Revisiting Billy Idol’s Motorcycle Accident
We enjoy a certain amount of bad behavior from our rock stars, but within limits. No one really wants anyone to end up in rehab, prison or an early grave. On Feb. 6, 1990, Billy Idol tested those limits in a big way.
According to Los Angeles Police Department officers, Idol was out for a spin on his Harley when, around 8:30 in the morning, he ran a stop sign at a Hollywood intersection and collided with a car. Idol, who was not wearing a helmet, was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he underwent seven hours of surgery to repair a fractured forearm -- and try to save his right leg, which was broken between the knee and ankle.
As he later told Arsenio Hall, the fact that he was able to come out of the accident with both legs intact was a case of all-around lucky timing. "Ten years ago I would have had my leg amputated, but thank God the orthopedic surgeons and plastic surgeons have developed such a system of magic," he said during their 1990 interview. Unable to resist slipping in a plug for his then-current album Charmed Life, he added, "I think it's definitely got something to do with a charmed life, if you ask me."
"It was pretty wild!" Idol chuckled during an interview with Q magazine shortly after the accident. "The leg bone had gone straight through the jeans -- whoooooarrr! -- and ripped the muscle to shreds. Wild! Ha ha. And there was blood all over and everything, and I kept blacking out and I was in all this pain, and I came to on the operating table with somebody with a pair of scissors going up my shirt, cutting the clothes off me. And all I could think about was, thank the f--- I didn't wear one of my favorite leather jackets. I just had this denim jacket on. Thank you, God..."
When asked if he worried about losing his leg, Idol replied, "I didn't give a f--- really, because when you're dosed out of your mind on morphine, the world is quite a pleasant place. It's coming off morphine that's the real bastard. You're lying there with a smashed leg and you've got cold turkey. That was really heavy."
Aside from nearly costing Idol a limb, the accident also cost him a role in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which was then gearing up production. According to stunt coordinator Joel Kramer, Idol was director James Cameron's first choice to play the evil T-1000, ultimately portrayed by actor Robert Patrick. "I was like, ‘Jim, these storyboards look just like Billy Idol!’" Kramer told MTV. "And he was like, ‘Yeah, he was my first pick.’ But Billy had gotten into a motorcycle accident and broke his leg, so it didn’t work out, because he would have to be in lean running shape."
The injury was ultimately responsible for at least one positive outcome: Forced to film largely without Idol's participation, director David Fincher decided to take a different approach with the video for "Cradle of Love," the leadoff single from Charmed Life. The result was one of the more memorable clips from the period -- and Idol's last major MTV hit.
"Rock 'n' roll is like a pair of dice," Idol observed during the Q interview when taking stock of the ways in which his lifestyle had hurt him. "You see, I'm not a world expert when it comes to coping with life. I'm always f---ing myself. I'm addicted to rock 'n' roll. I want that buzz out of things. But the guitar can turn around and hurt you, you know?"
He was more philosophical during his interview with Arsenio, telling the audience, "I was lucky to have a life that's worth getting better for" -- before explaining what he meant in further detail.
"Obviously, I've messed up in my life," he admitted. "I think you have to look at what you do and love it -- be excited about it, propelled by it, enjoy it and want to get out there and show people that yes, I believe. I'm lucky -- I get to play music all day long and a lot of other people come along and shout and wave their fists and go crazy, and burn off all their anxieties and all their anguish and God knows what else. I like that, it's great fun. It was great fun to wake up in the hospital bed after the accident and realize that if I did get better, it was worth it."
He did get better, of course, and kept right on riding -- which ended up causing further medical problems in 2010, when Idol hit a discarded tire with his motorcycle and suffered a hairline fracture in his foot that ended up needing surgery the following year. But he didn't lose his sense of humor: As Billboard reported that year, Idol's series of post-op tweets included the pain-pills-induced admission, "Nodded out, woke up in a pile of my own vomit! This is like the old days!"