Interview: Cherie Currie of The Runaways
It seems like The Runaways are everywhere these days. A new biopic starring Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie opened this month to strong critical reviews. The ageless Joan Jett is gearing up for another summer of touring in the US and Europe. And now, former Runaways front-woman Cherie Currie has reemerged with a remarkable new memoir, Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway. In so many ways that is exactly how it should be. Few bands deserve the label of “trailblazers” as much as the Runaways.
The band, originally formed in 1975 by the creepy, Svengali-wannabe Kim Fowley, was meant to be a sort of novelty act: five teenage girls playing at being a rock band a la the Monkees or something. Turns out these women had way bigger balls than Davey Jones and the boys. Call them post-glam or proto-punk, Jett, Currie, Lita Ford, Sandy West, and Jackie Fox had serious chops. They didn’t just open the door for women in rock and roll — they kicked the door down.
But, of course, rock and roll mythologies are way simpler than the actual happenings. The nominal success of The Runaways came at an extraordinary price. Currie’s book, Neon Angel, is far more than a rock tell-all or coming-of-age story. It is a cautionary tale and ultimately a survivor’s story. Whoever thought it was a good idea to send five 15- and 16-year-olds out on the road — and headlong into the world of sex, drugs, and, of course, rock and roll — should have their heads examined. Currie’s book unflinchingly chronicles the tales from the road, the drugs, sexual assaults, and the petty resistance of rock’s all-dude’s club as they tried to sabotage the band at every turn. The level of cruelty visited upon those kids is shocking and ultimately pretty heart-breaking. That the band survived at all — let alone made some serious music — is a miracle. Currie left the band in 1977, tried her hand at acting, and battled addiction. Eventually she beat back the demons, became a drug counselor, and made a family. Somewhere along the way she started to draw and now makes her living as an artist. By just about any measure, hers is a remarkable story.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Cherie Currie about the movie, writing the book, the legacy of The Runaways, and what it’s like to make art with a chainsaw.
I really want to start us off by talking about the book. I was lucky enough to snag a copy of it and really enjoyed it. But as I understand it, the original version of the text was done in 1989, is that correct?
Yes, it came out through Price, Stern, and Sloan. It was their very first young adult book. I actually went to Price, Stern, and Sloan as an illustrator. I was at that time a drug counselor for adolescents at a Coldwater Canyon hospital. So I went there as an illustrator because I started drawing in class while the kids were in school. And when I went in as an illustrator they asked me how long I’d been drawing — I told them about a year, and they said, “How is that possible?” I ended up telling them about The Runaways and they ended up saying, “This is our first young adult book.” Anyway, Neil Shusterman, who wrote that book, did a fantastic job. He’s just exceptional when it comes to speaking to young adults, and he really wrote the majority of the book, no doubt.
I read the book in about 2000 but then being a mother, and also older and wiser — and a lot more brave — I just decided that I wanted to rewrite the book from my perspective, from the perspective of a going-on 50-year old woman. I wanted to tell the stories I couldn’t tell in that young adult book. And that’s what I did. Kenny Laguna read it and thought it was really worthy of publication and he started shopping it. He ended up getting interest from John and Art Linson to make it into a film. In turn, it went up for auction and Harper Collins bought it and I rewrote it. They brought Tony O’Neill in on this one but in the end I just had to do this myself. He was helpful. He could take stories I told him and put them artfully on paper. But in the end, it had to be me. So I worked feverishly — we were in such time-constraints. In the end, Harper Collins had to hire six people to work over the weekend to accommodate the hundreds of changes and complete rewrites I had for this book. So I truly feel like if it goes down in flames then it’s all my fault. (laughter)
You know, I really don’t think that will happen. I love reading rock memoirs and autobiographies, but this is more than that. The reason I ask about the early incarnation of the book — in its young adult format — is that obviously there is this cautionary tale at the center of this story. But that certainly is heightened in the extended version now. There’s so much of “you” in the book now; it is a survivor’s tale. You are able to overcome so much — so many terrible things — as well as experience something historic. I found myself wondering how something like this could be made into a two-hour motion picture.
Well thank you Mark, I really appreciate those words.
So what did you think of the movie then? (laughter) I’m calling you from a really small town in middle Georgia and the movie hasn’t quite found its way to us. What are your impressions?
Dakota Fanning and Kristin Stewart and Michael Shannon are just incredible in this film. Again, it only scratches the surface of the true, harrowing experiences that The Runaways faced out there on the road as teenage girls. But how do you take two years of craziness and put it into an hour and a half? It’s just impossible. If it had been an epic, sure, but anyway they wanted to get the gist of our experiences on-screen and I think that they did that. But again, I just think the acting is incredible. Dakota is just my favorite actress. Period. Even before she entered into negotiations for the part. And Kristin Stewart — I was unaware of her acting except for Panic Room — and this is the best thing she has ever done. This is a tough role for her. She just did it beautifully.
I appreciate what you’re saying about the differences between a film and book. Obviously, they have to tell stories in different ways. There are going to be things that are left out — or other things that have to be tweaked for the screen. Is there anything in particular that you would have liked to have seen done differently?
Yeah, when I originally read the script there were some problems I had which they did fix — some of them — and then some they wouldn’t. I mean, when Dakota cuts her hair — when I cut my hair — there was a reason for that. You read about that in the book. [Ed. note: In the book, the hair-cutting occurs after the teenaged Cherie has been raped.] But they didn’t want my character to lose her innocence so early in the film. And there is a scene where I lose a talent show when I actually won — things like that — it’s for poetic license. At the end of the film when I actually made that infamous phone call to Joan I was a drug counselor at the time, and I was at work and not in a shopping mall. They move things around here and there — and trust me, no dog food was thrown at us either! (laughter) So they pushed the envelope in some places. But then again, The Runaways — we really experienced some of the craziest stuff ever. Is there a part of me that wishes they could have made some of the story a little deeper? Of course. But I lived it.
That’s right. Well, like I said, I’ve only seen the reviews to this point but they’ve been really solid. It takes a special kind of rock and roll movie to satisfy a discerning crowd, especially if people love the band as much as people love The Runaways.
I’m also pretty keen on the soundtrack. Having The Runaways music is really great.
I mean, it’s Dakota Fanning, so how could I complain? I feel very blessed that she was involved in this.
Let’s talk a little bit about the band. I really appreciated getting the opportunity to chat with you because I did the earlier interview with Joan and Kenny. Of course, her career has just chugged on and on and on. When the stories about The Runaways have come up, oftentimes she’s the one they’ve been directed towards. Getting your take on it has been really illuminating. I’d love to know what you think the ultimate legacy of the band — and your experiences — really is.
I think — it’s not just about being teenage girls. It’s about life in general and following your heart and being true to yourself. If you can do that it doesn’t matter what age, you’re going to make some waves. I also think the planets were aligned perfectly for the five members of the band to come together at that time with a common goal: we all wanted to go out there and play rock and roll. Yeah, we were girls where were trudging on territory that was then mostly male. That we said, “Hey, we can do this, too!” Yeah, there was an element of that in there. But it didn’t really become such a fight until we got out on the road and met such resistance from other bands. They sabotaged our equipment and they tried to embarrass us in front of thousands of people. That’s when it really became a fight.
I’m curious then — you obviously didn’t have many role models. You guys, in so many ways, were out there on the cutting edge. Who did you emulate? I mean, the Bowie references are all over the place. You write about your love of Bowie’s music and persona at length in the book. Glam rock and its androgyny must have been pretty liberating. But what were your influences that drove you into this?
Let’s be honest – yeah, Bowie, I just loved his stage persona and his larger-than-life characters — but as far as real role models, Suzi Quatro, she was out there kickin’ ass. It was really impressive. But at 15 years old, you’re in school, you aren’t doing a whole lot of reading besides history or English, you’ve got homework — as far as really sitting back and thinking about a real role model, I don’t think I had a role model in my life at that time.
Of course, that makes good sense. I never thought about it that way. Everybody wants to talk about the gender issue. This group of teenage women who went out on the road and really did it. You guys were the forerunners of Riot Grrrls and all these other movements that have risen up since then. At the time, I was like 15 and you guys were playing a club in my hometown…
…and I just remember being so excited, not because you were women, but because you were like my age! We’d seen pictures of you guys in Rock Scene and Creem Magazine and it was more the fact you were 15 or 16 too and you were out there doing it! Not that we could get in to see you. (laughter)
That’s it! Isn’t that funny — you couldn’t get in. We were 15 and playing all these over-21 clubs. I mean, it was just incredible the crazy stuff that was happening back then. They’d actually have to sneak us in to play. It was pretty incredible. When my son was 15 — and he’s a very gifted musician — he was offered to go on the road with his cousin Trevor Lukather and I would not let that happen. So I look at him when he was 15 and I just couldn’t grasp that I was out there at that age on the road and making records and touring the world at his age. It’s terrifying to me! I’m so blessed — and all of us were — that our parents allowed such things, because I would have never let it happen to my son.
I noticed on some website that you are currently under contract to Blackheart Records?
Well no, not exactly, they’re my management company.
Oh, I see. The reason I asked is that I was hoping that meant there was some more music coming through the pipeline.
Well, actually we’re discussing it right now about maybe going in and making a record. I get to play this summer and my son will be performing with me onstage and that should be fun. But I’m on the same bill with Joan for some shows at some point.
Oh wow, so just as a solo act?
I guess yeah it is — I mean, as “Cherie Currie.” I’ll do a set. Put in some Runaways songs that I really love. It isn’t anything I really expected. I’d long given up on this. But it’s definitely going to be fun to get back out there again.
That is exciting. You’re doing the festival circuit or you’ll go out with Joan and the Blackhearts?
No, I don’t think so, although I do know there is one show at the Pacific Amphitheatre that I’m going to be doing on the same bill with her.
Wow that’s cool. I know that the thrust of all this has been the buzz surrounding the publication of the book and the release of the movie. But you have had such an unbelievable life — not just as a musician and the rough experiences you had — but as someone who beat addiction, became a drug counselor, a mother, and now as an artist. I spent a fair amount of time looking at the art on your website. Unbelievable stuff. How did you get involved with chainsaw art?
It was just a fluke! I was doing wood-carving at the time but it was relief carving. And then I was going to the beach one day and I happened to pass a couple of guys chainsaw-carving at the side of the road. I didn’t stop, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. There was like this voice telling me, “You have to go back.” And I did. I walked into their gallery and saw these beautiful, detailed, gorgeous mermaids and this voice — you know, that voice we have that says, “You can do this” — and the following day I talked to the owner and said I wanted to give this a go, and he looked at my artwork and said sure, he said he’d teach me, but he…well, he taught me how not to kill myself with the saw…
I’m forever grateful to him for that. But to chainsaw carve you really have to be able to see things in the wood or you wouldn’t know where to start. But I just started doing it and my third piece was accepted into the Malibu Art Expo which was three sea-turtles swimming around a piece of coral and it is just so difficult to get into. So I thought I’d stick with it and now I’ve been a professional carver for nine years.
Well I hope that all our readers will take a few minutes and go to your website and see what you’re up to. It is amazingly intricate stuff.
Thanks a lot Mark, I really appreciate that.
Cherie Currie, thanks so much for talking to Verbicide Magazine.
Thank you Mark, it was my pleasure.