Cherie Currie: A Runaway’s Comeback

Photo Credit: Barbra Porter

By Paul Freeman (March 2010)

As lead singer of the trailblazing 1970s’ band The Runaways, Cherie Currie inspired generations of girls to pour their teen angst and hormonal turmoil into explosive rock ‘n’ roll.

The biopic “The Runaways,” starring Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as Currie, is certain to carry the band’s influence to new generations.

Fans are also welcoming a new, expanded version of Currie’s “NEON ANGEL: A Memoir of a Runaway (It Books/An Imprint of HarperCollins, $24.99). The movie was based on her autobiography.

Regarding the book, Currie told Pop Culture Classics, “You can come out with some really good insight and understanding, not only about my life, but about other people’s lives and why things happen the way they happen.”

Currie, who was only 15 when the band was born, in 1975, said, “With The Runaways, we worked so hard and yet we really fell by the wayside. So it’s a relief that finally we’re getting the recognition that the band deserved. For the last three decades, I’ve said that we were ahead of our time. Maybe our time is now.”

The band was very successful overseas, particularly Japan. Such groups as The Ramones, Cheap Trick, Van Halen and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers opened for them. But The Runaways found it difficult to break through in the States. “It was a male-dominated business. You know men, you’re one of them. You want to keep it all to yourself. Women aren’t quite good enough. It’s a man thing,” Currie said with a laugh.

“We were kind of expecting it, because it was the lay of the land at the time. But we really thought that the songs were good enough and that we were visually interesting enough on stage that no matter what, they would like it, there would be something that they would like. We didn’t expect that it would be within the music world that they would be attacking us. We just thought maybe it would be the audience. We thought that we would find solace somewhere. But we didn’t.”

Now the movie offers solace to the once maligned, now revered band members. “Oh, you have no idea,” Currie said.

In terms of gender bias, are things easier for female rockers today? “Not by much. Women are always going to be less than... ‘til the men get that we’re not. We can kick and scream all we want. Maybe in a hundred years.”

Thirty-five years melted away as Currie watched the movie being shot. “It was completely surreal. It’s like the coolest thing that has happened in my life. The coolest thing that’s ever happened to me, except for my son being born. It’s that incredible. It’s hard to describe. I don’t think they actually make words for things like that, for the birth of a child or for someone as amazing as Dakota Fanning playing you in a film.”

Fanning sought input from Currie. “She wanted to know what I was feeling at the time, during particular scenes in the film. We sang together at my house. I was in the studio with her. We talked a lot about what it felt like. And she drew from that.”

Currie feels that both Fanning and Kristen Stewart captured the characters of Currie and Jett. “I really can’t imagine anyone doing it better. And Michael Shannon (as band manager Kim Fowley), as well. And Riley (actress Riley Keough, portraying Currie’s twin Marie) as my sister. Even Tatum (O’Neal) who plays my mother in one scene. Just really good. I cannot look at this film and say any of the actors did anything less than an incredible job.

“When they were shooting the Japan concert scenes, Joan and I got to see the group performing on stage and, for a moment, I was in the audience at a real Runaways concert. And I wept. Joan had tears in her eyes, too. It was like, ‘Wow!,’ It was like we got the excitement of what The Runaways really were, from an audience point of view - really, really neat. ”

Fanning and Stewart did all of their own singing in the film. “We worked together before they went in,” Currie recounted. “Dakota and I sang quite a bit. She wanted to get the sound of my voice, how I sang, how I pronounced things. And she went in and just kicked ass. And Kristen sounded so much like Joan that there were times I couldn’t tell the difference.”

Currie and Jett recorded new versions of iconic Runaways tunes for the soundtrack. “They actually had lost the original 24-track recordings. Plus, nowadays, the sound can be so much better. Even with those 24-tracks, I don’t know if they could have made it sound as good as music sounds today,” Currie said.

“So we went in and re-recorded all the songs and that was the first time since 1977 that Joan and I worked together. It was just like time had stood still. We just went in cut ‘em just like they were nothin’. It was great.”

This may not be the last teaming of Currie and Jett. “I think we’ll do things here and there, down the line. As far as a reunion or anything like that, no, I don’t see that happening. But I’m not saying it’s impossible either. If you had told me 35 years ago that, hey, by the way, things suck right now, but 35 years from now, the biggest actress in the world is going to play you, I would have laughed.

“So I just take it day by day. I just want to enjoy these five minutes of fame that’s come my way and be grateful. I have absolutely no wants or needs. I’ve been given too much already.”

The Runaways’ tale of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is as harrowing as it is exhilarating. In “Neon Angel,” Currie bares her soul, revealing details of all she had to endure, including her parents’ jarring divorce, losing her virginity to a rapist, and later, her cocaine addiction.

Fortunately, she managed to get rid of that addiction with
the help of California's growing list of cocaine treatment centers.

The primary villain, in both the book and the movie, is the debasing, would-be Svengali Kim Fowley. “He never gave us any of our money, until we sued him for it, when Joan and Kenny [Laguna, Joan’s current producer/manager] approached me and Sandy West and Lita Ford 12 years ago. So the guy was raking in the dough and wasn’t feeling at all guilty about it.”

Jett and Fowley, hunting for a lead vocalist for The Runaways, had spotted Currie at a trendy teen club and liked her avant-garde, David Bowie-like, glam rock fashion sense. As an audition song, they penned “Cherry Bomb” for her, taking less than half an hour to complete the fiery rock number.

The Runaways slam-danced along the cutting edge, playing New York’s legendary CBGB’s club and exploring the London punk scene, hanging out with The Sex Pistols.

“It was scary as hell. CBGB’s was what we would call grunge, not punk. Punk was just a totally different animal and we were introduced to punk when we got to Europe. It certainly had not hit the U.S., I’ll tell you that, because we would have been terrified.

“It was seriously scary. I went through a whole lot of changes. Joan went through some changes there, too.”

The shared experiences hastened the bonding among the young women. “Yeah, with Joan and with Sandy [drummer Sandy West, who co-founded the group with Jett], for sure. I never got close to Lita [lead guitarist Lita Ford] or Jackie [bassist Jackie Fox, nee Fuchs]. I really cared about Jackie. I really cared about Lita. Jackie’s last day in the band, I was there, with her, supporting her.”

The darker incidents are exposed in the book. Of course, The Runaways had good times together, as well.

“Tons,” Currie said. “We spent hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of days together. Who could survive that, if it was all drudgery and hell? But there were so many experiences that happened. How long could a book possibly be? I mean, if we talked about every good time we had... You’re interested in hearing about someone’s sexual experience with so-and-so, but if they made a roster of everyone they’ve ever slept with, do you think you would get bored? You would. And then you’d miss the whole reason why this book was being written in the first place. And that’s that you can survive anything.”

Currie believes that everyone can be a survivor. “It’s our choice. I know there were times I didn’t want to survive. But I turned that around.”

Currie left The Runaways after two years. “By the time I quit, we weren’t even talking. We didn’t even like being with each other. We’d never had a break. We spent those two years back-to-back touring, albums, in each other’s faces at all times. Nothing survives that. And we were teenage girls, in a business where we were fighting to stay alive. And I’m sorry, but young girls can be mean.

“I think we all love each other, no matter what. Have we resolved everything? Obviously not. Emotionally, we were put through so much. How do you expect to resolve that over a telephone? We would need to sit in a room and just talk it all out, because, obviously, there’s still some hurt feelings out there. But I love them all very much. They’re like my sisters. I really miss Sandy a lot. [West died of lung cancer at age 47.]”

Upon exiting the band, Currie’s first job was working retail at a mall. “I just wanted to know what it felt like to be normal. And I wanted to know what it was like to be just a human being, not being expected to be this great, whatever, Cherie thing. And I wanted to make a living. I wanted to put some money on the table for my Aunt Evie.”

Currie went on to record a solo album, “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep,” and one with her sister Marie, “Messin’ With The Boys.”

Cherie Currie acted in such movies as “Foxes” (with Jodie Foster) and “Wavelength.” She had a bit in “This Is Spinal Tap” that was cut, but restored for the DVD release.

She worked with adolescents as a drug counselor. Over the past several years, she has become one of the world’s most acclaimed chainsaw carvers.

“That was just a fluke. I started drawing when I was a drug counselor. First I was a tech, taking care of the kids, getting them to school. And then I would have two hours a day when they were in school, the adolescents I was taking care of in the hospital. So I started sketching to fill those hours. And I drew these whimsical knights in shining armor and the princess, and all these animals, everyone getting along in harmony, with these beautiful castles.

“I went to Price Stern Sloan as an illustrator. When they asked me how long I’d been drawing. I said ‘A year.’ They said, ‘How is that possible?’ I told them the story of The Runaways. And they said, ‘My God! We’ve been looking for our first young adult book. And this is it!’ So I went in as an illustrator and walked out as an author the same day.

“I went from sketching to painting and then from painting to relief carving, which is a two-dimensional art form in wood. And then, from that to -where else was I going to go? - I had to go three-dimensional.

“I happened to be driving to Malibu beach and saw a couple of guys chainsaw-carving by the side of the road and could not get it out of my head. So the following weekend, I went over there and brought some of my artwork, looked in their gallery, saw these mermaids, these beautiful, beautiful pieces of artwork. And this voice just said, ‘You can do this.’ And I did. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”

The first autobiography, written with Neil Shusterman, published by Price Stern Sloan, left out the more sordid, shocking, painful incidents. The new version was penned with Tony O’Neill.

“At the time the original book came out, I was in my mid-twenties,” Currie said. “I had not really come to grips... I was still reeling from all the damage I had done to my family, first off. So not really feeling great about myself. So I did not feel competent to really take the wheel and steer this book through. But Neil Shusterman, on the other hand, is so phenomenal as a young adult writer, that he did a great job.

“With this book, I was lucky enough to have Tony O’Neill. We would talk about the stories that were added and then he would artfully put them down on paper and I would then take what he had and add and subtract and recreate. So this book, every single line is new. There just isn’t anything from the old book.

“Also, a lot of the stories Price Stern Sloan were not comfortable talking about, because ‘Neon Angel’ was their very first adult book. So I think they were a little worried about pushing the envelope, if they would have added some of the stories I put into this new book. They thought it was overkill.

“As time has gone on, I’ve got a son, who’s a 19-year-old young man. I’m older. I understand why some things happened. I was able to forgive myself. And in that way, I could be a lot more clear in my writing in this book. I had written about this before. So as you sift through, the fear and the tragedy starts washing away. With this book, there was absolutely no fear.”

This summer, Currie will play some shows, performing such Runaways classics as “Cherry Bomb,” as well as newer material. Her son Jake, a gifted guitarist, will be in the band. Jake was raised by Currie and her former husband and current friend, actor Robert Hays.

She’s not worried about Jake entering the music world. “No, because I’ll always be there to oversee, if he wants me to. His favorite book is ‘Neon Angel,’ the original. He’s just now gotten his copy of the new one.

“I was not easy on Jake. I wanted him to know, from as young as he could grasp, that this world is not all puppy dog tails and rainbows. It’s hardcore. And I let him know as soon as he could understand, because he was a cute redhead, really handsome. And I was really afraid that something really bad would happen to him, if I let him believe that he couldn’t be hurt... or worse. So my son deals with crisis really easily.”

She’s excited about the prospect of performing again, but doesn’t place too much emphasis on the comeback.

“I’m grateful that music has been such a force, for a particular amount of time, in my life, here and there. Yet, to be honest, once you become a parent, nothing else is all that important anymore. I love music. I’m really excited about doing some shows this summer. But music is music.

“Especially after going through this book again, I see that performing is just a little extra, a little diamond that I can stick in my back pocket. It isn’t the be-all, end-all. It isn’t everything to me by any means.”

Currie’s goals are simple: “Just being a really good mom, a good friend, a good sister. To me, the most important thing, honest to God, on my son’s life, is that this book helps people like the first book did. The first book helped a lot of people with drug problems, with confidence problems, people who have had a lot of tragedy in their lives. You can get stuck in that place. A lot of people do. And with a tragic end. I just want this book to help people.

“I don’t care what I do next. I’ll make a living, like everyone else does. Do I expect anything great out of this? Maybe for the next few months. All that’s happening with the movie, it’s a miracle, a phenomenon. It’s wonderful. It’s insane. I just hope I get to work with people again. I hope I get to talk to kids in schools. That’s really what I want.

“Do I hope to become a big singer again? Absolutely not. Will I ever turn down an offer to do something? No. Am I going to act again? Maybe. But all I know is that I’m definitely going to just be the best person I can be and enjoy my life. I deserve it,” she said, laughing again.