Friday, August 9, 2013

The Runaways: Queens of Noise

THESE days I am digging Queens of Noise, the new book by Evelyn McDonnell, onetime Village Voice rock critic now settled in Los Angeles. The book, subtitled The Real Story of the Runaways, looks at the ‘70s LA punk/hard-rock band best remembered, probably, for a teenaged Joan Jett, the song "Cherry Bomb," and some pretty amazing feathered hair.

I’ve admired McDonnell’s work for two decades now, and have since gotten to know her a bit, and for a year taught more-or-less alongside her at Loyola Marymount University, where she is a professor of journalism.

Here’s my conversation with McDonnell about Queens of Noise, which she will discuss at Book Soup on Wednesday.

What drew you to the story of the Runaways?

It's a great rock'n'roll story that had only been told in parts, and seemed well past due for a complete treatment.  I also saw it as a narrative that's bigger than music: It's a coming of age story about young women crossing boundaries and expressing themselves — their sexuality, their anger, their rebellion, their fears — in ways that hadn't really been done before. There were girl bands before the Runaways, but none of them had the kind of exposure (so to speak) and global experiences that these musicians did, at a pretty young age. It's also a peek into a fascinating, rich time and place: Southern California in the mid-'70s. There are all the elements of a great story, period, in Queens: tragedy, comedy, mystery, drama, sex, drugs, crime, etc. With an awesome, under-appreciated soundtrack.  As a woman just a few years younger than the Runaways, with my own California roots, and a deep love of music, I also personally related to their saga.

You describe the band members as creatures of the Sprawl. Give us a sense of what early-70s Southern California – the world that made the Runaways – was like.

 This was a period when the California dream epitomized by the Beach Boys was wearing thin — fault lines were rupturing. Decades of incredible population and economic growth had slowed precipitously; there was Watts, Manson, smog, overspeculation, etc. The members of the Runaways lived miles apart from each other in this car-dependent Exopolis. They were suburban girls, from the Valley, Orange County, Long Beach. But LA also had Hollywood, which was not just a place of Tinseltown fantasies: it was a bohemian mecca for all the outcasts and weirdos, for the queer kids and the runaways (small and big R). It was a place for experimentation (with drugs and sex), for hedonism, for liberation and libidos, and for exploitation. It was a place to escape those suburbs, and it's where the Runaways came together.

How much access did you get to the musicians and to band manager Kim Fowley? Did all the major characters speak to you?

Kim Fowley, Jackie Fox, and Vicki Blue gave me quite a bit of time explicitly for the book. I also interviewed Joan and Lita, once each, for the book. Cherie would not do an interview for the book, but I had interviewed her a couple of times for the Sandy West thesis/article that was the root of the book. I never interviewed Sandy before she died but I talked to her family. I also had interviewed Joan and Lita for other articles over the years, and I was able to draw on that material, some of it never published before. Plus all the other interviews listed in the back.

Within the first few chapters of the book, you write about the debate between architecture scholar Reyner Banham and art critic Peter Plagens on the nature of LA, and get into the work of Joan Didion, William Gibson, and others. What’s the right amount of context in a book like this?

As I said, I saw this as more than just the story of one band: I also saw it as an important, emblematic piece of cultural, social and feminist history. Those contextual pages are a tiny sliver of the book. I think they give the book a bigger, broader meaning and perspective, but some critics seem to feel you can't take a band like the Runaways that seriously. It's an anti-intellectualism that seems strange to me as a fan of Greil Marcus, Ellen Willis, and Jon Savage, but is rampant in rock-critic criticism.

How do the Runaways fit into the history of women in rock?

They were clearly pioneers, in terms of the scope of their accomplishments at their age and in a relatively short period of time: five albums, multiple national and international tours, magazine covers and hit records (in some countries). Obviously, there were girl vocal groups that preceded and outsold them. And there were other bands where women played instruments — some great ones, like Fanny and Isis. But the Runaways achieved a level of at least notoriety, and also genuine success, that had eluded other bands. Obviously, some of that was based on the fact that they were not shy in their sexual presentation, and in that sense, their legacy is mixed.

Looking back, almost four decades later, what is the band's long-term influence or legacy?

Because of Joan's and Lita's subsequent success, the Runaways have been taken more seriously in retrospect than they were during their brief career. Whereas some of the early female punks repudiated them, later generations — from Riot Grrrls to the Donnas to Miley Cyrus — have been more sympathetic to the barriers they faced and how they faced them. They were a key transitional figure in the evolution of both punk and hair metal, particularly in Los Angeles. They were friends with and peers of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. But although those bands were clearly just as Svengali-driven and gimmicky, they always get taken more seriously. I think the Runaways' legacy is up there with those bands, and deserves to be acknowledged.

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