The Dollar-A-Minute Hustle: Kim Fowley And The Runaways (And Beyond)

photos from MySpace

photos from MySpace

Kim Fowley will tell you who he is below, but as an introduction I should inform you that there is a biopic (biographical movie) coming out nationwide in April 2010 about The Runaways. Called the “Queens of Noise” either by manager-seer Fowley or one of his pals in PR or the press, The Runaways were a little too before their time (and perhaps a little too threatening to how serious rock fans wanted their music in the mid-late 70s).

Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Mickie Steele (The Bangles), and Sandy West (who passed away from cancer in 2005) and other women played in the band which, besides “Cherry Bomb” and a cover of Lou Reed’s “Rock And Roll,” has never landed classics in the mainstream or punk rock canon. The passed along notions are that they weren’t talented (bullshit), that their catalyst Fowley is to be given all the credit for what went right (more bullshit) or what went wrong (etc.).

The fact of the matter is, I inherited a double gatefold single debut LP from my older brothers with weed seeds and dust stuck to it, because the young women pictured on the sleeve intimidated them more than entertained them. That would make do till I discovered the Sex Pistols, yet that eponymous first release still crackles with vicious fun now (despite where rock took off to).

And then learning that there are painted birds on the office hours side like Kim Fowley, who alchemize youth music to be a mercurial ride with the common sense removed. His perverted trash-art impulse transcends soundtracks for a prom or political rally or peer counseling session. His freakiness made me want to do more than just listen to the stuff but participate in likewise ways. Fuck Fitzgerald’s “American life has no second acts.” If you’re weird and willing to struggle, Fowley’s career can inspire you to create and perform no matter what. The Runaways are one of the bands he did that for, among others.

(The phone rings. My tape recorder is already running.)

Talk to me.

Kim... Mr. Fowley?

Who are you?

My name is Chris. I’m calling to interview you for the KEXP Blog.

All right.

And... I love your work. You’re magic; I don’t know what rock and roll would have done without you.

Thanks.

I first wanted to ask if you’d seen the movie and what you’d thought of it.

Oh. First let me go get a glass of water... please.

OK.

(...)

OK, so you started recording me immediately. What was the question? And use the entire interview, I know how to do these things. Everything I say, you use. Including what I said when my phone rang, and then you said, “Nothing would have happened in rock and roll without me.”

Absolutely. I wonder if you’d seen the movie.

I saw it. On a good day, it’s Rebel Without A Cause with music; and on a bad day, it’s a night time soap opera with some rock and roll music.

How do you think Michael Shannon did portraying you?

He’s a genius. He’s the new Christopher Walken. And I’m privileged that he was able to get enough of me to make it watchable. It transcended the printed page. He’s working with Martin Scorcese on his Broadway project, that’s what he’s doing now. This guy’s like John Garfield or Humphrey Bogart playing you. I mean, wouldn’t you like that?

So congratulations, Michael, you’re on your way to stardom.

To quote from the original BOMP! Magazine article about The Runaways, “They were everything great about teenage girls.” Do you think they achieved that?

I think that the idea was a good one. And it’s up to the audience to determine if it was achieved.

Do you think people have a pretty good idea about how the music business works? Putting things together by knowing the right people.

No. There’s a battle between art and commerce, labor and management. There always has been and always will be, and the public couldn’t care less. It’s made theatrical for them, i.e., “Sweet Smell of Success,” or “The Bad and the Beautiful,” these Hollywood movies that talk about show business intrigue and back stage ballets, et cetera. And all the intrigue from that point of view. There’s always a jury movie about the jury, movies about the Pentagon, movies about doctors and research scientists and all of that. There’s always a back story that is generally used, eventually. The product isn’t consuming product for information or doing it for a state of enlightenment, they’re doing it for escape and entertainment, from their own lives.

Kim Fowley

But that back-story has its own kind of aesthetics.

Well that’s you, you’re a rock intellectual and scholar and so you’re going to look at it from that perspective. But your fast food consumer just needs another burger and fries.

Kari Krone had written in BOMP! that you’d auctioned off groupie girls who came on stage during Runaways performances. And I know that you had a “Lesbian Slave Auction” last year during your shows with a group last year... oh, by the way, are you still performing with that group?

The Hollywood Sexual Underground? Now and then, it’s just performance art. But we have a new project that we’re doing performance on, Black Room Doom. It’s a female performance unit. And it’s performance art with women. It’s listed by “Black Room Doom Visuals,” and on My Space, it’s Black Room Doom. It’ll put a smile across your face.

Did the idea of auctioning people to the audience, did that start with The Runaways then?

No, it started in Biblical times... read the Bible!

(Laughter.) I love the fact that you’re attracted to female performers to work with, and I know you probably get asked this all the time, what is the particular energy about working with women?

Well, my mother was an actress, Shelby Payne. She was one of the two cigarette girls in The Big Sleep with Bogart and Bacall. So I saw Hollywood from an actress under contract with Warner Brothers. So I saw it from her point of view. And then my first major job in the business was working in the publicity, and press, and background music, media, for Doris Day’s production company, and I was the boy genius in the office. The two movies that I worked on were Please Don’t Eat The Daisies and Pillow Talk. I brought Bruce Johnston in as a songwriter, and stayed with him his entire career. He wrote, “I Want To Teach The World To Sing...” whatever that was, the Barry Manilow classic. (“I Write The Songs”). And then all those songs for the Beach Boys, I can’t remember all the titles.

You know what I like about Barry Manilow is that he put that medley of his jingles on that double album live set.

Right. He’s talented. And Bruce is a talented writer and I brought him to the Doris Day-Marty Melcher’s Arwin Productions. And I was lucky to have a mother in the business and my first major job was with the number one female box office star in the world, Doris Day. And then between that I worked at American International, with all the exploitation movies in the B movie genre. There was a record label called American International records, I was there every day and absorbed all that. So you put “female” and “drive-in exploitation movie” together, and you have the mindset of someone who was able to deal with The Runaways concept.

The Runaways seem like a good example of your concept of “The Hustle.” Did you describe what you do as “The Hustle,” or was that given to you by (BOMP! publisher/label owner) Greg Shaw or someone else?

Oh, I gave it to myself. Everything in life is a hustle, a scam. Including living and dying and breathing and eating and going to the bathroom, and sleeping. It’s all flaws that we have to maintain, and co-exist with, in order to be immaculate creatures of self-destruction.

Your “$500 Hustle,” described by a long-time personal assistant, if it were to be criticized, what would you tell them?

“I have a hard on.”

(Laughter.) I mean, getting five hours of advice from someone with your experience and insight for $500 is a pretty good deal, isn’t it?

Who gave you that number? That’s incorrect, by the way. It was actually a dollar a minute. It ends up usually about five hours. Big Boi asks me questions every day. And I charge to answer them.

Don’t you find people always want something for free in the industry, especially advice?

Everybody has a dollar, everybody has a minute, so -- spend your dollar! I’m performing in Austin, at SXSW. Are you going to be there?

No, I’m not able to -- but what are you doing, so I can let people know?

I’m doing a BMI SXSW movie music panel on the 14th of March. For Rhapsody I’m emceeing and jamming at Emo’s. And then Thursday they’re having the premiere and the red carpet, and then Friday another press conference. So I will be live and in living color. I’m going to be in Austin all ten days... when’s this article coming out?

Probably next week. Well, I guess the appropriate response is-- any time you want it to!

Right now!

OK! I’ll ask my editor to do it as quickly as possible then.

Run it every day! Is this going to be on-line?

Yes!

Good. How many people read it?

I don’t know. I’m one of those rock intellectual types; I have no idea about things like that.

Could it be in the hundreds? Or the millions?

Oh yeah, sure, it could be in the millions.

Good! OK, what else? Keep going...

I loved hearing your 60s psychedelic hit “The Trip” in Guy Ritchie’s movie RockNRolla. I really liked that movie.

Thank you.

How did you hook up with Guy?

I never met him, he just found it somehow. One day I got an email, “Hi, we’re using this. OK, good.” He’s a genius.

He kind of reminds me of you as a filmmaker -- combining exploitation with danger and irony...

He reminds me of John Ford! I think he’s John Ford with a lot of sleaze. I’m also Irish you know, I’m an Irish citizen. My dad’s from Ireland and my mother’s from Portland, Oregon. So I’m European with an American accent. And part of my education was there, and my university was there ... so I look at Europe differently than you do, you don’t have a dual nationality and I do! (Ritchie) gets the “Yabbo” thing really well, you know. Football hooligan icon, he’s got it.

That seductive violent energy.

I guess that he would probably do good in a street fight.

Kim Fowley

How’s it going with the reissue of your past albums?

Norton put out stuff I did between 1959 and 1969, it’s out now, really rare stuff, called One Man’s Garbage: Lost Treasures from the Vaults: 1959-1969, Volume One. And then they put out Another Man’s Gold. I did the liner notes for that, there’s lots of stuff in there. Double album, vinyl and CD, The New York Times glorified it, 32 tracks, unreleased.

Greg (Shaw) was talking about you in the liner notes in Vampires From Outer Space, Volume One. You had originally placed The Runaways ad in BOMP! and actually got no response?

None, not one.

But you hooked up Joan with Cherie.

The Runaways movie is based on Cherie Currie’s book. It was then rewritten and adapted for the screen by the director. So there’s a thing called poetic license. And poetic license was used in the content of the movie. It’s an entertaining movie; it’s a coming of age movie. In that regard, it’s good. Well-directed, produced, edited, and the music and the visuals are good. You can sit there and watch it. If you’re in middle school! However, if you’re looking for a Nick Tosches overview, you’re not going to get it. You know who Nick Tosches is, right?

Yeah, he’s one of my favorite writers. I would have loved to see you work on a version of this story with him.

I never met him, but he’s a great writer. He gets into the blood and the guts, doesn’t he? So he didn’t write the screenplay. But you’re going to get a good teenage girl’s diary. And that’s what it is -- a girl’s coming of age adventure 35 years ago.

If you were able to do it the way you wanted, say with Nick writing the screenplay...

It wasn’t my call. I have no desire to make a Runaways movie. I don’t even think that way. But I would have had Kenny Ortega direct it, because he was the one that staged The Runaways’ act. You know who he became -- Dirty Dancing choreographer, This Is It director, High School Musicals. He was on The Runaways’ team. He’s not mentioned in the movie. But he was there at the beginning and he makes great youth movies; I would have Nick write it and he would have been the director. But it’s good for what it is. If you’re a teenager and you see it could be your Rebel Without A Cause. And if you’re a jaded guy like you, you’re going to say, “Oh, it’s a night time soap opera with rock and roll music.” OK! That’s all good. And every movie needs a villain, and I’m a good villain. And Michael Shannon plays me like a good villain. I think the dialogue they gave him though reminds me of Carrot Top. I thought for awhile that maybe Carrot Top would play me; I wasn’t happy about it. Nothing against Carrot Top. Imagine if you had Carrot Top define you on screen! No matter who wrote the dialogue you wouldn’t be jumping with joy. They got Michael, so I was fortunate. And of course eight of my songs I wrote, or co-wrote, are in the movie. And for the soundtrack album for the girls who played The Runaways are putting out, I have seven songs on that album. And I think Dakota is a really good actress. I think Christian Stewart is an amazing actress. I think her performance is astounding in the movie. I think Dakota, well, she’s playing Cherie the way that Cherie sees herself. As opposed to the way -- she might have been. So Dakota once again has to do the printed page. I think Christian got Joan Jett’s spirit, but I don’t think Dakota got Cherie’s spirit. But she got Cherie’s pain and suffering. So from an Ingmar Bergman perspective, Cherie got that and Christian got Joan’s rock and roll celebration. of course, in collaboration Joan and I wrote a lot of songs, so I had a different relationship with her than I had with Cherie Currie, to whom I was Roger Vadim. And she was Brigette Bardot. With Joan Jett, I was George Martin and she was John Lennon. And that’s a big difference. I hooked up with Joan through Kari Krome. A lot of The Runaways people aren’t visible anymore; they went on to other life choices, you know.

I was going to ask you, is there a reunion in the works around the release of this film?

No, I had suggested it, and nobody’s interested. Because one girl died, and the remaining ones -- wouldn’t it be great if we could get them, myself, the various technicians, roadies, and PR people, the team of people and agents and some of the co-managers, or managers before and after me, and after me -- and everybody just gets worked up. “No, no, no,” the wrong way. If everybody realized we’re all over 50 now, and it might be a different perspective. But even at high school reunions the people who hated each other twenty or thirty years ago still hate each other.

Anyways, The Runaways wasn’t my career. So I had a career in rock and roll from 1959 to 1975, and that’s when The Runaways started. And when I completed my work, I was gone by late 77 or early 78. And that’s thirty-two years ago. I’ve lived in thirty-nine American cities, twenty-two overseas countries; I’m a cancer survivor; I lived with positional vertigo; a Polio survivor; I’ve had a lot going on in my life, and The Runaways is no more important to me than you reminiscing about your fourth grade classroom. Some of the songs are good, and some of the records are good, but it’s not the obsession of my life.

When I worked at a label, we would blow off steam after work imagining that bands we were working with would go on to be “the next Sonic Youth” or whatever. If you don’t remember that’s fine, but did you ever have any “Master Plan” specifically for what you wanted to do eventually with The Runaways?

I’ll tell you The Runaways story from Gene Simmons’ perspective. You know I co-wrote songs with KISS members, “King of the Night-Time World” and “Do You Love Me?” which appear on thirty-five separate releases. And what happened was that Gene asked what I had to do with The Runaways, after they broke up, and I said, “At various times I was producer, manager, publisher, co-writer, writer, arranger, cheerleader, shrink, road guy, idea man, strategist, publicist.” And he said, “Next time you have a good idea get people with brains to work with you on it.”

And that’s why Black Room Doom is more important to me than The Runaways. It’s a movie, and the premise is that a bunch of girls get together at noon in a recording studio, who have never met each other. And I say, “By the end of the day you will have recorded, and you will have danced and sung, and have pizza together. You will finish songs that you have played together, and then at 6 PM you will go home. And that will be your band experience. What do you girls think?” “Let’s try it.” And it’s a bunch of happy women. And girls. For that afternoon. And when it’s over, the movie’s over. Maybe all bands should form in one day and at the end of the experience just break up at the end of the day.

You think I’m kidding, but you go back to the early days of rock and roll, and there used to be people who would show up and play under a phony name, and sing together from other bands, and they all need $25 or $50 so they show up and sing and play. The drummer from one band would be the guitarist from that band; etc. And they would never play again. And they were called “One Hit Wonders.” Remember them? What if bands could be one hit wonders? What if you could form a band just for tonight? It would be a great night.

And I do other things like run a rock and roll workshop, and help a studio, and supply food to musicians and technicians and anybody’s who’s good to come in to make noise if they want to. I don’t care what kind of music it is as long as it’s interesting.

That’s the beauty of your career -- you’ve given so many people the opportunity to do those things. To play.

That’s why I may not go to hell like I want, because of all the women there. But God may want me to go to heaven because I give everybody a shot.

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6 Comments

  1. Roy
    Posted March 16, 2010 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Excellent!

  2. Bill Power
    Posted March 17, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    What a fascinating interview with some great quotes!

  3. Posted March 17, 2010 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Kim Fowley produced the song...”Alley Oop”...!

  4. Posted March 27, 2010 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    Great interview. Great interviewee.

    Dig this podcast where Fowley provides commentary on a bunch of records he’s made:

    THE MAL THURSDAY SHOW: Kim Fowley’s Trainwreck a Go Go
    http://garagepunk.ning.com/profiles/blogs/the-mal-thursday-show-25-kim

  5. Pelle Larsson
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    I like the fact that Runaways was the first female band with rock attitude! Girls can play! However it was a money making product instead of letting them get respected as musicians. “I love Rock’n rool” shows what I’m talkning about.
    But Fowley is of course knows what people want, hehe..
    Music is timeless, all Fowleys work with Slade, still today - holding the flag!
    /bluesmusician, composer from Sweden. Keep up the good work Fowley!

  6. Freak Recluse
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    My band and I spent two weeks in March 1985 living with Kim (a.k.a Doctor Dog) at his apartment on Sunset and recording with him and Frank Carr at TTG Studios on North McCadden. Kim’s hustle is just that. I remember Kim on the phone with his “talk to me” and “dollar-a-minute” spiel, and always trying to pick up young runaway girls down by 777 Pizza and the parking lot of the grocery store. He is a man who throws it all on the wall figuring something will stick sooner or later.

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