Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway by Cherie Currie

Neon Angel had been sitting in my Nook reader for a while, purchased not long after I watched The Runaways, which is based on lead vocalist Cherie Currie's autobiography. While Currie's book was first published over two decades ago, this revised edition - now featuring an introduction by co-Runaway Joan Jett and, by Currie's admission, more material that pushes the book beyond the "young adult" reading age - coincided with the movie's release. Just to warn you now, if you have only seen the movie without the benefit of reading Currie's account, the book makes the film look rather tame by comparison. Though the Runaways' short history covers the first half of Angel, it's a harrowing story of exploitation in the name of sex, drugs, and rock and roll - part cautionary tale and part soap opera, and completely gripping.

First things first, I'd like to point out some of the differences between Currie's account of Runaways history and the film. One cannot expect every film based on fact to be 100% accurate, and while The Runaways portrays a number of truths there is some obvious creative license taken. If you don't want to be spoiled, hop off the train now and check out the movie and/or book, then come on back. Otherwise, you will know that:
  • In the film, Cherie is shown acquiring her iconic black and white corset in Japan and debuting it in concert there. This costume had actually been her signature look for the "Cherry Bomb" number for much of her career with the band.
  • The film seems to imply The Runaways toured the US primarily as a supporting act. Currie reveals in her book that The Runaways actually headlined here, with acts like Cheap Trick and Tom Petty opening for them.
  • The film plays up a heavy lesbian flirtation between Cherie and Joan Jett, hinting at more. In her book, Currie talks about a bi-curious one-nighter, one that happened before she met Joan. If anything happened with any of the Runaways, it's not in the book.
So, what did the film realize with more accuracy? I'd say most of the movie where Cherie is the prominent character is taken directly from the book. Within the short span of film we see Cherie's obsession with David Bowie and her relish for the wild LA nightclub scene up to her "discovery" by Kim Fowley - pretty much true to Cherie's account. Viewing the movie, I noticed Lita Ford's role in the film consisted solely of playing the guitar and screeching/cussing her entire dialogue, and to read Neon Angel you would think that fairly accurate as well. As I understand it, despite what resolutions came about following lawsuits to retrieve the band members their due compensation, there is still no love lost between certain people.

If you are a Runaways fan, I imagine this book will make you rather angry, and definitely hesitant to allow your daughter to pursue a career in entertainment. That Currie ended up on stage, promoted by Fowley as rebellious jail-bait, happened through a combination of lax parental guidance and Fowley's showmanship. Currie paints a sinister and ironic portrait here: for all the hype touting The Runaways as rebels with a "fuck it all" attitude, any girl in the group who tested those wings in Fowley's presence found them quickly clipped, shredded and forced back down her throat. Given that these girls were well underage at the time - I had to keep telling myself Currie was fifteen when this all started - it's a wonder the guy didn't land in jail. He definitely couldn't pull this off today.

Currie's post-Runaways story comprises the rest of the book, and it spills forth in a stream of alcohol and cocaine, blown opportunities and familial discord. An entire chapter devoted to a graphic, chilling encounter with a crazed "fan" left me open-mouthed, then wondering if this material had been left out of the original book. Through the stories of abuse and blown opportunities (Currie's attempts to parlay her Runaways fame into a solo acting/singing career quickly fizzled mainly due to her inability to stay sober), Cherie emerges a survivor, and eventual victor over her demons.

That she can look back and stand sure-footed provides inspiration to anybody suffering a low point in life, though in reading the book I thought the ending came rushed. The positive aspects of her life - her son, her new career, and her friendship with her ex-husband - all come summarized toward the end. I get the impression Currie is too protective of what drives her now to share it. I, for one, am glad she has it.

Rating B+

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy by Ken Sharp

There is a scene in a made for TV movie about John Lennon where the former Beatle is listening to the radio while lounging near the beach. He pauses on hearing a curious harmony punctuated by a high-pitched ululation that sends him to the nearest phone to call his wife, Yoko. "They're doing your act," he enthuses with apparent belief that his beloved's avant-garde approach to music is finally gaining acceptance. On this revelation, the scene cuts to a studio somewhere in New York City, where the Lennons commence an historic return to public life through the production of new material that will eventually comprise Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey. To look at those brief moments in a film that otherwise presents a relationship faced with various challenges, one might guess John had been at his happiest and most enthusiastic in that time.

I wouldn't doubt it. When Lennon and Ono entered the Hit Factory with The B-52's hit "Rock Lobster" no doubt ringing in their memories, they sought to put their own mark on the new decade. Ken Sharp's Starting Over attempts to record every detail of the making of Lennon's new music, and relies upon the memories of everybody involved in the production - from Yoko to producer Jack Douglas, guest artists Bun E. Carlos and Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, and a host of studio musicians and personnel, engineers, and music critics. Lennon himself is represented through interviews granted to various sources before his death.

The structure of Starting Over offers the play-by-play through a series of direct narratives from all involved parties. If you have read Live From New York, a history of Saturday Night Live as told by cast and crew, you will be familiar with the format. Here, readers bounce around a series of "he saids" and "she saids" where everything from Lennon's day to day mood and work ethic to the food delivered for lunch (sushi mainly, until the band rebelled and began to sneak in hamburgers) is revealed. Largely visible, too, is the overall perception of Lennon being somewhat insecure in his work despite the absence of pressure from labels. Because Lennon was not under contract to make the record, he opted for strict secrecy (it almost worked) and seemed ready to destroy everything if it didn't turn out to his satisfaction. One can only wonder the fate of the music that comprised Milk and Honey had he not died - would he have approved of that release?

Despite entering the relaxed atmosphere of the Hit Factory, a cloud did loom overhead - namely the pressure to live up to the Lennon name and reputation, as well as execute an impressive leap from the shadow cast by former band mate Paul McCartney, whose own 1980 album had gone gold. Some may view Lennon's decision to eventually sign with fledging label Geffen Records as opposed to McCartney's label (which, among others, courted Lennon) as a final act of non-conformity.

Few stories in the book, told from different angles, contradict one another. Yet, when it happens it happens big. The process of arranging tunes in playing order, as recalled by Yoko, might have resulted in a disadvantageous placement of her songs if others had gotten their way.

What I found most fascinating about Starting Over is the latter half of the story, the critical and public reaction to the finished Double Fantasy. As I read, I queued up the album to familiarize myself again with the music that seemed to dominate much of 1981 by virtue of our global mourning. Tracking responses by the major critics of the day, Yoko's work is singled out as the more innovative contribution to the album - interesting to note given that the bulk of Starting Over covers Lennon's involvement in the production. Lennon's songs, which mainly reflect his familial contentment and optimism, are dissected with great care, while explanation of Yoko's inspiration to write is hardly examined. I can only guess this lack of balance is attributed to Sharp's intention to offer Starting Over as a Lennon tribute, with the assumption that Yoko's story will be told in due time. This is not to say, however, that Yoko is shut out completely. We are reminded throughout Starting Over that two artists appear on the cover, and the story of how David Geffen finally won the most anticipated album of the new decade solidifies Yoko's importance in the project.

For readers interested in Lennon's later history with a concentration on work rather than gossip, Starting Over is a nice "oral" history, but may come off as a bittersweet read given how the story ends. Thirty years after the events, the stories remain as fresh as the music.

Rating: A

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop.