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DOUG ELFMAN: With Age Comes Wisdom

Rocker Billy Idol has learned his limits while still performing as hard as ever

I always forget Billy Idol helped give birth to punk rock. As a follower of the Sex Pistols in England, he played in an early form of Siouxsie & the Banshees, then Chelsea, before co-founding Generation X, a punk champion in its own right.

"Yeah," he says when I bring up his '70s youth. "It's all 32 years ago or something. ... Everybody's 50 -- if we're still here. Joe Strummer (of the Clash) didn't make it. Guys in the Ramones (died). A lot of people didn't make it, so I guess we're here to rock for them, maybe."

When Strummer and other idols died, they were legends to the rest of us. But to Idol, they were friends.

"That was us -- all trying to sculpt our views, and putting them into the groups we were in -- Sex Pistols, Clash, Siouxsie & the Banshees, myself and Generation X, the Damned."

Idol says they were quite happy to change pop radio in the 1980s.

"In a way, (the sameness of radio was) what we were really revolting against. There was just kind of a stranglehold on new music getting through, 'cause it was kind of a prog-rock world."

Now, Idol is 52. As concert critics note, he looks like he's in great shape. He tells me that as he aged, he learned to respect himself and his talent sometime after suffering a near overdose of GHB in 1994 and recovering from a serious motorcycle wreck in 1990.

"I realized I could see why people die onstage of heart attacks and stuff, because when you're singing, your whole body is your instrument, and if you're not fit, you can't do it," he says.

"Also, I'm trying not to be such an alcoholic or an addict or whatever. If you keep yourself together, that's another thing that stops you from diving off a cliff, because that's what I always did -- diving off a cliff."

I ask him: If he's trying not to be "such an alcoholic," does that mean he cut back on booze or cut it out completely?

"Just limit it. It just got to the point where, once upon a time, a lot of things like drugs and stuff were helping originality in a weird way. But once you've done them for years and years on end, they start sapping your strength -- really start sapping your talent, stopping seeing you through to the reality.

"Taking drugs makes you depressed. If you're not a depressed person, that in itself can be unsettling. So I just think, yeah, the idea of punk rock and everything was to use the thing, not let it use you. ... I'm back with that view.

"I don't want to abuse the alcohol. I want to use the drugs. I don't want them using me. And they were doing that to me for a while. They were controlling me."

Here, Billy Idol -- he of "Rebel Yell"-- paraphrases Richard Nixon's farewell speech, "Only when you've been in the deepest valley can you know how magnificent it is to be atop the highest mountain."

He says being addicted to drugs and alcohol also made it harder to move onstage and sing the gritty, "nihilistic emotions" of "White Wedding," "Eyes Without a Face" and his other dark pop hits. His musical emotions came straight from his punk-rock rebellion.

"Punk rock in itself has an element of nihilism," he says. "We all love anarchy -- to an extent."

He took that punk ethos with him into mainstream pop, and so did his friends who cut their teeth on other music genres.

"We did go to such an extreme with punk rock. We found a certain soul. Which then, when you moved into other areas, it moved with you. It could inform that music. So it wasn't just a love song. It wasn't just a heavy metal song. It wasn't just a reggae song. It was informed music."

On tour, he remembers all the drugs and booze, but also his son and daughter, while he tries his best to perform as hard as ever.

"Sometimes, you're your own coach. You gotta talk yourself up: 'I'm not just 52 and aging. I'm not just somebody's dad up there.' And I am somebody's dad up there, but that 'dad' can rock.

"And it's a good laugh. It's good fun music. It does take you out of yourself. It's still a little bit tongue in check, and that maybe keeps you riveted to the ground somehow. Whatever wild extremes, whatever flights of fancy, it still comes down to those great moments onstage."