1975 was pretty much a cultural wasteland in the United States for rock and roll. After the innovation and excitement of the 60's, the 70's in comparison seemed to be ruled by bloated guitar gods jockeying for position in the new music industry marketplace. But there were plenty of new genres bubbling under...glam and punk to name a few. And there were armies of young kids loving rock and roll music, with dreams of striding onto the stage and taking charge. Most of them were male. Rock and Roll was a man's world in 1975 - except for a very few brave souls (the rock band Fanny, Suzi Quatro), no woman had dared to dream the dream and strap on a telecaster.
Until the Runaways, that is. Guitarist Joan Jett and drummer Sandy West dreamed the dream of an all girl rock band and took their idea to record producer Kim Fowley. At the same time, 15 year old Cherie Currie walked out of her first David Bowie concert starry eyed and dreaming the same dream. A few days later she was hanging out at the Sugar Shack in LA when she was approached by Kim and Joan. It was a night that would change all of their lives. I asked Cherie if she remembered that encounter. "They approached me - Kim did first, and said he loved my look and do you sing or play an instrument, and then Joan came up to me... I'd just seen my first Bowie concert, and it was just a pivotal moment in my life because I knew that's what I wanted to be!"
Sister Marie had shaken her head in disbelief at Cherie's revelation after seeing Bowie perform. Girls didn't have those options. "No, I said, I've changed, I'm different. I walked out of that concert a different person. With a dream and a goal to make it happen. And for them to walk up to me out of the blue just weeks later..."
Neon Angel / A Memoir of A Runaway is Cherie's book on which the new movie The Runaways is based, written with Tony O'Neill (formerly a musician, O'Neill also wrote two memoirs of his own, as well as co-writing the memoirs of NFL player Jason Peter, entitled Hero of the Underground). The book had originally been published in 1989 as a young adult title with Price Stern Sloan, co-written by young adult author Neal Shusterman. Was this new, no holds barred version a catharsis for Currie - now that she was finally able to tell the entire story? "Absolutely...I screamed, I cried, I had breakdowns...but I could stand outside myself as a director would, watching the act, before having to go back in as the main character."
This time, Currie acknowledges, she had no fear. "Before with the first book - and Neal knows this - I kept a lot of things out of the book only because I felt that I'd hurt so many people that I had to take the blame for everything. I had some self loathing going on at the time, I didn't understand or hadn't come to grips with a lot of the things that had happened to me. And all I wanted was for people to forgive me. And that was that first book. This book is - I'm fifty years old, I have paid my dues, I don't owe anybody anything. I must be true to myself. This book is my last chance for people to know who I really am. And it was extremely healing."
Kim Fowley convinced her parents to let Cherie go on the road soon after the band was signed - just a few weeks after she joined. It was two years of absolute rock and roll mayhem - not to mention bucking the all-male rock band system. Did they realize they were making history, coming into a world where a female had one of two roles: a fan or a groupie? "We knew that just coming right into it. Kim Fowley said you're about to embark on something that has never been done before. And it's so true, in the movie Michael Shannon (who plays Kim in the film) says 'men only like to see you doing two things, and that is in the kitchen or on your knees.' And that is exactly the way Kim was. He was trying to prepare us for a hateful, hateful industry."
Cherie remembers the Runaways opening for Rush at Cobo Hall in Detroit. "They were sabotaging our equipment, throwing papers on the stage and I jumped off Sandy's drum riser in six inch platform boots and hit a piece of that paper and slid almost into the orchestra pit which would have been a drop from the ceiling down into wrought iron. I turned and saw them and they were laughing and laughing and pointing - I really could have broken my neck or worse. We were putting up with that every day."
The breakneck pace of touring and recording eventually took its toll on Cherie. Drugs and alcohol helped to get her through until they just didn't help anymore. Rock magazine photos and stories centered on her as the lead singer and this led to friction amongst the band members. Things got worse and worse until finally, at the ripe age of 17, she quit. There was a short stint as a recording artist with her sister Marie and some acting gigs. And lots of misery and drugs and abuse. Finally she realized that she was killing herself as a heavy cocaine user and went into rehab. After getting out, she took a job at a linen store in one of the many malls that populate Southern California. "I needed to do that because I needed to have a crash course in reality. I'd never had a normal job and I just craved normalcy and I needed to knock my ass down a few pegs. It was the only way I was going to stay sober - to get a big hefty dose of reality."
Soon after, she took some courses and became a drug counselor to help kids not much younger than herself come to terms with their addictions. "It was very fulfilling and gratifying as I so knew where they were coming from. And most of the people there, the counselors, a lot of them had never been addicted."
Kenny Laguna, Joan Jett's collaborator/producer/manager since the beginning of her solo career, got to know Cherie in the late 90's during the legal fight to regain the Runaways' royalties. With Laguna's help, Cherie's rewritten version of the book found producers who wanted to adapt it into a film. Laguna and Jett became executive producers on the project, which was written and directed by Floria Sigismondi. Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart were cast in the pivotal roles as Currie and Jett, respectively. The resemblance, in both cases, is uncanny.
What did Cherie think of Dakota playing her on screen? "It's not only surreal, it's the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me besides the birth of my son. She is amazing, incredible, brilliant." And what about going into the studio again with Joan after three decades, as they did with the two young actresses to re-record the Runaways music for the film? "It was like we'd never stopped." A few days after this interview Currie joined Girl in a Coma onstage at SXSW to perform "Cherry Bomb" and proved beyond a doubt she still has that rock and roll soul.
Currie praises Floria highly for the film. "They really got to the darkness of the 70's. Great job."
And today? Cherie is a self-taught professional chain saw carver. "It's just me, the chainsaw and the log, and no one to tell me what to do. How can you beat that?"
What advice does she have for a young girl today who dreams of going into rock and roll? "I would say you know undoubtedly that that's what you're supposed to do. And if you feel that in your heart don't let anybody ever tell you different. And have no fear. Go for it. Because there's no way you'll fail - not if you were meant to do it."
Neon Angel - A Memoir of A Runaway is published by It Books/Harper Collins
Cherie Currie's website is http://www.cheriecurrie.com
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