Most rock stars use ghostwriters when it comes time to pen their memoirs, but Billy Idol knew the only way to properly tell his story was to write the thing himself. His new book Dancing With Myself — in stores on October 7th via Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster — tells the whole insane story, from watching the Sex Pistols rise out of filthy London clubs to starting his own punk band Generation X to becoming an MTV superstar. We have an exclusive excerpt of the 29th chapter, entitled Top of the World, Ma. It takes place in 1986, just as his fame is peaking and his life is completely falling apart due to drugs. Idol’s first new album in nearly 10 years, Kings & Queens of the Underground, is due October 21st on BFI Records. Fans can pre-order the book and album on Idol’s official website.
TOP OF THE WORLD, MA
West Village, New York City
After I returned to New York, Perri and I moved apartments. First to Jones Street, and then, due to fans hanging outside our front door, to Barrow Street near the West Side Highway, where our window overlooked the end of Christopher Street in the West Village. No one hung outside there because it was so far out of the way of everything. Barrow Street was the first place of my own that I had the money to decorate, so naturally, I bought a black couch, black carpet, and some red velvet drapes to go with the white walls and high ceilings. The black carpet proved to be a source of amusement, as I would sometimes drop a black T-shirt to the floor and it would remain “lost,” sometimes for weeks, until I opened the curtains and discovered it camouflaged in the darkness.
Unfortunately, our life together in that Barrow Street apartment wouldn’t last long. In the gray days of late winter 1986, Perri moved out, leaving me heartbroken, depressed, and alone. Our split was my own fault. My uncaring behavior drove her away. When I returned from the Rebel Yell tour, I carried on as if the tour had never ended, following my own desires, sexual and otherwise, when I should have been spending time with the love of my life.
Now, as I prepared to record my third solo album, eventually to be called Whiplash Smile, my songwriting was driven by the almost overwhelming loss of being separated from Perri. When I go back and listen to this album now, I can feel the aloneness in the very pores of the record. The eerie windswept echoes, the cold plate reverb, the brittle drum sounds, the lost voice echoing into oblivion.
My intent was to use my sadness over losing Perri to the album’s advantage. I tried to evoke some of the great ’50s spirits who took heartbreak and made it their own; legends like Elvis, Gene Vincent, and the late, great Johnnie Ray. My cover of Booker T. Jones and William Bell’s Memphis classic “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” which was the album’s first single, is all about saying how much I desperately needed someone.
I first heard “To Be a Lover” on a George Faith album of old soul songs given the reggae treatment by producer Lee “Scratch” Perry. Geoff Travis, who ran Rough Trade, an independent record store and groundbreaking label, turned me on to it back in 1977 in London. He knows his reggae, and years later I was still listening to my copy of it. The credits said that “To Be a Lover” was written by George Faith, although I later found out about the original, an early-’60s Stax Records recording by William Bell. While considering songs for my new album, I thought to myself, What if you sped it up double-time and gave it an R&B/rockabilly feel rather than the slow reggae groove? Keith got the idea right away. We went to work, realizing our gut feelings and creating something very special. With its electronic Juno bass and wild Richard Tee piano stylings, “To Be a Lover” was a definite statement that we were sticking with some of the R&B flavor we had previously used on “Hot in the City” and “Mony Mony.” The track was exciting, upbeat, and serious to dance to. Steve Stevens played great on this track and really delivered on the remix, putting a killer flag riff at the beginning that wasn’t on the single. He toughened up the remix, adding that extra ingredient that is a staple of Idol recordings.
After the “To Be a Lover” single came out, we played it at a party thrown by Dan Aykroyd’s brother Peter. At the party, a long-haired chap came up to me to tell me how much he enjoyed what we’d done with the song. It was legendary Stax Records guitarist Steve Cropper, who had played on the original version. He was a hero to all of us, so his liking our version was a great boost.
“Sweet Sixteen” is a heartfelt lament with a story behind it. While making Rebel Yell, I read an article about the Coral Castle in Florida, built by a man from Latvia named Edward Leedskalnin. Ed was left standing at the altar by his bride-to-be, so he split Europe for America and, after contracting tuberculosis, made his way down to the warmer climes of Homestead, Florida. It was then he that began constructing an impressive monument made out of massive limestone slabs. A nine-ton slab standing on its side acts as a revolving gate that moves with just a touch of the finger. A giant moon is a functioning rocking chair, also carved from stone. The story goes that Ed supposedly levitated the blocks into place, since no one seemed to help him do it. A truck would arrive with a slab and he would ask the driver to walk away, and when the driver returned, the slab was on the ground with no one else around. This man, with only a fourth-grade education, worked alone at night by lantern light, and stood just five feet tall, weighing only a hundred pounds. He would take people on a tour of the Coral Castle for ten and twenty-five cents, and when someone asked him why he had built it, he would simply say, “It’s for my Sweet Sixteen,” referring to his lost bride-to-be who had so heartlessly left him. It was a coral memorial to her. “Sweet Sixteen” is mine for Perri.
Whiplash Smile had a lot of potential. It should have been a worthy successor to Rebel Yell, an album featuring a real band working, rehearsing, and recording songs collaboratively. But I insisted that I should be the only one writing the songs, and in true punk fashion I insisted on doing something completely different, making this album a synthesizer album. This might have worked if I’d been at the top of my game, but overall I slacked off. Left to my own devices, I fucked up and lost sight of what I could be. I threw away my guidebook of how to make a record. The result was an unfocused performance from yours truly, with a writing and recording process that resulted in alienating my partner Steve Stevens.
Ever since the King Death debacle and Bill Aucoin’s unceremonious departure from my life, I had been descending into a state of virtual slavery to drugs. And with Perri gone also, the situation went from bad to worse. Usually, the manager acts as the voice of reason and keeps the artist cool, but in L.A., I saw Bill Aucoin run amok, and I did not hesitate to dive right in after him, ending up hopelessly wasted.
I replaced the emptiness I felt upon losing Perri with MORE. I built a massive monument to her with sex and drug addiction. I realized that I needed to stop taking heroin, but unfortunately, in order to deal with the withdrawal, I substituted cocaine instead. I had no intention of going through that hell. I preferred to stay in my own coke purgatory rather than having to face going cold turkey. After a while, my nose became so bloody that I reverted to smoking coke instead. From there, it was all downhill.
I would hole up in my apartment smoking and staying awake, at one point for three straight weeks. My concentration on making the album diminished. Everywhere I went I would carry around a small satchel with my pipe, some rocks to smoke, and a butane torch. Even when I made it to the studio, I shoved the satchel in the bathroom, hid it under the sink, and took hits as needed, not thinking the smell of coke would permeate the whole complex. Keith did his best to cover up the stench by spraying the bathroom with air freshener, but it was an exercise in futility. Nothing could prevent anyone in the building from knowing what was going on, particularly Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart, who were in another studio down the hall.
J. D. Dworkow was a great roadie and friend of mine who would come to my apartment to pick me up for my recording sessions. Sometimes I left him waiting more than three hours, as I couldn’t get out without doing another hit of coke, smoking a joint, then freebasing. I would rationalize this behavior by telling myself that, since I was paying J.D., his time was my time. That’s not usually the way I treat people, but I was so hooked, I could justify any action, no matter how heinous. I was fast losing my real personality under a ton of blow, but I couldn’t see that. All I could think of was the next time I would be getting high and trying to avoid any comedown.
I had a drug dealer, Fred, who delivered, and if he couldn’t make it for some reason, in my apartment building was a guy who also sold coke, so I never really lacked for a supply. I’d wake up, do a line, and then smoke a joint to start off the day. After that, I would cook up the coke as a way to relieve my bloody nose.
Eventually, paranoia set in, and I suffered delusions of being watched or filmed. I heard voices, as if people were in the apartment next to me, above me, or below me, and were plotting against me. Sometimes I could see ghostly figures of people just standing around in my apartment; a couple of schoolgirls in one corner; a businessman with a briefcase in another. They didn’t interfere with my coke smoking, so I ignored them.
Finally, all the voices, spectral visions, and drug-fueled paranoia got so bad I called my good friend Bobby Belenchia to talk me down and convince me I was delusional, and that what I was thinking and seeing wasn’t real. When he came to the door, he put his finger over his lips and walked me into a small guest bathroom, where he turned on the sink taps full blast and, as the noise echoed around the hollow, high-ceilinged room, began to talk to me as if anyone listening or recording us covertly wouldn’t be able to hear us. His performance was masterful, just like in a spy movie. I burst out laughing and suggested I do a hit as we talk. Bobby agreed, probably thinking that I would be easier to reason with when I was comfortably in my stoned element. We walked along the wood floor in front of the bathroom doorway and down the three steps that led to the spot in the main living room where I had my pipe, torch, and rocks cut up and ready to smoke.
We talked while I smoked, as Bob did his best to explain that I was high as a kite and was going to have to accept that the coke was making me imagine everything. Just as he was explaining this, I saw what looked like the shadow of a large individual on the long, pale wood floor that led to the front door of my apartment. Bobby saw it, too, prompting us to crawl to the door and open it, only to be confronted by an actual, real-life large bloke standing up against the door with a beer in his hand. We both screamed at once in horror and I instantly slammed the door shut.
“Don’t ever tell me I’m imagining this,” I said, and Bob agreed. We both returned to the living room floor. There had been someone standing there, I wasn’t imagining that. I later found out that the people in the apartment at the end of the hall were having a party and could smell the burning, acrid scent of freshly torched rocks. One of the drunken revelers had stood outside my door to see what was going on. For me, this was confirmation that I wasn’t just imagining these things, which in my condition was convenient validation of my decision to carry on my self-destructive lifestyle with renewed vigor.
Traipsing around New York with that satchel on my shoulder, I went from one bad scene to another. It’s not the best idea to walk around the city high on that amount of blow because your mood shifts quickly. One day I found myself at a Rolling Stones recording session as out of my mind as I could be. Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood were there, and in the corner was the classic soul shouter Don Covay. I whipped into the bog to do a quick hit, hoping to level out, but that wasn’t the effect, and soon after, I found myself having words with Keith. I went into a tirade about something or other, and I could see Ronnie smirking. Of course Keith knew I was pretty fucked up. He wrote in his autobiography, Life, that he doesn’t like people under the influence of smoking blow and I don’t blame him. I feel awful about my mood that day, since I was a guest at their recording session. I’m sad to this day that I let myself get that out of control. After pissing off one of my childhood heroes, I realized I was better off staying at home if I was going to be that high.
I was safer on my own in the dead of night, stoned out of my gourd with the red drapes shut, sitting nude on my black carpet, watching pornography 24/7, which somehow seemed to make sense on that much blow. At that moment, no one and nothing else mattered, only what I was thinking to myself.
Once the pipe split in pieces and I had to gaffer it up so it would work for a short time. Then I realized I was smoking tape instead of rocks. In the dead of night, I walked to the local twenty-four-hour store that sold pipes and butane. After making my purchase, the guy behind the counter looked at me quizzically and warned, “You’re not doing too much of that stuff, are you?” “No,” I told him, rushing back to my apartment in case anyone tried to stop me. I had become so recognizable from MTV that it wasn’t just rock fans who knew me. In that state I didn’t want anyone to see me, lest they interrupt my quick visit for supplies before my high dissipated, leaving me with a massive comedown on some side street.
Suddenly, I’m wide-awake. A form of consciousness returns and I find myself sitting on the floor in the same spot I fell asleep, head forward, hands curled around the pipe, still clutching the butane torch. With an instant click, I’m back in action, the blue-hot, white-hot flame dancing in midair as I place a rock on the inflammable glass at the top of the device. The center of the multitude of screens is carefully spaced apart that will slow the dissolving, melting coke as I chase it down through the sides of the pipe, carrying out a choreographed movement with my hand and butane torch. The torch is a white-hot symbol that would look perfect in the hands of the Statue of Liberty, which proudly stands in the Hudson just a few miles from my apartment window. I light the rock at the top of the stem, which begins to melt, the flame dancing around the stem in a motion I have repeated so many times it has now become ingrained; a measured, routine motion. I chase it down, follow it around, catch it, and burn it while the white smoke billows in the see-through glass, making its way into the bowl. I slowly inhale and the world becomes brighter, the mind expands, and gradually, I’m back in a state of grace.
Fourteen seconds, only fourteen. I hear in my mind the Chinese voice of Benny Gleek, the base guru, the one who uttered the immortal teaching on the correct amount of time to hold in a hit. Like a kung fu master, Benny had made a fortune in some business or other, and now spent his days and nights freebasing. Now, in his stead, I sit alone in my own reverie, enjoying the solitude where time is mine and I am beholden to no one but the white rocks that twinkle their message to “smoke me” in the low light of the white-hot flame. “Top of the world, Ma,” I echo James Cagney in White Heat as I exhale.
Finally, after a couple more hits, I rise from my position and muse to myself that taking this shit is like diving from a board into empty space, guessing whether you’ll land or not. What fucking time is it? Is it day or night? I’ve no idea. I stagger to the window to open the deep royal red velvet drapes, standing on the black carpet. I steady myself as my head spins for a second, and when it clears, I pull the curtains back to see that it is night and there are ten thousand men marching down Christopher Street to the West Side Highway. They walk in unison in a silent candlelit march to mourn the dead and spread the fight against AIDS, all of it right beneath my window. An entire way of life seems as if it is on the verge of extinction as a deadly disease strikes down members of the gay community. No one can anticipate how bad it might get. The world shakes. Who would be next? For the moment, we march and show our solidarity, according to the placards on display. After a while, the vigil continues and I shut the curtains, thinking about the living and the dead. I hear a voice inside my head—I’m waiting—and I forget the march, forget time, pathos, and empathy, and return to where I was sitting. I take another hit, as I know the pipe will have cooled.
I began to enjoy the strange solitude that came with shutting out the world. If I stepped outside my door, I would expose myself to coming down and being inexorably confronted with the pressures of an overpowering celebrity life that was turning into an out-of-control circus.
Before the success of Rebel Yell, I could move about pretty much as I pleased. Now I was a prisoner of that fame. The level of celebrity was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. And so I took some shortcuts to maintain for myself at least an illusion of choice while locking myself out, with the rest of the world clamoring to get in. With my drugs, I could still roam far and wide in my mind without having to worry about anyone disturbing my reverie. I was dancing with myself.
I should have been in a rehab facility, but I had convinced myself that I enjoyed being a drug addict and the weird, lonely world I created. It compounded my feelings of alienation from the world that welcomed the fantasy of me on their living-room TVs but wouldn’t particularly care for the real me in my current state.
When I did venture out to some function, I would require bodyguards to accompany me. I could never be quite sure what was going to happen as I went in and out of places. The MTV audience was so large that I could be accosted at any moment, and scuffles and disturbances would break out if I hung around one spot too long.
Whether or not the bodyguards were protecting me or protecting the people from me is a hard one to figure out, but the old informality I had enjoyed when I first came to New York was a thing of the past. If I went to a club like Limelight, I would have to be ushered to the upstairs VIP section behind a red velvet rope that cut off access to where I was sitting. I would have to invite people to step over the rope just to occupy the same space as me. This sort of power may sound like fun, but I loved the freedom of being a punk rocker, and this stardom trip was a whole different ball game.
I ventured out one New Year’s Eve, toasted from making the album and still reeling from the film that didn’t happen. I went to a party at Limelight and found myself upstairs in the VIP section. A couple of English birds I knew came up, motioning that they wanted to join me. I had been having a bit of a fling with one of them, but nothing serious or regular. In truth, I had grown tired of her and had been hoping to meet someone else on that night, so I shook my head no. I could see she was hurt by my rebuff, and it made me feel vile. I soon realized I was burnt out and drug-sick, and not in any mood to hang, or perhaps I was embarrassed by the “daggers” I was now getting from both of them, so I slipped out the back way, went home, and decided to have a quiet night by myself. Who gave a damn if it was New Year’s Eve anyway?
When I arrived at my apartment, I wasn’t going to take or smoke anything, since I felt pretty knackered. But then I heard a knock on the door. I looked through the security lens and saw it was one of my bodyguards, who had only worked for me previously on a couple of occasions, outside in the corridor with the English girl I’d just left behind at the Limelight. “What did you bring her here for?” I said without opening the door, asking them both to please leave, as I didn’t feel like having any company. Well, the girl didn’t split—seems she had taken some ecstasy. I was getting increasingly annoyed that someone I had been paying to protect me would bring this girl to my home. I tried ignoring them, but the two just wouldn’t leave. After an hour, I threatened to call the police, and while this succeeded in chasing away my bodyguard, he didn’t take her with him. She started pounding on my door—she wouldn’t let up. I called the police, but they didn’t want to get involved. After much cajoling and explaining who I was, they finally showed up and restrained her so that I could open the door and talk to them. I tried to explain, and after a while the cops finally began to believe my story. I told them I didn’t want her arrested, but she was obviously a bit nuts and was not about to leave voluntarily. All the while she was hysterically crying and moaning.
While figuring out what to do, one of the cops engaged me in conversation. “Is this a crazy night, or what?” I offered. “This is nothing,” responded the officer. “We just came from a place where a nude couple stopped the elevator in between floors to have sex. Another resident rang for the elevator, and for some reason, the doors opened despite the elevator being stuck between floors. The resident wasn’t paying attention, and when the doors opened, he plunged to his death. The girl he was with just managed not to follow him.”
“Shit,” I said. “This is nothing compared to that.”
The girl still wouldn’t leave, and it took three cops to haul her away, struggling to shove her into the elevator at the end of the corridor. I started to relax, but five minutes later, the buzzer went off in my apartment. It was the cops calling from the ground-floor intercom, and judging from the background noise, they were still trying to subdue her.
“Just tell her you love her!” the policeman shouted into the intercom.
“But I don’t,” I answered.
“That doesn’t matter,” he said. “Just do it!”
So I did, and that seemed to finally get her away from my apartment. So much for my desire for a quiet New Year’s Eve alone.
From DANCING WITH MYSELF by Billy Idol. Copyright © 2014 by Billy Idol. Published Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission.