Born to Be Bad

The late Kim Fowley, best known as the producer for the Runaways, was brash, condescendingly mean and basically full of shit

Kim Fowley died at 75.

Late at night in the summer of 1973, when school let out for the summer and I had not yet turned 16, I climbed out my bedroom window in my parents’ ranch house in the Valley and hitchhiked over the hill to Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco on Sunset Boulevard.

Carrie was waiting for me. We'd met in an Orange Julius the week before. Even though we went to different schools, we recognized one another like two lone animals from the same pack. We both wore towering platform shoes, miniskirts and lots of clanking bracelets. Our shag haircuts were blown dry in perfect scallops and we had no shortage of makeup: blue eyeshadow in three shades going from lid to brow; heavy mascara that was hardly ever washed off, just more added; and thick red lipstick.

She had been going to Rodney’s for months; it was my first time but I’d been studying Star magazine, a new groupie rag, so I knew how to look like a groupie. Still, if Carrie wasn’t with me to show me the ropes, I would have done all the wrong things—like pay to get in, stand near the side rather than push my way to the mirrored wall at the dance floor and talk to the gawking guys in dumb local bands. I was still a shy and confused girl who tried to do the right thing.

That first night at Rodney’s was exhilarating. The New York Dolls and Iggy Pop, in various stages of fucked-upedness were crammed in the VIP booth, a single red banquette that had seen better days, on a plywood platform surrounded by velvet ropes. The groupies danced in front of the mirror for the rock stars, and for each other—since, I would learn, being a groupie was as much about competing with other groupies as it was about sleeping with rock stars.

When the music ended and lights went up, Carrie linked arms with me, which made me self-conscious, and we went outside to ask Rodney what was happening next. Rodney owned the club and was a hand-wringingly anxious, bespectacled man in his late 20s, the size of a 12-year-old boy, with terrible teeth, worse breath, a monotone voice, towering platforms and a hairstyle that stood up straight on top, long on the sides, with bangs cut too short. He crossed his arms, looked me over (or “clocked my drag” as we said then), giggled approvingly, muttered something to Carrie about a party at the “Riot” (Hyatt) House, and rushed away.

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Carrie looked at me very insistently with her mascaraed eyes and said, sotto voce, that I had to meet Kim Fowley. He was putting together an all-girl band, she said, and it didn’t matter if you were good or could even play an instrument. According to Carrie, Kim Fowley could do a lot for you, though I didn’t know what I needed done for me.

Standing next to a convertible surrounded by club kids half his age was Kim—strikingly tall, skinny with a blockhead, thin lips painted red and an ordinary guy’s outfit of shirt, sweater, slacks and sneakers. When Carrie asked what was happening, Kim lifted his arms and said, “It’s all happening”—his catchphrase. He then stared at me, unblinkingly, and said, “Who are you?” in a voice that cut you down even before you answered; a voice that I associate with Kim and can sometimes hear in my own head today.

Kim Fowley was brash, condescendingly mean and basically full of shit. He lied about everything, but with such gravity that you were never really sure. Hollywood was full of charlatans and carnival barkers but his fictions were so bizarre that you came back for more, like any freak show, even though you know it's not real. (Once, he told me, when I was looking for a ride to a Led Zeppelin after-concert party, that Robert Plant had an emergency tonsillectomy and could never sing again.)

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Carrie was wrong that any talentless girl could play for the band he was putting together; Kim’s all-girl band became the Runaways. Despite all his crazy stories, Kim Fowley knew music, trends and a gimmick.

In the first months at Rodney’s, I met Denise, a tough, edgy girl my age, and we got to know the Runaways. I had a crush on Sandy West, the drummer, and wound up in bed with her whenever possible; Denise and I slept with Joan Jett. It was when we went to a show with the group in San Francisco, that I saw Kim berate the band, behavior that is now legendary.

He seemed to love making them miserable. But what I remember most is when Lita Ford played a guitar riff for him, he said to her “that’s dog shit” and walked out of the room.

Kim Fowley died this week. He was 75. Although he recently married a sexy young woman and wrote a book called "Lord of Garbage," Kim was part of a short decadent scene that died long ago—salvaged more in memoirs and films than in real life.

But keeping with his sideshow shtick, his dying wish was to have his corpse featured with fetish models in a magazine called Girls and Corpses. Because he signed a contract to appear with his former girlfriend as a model, his current wife has not agreed to the request. Riling up young women until the end. Figures.


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