Billy Idol on 'The Roadside,' and his mother's scrapbooks

Interview: Billy Idol on 'The Roadside' (MPR)

Mary Lucia connects with punk icon Billy Idol to talk about his new EP, 'The Roadside,' the scrapbooks his mother kept of his work, and why it's important to let art marinate within you.

Watch the entire interview in the video player above, and read a transcript below. You can also listen to a shorter radio edit in the audio player above.

Interview Transcript

Edited for clarity and length.

MARY LUCIA: How are you?

BILLY IDOL: Very well, thank you. I'm doing great.

Good. I wanted to first start off by telling you why it's great to be you. You are so much of an icon in terms of your style, your voice, your songs, your contributions, your very presence--you literally would never be mistaken for someone else. How many people can you say that about? You are your own identity, your own brand--I mean that in the best possible sense. But when I'm talking to you, I feel like I'm interviewing the Chrysler Building.

Not quite as old, but yes. That's fantastic. When you when you start out doing this, initially, you have a lot of hopes, because one of the biggest things you know about music or about voices--it needs to be recognizable. I may not be the greatest singer in lots of ways, but I'm really recognizable. There's so many great singers, who are technically perfect and beautiful, but you can't make it sound like anybody else. So it's fantastic to have all those qualities that you mentioned, I'm really lucky because yeah, somehow or other I developed some of those qualities and they've helped me to last and enjoy what I'm doing. That's a big part.

I mean, no one's ever come up to you and said, "Wait, wait--you are..." No! We know who you are, we know who you are from a mile away.

Well there you are. We do shows where people are a few hundred yards away, so they do need to be able to recognize me, but yeah, I mean, that was it. Trying to create something that was memorable that people could see and recognize. Sort of touchstones about you that would set things off about people's memories. We've always looked at all the people we love--the bands we loved and just what they were doing and how they were making the music stick. Then when we came to do it, we sort of applied a lot of things or even just did the exact opposite. But that was the fun of it, and we had a lot of fun doing it, and I'm still having a lot of fun--and I think that's a big aspect.

Tell me, how was your 2020? I mean, that's a loaded question for everybody. But what what what did you feel like during that whole year?

Well, it was confusing. Saddening watching what was going on and had a number of friends--older and younger friends both affected in many different ways by the virus. It was frightening because you weren't quite sure what was going to go on, or what was going to happen, or who was going to be here and who wasn't going to be here. The one thing we did do to kind of redress the balance was try and make some music. So we got together with Steve Stevens, myself, and this producer we wanted to work with, Butch Walker, and we sort of quarantined together for a couple of months, May and June of 2020, and wrote the EP, The Roadside which is what's coming out on the 17th. That's the best thing we could do, try to do something that sort of redressed the balance for something positive, and I think it worked out really well.

We couldn't put it out immediately because we were hoping we were going to tour it--of course it all got canceled. We just didn't know when we could really put the music out and we wanted to wait 'til we were actually going to play and we were able to do some shows this summer and they're sporadic but we've done twelve so far and we're probably going to end up doing a few more. So it's great we're all out here with the release of the EP and everything, but yeah, last year was very confusing. It was weird time for all of us. I can only imagine, whatever you thought about the virus, it a weird time.

Yeah, absolutely. With this new EP, and the the first single that we've been playing "Bitter Taste," and perhaps the name says it all, but it's a really sad song, Billy, can you tell me anything about that one?

Well, I was sitting there in May/June 2020, and sort of thinking, well, you know, I could see what was happening outside the door. But at the same time, when I write songs it's difficult to just sort of--if something's happening, an event in the world, sometimes you need time to take it in. Let it kind of marinate inside you, and then when it does come out it comes out really naturally and usually very well. So I just thought, in terms of the pandemic, is this the right time to be--when we didn't even know, we were hoping it was going to end by September but no it didn't. We just didn't know what was going to happen, so I thought what else could I write about that was a problem time for me--something I had to overcome, something massive in my life, something that involved hospitals, involved something horrible and something I might not recover from or just didn't know what my future was. I thought back to my motorcycle accident because it was like that, at one point I was gonna lose my leg, and then they managed to save it. It was all touch and go, and then the recovery was kind of horrible, but I made it. I made it through and I just thought if I write about that, maybe there'll be something about that experience--it's not directly about the pandemic but it would it would have some resonance for others.

It does, and it doesn't even necessarily seem to reference the motorcycle accident, I think that there's a a broad enough sense of what this sort of loss--this feeling you can apply to just about anything, which of course is always a great song. I always feel too that there are some people who are natural hermits and maybe use the year to just hide out because that's their normal jam, and then there's those sociables that really felt caught off. Where did you land on the scale, were you somewhere in the middle?

Yeah, I'm kind of lucky because I can enjoy my own company, I grew in England. The weather's not always the greatest and you end up spending quite a lot of time with yourself one way or another. That's probably why I learned to play the guitar and everything in England, but at the same time I'm a social being and I enjoy going out. We were kind of caught in a catch-22 of like, yeah, I want to be normal during this, but you really had to pick who you hung out with, and even that, you just didn't want to spread the virus. I didn't want to. I didn't want to be giving it to somebody or killing someone or something, the idea of that was so awful. Basically, yeah, I hid out and yeah, I could imagine for a lot of really social people it must have been a nightmare. Yeah, they're just so used to--my girlfriend actually is very social. She's very used to going out and then she's almost done the opposite, she's just really hidden away, she really holed up. When it started out we just took it really easy and I'm 65 so I had to think about my age. I'm lucky I'm fit, I work out and stuff so I'm kind of fit, but then I was seeing there's other fit people that weren't doing so well, so there you go. I did actually get the Coronavirus, I had it for Christmas--a wonderful Christmas. It was kind of nasty, it made my voice a bit more croaky. Thanks a lot, it was already croaky enough. I actually recorded the song before I got the Coronavirus, I've got over it though, it was like a really bad upper respiratory infection. I just had a ton of stuff coming out of my lungs, it was revolting. But it wasn't as bad as some other people, so I was lucky. I think I was probably very lucky.

You didn't lose your sense of taste or smell, did you?

No it didn't actually, I didn't it didn't affect me like that. It was more like I had a terrible upper respiratory infection, just a headache. It's just it was horrible, it really hung on too. The symptoms just hung on for a really long time. This kind of phlegm I had just went on forever. I think maybe going on the road cleared some of it up because it got some of it out, you know?

Yeah. Well, I think for any musician, or club owner or anything that's really depending on live music, and performances for their livelihood you just had to get a little more creative about the way you think about it. And maybe when you approach the idea, I know there was just that really short little window in which people felt like, "Well, you know, maybe we can gather in smallish groups," but then again, an artist at your level, it's like, are you just going to pop in and do a living room show? I mean, it doesn't seem like that's quite your thing.

We did a couple of things for charities and stuff like Project Angel Food that helps AIDS and then a few things like that where we could Zoom ourselves, or some kind of link. So we did do a few things like that, but yeah, we couldn't do any shows because you didn't want to gather people together and kill them, really. That's what you felt like, my god, you just don't want to kill your fans.

Usually.

It meant putting everything on the back burner, but we've planned for this summer and we'll probably play in Europe next year. We're kind of back to sorting things out and figuring out doing maybe some US states in the winter/spring of next year, so hopefully we'll be back really sort of playing full time.

One of the things that I miss the most about doing interviews in person is seeing people's footwear. Can you show me your shoes right now?

[lifts foot into view] You can see?

Okay, sneaks!

Yeah, a little bit like sneakers. [laughs]

Okay, yeah, good to know. For some reason I'm always sitting there and especially when the band was performing I never know where to look and I have a tendency to examine footwear. It's one thing I missed by just seeing this part of a person's face. So have you been abroad? Have you gone back to England?

Well no, my mother even died last year in August, I couldn't go to the funeral or anything. I had to watch that, luckily enough they did a camera link to that. She didn't die of the Coronavirus, her heart gave out eventually. But she was at home with my sister in England and she was happy. I spoke to her just before she passed and I could tell she was happy. She wanted to go to my Dad really.

Isn't it interesting when you've had the--I call it the opportunity to be with someone at the very last part of their life. I've often found that the person who's doing the struggling--the person who's dying is almost trying to comfort those that are standing around them as if to say, "I'll be all right." Where you'd think inversely it would be you saying to your mother, "It's gonna be fine, it's gonna be fine." But I've often found in that situation that it's actually the person who's ready to move on that's doing all the heavy lifting. I don't know what that means. But that's just sort of been true in a few different instances in my life anyway.

Yeah, that's right, my mum was kind of accepting. She said to me, you know, my Dad passed in '16--he got lung cancer and died of lung cancer. She said, "I was only really staying strong for Dad," because Mom always had bad heart problems. In fact, I was surprised she lived longer than Dad, but she stayed alive I think for that. To make sure that his last time was comfortable. Then once he passed she said, "Well, I'm not really thinking about myself anymore. I'm not expecting to live on too much longer." She lived on four more years, but you're right. She was very calm and accepting of it. My Dad was saying that, "I had a good innings," cricket innings. I was going on to Berlin and things and he was, "Ohhh, I'd love to be going on," but there you go. But that's right, she was kind of accepting of it

Was your mom the kind of person who saved everything you did?

She did, she did keep scrapbooks and kept all my singles. I think I've got the scrapbook now which had all my press clippings. She kept all of it.

That is really darling. There's got to be something even though you are, you know, the original assassin, punk rock 101. But your mom, your mom's saved all of this stuff for you. I mean, that's gotta warm the heart of any punk rocker.

Yeah, a few years ago, she used to be online talking to the fans all the time. She had 500 of my fans regularly talking to her. She was great like that, she really loved the fans. She loved music, she loved jazz, actually mainly jazz but she loved music so I think she liked that I did music. I don't know if my dad did, I think he was a little bit more...didn't quite understand.

That's amazing, so you've already gotten some of the things from her home have already been sent to you?

Yeah, because we're doing a documentary that will come out--well it's open ended when we finish it because the virus messed everything up. So it's a bit open ended, but we are doing a documentary and yeah, my sister sent me some of the stuff that we may need for the doc, and the scrapbook is beautiful for that.

Oh God, yeah. Who is working on the documentary with you?

It's actually going to be directed by Jonas Akerlund.

Okay, that's amazing--so yes, you'll have all of that. Kind of quick side question, did you watch the Shane MacGowan documentary? The Pogues documentary?

No, I haven't. I want to watch that, it's gotta be fantastic, right?

I'd be curious to know, yeah, it was produced, I think, by Johnny Depp and I think they've been pals for a while.

I watched him getting his new teeth.

Yes. Well, yes, he has new teeth, and he did appear on stage with a lot of people and a lot of fans. I think maybe it would have been--would it have been his 60th birthday? Is that possible? Maybe?

Yeah, he's probably a little bit younger than me. I would think so. Yeah, because he was a teenager in punk rock--he was hanging on the scene and punk rock, he had a band and everything. In the early days of punk rock I remember I was standing behind him. He got his ear bitten off by a girl fan--bit his earlobe off, I was standing right behind him. But, yeah, wow, he had a great career. My mum loved The Pogues, she's Irish.

Of course, well, this will be very--I'm a documentary junkie, and I would love to see how somebody puts and shapes together your story, and I hope that you're a producer on it as well.

Yes, I am. I'm very much involved. And so far, it's been fun. I went back to--because I lived in Long Island for a bit--so we went there to the house on Patchogue, Long Island, Conklin Avenue where I lived since I was about two and a half 'til I was about five and a half. Then we went back to England with Dad--Dad decided that he wanted to go back to England. My mother's Irish so a lot of her sisters and brothers had moved to New York. So we had a lot of relatives in New York, then they all moved down to Miami. I think a lot of them are dead now, unfortunately.

Oh, yeah. Well, I don't want to take up too much more of your time. And you've already showed me what you're wearing on your feet, which is more than a lot of people will actually allow me but the the EP, The Roadside EP, the release date is October?

September 17.

Alright, September 17. That is this Friday, and I'm really sorry for the loss of your Mom, I really am. Even as an adult, you can feel a little bit like an orphan even though we're old and our parents aren't necessarily meant to be parents for the rest of our life. But when you lose them both it's tough, and I have a feeling that you'll get through it too. They sound like lovely people.

Yeah, I was lucky that she lived to 93, and that was pretty amazing because she had about three near fatal heart attacks and she kept going through like metal detectors. The English metal detectors were messing her pacemaker up--a dog once saved her life because she passed out. She blacked out and the dog kept her alive. She had a dog she was taking care of. The dog kept whining and kept her alive. She nearly died about three times so it was amazing. She lived longer than Dad, so I was lucky.

Yeah, that's amazing. Well, Billy Idol, thank you so much. Again, the Chrysler Building.

Yeah, Chrysler Building of rock.

Yes! That's what I'm saying. Thank you so much.

It's a beautiful building, so I'll take that.

Hopefully we will see you on the other side of this, live in-person in concert. Thank you so much.

Most definitely. Thank you.

External Link

Billy Idol - Official Site

Credits

Host - Mary Lucia
Guest - Billy Idol
Producers - Derrick Stevens, Jesse Wiza
Technical Director - Erik Stromstad

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