Sticky sentimentality is the last thing that Kim Fowley — lord of garbage, king of noise, thorn in the side of Laurel Canyon smarm, slinger of shlock nuggetry, cranky contrarian who I find myself grieving terribly — would want upon the occasion of his death. So let’s be clear: the producer, songwriter, manager, and performer whose six-decade musical career came to an end yesterday was not a nice man.
Kim could be brilliant, charming, entertaining, hilarious, generous, tender, seductive, childlike, and, always, gregarious. But he was never anything so quotidianly innocuous as “nice.” He cut a furious, flamboyant swathe through a Hollywood full of peacock pissants, and he could be absolutely and cruelly cutting in his vulgar verbiage. He helped bring together one of the greatest of (all-girl) rock ’n’ roll bands, The Runaways, and he also tried to bring them down when they rebelled against him.
He was his own worst enemy: I completely believe his oft-repeated rap that he was a genius, but his constant touting of his own altitudinous IQ was also one of the many ways in which he alienated Hollywood movers and shakers. He wanted to be a mover and shaker himself, and ultimately — having worked with everyone from the Rivingtons to Frank Zappa to the Hollywood Stars to Helen Reddy to Alice Cooper to Ariel Pink — he was a mover and shaker, but often in spite of himself. He had an ear and an eye for talent, and a knack for fucking things up. Nowadays he would probably get diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
Nature and nurture definitely both failed Fowley. Polio crippled him, twice. Abandoned by Tinseltown wannabes to foster families, he had, as he told me, a “Dickensian” childhood. I don’t believe that Kim the kid knew what it was to be loved. I also think that deep down, secretly, despite his completely prickish behavior, he wanted, desperately, to be loved. (Don’t we all.) I will never forget his voice over the phone four years ago, as he sought to keep me on the line, even though we — or rather, he — had already talked for hours. He had just spent Thanksgiving sharing a can of soup with his cat. I was interviewing him for Queens of Noise (DaCapo, 2013), my history of The Runaways. I asked him why half the people I had interviewed praised him, and the other half despised him.
“I’m an empty canvas and anyone can paint the picture of their choice,” he told me. “I’m really bad at intimacy and personal relationships. What I’m really good at is working on projects with people if we have a common goal, whether it’s writing a song together or making a movie together, or we band together for X amount of time. You have friends in a foxhole fighting the enemy, but when the war is over and the album is done, everybody scatters.”
The good news about Fowley’s death from bladder cancer at 75 is that everybody had not scattered. Enemies who had slagged him for decades (and vice versa) had reconciled with the irascible impresario. Runaways singer Cherie Currie, who painted the man who “discovered” her as an abusive asshole in her autobiography, not only was writing songs with Kim and former bandmate Lita Ford again, but for a few days in the fall, took care of him in her home. From his hospital bed, Fowley even got married to Kara Wright, who worked for his longtime music publisher, Peer Music. Even with tubes running up his penis and his flesh withering away, something about Kim attracted youth and beauty.
Fowley’s detractors say he was a predator. I’m sure that he took advantage of weakness, that he manipulated the vulnerable and dominated the insecure. You didn’t want to be on Kim’s bad side. But he also championed outsiders and sought to empower the ostracized, like himself. Charges that he took advantage of The Runaways for monetary gain ring false. The band never came close to a hit in America, though their first single “Cherry Bomb” has become a rock classic, playing a pivotal role in Guardians of the Galaxy, for instance. Living off cans of soup often, Fowley preferred notoriety to riches. He conceived the idea of a band of teenage girls not just as a gimmick — though certainly the producer whose hits include “Alley Oop” and “Nut Rocker” had a sweet spot for novelties — but as a mission.
“I thought up a Darwinian evolutionary metaphor in a rock ‘n’ roll sense,” he told me. “You would go from Elvis Presley doing female moves with his hips with the striptease pit type drummer, all the way to the high voice of Robert Plant, into the New York Dolls, into David Bowie, into all the glitter and glam guys, and all of a sudden, you turn the page and there’s a woman on the page with a vagina and a guitar looking you right in the eye. It was inevitable that evolutionary wise, women would pick up the obnoxious rock ‘n’ roll pitchfork and ram it up the ass of the world.”
That’s how Kim talked: volumes of profundity and profanity. I only met him a few times, but we spent hours and hours on the phone, talking about not just The Runaways, but about Burger Records, or the Downtown LA arts renaissance. Even in his 70s, Kim was cutting edge. He knew his musical history and he was musical history.
“Am I the villain?” Kim wanted to know after I had sent Queens to the publisher. He knew he made a great bad guy — he was proud of the way Michael Shannon portrayed him as a scenery-chewing scene stealer in The Runaways biopic. But he was, in truth, tired of that narrative.
“No, Kim, even worse,” I told him. “I make you human.”