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Digging, the Runaways

I've been digging Paris. I mean digging for vinyl. You can find records here you can't find in the States, partly because different performers were popular in France (the Jerry Lewis syndrome), partly because collectors here aren't sifting for the same nuggets. I'm extremely selective; after all, the empty bag I brought is already half filled with shoes and clothes. Mostly, I'm looking for cool girl artists.

One music shop revealed a 1989 album by the Cookie Crew, called, er, Born This Way. The Crew were an all-female English hip-hop act I don't even remember. Rappers Remedee and Suzi Q have got a Native Tongues vibe in the cover shot, but I'll have to wait until I'm home with my turntable for the aural review. Speaking of Suzi Q, American daughter Suzi Quatro was more popular in France (and England and Japan and most of the world) than she ever was in her native land. I've seen two copies of her first album for sale here. I let them go since I have it, but I did snatch up a French release of her hit single "48 Crash" (a song allegedly about male menopause, of all things).

My favorite find came while combing through a box of vinyl at an antiques market. There, staring up at me with a revolver in one hand and a flashlight in the other, was Kim Fowley. Visions of the Future was released in 1978, during the Queens of Noise's brief reign, perhaps as his and Capitol Records' attempt to cash in on the fame he got for his work with the teenage girls who by then had fired him. On the inner sleeve, the Legendary Prick (as he titled an early version of his memoirs) clutches the gun and a teddy bear. The pistol-packing overgrown kid plays a sort of Eastwood-esque antihero in my book Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways.

Visions of the Future by Kim Fowley

People ask me why I wrote a book about the Runaways. There were many times in the four-year journey to the publication of Queens of Noise that I questioned the choice as well. It's the sixth book I've written or coedited, and it was by far the hardest. Damaged: I've never interviewed so many people who had been harmed in some way — physically, emotionally, mentally — by what they went through at a vulnerable age, in an experimental time (ah, the '70s). Subjects were reluctant to go there, to those dark memories, if they could remember at all. Drugs, suppression, denial, mythologies: it was often hard to figure out what the fuck happened. Some people were generous with their time yet still guarded, suspicious, careful of themselves or of others. Others refused or never responded to my interview requests. I tried to tread carefully. I did not want to add injury to persons who had already clearly been hurt. But I also felt there were some deep truths in the story of these girls becoming women in such extreme, tough, and exhilarating circumstances. Queens is a coming-of-age story — except not all of these women came out the other side of the adventure.

And then, the Runaways were so inspiring. Sometimes, I watch videos of them in their Ciri-designed jumpsuits and boots, rocking out on some Japanese soundstage, and I wish they'd had the success stateside that they deserved, so I could have known about them when I was a pubescent girl in the American heartland, looking for posters to hang next to Jim Morrison and Patti Smith. Jenny Lens snapped a photo of Joan Jett and Lita Ford on stage at the Whisky a Go Go in 1977; taut, muscular bodies poured into black spandex, they're both low to the ground as they sling their guitars toward each other, gazes intent on their instruments and hair wet with sweat. (Donna Santisi has similar images from the same show.) It was the Runaways' first gig after the departures of Jackie Fox and Cherie Currie. But this is an image of strength and passion, not loss and challenge. It hangs in my living room, so my son can grow up taking this vision of empowered women for granted, and I can thank them every day.

Joan Jett and Lita Ford
Joan Jett and Lita Ford at the Whisky a Go Go / Photo by Jenny Lens

It wasn't easy, but I'm so glad I wrote this book. I love rock 'n' roll (to borrow a phrase), and I have an abiding interest in championing and documenting women who rock. (My first book, 1995's Rock She Wrote: Women Write about Rock, Pop, and Rap, coedited with Ann Powers, included an excerpt from the first version of Currie's memoir, Neon Angel, as well as Lisa Fancher's frontier report on the Runaways for Who Put the Bomp.) What better story to tell than that of the Fabulous Five who traveled from LA to Cleveland to London to Tokyo at an age when most girls were primping for proms, who showed that Valley girls could be not the vapid, looks-obsessed consumerists of pop song, but guitar (and drums) heroes.

I'll be reading from Queens at the MEOW Conference in Austin in October. Quatro is keynoting this women-powered event, and it looks like a couple of the Runaways may be there too. I'll also be hosting a Free Pussy Riot panel there, with (fingers crossed) a member or two of the collective at least Skyping in. The Russian girls have a tremendous new song and video. More than three decades after the Runaways, girls + guitars are still making noise — and still getting shit for it.

More from Evelyn McDonnell at PowellsBooks.Blog:

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Evelyn McDonnell has written or coedited six books, including Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids and Rock 'n Roll, Rent, and Rock She Wrote: Women Write about Rock, Pop and Rap. Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways is her latest book.

Books mentioned in this post

Evelyn McDonnell is the author of Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways

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