What follows is a chapter that originally appeared in my book, Borg Like Me (2014). This is the first time this story has ever been told online.
As a writer, you crave impact. Some might say writers write because they have to, compulsively, reflexively, and that’s probably true for many of us vocational scriveners. We also write because we have a burning desire to reach people, to communicate ourselves to them, to move them. Audaciously, we want our work to touch hearts, change minds, make people think, laugh, cry, and make them see the world through our eyes. We want people to read our articles in magazines, buy our books, come to our readings, subscribe to our blogs and social media feeds. What most of us who write for a living can only dream about is for another artist to be inspired enough by our work to want to incorporate it into their own.
This otherworldly episode in my life, from the early 1990s, is about when that latter dream came true for me. Like Cinderella being swept up into that golden carriage, I found myself at a big, fancy royal ball for a moment – before just as quickly finding myself back in my shabby cottage, with a pumpkin, some errant mice, and a missing shoe.
It’s the kind of bizarre life moment that makes reality curdle around its edges. It had been a typical workday, and after a late morning and early afternoon of writing and doing administrative work on Beyond Cyberpunk! (mainly taking orders as they came in over the phone), I went to take a nap. When I got up, I wandered downstairs to find my then-wife, Pam, dusting. I stood at the landing and asked groggily: “Did I get any messages?” Not looking up, doing her level best to affect a posture of work-a-day detachment (when did we ever bother to dust, BTW?). She said: “Yeah. Just one. Billy Idol called.” She played it so straight, like she was telling me the shop had called to tell us our car was ready. I tried to process what I’d just heard. “Wait, what?” She lowered her dust rag. And her cool. She began squealing, jumping up and down like a kid in a blow-up bouncy house. “Billy Idol called! He wants to use something you wrote in Mondo 2000 as lyrics on his next record! He’s calling back in twenty minutes!”
Almost exactly twenty minutes later, the phone rang, and sure enough, the snarly-lipped one was on the other end. And yes, he really did want to use something I’d written as lyrics on his next record.
This was actually the second time I’d talked to Billy Idol that day. He’d called earlier in the morning to order a copy of Beyond Cyberpunk!. Giving his credit card info and address, he’d used his birth name, William Broad, which I hadn’t recognized. At the end of that first conversation, right before hanging up, he’d asked me my name. Turns out, he’d read what he called my “cyberpunk manifesto” in the new Mondo 2000 collection, A User’s Guide to the New Edge, and had been trying to track down its author. He wanted to use parts of it on his next record, a cyberpunk concept album called…. wait for it… Cyberpunk.
It was beyond surreal to be talking on the phone with Billy Idol. He told me that he had this idea of using my piece as the introduction to the record. (My piece, called “Is There A Cyberpunk Movement?,” had actually started out life as a post on The Well BBS, later getting reprinted in the Mondo book.) He wanted to read it over music, like “Late Lament,” the poem recited at the beginning of the Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin album.
The next thing I know, I have Billy Idol—-Billy Fucking Idol—-on the other end of the phone dramatically reciting my words back to me, in glorious “Breathe deep the gathering gloom” fashion. His reading was surprisingly sincere and powerful, so potent and sincere that it choked me up a bit. And, OK, I may have snickered a bit, too. Not dismissively, just because it was all so bizarre that my brain had suddenly turned into cornmeal pudding.
I found Billy charming and instantly likable. He was funny, thoughtful, goofy, and surprisingly self-deprecating. We talked about cyberpunk, virtual reality (which he was very taken by), Mondo 2000 and bOING bOING, and the ongoing traditions of DIY. “I’m so fucking into the internet,” he declared. “The internet is punk rock!” At the time, I found this a rather vacuous statement and didn’t really understand what he meant. But as I came to know Billy more, and follow the whole trajectory of the recording, release, and touring of the record, I came to see what it meant to him, and why the discovery of the internet was so powerful and important to him. And I came to understand some of the sad truths about celebrity isolation. And what some celebrities will do to break free of it.
“Do you have an agent?,” he finally asked. Miraculously, I did. I’d just gotten one, so I felt all fancy-pants in answering “Yes.” “Good then, I’ll have my manager contact your agent and they can work out the details,” he said. He couldn’t see my goofy grin. “I mean, that’s what we pay them for, innit?,” he added. I laughed, maybe too heartily, and said “Yes. Exactly.”
Billy called back several days later to say that he’d received Beyond Cyberpunk! and was impressed with it. He wanted to know if we could do something like it to accompany his record, as a promotional piece and limited-edition collector’s disk for hardcore fans. Beyond Cyberpunk! co-creator Peter Sugarman and I put together a proposal and a bid. Eventually, Billy decided to go with another early HyperCard innovator, Jaime Levy, who lived near Billy in LA. Around this same time, Billy also met Mark and Carla at a bOING bOING event in Hollywood. Mark and Billy hit it off and Mark began doing work on the record, too. He did graphic design on the album and promotional materials, and helped get Billy set up on the internet.
The disk that Jaime created was very similar in look, feel, and sensibility to the buzz-worthy Electric Hollywood disks that she was producing at the time. Created in the Director program, the Billy Idol Cyberpunk disk was divided into quadrants offering the album’s cyberpunk framing concept (my words, now slightly mutated by Billy), the lyrics to the rest of the record (with some hypertext), a biography written by Mark, and a resource section written by me. There were also animated sequences of Idol images and some other hypermedia doodads. The disk was colorful, fun, and made good use of sound samples. Many of the images were grabs from the videos director Brett Leonard (Lawnmower Man) had done for Billy’s techno-dance cover of the Velvet’s “Heroin” (here rendered into a bittersweet tale of virtual reality/simstim addiction).
Jaime’s disk was released as part of the digital press kit for the album which included the first single “Shock to the System.” The kit came in a “Digi-Pak” CD folder which had a plastic panel holding the floppy and one holding the CDS. A limited edition full album used the same Digi-Pak packaging with cover graphics by Mark.
At one point early on in the recording process, Mark was at Billy’s home studio and Billy mentioned that he wanted to get on the Internet. Mark suggested he join The Well. The Well BBS, created by Stewart Brand, Larry Brilliant, and some of the other Whole Earth Catalog folks, was on a mini computer housed in a closet in the WEC offices in Sausalito, CA. At the time (1992), The Well, in that closet, was the cybernetic brain pool you wanted to be swimming in. There were a few early enclaves at the time where some of the Internet’s most influential and creative dreamers and schemers were hanging out. The Well was one of them, MindVox in New York was another. Nearly all of the editors of bOING bOING, Mondo 2000, Wired, Whole Earth Catalog/Whole Earth Review took up residence on The Well, along with writers, editors, and journalists from many other magazines and newspapers. We were trading electrons alongside scientists, artists, musicians, activists, lots of Bay Area computer hippies, nerds, and academics, and many first- and second-wave cyberpunk sci-fi authors. A lot of the digital culture and technology that we are now soaking in first collected there, or at least filtered its way through The Well before flowing on to nourish and fertilize the future.
Mark thought The Well would be a good place for Billy to set up camp in cyberspace. Mark and I could help him negotiate the rather gnarly world of The Well’s UNIX-based command-line conferencing interface, which was not at all for the faint of geek. So, Mark him set him up with a PC and modem and Billy finally jacked into cyberspace.
Billy was thrilled to be on The Well, and was very open and playful there. He tried to laugh off the rather rude reception he got and the rampant suspicions his presence engendered there. Right from the start, he was accused of not actually being Billy Idol, of only being there for craven marketing reasons, and that he was about to ruin The Well by his mere presence – drawing unwanted attention to this still rather gated virtual community. Billy asked what his user name should be. Someone, more as a joke than anything else, suggested “Lyl Libido” (an anagram for “Billy Idol”). Billy loved it, and ran with it. He used that as his Well handle from then on. He asked people for input about his music, suggestions of what to do next. One poster replied: “Never, ever record another Doors cover!” (Referring to his cover of “LA Woman”). “In fact, never record a cover of anyone else’s song!” He graciously yukked that off along with other insults.
What was amazing is that Mark and I would defend him, telling people: “No, he’s not here as part of some record company master plan. He’s here because we brought him here. He wanted to be online and we brought him into the community that we know. That’s the extent of it.” But people, on both The Well and the alt.cyberpunk USENET group, continued on as if they hadn’t heard us (or didn’t believe us). It quickly became clear that people had a cardboard cutout image of Billy Idol (and what his motives surely must be) and they really weren’t interested in anything that contradicted that image. This was all very bizarre to experience, now from the POV of the celebrity himself. It forever changed my view of people in that position and how we and the media so harshly judge them and interpret their motives (seemingly always to default to the most nefarious ones) without knowing or caring about the truth.
As my brief association with Billy continued, I realized one aspect of what he’d meant in that initial phone call, about the internet being punk rock. In both dealing with this intractable image of himself in the public eye, and in him having to deal with the industry people around him, Billy was desperate to break through all of these levels of filtration, the barricades of protection and isolation (agents, managers, PR people, record executives, an entourage of yes-people) that the starmaker machinery insists on erecting around any successful artist.
Billy saw in desktop publishing, home music recording, the internet, and hypermedia, a way of being able to break free of all of these industry and fame barriers, to truly feel DIY again. He could talk directly to his fans, he could record his records at home, he could help design his own album art – he could regain a measure of control that every artist of his stature inevitably loses (and most, like Billy, probably long to reclaim).
On the advertisements that he and Mark created for the record, Billy even went so far as to print his Well email address. Again, this was met with suspicion and criticism, people seeing it as a marketing gimmick (and a further affront to The Well’s gated community). I saw it as something very different. A statement of his desire to directly connect. A kind of bold declaration of his freedom and his punk rock roots.
I have many fun and silly Billy Idol stories. Here are a few that I’ve often repeated:
• His answering machine message. It said, in a deep, ominous voice (I may not recall it exactly): “This Idol demands human sacrifice” [Deep, sinister laughter. Beep].
• When Mark and I were first tutoring him on using The Well’s conferencing system, Billy was not the sharpest student in the classroom. One night, he called me and needed to be reminded how to access his email. I ran over the basics. The next night, at almost the exact same time, he called again. He needed me to tell him how to access his email. “Billy, I just told you that last night.” He chuckled and said (I always wish I could recreate his thick working class British accent when I tell this story in person): “I know. But last night, I’d just gotten out of the studio, I rolled myself a big doobie, and I’ve now forgotten everything you told me.” We both had a good laugh. I went over everything again and hoped that he hadn’t “rolled himself a big doobie” before calling me this second time.
• I ended up BEING Billy Idol for a day. In cyberspace, anyway. Billy was on tour and couldn’t figure out how to get onto the internet from Europe (a daunting task for anybody but the most tech-savvy at the time). A Boston rock paper wanted to do a “cyber-interview” with him (which basically meant emailing questions and him answering them over that controversial email address he was spreading everywhere). Since he couldn’t get online, he gave me his Well password. I logged on, downloaded and printed out the first round of questions, and then faxed them to him in Europe. The answers would come back to me, written long-hand by Billy on legal-pad paper. I would transcribe them into an email message, send them to the paper, and then wait for follow ups. It was highly entertaining getting to pose as him. We didn’t tell the paper that they weren’t talking directly to Billy and they were saying “Thank you, Billy” and similar conversational pleasantries, and I was responding as him. I may have even added a “Rock on!” or two, just because I could. In cyberspace, nobody can be sure that you aren’t Billy Idol.
• After the Boston rock interview, I told Billy that, for security purposes, he probably should change his password. He had used a very insecure one to begin with, so it was a good excuse for him to create something safer. He said he would. I knew he wouldn’t. A long time afterwards, maybe six months? A year? Two years? Well after he and I had fallen out of touch, I was sitting at my computer one day and thought: “I wonder if Billy ever changed his Well password?” I couldn’t resist. I tried logging into good ol’ Lyl Libido’s account. And there I was, staring at his inbox. I immediately logged off and directed a tsk-tsk in Mr. Libido’s general direction.
When the album finally came out, it was widely panned. If Billy’s heart and intentions were in the right place (and I never doubted that), whatever muse he’d found within cyberpunk and DIY cyberculture didn’t translate very effectively into the music. The record just didn’t feel authentic. My intro text, which he’d read so movingly over the phone that day, was recited in a heavily machine-processed voice buried beneath loud, oscillating synth wails. The words were barely audible. And he’d made a number of changes to my text, which I’d contractually agreed to allow, but had no right of refusal and was not shown the additional lyrics beforehand. I couldn’t cringe enough when I finally heard the track, especially as it ends on Billy’s addition of “Welcome to the CyberCorporation, Cyberpunks.” It’s really hard when you have your name on something, for something as huge as a Billy Idol record, and that (altered) work ends up expressing something you would never say. I’m not even sure what that statement means.
But while the whole Billy Idol Cyberpunk episode was regarded at the time as the moment that 90s cyberpunk/cyberculture officially jumped the shark, the years have proven kinder to the music, perhaps in part because of its nostalgic and kitsch qualities. A lot of Idol fans, who had initially dismissed the record, have come to embrace it. The album currently enjoys 4 out of 5 stars on Amazon.
While the final product may be lacking, one of the things that no one can deny Billy is some of the forward-thinking innovations of the record. It may have ended up symbolically driving the final nail in the coffin of second-wave cyberpunk, but at the same time, it cracked open a doorway onto the digital media world we all live in and take for granted today.
The multimedia diskette that came with the special edition of Cyberpunk, which I believe was the first of its kind, preceded all of the mixed-media discs and apps that followed and leads all the way up to the iTunes LP today. And Billy’s embracing of home recording was not common at that time, especially for an artist of his stature using some of the consumer-grade equipment that he did. His involvement with the artwork for the record and creating it all on home computer equipment was also unheard of in mainstream music. And his promiscuous outreach and desire to engage with his fans, de rigueur in today’s social media world, was a rarity. A few other musical artists were pioneering digital and interactive media in early 90s, namely David Bowie, Thomas Dolby, and Todd Rundgren. But Billy Idol deserves a prominent seat at that same table.
If the “internet reads censorship as damage and routes around it,” as EFF co-founder John Gilmore so brilliantly put it once, and the insulating barricades of fame create a kind of censorship, then the internet can route around that, too. In the early 1990s, at least for a brief, glorious moment, Billy Idol stepped out of his gilded cage and glimpsed our “cyber-future,” at least a decade before most everyone else.
DIY media makes up a huge portion of today’s net content. Almost everyone creates content of some sort. It’s also a place where celebrities directly and unflinchingly express themselves on social media, talk to their fans, and post the most intimate thoughts and selfies.
On today’s internet, any musician or anyone else with something to say has a soapbox on which to say it. The net has become one giant, global garage and most of us are in some form of a band, hoping to he heard, to be discovered. And that’s what Billy Idol was trying to tell me on the phone back in 1992:
The internet is punk rock! (Or, at least it was in the early 90s)