How I stopped worrying and learnt to love the (Cherie) bomb
The Runaways. That's Cherie on the left.
It has taken some time but I have finally found my inner klutz. Fortunately, Cherie Currie is a wise and generous woman. So, if my tale lacks substance, the blame is on me.
On Saturday morning, lacking even the first sip of caffeine, I received an e-mail. Robert Brokenmouth couldn’t do the Cherrie Currie interview. Could I step into the breach? Grown up me was fine with this. I’ve done phone interviews before. I just ring the number and try to build a narrative that gets you, the reader, so excited that you’ll hand over your hard-earned dollars for tickets or discs or downloads or whatever. I know the job.
The trouble is, grown up me is suddenly no longer in charge. Fifteen-year-old me is essentially melting down and demanding attention. Fifteen-year-old me is terrified. Grown up me is trying to explain how things that terrify you can also be fun and exciting. Fifteen-year-old me remains unconvinced.
The interview is scheduled for a little after seven on Monday morning. Unfortunately, I’m also the kind of guy who is unconvinced there is a seven in the morning. There’s a seven in the evening and there used to be another one much later on when the sun came up. But age has wearied me and the latter remains a fond memory.
I stare at my e-mail for an hour. I’m thinking about it. I really am. All I have to do is type “sure” and press send. Editor supremo Craig Barman finally sends me a Facebook message telling me to look at my goddamn e-mail. I’m not getting out of this one.
So where does this fear comes from? Well, I was one of those kids who turned on the radio and had their lives saved by rock and roll. It started with Suzi Quatro but, as with all gateway drugs, you found yourself moving further from the safety of the Top 40 in search of your next great hit.
Soon, I had albums by the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls. Cassettes of borrowed Stooges albums. But the Velvet Underground and the Stooges had split. If I hadn’t have tripped over a second-hand copy of the Dolls, I would have never heard of them. It wasn’t like they got played on Australian radio or television. Even “groovy” 2JJ preferred the safety of sensitive singer songwriters and rock that feigned intellectual superiority and almost classical pretentsions.
The Ramones, Patti Smith and Television may have been playing CBGBs but the media frenzy and the debut albums were a year away. The Sex Pistols were playing to thirty people. I wanted rock action and I wanted it now. And this was the moment the Runaways, the band Currie fronted, appeared. They didn’t get radio play in Australia but the television pop shows swung their doors wide open. I’m not saying there wasn’t an element of sexual attraction but visually there was so much more.
And besides. I was fifteen. The Runaways were at least sixteen and if there’s one thing a 15-year-old boy understands it is that he is not in a 16-year-old girl’s league.
The Runaways weren’t passive – something we’d had been taught to expect from female musicians. Even Janis Joplin presented a vibe of being done wrong. The Runaways appeared like they actually did wrong. They were wanton. They screamed attitude. They were the Bacchanalian frenzy. They leant back, turned up the guitar amps and hit you right between the eyes.
I was Saul on the way to Damascus. Seeing the Runaways on television made me want to play music. I wanted to live in a world that felt like that, 24-7. I wanted to burn down my school, my town and my previous life. And I haven’t even really told you about the music.
The opening salvo of the single “Cherry Bomb” rewrote the rule book. Tough single note bass lines had been a staple of Glam and Glitter from Quatro’s “48 Crash” to Nick Gilder’s “Roxy Roller”. These songs had, however, relied on a kind of shuffle beat. “Cherry Bomb” hit with a solid 8 notes a bar chug that rode over you like a juggernaut. It sounds so obvious now but then it was a revolution. There was no Ramones album to point at; no “Never Mind the Bollocks” or “(I’m) Stranded”.
It has been said that Rock and Roll sounded like a locomotive in the night. The Runaways sounded like a jackhammer or a Panzer tank.
If the aesthetic was shared with anyone, it was possibly “Kraftwerk” but they had machines to do the heavy lifting. The Runaways were unmistakably flesh and blood.
This was punk before punk. In fact, when Runaways’ Manager Kim Fowley got around to recruiting an actual punk band (The glorious Venus and the Razorblades with their single “Punk-A-Rama”), he essentially lifted the entire arrangement of “Cherry Bomb” to do it.
Obviously, I needed the first Runaways album. If I didn’t eat lunch, I could save enough money in the course of a week to buy a seven-inch single and, of course, I did. But $5.95 for an album may as well have been $500. Fifteen-year-old Bob Short marched into his local branch of K-Mart wearing his largest jacket and proceeded to execute what he considered to be the crime of the century. I would own a copy of the Runaways’ first album - or die trying.
The terror and thrill of that moment lingers more than 40 years later. I didn’t know it would be possible to feel anything like it again until I dialled a phone and saw the word California appear on the screen. Oh my God. I have forgotten how to speak. How does one forget how to speak? Am I having a stroke?
I try to pull myself together but already I’m telling her I have a confession to make. I’m sure she heard that many times before. Fortunately, my spluttered tale of teenage theft raises a warm and hearty laugh.
Cherie Currie is touring Australia and New Zealand for the first time at the end of May 2016. That’s why I’m on the phone. I ask her what can we expect to hear. This is her fronting a band of hired guns. Will it sound like the Runaways?
“Well. I think it has to kind of evolve just a little bit because it’s not teenage girls playing. But it’s still true to the Runaways’ sound as best we could manage. I’m only doing the songs I was a part of from the band. The first and second album or the live album. That’s what we go by. I’m staying pretty true to the band.”
I respond with geekish enthusiasm. I am the personification of embarrassment. As I described earlier, I just loved the sound of that rhythm section. What comes out of my mouth is an incomprehensible parade of syllables.
“Jackie didn’t play on that first record. Nigel from Blondie. He was the one that played and he was fantastic. I have to take my hat off to him. He did great.”
I know, dear reader. You’re shocked. Back in the day, many viewed the Runaways as something plastic and manufactured. But session musicians were always a big thing on the LA music scene. There weren’t many hit records that came off the west coast that didn’t have the Wrecking Crew all over them. The Beach Boys. The Byrds. Even Paul Revere and the Raiders. And I can tell you one or two stories about various performances improving radically overnight due to studio ‘magic’.
At the end of the day, much of the freshness of the Runaways’ sound came out of the fact that they actually used Joan Jett, Sandy West and Lita Ford on the recording. Clearly, given the time and place, it showed incredible foresight to overcome the prejudices of the day and let teenage girls anywhere near a studio.
But that’s not to say things were all sweetness and light. Kim Fowley and his associates were clearly bullies and worse. If you watch “Edgeplay: A Film about the Runaways”, you’ll get an idea about how much worse. He ran a regime of divide and conquer. He was abusive and it must have been hell on earth for a 16-year-old.
I ask what advice Cherie would have for her 16-year-old self.
Then and now.
“My advice would be don’t ask for anybody else’s opinion and don’t try to desperately fit in. Just be true to yourself. Be what you were born to be. And everything else will fall into place. It’s hard. But now, my fifty six year old self absolutely knows that anything that didn’t work out in my life was because I listened to other people and their advice. And they’ve got their path and you have your path and their opinions can’t help you. Only your belief in yourself and what you were born with and listening to that voice is the only way you won’t fail.”
Cherie hasn’t been wasting time on the releases front. I ask her what her plans for future releases are and, clearly, I haven’t done my homework.
“Well, the record I did for Blackheart with Matt Sorum (Guns N’Roses, Velvet Revolver) in 2010 is being released in September and my live in London album is going to be available when I’m in Australia. Then, of course, “Reverie” that I did with Kim (Fowley) is available now (through CherieCurrieDirect on Ebay). So I don’t think I have to think toooo hard about recording now.”
The road had come back to Kim Fowley. Now, I met Kim Fowley once back in 1978. He’d put an ad in the paper saying he’d come to Australia to find Sydney’s answer to the Sex Pistols or Tasmania’s answer to ABBA. Well, I had to get me a piece of that.
Kim’s tiny room in the Hilton was stuffed full of most of Sydney’s flotsam and jetsam. Now, I won’t tell you I was tripping because I wasn’t. It may however be true that some of us had stayed up most of the previous night taking travel sickness pills that allowed us to watch a non-functioning television.
Now. I’m tall but Kim was taller and all I could think was this dude was a praying mantis. Big bulging eyes and angular motions, I was kind of expecting him to bite someone’s head off.
As the years went by, the stories you heard about him seemed to get worse and worse and Cherie was certainly on the receiving end of the torment he dished out.
It seemed very surprising to many that, before Kim’s death from cancer, the pair reconciled and she moved in with him. I asked her how she dealt with a past like that.
“Well, you have to confront it. Don’t you? And a few years ago, I really realised that all this anger and unanswered questions were affecting me greatly. And I had to reach out to him and I had to forgive him. Because, otherwise, I was going to continue to have these nightmares and this anger. And, of course, this is no way to live.
“So I saw him at a party and he was very taken aback that I was kind to him. And we started talking on the phone, hours at a time. He answered many questions that I had.
“And now that I’m a mom… and I realised that, for a guy that was in his early 30’s who had to deal with five girls who had basically just started their periods….I’m sorry but it’s true. And a man who had had a terrible childhood. How do you really cope with five girls in such a male dominated business? He did the best he could even though it wasn’t the right way. He actually came to tears a couple of times. He carried a lot of guilt.
“And we just became very, very good friends and he reached out and asked me if I wanted to do a record with him. And this was before he died and I jumped at the chance and brought my son in. So talk about full circle. My son gets to work with him and see what a brilliant writer Kim Fowley was.
“Kim was brilliant. One of the most brilliant lyricists. I mean, what came out of his mouth was perfect. You rarely had to do anything to it. And I was so blessed he came to live with me. He only lived with me for nine days and then he had to go back into the hospital. But it was nine days I will always remember and I’m very grateful for.”
It’s a powerful story and how she tells it kind of floors me. What do you say after talking about that. I ask her what she thinks of David Bowie’s “Blackstar” and Donald Trump. But time is running out and there is another thing Cherie does that I have to know about. She’s an artist. She makes art with a chainsaw. You read that right. So, I ask her if that’s as dangerous at it sounds.
“It can be. But I’ve been doing it for 15 years. It is really dangerous so you have to keep your guard up. Even though my family told me I was not going to be a chainsaw artist, there was nothing that was going to stop me. And I immediately started winning ribbons and placing in competitions and it’s been very good to me.”
I suggest that it sounds like a form of art based very much in rage.
“Oh, absolutely not. No. No. No. It’s just the fastest wood removal tool there is and for anyone who doesn’t have patience, like myself, to chisel away with hand tools… I like to get things done and get them to be done quickly. And the chainsaw allows me to do that.”
Cherie Currie is still my hero. I can’t wait to see the tour.
To buy tickets to see Cherie on her upcoming tour of Australia and New Zealand, head here. VIP Meet & Greet packages are also available!
20 - Kings Arms – Auckland
21 –Bodega – Wellington
22 – Churchills - Christchurch
26 - The Triffid – Brisbane
27 - Manning Bar – Sydney
28 - Corner Hotel - Melbourne
31 - The Gov – Adelaide
1 - Rosemount Hotel - North Perth
Tags: tour, runaways, australian, cherie currie, kim fowley