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HRH - Winter 2008 (Page
66 - 71)
After 30 year sin the music business,Billy Idol isas vital as ever
At 5 p.m. on a Friday, the Hard Rock Hotel Las Vegas is still relatively calm.
Walking through the casino, there is only a smattering of people, just barely hinting at the oncoming thrall of bacchanal studs and babes that inevitably fill the property’s bars, clubs and restaurants every weekend night. But on this particular Friday afternoon, even as thousands of Vegas motorists sit in rush hour traffic across the valley, there is a similar glut of motionless, bumper-tobumper traffic inside the Hard Rock: A thick line of people waiting outside the hotel’s premier music venue, The Joint, wrapped around the south side of the casino. Three hours before he is scheduled to take the stage and possibly 25 years later than anyone expected him to still be selling out concert halls, Billy Idol’s fans are already lining up to vie for the choicest spot to experience the iconic rocker’s sneering, fist-pumping brand of rock ‘n’ roll grit.
Inside The Joint, Idol is already on stage, but not for the general ticket holder’s consumption. He’s in the tested band of five years. The cavernous venue is empty save for a small group of lucky radio station contest winners, Joint staff and Idol’s personal associates.
At first glance, it’s obvious how Idol’s aged differently than his Bromley Contingent brethren. He looks fit, confident and full of energy, defying the 52 years he’s earned on this planet the hard way: by living them full-throttle.
While bassist Stephen McGrath, drummer Brian Tichy and keyboardist Derek Sherinian are rehearsing in T-shirts and shorts, Idol and long-time guitarist Steve Stevens make it obvious they don’t come with an “off” switch. Idol is in his traditional all-black, rocking a clingy, button-down shirt, tight pants and cut-off gloves. Stevens’s long, raven hair is already teased, his sunglasses are on and he’s in full-on guitar god mode. Idol may be touring behind his fourth greatest hits record, but this is no dinosaur show.
“The thing is, they really are my greatest hits,” Idol says, relaxing in his dressing room after sound check. “They really are some of the best songs I’ve done, so something like ‘Rebel Yell,’ it’s really fun every night. When I’m doing it, I’ve often thought to myself, ‘What would have happened if I hadn’t have written ‘Rebel Yell’?’ I’m very thankful for ‘White Wedding,’ ‘Rebel Yell, ‘Eyes Without a Face,’ ‘To Be a Lover,’ and ‘Cradle of Love’— they’re really fun songs and you get a great reaction out of the audience.” Indeed, once the venue’s doors are opened to the flood of fans, the lights go down and Idol takes to the stage, the standing-room-only venue is like one living, breathing organism, all at once shouting along the words to these songs the fans know so well. The energy in the room is electric, and while Idol is indisputably its source, he shares equally the spotlight with his band mates, particularly Stevens, one of rock guitar’s most unsung heroes. The audience hangs on every word, every note, even the extended solo spotlights in which Stevens takes the crowd on a tour of every note along his six-string.
“I know it should seem like, ‘Wouldn’t it be boring after all this time?’,” says Idol. “But in lots of ways, this really is the dream. It’s fun being in a band.
There’s a lot of troubles and tribulations that go along with that. But at the end of the day—I’ve got a cooking hot band, and it makes it fun just to be out there.” Idol is always smiling as he speaks, defiantly ebullient, easy with a laugh and a story. But why shouldn’t he be joyful? The long road he’s traveled on hasn’t been easy, as much marked with tragedy as triumph. The story of Billy Idol starts as the story of William Michael Albert Broad, a young man with rock ‘n’ roll dreams who was in the right place at the right time—the mid-1970s England. He fell in with the loose group of Sex Pistols friends and fans who became known as the Bromley Contingent, whose membership included such names as Siouxsie Sioux and Steve Severin (of Siouxsie and the Banshees) and Adam Ant. Broad first tried his hand at guitar, playing in a group with future members of The Clash and The Damned before realizing his rightful spot was in front of the microphone. With bassist Tony James, drummer John Towe and guitarist Bob Andrews, he formed Generation X in 1976, and thus was born Billy Idol.
It’s telling that Idol still performs hits from his Generation X years, specifically “Dancing With Myself” (later re-recorded as a solo artist) and “Ready, Steady, Go.” Though 30 years old, the ripples from these songs’ impact are still spreading today — every time a scrapping, young punk band plugs away on their first three-chord jam in a ramshackle garage or bedroom, there’s a connection to the ethos of Idol and his fellow Bromley alumni. Idol shared stages with some of the third-generation spawns of the original punk scene a few years ago when he played the Vans Warped Tour in support of his last album of new material, 2005’s “Devil’s Playground.” “It didn’t seem that different,” Idol says of his experience being surrounded by the new crop of disaffected youth. “The only difference was I was nearly
50. That was a bit strange. Most of those groups were 21, under 21. But it’s still rock ‘n’ roll. It’s still a lot young people getting together to make music. It’s fun to see people still excited about music, that it can still kind of beat out the history of your times. You can still write what’s happening in fire and brimstone and we call that rock ‘n’ roll. They can go on finding something new in it. It’s great to see people still find something exciting about playing guitar.” Of course, the meat and potatoes of Idol’s career — and that which keeps the crowds coming back for more — are the songs he recorded in the 1980s on top-selling albums such as “Rebel Yell” and “Whiplash Smile.” After Generation X split up in 1981, Idol relocated to New York City and began to Work on a solo career. He tweaked his signature punk sound, injecting it with a more pop-friendly, new wave-influenced bent. The end result? Idol became an early icon of the MTV era, his lip-curled, platinum blond, leather-and-spikes image becoming nearly defining of the burgeoning music video network. But unlike some video stars of those halcyon days, Idol had the tunes to back up his media-ready image, the evidence of which is clear by the throngs of people filling the Hard Rock’s Joint.
“I remember the world for me before I wrote those songs,” says Idol. “I was looking for the songs, and it was a big thing to find them. It’s like gold — gold is where you find it. Songs are just not on trees, they only happen because you’ve lived. Sometimes you have to go on living to find more songs.” And live he did. Idol’s lifestyle right through the mid-1990s was the epitome of rock star excess. He lived fast, both metaphorically and literally, his infamous 1990 motorcycle accident the most painful evidence. Though nearly crippled as a result, Idol continued to promote his then-new album, “Charmed Life”, even if he had to do it with cane in hand. But it was another four years before the singer would hit bottom, when he nearly died from a drug overdose in
1994. Upon recovering, Idol realigned his life, refocused on his family (he has two children, now 19 and 20) and dropped out of the public eye for a while.
After experiencing a resurgence of interest in his career following his cameo in 1998’s Adam Sandler comedy The Wedding Singer, Idol came back to the fore with a new outlook. He re-teamed with Stevens (who split to start his own band in the early 1990s), appeared on both VH1’s Storytellers and Behind the Music, and eventually took to the road again. Given all that he’s experienced, it’s nearly miraculous that Idol sounds and looks as good as he does. His voice is strong, his body is taut and his mind is sharp. Even Idol seems a bit surprised by his own health.
“It’s unbelievable,” he says, laughing. “After years of taking things out of myself, I realized that it’s really good when you’re on tour to do something for yourself. It may seem to the audience like the gig and everything is all about yourself, but it’s not — you’re doing the gig for everybody. I realized one of the cool things to do was keep yourself in shape, mainly because my body is the platform for my vocals. Otherwise, you can get sucked down into so many pitfalls, whether it’s just getting too caught up in the show or the crowd or drugs. I did that, so I kind of do shit to energize myself too, so when I do get up there, it’s a lot of fun. This way, I could put something back in and not end the tours completely trashed. It is my name on the marquee, so I’ve got to think about that.” Idol’s name being on any Vegas marquee is, to the singer, a revelation. He recalls a time when the Entertainment Capital of the World was, let’s say, a less rocking place.
“At one point, this wasn’t a regular stop for rock ‘n’ roll,” says Idol. “As a matter of fact, Vegas was verboten at one time. It was great to see that change, because that’s what we were waiting for really — for the audience to change, and be the audience that would like rock ‘n’ roll music.” That’s not to say Idol doesn’t have a long history with Sin City. Back in the day, he’d come to town just to hang out (remember that line in “Eyes Without a Face” where Idol sings, “steal a car and go to Las Vegas?”) with friends such as the late Sam Kinison — and even to pay a visit to Ol’ Blue Eyes.
“I saw Frank Sinatra [in] ‘88 or ‘89,” Idol fondly remembers. “It was really magic to see someone as great as him still doing it. He’d come down from his penthouse right onto the stage with his Jack and his cigarette. I just thought, ‘Fucking that’s it, man, that’s what it’s all about.’ If you can still do it, and you can still stand there and you’re proud, then why not? I don’t know if I’ll make it to that age — I think the Chairman was touched by God. Some of us mere mortals might just make it to 60-something.” At the rate Idol is going, there seems to be little reason he won’t “make it” well past the 60 mark as an active performer and recording artist. Though He’s obviously still happy to play his greatest hits on tour, Idol is not content to rest on his laurels. Two new songs are featured on the recently released Idolize Yourself compilation, including the single “John Wayne.” It’s a midtempo rocker that straddles the line between Idol’s past and present: The song is built around that familiar, pulsating, drum-and-bass verse structure found in so many of his 1980s hits, but it takes a layered, overdriven twist in the chorus, Idol’s vocal performance opening into a throaty bellow.
“We were writing songs for another album, so it just happened that we picked the best two songs we had to put on Idolize Yourself,” says Idol. “You try to go forward, and at the same time you don’t want to lose sight of the things that were great to begin with.” Still, with seemingly as much ahead of him as behind him, Idol seems genuinely humbled by not only his own survival, but the persistence of his career.
“I didn’t really think I’d be doing or playing anything at the age of 50,” Idol admits. “I thought it would have all been over a very long time ago. People seem to really have a great time. I think if I came out onto the stage and people weren’t interested, I would know — but it doesn’t seem like that. I find it a little bit wild that people want to stare at me — I like look like a rhinoceros.
But hell, that’s rock ‘n’ roll — you looking like you’re wearing the road.”