Billy Idol

Billy Idol: Rebel with a Cause

Say the name Billy Idol and what comes to mind? Punk icon. Spiked blond hair. Head-to-toe black leather – and you can’t forget that famous curled lip.

How about water conservationist, activist and devoted grandfather?

We didn’t see that coming either. But that doesn’t stop Idol, 68, from continuing to rock out. In fact, he recently found a way to blend his music, activism and love of history at the first concert ever held at the Hoover Dam.

An Activist is Born

Idol admits that earlier on in his life his main focus was on his music – writing songs and getting his career off the ground, first as the lead singer for the punk band Generation X and then as a solo artist. Back then, he wasn’t thinking about the environment all that much.

The change came about, he says, when he settled in Los Angeles in 1987. Having lived there now for nearly 37 years, he has seen the difference in how the climate and the environmental surroundings have gradually changed – and not for the better.

“I’ve become more aware of the climate and especially the water situation,” Idol says. As a result, his activism for water conservation came on gradually. “I’ve been watching things. For instance, when I first came to Los Angeles, there were April showers, and May was always blazing hot like the beginning of summer, really sunny. Then in June, it would be gloomy. Now, there tends to be no rain in April; May is gray, and June just carries on. It’s humid in May now. So, things have altered. The climate changes are real.”

Billy Idol
Photo courtesy of Steven Sebring.

Water, Water, Everywhere?

Idol says it may seem to some people that Los Angeles has enough water because of the recent torrential rains and flooding, but that’s actually an anomaly.

“The thing is that the drought is intensifying. It’s been happening over such a long period that, of course, we’re going to get these moments where it seems as if everything is fine. But over the course of time, we’ve seen the [progression]. It’s only going to get worse, even if we do get these moments of reprieve.”

The Colorado River currently provides water for seven states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – as well as Mexico. “We’re all sharing this certain amount of water, and if the reservoirs aren’t full up, and we don’t get a lot of rain or snowpack, we seriously start seeing problems,” says Idol.

That can result in the type of water restrictions that have been in effect in California since the summer of 2022.

“The river is super important for the people sharing it, as well as for all the agriculture that needs water,” he says.

Billy Idol at Hoover Dam. Photo courtesy of Jane Stuart.
Billy Idol at Hoover Dam. Photo courtesy of Jane Stuart.

Four Reasons for Activism

For Idol, there’s a specific reason for his activism and desire to get the word out on water conservation – actually, there’s four of them: his grandchildren.

“I have to think about these things because my children are having children – my grandchildren. So, the people I brought into the world are bringing more people into the world. But I’m still responsible,” he says. “I do think about the world they’re going to inherit. You know, it’s just really super important that we protect the environment because I don’t know – and I can’t imagine – what the world is going to be like when they’re my age. That will be in the late 21st century! I mean, what’s it going to be like?”

Idol says that although he will be gone by the time his grandkids are in their 60s, he still wants the world to be as environmentally sound as possible. “I care about my children and my grandchildren. I want the best for them,” he says.

That’s an important reason why he began his activism. “I have a large audience, and if I can help raise awareness by showing the importance of water conservation, that’s a great thing to really do, far from just playing neat music. It’s a great way to be able to extend what you’re doing.”

At his home, Idol does what he can to conserve water. He will often remind himself, “Don’t run the tap,” in order to save it. But he does more, such as having native plants and sustainable landscaping in his garden. Having the right kind of plants to prevent mudslides and to preserve the environment is crucial.

Billy Idol with Tony Kanal of No Doubt and Steve Jones of Sex Pistols. Photo courtesy of Jane Stuart.
Billy Idol with Tony Kanal of No Doubt and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and Generation Sex. Photo courtesy of Jane Stuart.

Rocking at the Dam

When Idol and his team were looking for a place to film a concert, they decided it would be smart to do it somewhere that they could bring attention to the water shortage.

“We really thought about [whether] there was some way we could highlight what was going on with the drought and put on an incredible concert,” explains Idol. After considering other sites, they selected the Hoover Dam.

Idol loved the location because he’s really interested in history – he says he could have seen himself as a professor of the subject if the music thing hadn’t worked out. But he also remembers seeing the Hoover Dam in American movies such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur and the film 711 Ocean Drive.

Idol’s performance at the Hoover Dam was the first concert ever performed there and documented for posterity in the film Billy Idol: State Line. In addition to showing the concert, the film also explains the Hoover Dam’s significance as well as its history.

“It was kind of crazy, but also great that we could combine the two – a great concert with a bit of social thought [to remind people] that there is something dramatic happening, and it’s worth talking about,” says Idol.

The concert featured an acoustic set with just Idol and his longtime guitarist and collaborator Steve Stevens, in which they played on the roof of the Hoover Dam. “We had to walk through the bowels of the Dam to get there,” recalls Idol. “You really start to appreciate what an incredible bit of architecture it is, let alone anything else. It’s all Art Deco. It’s gigantic, and the machines that power it are just huge. I became aware of the workings of the Dam and everything.”

The second part of this historical concert was performed at the start of sunset at the Dam. With the surrounding Black Canyon as its backdrop, the scenario was gorgeous.

Billy Idol
Aerial view – Photo courtesy of Billy Idol.

Behind the Scenes

The evening concert was played on a helipad in front of only 250 fans. Idol had musical guests join him on particular songs: Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols and the punk supergroup Generation Sex; Alison Mosshart of The Kills and The Dead Weather, and Tony Kanal of No Doubt.

Performing at the Hoover Dam had quite the effect on Idol. “Playing in front of it was really cool. Something about the sides of the canyon just held the sounds in perfectly. The music was bouncing off the walls beautifully and aided the phonic nature of the music,” Idol recalls. “It wasn’t just the way it looked. It was the way it sounded to us. It felt good. It felt really good. It was perfect – us silhouetted against the Dam was pretty incredible.”

The concert began while it was still daylight, and they played through twilight and into the night. Minimal lighting was used because there was really nowhere to rig it up. But Idol thinks it made everything better. “If you rigged up some ridiculous lighting, it would have ruined it. We needed it to be open around us,” he says. They also played the evening concert one time straight through, with no retakes.

As for what the experience itself was like, Idol describes it: “There was this kind of orange glow from the sides of the canyon. The orangey-red rocks were all glowing. You could see it on us…Going from daylight to twilight to night with the Dam behind us gradually lighting up, then the music going along with that. In the middle of the show where we do “Eyes Without a Face” it was more in twilight, and by the time we hit “Rebel Yell,” we’re in pitch black, just lit by a few lights, with the Dam behind us. It was just really fantastic! It was really lovely.”

Billy Idol
Alison Mosshart of The Kills and The Dead Weather joins Billy Idol on stage. Photo courtesy of Jane Stuart.

More, More, More

In addition to promoting the importance of water conservation through the concert, Idol has also appeared in a series of public service announcements for the U.S. Department of the Interior. The countercultural punk rocker and the government agency may seem like an odd couple, but the British-born Idol became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2018 while retaining his U.K. citizenship.

“I was honored that they’d asked me to appear in the PSAs regarding the importance of water conservation. It was fantastic to do really because we just literally had that summer [in Los Angeles] where we’d gone through serious water restrictions,” says Idol. “So, it was great that they let me do it and were so into it.”

This isn’t the rocker’s first foray into PSAs. In 2020, he teamed up with NYC’s Department of Environmental Protection for the cleverly named “Billy Never Idles” campaign, urging drivers to “Shut your damn engine off!,” in an effort to help combat air pollution.

Idol admits that when he was one of the leaders of the punk movement, he never expected that he’d be focusing on helping to preserve the environment. He also listens to the authorities, who take violations seriously.

“Where I live, you can’t just flagrantly abuse the water or the authorities will put your name in the paper,” says Idol, adding, “You’re publicly shamed.”

Of course, that’s not why he conserves water. “For as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve been able to turn on a tap, and there’s water. You tend to think of it like it will always be there. In reality, it may not be. There are loads and loads of people sharing water, and you really feel it when there’s a shortage,” he says.

Guitarist Steve Stevens (L) with Billy Idol. Photo courtesy of Bella Howard.
Guitarist Steve Stevens (L) with Billy Idol. Photo courtesy of Bella Howard.

He Gets It

To borrow a quote from Adam Sandler’s character Robbie in the hit movie The Wedding Singer, “See? Billy Idol gets it!”

While Idol understands the need for water conservation and has seen firsthand the effects of drought conditions, he admits that it’s not always easy to get everyone on board.

“I’m not a scientist, so I can’t just bring out facts and figures [about conservation]. People can say it’s not happening. But when you’ve felt the effects of it, you can’t help but open your eyes to it. We were super aware of the reservoirs, and the level of water dropping so drastically in Lake Mead (a reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam) and in a number of other places,” says Idol. “It’s difficult because I know certain people that only want to talk about pollution problems. They don’t want to talk about climate change. You have to start being aware of it or there won’t be any water for people when they really need it.”

Billy Idol
Photo courtesy of Steven Sebring.

Idol adds, “It is difficult when you say, ‘How do you convince people?’ I don’t know because they don’t want to believe the scientists.”

Nevertheless, Idol persists. He’s working on new music, and he’s keeping up his activism.

“I do hope apart from people watching a great concert, they do think about the water shortage. I hope that it is informative or makes people think about it. They are reminded that we are in this massive drought. So, what are we going to do about it?” challenges Idol. “It takes all of us conserving water in whatever ways we can to preserve the future of our natural resources for our grandkids and beyond. I’m proud to help amplify this issue in whatever way I can.”

See Billy Idol’s upcoming tour dates. The 2CD/2LP 40th Anniversary Expanded Edition of Rebel Yell will be released April 26, 2024.

Headline photo courtesy of Steven Sebring.

Billy Idol

Author Profile
Michele Wojciechowski

Michele “Wojo” Wojciechowski is a national award-winning writer, author and humorist, as well as an editor and stand-up comic. In addition to having an award-winning humor book, Next Time I Move, They'll Carry Me Out in a Box, she also writes the award-winning column “Wojo’s World.” Her writing has appeared in Esquire, Vanity Fair, Discover, Reader’s Digest,PBS’Next Avenue, Baltimore Magazine and countless others. She also covered the comedy world for four years for Parade.

When she was a young teenager, she had a Billy Idol poster on the wall of her bedroom, but she didn’t tell him that during the interview. (She’s grown up to be quite the professional.)

To learn more, go to www.wojosworld.com, or follow @TheMicheleWojo on X/Twitter and Instagram.

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