Fourteen year old Tulip lurrvvved her some Billy Idol. Those cheekbones, those eyes, that mouth, the leather and the hair. Just hearing his voice on the radio could make me wet. But, after the Rebel Yell album, I moved on. To real boys (Pete Swenson, mmm, mmm) and other artists: Depeche Mode, Prince, a brief flirtation with Metallica and a longer one with country music. In fact, I didn’t know he had been in a serious accident until I read the concert brochure about 6 or 7 years ago at a concert at Wolf Trap. (Dear God, I’m old, I saw Billy Idol at Wolf Trap!)
It was a great concert; just a bare bones set, but he did all his hits with energy and conviction. When he first came out, he did a strip tease to lose his white silk shirt and switch to a black leather vest (to match the black leather pants). He is still incredibly sexy. After the strip tease, he ran out on stage right and posed with a fist pump and flexed his abs for people to take pictures. After a moment, he ran to stage left and posed and flexed while the flashes went off. It was a perfect acknowledgment of the nostalgia his concert represented, done with humor. After the concert was over, I forgot about him again.
Until…I came across his autobiography “Dancing With Myself”. Apparently, he wrote it without a ghost writer. Hell, yes, I had to read this! So, last weekend, I put the “Very Best of Billy Idol” on the stereo and sat down to read it. It is a great read, but somewhat uneven. He does a fantastic job of creating a sense of time and place in the early chapters discussing his time in Generation X and first arrival in the U.S. The best part is getting a sense of what a fan he was – he was so excited to play on stages where he had watched acts. The discussions about how he wrote the songs and what they meant is fun. Once he can afford drugs everyday, (I was high and did something stupid), it does become a little boring.
But, once I finished it, I was left with the conviction that Billy Idol is the greatest performance artist ever. Better even than Trump. I mean, he did name the book for his masturbation song, which is hilarious and punk as fuck. When discussing the writing of the song, he never mentions masturbation. Instead, he says it was based on seeing Japanese teenagers dance with their own reflections. Uh, huh. Fourteen year old me and my friends knew exactly what that song was about. So, I’m not convinced that he is a reliable narrator. I mean, Billy, we’ve heard the song, and from reading the book, he is too smart for that. So, again hilarious.
From the beginning of the book, it’s clear that his goal is to become a rock star. He mentions watching and discussing performance artists, while perfecting his own performance. The music that gets him there is secondary, despite the book’s focus on writing the music. His real goal is to be a rock star. His first meeting with Steve Stevens focused on what it means to be a rock star and only secondarily on what kind of music he wants to play.
His ultimate approach though, is to become a parody of a rock star. His very name – Idol – is all about parodying the idea of a rock star. And, he has always been a caricature or parody. The leather, the hair, the first pumping, the sex, the drugs. It can only be explained as parody. Don’t believe me? Watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uvTaDn03qtQ (preferably with the sound off – any 80s video with the sound off is hilarious). Not only is he parodying being a rock star, he is parodying himself being a rock star and laughing while he does it. I mean, c’mon, the cunnilingus thing, the humping Steve Stevens. Seen that way, this video is an absolutely brilliant performance. Too bad he bought into his own performance and completely descended into sex, drugs, and rock and roll as if he were a Roman emperor.
I’ve seen a lot of reviews of this book that talk about how he didn’t hold back and how sensitive it is. My take is different. My first thought on finishing the book was, “Christ, what an asshole!” Yes, he’s careful to not throw other people under the bus. He’s still an asshole. If, every few pages you detail an example of how you were an asshole, you’re an asshole – drugs or not. Finally, despite being a brilliant performance artist, I see him as an essentially shallow man who wrote an essentially shallow memoir.
Fifteen year old Tulip would have given anything to meet Billy Idol. She would have dropped to her knees and blown him and done anything else he asked. Such is the power of celebrity and image. Today’s Tulip looks back and thinks…ick, not enough Lysol in the world. Unless, of course, my view of him as the ultimate performance artist is correct. Then, I want to smoke a joint with him, and maybe meet John Lydon.
On my stereo or on a stage, I like him just fine, but I have zero interest in meeting or fucking him. I give his autobiography 4 out of 5 stars for the fantastic nostalgia trip it gave me and recommend it to any other child of the eighties.
Even a review on Amazon that mentions his respect for women. Whaaaa??? Did we read the same book?
Interestingly, there are a lot of people who insist Billy Idol was never punk, just a hanger-on. Johnny Rotten isn’t one of them.