Saturday, September 07, 2013

Biography: Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways by Evelyn McDonnell

Though there’s much to like about Evelyn McDonnell’s well thought out and researched biography of The Runaways, the first all-girl, all-teen rock band, Queens of Noise (Da Capo). But what slays me are the might-have-beens.

By rights, more than 35 years after their late 1970s debut, The Runaways should be legends. And like the legendary rock bands that have gone before them, they should be rolling a retirement tour by now, lining their nests while we scream and applaud youthful memories.

The Runaways had the right stuff: contacts, contracts, line up and chops. But though the four years the girls performed together would yield significant success in the US, and substantial attention overseas, the group would ultimately implode under the combined weight of youthful exuberance, personality clashes, too much of a lot of things (drugs, alcohol, etc) and an industry that, in the 70s, seemed designed to be ultimately unhealthy for what would turn out to be a proto Riot Grrrl outfit that set the stage for the glam rock that would follow.

Though history and films have consistently cast The Runaways’ manager, Kim Fowley, as the evil hand that created and then destroyed the group, McDonnell disputes his ultimate sway. Part of that legend might simply have come from what people expect young women to do and create. Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre says it very well in Queens of Noise: “When you hear something like that on a record, I feel like a lot of people are trained to think a full-grown man is doing that. To be able to conceptualize that it’s not a full-grown man, it’s actually a teenage girl doing it -- it changes what is possible for yourself as a girl, as a woman.”

Though The Runaways did not survive either the 1970s or the five bandmates’ approach to adulthood, all but one of band members did survive and even thrive. Joan Jett and Lita Ford would go on to have brilliant solo careers. Cherie Currie turned successfully to the arts, Fox “went to Harvard Law School with Barack Obama and became an entertainment attorney” and her band replacement, Vicki Blue, is now a filmmaker. Drummer Sandy West ended sadly, perhaps the strongest musician among them, died in 2006. After a life of crime and addiction, she was diagnosed with lung cancer while in prison and.

Though McDonnell’s biography of the band occasionally echoes with a sharp feminist trill, it is perhaps not misplaced here. This is a girl’s story. A woman’s story. And the influence this bouquet of teenagers would have on the music scene is perhaps still being calculated. ◊

Sienna Powers is a contributing editor to January Magazine.

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