Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Runaway Looks Back: Lita Ford on Her Painful Past and Thunderous Future

Lita Ford in the '80s (photo courtesy of Freeman Promotions)

Having Lita Ford on the other end of the phone is like getting a jolt of energy directly into your eardrum. Affable and eager to chat, the former Runaways guitarist and undisputed Queen of Heavy Metal certainly had a lot to talk about during our recent call, starting off with her fantastic upcoming album.

Out April 15 on SPV/Steamhammer, Time Capsule is a special collection of previously unreleased songs written by Ford in the '80s and demoed in the late '80s/very early '90s with a host of a big-name friends from the era. Musicians on the tracks include Robin Zander and Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, Gene Simmons of KISS, Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big/The Winery Dogs), Dave Navarro (Jane's Addiction) and Jeff Scott Soto, among others. The songs were drawn from a number of 24-track analog tapes found in a closest while Ford was clearing out her home following her divorce from former Nitro singer Jim Gillette. The recordings represent moments of fun with friends put down on tape without any serious consideration of where the sessions would ultimately end up.

“We were just goofing around and we were just open for anything,” Ford says. “Because we were goofing around and we weren’t doing this for album purposes, we didn't think it would be used [or] be put on an album. It's got that loose feel and that vibe to it where anything goes.”

Three of Time Capsule's tracks (“Killing Kind,” “Where Will I Find My Heart Tonight” and the astonishing “War Of The Angels”) were later found on Ford's 1995 album, Black, but appear here in a more relaxed - and considerably stronger - form than what producers The Robb Brothers turned the songs into on the final record.

“[They] are great guys; don't get me wrong,” she says. “They were fantastic, but they made a mess of the songs [on Black], and they didn't come out as good as the demos, let's just say.”

Recorded circa '89, “Rotten To The Core” finds Gene Simmons laying down a pounding bass line while then-KISS six stringer Bruce Kulick brings in extra guitar.

“Gene and Bruce had the song already basically started,” Ford recalls. “There's different versions of that song; the version I got was just bass, and Gene was trying to sing me the guitar lines. He said, 'You know, I can't sing this. Let me get Bruce in here.' So Bruce came down and showed me the rhythm parts, and we left it at that and I finished the song. It was a three-way writing session, which turned out to be a blast in the studio. Gene was very serious about his work. It's a cool song.”

One of Time Capsule's most unexpected contributors, Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, plays mandolin and guitar on “Killing Kind.” Just another happy accident in Los Angeles.

“He was in the studio next door to us,” Ford says. “Somebody came in and said, 'Hey, Dave Navarro's next door.' I said, 'Shit, grab him! Bring him in here; let's put him on something!'”

Sadly, Time Capture is also a reminder of an absent friend. Many of the album's songs feature former Odin/Lostboys bassist Jimmy Tavis, who passed away in 2009. Ford remembers the fallen musician fondly.

“Jimmy was a doll, an absolute doll,” she says. “As a matter of fact, his big brother [Bernie] is in the 'Shot Of Poison' video. He's the hot-looking, sexy guy who tears up plastic...We wrapped him in Saran Wrap, and he breaks out of it. It's just a really cool look. Jimmy's in the 'Larger Than Life' video.' I met him backstage in Las Vegas at a Chippendales show, which his brother was in. One of the guys in the Chippendales show was dancing to one of my songs, 'Cherry Red.' I went backstage to say hello to the guy who's dancing to my song, and I met Jimmy, because he was there with his brother. We ended up living together for a while; he lived at my house. We had a lot of good times, and he was just a sweetheart of a guy. He had some health issues, and it broke my heart because he was so young and handsome. He was just too young to have health issues.”

Considering how youthful and vibrant Ford sounds in conversation, it's truly hard to believe that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the first Runaways album. While that band was obviously Ford's first opportunity to showcase her killer guitar skills to the world, the stunning “I'm A Million” off 1978's criminally overlooked And Now... The Runaways also put her in the lead vocal position for the first time in her life.

“It was [producer John Alcock's] idea,” she recalls of the uncharacteristic six-minute number. “[He] wanted to bring out my guitar playing, and I got stuck singing it. I was like... I didn't know how to sing yet! I hadn't really gone through vocal lessons. My guitar playing is a gift from God; I picked up the guitar and started playing when I was a kid... But when it came to lead vocals, that was a whole different animal for me. 'I'm A Million' was the producer’s idea to bring out my guitar playing more so than anything else. He focused on the main musicians in the band, which were Sandy and I. That's kind of how that song came about.”

Soon after that album's release, The Runaways were no more. Ford grew her voice into one of the most recognizable and cherished sounds of '80s Hard Rock/Metal, while fellow Runaway guitarist Joan Jett went on to build a successful solo career that thrives to this day. With original singer Cherie Currie also still out there performing, what are the realistic chances of The Runaways reforming? While drummer Sandy West and bassist Laurie McAllister are no longer with us (and surviving bassists Micki Steele, Peggy Foster, Jackie Fox and Vicki Blue are all busy with individual lives and projects out of the spotlight), will it ever be possible for the band's main three surviving members to figure out a way to join up again for something new? As made frustratingly clear in Ford's recently released (and impossible-to-put-down) memoir, Living Like A Runaway, any talk of the band's return seems to dissipate as soon as Jett and/or her manager, Kenny Laguna, enter the picture. But why does Jett have such a wall up when it comes to revisiting The Runaways, even after so many years?

“It's her managers; it's not her,” Ford replies. “They have an issue with me; they always have... Right from the moment The Runaways broke up, they just put up a brick wall and said, 'You are not coming anywhere near our Joan.' I thought, 'What?!' We were sisters in The Runaways; we got along great. We were the only two out of the band who never argued; we never fought and never had a cross word to each other, ever. And then there's this guy all of a sudden who is telling me basically to go fuck myself - not only that, [but] trying to sabotage my career so Joan can have it all. I personally think the world is big enough for more than one female. We have Chrissie Hynde; we have Pat Benatar. There are so many other females out there, but for some reason, he saw me as a threat to Joan. And I wasn't. We're two totally different artists; our music isn't even alike. We appeal to different audiences. He feels like it's a competition between us, and he's turned it into a war. I kept my mouth shut for 30 years while he continued to sabotage my career. He would call photographers, he would call video directors [and] he would call booking agents and say things like, 'If you put Lita Ford on that tour, you will never work with Joan Jett again.' Nine times out of 10, the people would tell him to go screw off and they would do it anyway. But there were a couple of times that really fucked me up. It's like, 'Dude, focus on your own artist and leave me alone!' He's still doing it today. It's retarded. I love the girl; I want to work with her, and I think now's a great time if we did work together. So it's him, not Joan.”

Easily the most intriguing Rock autobiography in years, Living Like A Runaway offers (among other things) a glimpse into Ford's insanely wild ride in the music business. From rising to the top of an industry swarming with misogynistic musicians and clueless managers to having enough fun with the opposite sex to make even Pamela Des Barres blush, Ford offers readers an experience so vivid that they can practically smell the pizza from the Rainbow on the pages. However, the good times come to a screeching halt when the story delves into Ford's tumultuous mid-'80s relationship with Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi. While Ford worshipped Iommi as a musician from the moment she first saw him live with the Sabs at the Long Beach Auditorium in 1971, she claims that being close to him during the following decade meant being subjected to an abusive, terrifying drug addict who beat her on more than one occasion. (As she details in the book, one particularly violent episode with Iommi led to her to seek refuge at former boyfriend Nikki Sixx's house. Concerned, Sixx offered her heroin to help treat the pain of her concussion; she snorted a little before falling asleep. The next day, she found out Iommi was rehearsing with her bassist, Gordon Copley, and drummer, Eric Singer, behind her back. Finally having enough, she packed up and left for good. Singer offers some of his own recollections from the time period here.)

Not surprisingly, initial news reports of this content appearing in Living Like A Runaway led to a firestorm of vitriol aimed towards Ford, with the comment section brigade accusing her of being everything from a delusional liar to an opportunist looking to drum up publicity for her book and album. (Sadly, this kind of negative knee-jerk reaction against an accuser has become all too common in today's music world, as other female artists have received similar online attacks in recent times when speaking out about being abused by well-known males in this industry.) Ford not only sticks by her story, but has no time for the rabble gathering on the Internet to condemn her for what she has to say.

“First of all, I don't read that crap, because it is crap and they don't know the true story unless they've read the book or have been there themselves,” she says. “You can ask Nikki... I went to his house. I had been beaten up severely; the guy almost killed me. A lot of it maybe could have been his drug problem. He was taking mass quantities of drugs like you wouldn't fucking believe, on an Elvis Presley level. Jars and jars of downers...He would buy hundreds of dollars' worth of cocaine on a daily basis.

“There are different kinds of abuse, and people need to realize that,” she continues. “There's sexual abuse, there's mental and emotional abuse – where people say really horrible things to you – and then there's physical abuse, where someone just turns around and hits you. Tony was physically abusive. He was not verbally abusive [or] sexually abusive; he was just physically abusive. I'm not making it up; I couldn't possibly make up a story like that. I'm not that good of a liar... He had choked me unconscious – true story, like it or not. I woke up, and he was in a rage. I bolted for the door. He was not dressed; he was in his underwear, so he wasn't going to follow me out into the hallway. I'm sure that I'm not the first woman that he's done this to. Maybe his wife who he was with before he was with me... I'm sure she's been pushed around. But I was in love with Tony. He was my everything; he was my world, my idol, my lover. I was going to marry him; I was engaged. I didn't know anything about an abusive relationship. I had never been in one before. I asked my mother; I actually lied to my mother and I said, 'Mom, I've got a girlfriend whose boyfriend hit her.' And she said [mimicking a thick Italian accent], 'Lita, he do it once, he do it again.' I just went, 'Oh my God.' He had done it more than once, and I knew that it was only a matter of time; I needed to get out of there. Thank God we weren't married and we had no kids, so I packed up and left. I'm sorry for the people who love Tony, but nobody loved him as much as I did, and I'm the one who suffered from it. I went into like a post-traumatic stress [scenario] because of what he did. It affected me in a huge, huge way. I went out and got that tattoo on my shoulder with the dragon and the guitar. It was a rebellious thing; I didn't even want a tattoo. He wouldn't let me drink alcohol, but he can do all these drugs. That was okay, but he wouldn't let me have a glass of wine. When we split up, I went on a drinking binge, just because Tony said I couldn’t. If you read his book [2011's Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell With Black Sabbath], his chapter about me is only a page and a half. We were together two years, so I don't know how two years turns into a page and a half – probably because he doesn't remember half of it.”

While Ford has spent a lot of time looking at her past lately, she is focused on kicking ass in the present and future. At 57, she is still active on the road and in the studio, currently gearing up for a tour with Halestorm beginning April 1 and a new album slated for 2017. Currently, she is backed by a bulletproof group of musicians including guitarist Patrick Kennison (ex Union Underground), bassist Marty O'Brien and former Vinnie Vincent Invasion/Nelson drummer Bobby Rock.

“Together, we're just rolling thunder,” she says.

Armed with an incredible new book and one of the year's best albums, Lita Ford is proof that the real thing can have a long career in music. Forty years later, she is still tearing it up – just like the Queen of Heavy Metal always has. If you're new to Lita Ford or want a powerful reminder of how great she truly is, Time Capsule is where to go.

Photo courtesy of Freeman Promotions 

Official Lita Ford Website

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com