|Return to Cherie Currie||
Cherie Currie on her wild years with the Runaways
The Runaways were the original
'rock chicks', a wild all-girl teen band whose story is told in a
film that opens today. Cherie Currie, the band's singer, tells us
how it really was…
Cherie Currie was 15 when she started scandalising middle America. That was when she auditioned to become the lead singer of all-female teenage rock band the Runaways, a group that would send shockwaves through the suburbs with their attitude-fuelled performances and sexually explicit lyrics.
Their first single, "Cherry Bomb", talked unapologetically about "wild girls" and "street boys" and several radio stations refused to give it airtime. Currie would routinely appear on stage wearing stockings, suspenders and a tight-fitting basque so that even the reliably liberal Village Voice was moved to denounce the girls as "bimbos".
The year was 1976. Jimmy Carter was about to be elected president. It seemed America was not yet ready for five adolescent females who played their own instruments and sang openly about sex. But Currie didn't care. "We truly believed girls could play rock'n'roll," she says now from her home in Los Angeles. "We knew we were going into unknown territory. We had to fight on a daily basis, especially with a lot of male bands who didn't take us seriously." She gives a long, throaty laugh. "I look back 30 years and I still can't believe it."
Now, the story of the band is to be immortalised in a film, The Runaways, which premieres at this year's Sundance film festival and which is partially based on Currie's brutally honest memoir, Neon Angel. Kristen Stewart, the star of the popular Twilight franchise, is cast as the feisty guitarist Joan Jett while Currie is played by Dakota Fanning. "Seeing [her] playing me is so off-the-map it's incredible," says Currie, who was a frequent visitor to the set. "I can't even digest it. She's so together, which I was not at that age… She came to my house one afternoon and we sang back and forth so that she could get the inflections, and she nailed it."
Stewart learned to mimic Joan Jett's mannerisms with such devastating effect that Currie could barely tell the difference. "I got a phone call one day and there was this voice going 'Hey Cherie', and I thought it was Joan, I said: 'Oh my god, are you in town?'" In reality it was Stewart playing a practical joke.
The filming process has brought back vivid memories, both of the band's spectacular success and the subsequent fall-out. For a four-year period from 1975 the Runaways blazed a trail for hardcore female rock bands at a time when the most popular music in America was embodied by the soft melodies of Carole King and Fleetwood Mac.
The Runaways went on to tour internationally, performing to packed-out venues and revolutionising the male-dominated rock world with riotous nonchalance. But Currie walked out in 1977, and two years later the band buckled under the weight of infighting and jealousy. "We were all growing up, trying to deal with the transition into young womanhood," she says. "At the same time there was a whole lot of craziness going on."
The hard-partying lifestyle took an inevitable toll: Currie started popping Quaaludes and then graduated to cocaine. She was an addict before she was 18. "Our management, our booking agent – they were all feeding us drugs. The thing was, back in the 70s, if you didn't do drugs there was something wrong with you."
Where were her parents? "They had recently divorced," says Currie, who was raised in the small town of Encino in the San Fernando valley. "My mother remarried and moved to Indonesia. How could they say no? They had the record company ringing them up… they wanted us to have the dream. It all happened so fast."
The Runaways were managed by Kim Fowley, an eccentric Svengali figure who was introduced to the 16-year-old Joan Larkin (she later switched surnames to Jett) at an Alice Cooper aftershow party. Jett subsequently met Currie and her twin sister, Marie. The latter was approached first and asked if she wanted to be in a band. She declined. But Cherie said yes and her fate was sealed.
Was it a case of too much, too young? "That's a very hard question to answer because we were just thrown into this cyclone and did what we were told to do," Currie replies. "We literally just had to hold on to our seats and make it from point A to point B on a daily basis."
The film portrays Fowley as a malign influence who deliberately marketed them as "jailbait rock". He allegedly used to throw jars of peanut butter at the girls during rehearsals to prepare them for the rough audiences they would face. In the past Currie has called him "a beast [who] should not be allowed near young girls". "It was the abuse from Kim Fowley and our roadies that was so hard to take," says Currie now. "We got such abuse on a daily basis. They were trying to harden us to the reality of the rock'n'roll world but how could we possibly know this wasn't the way it was supposed to be?"
Later they discovered that their management had also been ripping them off. "We were not getting any money," recalls Currie, a note of incredulity creeping into her voice. "We were doing sold-out concerts and getting $20!"
Drained and exhausted from the constant travel and drug use, the increasingly flaky Currie suddenly walked out on the band. "There was so much conflict over the attention paid to me as the lead singer," she says. "Joan was very upset and hurt but I really thought these girls wanted me out. It was a lack of communication." Does she regret it? "Absolutely."
She went on to record two solo albums and had some minor success as an actress, starring alongside Jodie Foster in Foxes and even appearing in the classic spoof "rockumentary" This Is Spinal Tap. She married the actor Robert Hays in the 1990s and the couple, now divorced, have an 18-year-old son. Today, aged 50, she spends much of her time making "chainsaw art" wood carvings. Tellingly, Currie says what she loves about her unusual hobby is the fact that "I'm the boss – it's just me and the chainsaw. I'm in control. And it's really dangerous".
Still, there is no doubt that she misses the excitement of the Runaways' heyday. "We've always wanted to do a reunion," she admits. Looking back, would she do everything the same again? "Absolutely. I wouldn't change a thing except I wish we could have got back together. That's my only regret… Being in the Runaways, we were trailblazers, we changed a lot of people's perspectives on what they could or could not do as females."
Her son Jake, also a musician, turns 19 next month. He will then
be four years older than his mother was when she started out in the
band. Would Currie be happy to see him doing what she was at the same
age? "I couldn't even conceive of allowing my son to do the things
that I did," she says, her voice suddenly serious. Luckily Jake
does not need to live out his mother's adolescent rock'n'roll rebellion:
he can watch the film instead.