Billy Idol wanted to show people that his music matters, so he decided to write something other than an album: a memoir. “There is an artist there, and there is someone who does love, who does care, who does believe, someone who loves music,” he says.
Earlier this month, the sneering singer released the book Dancing With Myself, his own wildly entertaining account of how the Londoner born William Broad came up through the British punk scene to transform into a mainstream rock singer who could live up to the name Billy Idol. Between stories behind hits like “Rebel Yell” and “White Wedding,” the vocalist opens up about his battles with drugs and alcohol, shares stories of what he describes as “sexual deviancy” (including one that landed him in court) and relives the harrowing 1990 motorcycle accident that put his career on pause.
Now that he has slowed down, Idol says he’s grateful to be able to talk about his exploits in the past tense. The experience even led to the singer’s first album of original music in nine years, Kings and Queens of the Underground, which comes out on October 21st. “It all began when we wrote the song ‘Kings and Queens of the Underground,'” he says. “It’s got a story, and it’s my story. It’s my story in song. It was a big song for us to write, and it took us down a certain road that led us to reinterpreting the sort of classic style song of mine for the 2014s. We had a new world in front of us again.”
In the song “Kings and Queens of the Underground,” you praise Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols for inspiring you. What do you remember about seeing the Pistols live?
Seeing the Sex Pistols back then was like a fucking, Christ, being St. Paul on the road to Damascus or something. You’re kind of getting a vision of what the new world is going to be like – the world with no future. Here was the answer, and here was Johnny showing us what we should do. We should get up off our asses and do something. When I saw the Sex Pistols, it just showed me, “These are guys who are the same age as me doing what I could do. If they can do it, there’s nothing stopping me doing it.”
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Me and [Siouxsie and the Banshees guitarist] Steven Severin wanted to start our own group, and he and Siouxsie wanted to start their own group. I nearly was in Siouxsie and the Banshees at one point. Seeing the Pistols was a huge moment for all of us, for our disaffected youth at that time. We were disenfranchised youth on the scrapheap. We started by seeing the Pistols and then starting our own groups. It sort of snowballed, gradually.
Most recently, you’ve used that ethos to put out this record on your own label. I can guess what its name, “BFI,” stands for.
Yeah [laughs]. “Billy Flamin’ Idol.” “Billy Freaking Out of His Mind Idol.” You’ve met me before in that Rolling Stone interview for your cover. “Billy Idol’s out of his mind crazy.”
You dedicated a whole chapter of your book to telling the story behind your 1984 Rolling Stone cover, and how you feel you drank too much wine and were in a “dope-sick state,” talking about how much you did not want to be on the cover.
In my book, I actually apologize to that lady who did that interview for you [journalist E. Jean Carroll]. She was such a nice lady. I really took everything wrong. I’d made a great album with Rebel Yell. I really should have been talking about that music. I was so out of my mind with the alcohol and being dope-sick, paranoid and crazy [Laughs]. That lady was so lovely. I really should have been taking her around the New York scene and telling her about what a great record… I shouldn’t have said what I was saying in that interview. I really have regretted saying that. I did try to make up for it in my book. I hope I have.
It seems like that story haunted you for a long time.
Yeah, it did really. That’s not really what I thought about Rolling Stone. I always thought how brilliantly you did so much to help John Lennon [with his immigration problems]. I don’t know why I freaked out like that. I included it in the book as a nice way of saying, “I’m so sorry for what happened.” It was par for the course in those days. I was really “high horses.” You do some daft things when you’re young. But, then again, I don’t think it really affected my music or what happened in my life or career. It was a momentary thing, and it was a bit of a shame. I tried to, sort of, apologize for it a little bit in my book, I think.
One of the things I like about your book is how you tell the stories behind the songs.
I have some nice little stories about the songs, like how drinking Rebel Yell whiskey with the Rolling Stones helped bring about “Rebel Yell.” If someone had told me that I would get a song from the Rolling Stones, when I was 10 I would never have believed them. Between the bottle of booze I’d been drinking and the Stones, it was incredible.
A particularly interesting story is how going to a Tokyo disco inspired “Dancing With Myself.”
If you went into a discotheque in 1978 in Japan, they were all dressed like Saturday Night Fever. But the one thing they were doing that was differently than in England and America was they were dancing to their own reflections in the mirror and not really with each other. They were just looking at themselves.
I happened to say to [Generation X bassist] Tony James, who always usually came up with the song titles, “Hey Ton, they’re dancing with themselves.” He went, “‘Dancing With Myself,’ that could be a song title.” And I remembered that a few months later, when we came to start writing the third Generation X record, which became Gen X.
From my experience, people have not been taking the lyrics to “Dancing With Myself” literally.
I think a lot of people think it’s about masturbation but it really was about these disenfranchised youth dancing and that was their world, really. For the time being, they danced with themselves. And that was their answer for that moment. And we sort of lionized that into an anthem for them, I hope.
But I mean, there’s a masturbatory element to it, too. There’s a masturbatory element in those kids dancing with their own reflections. It’s not too much further to sexual masturbation. The song really is about these people being in a disenfranchised world where they’re left bereft dancing with their own reflections. These kids were almost disaffected from each other and with their own reflections.
You open your book by recounting the motorcycle accident that landed you in the hospital. Was that hard to revisit?
Some of the book wasn’t easy to write. Some of it was fun. Some of it exhilarating. Some of it made you feel sick and made you want to throw up but you went forward and the reward is finally holding the book in my hands. But the motorcycle accident was something, where I never liked thinking about having to recover from it. I always said to myself, “I can’t wait ’til it’s 20 years away from the motorcycle accident, so it’s in the rearview mirror.” It was such a horrible experience. And of course it was my own fault. I thought that was the best place to start the book, where I could say, “Look, here’s me paying the piper everybody.” [Laughs] I was living high on the hog, “Billy High Horses” thing, and ended up squashing myself underneath the car.
But then again, it gave me this wild, out-of-body experience where I went into this red dimension and amid all these other beings, other spirits who were living in this other time above us or near us. And they spoke to me. They spoke through me. They spoke with their minds into my mind and filled me with love and joy. And I wasn’t sure where I was. When I came back down into my own body and found out I was still alive on the road, it was a second chance.
Then I had to go to the painful thing of recovering, which is sort of horrible, but mind you that was one hell of a way to get into hospital and all that morphine. I was such a druggy junky, it was the most incredible experience sitting there with all those pain boxes [which regulated the flow of morphine]. Every 12 minutes going, “boop.” Wow! They had to put me on lockdown.
Fortunately, my dad told the doctor I was a junky and then I ‘fessed up. He said, “Mr. Broad, you’re drinking the pain medicine in. Is there anything you want to tell me?” I said, “It’s OK, chief. I am a junky.” He said, “We’re just worried you won’t get off it when you have to.” And I said, “I will get off it when I have to.” And it was a whole other experience coming off the morphine with a broken leg with it all open being repaired and coming off the junk. It was the best stuff in the world. So coming off it was a nightmare. But I did it.
It took me two weeks to get off the morphine and of course a few months it goes on for months, really feeling terrible. But I was used to that in lots of ways. I had already been through heroin withdrawals a number of times. But that was one of the last times I went through that. I decided that after that experience in the hospital, that was the end of my heroin-taking days. “You were never going to be on that gear again,” I told myself. I put [heroin] to bed in lots of ways.
I became a cocaine addict after that. Smoked dope and it took me 10 years to get off that. But anyway, that’s a whole other story that’s in my book.