Rock ‘n’ Roll Hollywood lost one of its most notorious antiheroes on January 15, when Kim Fowley died of bladder cancer at age 75. The Sunset Strip Svengali produced his first hit record in 1960 and was a hustler up until the end, working with Cherie Currie and Lita Ford, two survivors of the band for which he is most (in)famous: The Runaways.
Kim was extremely helpful to me when I was writing my book Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways. We spent hours and hours on the phone; the man was a famous gabber. His chapter is excerpted below.
Rest peacefully, King of Noise.
Central to the story of the Runaways lies the fruitful-but-tortured relationship between a thirty-something genius with a mommy complex and his teenage protégés, many of them working out their own daddy issues. Kim Fowley did not manufacture the five musicians who became the Runaways, but he did create the concept, find the talent, cowrite many songs, and manage, produce, promote, and finance the band. He also insulted, alienated, exploited, and, finally, lost them.
Kim Fowley was an abandoned child of Hollywood who became the original mascaraed Mayor of the Sunset Strip; in his sunset days, he still trolled the Strip looking for young blood—a dirty old man with a gigantic musical history. There would have been no Runaways without Fowley’s inspiration and perspiration, and the manager/producer/ songwriter/“pimp” (his own word) also helped destroy his creation. His three-year affair with the band he assembled and named is perhaps the most infamous “Svengali” relationship in rock history. His own decades- long career never recovered from the tarring he received once his crew mutinied and denounced him. If he didn’t literally fuck any member of the band—he denies such accusations—he did figuratively.
Opinions about Fowley split volatilely, among the Runaways and everyone else who knows the semi-legend: People either love the guy or hate him. He’s charismatic and repulsive, brilliant and demented, a visionary and a scumdog. He has carefully cultivated his own bad-guy persona—the working title of his unpublished memoir is Legendary Prick. (Kick Books published a first volume of Fowley’s autobiography, Lord of Garbage, in 2012.) Loud, freakish, vulgar, vulnerable, and just plain weird, Fowley has long served as the fall guy in the story of the Runaways’ fall. It’s a role he has cultivated; this son of Hollywood actors knows that the villain is more interesting than the hero.
But Fowley is also the guy who supported and promoted the Runaways— who didn’t want to just fuck teenage girls, like so many of the men who hung around the Strip, but who wanted to see them raging on stage. Kim Fowley is an appalling character. The appall is part of his appeal.
“I’m everybody’s worst nightmare and somebody’s wet dream,” he says. “I’m a horrible human being with a heart of gold, or a piece of shit in a bag of diamonds. I’m a bad guy who does nice things, as opposed to a nice guy who does bad things.”
To understand Kim Fowley is to understand Hollywood at its crassest level, but also to glean how stages and studios can function as platforms for the reinvention of a forgotten boy. The man, like the band he helped form, was spawned by a town whose primary industry lures men and women with promises of fame and fortune, often at the expense of family and relationships; where artistic expression flowers alongside—in spite of, and sometimes because of—aggressive capitalism. The lovechild of low-level actors is a company man who was hustling records and sex by the time he was a teenager.
Fowley was shaped—malformed (literally)—by his environment, but he is also a true original. His Bleak House upbringing made him a showbiz Fagin.
Kim Vincent Fowley was born July 21, 1939, at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Los Angeles. His twenty-eight-year-old father, Daniel Vincent Fowley, aka Douglas Fowley, had already played in a string of minor movies when he had his first child. The actor continued to have a successful if unremarkable film and TV career until 1982, performing most notably alongside Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain and with a recurring role in the TV series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. He also continued to marry, have kids, divorce, and repeat.
Kim’s twenty-one-year-old mother, Shelby Payne, was also an actor. The young beauty hit her career high-water mark playing a cigarette girl in the 1946 Humphrey Bogart movie The Big Sleep. Fowley has called his father a B-movie actor and his mother a F-minus movie actor.
“I had a goddess mom,” he says. “I had a fuckable mother. I had a Dorothy Lamour mother who was an asshole, and my father was a jerk, and I’m the fucking psych child in makeup sometimes.”
While Kim was still a baby, his father was drafted into the navy. His mother put him in foster care during the war years. As a toddler, he learned how to fight to survive. “It was twenty-seven kids in a one-bedroom house in Culver City, which was a very Charles Dickens type of situation, with fighting for food, fighting for privacy, fighting for bathtubs,” he says.
The marriage of Douglas and Shelby only lasted a few years. After the war, he drifted between his mom’s house in Beverly Hills and his dad’s house in various L.A. neighborhoods. To put it mildly, Fowley did not develop a strong sense of family.
“I was bounced back and forth like a ping pong ball between those households, which were always changing,” he says.
In 1946, Kim was stricken with paralytic polio. He was infected again in 1957, with the non-paralytic variety. The virus caused residual nerve damage in his extremities. Fowley walks with a cane and can’t perform such basic functions as typing and driving. The disability combined with his height—he measures almost 6 foot 5—gives him his arresting, freakish appearance. Then Kim piles on kabuki makeup and peach pimp suits. “I can do what nobody can and I can’t do what everyone can,” he says.
Kim says his dual experiences with polio, along with parental neglect, made him a survivor and a fighter.
“The illness has always been the foundation of my battling with people,” he says. “I was overcompensating as the cripple, as the handicapped, as the extremely exaggerated tall crippled person, a foster-home child, an abandoned child, a neglected child, a child of divorce, etc. So throw your bricks and your bottles and your bombs at me, and I’m still standing be- cause I’ve been left for dead since day one.”
Kim also claims to be a genius, with an IQ measuring 164. Certainly, he’s a man with a great deal of knowledge on a variety of subjects and a mordant wit. Journalist Darcy Diamond calls him an idiot savant. Fowley has a needling intelligence combined with a strange emotional affect. If you rise to his challenge of wits, he will grace you with invitations to his myriad hustles. If you fail, he will be merciless in his cruelty. As he himself says, “Part of me is funny, if you have high self-esteem. If you have low self-esteem, I’m a threat.”
Kim’s mother married again, to musical arranger William Friml. Kim received his first music-biz lesson by listening through the walls as his stepfather worked with musicians to craft hits and careers. It was an education not in musical inspiration, talent development, and the frisson of collaboration, but in shrewd packaging and manipulation—the worst mass-culture nightmare of Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt school.
“The client would come in and these guys would figure out ways around their inabilities to sing and play and perform, and at the end of it they had a package and would make thousands of dollars a week,” he recalls. “That’s when I learned how to record attitude and arrange attitude, as opposed to actually having musical talent. The Runaways, for example, as a group were not great. They had strengths and weaknesses individually, and I was always aware of what they couldn’t do musically, and I would hide that from the audience, and then I would play on the things they could do… I learned at a young age that not everybody who walks in the doors is Caruso or somebody who’s going to be Al Jolson and stop the show every night. Some of these people don’t deserve to be on a stage, they don’t deserve to be on an album cover, but they have pretty faces, or they can dance, or they can do something else, and then suddenly, it becomes product.…
“It was never a matter of art for me, it was never a matter of fun. It was just like, ‘Oh, this is what you do.’ Just like if you were a kid and your dad worked in coal mines, you say, ‘Well, Dad digs, someday I’ll go down and check it out.’ Show business was the family business for me.”
Kim became independent at a young age. “I ceased to deal with them as soon as I had a number-one record,” he says of his parents. “I became my own mother and father at an early age.”
Ambitious and knowledgeable, the teenaged weekend warrior presented himself to various studios, songwriters, producers, and artists. He worked for film producer Martin Melcher, Doris Day’s husband, and Alan Freed, the DJ and record promoter who coined the phrase rock ‘n’ roll, as an unpaid assistant. For a time he lived in a gas station at Argyle and Sunset, because it was next to American Recording studio and he wanted to be near the action. In exchange for letting him use the station’s bathroom, songwriter Dallas Frazier gave Fowley a novelty doo-wop song about a comic-strip caveman. Kim promptly paid some musicians $92 to record the track. He and singer Gary Paxton dubbed themselves the Hollywood Argyles, and “Alley Oop” became a number-one song in 1960.
Meanwhile, the young Fowley had other hustles on besides the records business, he says. “I was a burglar, I sold weapons, I also did SAT for people, term papers for people, college entrance tests… All my Beverly Hills show business education was balanced by being a professional teenage prostitute and criminal. I had quite an interesting time growing up.”
Fowley also had a prodigious musical career. He was involved in various capacities—songwriter, producer, publicist, manager—with a potpourri of almost random acts. He had a knack for novelty numbers, helping deliver “Nut Rocker,” a boogie woogie version of “Nutcracker Suite,” and the inimitable Rivingtons songs “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” and “The Bird’s the Word.” He produced “Popsicles and Icicles” with girl group the Murmaids. He recorded with Frank Zappa, cowrote for folk rockers the Byrds, and produced garage rockers the Seeds, the Soft Machine, and rockabilly legend Gene Vincent.
He went to England and did publicity and MC duty for English pop star PJ Proby, witnessing Beatlemania and the Rolling Stones firsthand. He was the West Coast publicity man for the Yardbirds and was the announcer for John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival festival (he got laid a lot thanks to that credit, he says). He recorded Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers and wrote songs for Kiss, Van Halen, and Alice Cooper. He also made records under his own name, such as Animal God of the Streets: strange and psychedelic spoken word albums that showed the strong influence of the Beat writers.
“I have a great sympathy for Kim,” says Iggy Pop. “I was always into him. I was always interested in song forms that communicate lyrics by speaking: talking blues, talking cowboy songs.”
Kim’s resume is impressive. He has worked with artists in classical, folk, pop, punk, and rock. In a sense, he’s a virtuoso of the low-rent trash-pop aesthetic that writer Lenny Kaye celebrated in the seminal 1972 garage-rock anthology Nuggets, one of the sonic bibles of punk. Fowley modeled himself after brilliant, weird producer Phil Spector and shrewd but overbearing Elvis Presley manager Colonel Tom Parker. Mostly, he’s the American equivalent of Malcolm McLaren, the dapper but abrasive London fashion impresario who managed the New York Dolls, Sex Pistols, and Bow Wow Wow.
But despite its volume, Fowley’s portfolio is incoherent, random, inconclusive—a testament to valuing quantity over quality. “He must have had twenty misses for every hit, if not thirty or forty,” says Cliff Burnstein, who did early record promotion for the Runaways, then became one of the top managers in the music business. “His hits came out of a more freewheeling era of pop, which had changed radically by the 70s.”
Fowley never found his star act, or signature sound—or if he found them, he failed to recognize or deliver on their promise, to register his Caruso or Jolson. Perhaps, his stepfather-trained disbelief in talent deafened him to potential stars in front of his ears. Loud, vulgar, and fond of obscenities, Kim may also have been his own worst enemy, alienating himself from professionals who preferred to keep their ugliness on the inside and dismissed this barbarian.
After all, the act for which Fowley remains most known to this day—the Runaways—was a commercial failure. “‘Kim Fowley has the Midas touch,’” says Nickey Beat, of the Fowley-created band Venus and the Razorblades, in Alice Bag’s memoir Violence Girl. (Beat and Bag were boyfriend and girlfriend.) “‘Only it’s the Midas touch in reverse. Instead of everything he touches turning into gold, everything he touches turns to shit.’”
Fowley may have had his foot in his mouth, but he also had his ear to the ground. In 1974 Fowley recognized the New York Dolls’ androgynous appeal and decided Los Angeles needed its own idols of raunch and roll. So he assembled the Hollywood Stars: five male, long-haired rockers, including sometime Flaming Groovie Terry Rae and future Runaways songwriter Mark Anthony. At the time, the singer-songwriters of the Foothills—Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Carole King—dominated the California music scene. Manufacturing a glam band was a way to counteract the troubadour tradition and put power back in the hands of producers and publishers, of hustlers like Kim. The Stars, along with such bands as the Stooges and Imperial Dogs, evinced a prepunk reaction against the hippie sensibility. Fowley was animal god of the streets, not the hills.
But again Kim’s quest for superstardom was thwarted: The Hollywood Stars broke up in the studio and Columbia never released their album. Fowley went on to sell three Stars songs to bigger acts: Bachman-Turner Overdrive (“Down to the Line”), Kiss (“King of the Nighttime World”), and Alice Cooper (“Escape”).
By then, Fowley had another idea: Why not put together an all-girl band? There were already such all-female groups as Isis and Fanny, but Fowley wanted something younger and sexier. Nor did he want a vocal group; he wanted girls with guitars.
“I thought up a Darwinian evolutionary metaphor in a rock ’n’ roll sense,” he says. “You would go from Elvis Presley doing female moves with his hips with the striptease pit type drummer, all the way to the high voice of Robert Plant, into the New York Dolls, into David Bowie, into all the glitter and glam guys, and all of a sudden, you turn the page and there’s a woman on the page with a vagina and a guitar looking you right in the eye. It was inevitable that evolutionary wise, women would pick up the obnoxious rock ‘n’ roll pitchfork and ram it up the ass of the world.”