Steve Stevens on Tour with Billy Idol: Broken But Unbowed

February 14, 2006

Excepting perhaps the brutal torture techniques unleashed daily on cable TV’s “action channels,” the things guitarists fear most are a broken arm, hand, or finger. Suffering such an injury just before a big gig heaps on the misery even more. But tanking a playing appendage while on a gargantuan, high-profile tour with a reinvigorated new-wave icon is almost Shakespearean in its tragic implications. So leave it to one of rock’s most charismatic guitarslingers, Mr. Steve Stevens, to spiral into such a tragedy while on tour with Billy Idol—the singer with whom he partnered to form one of the most formidable hitmaking machines of the ’80s—to promote Idol’s recent Devil’s Playground [Sanctuary].

“We were checking into a hotel in New Orleans,” remembers Stevens. “I was carrying my guitar, I had a computer bag on my shoulder, and I fell. I broke my ulna [a bone in the wrist] clear through.”

Taking “the show must go on” ethic to heart, Stevens’ main concern was getting himself fixed up enough to play that night’s arena gig—a request the doctors at Tulane Hospital considered as veering beyond lunacy. Luckily, one of the physicians was willing to study the stresses the guitarist put on his arm throughout a show.

“She was amazing,” says Stevens. “She agreed to put on a small cast, watch me play, and then x-ray me after the gig to see how much the bones moved as I performed. It was really hard to play with the cast, but at least the bones didn’t move. I finally saw a doctor who fitted me with a two-piece, removable cast that allowed me to take the bottom part off and just wrap my arm. And that’s what I did for the next six weeks. Basically, I just stood there and played my parts. No windmills [laughs]. Somehow, I made it through the tour without missing one show—although physical therapy is definitely in my future.”

On Devil’s Playground, Stevens abandons much of the uber-processed sounds that brought him fame in the first MTV era to deliver raw, punkish tones reminiscent of glam rock’s glory years.

“For this record, it was really important that the guitars were believable—not overly effected, pitch corrected, time aligned, or any of the things you can do with Pro Tools,” he says. “Obviously, I’m known for those raygun effects—such as in the ‘Rebel Yell’ solo—but, this time, I was thinking more about tricks that involve playing, rather than sound effects. A good example is the Angus Young-style, open-string pull-offs on ‘World Comin’ Down.’”

Of course, whether he dresses up his tone with effects or not, Stevens’ unique approach to rhythm playing and soloing always manages to add even more thrills—and musical interest—to Idol’s ramrod rockers. The inspirations for these stylistic excursions are not usually found in the approaches of other guitarists. His rhythm technique, for example, came from one of the most un-rock of influences—the seminal, yet largely unheralded ’70s synth duo, Suicide.

“Billy and I would go see them perform in New York, and I realized that while [keyboardist] Martin Rev was doing these repetitive bass patterns with this left hand, he would do these stagnant lines with his right hand,” explains Stevens. “In other words, his right hand wouldn’t follow the movement of the bass notes. I started thinking about adapting that to guitar, because it really bores me when the guitar and the bass do the same thing. So I developed parts where my rhythm and my chords would hardly ever change—maybe one note will follow the bass line. I like the tension that creates. The first time I tried that technique was in the second verse of ‘White Wedding.’ I’ve always been more interested in what keyboard players were doing. The whole raygun guitar thing was inspired by Keith Emerson using a ribbon controller to play synth parts in Emerson, Lake & Palmer.”

The guitarists who did figure into Stevens’ trick bag were Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page (“I love that those guys explored more Eastern and weird flavors, because I always try to find things that are outside of the pentatonic school”), Siouxsie and the Banshees’ John McGeoch (“He’s where a lot of my textural stuff comes from”), and Eddie Van Halen (“His rhythm-guitar tone on the first four Van Halen albums got me into those old plexi Marshalls”). Stevens also actively pursues parts that push against the grain. For example, he tends to play parts in 5/4 against the insistent 4/4 groove of Idol’s songs.

“I think the key is to find something that’s off-putting, and then repeat it in a way that locks in rhythmically,” he says. “That’s how a weird part becomes a hook. It’s what I call a ‘beautiful mistake.’”

Left somewhat adrift as shoe gazers became all the rage in the grunge period of the ’90s, Stevens ultimately found solace—and a chance for personal and creative reinvention—in the flamenco music he adored when he was a kid.

“I went to see Paco de Lucia play at the Wiltern Theater [Los Angeles] in 1999, and people were screaming and hollering and carrying on,” he says. “Women were crying. It didn’t matter how old he was, or how tight his pants were, and I thought, ‘This really means something!’”

Reenergized by Lucia’s performance, Stevens—who had just put together a home studio—was inspired to mate his interest in dance music with flamenco. The result was 1999’s critically acclaimed Flamenco A Go-Go, which pleasantly surprised some fans and bewildered others with its impassioned nylon-string flurries set against electronica grooves.

“Making that album was cathartic,” says Stevens. “I started looking at my behavior throughout the sessions, and I got sober. A person who is very important to me said that I had to learn to be as comfortable without my guitar as I am with it, and that’s what I strive to do now. That focus has made me a better person, and a better musician. I’m more open to collaboration, which was critical during the Devil’s Playground sessions, because I wasn’t the only guy writing with Billy. Here I was, Steve Stevens. It was always just me and Billy, but now I was being asked to be a team player. And that’s what I did. I was able to give my support and positive energy, and not just focus on my ego and my own agenda. It made my relationship with Billy so much stronger, and I also realized—finally—that music is a journey. While a lot of amazing music has been made under the influence of drugs and alcohol, you really have to be healthy in mind, body, and spirit to take that journey as far as it can go.”

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