Saturday, December 20, 2014

Billy Idol's autobiography adds depth to new album

Among the glaring omissions in the list of 2015 Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame inductees announced earlier this week is Billy Idol, especially given the upcoming induction of second wave (or third, depending on who you ask) punks Green Day. I understand that some of my other favorite influential early punk rockers may not have the cultural notoriety or mainstream hits of the latter day favorites who certainly grew beyond its punk beginnings, but that's not true of Idol who has had a long, hit-filled career  nearing its 40th year.

Idol has a habit of recurring. Every decade or so I feel like he pops back up in my life in a big way. In 1981 he was one of the first faces I saw on my TV screen when my parents brought home the little brown cable box that brought MTV into our lives. The bloody finger of "White Wedding" was both horrific and fascinating to a 6 year old girl, but no matter how strange the images, I couldn't turn away from the infectious guitar rock.

A decade later he'd conquer MTV again with "Cradle of Love" and "L.A. Woman," but my true love for Billy Idol didn't really hit until another decade had passed. I was living in Arizona when VH1 released his "Behind the Music" special in 2001. My sister and I went to see him and Steve Stevens play live at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and it is hands down one of the best concerts I've ever seen. Part of that memory is that I was standing ankle deep in a pool by a man-made beach in a crowd that was reenacting an MTV Spring Break special. But it was also Idol reveling in the performance. I was clued into deeper cuts and lesser hits I'd never heard before and new material stood up to the old. You can watch one his other Mandalay Bay concerts here.

Fast forward another decade when my children discovered Idol, unearthing not only hits like "Dancing With Myself" but absorbing his 2005 album "Devil's Playground" and his work with his late `70s British punk band Generation X.

In October Idol released his autobiography, "Dancing With Myself" and new album, "Kings and Queens of the Underground." I wasn't completely sold on the album until I'd read the book. I think part of that was that the opening track "Bitter Pill" is a bit of a mid-tempo, reflective start that lacks punch and I'd grown accustomed to the punkier sound of "Devil's Playground" and Generation X. "Kings and Queens" is a more diverse record that plays on some of the earlier influences Idol covers in the book that - once he points them out - you start noticing throughout his catalog.

Knowing the stories behind songs like the title track adds depth as well. The bulk of the book covers Idol's early years growing up both in the US and UK and his membership in the group of Sex Pistols' followers known as the Bromley Contingent, which birthed not only Idol but my beloved Siouxsie and the Banshees. I get a kick out of reading about an era that made such a big impact on me as a fan.

Idol appears to have written the book without the aid of a co-writer. You can hear his voice in it as he recollects about these early years in great detail. The latter section is less detailed. When his longtime girlfriend Perri Lister (star of those `80s videos) finally leaves him after hearing him on the phone with his mistress over their son's baby monitor, you wonder if he really recalls it or if he read it in Rolling Stone like the rest of us. I wondered if the fog of drugs he was admittedly under makes this period in his life all blur together. Or maybe he just remembers it less fondly and doesn't want to dwell.

That's not to say the latter portion takes away from the strength of the book as a whole. It's one of the better music biographies I've read (the Carter Family's 2004 being the best - it reads like a soap; Lemmy's "White Line Fever" being the most disappointing for it's lack of intimacy).

As for the album, there are thought out musical and lyrical links both to the book and Idol's earlier years. During "Kings and Queens" (the song) I picture a young Siouxsie, Banshees' bassist Steven Severin, Idol, Lister, and those other characters of the scene. On "Kings and Queens," "Love and Glory" and, to a degree, "Bitter Pill," Idol illustrates his strength as a crooner, which we've heard throughout his career. It comes naturally to Idol. He is 59 (my son likes to remind me of this) so before he discovered rock n' roll he grew up with Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Elvis. Time hasn't hurt his range either.

"Save Me Now" and "Can't Break Me Down" (featured in the video above) are two of the more rocking tracks. Knowing Idol's father preferred the former as he was lying on his death bed earlier this year also gives it more weight. It's my kid's favorite too, which I guess speaks of its cross-generational pull. "Postcards from the Past," a phrase Idol ends the book with, is a heavier rocker that includes musical references to "Rebel Yell," "White Wedding" and his Cyperpunk days. "Eyes Wide Shut" obviously references "Eyes Without a Face."

The album has grown on me. It's now a staple in our car. It helps that the kids love him too, of course. But if you're on the fence or just want to expand your understanding of the record, I recommend checking out the book too. Although I'm still surprised by the level of functioning drug addict role models that my childhood had to offer (he did not look like an extra from "Trainspotting" even at his worst), "Dancing With Myself" gives new respect for Idol's work and career - a career that should garner him a place in rock n' roll history.