Sunday, November 11, 2007
Remembering the Runaways
Another chapter in my personal history of rock and roll and culture, from the point of view of a teenager (who hated corporate rock) in the '70's. This week's lesson: the Runaways!
Once upon a time there was a little girl named Suzi Quatro. In 1973, when I was 15, I was introduced to her music by a guy named Terry Henley, who was the 16-year-old uncle of a girl I was dating in Manchester, TN. Terry came in from Ohio or somewhere and was much more sophisticated than any of us, having already established himself as a drunk at that age, but presumably he came in from somewhere with a real rock radio station so he'd heard Suzi's first (minor, in the U.S.) hits like "Can the Can" and "48 Crash". Not long after, Suzi hit Circus magazine and I had her albums.
Suzi was the first leather-clad female rocker, or at least the first successful one, that I saw (I know someone's going to come up with some earlier chick rocker from the '50's or something who never made it). To tell the truth I think Suzi may have been a manufactured commodity, but I loved her all the same. For those of you whose taste in entertainment ran less to glitter rock than to TV, Suzi wound up as Leather Tuscadero, Pinky's sister on Happy Days. Of course, to me that was a sell-out.
But Suzi inspired a generation of boys and girls, and thus by 1975 a girl named Joan Jett was frightening Quatro when she toured California, showing up in every hotel lobby after every show with Quatro's haircut (and from Jett's subsequent history, the very hetero- and married Quatro was right). Joan hooked up with drummer Sandy West and later with a bass player named Micheal (fem., aka Micki) Steele to form the Runaways.
In 1975, about the same time as the New York Dolls were breaking up and Johnny Thunders was forming the original Heartbreakers, and at about the same time as a slimeball named Malcolm McLaren was sinking his claws into the Sex Pistols in Britain, another piece of music industry drek named Kim Fowley (male) realized he could make a lot of money from exploiting 15- and 16-year old girls, in those naive days before there were protections against such things (nowadays, the girls would be exploiting him). Ms. Steele left to go on to huge success as the bassist for the Bangles, was replaced by Jackie Fox (born Fuchs), and the band added 16-year-old Lita Ford on lead guitar and Cherie Currie on lead vocals. Thus, at least in the presence of Jett and Ford, are legends born.
In case you're wondering why I'm experiencing this fit of nostalgia for the most unabashedly jailbait rock ever, I just saw a movie called Edgeplay: A Film about the Runaways. The film was directed by Victory Tischler-Blue, who was a member of the band, replacing Jackie Fox as bass player, months before Currie left the band and forced Joan Jett into the lead slot (no pun intended). The film gets a mixed review, lacking any commentary from Jett, who turned out to be its seminal member, and of all things lacking a license to the Runaways music for the score. It also focuses way too much on Blue herself, who was perhaps the band's least important member. However, it tells the story, and there's lots of great footage and commentary by the others and their families.
When one looks back at recent cultural history, it's always way too easy to say, well, of course that happened! How could these parents let their 15-year-old daughters run off with an obvious sleazeball like Fowley. Well of course he abused them, sexually and financially, and probably facilitated their introductions to drugs, which are going to be an inevitable problem at their ages. But what's important to remember, because in that age, like today, most music is fake, the Runaways were real. "Cherry Bomb" was one of the best rock anthems ever. The Runaways played their own instruments almost all of the time, a far better percentage than most "artists" today can claim (and which later artists for the most part have no musical talent at all). Fowley, although sleaze, was successful sleaze, and he cast the band perfectly for personality and drama and unleashed two of the truly great female rockers of the '70's and 80's. Even Currie, who was probably cast mostly for her looks (and guys, she had a twin sister, and I missed the chance to see them perform together in NYC in 1980) holds up well in retrospect as a singer and personality.
And of course like just about every artist who shows up in this blog, one of the Runaways holds a special place in my heart. In the late '90's as I was putting myself back together from the destruction by fire of my old identity, working some crappy job in Nashville, I got a chance to see Joan Jett play the State Fair here. And she was the first person ever to make me realize that you can be cool and be forty, and there's no one any cooler than Joan Jett. Before her reincarnation on Broadway and the talk show circuit, there was Joan onstage with the remnants of the Blackhearts, bald, rail thin, singing twenty-year old songs like she wrote them yesterday. I honestly do think that thirty minutes of performance made a difference in me as I was shaping the identity I have today. Joan Jett, like Hunter Thompson, tells me that I can be who I want to be, and more importantly who I am. I'm not a musician; I gave that idle fancy up a long time ago. But Joan Jett is the living incarnation of the spirit of rock and roll. She is the rock chick in the Tarot deck of our modern culture, and all the rest are pale copies.
Long Live the Runaways! Here they are with Cherie...