After a long battle with bladder cancer, Kim Fowley, an impresario, record producer and scenester best known for his work with the Runaways, has died, Ralph Peer of Peer Music confirmed via author Harvey Kubernik. He was 75.
Throughout his career, Fowley stepped in and out of popular music’s limelight, yet remains best known for his work with the all-teen-female Runaways, whose Fowley-engineered aggressive sexuality and sound were unprecedented in the mid-’70s, and which spawned the careers of Joan Jett, Lita Ford and Cherie Currie. The group’s history has been documented in biographies and the 2010 biopic The Runaways, directed by Floria Sigismondi and starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. Michael Shannon, later of Boardwalk Empire fame, portrayed Fowley in the film.
Tall, gaunt and wraithlike, with piercing blue eyes, Fowley was a widely recognized figure on the Los Angeles rock scene for decades. His penchant for mythmaking extended to his own life, and the veracity of many of his statements is questionable. He sometimes claimed to have been born in the Philippines in 1942 (many accounts say he was actually born in Los Angeles), which would have placed him there during the vicious Japanese occupation in World War II. He claimed that he could read and write at the age of 18 months, and said he’d attended high school with Nancy Sinatra, Jan Berry and Dean Torrence (later the pop duo Jan & Dean).
Fowley begin infiltrating the music business in the late 1950s, working in various capacities with Motown founder Berry Gordy and legendary, ultimately disgraced DJ Alan Freed, and crossed paths with luminaries-to-be like Phil Spector and Beach Boys producer Nik Venet. He made a name for himself in the early 1960s as a co-producer/co-publisher on a string of successful records, such as the chart-topping novelty song “Alley Oop” and Paul Revere & the Raiders‘ instrumental “Like, Long Hair.”
He went on to work in various capacities with acts including The Murmaids, Gene Vincent, KISS, Alice Cooper, Leon Russell and Kris Kristofferson, and released a series of solo albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s that met with limited success.
More of a character than a musician, he had an at times Zelig-like ability to be place himself close to greatness. In the mid-1960s, he was a member of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s extended family — a group that included Captain Beefheart and the GTOs, an all-girl band of famous groupies that included the future Pamela Des Barres. In September 1969 he served as emcee at the Toronto rock festival where John Lennon and his Plastic Ono Band performed a last-minute set — his first concert appearance since the Beatles‘ final show in 1966. On the album of the set, Live Peace in Toronto, Fowley’s voice is heard introducing the band.
In 1975, Fowley helped form the Runaways, with whom he worked until 1977 when the group severed ties, due in large part to his rough work methods, mistreatment and verbal assaults. Yet it’s very unlikely the group would have existed at all, let alone achieved the level of notoriety that they did, without him: He conceived and managed the band and co-wrote many of their early songs. The group garnered scads of press, influenced countless female rockers, and were underrated as band — especially for a group of girls in their mid-teens — as this track recorded in 1977 at a concert in Japan shows.
He later tried a similar template with an all-girl group called The Orchids, to lesser success. He released solo albums into the 1980s, but gradually faded from the limelight.
In an interesting turn of events, former Runaways frontwoman Cherie Currie cared for Fowley during his fight with cancer this past year. Their reconciliation came in 2008 with word of his condition, following years of legal battles over royalties and harsh verbal trades in the press, and the two were even working on a new album together. Last August, as Billboard reported, and moved her former manager into her Los Angeles-area home.
“I love Kim. I really do,” Currie said then. “After everything I went through as a kid with him, I ended up becoming a mom and realized it was difficult for a man in his 30s to deal with five teenage girls. He’s a friend I admire who needed help, and I could be there for him.”
She wrote on Facebook on Jan. 15:
“Just before 8 am this morning, January 15, 2015, Kim Fowley passed away at his home with his wife, Kara Wright by his side after a long and hard battle with cancer. He was 75 years old.
I am so blessed that I got to get to know you again Kim.. really get to know you on a personal level and that we became friends. Mostly that you spent time here at my home. It’s a time I will never forget.
The last record you made is in good hands and I am so glad that record is mine. It was a pleasure.
Thank you for starting my career when I was a just a child. You were instrumental in so many getting started in this crazy world of music. You are a genius… you are loved. You will be so missed.”
In 2013, Fowley released the first volume of a planned autobiography series called Lord of Garbage that covered his life up to 1969. He said the remaining two volumes — the second was called Planet Pain, spanning 1970-94 — were complete. The L.A. Times described the first volume as “the weirdest rock ‘n’ roll autobiography since … well, I can’t think of what.”
Even from his hospital room, Fowley continued to work on his SiriusXM Radio show on Little Steven Van Zandt’s “Underground Garage,” and collaborated with Ariel Pink for his recent Pom Pom album.
“Kim Fowley is a big loss to me,” Van Zandt said in a statement on Thursday. “A good friend. One of a kind. He’d been everywhere, done everything, knew everybody. He was working in the Underground Garage until last week. We should all have as full a life. I wanted DJs that could tell stories first person. He was the ultimate realization of that concept. Rock Gypsy DNA. Reinventing himself whenever he felt restless. Which was always. One of the great characters of all time. Irreplaceable.”