IT’S (STILL) A MAN”S WORLD: THE EVELYN MCDONNELL INTERVIEW

Part 1: RANDOM MUSINGS

Rock and roll was, is and probably always will be a man’s game. True, there have been a few ladies who were able to transcend that mystical barrier… at least, from a fan’s perspective. But, ask them about the business end or ask them about how they are generally treated in the media. There, the stories are much different. Marketing strategies usually accentuate the sexual aspects of a woman who rocks over how well she plays her instrument, sings or writes music. And, the music press, of course, goes along for the ride with photo shoots that dwell on the physical appearance – the female form – of their latest cover girl. If an instrument (usually a guitar, for – no doubt – its phallic properties) is on display in the photo, it’s used as a sexual device. So, how do we change this thinking? That’s the underlying question posed in the work of Evelyn McDonnell, a journalist, an educator, and… a woman. She has been exploring the subject for close to 30 years, while schooling a few people along the way about some of the trend-setting, door-opening heroines who made it just a little cooler for a lady to rock. One such group of teenage girls wanted to rock and, while suffering unimaginable degradation (everyone from their manager to their record label to the music press held these five young ladies in the lowest regard, treating them as – at the very worst – a group of over-sexed nymphomaniacs or – at the very least – a novelty act), managed to not only open the door, but kick the door down with their platform boots.

The Runaways, 1976, debut album gatefold (Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Sandy West) (photo credit: TOM GOLD)

The Runaways, 1976, debut album gatefold (Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Sandy West) (photo credit: TOM GOLD)

That group of young girls was the Runaways, who have recently been the subject of a major (though tragically skewed) biographical movie, based on the memoirs of lead singer Cherie Currie. Ms McDonnell’s latest book (QUEENS OF NOISE: THE REAL STORY OF THE RUNAWAYS, published by DeCapo Books) takes a more balanced look at the Runaways, from the first meeting between drummer Sandy West and guitarist Joan Jett through the ugly splits with, first, bassist Jackie Fox, then, Currie. It really is sad to say that many of the stories and legends about West, Fox, Currie, Jett, lead guitarist Lita Ford and those who came before and after are true. Their manager/guru, Kim Fowley, treated them like product… a means to an end. The end, of course, for Fowley was huge amounts of money. The fact that he didn’t get filthy rich off of his “gimmick” was, in my opinion, a case of his own hubris, putting too much stock in his creation and then turning the reins over to men even more unscrupulous than he. His (and his minions) handling of the young ladies who were Runaways (including, during the band’s infancy, future Bangles bassist Michael Steele) left mental and physical wounds that may never heal. Sandy West died, still trying to recapture what made the Runaways a great band; Jackie Fox has just, very recently, started opening up about her time in the band. McDonnell’s no-holds-barred account is a must read for all lovers of rock ‘n’ roll music, but also serves as a cautionary tale for anyone – male or female – looking to be the next big thing.

Part 2: THE INTERVIEW

Queens of Noise cover

THE MULE: Evelyn, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions about your latest book, QUEENS OF NOISE: THE REAL STORY OF THE RUNAWAYS. Before we jump into that, could you give us a brief overview of your careers, as a journalist and as an assistant professor of journalism?
EVELYN: I’ve been a writer or editor for daily newspapers, magazines, trade publications, alternative weeklies, and websites for almost 30 years. I’ve primarily done cultural journalism, specializing in music and women’s issues. I’ve won several awards, including an Annenberg fellowship, which led me to get my Master’s at USC. After that, I began teaching at LMU, where I have been ever since.

 

Evelyn McDonnell (uncredited photo)

Evelyn McDonnell (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: QUEENS OF NOISE started as a treatise on drummer Sandy West, right?
EVELYN: Yes.
THE MULE: How did you become interested in Sandy and what prompted the change to writing a book about the entire band?
EVELYN: You answer this in the next question, really. First, I always have a thing for drummers, probably because I wanted a drum set when I was a little girl, and unlike Sandy, I did not make my parents give me one. Second, I, too, was deeply moved by Sandy’s responses in EDGEPLAY. My advisor at USC, Tim Page, had also seen the movie and had the same response. In talking about the Runaways and EDGEPLAY, we both agreed that for the thesis, I should focus on Sandy. We wanted to know more about her story. To this day I remain entranced by her.

 

Sandy West doing what she loved... playing live (uncredited photo)

Sandy West doing what she loved… playing live (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I was brought to tears watching Sandy’s segments in EDGEPLAY. The sense of desperation and of a deeply lost soul struggling for just one more chance. Did you have the chance to interview her and spend time with her before her death? Had her outlook and mental state changed by that time?
EVELYN: Sadly, I never met Sandy. I really hadn’t thought about writing any of this until I was suddenly moving to LA, and she passed several years beforehand. I think we would have been good friends. Even now I have a crush on her.

 

The Runaways, circa 1975 (Micki Steele, Sandy West, Joan Jett) (photo credit: GETTY IMAGES)

The Runaways, circa 1975 (Micki Steele, Sandy West, Joan Jett) (photo credit: GETTY IMAGES)

THE MULE: When I was listening to QUEENS OF NOISE in 1977, it seemed – from the outside – that Cherie Currie was rather like the whipping post for, not only Kim Fowley, but also Joan Jett and Lita Ford. Before Cherie joined the band, it seemed as though songwriter Kari Krome took the brunt of the abuse. Reading your book, it seems that maybe a lot of the anger and vitriol aimed at her, at least from her band mates, may have been a reaction against Kim’s take-no-prisoners pattern of verbal abuse toward anyone associated with the Runaways. Am I misreading this or did you get the same feeling as you interviewed these women?
EVELYN: Actually I think you were very perceptive; you must have followed the band closely! I think Kim picked his victims, first Micki, then Kari, then Cherie. Sadly, I’m afraid that some of the members of the band fell for his power dynamics and sometimes even played along. But I also think that Cherie was very difficult. I don’t think Kim was wrong in accusing her of having a huge ego. She and Joan got along. It was mostly Lita Cherie fought with, and Kim.

 

The Runaways, circa 1977 (Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Lita Ford, Sandy West) (photo credit: CLAUDE VAN HEY/LONDON FEATURES)

The Runaways, circa 1977 (Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Lita Ford, Sandy West) (photo credit: CLAUDE VAN HEY/LONDON FEATURES)

THE MULE: I enjoyed Cherie’s biography, NEON ANGEL, and was entertained by the movie, THE RUNAWAYS, but these gave a very skewed perspective on the story of one of the most influential bands to come out of the LA rock scene. Your book allows every member of that group to have their input into what has become a very muddled history. I was particularly interested in Jackie Fox’s perspective. I’d always read that she was somewhat a whiner when she was a part of the band and, after she left, that she absolutely refused to discuss the band or her part in it with anybody. So, I guess to get this thing moving, was that mostly a mythology concocted by the band and their management or is it that Jackie has softened on her stance? Is there a sense that had THE RUNAWAYS happened now, instead of four years ago, she would have somehow been involved in that and given her okay for the producers to use her name in the movie?
EVELYN: Thanks for understanding what I was trying to accomplish with this book. Jackie was the most accommodating member of the band, though she took some convincing. She is quite willing to talk about her experiences, and in fact has in the past written blogs about them. She did change her mind about cooperating with the movie, but too late. However, I think she was very different from the other girls: book-smart, an overachiever, feminine, neurotic. She really didn’t fit in, and she was simply too smart – and not interested in partying enough – to enjoy a lot of what went on. There are members of the Runaways – okay, mostly Joan – who really do not trust her, or like her. They have their reasons; I want to be very careful not to take sides in these fights. But I was very happy to be able to present Jackie’s point of view. I hope we haven’t heard the last of her!

THE MULE: The band’s albums were right in my musical wheelhouse, so to speak. In fact, both Joan and Lita are less than two weeks younger than me. Of course, when that first album came out, I was drawn to the picture of Cherie on the cover, but when I got home and put the record on the turntable (boys and girls, I’ll give you a chance to Google those words… okay, so we’re back), it was quite obvious that this was something pretty special. It was – to say the least – very strange for a bunch of teenage girls to be playing rock and roll like this. Even though I never looked at it as anything other than talented musicians playing music that I liked, there was a stigma placed on the Runaways. Now, nearly 40 years later, there are women who owe their careers to these ladies. Even so, do you still get the impression that – particularly among knuckleheaded journalists like me – women who rock are still looked down upon as almost a novelty act? I’m continually hearing things like, “She plays pretty good for a girl.” How do we get past that kind of gender bias?
EVELYN: Okay, you made me LOL. But think about it: Where are the girl bands today? Beyonce plays with one, bless her. And there are a bunch bubbling up from underground, inspired by Pussy Riot and THE PUNK SINGER and, yes, the Runaways: Pottymouth, Cherry Glazerr, Girlpool, Girl in a Coma, etc. But they are still marginalized and treated as “cute,” by and large. The Girls Rock Camps of the world are training a new musical army. YouTube and the Internet allow artists to circumvent the old gatekeepers. But new media outlets like PITCHFORK largely replicate the boys club of the old media. We still need more female, and feminist, media voices.

 

The Runaways, 1976 (Lita Ford, Joan Jett, Jackie Fox, Sandy West, Cherie Currie) (photo credit: TOM GOLD)

The Runaways, 1976 (Lita Ford, Joan Jett, Jackie Fox, Sandy West, Cherie Currie) (photo credit: TOM GOLD)

THE MULE: That bias was rampant from a journalistic standpoint. I remember the first thing I ever read about the Runaways was in CRAWDADDY (probably the only time I actually bought an issue). The sometime irreverent magazine seemed to go even farther in turning these teenage girls into something that was closer to strippers and nymphomaniacs than serious musicians. I recall, in particular, the writer spending a fair amount of column space discussing Cherie’s problems with a silver jumpsuit; the article went into great detail (with quotes) letting the male rock listening majority know that since Cherie didn’t wear underwear, she was suffering from a rash that required her to place a piece of paper between her skin and the crotch of her jumpsuit. I’m not sure that anyone – before or since – was ever subjected to that kind of “journalism,” yet the underlying sense that rock ‘n’ roll is still very much a “boys game” persists. Do you think that the day will ever come that such thinking is completely left behind?
EVELYN: Wow, I never saw that CRAWDADDY piece. My first book, ROCK SHE WROTE, co-edited with Ann Powers, was all about storming the boys club of criticism; it came out almost 20 years ago. But even though I had studied the terrain well, I was not prepared for just how chauvinist some of the coverage of the Runaways was. The Wilson sisters talk about this in their memoir, too, how loutishly the media treated Heart. Meanwhile, the publishing industry just paid some guy 7 figures (!!!!!!) to write a hagiography — er, biography — of Jann Wenner. Makes me want to puke.

 

The Runaways, 1978 (Vicki Blue, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Lita Ford) (photo credit: BARRY LEVINE)

The Runaways, 1978 (Vicki Blue, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Lita Ford) (photo credit: BARRY LEVINE)

THE MULE: Though Lita and Cherie seem to be on board with a Runaways reunion, Joan has said publicly that doesn’t see what a reunion would accomplish. Do you feel that we will ever see anything close to an official reunion?
EVELYN: I doubt it. The water under that bridge just won’t calm down.

THE MULE: What’s next for you? As an old rock ‘n’ roller from the ’70s, I would be interested in a book about another “all girl” band, Fanny. Would you be interested in exploring something like that?
EVELYN: I’m not sure yet. I have one project along those lines I’m considering. But a part of me wants to, er, run away from all things rock ‘n’ roll related. It’s a ghetto, especially for a woman. Maybe it’s time to move on.

THE MULE: Thanks for your time, Evelyn, and for giving the Runaways story the respect it deserves.
EVELYN: Thank you for your careful reading and thoughtful questions.