Archive for the 'Spinster Librarian' Category

The Real Queens of Noise

THE BAND THAT SPAWNED ONE of rock’s most durable female icons was bornqon in a suburban rec room in greater Los Angeles. Suzi Quatro-wannabe, Joan Larkin, had to take four buses from the San Fernando Valley to meet up with drummer Sandy Pesavento at her Brady Bunch-like homestead in Huntington Beach. But, the moment the two 16-year-olds began to jam on “All Shook Up,” they knew they’d finally found rock ‘n’ roll compatriots. This guitar-drum duo, who rechristened themselves Joan Jett and Sandy West, would form the nucleus of The Runaways, the first all-girl rock band to get a record contract. The rest of the lineup would variously include: Micki Steele, Lita Ford, Cherie Currie and an ever-changing roster of bass players.

Jett and West may never have come together without the assistance of Hollywood music producer, Kim Fowley. Legendarily eccentric Fowley, the original “Mayor of the Sunset Strip” — who trolled its nightclubs with DJ Rodney Bingenheimer — hit upon the idea of creating an all-girl band after meeting 14-year-old lyricist, Kari Krome at a party. Since Krome could neither play nor sing, Fowley recruited musicians. But, as music writer and journalism professor, Evelyn McDonnell tells it in her book, Queens of Noise, The Real Story of the Runaways, “few girls were picking up electric guitars and drumstick in the mid-‘70s.” And when they did, as Fowley discovered, the public’s response would be less than exultant.

During its three-year lifespan, The Runaways were never much more than a cult band. Three decades later, the release of Floria Sigismondi’s
eponymous biopic brought the band wider acclaim. But the 2010 film, which focused on Jett and Currie (played by Kristin Stewart and Dakota Fanning) to the exclusion of the other players, was based almost solely on Currie’s memoir, Neon Angel. As such, it bears the flaw of all movie biographies — mainly, that a lot has to be jettisoned to squeeze a lifetime into in 90 minutes. McDonnell’s book remedies those omissions with dozens of interviews conducted with the entire cast of players, including women who auditioned and didn’t make the cut, those who did briefly and left, former managers, roadies and a variety of people who were part of the 1970s music scene in Los Angeles. What emerges from her investigation is a story more complete, messier and more heartbreaking than Sigismondi’s truncated script could contain.

The band debuted as a trio in late ‘75, with Micki Steele on bass and vocals. Soon Fowley added guitarist Ford and singer Currie. Exit Micki Steele, who was replaced with Jackie Fuchs (a.k.a. Fox).

This “Fab Five” ensemble was drilled and rehearsed to exhaustion by verbally abusive, Fowley — whose favorite invectives included names like “Dog Shit” and who liked to pelt the girls with garbage while they played to prepare them to become the kind of “Rock and Roll Pigs” who could withstand any assault. The pummeling paid off when Fowley got them signed to a recording contract with Mercury Records. He also had them sign a partnership deal with him that McDonnell describes as, “…fascinating, hilarious, disturbing, prophetic, ingenious, and pure Fowley. It’s hard to believe any attorney acquiesced to it, no matter what their experience with entertainment law…” The Mercury contract was more straightforward, but imposed a “grueling workload for teenagers who were also supposed to be getting their GEDs or diplomas.” Neither deal was in the ultimate best interests of the adolescents. Then again, the story of exploitation in the music business is hardly unique.

In 1976, the band recorded their first album, The Runaways, and began a two-month U.S. tour that was inadequately financed and was chaperoned by a road manager who was a sexual predator. A European tour followed and then a second album, Queens of Noise, was released in early 1977. Take five teenagers, add nonstop work and travel — far from the restraints of parents — and you’re bound to get some acting out. And act out they did.

McDonnell recounts stories of the group’s rampant drug use, sexual exploits and hotel room thrashings, all the while trying to sort the facts from the myths. Many of the reports are contradictory, depending on whom she interviewed. One tale from that period depicts Fowley sexually abusing a fan in a motel room while horrified band members watched — something only half of them recall and Fowley flatly denies.

Jackie Fox, the sole, narcotic-free Runaway, is quoted from a 2009 blog entry: “’Unfortunately it’s been almost twenty-five years since the Runaways were a band and even under the best circumstances memory is a funny thing.’”

Or, as McDonnell bluntly states, “Maybe someone is lying.”

In June of 1977 the band went to Japan. It was a tour that would mark their greatest triumph as well as their undoing. In Tokyo, where the song “Cherry Bomb” was number one, they were given the full Beatlemania treatment by thousands of plaid-skirted schoolgirls. This was exhilarating to some members and terrifying to others. Fox suffered a meltdown and flew home before their gigs were completed. Currie, who had become a highly sexualized focal point for the Japanese media, quit soon after Fox. The Runaways Live in Japan would be their last album as a quintet and remains a testament to their legitimacy as musicians.

Back in L.A., Vicki Tischler (a.k.a. Blue) joined on bass, Jett took over all vocal duties and they recorded their third studio album, Waiting for the Night. Another European tour followed, and then, late in that same year (by which time Blue was already out, replaced by Laurie McAllister) a fifth album, And Now the Runaways, was recorded. However, before it could be released, the combined forces of internal strife, lack of funds and rampant sexism in the rock world had taken their toll. The Runaways disbanded for good.

In just-over three years the band had recorded five albums, toured the U.S. and Europe twice, triumphed in Japan and run through several bass players. As McDonnell documents, during most of that time, masturbatory male rock critics across two continents had savaged the musicians, referring to them as “bimbos,” “sissies,” and “bitches” and portrayed them as rock imposters who they’d rather fuck than listen to. That Currie performed wearing a Rocky Horror Picture Show-inspired corset and Fowley packaged the band as jailbait (despite the fact that Jett and West were likely gay) fueled some of this talk. Yet, it is clear from the existing live performance footage that they were always a tight group of teenaged pros with decent chops. As McDonnell writes, “it’s hard to believe they didn’t become one of the greatest acts of their time.”

By the end, the reviews had gotten better, the songs had moved away from Fowley’s Hey-hey-we’re-the-Monkees-with-vaginas lyrical schtick, but what The Runaways never achieved was radio airplay — the make-or-break component of musical success. Aside from their anthem, “Cherry Bomb,” which never even broke into the top 100 on the U.S. pop charts, and some rotation on KROQ in their hometown, the girls couldn’t crack the airwaves. More than anything, that may have been what finally killed the act. Abuse is one thing. But abuse without success is intolerable.

Some band members found that elusive success post-Runaways. Joan Jett, who had always garnered the most praise from critics, was saved from druggy-self-immolation by replacement Svengali, Kenny Laguna. Under Laguna’s management, she went on to record a number of hit songs, including “I Love Rock and Roll,” and remains the best-known former-Runaway. Lita Ford achieved commercial success through a fortuitous alliance with Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne and a string of metal-rock albums. Cherie Currie pursued music and acting careers, the highlight of which was co-starring with Jodie Foster in the 1980 Adrian Lyne movie, Foxes. Jackie Fox became an entertainment lawyer, Vicki Blue, a filmmaker — notably of the Runaways documentary, Edgeplay — and Micki Steele, a member of the hit band, The Bangles.

Sandy West, universally praised as a hard-hitting rock drummer, was not so fortunate. She died of cancer in 2006 after spending her post-Runaways years chasing a never-gonna-happen reunion and becoming involved in an escalating series of drug crimes that would land her in prison. Laurie McAllister, who went on to play bass in another Fowley girl band, The Orchids, died in 2011.

Whatever path these former Creem Dreams took to adulthood, The Runaways experience has refused to release them from its thorny, emotional grip. For over three decades, acrimonious lawsuits regarding rights to the band’s songs, name and likeness and monies owed have raged between the women — in ever-shifting alliances and enmities — and between the women and Fowley. To this day, “all the members are wary, suspicious and defensive — aggressively so,” writes McDonnell.

She should know; she’s clearly done her research. One has a sense when reading McDonnell’s book, which alternates in tone from no-nonsense to wryly amused to compassionate, that no matter how many accounts of Jett, West, Ford, Currie and Fox may follow, Queens of Noise will likely remain the final word on this band.

“They came. They saw. They fought and fucked and played and hustled and sang their hearts out,” writes McDonnell. “They didn’t conquer, but they weren’t defeated.”

Or, as Joan Jett says of her first band, “‘It was an amazing time, probably the best time of my life.’”

Queens of Noise, The Real Story of The Runaways, Da Capo Books, available wherever books are sold. Check out Evelyn McDonnell’s blog: Populism.

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Love and Sex Addiction: It’s the New Black

For most of us, self–realization is something to which we aspire, yet, are only compelled to seek in the aftermath of painful encounters with others. It’s not a system without its pitfalls, but it’s the one we’ve got. If we’re lucky, we don’t lose too much of our pride, money or health in the process of hunting down human affection. But, in all likelihood, we leave behind a little bit of each with those we choose and lose over the course of our lives. And sometimes we leave more than a little.

Love JunkieYet, whatever our losses or setbacks, as Americans we believe in redemption. We are the country who puts our trust equally in both God and in the promise of a comeback. We believe we can resurface after being pulled under by scandal, illness or heartbreak — and we can come back stronger and better. However, before we can ascend from our ashes, protocol requires us to confess our sins — just ask Bill Clinton.

Love Junkie, is Rachel Resnick’s confession to forty-plus years of looking for love in all the wrong places, and the devastation in almost every area of her life, to which that obsessive search led. She begins the memoir with her “ah ha” moment. This is the instant known in twelve-step programs as “hitting bottom.” Resnick’s goes like this: One night she comes home and discovers that her house has been broken-into and vandalized by an ex-boyfriend. Instinctively she calls a friend for support who consoles her, in part, by telling her that her ex is a “psycho.”

“Her words comfort me, though there’s a dull nagging thought — who’s psycho? I picked him. I kept him. I kept him even after he began debasing me, just as I picked and kept a lifetime of other men who seduced and then debased. So, if he’s a psycho, aren’t I a psycho, too?”

Ah ha!

As Resnick shows, a breakthrough in consciousness is only the beginning. Transformation happens only after painfully honest self-examination, and she devotes her narrative to just this kind of self-scrutiny. How did she get to be a forty-something with an Ivy League education and little more than a string of failed love affairs to show for it? Well, kiddies, as Freud once one said, it all starts in childhood.

Employing a well-crafted, deceptively conversational style, Resnick’s memoir uncovers the roots of her compulsion to pursue serial, abusive relationships; namely, her parents. She was born to an alcoholic, love-addicted mother and an emotionally (and literally) abandoning father, and then shuttled between various foster homes throughout her adolescence. Her narrative alternates between past and present to illustrate adult situations and then compare them to the childhood traumas from which they sprang. If she has, as she suspects, an attachment disorder, its basis is abundantly clear.

She is fearless in telling stories that others would not tell to their priest. Resnick admits, in detail, to submitting to serious sexual and emotional degradation. She explains how her addiction to having a partner at any cost made it difficult to pursue her career, financial security or motherhood. Instead of working on her paid writing, she admits to crafting dozens (or hundreds, or thousands) of obsessive emails to men — like the one she calls, Winchester, who tells her point blank, that he does not love her.

“Winchester — who fits perfectly, chemically, into my crazy need — writes back just enough to keep me going. And periodically, of course, he comes over for mind-blowing sex.

“Winchester is like pure heroin. But that’s only because I am an addict.”

Obsessive emailing is only the tip of the iceberg of self-defeating behaviors that Resnick finally recognizes are classic symptoms of love and sex addiction. At least that’s what they call it at the Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) meetings she finds herself in after getting out of the long, brutal relationship that is the centerpiece of her story. And while the program she enters helps her personally, as an author she is too thoughtful to rely on hackneyed twelve-step jargon to tell this tale.

In the end, it is this innate thoughtfulness, searing honesty and self-effacing humor that save her from blindly plunging down a path that leads to irredeemable tragedy. And, those same qualities save her book from the dull, self-obsession of lesser memoirs.

Rachel Resnick’s Love Junkie, with its stark examination of a rarely discussed addiction, heralds the next wave of mass psychological awareness in the U.S. It took decades for Americans to expose the closeted skeletons of alcoholism, drug addiction, rape, spousal abuse, child molestation, eating disorders and co-dependency. As each of these issues stepped into the light of media scrutiny and spawned a cable television movie or Oprah appearance, it seeped into the mass consciousness and began to be seen for the pervasive problem it had always been. And, like some kind of national group therapy, once a problem had been named, it could finally be owned and treated.

With books like Love Junkie, television dramas like Californication (and actor David Duchovney’s admission to real-life sex addiction) and the VH1 program, Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew, love and sex addiction is about to become the new black. And while, as Resnick discovers, “No one is going to save you,” this cumulative closet-opening will likely move many suffering people one step closer to recovery.

Now, we just need Oprah to get on board. After all, no one likes redemption better than Oprah.

Revisiting Peyton Place

Grace Metalious’ infamous novel, Peyton Place, was published in 1956. In a year marked by such media events as Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Marilyn Monroe marrying Arthur Miller, My Fair Lady opening on Broadway and Grace Kelly moving to Monaco to become a princess, Metalious’ novel about small-town scandals competed for, and won, its own sensational niche. And, while musical adaptations of Pygmalion don’t exactly blow our minds anymore, Peyton Place still has the ability to shock.

Hope_Lange_in_Peyton_PlacePeyton Place tells the story of that eponymous, small, New England town and its inhabitants during the last years of the Depression and into WWII, but is focused primarily on the experiences of two girls, Allison MacKenzie and Selena Cross. On the surface, they are strikingly different. The former is the daughter of Constance MacKenzie; a single widow who owns a respectable business, and the latter is a “shack dweller” who lives in filth and poverty with her syphilitic mother, Nellie, and a violent, drunken stepfather, Lucas Cross. While the girls begin the story as best friends, their differing temperaments place them on separate trajectories. Allison is bookish and immature. Selena is world-wise and world-weary. One derives her comfort from fantasies, the other from cold reality.

Yet, they are not as different as the prudish Allison would believe. Hidden skeletons in their respective closets bind them to each other and to their small-town neighbors. And, as Metalious reveals, what spectacular skeletons they are. Incest, illegitimacy, cuckolding, alcoholism, abortion, venal acquisitiveness, power wielding, pettiness, religious hypocrisy, sexual deviancy and murder are all happening just behind the whitewashed picket fences. There is not a deadly sin left unearthed in Peyton Place, and it is from the strangely contemporary-feeling scandals depicted throughout, that the novel derives its ability to shock more than 50 years after its publication.

Metalious accomplishes this trick by first setting up the superficial, moral parameters of the townsfolk and then systematically throwing each character into a crisis. For instance, the neer-do-well town scion, Rodney, gets a girl pregnant and then has his father pay off the girl’s family to get her out of town. Norman, a cloistered mommy’s boy who is given “medicinal” enemas — well into his adulthood — peeps on a man performing cunninglingus on his pregnant wife and never recovers from the illicit shock. Allison MacKenzie finally discovers that she is a bastard and that her fantasies of a princely father are just that. Most shockingly, Selena Cross becomes pregnant after being raped by Lucas, and the town’s upstanding doctor gives her an illegal abortion. Selena later murders Lucas, when he tries to rape her again, and buries him in the sheep pen.

The descriptions of sex, the inquisition of the era’s mores and the dialogue hold up as well as anything from fiction written by more accomplished and respected authors. This might be because two unsung editors at Julian Messner purportedly rewrote the book before publication. But, who writes their own books anymore anyway?

While it would be easy to scoff today at the uproar caused by the publication of Peyton Place in Ike’s America, there is no theme explored in this story that isn’t still being beaten to exhaustion on the Lifetime Television Network or in the media generally. The recent disapproving uproar caused by Mackenzie Phillips’ revelations that her father drugged and raped her when she was a teen, and the flock of apologists who descended upon the world’s stage to protect that other child rapist, director Roman Polanski, illustrate that the plight of Selena Cross is just as relevant today as it was in 1956. (See related story in the New York Times.)

In 2006, it was reported that actress Sandra Bullock had signed on to portray Metalious in a biopic about the author. Nothing has been reported since, but, given the utterly-contemporary feel of her 50-year-old best-seller, a fresh look at the author seems relevant — though hopefully Bullock will do a better job at depicting Grace Metalious than she did with her uncomfortable rendering of To Kill a Mockingbird author, Harper Lee, in the film Infamous.

Peyton Place is worth another look; if only to realize anew that, though American women have come a long way, baby, we still have much further to go.


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