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Kim Fowley on 'The Runaways' film: 'Every movie needs a villain, and I’m a good one'

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There are different accounts as to what happened behind closed doors at Runaways rehearsals. The punk-leaning Runaways had a brief, crash-and-burn history in the mid- to late '70s, and the upcoming film based on the story of the all-female band, which opens March 19 in Los Angeles, will present a Hollywood version of that history.

But regardless of who's doing the telling, one point that seems widely agreed upon is this: The band's onetime manager, Kim Fowley, is crazy. Fowley doesn't wholly dispute his image. "I'm the psycho Svengali," he said to Pop & Hiss earlier this week. "But I was just trying to make a living."

In the film, in which "Twilight" vet Kristen Stewart gets a rock 'n' roll makeover as Joan Jett, Fowley is played by Michael Shannon, a foulmouthed impresario who isn't above throwing dog excrement at the teenage band he managed. 

"The Runaways" isn't the first film about the group. A 2004 documentary titled "Edgeplay," written and directed by former band member Victory Tischler-Blue (known as Vicki Blue in her days as the Runaways'  bassist), levied multiple allegations of verbal and borderline sexual abuse toward Fowley. 

The upcoming film "The Runaways" is itself based on a book, "Neon Angel," by the band's singer, Cherie Currie, which presents Fowley as aggressive and domineering in relation to the band he helped form. Fowley famously referred to the group as "sex kittens" and "jail-bait rock," and it's been said that he called the band members "dog meat" to their faces. It should also be added that Jett and Curie weren't old enough to vote when the Runaways cut its self-titled debut in 1976. 

"Kim told my mother that I was going to be a rock star," Currie is quoted as saying in the 2001 book "We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk." "That I was going to be the next Bowie, the next this and that. How could you refuse? Within two weeks, he had a deal with Mercury Records ... two weeks after my fifteenth birthday."

Lead guitarist and vocalist Lita Ford, who has publicly distanced herself from the film, is quoted in "The Neutron Bomb," by Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen, as saying that Fowley's name-calling eventually "became pretty funny," and Jett herself downplays the tenseness of the situation. Currie, however, adds, "We were lower than dirt -- that's how he made us feel. That's how he kept control over us."

Fowley, 70 and still working today on another all-girl project dubbed Black Room Doom, shrugs it all off. "There wasn’t AIDS. There were no computers. There was no digital marketing. It was a totally different time. There was no political correctness. Enjoy the history."

Credited with introducing the band members, and often working as their producer and co-writer, Fowley didn't tour with the band, and ultimately acrimoniously split from them. He talks to Pop & Hiss about "The Runaways" below.

The_runaways_movie_6_ 
So what was your reaction to seeing the film?

I have two of them. On a good day, it’s a musical version of "Rebel Without a Cause," and on a bad day, it's a nighttime soap opera with some rock 'n' roll music. From a marketing perspective, it's a coming-of-age movie that works.

And the actor Michael Shannon's take on you?

Micheal's a genius. Michael is the new Christopher Walken. 

He comes off as a bit insane.

It’s Cherie Currie’s version. Remember, Cherie wrote the book, and they adapted her book for the screenplay. That’s her impression of me, and they expanded it and used poetic license. 

So you commented on an earlier Pop & Hiss post about the movie, and this is how you described Michael's performance: "He portrays me as a cross between 'Citizen Kane' & a 'Vampire From Outer Space.' "

Possibly. After seeing the final version, I would say, ‘Darth Vader as a used-car salesman.’ That’s what it is. Every movie needs a villain, and I’m a good one. 

Yet now that you’ve seen that played back to you, how do you feel about an audience taking away that impression of you?

I’m not an audience. I think an audience is going to be entertained, and this is an entertaining movie. 

How is your relationship today with Joan and Cherie?

I saw them at the wrap party, and everyone was polite. Joan and I had a collaboration as songwriters. She was John Lennon and I was George Martin. With Cherie, I was Roger Vadim and she was Bridget Bardot.

This whole experience seems to have scarred a lot of the participants. Lita Ford, for instance, has distanced herself from the film. There were lawsuits, name-calling, etc. It’s a situation that spawned a lot of bad blood.

I call it the Runaways jinx. Certain bands have a jinx. There were some sad chapters of the Ramones’ final days. The Sex Pistols started out one way and ended up another. The Who were a jinxed group. Elvis was jinxed. Not everyone was the Mills Brothers, where they had no conflict for 55 years. I think for the Runaways, that was part of the fuel -- the tension. Thirty-five years later, it’s never been fixed. I suggested to various people that we all go in a room and acknowledge we’re all over 50, and see what happens. No one was interested. How many people do you know from your fourth-grade class?

That’s a little different.

No, it’s not. The Runaways was a project that was a professional working thing. It didn’t come together organically. They had separate sets of friends and schools. They were the same age, but had different interests and backgrounds.

Between "Edgeplay" and this, where does the truth lie?

In the movie that will never be made. "Edgeplay" was all the people who weren’t Joan Jett. The Kim Fowley footage was bought from VH-1, and they edited in the movie implying I was with the remaining Runaways. That was one filmmaker’s view of what happened. This is Cherie’s book brought to the screen by Floria Sigismondi, so this is their view. Everyone has their view. If you read all the Beatle books, they’re all different. The Elvis books are different. Look at the Bible. There’s different versions of the Bible. 

Were there things you wanted to change from Cherie’s book?

How could I change something I didn’t write or create? There was nothing to change. My only requirement was to say, "Hello, I’m still alive and I still work." I have basic life rights, and there are boundaries within those rights. All human beings have certain basic rights -- even people in hospitals or graveyards and jails. 

But Cherie’s book doesn’t paint you in the best light.

That’s her point of view. That’s what she says happened, and they adapted that. The issue is whether or not this is a good movie, and the answer is yes. This is not a historical document. 

There are scenes in the film where you are throwing dog excrement at the Runaways.

I did whatever was needed for them to turn into something interesting enough that a movie was made about it. As far as throwing dog [waste], I don’t remember throwing that at anybody, nor was any thrown at me. It could have been atomic bombs. It could have been bologna sandwiches. It’s interesting that it was dog [waste]. I didn’t see a dog in the movie. Who was the dog? I don’t remember a dog being in the studio. If that was true, where is the dog? How did we get the dog [waste] from the dog to my hands to them? That’s my question.

But you did whatever was necessary?  

But not that. I had male and female friends bring things to throw at them, so when they played punk shows they would be used it. They had a good laugh of it. People in their age group were throwing bits and pieces of a room at them. Then, two days later, in real life, the same thing happened, and they were happy it happened. Ironically, Cherie wasn’t in [rehearsals] that day. That happened in August, and she joined the band later in the year. The food drill happened before she was in the band. Poetic license. 

There’s an important line in the film in which the Kim Fowley character says the band is not about women's lib, but is instead about "women’s libido."

That wasn’t my line. That was a line a writer or adapter created. I had a similar sentiment, but that’s not a quote.

But I was curious of your reaction to the sentiment. 

The sentiment is right. I produced Helen Reddy, and she was a feminist. Her content and the Runaways content were different. I produced both of them.

Yet the Runaways were part of a scene that was very much about liberation, in all its forms -- at least that was punk at its most ideal. That's a mission statement about little more than sex.  

No. It’s what a football coach tells his players. It’s what a drill instructor tells his soldiers. You’re going off to fight in a war. You’re not going to cruise Hollywood Boulevard in your mom’s car. Girls were about to go onstage in front of people you don’t know, yelling and screaming. This is what it’s going to be like. You’re in boot camp. Prepare for this. This is what we are doing. That is all that it was. 

Now, from the point of view of the girl who wrote it, it may be different. But you’re talking to me, and that’s how I remember it. They weren’t in dresses. They weren’t in lingerie. They were in T-shirts and blue jeans, except for a Japanese photo session that I did not arrange and was not aware of.… It was always blue jeans and T-shirts. They were tomboys.

What have you learned about constructing a band versus a band having to be an organic thing?

There’s no difference. It’s all grind. Whether the guys farm themselves or you farm them or it happens like "American Idol," the public either buys it or they don’t. There’s nothing sacred about the process. 

Was there something you wish the film had shown that it doesn't?

We had, I thought, a crusade, to save rock ‘n’ roll. There was no punk rock. There was no MTV. We had just gone through Vietnam. Kansas was really big. No Ramones. No Sex Pistols. The Runaways, for a very brief period of time -- August of 1975 -- was the only rock ‘n’ roll band in America. That’s what I thought was the story. That’s not the story on the screen. It’s a coming-of-age story about a girl and her family issues and her musical adventures. It’s Cherie’s story, and whether it’s entertaining or factual or sad or tragic, it’s her statement. It’s interesting, enjoyable and watchable, and from that perspective, it works.

Tell me about Black Room Doom.

The premise is a group of girls show up in a Hollywood studio at noon and they don’t know each other. We form a band, and break up the band at 6 p.m. Whatever happens between noon and 6 p.m., we film it. They were musicians and singers and actresses and models. They recorded and played without knowing each other’s name. We all had pizza together. 

--Todd Martens

Related:

Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning get wild with 'The Runaways'

Fanning and Stewart attend 'Runaways' school of rock

Top photo: The Runaways in 1977: Lita Ford, from left, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Sandy West and Joan Jett. Credit: Los Angeles Times. Middle photo: Dakota Fanning as Currie and Kristen Stewart as Jett in "The Runaways." Credit: Apparition. 

 
Comments () | Archives (14)

I love this interview. First of all, Kim knew what was lurking in the wings of this interview: the Hatchet Job. And WOW, he comes off sounding like the most grounded, centered, interesting person involved with the Runaways. Great journalism!

I totally agree with Jolnir. The trailers for "The Runaways" look painful (due mostly to the horrific casting of the film) and this interview re-invigorates my interest in the Runaways. Kim sounds like an insightful and savvy man. Wish it was longer!

"We had, I thought, a crusade, to save rock ‘n’ roll. There was no punk rock. There was no MTV. We had just gone through Vietnam. Kansas was really big. No Ramones. No Sex Pistols. The Runaways, for a very brief period of time -- August of 1975 -- was the only rock ‘n’ roll band in America."

Really a crazy take. Led Zeppelin; Deep Purple; Black Sabbath; Rolling Stones; The Who.

Lets face it: He is 70. It could be he is in the early stages of Alzheimer's.

"Led Zeppelin; Deep Purple; Black Sabbath; Rolling Stones; The Who." Every single one a British band getting complacent after several years of success. He's talking about a new specifically American group on the raw cutting edge.

"Really a crazy take. Led Zeppelin; Deep Purple; Black Sabbath; Rolling Stones; The Who."
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Even though it is indeed an over-the-top statement that Fowley made, all of the bands that you mentioned above are British.

Ah memories. It was in 1976 that I was introduced to Kim Fowley by my girlfriend back then who was very much a part of the scene in L.A. at the time. It was during a intermission for a New Years Eve concert (76-77) at the Santa Monica Civic with Van Halen as the warm-up, Flo and Eddie and Sparks as the headliner. He didn't really say much, preferring to be detached and cool. What I remember most was his look; about 6ft 2' tight jeans and big 70's shag hair, a typical look for the time. Sparks was the reason both my girlfriend and I were there and Fowley as well since they were kind of associated with the Glam scene. For me The Runaways were a product of that scene, something Fowley and Rodney Bingenheimer (sp?) really propelled here in L.A.. They had basically one great album and then moved on. I do more or less agree with Fowley about the American Rock Band scene in 75. A year later though it would bust open. However I have to mention one name; Suzi Quatro the Godmother of girl punk. I saw her in 1974 at the Roxy all shag hair and a black leather jumpsuit with a full length zipper in front pulled half way down singin "48 Crash". That my friend is/was Rock and Roll.

Cass and Kent:

The Sex Pistols are also British..and a faux punk band; though I love em.

American bands of the same era: Aerosmith; Iggy Pop; Lynard Skynard; Kiss; J Geils Band; Santana; etc. Time fades memories of the scene. I know Im missing some key bands.

Kim Fowley made an absurd self-serving claim.

There is a typo at the end of this article in the last paragraph.

"American bands of the same era: Aerosmith; Iggy Pop; Lynard Skynard; Kiss; J Geils Band; Santana; etc. Time fades memories of the scene. I know I'm missing some key bands."

Other than Aerosmith, there's not much of an argument to be made for the rest of them. (Iggy was off in post-Stooges oblivion in '75.)

Kim's always been a straight shooter and self-promoter. Nothing he said here really surprises me; I first met the man in 1977 or so (he was out with Rodney Bingenheimer someplace; I forget where exactly). Watch the "Mayor Of The Sunset Strip" movie about Rodney and you'll see that Kim was exactly the same back when that was filmed. Or go to YouTube and find the "Tomorrow Show" (with Tom Snyder) clips with Kim and Joanie and Paul Weller and Robert Heartb... err, Hilburn (late of this parish).

You can't fault Kim Fowley for giving his side of things. His focussed, driven, "I'm just trying to rally the troops" attitude is another (wo)man's "He was abusive".

The Runaways were a great band (I saw them live a good 6 or 7 times, at least) and achieved something, both for womenhood in general and for an LA band to become well-known outside the Southland. While I have no time for this movie and "Twilight" twerps, if it exposes their music to a wider audience, I'm all for it.

When I heard they were making this movie about a year or so ago I was thrilled. I had just read We Got The Neutron Bomb and was fascinated by Kim Fowley, The Runaways and the grimy LA punk scene in the 70s/80s. "Cherry Bomb" is as good as a punk song gets. My only disappointment was when I heard they cast Kristen Stewart. I don't know...she seems like such a light weight...a little girl trying to act tough. I hope for Joan Jett's sake she can carry her weight in the film. Jett was the one girl who could rock harder than the guys and show 'em how it's done. I always loved her (Jett) for that. She had us boys in awe of her! I hope Stewart does her right!

The more I read of this, the more I liked Kim Fowley. He may or may not be a nice man, but he seems pretty honest and forthright. He doesn't evade responsibility, doesn't seem to hold a grudge, and gives credit where it's due.

Kinda refreshing! And here I thought he was crazy...:)

"American bands of the same era: Aerosmith; Iggy Pop; Lynard Skynard; Kiss; J Geils Band; Santana; etc. Time fades memories of the scene. I know Im missing some key bands."

Aerosmith, J Geils, and Santana were also getting past their prime; Skynard sucked; Kiss sucked AND was phony; I'll give you Iggy Pop.

"Kim Fowley made an absurd self-serving claim."

He made the claim about the band, genius. And for a brief, brief while, they were pretty fun and exciting rock n' roll.

Deal with it.

I was glad to see they were making a movie about The Runaways. Too bad there's nothing like them now. And I had the opportunity to meet Kim Fowley just once in the 1980's, while I was working for Top 40 Radio in the daytime and at the Whiskey at night. By then he was on the fringe of the music industry in L.A. I met a lot of scary, creepy men from 1970 to 1989 and he was, by far, the scariest and creepiest. By the early '80s you would have to have been dead dumb naive to trust your career to someone like Kim. It's too bad he didn't appear as reasonable and knowledgeable then as he appears in this article.

Fowley claims above that Michael Shannon's portrayal of him is exaggerated. Go find his appearance with Joan on Tom Snyder's late night show back in October of '77. If you can't find it on the net, get your hands on the Tom Snyder Punk & New Wave DVD. Michael Shannon NAILED THE PART. Period. You'll see the orange suit and tie from the Snyder interview late in the film...which makes sense, as Fowley and Joan Jett make a point to mention that Fowley and the band were parting ways in two weeks. At least Fowley credits Shannon as a genius, and the comparison to Christopher Walken isn't too far off of the mark.

Fowley also claimed that the "Women's Libido" sex marketing was limited to Cherie's wardrobe in Japan and the infamous solo magazine shoot, and that they were all "Tomboys" in jeans and t-shirts. BS. Lita Ford was sporting hot pants before that period. She looked SO good in them...beautiful back 9. Who could forget?


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