Penn & Teller    PCC articles by Penn Jillette        Reprinted with permission.

Billy Idol - Learning to Type

Penn Jillette

This whole magazine can't be useful -
someone has to be listening to blonde
90's disco.

As I type, Billy Idol's new album is playing on my CD player for the 6th time. The first time through I listened carefully. I had headphones on and I had it cranked. It is now hours later, and while typing and watching CNN, Billy is still playing. The things I do for you people.

This is the first Idol product I've purchased since the Generation X record (remember records? Okay - quick now - were they before or after 8 tracks?) in 1978 (he was only a lead singer, back then, he wasn't a whole product). I considered him to be a poser back when I used the word "poser" and knew what it meant.

It's fifteen years later and Billy and I are both 38 years old. His new record is called "Cyberpunk" and I write for a computer magazine. I guess the lines of our lives are not as separate and parallel as I thought. At the rate we're going - by the time we hit 53, we'll have a bright future together in computer maintenance.

The CD has lots of references to computers. Billy has file names, written in old-fashioned computer type faces, all over the cover. He also has his address: "Idol@well.sf.ca.us" hanging out there all pink and naked for anyone to spread around. I just dropped him a line. I told him I was writing this column about his album and asked him if he had anything to add.

I suppose I could interview him by E-mail, but why bother? There's the goddamn address, if you have a question, why don't you ask him directly? I probably wouldn't ask him the right questions for you anyway. "Is your real name `Billy?'" That was best question I could come up with.

Of course, the album isn't really about computers. It's not a threat to "PC Computing." It lacks "usability" tips. He doesn't even mention WordPerfect 6.0 or CompuServe. He snubs Dvorak to give special thanks to Timothy Leary. It has lines like, "In Cyberspace you know how much the world ain't learning.

I'm tempted to call him a computer "poser" but that's not the point. (Also, with my column being written in this beautiful glass dwelling, I don't think it's wise to start chucking bricks.) He's not a poser. He's a fan of computers, and he doesn't claim to be more. It says in the NY Times (they did bother to interview him - they can think of questions to ask Billy Idol, that's why they win Pulitzers) that he couldn't get on-line without his notes and he types with the "hunt and peck system." Who cares? He's not a fan of computers because he can write code, he's a fan because he knows that whatever is really happening nowadays is happening around computers. He thinks the idea of computers is cool enough to drop terms that he doesn't understand. I respect that.

So, we've done it. This is a major landmark for us. We have been trying to make nerds cool ever since we couldn't climb the gym ropes in grade school. William Gibson helped, he made computer hackers smoke cigarettes. Star Trek didn't help at all. Robert Morris helped by getting arrested (nerds didn't used to be cool enough to do damage). Bill Gates wasn't much help. Ridley Scott, Tod Rungrund and Peter Gabriel pulled their weight and more. And we finally did it. After all that, we've hit critical mass.

Billy Idol, an honest-to-goodness, blonde, sneering, motorcycle-crashing, cool enough to cover the Velvets, almost cool enough to date Uma Thurman, MTV rock star, who "fortunately, never had to pay for sex" says "Cyberpunks are the true rebels" right on the first track. He said it. We're cool. The "in crowd" is coming to us.

Now what do we do?