty of public funding that it hasn't happened already; write your congressman! -- it would probably feature the chiseled visages of The Boss, Madonna, Michael and Prince. Perhaps in the case of Jackson, the face would be chiseled and rechiseled and chiseled some more, but that's another story. But Billy Idol would rate at least a large statue in the nearby park -- likely next to the ladies' restroom. Just think of the challenge to the sculptor: how to capture just perfectly the spiky hair, dangling crucifix earrings, mild bondage garb and, of course, the curled upper lip?

But the eternally puckish 45-year-old Idol doesn't want to be just a nostalgia act, and 2001 finds his comeback bid in high gear. With the near-simultaneous release of his Greatest Hits record, an episode of Behind the Music that rivals Mötley Crüe's for delicious debauchery, a Storytellers that previews his current summer tour and a planned 2002 album of new material, the synergistic engine of his comeback is coughing to life.

"It's been great fun already, and the audiences have been fantastic," Idol says a handful of dates into the tour. "It would be different if I walked out there and the audiences were absolutely uninterested. And we try and do a lot of the songs in a different light, where we used to just blast through things helter-skelter."

The "we" refers mainly to journeyman guitarist Steve Stevens, back in the Idol camp after a parting of ways. The flashy axman, who has knocked a few floors off his spiky Sears Tower mane, has always been more a partner than a mere sideman. "He brings a real depth of character to the music, and I can rely on that and play off of it," says Idol. "I want more than just a session guy playing my music." As for the current state of the guitarist's locks, Idol explodes in what is the first of many raspy laughs during the interview. "Yes, he's stopped torturing the ozone with it -- and that's good news for all of us!"

During the show, the pair, along with a backing band, bring out most of Idol's big guns: "White Wedding," "Rebel Yell," "Dancing with Myself," "Eyes Without a Face" and the like. And, of course, the cover of the execrable "Mony Mony" -- ironically his only No.1 hit. But the show also reaches back to Idol's catalog with Generation X, and a couple of new tunes.

While it's impossible to hear most of these songs without their music video images -- hot brides riding hogs, swirling confetti cyclones, overheated bimbos in leather, also riding hogs -- playing along in your head, Idol wants to prove that they have a life beyond the Reagan era.

Born and raised in England's middle-class Home Counties (although he lived in the States from age three to seven), the budding Jack the Lad needed constant stimulation, his moods swinging from hyperactivity to intense boredom. (A teacher's famous report card note, "William is IDLE," inspired his more familiar moniker.)

Of course, many familiar with his solo hits have no idea of Idol's role in England's early punk scene in 1976. He gathered with like-minded souls (including Susan Dallion, later Siouxie Sioux) as the ragtag "Bromley Contingent" of fans who showed up at every primordial punk gig. After a brief stint as the guitarist with a band called Chelsea, Idol and Tony James left to form Generation X. But when Idol stepped out as front man, his male-model good looks and the band's eclectic tastes spurred some purists to denounce them as too pretty and too pop for punk, a Bay City Rollers in leather, studs and safety pins.

"Yeah, well, time's taking care of that and the critics," he deadpans. "The thing about punk rock, some people think it should all be one thing. But a lot of us in the bands didn't want to be carbon copies of each other; it's whatever punk meant to you. In America, you had the Talking Heads, and in England there was Magazine. The Clash were about politics, and the Sex Pistols about street life."

Idol's broad tastes are no more evident than when looking down the list of his hits. Hard rock, pop, dance and ballads are all represented. Idol says British radio at the time, which played wildly disparate genres on the same station, helped broaden his musical sensibilities from an early age. "We heard it all, and they played it all. I think that's something [unique] about growing up in England," he says. "But we were also just as much in love with American rock and roll as English."

Idol left Generation X in 1981 and headed for punk's epicenter in New York City, though he had already determined to broaden his appeal beyond the genre. When longtime producer Keith Forsey and Idol fashioned an extended mix of the band's "Dancing with Myself" as an Idol solo number, it began to get a lot of play in clubs. On Storytellers, Idol remembers trying to order a drink at a crowded bar when the song came on. Everyone rushed to the dance floor, leaving him with a lot of elbow room and more than a little stunned.

For nearly a decade, from 1981's Don't Stop EP to 1990's Charmed Life, Idol's hits and distinctive image were everywhere, but he soon became almost as well known for his partying as his music. Longtime girlfriend and model Peri Lister tossed him out when she overheard him making a date with another woman over the baby monitor. Later he was tied to a stretcher and deported from Bangkok by the Thai army after trashing a hotel suite to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars.

A near-fatal motorcycle crash gave him a major wake-up call. After recuperating, Idol responded with a lackluster tour and then the William Gibson-ish Cyberpunk in 1993. The ambitious, if uneven, concept album about on-line connections and virtual reality now seems both dated and a few years ahead of its time. Today Idol's cyber-inclined constituency can access an extensive and offbeat Web site (www.billyidol.com). There, among other things, slavish fans can meet his personal jeweler and order their own ornamental crucifix -- fun for costume parties!

Idol's re-emergence into the public eye began with a brief but hilarious cameo as himself in Adam Sandler's The Wedding Singer, in which Idol offers romantic advice and runs a little interference with a rival using the drink cart on an airplane. "I took my then-eight-year-old son to the set because he loved Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison. And I thought, 'Christ, if I'm going to the set, I might as well be in it!' " Idol says. He and Sandler also got to jam in the latter's trailer. "He had all this musical equipment around. He's a real player and singer."

Another singer who has been on Idol's mind lately is the late Joey Ramone, with whom Idol had a long-standing friendship. "Our bands would support each other during tours, and when I first came to New York and didn't know anybody, he made sure I got invited to things he was doing," Idol says. "He was…he sort of…he had a lot of heart, he did. A lot of it."

Billy Idol, once the sneering young git, is now a sentimental middle-aged punk rocker, though the famous pumping fist and butt-smacking remain, as does the Harley fixation and copious use of peroxide. Still, Idol's middle age is probably more fun than most mere mortals could hope to have during any time of their lives -- and he'll probably still be pulling birds even as Bromley's punk pensioner.


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