Billy Idol’s ’80s rock classics have gotten a lot of revisiting lately, thanks in part to the various fan reaction channels populating YouTube. For instance, like many of her young peers, Jayy, the host of The Jayy Show, was floored the first time that she heard “Rebel Yell.” Aware of how old the song was, she then said, without irony, that she hoped he was still alive so she could see him perform. (To be fair, many older musicians she had discovered were not.)
Yes, Billy Idol is very much alive and well — and still putting on great shows, with a string of Las Vegas dates starting Oct. 16. But he’s also aware of the fact that, due to a calamitous event on Feb. 6, 1990, he might not have been here to deliver shows for his fans, or to revel in life as a father and grandfather. On that fateful day, he was riding his motorcycle while high, ran a Stop sign, got hit by a car and woke up dazed on the concrete and in severe pain.
“That was a particularly horrible time for me,” Idol recounts to Billboard via a half-hour Zoom video chat. “For a short time, I wasn’t sure I was going to keep my leg or not. It was frightening, it was painful, it was confusing. I knew I was going to have to come to terms with my drug addiction. I’ve got psychological scars and physical scars from it.”
He knows he was lucky that he didn’t crack his skull because he wasn’t wearing a helmet. He also was lucky that he did not lose his right leg and that he recovered quickly enough to tour again in August 1990, albeit with a cane. The accident did cost him major acting roles in the 1991 hit flicks The Doors and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but it opened his eyes.
“I just knew I had to stop doing things that were hurting me,” he says. “I had to come to terms with the fact that I was cavalier about my life. I had children at this time, so I really had to think about what I was saying to them as well.”
He spent most of the ’90s struggling to kick his alcohol and drug addictions. “I started to change my life,” recalls Idol. “It took me a long time. It took me probably 10 years. A little bit of AA to get where I had the discipline to where I could eventually go back to having a couple of glasses of wine. I don’t drink at home, but if I ever go to a restaurant, I can have two glasses of wine. I’ve found out I’m kind of a lightweight. I really only need a tiny amount.”
During that decade, Idol took a big musical detour with 1993’s Cyberpunk. The cyberculture-influenced and electronic music-infused album — which was going to be the soundtrack to a Brett Leonard-directed sequel of the 1992 movie The Lawnmower Man, but became an Idol album when that project got scrapped — was ahead of its time, and challenged his listeners. It didn’t push his usual musical buttons and featured more contemplative lyrics. But he enjoyed making the album, which he deliberately created while sober. “I had a great time, and I still think there’s things about it that were good,” he says. “I mean, it didn’t have a hit single. That’s probably what upset some people the most.
“It was all about getting away from the drug of society, in a way,” he continues. “It was like combating what was going on in society. I was talking about meditation, about self-healing. People were like, ‘Man, he’s not singing about sex. This isn’t Billy Idol.’ Maybe it isn’t — I don’t know — but I just never felt that was the only thing I was writing about.”
His latest output, The Roadside EP (Sept. 17, Dark Horse Records), reflects his broader perspective on life, offering a more mature but at times still-raucous Idol. He began recording its four songs around May 2020. He knew people who were dying of the coronavirus but didn’t feel ready to take on a pandemic song, so he chose a watershed moment in his life that he felt others could identify with. The result: the somber “Bitter Taste” — a tune recalls both his 1986 ballad “Sweet Sixteen” and Chris Isaak’s classic torch song “Wicked Game” — takes him back to the spot where he could have perished. “U Don’t Have to Kiss Me Like That” invokes the hedonistic Billy of yore, but in the context of hooking up years later with the one who got away. On the flip side, “Baby Put Your Clothes Back On” finds an older, wiser man deciding not to screw up a good thing with a woman he cares for by not jumping into bed too early.
A particular standout is “Rita Hayworth,” a rambunctious anthem in the vein of “Rebel Yell” that swaps out sexual pleasure for a cautionary tale of casting-couch predators. Interestingly enough, when choosing Hayworth’s image, Idol didn’t consider the sexual abuse the famed actress endured from her father, which adds an unintentional layer of subtext; the punk rocker was actually thinking of his daughter Bonnie Blue and her baby girl Poppy Rebel. Idol says when he first became a dad that it made him rethink his attitude toward women — although he points out that his mother was a very intelligent nurse who oversaw a surgeon’s operating theater when she was only 23 years old, at a time when a woman twice her age would have held that job.
Idol is glad that the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have emerged. “My daughter is pregnant with another baby girl right now,” he reveals. “I’m thinking about the future for them. I’m glad this is going on because I want them to be protected.”
When asked if “Rita Hayworth” made him reconsider 1990’s racy “Cradle of Love” video, in which then-18-year-old Betsy Lynn George lustily pranced around an older man’s apartment, Idol replies, “Well, it’s still a lot of fun when girls are allowed to enjoy the way they are. I don’t see anything see wrong with that. It’s more that men have got to realize that we cannot curtail women’s freedoms.”
His attitude is evidenced in his 2014 autobiography Dancing With Myself, where he expressed his admiration for fellow punk (and goth icon) Siouxsie Sioux when they were young because she was already very outspoken about respect for herself and other women. Idol describes his punk rock background as being “kind of gender-free, in a way … it was inclusive of all different nationalities, all races and sexes as well. Back then in the ’70s, we knew lots of people who were in one way or another exploring their sexuality or what gender they were. That was already really going on.”
A fellow singer in line with his ideals is pop star Miley Cyrus. She and Idol performed “Rebel Yell” as a duet at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in 2016; co-wrote and recorded the song “Night Crawling” for her latest album, 2020’s Plastic Hearts; and performed together at this year’s pre-game Super Bowl LV Tiktok Tailgate event.
“She’s a lot of fun, she’s great,” declares Idol. “Since we did that duet, she’s really been working on her voice and everything. I think she’s come a long way — she’s got this power that she didn’t have before.” He calls “Night Crawling,” which was produced by Andrew Watt, “really exciting and a lot of fun to do. I hope to work with Andrew in the future. He was great. Of course, I’d love to do something else with Miley. The song is more of a Billy Idol song really, but it came out fantastic.”
Idol is also impressed by Cyrus’ commitment to her music and how she has changed her visual image. “I just thought it was brilliant,” he says. “She’s willing to take risks, and she’s a lot of fun.” He thinks her investment in her voice is paying off with how way she’s singing lately. “I mean, she’s singing ‘Nothing Else Matters’ with Metallica and really powering it, so she seems to be having a lot of fun with it.”
An even more important musician in Idol’s life is his longtime right-hand man, guitarist Steve Stevens. Beyond their obvious chemistry, Stevens’ ability to move fluidly among genres has made him essential in the singer’s career, for Idol’s music has never just been about snarling punk anthems: He has recorded ballads, atmospheric rockers and even a couple of country-ish numbers, echoing the varied approaches that his original band, Generation X, took. The pair will showcase that variety during four acoustic U.S. shows they will perform between Nov. 27 and Dec. 5.
“He enables me to dream big enough because musically — I can dream big with Steve Stevens,” says Idol. “I think he enjoys that too. The great thing about Steve is he’s always got my back, he has my best interests at heart, and I have the same for him. We want the best for each other. We want to set each other free really as much as possible so that we can enjoy working together. We’ve enabled each other to have a sense of freedom inside of what we do and haven’t locked each other down. It’s been working really great, and so if it’s not broken, I’m not going to try and fix it.”