Billy Idol’s name conjures the sneer, the shock of blonde hair, the leather, and, of course, his trademark rebel yell. Dancing with Myself (Touchstone Publishing), his autobiography that precludes the release of his first new album in nearly a decade, Kings & Queens of the Underground, provides a look at the man behind the image as well as glimpses of musical history outside of Idol’s own large part in the early punk scene and his ’80s rock & roll–pop hybrid.
The book opens with a sense of foreboding, in the early hours of February 6, 1990, after Idol wrapped up the recording of Charmed Life. It’s the morning of the motorcycle accident that almost claimed his life and leg. The incident is the reason the performance clips for the David Fincher–directed “Cradle of Love” video were filmed from the waist up, while he was still recovering.
Before delving into his childhood, when he was known as William Broad and his discovery of music and transformation into Idol, the intro shows one of several turning points in Idol’s life. There’s the requisite sex, drugs and rock & roll, or, as he writes, “booze, broads and bikes.” But it’s not just a rock tale of excess. In the first pages, Idol quotes not only Jim Morrison, but also the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. In fact, there’s the sense that Idol sees himself as a modern-day romantic poet. He often waxes poetic throughout the book, from the descriptions of dawn in the Hollywood hills to the “womblike” embrace of heroin. Sneer if you will, cynical reader, but let’s face it, this guy has the trademark on sneering. And by the first few chapters, you’ll likely be won over.
Idol is the immensely flawed hero of this tale, and even when he’s trashing hotel rooms or personal relationships, the reader is still in his corner (avoiding the flung furniture). Sure, it’s stories told through his perspective, but Idol comes off as intensely likeable, even when he’s indulging his id. There are some omissions in his tale, but he never claims that the book is a tell-all, and Idol certainly has a lot to tell. As with any autobiography, the book is full of introspection and the clearer lens of hindsight, and, in the case of the tales of former addicts, mea culpas. (Idol’s apologies extend from his former longtime girlfriend to Tom Petty.) But he’s never apologetic for his punk rock ethos, even when his DIY ethic hurt him, as with 1993’s commercial flop, Cyberpunk. And there are plenty of descriptions of his own musical geekery and process.
Idol also puts readers front-and-center in the burgeoning British punk scene, where he was integral as frontman for Generation X, and he also includes vignettes of other important times in musical history. He paints a vivid picture of the feel-good ’50s, when he saw John F. Kennedy while briefly living on Long Island as a young boy, and England’s cultural revolution of the ’60s, from buying his first Beatles’ single to attending hippie festivals. In the ’70s, he, of course, gets into the British punk scene and then in the early ’80s moves to New York City, finding his own success—and well-documented excess—as a solo artist, when “the party was 24/7, and (he) could stretch, suspend, and fold time like it was elastic.”
Overall, it’s a fascinating look “behind the music,” as well as an introspective examination at what was going on in his head behind the hits and headlines. Dancing with Myself is the story of Idol as a punk rocker–turned-rock-star who, though often flawed, has blazed his way through life on his own terms.