WHETHER YOU LOVE THE '80s or hate the '80s, there's no denying that Billy Idol was the '80s. Of the myriad good-looking, platinum-haired, leather-clad guys who sang about sex, Idol had the sharpest jaw, the spikiest mane, the tightest pants and a dirty trinity of hits about masturbation (Dancing with Myself), virginity (White Wedding) and the age of consent (Cradle of Love). Depth was not his specialty, but as a snarling, seductive wild child--half Elvis, half Sid Vicious--he captured the ebullient superficiality of the age. When he faded from the scene in 1990, the timing seemed preordained. He was as ill equipped for the atmosphere of a new decade as Molly Ringwald or Alf.
So how is it that 15 years after his last hit, Billy Idol is back on the scene? Credit the booming music nostalgia market, which has stirred up enough interest in the '80s to entice Morrissey, New Order, Duran Duran, Mötley Crüe and others back into recording studios. But while those acts made their previous albums within the Napster era and had modest expectations for their comebacks, Idol, 49, has been inactive since 1993's disastrous Cyberpunk and believes that his new collection, Devil's Playground, out March 22, may restore his former glory. "I'm not a retro act," Idol says in his parched English growl. "All these new bands got their music, and I got mine. And I guarantee you mine is more powerful. Heh!"
To his credit, Idol is not so delusional that he has stopped laughing at himself. After nearly overdosing on crack in 1994, he got relatively clean (he still drinks and smokes pot) for the first time in his adult life. "My son was 6, and my daughter was 5, and I didn't want their friends' parents to be frightened of me," says Idol. "So I thought, All right, I've got to knock all this on the head. Heh!" Idol, who still has the snarl and the spiky hair (the leather has given way to more breathable fabrics), barks a jolly "heh!" after almost every sentence he utters, even the ones in which he describes spending much of the '90s wondering how he had become uncool. "At first you think there's something wrong with you, but then you realize it's just the stupid, funny life of a rocker. Heh! Spinal Tap showed it all off, so I might as well have a laugh."
In 1999, having settled into a routine as a "Little League dad" in Los Angeles, Idol took part in the annual West Coast biker convention known as the Redwood Run. (Think Altamont without the killing.) "They had a stage set up with these horrible blues bands, but then Los Lobos came on," recalls Idol. "And I thought, Hey, I wonder if I could sing with them?" "He was pretty drunk," says Los Lobos singer Cesar Rosas. "But so were we. So we brought him on and did Born to Be Wild. It was obvious the guy still had it." Says Idol: "I looked down, and there's all these bikers going mad, and I realized this is why it's worth being alive. God bless Los Lobos, man."