Posts Tagged 'Joan Jett'

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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Blue Grit

Victory Tischler-Blue, Palm Springs, 2010. Photo by: Vern Evans ©VTB

Runaways’ veteran, Victory Tischler-Blue chats about the new band biopic; her 2003 documentary, “Edgeplay: A film about the Runaways;” and Andalusian horses

In 1977, when 17-year-old Vicki Tischler joined the all-girl rock band, The Runaways, she had no idea that she was becoming part of a sisterhood that would influence the rest of her life. The Runaways, best known for the song “Cherry Bomb” and for launching the musical careers of Joan Jett and Lita Ford, was the brainchild of rock impresario Kim Fowley. Rechristened, Vicki Blue by bandmate Joan Jett, Tischler toured with the group for nearly two years and recorded the albums: Waitin’ for the Night and And Now, The Runaways.

After landing a small part in director Rob Reiner’s classic rock mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap [1984], Tischler-Blue began to switch her focus from music making to filmmaking. She eventually settled into a role behind the camera as a television and film producer and founded the production company Sacred Dogs Entertainment Group. In 2003, she made her documentary debut with a labor of love titled, Edgeplay: A film about the Runaways.

The gritty, behind-the-scenes band documentary enjoyed critical acclaim, despite relentless legal obstruction from Jett — who refused to appear in it and actively blocked the filmmaker’s ability to use Runaways music in the film. Edgeplay survived the setbacks and ran for two years on the Showtime Network.

And now, there is a new Runaways movie — this one sanctioned by Ms. Jett. Written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, and loosely-based on Cherie Curry’s torrid memoir, Neon Angel: The Cherie Curry Story, the feature film follows the fictionalized rise and descent of the band. The Runaways stars Kristin Stewart, Dakota Fanning and Scout Taylor-Compton (as Joan Jett, Cherie Currie and Lita Ford, respectively).

Since the movie’s January debut at the Sundance Film Festival the band’s members have been back in the spotlight; Urban Outfitters stores are selling Runaways T-shirts; and Twilight bloggers can’t stop marveling at Kristen Stewart’s transformation from lamb to lesbo; and all of this fuss, before the film has hit a single multiplex screen.

Victory Tischler-Blue is sanguine about the current commotion. She’s been here before. In an interview from her ranch in Palm Springs, she discusses filmmaking, music, horses and her ongoing journey as part of the karmic sisterhood she joined as a teenager.

Q. What are your feelings about the new Runaways movie?

A. I think it’s fantastic on more than one level. I love that this current film is bringing more eyeballs and awareness to our band and to all of our personal projects as well. After 30-something years — how amazing is that? For me, the Runaways has become the gift that keeps on giving.

When Lita and I were in Lake Tahoe filming some scenes for The Gillettes [an upcoming reality series executive produced by Tischler-Blue and starring Ford], Scout Taylor-Compton, who plays Lita in the film, drove up to meet us.

She said that the way the actresses learned about the Runaways — despite the near-constant presence of Joan Jett and [her business partner] Kenny Laguna on set — was that they sat down together, on their own time, without the director and learned about everybody from watching Edgeplay. In fact, even the director mentioned in a recent L.A. Times article that she pulled the film’s most talked about and anticipated scene — the Joan/Cherie lesbian pussy bump — from Edgeplay.

That said, I’m not really sure why the filmmakers felt the need to create a composite bass player character named Robin — when they had Jackie [Fox] and me to pull from. It’s also ironic that the only two band members who actually remember everything, because they didn’t get high or drink, are the two that are excluded from the story. It’s a well-documented fact that Joan, Cherie and Lita have very few, if any, memories of being in the band.

Personally, I’m amazed at how much sweat equity these actresses invested in the project and how much it meant to them. Scout was also incredibly forthcoming when she told me and Lita about how oppressive the atmosphere was on set. I really want to acknowledge what the actresses went through because they were paid far less than they would normally earn, but it was important to them that they do it right. Much like it was for us in the band.

Q. There was a lot of press coverage of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie at The Runways film premiere at Sundance in January. Where were you?

A. I was in Palm Springs, Lita was in Miami and Jackie was in Los Angeles. We were not invited to any of the screenings. There’s a running joke within the band that the subtitle for the new Runaways movie is “Revenge for Edgeplay”.

Joan and her partner have serious issues with the fact that I popped the Runaways movie cherry with Edgeplay and have spent a lot of time and resources trying to legally derail my projects and me. And it’s not just me; she’s gone after Jackie and Lita too.

The Christmas before last, Joan Jett sent me a gift in the form of a lawsuit — with regard to the domain therunaways.net — a site I’ve always owned. The claim was that I was operating the site in bad faith. FYI: the “site” was a one-page placeholder that was a memorial to Sandy West, our drummer who passed away in 2006 from cancer.  But my story isn’t unique. The bottom line is that Joan is known throughout the music and film industry as being extremely litigious with claims that don’t hold water — especially when there’s been a lull in her career.

Q. What is it about The Runaways that you think people are still responding to 35 years after the band’s breakup?

A. I don’t know. I’m really surprised by it. Jackie, Lita and I are all kind of shocked about the attention this is getting.

I think there are a couple of things people respond to. First, The Runaways captured teen spirit. I have the double-edged viewpoint of having watched them as a fan and later having been part of the band. When I used to watch them, I thought they epitomized all the things that I was about and loved — the rebel thing. When I made Edgeplay I tried to capture that same rebel feeling.

Also, I think people like to watch teenage girls morphing into middle-aged women. Whatever it is, I’m fascinated, grateful and blown away by the interest and attention.

Q. You’ve recently reunited with Lita Ford to make, The Gillettes: An Extreme American Family — a reality show about Ford and her rock ‘n’ roll clan. Whose idea was it and what can viewers expect to see on The Gillettes?

A. The idea came out of a conversation I had with Lita and her husband. They asked me to produce it. So, I came up with a concept, wrote the treatment and we started shooting footage last December. What you can expect to see is the daily life of a family that is outwardly extreme but really, pretty conservative and normal. The show follows Lita pulling it together to go back on the road after ten years of living on a Caribbean island, home-schooling her sons and making sure everybody’s Mohawks are standing stiff.

Q. You’ve had a passion for horses since childhood. What’s in your stable now?

A. I raise, breed and train Andalusian horses. They’re a beautiful breed and somewhat rare in the U.S. The three I currently own are from the purest Spanish bloodlines and worth a small fortune. But, I made a huge mistake – I got attached and fell in love with them and can’t look at them as commodities anymore. They’re my children.

Q. What’s your next project?

A. I’m currently executive producing an episodic television drama titled Rarebirds. I’m also developing a film and book project celebrating the life and work of 1960’s male physique photographer, Mel Roberts. Plus, I’m putting together a book of Andalusian horse photographs titled Pura Raza Testosterone and having a gallery show to launch the book.

Q. Knowing everything you know now, what would you say to a teenage daughter who ran away to join a rock band?

A. Have fun and don’t take it too seriously!

THE RUNAWAYS opens nationwide, March 2010. For more information on EDGEPLAY: A film about the Runaways, go to sacreddogs.com

Story in Record Collector News, March 2010

Read about Runaways drummer Sandy West in LA Weekly.


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