Billy Idol is clearly doing something right. I’m not talking about the sold-out show at Oakland’s Fox Theater last Sunday night, February 15, that had StubHubbers frantically buying tickets after they got snatched up months in advance. I’m not referring to the monstrous roar from the crowd that greeted him and nearly every song in the set, whether old or new, as well as every lick and stroke and slam from his band. And I’m not focusing on the contagious power of the new material that is, decibel for decibel and pound for pound, as good as the best parts of the catalog that first made him a star. Although these are all proof enough that Idol’s onto something good. Nope. Rather, I’m talking about the fact that the singer, who turns sixty later this year, looks and sounds good, maybe even better, than ever. Even more than that, the evidence that shows the man is on the right road? Billy Idol looks happy.
You don’t need to read Dancing With Myself, his tell-all book published just before the release of his new album, Kings and Queens of the Underground, and its subsequent, like-named tour to know that Billy Idol has spent many years grappling with his demons (though it is an intelligent, engaging, and at times harrowing read that you might not want to pass up). But seeing his focused performance and the sheer joy that he had being on stage at The Fox was insight into a clarity of mind that was not present when I saw him in the summer of 1984. That show was still a meaty slab of punk rock, but from my edge-of-the-stage vantage point at the Johnstown War Memorial, pre-firewall days, I could see the singer’s snarls and leaps were executed between some bobs of his head as his eyelids hung heavy. Yet even in that state, he delivered a raucous show. The man was born for the stage.
Fast-forward to more than thirty years later.
Idol bounded onto the stage, fists thrust and lip curled, but as he ripped thro
gh the new, scene-setting “Postcards From the Past,” it was immediately clear he had outpaced his former demons. Running exuberantly across the stage from his mike to his band mates, reveling in the crowd’s welcome, Idol repeatedly flashed his winning grin.
And why wouldn’t he smile? After years of estrangement, he’s back on stage with Steve Stevens, the guitarist whose virtuosity and technique he identifies as being just as responsible for the “Idol sound” as his own voice. They are a classic pair, as much as Plant and Page, Jagger and Richards, Tyler and Perry, or Bowie and Ronson. At one point, Idol even knelt down in front of Stevens, mid-solo, in a not-quite-as-racy homage to the famous Bowie-Ronson blowjob pantomime. Idol frequently allowed Stevens to hold court during the evening, and the guitarist for his part delivered plenty of wow. In an extended solo, while the other players changed and refueled, Stevens displayed his incredible talent, sampling flamenco, Jimmy Page, Steve Howe, and what sounded to these ears like a Manuel de Falla piece. Every bit the showman as his collaborator, Stevens routinely posed at the edge of the stage and allowed the smartphones to enjoy every byte. The guy not only melts the guitar, he gives good Instagram.
Throughout the night, Idol invited his other band members to share the front of the stage, and at times upstage him completely. They were a deserving bunch that included guitarist Billy Morrison, bassist Evil McG (Stephen McGrath), drummer Erik Eldenius, and keyboardist Paul Trudeau.
The crowd was an interesting and rowdy mix of MTV-weaned Breakfast Clubbers, rockers sporting faded tees and faded tats or memorabilia from Idol tours past and present, and, in one coterie, several pairs of gravity-defying boobs along with time-and-face-freezing Botox. The audience’s collective energy and enthusiasm showed that the interest in Idol was more than mere nostalgia. Lyrics to new songs like “Can’t Bring Me Down” were shouted out as loudly as those to “Flesh for Fantasy” or “Rebel Yell.” The oldest members of the audience, which included yours truly, were rewarded for their years of fandom with a trio of classics from his early band Generation X: “Dancing With Myself,” “Ready Steady Go,” and “King Rocker.”
Musically, Idol and his band kept things close to the original arrangements, though “Eyes Without a Face” has matured especially well. An unembellished acoustic intro to “White Wedding” proved that when you write a good song, well, you write a good song.
One of the lasting impressions of Sunday night’s show was how William Broad’s Billy Idol persona was made by his fans as much as by his own talent and charisma. And both parties, at this age, seem very happy with that arrangement. Sure, there had to be plenty of flashbacks and moments of wistful longing in the crowd as anthems that helped define formative years were heard again, live. Yet there was also the awareness that this show was very much in the now. And when it comes down to it, isn’t that where people in this demographic, myself included, should be?
Yes, it’s great to discover the newest artists and bands, because they will always have their influence, regardless of age, and the ongoing dialogue between artists and fans always needs new and stimulating points of view. But considering Annie Lennox’s much-shared comments of recent months about a youth-oriented culture that “discards people once they reach a certain age,” it was refreshing to see this wildly rambunctious crowd, several decades in, not reliving their past so much as realizing how they can define their future. They certainly had an inspiring example in front of them: Fifty-nine-year-old Billy Idol performed and entertained for nearly two hours with the energy of a conditioned athlete — and he looked good doing it. There were lessons to be learned by his performance and attitude, regardless of one’s vocation or age. Thanks for sharing, Bill. That was some awfully good matesmanship of you.