For the former lead singer of the Runaways, Cherie Currie, life has been an intense ride. While a portion of the Runaways' story has finally been told thanks to a 2010 biopic starring Dakota Fanning as Cherie and Kristen Stewart in the role of guitarist and foil Joan Jett, the truth of the Runaways is also one of tribulation, excess, rape, and exploitation that the film neglected to show. This pioneering group paid dearly for its success.
Currie, however, set the record straight with the subsequent release of her memoir Neon Angel, a book that hides nothing while displaying the resilience that has become her hallmark. She left the Runaways in 1977 amid drug addiction, infighting, and exhaustion — the full gamut of classic rock clichés.
Cherie recently returned to the stage and will perform in West Palm Beach at the end of the month. We spoke with her about her chainsaw art and her album that's being held hostage.
New Times: How did you get involved doing chainsaw art?
Cherie Currie: Well, it was just kind of a fluke! I kind of started out as a sketch artist. Actually, my first autobiography, Neon Angel, that came out through Pricester and Sloane, I went to them as an artist. At that time, I was a counselor for drug-addicted teens, and while they were in school, I had like two hours to kill, so I started sketching, and I would sketch really whimsical princes and princesses and castles and stuff. So I just thought I might be able to lend my sketches to some of their children's books. When they asked me how long I'd been drawing, I said a year, and they said, "Well, how is that possible?" and I kind of told them the story of the Runaways and how drugs took me out of the picture, and they said, "You know what? We've been looking for our first young-adult book, and this is it." And that's how I became an author.
So then I went from that to painting and relief carving, and I was driving to the beach one day, and I happened to see a couple of guys chainsaw carving at the side of the road, and I just couldn't get it out of my head. Every morning, every night, that voice would say, "You got to go back." So a couple of weeks later, I went back and walked into their gallery, and I saw these beautiful mermaids and dolphins. I mean, really beautiful pieces of art, and this voice just said, "You can do this!" I asked them if I could come and watch, and they said, "Yeah," and I started carving there. My third piece was accepted into the Malibu Art Expo, which is just so hard to get any kind of art accepted into that, and I just really thought I had something, and I've been doing it for 12 years now!
What have you been up to musically lately?
Well, Matt Sorum and I opened for Joan Jett in 2010, and I just don't think any of us expected it to go off as good as it did, and I was offered a deal from that show. At that time, I had Kenny Laguna — who's Joan's manager, was my manager — and he wanted me to sign with Blackheart instead of the other record companies. So of course, I did. And we made a great record. Matt Sorum produced it, and we got Billy Corgan on it and Slash and Duff, and Billy wrote a great duet for us to do, and it's got Brody Dalle and Juliette Lewis and the Veronicas on it. But for some reason, it just isn't out yet. It's not even mastered.
Kenny, I just kept asking him, but he didn't want me to do any shows after I opened for Joan, and I'd just been sitting for three years. So when my management contract expired in March, I wouldn't re-sign, and I just decided that I can't anymore. We just decided to come out and do shows and do a lot of the Runaways stuff, which is what the fans really want to hear, and do a few of the cuts off of the new record.
Any idea when the record might be released?
That's really going to depend on Kenny. Hopefully, he'll give me the masters and let me put it out. But it's so funny, this business. You know, the contracts, I guess the 60/40 contracts they call them now, where you own nothing and they own everything and it's just like, I'm too old for this.
It's just ugly. I never expected it to be like this, especially working with who I considered family. But for me, being 53 years old, I don't have time on my side. So I just had to get away from that and walk away from an album that I love. It was also a relief to know that I could do that and not have any contracts. I have no paper with anybody, so I'm a free agent. If it means that record never comes out, it would just be a bloody shame. But you know what? I can't control what other people do. But I can certainly control what I do, so that's the stance I'm taking now.
Between the Runaways film and writing Neon Angel, do you feel at peace with some of the uglier parts of your past?
Oh, yeah! Well, you know what? The thing is, if you can't share the good and the bad with people, then really, what good are you? My book has helped so many people; I get letters every day from kids that have been in the same or similar situations, and I really opened up my heart. I thought, "If I'm going to do this book, I'm going to do it with everything that I've got, be as honest as I can, as embarrassing as a lot of it is." I just thought, "I just got to tell it all!" And I did!
Also, Tony O'Neill, who wrote the book with me, he's a brilliant writer. But he's British, and he was making the book sound like you're taking a valley girl and dropping her into a British prep school. I turned to him and I said, "You know what? I appreciate what you're doing, but I have to take it from here, and I have to do all of these final rewrites on my own, because it's got to be coming from me." The thing is, what I've learned is if something fails miserably, you can live with it if you did it. But if you let someone else do it and it fails miserably, you can never forgive yourself for that. The book has gotten great reviews. Obviously, it wasn't written by a literary scholar, but people actually feel like they're sitting in a living room with somebody on a one-on-one, reading about their life. And that's what I wanted it to be. And it's brutal. It is a brutally honest book. You laugh and you cry and all that, but it's helped a lot of people, and I'm very grateful for all of that.
The Runaways film glossed over much of the grittier parts of the band's story, particularly the rape you endured at a young age and many of Kim Fowley's transgressions. I feel it did a disservice to the legend of the Runaways by leaving out a lot of the compelling parts of the story.
I agree. I had a few battles with them about it, because I really thought it could've been far more compelling if they had stuck more with my book, but they didn't want me to lose my innocence so early on in the film. The thing is that the movie was out of my hands; as much as I would argue with them about it, they were set in what they wanted to do. It's not like the movie was so wrong; they just didn't tackle the real hard-core stuff. Still, visually it was wonderful; I thought the acting was superb. I think if I didn't have my book, I would have been sorely disappointed, but I had the book coming out at the same time, and a lot of people did read that book, and they got really a good dose of what it was really like.
Do you have a status report on a Runaways reunion? I read just this month that Lita said she'd love to do it. Is it still Joan that everyone is waiting on?
I just read in LA Weekly that Joan doesn't seem to understand why people want it. She seems a little mystified as to why anyone would want to see us together again. She thinks that fans would be disappointed. I disagree, and so does Lita. But Lita [Ford] and I are working together right now on a few things, because the fans just mean everything to us. If it wasn't for the fans, we would be nothing. Sometimes, you can't have it the way you want it, so you work with what you have, and that's what we're doing right now. To work with Lita is just so much fun; she's just such a great person. Keep in mind that I really haven't known her since I left in '77. She's a mom like I'm a mom, and we have so much in common. It's great! She's kicking ass, and I'm coming back just for the fun of it!
Joan seems to feel very protective of the legacy of the Runaways. But the thing is that it was incomplete, because we were so young and so poorly managed, and we had no mediators that could help us. I mean, my God! We had barely just started our periods when we started in this band. We transitioned from children to being women in front of thousands of people and the pressure of it all. Now that we're grown, middle-aged, on to our golden years, it would be so great to show people that it mattered. That it mattered what we did, so I hope that Joan comes around too.
You have one life to live, and you just have to go at it with everything you've got. I really kind of felt that the Runaways had been forgotten. Maybe it was because I wanted to put it behind me so badly, because it didn't end well for me. It was what I was put on this planet to do at that time. I didn't even listen to the Runaways' music for about 20 years. And then when I started looking at the YouTube videos, I was just blown away. There really has not been a band like us, and I think that we really did make a mark.