Saturday, August 24, 2013

I'm Gonna Rock Six Times, All Right! (Part 1: Cherie Currie)

It's been a remarkable week of music and nostalgia. I saw three shows in seven days on opposite sides of the country. Two of them were bands I thought I would never see again and the other tied into both a current obsession and a minor teenage crush.

On Saturday, August 17th I saw Cherie Currie, formerly of the seminal female rock band The Runaways, at the Red Devil Lounge in San Francisco. I didn't travel there just to see her. The timing of her show was a happy coincidence with a vacation I had already been planning for months. On Wednesday, August 21st I saw Cheap Trick here in Pittsburgh at the Stage AE outdoor venue less than twenty-four hours after getting off the plane from the west coast. I waited to get tickets until the day of the show in case I was too jet-lagged or tired to go. I wasn't, so I went. On Friday, August 23rd I saw Adam Ant at the indoor portion of Stage AE.

On Saturday I slept.

I first heard The Runaways with their second album, Queens of Noise. My friend Howard was much more adventurous with music than I was back then. While I bought a lot of records most of my music money went toward completing my collections of KISS and Queen. I was something of a completist for those two bands and in the years between 1975 and 1980 they put out a lot of product. It didn't leave much money to experiment with bands I had never heard of on the radio. I don't think Howard had heard much about some of these other bands either. He just picked up stuff that looked interesting to him. He made some choices I understood. I heard my first complete Aerosmith album from him, Rocks, as well as A New World Record by Electric Light Orchestra. He would eventually be responsible for me being a fan of Rush for awhile. He turned me on to a relatively unknown rock band called Starz that we saw open for Rush. They are now a band that many of the Hair Metal bands of the 80's, specifically Motley Crue, cite as an influence (the title of this blog comes from one of their songs... I saw three shows, not six, but if you count the opening bands I rocked six times this week. All Right!).

These are all easy to understand in the context of rural America teen music in the 70's. But then he started picking up albums by bands I had barely heard of. Punk bands! I was vaguely aware of Punk Rock at the time. I remember seeing news reports on the Sex Pistols. I read an issue of one of the 70's rock magazines that had a special feature on this new music phenomenon. There was a large section that spotlighted many bands I had never heard of, bands with names like The Stranglers and The Dead Boys. Each band had a half page article with a picture and a bio. In addition to the aforementioned bands I specifically remember that both Blondie and Cheap Trick were included (Blondie makes a certain amount of sense, but Cheap Trick? The writer obviously just lumped them in because they didn't know how else to categorize them). The magazine may have been Creem, or Circus, or Rock Scene. I wish I could remember because I would love to see that mag again. All of this felt pretty removed from my experience and interests, so I was pretty dubious.

Howard played The Ramones Rocket To Russia for me and kind of blew my mind. How could anybody play that fast? That sounds kind of ridiculous now, but at the time it seemed to be a legitimate question. I obviously wasn't quite ready for a Teenage Lobotomy. The only Sheena I knew was a comic book Queen of the Jungle, not a Punk Rocker.

Something about The Runaways stood out to me though. Howard didn't really like it very much, so he gave me the disc. With the benefit of hindsight and research I now know the girls in the band were much more influenced by Glam acts like T.Rex and Bowie, as well as hard rock like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Their career coincided with the rise of Punk, so they were lumped into that category at first. I think I latched onto them more quickly because the music was more in line with the kind of stuff I was already into.

Or it may just have been that they were five pretty hot girls my age playing rock and roll. A lot has been made of their exploitation as underage girls in the world of rock music. They were certainly marketed as jailbait. None of that crossed my mind at the time. I was sixteen. Every crush I had was on a teenage girl.

Like most teenagers I had delusions of being a rock star. Never mind my near complete lack of musical ability. Something about getting on stage and performing seemed like an ideal. Here were a bunch of girls doing it! I don't really think I understood the cultural impact of an all girl hard rock band. Sure, I had never seen it before, but more important to me was simply that kids my age were doing something this cool. I had listened to the Osmond Brothers and the Jackson Five of course. They were about my age, but something about this felt more real to me. Probably because I had outgrown the demographic that Puppy Love and ABC was aimed at.

It was Cherie Currie who drew my eye. I'm pretty sure I pronounced it Cherry at the time. She was in the center of the band photos on the album cover, so she was meant to be the center of attention, so that was part of it. She was the lead singer, so that helped. But let's be honest here... she was a pretty, skinny blonde, all things I was drawn to at the time (Goldie Hawn in a bikini on Laugh In was a big factor in my sexual awakening, so that's where that attraction was born, but that's more of a story for my therapist, I'm sure). Crush is probably too big a word for what I felt, but there was definitely a fascination with her specifically.

I'm not sure of the timing of all this, but it's likely Cherie had left the band before I ever heard the album. I played it, but not as much as other stuff I owned. They didn't get a lot of coverage and still no airplay. This one artifact of their existence wasn't enough to hold my attention for long.

When Joan Jett hit it big a few years later I remembered her having been in The Runaways and briefly wondered what had happened to Cherie. When Lita Ford started getting airplay I'm pretty sure I didn't even make the connection at first.

Like a lot of people, my interest was renewed by the Floria Sigismondi film starring Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart and Michael Shannon. I went back and listened to the albums. I read Cherie's biography that inspired the film, Neon Angel. I read an unauthorized biography of Joan Jett called Bad Reputation by Dave Thompson. I've been researching and reading a lot of stuff on Glam music for a project I'm working on and this tied in. Like a lot of things in my life, passing interest can easily turn to obsession for short periods of time.

Coincidence also smiles on me from time to time.

In July Joan Jett played at Mountainfest in nearby Morgantown, West Virginia. I drove down to see the show. After watching Foghat in the pouring rain with my niece Joan took the stage and played an amazing show. I had never seen her before and with my newfound knowledge I think I appreciated the experience more than I would have before. When the set ended most of the crowd drifted away back to the rest of the events of the festival. We were still hanging out near the stage talking when we heard a commotion. Joan was standing behind a chain link fence greeting fans. There were maybe a dozen of us who got to shake her hand and say hello. It was brief and I have no pictures, but I did get to meet this person I had been reading about for months.

Joan at Mountainfest.
Photo by Jessica Smith

Exactly three weeks later I met Cherie Currie.

Photo by Michael Chemers

Though she has played a number of shows over the last ten years or so this the first time she has launched a major tour since leaving The Runaways. Her set consisted of a lot of Runaways tunes, some great cover songs and a couple of brand new songs she has recently recorded for a new album (though the fate of that album seems up in the air right now). I fully expected Cherry Bomb, her signature song, to be the closer for the evening, but she surprised me by launching into a cover of Bowie's Rebel Rebel, dedicated to “The man who made me want to do this.” That was one of the first 45 singles I ever owned and very few opening guitar riffs affect me the way this one does.

She is still a powerful presence onstage and if you compare her current performance with videos of her when she was sixteen you can see that this is still the same woman. She exudes more adult confidence now, of course. The main thing that struck me was how happy she looked to be up there again. She was gracious with her fans and after the show spent a tremendous amount of time hanging out to meet everyone, sign memorabilia and take pictures. She says she appreciates the continued interest after all these years and wants to reward the fans. I believe she would have stood there talking to us until morning if she had needed to.

This not my video but it is from the show I saw.

Perhaps I think too much about these things, but I'm fascinated by the pathways that lead to these meetings. Cherie and I are peers, at least in terms of age and the time period we grew up in. There are scenes in the Runaways movie that speak completely to memories and experiences I had as a teen in the 70's. But really, her life, even before her experiences with the band, couldn't have been any more different than mine. Rural Pennsylvania is a long way from the Sunset Strip. But the music unites us. The soundtrack that played over the speakers at the Red Devil Lounge before and after her show was the music of my youth. We grew up loving the same bands. Thirty-five years after I had a fascination with a pretty blonde girl on a record sleeve, someone who might as well have been a fictional character, and there we are in the same space, flesh and blood, sharing memories of Bowie.

Are we connected? Not in any real sense, no. But when she introduced a new song called Rock 'n Roll Oblivion she talked about this exact idea. Those of us of that era, those of us who shared that time and that music, share a similar experience. I don't wallow in nostalgia very much. I don't feel trapped by my past, even though this series of posts are about nothing so much as nostalgia for the music of my youth. I'm always looking for new things to experience, in music and art and books and in people. But it's grounded in the things that formed me very early on. I think every generation has that same experience. When she introduced the song it was like she was talking directly to me.

Isn't that the way the music you love is supposed to make you feel?

This is not the show I saw. I couldn't find a video
of this song from that night.

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