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Cocaine adds life? The time Billy Idol was a prat on Late Night with Letterman

It’s often a surprise to learn what are the most read articles on this blog, now celebrating its sixth birthday and seemingly gaining in stature by the day.

If I told you that of the top ten most visited pages none are specifically about the subject of my first book, David Bowie, you’d probably be even more taken aback than me. And if I told you that nestling in as the tenth most read post was a slightly salacious piece concerning Billy Idol’s voracious appetite for that tried and tasty triumvirate of sex and drugs and rock n’ roll you’d be shocked, right?

Not as shocked as I was when I stumbled over a clip of Idol on YouTube recently. I didn’t know whether to laugh, cringe or cry. In fact, I think I did all three, simultaneously.

On Tuesday 24 July, 1984, the singer was a guest on Late Night with David Letterman, then a new show on NBC. Sporting his trademark mid ‘80s MTV meets the Sex Pistols style, with all the usual signifiers of a punk aesthetic that that entailed: black leather jacket, shock of white spiky hair, facial expressions that deviated little from scowl and sneer.

With little trace of irony, or making eye contact with the host, a surprisingly elocuted Idol told Letterman that his songs were so popular that drug dealers in New York were naming their products after them. 

“There’s White Wedding: cocaine, Rebel Yell: quaaludes, Dancing With Myself: smoke and stuff. Yeah, people recognise me everywhere.”

Instead of chuckling merrily or changing the subject, Letterman injected some antagonism into the exchange and sneered, “You must be a very proud young man.”

A different host might have made this sound toothless, a self-deprecating remark that drew attention to how uncool he was. Or, as was the case with the New Zealand interviewer below, just try and pretend copious amounts of drug-taking haven’t been happening at all.

Letterman, wearing a suit, tie, and a fuddy duddy haircut, looked like the anxious conservative figure in this exchange. His clothes did not telegraph counterculture rebellion the way Idol’s did. Yet his stern old man’s locution came off as more shocking than anything the dishy blond Brit was peddling.

More than any other comedy figure, Letterman redefined counter-cultural cool as knowing, square, and disengaged. Authenticity, the currency of cool for ages, was out; only a fool still believed it existed. What mattered was signalling that you knew it.

His sarcasm was laced with an attack, striking skeptical notes that refused to take Idol’s provocation seriously. This was a clash of old and new styles being played out to an audience of millions to an excruciating degree.

The older man’s attitude was clear: this limey spiv was just more showbiz. Letterman flipped the script of the rebellious rock ’n’ roller shocking the conformist. He made Idol look like a poseur, a guy trying too hard. They were both fakes, but at least he was willing to admit it.

What was Billy on that night? Cocaine? Certainly a handful of those quaaludes and the odd bit of puff too.

Even then, it wasn’t quite a car crash moment compared to Billy’s idol, an even more under the influence David Bowie, being interrogated by Dick Cavett on American TV a whole decade before.

Strangely, despite his ability to hoover up industrial quantities of the white stuff that would make Billy look like a mere dabbler, Bowie still came across as more articulate than his younger Bromley Contingent follower.

Cocaine adds strife. But who would have thunk that spunk Billy would still be twisting the fist all these years later?

The wag.

Steve Pafford

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