Cherie Currie has been hiding in plain sight. During the 35 years since she last released an album, and the 38 years since she walked out of the groundbreaking band the Runaways, she has acted in movies and TV shows, written two versions of one memoir, signed autographs at fan conventions, and occasionally performed live. She has had her life story turned into a movie starring Dakota Fanning. She has even recorded an album, produced by Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses) that has yet to see the light of day.
What she has not been able to do since the Reagan era is get her music into people’s hands. Currie is a product of the golden age of the record industry, the era of Elton John, T. Rex, and Labelle. And yet it wasn’t until digital technology democratized the means of production and dissemination that the Cherry Bomb was finally able to release another album. Reverie was self-released via iTunes last month.
Reverie is a comeback album that brings together two figures from the opposite ends of Currie’s life. Ten hard-pop songs are produced with filial care by the person she considers her most significant life achievement: her 24-year-old son, Jake Hays.
“He’s seen the ugliness in this business and for some reason he just never lets anything get to him, even people that might say something nasty to him… he just laughs!” Currie says over the phone from her Southern California home. “He just thinks it’s so funny. That is his attitude and that’s the kind of attitude that I’ve been trying to embrace.”
Four tracks are co-written and co-produced by Runaways overlord Kim Fowley. He’s the legendary rock & roll iconoclast and hustler who plucked Currie out of a Los Angeles teen club and made her a star, and whom she has accused of verbal abuse and sexual harassment when she was a mere teenager. These tracks also represent the last time Fowley was in a studio before his death in January.
“He wanted to do this with me and I wanted to do it with him, and instead of having all the bad memories of being in the studio with him as a kid, we replaced it with good memories,” Currie says.
Sometimes, to move forward, you have to own your past.
When Cherie Currie walked into the Sugar Shack in North Hollywood in the fall of 1975, she was a 15-year-old David Bowie fan with a flair for glittersnipe style and an identical twin sister named Marie. The story of her meeting with Fowley and her future bandmate, newly inducted Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Famer Joan Jett, has been oft told. Based on my own research for my book about the Runaways, Queens of Noise, the chance nature of this encounter is at best heavily mythologized and at worst largely apocryphal. But it makes a great story.
Currie had never been in a band, but she looked like a rock star — or rather, like Brigitte Bardot, as Fowley told me. Jett and Fowley were putting together an all-girl teenage hard rocking act, and Currie had the blonde bombshell looks that would help them get a record deal. Jett and Fowley wrote a song, “Cherry Bomb,” for her Runaways audition, and a star was created.
“She immediately delivered the fucking thing,” Fowley told me. “‘Hello daddy, I’m your wild girl,’ and looked right at your cock, at your balls, at your mouth while she sings — looks at every guy in the room, looks at Joan, breathes fire, heats up the room. There it is, the million-dollar thing.”
Currie sang with a guttural snarl that belied her ingenue looks. There was a tension and menace in her voice, probably a result of Fowley’s unorthodox coaching technique, which involved hurtling invectives and real objects, during his infamous “heckler’s drills.”
She is perhaps best known for having taken to the stage in bustier and stockings, long before Vanity or Madonna made that a style. But modeling her performance after such gender-bending men as Bowie and Tim Curry, Currie carried herself like a tomboy, whatever she was wearing. As the punk singer Kathleen Hanna told me, “The way she moved was so weird, and almost mocking pornography poses. Cherie kind of looked like a little kid playing dress up/a skinny boy in drag. When I watch videos of them, I’m like oh, she brings out the idea that being a woman is a role.”
Her mom, Marie Harmon, was a successful minor film actor, so Currie was not dumb to the ways of Hollywood. But neither was she prepared for the foul and flamboyant ways of Fowley, the six-foot-four polio survivor who was the Runaways’ producer, songwriter, sometimes manager, and drill sergeant.
“I was in pain because I came from a family that was very loving and supportive; it was kind of hard to understand that life I was in where there was so much backstabbing and negativity and jealousy,” she says. “So I became very, very hard by the time I left the band, because that’s the only way I could survive.”
Currie and Fowley clashed terribly. Along with calling the girls colorfully vulgar epithets usually involving the word “dog,” the 35-year-old record-biz veteran set his young charges against each other. Currie and lead guitarist Lita Ford were obliging enemies. Ford resented the way the singer hogged attention with her good looks and skimpy outfits. Currie, well, she was a diva. At one photo shoot, the tension became physical; Ford slammed Currie into a bathroom door, and Currie left the studio — and the band.
“We all were damaged by The Runaways,” Currie says. “We were damaged because we never had a break, we didn’t have any mediators when there were problems within the band — and a lot of them were caused by Kim, and he admitted that. He thought that if he pitted us against each other, it would give us an edge on stage. But if you do that for two or three years, and there is nobody to put out the fires, you just incinerate.”
At first, leaving seemed like a smart career move. Currie quickly landed acting work, starring alongside Jodie Foster in Adrian Lyne’s teen-angst drama Foxes. She also released two albums. On Beauty’s Only Skin Deep, produced by Fowley and David Carr, she got to indulge her middle-of-the-road pop sensibilities. On Messin’ with the Boys, she shared the mic with her twin. Neither broke her out of the novelty niche into which the Runaways had also been shoved.
In 1989, Currie’s memoir Neon Angel revealed that she had abused drugs and alcohol for years and had been the victim of a horrific kidnapping and rape. In 2010, she rewrote Neon Angel with Tony O’Neill. That year, the Floria Sigismondi feature film The Runaways, based on Currie’s book, was also released.
By then, Currie and Fowley had publicly made nice. Currie says she had come to realize that her anger was doing her no good, and also to recognize that Fowley had been damaged by his own horrendous upbringing, as a sometimes foster child and two-time polio survivor.
“I understand the past; I understood it,” she says. “A lot of it wasn’t laughable; I can’t laugh at girls being verbally abused. I can’t laugh at us not being paid. I can’t laugh at us being pitted against each other. None of it’s laughable because you’re dealing with kids! But again, it’s the past and the past has to go away. It has to be buried and you have to move on, and had I not been able to do that, this wonderful experience with Kim would never have happened. And I really realized that the anger I had was only hurting me and not Kim. The thing is, I got to witness his brilliance as a songwriter, which I didn’t get that opportunity in The Runaways, so I got to witness — with my son — just how ingenious he was.”
When I began interviewing Fowley for Queens of Noise, The Runaways and Neon Angel had already been released. He cooperated with the movie, in which he is engagingly portrayed by Michael Shannon, but Fowley felt hurt and betrayed by the way he was demonized in both narratives, and by the way in which he was sidelined at promotional events for the movie.
Mostly he was aggrieved by a chapter Currie added to the second edition of her book. “Kim Fowley’s Sex Education Class” describes an incident in which Fowley masturbated an inebriated young woman with a hairbrush in front of Currie, West, and others. Fowley denied the incident and became angry and agitated when I asked him about it. Almost every time we talked, he would offer me choice words about Currie, calling her, for example, “Courtney Love on steroids” or “an ignorant, uninformed, hateful hillbilly who happened to look like Brigitte Bardot in a trailer park 30 years ago.”
In most tellings of the Runaways story, Fowley has been cast as the bad guy largely because of Currie’s accounts. When it came time to reconcile, she wasn’t the only one who had to forgive and move forward.
In 2012, Currie parted ways with manager Kenny Laguna, who also manages Jett. She charged in Facebook postings and interviews that Laguna had failed to find a label for the Sorum album, then offered her a substandard deal to release it on Blackheart Records, the company owned and managed by Jett and Laguna. In one published comment at the time, she was so upset that she said she would rather work with Fowley again than Laguna.
Then her phone rang.
By this point, Fowley was struggling with the return of bladder cancer. Maybe he didn’t want to go to the grave carrying a grudge. Or maybe, ever the hustler, he was not one to let a little bad blood get in the way of an opportunity. Not only were producer and singer reunited: Lita Ford came along, too.
“Lita was the hardest one in the band to understand; she was so hard on me,” Currie said. “I didn’t quite understand that. All you have to do is beat up somebody emotionally as young kid, and you know that nothing good’s going to come out of it — ever. But again, we were kids, and you have to look at it that way. You can’t hold grudges when you’re an adult for what happened when you were a kid.”
This past August, Currie posted news on her Facebook page that shocked many fans: She was taking care of the ailing Fowley in her home.
“We recorded,” she says. “He would be orchestrating me from the bed, and it was just him and me for 24 hours a day for most of the time, and he was bedridden. I had to take care of him on a very personal level.”
Like so many tales involving the Runaways, the extent of this care-taking has grown rather mythic. It was, in fact, a period of eight days, after which the ailing septuagenarian returned to the hospital and to the care of his soon-to-be wife, Kara Wright. Currie says it was nonetheless a time in which she got to show her love for the man she had once vilified.
Three of the songs Currie and Fowley wrote together for Reverie — “Queens of the Asphalt Jungle,” “Dark Worlds,” and “Inner You” — are infused with the gothic psychology of people whose sex and death urges are confused by the night. She also rerecorded two Fowley-penned Runaways tracks. But the most twisted collaboration is the ballad “I’m Happy,” in which the lord of garbage and the queen of noise come to terms with their life passage. It’s a surprisingly infectious feel-good anthem for hard livers who have made it to their twilight years.
The best song on Reverie though may be the one borrowed from the lost Blackheart record. “Shades of Me” is a rock & roll rarity, a duet between mother and son. Hays carries the tune with his Chris Martin croon, while Currie drops in with a husky response. Together, they turn one kind of love song into another.
After decades of trying to control her career to the point of suffocation, Currie says that it wasn’t easy passing the reins over to her only child.
“It was hard, to be honest; I don’t listen to current music,” she admits. “I’m a classic rock kind of gal. I did lean heavily on his knowledge of music today. But there were a couple of times where I’d put my foot down on things. You know, Jake’s not a big fan of French horns, but on ‘Believe,’ I call it an ode to Glen Campbell in a way, because growing up in the 70s, I just loved the French horns and the violins and all that kind of stuff. So I just said, ‘Look, this song’s gonna be the way I wrote the song. It’s gonna be the way I want it,’ and he finally gave in.”
After all that Currie has been through, you would think she would want her son to be anything but a musician, but she says she thinks Hays has learned from watching her struggles — and that he has a better attitude. “He knows what he wants, he knows where he’s going, and he works so hard for it. The rest of it, to him, doesn’t matter, especially anybody that’s negative about his music or even me or whatever. He just finds it hysterical.”
The Runaways movie was meant to resuscitate Currie’s career. Instead, just a few years later, she again found herself on her own. She’s happy that home recording and the Internet have enabled her to do Reverie herself — but she would love to have a manager and a label. “I just want it to be fair,” she says. “Just be fair, and I’m in.”
Though she is still quick to defend herself against perceived insults, she’s learning not to dwell on what was or might have been. “There is nothing — the past is air; that’s all it is. We’ve got today, and we’ve got tomorrow, and that’s it. So to me, I live my life by that now, because any other way, you only hurt yourself. And I’m not going to let myself be hurt that way anymore.”
What do you think? Please log in and respond below.
This will help to share the story with others.