I was looking at performance and interview videos of Billy Idol this week to both catch up to him and look back at his history. My favorite interview is from 1984; Billy Idol is at the height of his fame, sitting across from a flummoxed David Letterman. The impossibly fresh-faced Idol sits amused as Letterman tries to navigate their interview. Idol looks like he’s simultaneously ready to laugh and sneer as he talks about his music and life; Letterman balances snark, irony and genuine interest. Both are playing a part and are too wary to really drop their guards. They’re both savvy enough to know they’re part real, part a projection of what the audience expects them to be. When Letterman asks if people bother Idol on the streets of New York, Billy says that most people leave him alone, but some tourists “…Think you’re a Disneyland cartoon or character instead of something real, you know?” For a moment you can see the serious artist emerge underneath the peroxide and leather. With his bleached punk hair, cocked lip and brash youthfulness, it would have been easy to mistake him for a cartoon character back then. Countless ‘80s acts flashed and vanished with a hit and a catchy video as their legacy; YouTube is littered with their day glo clothes, a LeRoy Neiman wreckage of parachute pants and Aqua Net.
Fast forward to 2023. Dave is retired with a massive beard (I’ve met him in person, it looks fabulous) and an engaging Netflix series where he does the kind of unvarnished long form interviews he maybe dreamed of back in the ‘80s. As for Idol, it’s heartwarming that almost fifty years into his career (he started with Generation X in 1976) he’s become an elder statesman of punk rock. It’s been a rough road including a harrowing motorcycle accident back in 1990 and a recent bout with MRSA, but he’s back and in fighting form. One of his side gigs is a show on SiriusXM (Live Transmission) where he talks passionately, deeply and intelligently about music. It’s fascinating to hear his insider’s view -whether it’s via an I-was-there anecdote or an earnest discussion about musicians and songs that changed his life. Call it maturity, call it gravitas, but it suits both men wonderfully; it would be fascinating to get them together again to talk now that they can talk unguardedly. Maybe someday.
Despite the wonky recent Ohio weather, the night was perfect. It was my first outside concert this year and it’s always a treat to be back at PNC Pavilion.
Relative unknown (her tour shirts said “Who the F*ck is Kelsy Karter?”), Kelsy Karter & the Heroines opened. Karter’s big raven hair and studded black leather were reminiscent of Idol’s early outfits and style. She copped that her main job (other than singing and looking pretty) was to get the crowd amped up for Billy Idol and she gushed that it was a dream come true. Stylistically, her voice and music have bits of Lita Ford, Amy Winehouse and even Ann Wilson (most evident on her cover of Heart’s “Alone”) and she more than did her job.
After a brief break, Billy Idol took to the stage to the enthusiastic, sold-out crowd and wasted no time breaking into an energetic “Dancing with Myself.” The crowd stood and would remain standing through the entire set as Idol stalked the stage, pumping his fist and amping up the energy. Apart from a few new songs, the set featured almost all his hits and “Cradle of Love,” “Flesh for Fantasy,” “Eyes Without a Face” all got their moments. Whether it was punching the air to his old Generation X song “100 Punks” or yelling in call and response to “Mony Mony,” the crowd fed his energy and he reflected it back.
At 67, Idol is still a great performer. Idol switched outfits frequently, stripping off his shirt during “Flesh for Fantasy,” donning a bedazzled Misfits jacket for “Mony Mony” and even sporting a Billy Idol t-shirt later in the set.
As for Steve Stevens, he’s one of the most unsung guitar heroes of the ‘80s; not as flashy as Eddie Van Halen or as sinuously majestic as Prince, but still a skilled player with a distinctive style and his own iconic riffs. He got to prove it when the stage cleared to let him rip through some guitar solos. Amidst billows of smoke, he effortlessly noodled pieces of Led Zeppelin (“Over the Hills and Far Away” and “Stairway to Heaven”, playfully slapping his left hand to stop it from playing). He polished it off with a quick run through Eddie Van Halen’s guitar hero workout “Eruption” and didn’t break a sweat at the complicated piece.
With such a rich back catalog, Idol could have easily stuck to all old material, but he included a few recent songs from the two EPs he made during lockdown (The Roadside and The Cage). He also teased a new 9-song album is in the works. The new material is strong and suits his modern voice and delivery.
“Cage” is a catchy, crunchy power- punk song borne out of the pandemic. The staccato lyrics ratcheted up before the searing guitars kicked in:
I can dream all that I want
But I'm not goin' any place
I can tell you all my feelings
When I'm staring into space
And the road is an illusion
I just keep to pass the days
I'm counting down the seconds
'Til I'm making my escape
“Bitter Taste” is a nod to his horrific motorcycle accident 33 years ago (“If I learned one thing it’s ‘don’t ride high’). The plaintive acoustic song recalled Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman a Soon” or Afghan Whigs’ “Algiers.” The slower, open sonic space let his lyrics shine:
Jagged stain on my skin
Broken leg, born again
Wide glide, upside down
Twisted frame, my new crown
He introduced “Running from the Ghost” by talking about his past addiction and admits he still struggles with the voice that says, “Go ahead, try it one more time.” It’s a vulnerable moment beyond the younger Idol on Letterman’s couch. The song started off jazzy and quiet with atmospheric synth and then opened up into almost Iron Maiden-esque guitar squiggles. Idol claims one of his granddaughters (yeah, he has four grandkids) loves the song.
The main set ended with a fervent “Rebel Yell” and Idol stripped off his t-shirt and threw it into the crowd as the band exited.
When Idol came back on stage, he was shirtless under an imposing black leather trench coat to finish up the night with “Hot in the City” and “White Wedding.” Other than a few missing hits (“Catch My Fall” and “To Be a Lover” would have been great), it was a near-perfect run through of his catalog.
When Letterman asked Idol about acting in 1984, Idol presciently responded he might be interested, but he knew what he was capable of and didn’t want to take away from consummate actors (note – if not for his 1990 motorcycle accident, he was James Cameron’s pick to be the T-1000 in Terminator 2).
“I’m cool with doing silly cartoon things, it’s good fun. At the same time, I’m a real person and I am playing at the moment and I do mean it. And you can’t take that away from me.” Turns out the only role he’s ever needed to play is Billy Idol; these days he’s just a bit better at it.
Dancing With Myself
Cradle of Love
Flesh for Fantasy
Eyes Without a Face
Steve Stevens guitar solos including Over the Hills and Far Way (Led Zeppelin) / Stairway / Eruption
Running from the Ghost
One Hundred Punks – Generation X song
Hot in the City