Neon Angel – A Memoir of a Runaway – Review

bk-neonangel200Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway

by Cherie Currie, with Tony O’Neill (It Books/HarperCollins)
by Scott Deckman

Female readers, if there’s one thing you should take away from reading Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway, it’s this: Don’t Get In A Car With A Stranger. Cherie Currie did, and she very nearly lost her life because of it.

Neon Angel is the story of former Runaways lead singer Cherie Currie, and in a broader context, it’s the story of the music industry in the mid-to-late ’70s and the sleazy reality of the business. This was a time before the Internet (for mass consumption, anyway), hell, even before the tape cassette was popular, back when vinyl and 8-track ruled the roost. I admit not being very familiar with the Runaways’ music, other than their signature song “Cherry Bomb” and the fact that the band was the launching pad for punk icon Joan Jett and metal goddess Lita Ford. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find many more influential bands from the era. Yes, they broke ground, five jailbait chicks playing raunchy rock’n’roll, maybe the ultimate godmothers of the riot grrrl explosion of the early ’90s, but as is the case with many influential bands, the scions are more famous than the original band that spawned them.

Currie, the third most successful Runaway – in commercial terms at least – lets us in on her early years as a Valley Girl outcast who was addicted to David Bowie and other English glam bands of the time. She comes from a creative family, as her mother, Marie Harmon, was an actress of some note, and older half-sister Sondra has been appearing in films and television for nearly 40 years. Currie hung out at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, the under-21 club Sugar Shack, dressed weird, and tried to be cool. It was at the Sugar Shack where she was discovered by impresario Kim Fowley, one of the lowest Svengalis in the history of popular music. He wanted a pretty blonde with style that could be sold to the masses. If she could sing, great! If not, well, we’ll pretend! You may’ve heard of Fowley. He’s been a marginal player in the L.A. music scene since the late ’50s, known for songwriting, producing and managing different groups, and even performing himself. In the mid ’70s, Fowley was a lizard crawling around L.A. looking for the next act to hit it big. Though he had some prior success, including composing songs for the Byrds and Beach Boys, producing Skip & Flip’s ironically titled Top 20 hit “Cherry Pie” and the Rivington’s “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” (precursor to the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”), it’s the Runaways for which he’ll be best remembered. Prior to approaching Currie, Fowley had already corralled rhythm guitarist/songwriter Jett, drummer Sandy West, lead guitarist Ford, and Kari Krome, who, while not a member, was an early songwriter for the group. After original singer/bassist Micki Steele departed, Jackie Fox was added. This would be the classic lineup of the group.

Currie tells of her initial interaction with the group (Joan was quiet but cool; Lita a bitch; Sandy a tomboy puppy dog; Jackie was brainy) and her early days with the band, practicing in a stinky trailer parked in the back of a minimall. And that’s funny because their first roadie was nicknamed – you guessed it – Stinky, because the hippy never took a bath. She chronicles making their eponymous debut record very DIY, kind of what the Ramones were doing on the other coast: Quick, cheap, and dirty. The second album, Queens of Noise, was a more deliberate – and less joyous – affair. Currie reveled in the act of performing; it made her feel alive and special. She also relays some of the infighting that went on in the band, particularly with Lita. In fairness, we don’t get to hear Lita’s side of the story.

(One thing the book doesn’t delve into is the acrid relationship between Ford and Joan Jett’s manager, Kenny Laguna, who was instrumental in getting this version of Neon Angel published and was thanked in the book’s dedication.)

Neon Angel even gives winks and nods to a sexual relationship between Jett and Currie, but leaves most of it to the imagination. The book does go into detail about life on the road in a motor home, about the fun they had together, playing in new cities, states, even countries, all the while battling homesickness, and, of course, tells of teenage girls growing up way too fast with sex and drugs. To this end, she was impregnated by the group’s manager, Scott Anderson, and had an abortion, with Anderson welshing on his promise to pay for it after the fact. Classy.

There are several other disconcerting things about her story. Her father Don was a man’s man who fought in WWII and probably saw carnage most of us never will. And you have to ask yourself, what’s a guy like this letting his 16-year-old daughter have anything to do with Kim Fowley, let alone her mother? (The couple were divorced by this time.) There were two likely factors: He was an alcoholic whose disease eventually led to his death, and she was preoccupied with pending nuptials and a move to Indonesia. So with their lives in turmoil, it was easier for otherwise caring people to look the other way.

Look, I’m all for characters. In a literal way, they’re fun, but to give your daughter away to a guy like him is, at best, very poor judgment. Among other charming habits, Fowley had a predilection for calling his clients “dogs,” and he coupled the insult with many colorful nouns: “Dog shit,” “dog puck,” “dog cunt,” you get the picture. Okay, so he was a crude asshole, so what? Well, there was also the time he gathered Cherie and Sandy into a motel room for his own version of the Birds and the Bees, where he made them watch him have sex with a chick who was stoned on drugs. Okay, so he’s super sleazy, at least he made them rich and famous, right? Well, they were somewhat famous, but according to Currie, the girls rarely saw any money, despite playing shows all over the world, being on various magazine covers, and selling some records. To Fowley, the girls were a means to an end. Eventually, that sentiment, plus intra-band squabbles and, of all things, access to her twin sister Marie’s car (who was taking acting lessons at the time and also needed the vehicle) prompted her to leave the band.

However, it is odd that she would still remain under Fowley’s tutelage for her first (and only true) solo album, though she likened that situation to a “shotgun marriage” or an abusive relationship: While she may not have liked him, there was comfort in familiarity. That, and she said he claimed there were “contractual obligations” that needed to be fulfilled for the label.

I’ve always been a strong advocate for freedom of expression, but you also have to wonder if traipsing around in lingerie as a 16-year-old was a smart idea, given that the vicious rape and near-murder of Currie I mentioned in the beginning of this piece was directly related to her role as a teenage sex bomb. James Lloyd White, her attacker that night, was a delusional nut who thought he had had a prior relationship with Currie, and seeing her in that getup made him feel she was stepping out on him in a very public way. She claimed he told her that he killed six people in Dallas; her father heard the same thing around the time of the trial. Absurdly, through plea-bargaining, White only got one year in county jail for his crime.

Sadly, this was the second time she was raped, as she also chronicles Marie’s creepy twenty-plus ex-boyfriend Derek’s forced act on her when she was only 15, pre-Runaways. In an odd twist, Currie fought him off mid-attack, inflicting so much damage that he was forced to flee. This might be the only time I’ve read where a victim conveys a sense of empowerment during an actual act of abuse.

Rock’n’roll can indeed have some unintended negative consequences, which leads us to her battle with drugs. A social drinker and drug user since her mid-teens, Currie at different points abused Benzedrine and was addicted to cocaine, the latter of which she battled for a few harrowing years. This was a period when she was either trying to make it as a solo artist or an actress (among other films, she starred in Foxes with Jodie Foster and Scott Baio). Like the writing of her near-murder, this part of the book is particularly poignant; you can just picture her life coming apart at the seams. Currie had wasted away to 96 pounds and she was having heart palpitations. It got so bad that when she finally went in for treatment, a doctor told her that if she kept smoking crack, she would be dead within weeks. Sometimes, if it feels good, don’t do it.

She eventually straightened out, and in time-honored Hollywood tradition, married, had a kid, and got divorced, calling actor Robert Hays “the best ex-husband in the world.” There’s something sad about all of this. In her later years, she connected with Joan again – the two are friends – and while Kenny Laguna shopped Neon Angel to publishers (a different, young adult version of this book was published in 1989), he succeeded in having it turned into a movie. Currently sweeping the nation, The Runaways stars Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. The film does, however, take some artistic liberties.

Now a professional chainsaw carver and fulltime ex-Runaway, Currie is still a pretty single woman at 50, having carved out her own niche in rock. Say what you will about her choices in life, but if there is one thing Cherie Currie is, it’s a survivor.