Billy Idol opens up about addiction, nearly losing leg in accident: 'I could have died'

Billy Idol in 2021. (Photo: Steven Sebring)
Billy Idol in 2021. (Photo: Steven Sebring)

In early 2020, when punk/new wave icon Billy Idol was writing the music for The Roadside EP, his first new release in seven years, he tells Yahoo Entertainment, “It was just at the beginning of the pandemic, but I didn't really want to write a song about the pandemic right then, because it was all so new. And so, I just thought about my own life. What could I write about in my own life?” The answer to that question led to the single “Bitter Taste,” the first time the rock star had ever written about “a life-changing thing that I had to face up to”: his serious motorcycle accident from more than 30 years ago.

On Feb. 6, 1990, Idol ran a stop sign while riding his Harley home from a Los Angeles studio, was struck by a car, and was grievously injured. “I was trying to forget about it, really. But I'd had plenty of time to let it kind of marinate inside me and then bring it out as a song. … I was able to put it to bed, really,” he says. “It was a particularly horrible, painful time, when I really didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't quite know if I could save my leg or, or whether it was going to be cut off. … I'd really seriously damaged my leg, and I could have died in the accident. I was in hospital for a month, and I had seven operations.”

Idol was not wearing a helmet at the time of the crash, and he acknowledges that his injuries could have been much worse: “I was lucky. I only have minimal kind of problems. I'm not too bad. But when you hit the concrete, it leaves its mark — psychological scars and physical scars. I think the accident gave me both.”

Idol eventually had a steel rod placed in his leg and recovered, but at the time the accident derailed his flourishing career. He was set to play villain T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but director James Cameron had to recast the role. What was supposed to be Idol’s major part in Oliver Stone’s The Doors biopic was drastically reduced. And another A-list director, David Fincher, had to get creative when making Idol’s music video for “Cradle of Love” — the lead single from Idol’s ironically titled fourth album, Charmed Life, which came out only three months after the accident. Idol was still unable to walk at the time, so Fincher just shot him from the waist up and turned him into a pop-art painting.

But Idol was less concerned about the professional ramifications of the accident. He was “a bit of a drug addict” at the time, and the crash turned out to be just the wake-up call he needed. “I had to really think about my future, where I was going,” he says. “It was a bit of a watershed time for me. I had to change my life, had to think about things. I mean, I was kind of destroying myself, really. And I had young children as well at that time. I was thinking, ‘What am I saying to them by continuing to be a drug addict and nearly having an accident that seriously hurt me and possibly could have killed me?’ … I needed to get ahold of myself. I was going to kill myself, or I was going to go crazy, or be locked up forever. The motorcycle accident was a good sign of ‘You’ve got to stop.’”

Idol says he was only under the influence of alcohol and “some kind of Quaalude or something” at the time of his accident, but he was “still taking heroin and stuff,” and he recalls with a wry chuckle the immediate aftermath of the crash, when he was on “the highest grade morphine” for the pain and thought to himself, “Man, when you ever going to get something like this again? You're never going to be this high again as you are in this hospital bed. This is the highest you can ever get!” After that, he “started to put the drugs in the back mirror,” but it “took years to kind of develop a discipline, because I felt kept falling off the wagon.”

Idol says that after 10 years, “I kind of got hold of myself and didn’t go searching for drugs. Don't go looking for hard drugs or anything — that's one thing that helps, if you just don't go looking for them! Now I don't know anybody who sells them and stuff. It was just simple things, like not knowing or stop knowing people who've taken drugs. That's just what I started to do, and over time it worked. It took a long time, though. … You are kind of imprisoning yourself with drug addiction, so just as much just as it took some time to get into it and get caught by it, it takes a long time to free yourself. You never really completely free of it, either. Not really. I mean, you're never free of it.”

Idol admits that he still occasionally has “a bit of pot and stuff, things like that, very light stuff, which I think is OK. Actually, I'd prefer vaping pot to drinking alcohol. Alcohol just makes you fat!” he laughs. But he insists that he has everything under control now. “I had to abstain for a long time, but eventually I just wanted to be able, if I go out to a restaurant, to have two glasses of white wine and that's it. I don't have more. You know, I found out that I'm a lightweight! I only need a tiny amount of things. I get blasted really easily. … Before I was super-overloaded, ridiculously overloading, and built up a huge tolerance, but nowadays if I have two glasses of wine, by the second glass of wine, I'm getting near a headache and I'm going to be hungover. And I hate being hungover! So, that stops me.”

However, heroin is something that Idol will never, ever consider taking again. “If I went back on heroin, it’s the fear of getting off it again that is so terrible,” he explains. “That scares you, once you've been on it for a while. You're so scared of trying to get off it. It's a nightmare. Boy George said a great, interesting thing about how you feel when you're coming off heroin: ‘It's like a skeleton is trying to get out of your body.’ That's exactly what it's like.”

While “Bitter Taste” is Idol’s first musical composition that is overtly about his accident, his misunderstood, cult-classic, ahead-of-its-time rave album, 1993’s Cyberpunk, was in fact inspired by this era of his life. “I watched them rebuild my leg, and [punk journalist] Legs McNeil came and interviewed me and he said he saw the sort of device that was on my leg, a thing that helped the bone to grow and stuff. It was all kind of new. And he said, ‘Are you kind of like a cyberpunk?’ And I kind of went, “Wow, maybe I know I started to think about my next record,’” Idol explains.

Cyberpunk was made when “the internet was in its fledgling beginning,” and Idol proudly notes that he was “one of the first artists to ever have his internet address on the record cover; I think I beat Peter Gabriel by two months or something!” The dystopian concept album, originally conceived as the aborted soundtrack for a Lawnmower Man sequel, was a huge risk for Idol, who altered both his sound and his signature look for the project. It was inspired by the music Idol was listening to at the time, like early Prodigy and the Future Sound of London, and many of his fans didn’t quite get it.

“I was trying to mix the sort of rave music I was listening to music with rock ‘n’ roll. They don't really go together, but I always tried,” shrugs Idol. “And that's partly all to do with me recovering from the accident, because I had to self-help, find other ways to other ways to enlighten myself than just drugs. … I was sort of investigating myself in a way by doing that album, and I thought it was good what I was doing. It’s been very misunderstood, so maybe I wasn't clear enough about it, which is a shame, really. … But some people think it's my best album. Some people love it more than my other stuff.

“I enjoyed doing the Cyberpunk record,” Idol continues. “It was very down-low. We did it in my house using the computer as a recording device, because they'd just come out with ProTools. It was very new. And so, I was really using the computer to record and doing everything like an indie record. I think that's what threw people. But people had almost forgotten that I was in a punk-rock group [Generation X] in the ‘70s. Just because you’ve been on MTV, doesn't mean to say that you're going ‘mainstream.’”

Idol didn’t release another album for another 12 years after Cyberpunk, but he’s definitely enjoying a career resurgence right now. Along with his new The Roadside EP, he was recently featured on “Night Crawling,” a standout track on Miley Cyrus’s rock album Plastic Hearts. “I think it was more of a ‘Billy Idol track,’ as it came out as more old-school Billy Idol. I think [record producer] Andrew Watt, he knows how to get the old school Billy Idol sound,” quips Idol. Idol reveals that Watt’s experience with COVID, as one of the first young people in the music industry to openly discuss his positive diagnosis and hospitalization back in March 2020, was also a catalyst for writing “Bitter Taste.”

“We all thought, or hoped, that [the pandemic] would over by September [2020] or so, but I could see what was going on. I could see the confusion that people were going through and also they was possibly going to affect us into the future. And I thought, ‘Maybe [my accident] is an experience that, if I write about it — even if it's not directly about the pandemic — it would give people something they could identify with," says Idol. "And hopefully, that's what's happened.”

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