Billy Idol can still hear the bang of his Harley-Davidson motorcycle colliding with a car the morning of Feb. 6 near the intersection of Fountain and Gordon in Hollywood. The impact hurled him to the pavement, crushed his right leg and left him momentarily unconscious.
"It felt like (I hit) a brick wall," Idol said in a recent interview. "I suppose I sort of blacked out from hitting the street, but I came to very quickly.
"The first thing that came to mind was trying to figure out just how badly hurt I was. . . . I was lying on my side and I looked at my arm and it was all withered up. But the most pain was from my leg. When I lifted it, I could see stub (bone) sticking out. . . . I knew then that I wasn't going to be able to move. . . . I just laid back and waited for the ambulance."
At the time of the accident, Idol--whose spiky, platinum-blond hair and pouty good looks are among rock's most identifiable trademarks--was on his way back to the Hollywood recording studio where, just hours before, he had put the final touches on his first album in nearly four years.
Idol, 34, had gone home around 2 that morning to sleep before getting his Hollywood Hills house ready for his parents, who were going to spend a few days with him. But he found he was so keyed up from finishing the album that he couldn't sleep.
He felt the album, "Charmed Life," would be an important step in his evolution as an artist--an album that could move him beyond the cartoon-like, punk-rebel image conveyed by his string of early hits, including "White Wedding" and "Rebel Yell."
Knowing that tapes of the new album were being run off at the studio, Idol decided around 8 a.m. to go back and pick up a couple of them to play at his house for his parents and friends.
The rock singer usually rode his Harley either along La Brea or the Hollywood Freeway because he normally went to the studio late at night when there was little traffic. But to avoid the morning rush-hour congestion, Idol took a different route on Feb. 6, traveling along some unfamiliar side streets.
"It was a beautiful morning and I was thinking about the tour and how much fun it would be to play the new songs," he said.
Then . . . bang!
When the near-fatal crash was reported on the news that day, it was easy for many to assume it was yet another story of a wild rock 'n' roller self-destructing. (According to police, Idol was at fault for running a stop sign, but no charges are being filed.)
And certainly, for most of the '80s, Idol was one of the most colorful symbols of rock rebellion.
Like so many other rock stars, Idol was hugely influenced by Elvis Presley. But where Bruce Springsteen blended Presley dynamics with Dylan imagination to represent the thoughtful, idealistic side of the rock tradition, Idol combined the Presley dynamics with the darker and more unruly attitudes of Jim Morrison and the Sex Pistols.
And Idol, who lived in New York City for most of the '80s, did become caught up in rock's fast-lane syndrome after he became one of the first MTV-generation rock heroes. In fact, he suggested, there was a time when he could have pictured himself ending up a rock casualty.
But those days are past, he said. His move to Los Angeles in 1987 was partly to provide a better atmosphere to raise the son he and his girlfriend, actress Perri Lister, were expecting, and to adopt a healthier lifestyle.
"There was a time when my whole life was in chaos, really, and I didn't help myself sort it out," he said, sitting in a chair on the back porch of his house. "But one day I came to my senses, and I think I was lucky because a lot of people don't."
Part of the motivation came when Lister gave birth to their son, Willem Wolfe Broad (Broad is Idol's real last name), now 2.
"I didn't really fancy myself being a burned-out father who didn't have the energy for raising his son," he said, his right foot in a tight wrapping and propped up on a pillow.
"So when Perri was pregnant, I knew it was a time for me to start getting really healthy. I also knew that I'd be nearly 35 by the time we hit the road again with the band and I didn't fancy getting out there being Belly Idol and having no energy and being wasted."
Idol stared at the injured leg, then gazed at the idyllic grounds of the residence. A child's basketball hoop was set up on the driveway and a toy football lay nearby. (Idol and Lister no longer live together, but share custody of the boy.)
"The accident was really just bad luck, though I suppose that anybody who rides a motorcycle all day long for three years is looking for trouble," Idol said. "At least that's what most people think. They see a motorcycle as something wild and crazy . . . that you've got to be out of your mind to ride one. I'm sure that's what my dad thinks."
Idol then looked across the lawn to a building that houses a gym where he kept in shape during the long months of recording the album. He shrugged.
"That's what makes the whole (incident) kind of ironic," he said finally. "Just as I've got back into the peak of fitness, I knock myself out. It's like, 'Billy Idol cleans up his act, only to (mess) himself up even more.' "
Idol had hoped that by the time of the interview he would be saying goodby to the crutches that he has needed since returning home after a four-week stay at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he underwent four operations on his arm and leg.
Even off stage, Idol seems to be a barrage of energy--speaking rapidly and punctuating his remarks with all sorts of body language, from sudden hand gestures to mock frowns and disarming winks.
The only time he seemed subdued was when he acknowledged he would have to return to the hospital for yet another operation, because the lower portion of the leg wasn't healing properly.
Noticeably discouraged, he said he was beginning to wonder whether the early prognosis that he'd "be as good as new" would prove correct.
He wasn't worried about not being able to move adequately on stage, but was concerned that he may miss his chance to appear in director Oliver Stone's new movie about the Doors' Jim Morrison.
Idol had signed to play one of Morrison's friends in the film, but the shooting schedule couldn't wait for his leg to mend. Idol was delighted when Stone found another role for him, but the singer was worried that the April 18 operation might jeopardize that second chance.
Tony Dimitriades, who manages Idol as well as Tom Petty and the rock group Yes, said the fifth operation went well. Idol, who was released from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center last Sunday, is expected to be on crutches for "a couple of weeks," Dimitriades said, and then will be able to walk with a cane. He plans to start work on the film, titled "The Doors," in early May.
If the film debut is an interesting career turn for the British-born rock star who first came to prominence with the punk band Generation X, the new "Charmed Life" album, which is due in the stores Tuesday, may represent a crucial turn in his recording career.
Feeling that his music and image had become too one-dimensional, Idol tried to come up with a more personal album in 1989 with "Whiplash Smile." The album showed more emotional range, at least thematically, and it drew praise from once indifferent critics.
While pleased with the advances, Idol was troubled by the emphasis in the album on drum machines and technology.
"The whole idea of the album was to get more of an emotional side of me, not just the frustrated or angry side, but it was hard to do because of all the technology.
"Instead of it being the freewheeling music of 'Rebel Yell,' it was turning into something very stagnant or standard. So I wanted to get back on this album and tour to more of a real feel. . . . Real musicians playing the songs."
With that in mind, Idol started auditioning musicians for a new band shortly after he got to Los Angeles. The key challenge: a replacement for guitarist Steve Stevens, who broke from Idol after the "Whiplash Smile" tour to start his own band.
Stevens, who co-wrote most of the songs on "Rebel Yell," was widely viewed as such a key part of Idol's success that some questions were raised about how well Idol could do on his own.
The early critical reaction is favorable. Rolling Stone magazine gave the album four stars out of a possible five, declaring that the record indicates Idol is "no longer a casualty of fame but a rebel with a cause: self-preservation." (See review on Page 80.)
Though Idol feels several songs in "Charmed Life" speak about various aspects of his own emotional struggles in recent years, he feels especially close to "Prodigal Blues."
It's a look at the search for identity and ideals that begins:
Riding my life
Like a runaway train
Moving from one track to that
Howling, crying, screaming at the moon
Only my voice came back
Only the echo came back
"The song is about different elements of love," Idol said. "Obviously, seeing the birth of my son and watching him growing up made me think about myself and my father. It's also about security and breaking away, something we all have to go through. There comes that time when you have to break away to find out who you are or what you want to be."
Rock 'n' roll was Idol's way of breaking away.
"I never wanted to do anything else," he said. "To me, rock 'n' roll was a way the ordinary person could be creative and it wasn't like you had to be accepted by the real Establishment. That's what excited me the most, maybe. The rock stars seemed to be in control of their own destinies."
But "Prodigal Blues" isn't just an expression of independence. It's also an expression of regret.
"One of the traps of rock 'n' roll, or at least the traps of stardom, is that it makes you think you are superhuman. . . . The song is a reminder that you're just not perfect, really. I've probably let a lot of people down, one way or another. Sometimes you get pulled into situations where things don't work out.
"One of the reasons I moved to California was that I was becoming isolated in New York: Never going out unless someone was driving me or a bodyguard was along. In California, I did away with all that. I got on my motorbike when I wanted to go somewhere. I didn't wait for a limousine. I started searching for the part of me that had gotten lost."
Reaching for his crutches at the end of the interview, Idol added: "I just hope people will see that there is more to me than just a death trip. It'd be easy to just burn yourself out.
"Don't get me wrong, I still love a good party. But there's also a balance now. There's a side of me that loves life and that recognizes the importance of taking care of yourself and others. That's the one thing I regret about the motorcycle accident . . . that people might think it just reinforces the stereotype of the old Billy Idol."