Los Angeles

Queens of Noise: The Runaways

At the corner of Doheny, in the middle of the elbow where Sunset begins to angle south, to slip downward, before straightening out again for the rich folks, sits the Rainbow Bar & Grill. In 2012, the two-storied venue's flyer-and-graffiti-covered walls testify to the joint's legacy. In 1975, everyone who was anyone -- who wanted to be part of the rock 'n' roll scene that had eclipsed the casting couch as the stagepost to glamour -- knew that the Rainbow was where you went to be an outsider who was an insider. You didn't even have to step through the door. You just had to hang out in the parking lot.

"Sandy [West] knew that the Rainbow parking lot was where a lot of bands went after their show to eat food and meet girls," remembers Joan Jett. "When the place closed, everyone would hang out and talk. The parking lot was full of people talking. Led Zeppelin. Big bands. Sandy must have known Kim was there a lot. Maybe she just knew it was a place rock stars and producers hung out."

In the parking lot of the Rainbow, especially after the bars (the Whisky, and Rodney's, and the Starwood) closed and there was nowhere else to go, and you were staying out all night because your parents thought you were sleeping over at your friend's house after your wild rides at Disneyland, you might see Jimmy Page. You might lock eyes with a girl in a shag haircut, share some Quaaludes, and make out. And you might meet a crazy six-foot-four character in a peach suit who promises to make you a rock 'n' roll star.

Kim Fowley was the original Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Rodney Bingenheimer became famous for the sobriquet, but even in his biopic "The Mayor of the Sunset Strip," the infamous DJ and scenemaker admits he inherited the title from Fowley when Kim skipped town for Europe in the late 1960s. Of course, you can never quite get rid of Kim Fowley, and by 1975, the notorious (at least in his own mind) songwriter, producer, performer, huckster, and hustler was back on his old turf. He didn't have to give himself the fake mayoral honorific in order to get into clubs anymore, because by then, everyone knew who Kim Fowley was. Everyone, including Runaways drummer Sandy. Fowley had been making records for almost two decades. He could have afforded a house in the hills, or in the canyons, but the former foster child and polio survivor was a man of the streets. He lived and breathed the Sunset Strip.

Legendary rock club the Whisky became the Runaways' home. | Photo: Brad Elterman.

"I'm emotionally immature!" Fowley says. "And I'd rather stand out with my artists who didn't have a fake ID or any ID. These kids had no money, they were living at home, they'd get rides, quarters, dollars and nickels to pay for gas in their mom's car, leave home, stand around because they couldn't get into real clubs, and wait for a party."

Accounts of what happened that midsummer, mid-seventies night vary. Fowley says Sandy was standing with her male friends, "weekend warriors." He approached Sandy, told her she looked like she was a musician, asked her, was she?

"There's Sandy standing there looking like Dennis Wilson's sister," Fowley says. "She was with a bunch of guys in a musician's stance, one of those, 'Hi, I bet everybody here should know I'm a musician.' Like Billy the Kid coming to town ready to have a gunfight."

Lori Pesavento says her younger sister, Sandy, went to the Strip knowing full well who Fowley was; in fact, she had seen his ad seeking girl musicians in Bomp, and was there in part on a musical mission. "Sandy had been playing with these boys," says Lori. "It was okay, but she hated being the only girl in the band."

Sandy also hated being the only musician in a crowd of provocative young women. "It was weird, I felt like a groupie standing out there," she wrote in notes for her memoir. "I didn't want to be a groupie; I wanted to be in the group."

Fowley says he approached West; she has said she went up to him. However it exactly went down, the producer quickly established that she was a drummer, and she found out that he was looking for players for an all-girl band. He already had one, a shy guitarist. Kim Fowley gave Sandy Pesavento Joan Larkin's number.

The Runaways formed with the exuberant optimism of Banhamesque boosterism. Fowley told them they would be the next Kiss, the female Rolling Stones, and the girls believed him. But all too quickly they found themselves sucked into a Sunshine Noir nightmare, a tale of drugs, abortion, assault, and violence so twisted that even Plagens could probably not have predicted it.

It wasn't just the Runaways that slipped into a bad trip; it was the times. The Strip was changing. In fact, the decline had begun before the Runaways even had a chance. Rodney's closed in 1974. The Whisky stopped booking bands for a couple years (changing their policy in time to become one of the Runaways' favorite venues). Music historian Hoskyns writes, "By 1974, rock 'n' roll Los Angeles had reached its moral nadir." Bowie, who lived in the Hollywood Hills at the time, told Hoskyns, "There was something horrible permeating the air in L.A. in those days. Maybe it was the stench of Manson and the Sharon Tate murders."

Phast Phreddie Patterson, who ran the magazine Back Door Man and DJ'ed at the Starwood, said by the end of the decade, the Rainbow -- aka Fowley's office, where Kim met Sandy -- was a sick joke. "The guys had long hair, velour shirts with wide lapels and bell bottoms. The girls all seemed to be blonde and wear halter tops, spike heels and pouts. An even bigger spectacle happened in the parking lot after two in the morning when the bar closed and these sad people made final, desperate attempts to con some sweet young thing or anybody with an English accent (often simulated) to go home with them. The Rainbow was a watering hole for old wave rockers. Perhaps a better location would have been next to the La Brea Tar Pits," he wrote in October 1996.

As the '70s slipped into old age, the music on the strip got harder: Punk bands like the Germs and Black Flag, metal acts such as Mötley Crüe and Guns N Roses, took over. The drugs got harder, too. "What killed that era was the drugs," says Chuck E. Starr. "When crystal meth happened, that was what killed everything."

It was the end of California's Golden Era. The ugly conservatism of the Midwestern émigrés raised its head with the anti-tax Proposition 19, which broke the back of what had been one of the world's greatest public school systems. Five decades of population growth slowed precipitously in the 1970s. The very air stank.

One thing Banham and Plagens agreed on in the early 1970s was the importance of Los Angeles as a model not just for the U.S., but for the world. Banham's blithe boosterism bothered the L.A. critic so intensely precisely because the stakes were so high, and, as a longtime resident, Plagens was so invested in them. "Los Angeles is the harbinger of America's future--if we can save the children of Los Angeles, we can save anybody, everybody," his Artforum article argued. He thought little of the "seedy stucco 'Strip' with juice-sucking neon and carny pitchmen," and one has to wonder if he knew of Fowley. "... Los Angeles produces the greatest per capita crop of creeps in the Western world," he wrote. "Realtors, record producers [emphasis added], agents, interior decorators..." the list went on.

Strangely, in their respective rave/rant, Banham and Plagens each devote little space to Hollywood. Except for its residential neighborhoods in the Foothills, the most famous part of Los Angeles doesn't fit anywhere in the four ecologies. It's as if Hollywood is so other, so mythic, so blazingly bright in the global marquee, so surreal, such a site of dreams, that it's not an actual geographic location. Maybe that's one of the reasons the Runaways never truly made it, outside of Japan and a few other countries. Hollywood is where you went to, not where you came from. To be a Hollywood band was like being spiders from Mars, or being from a soundstage, or being from nowhere. It was the most elusive part of Plagens's "elusive place: all flesh and no soul, all buildings and no architecture, all property and no land, all electricity and no light, all billboards and nothing to say, all ideas and no principles."

From the book "Queens of Noise" by Evelyn McDonnell. Reprinted with permission from Da Capo Press. Copyright © 2013.


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Top Image: During their first shows without Currie, at the Whisky in August 1977, Joan Jett and Lita Ford flexed their new guitar-driven dynamic. | Photo: Jenny Lens.

About the Author

Evelyn McDonnell is the author and co-editor of five books, including "Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids and Rock ‘n’ Roll."
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