In 2011, I started working on a memoir about some of my crazy stories with rock musicians and the songs that saved me, called Jukebox Hero. I was deep in the drama and writing was an outlet, so I wrote about my relationship with Bono and how I ended up on an Eminem song, and a bunch of other crazy tales. I thought this blog might be a good place to publish some of the chapters. The first one is about being a punk fan in rural Georgia and discovering The Runaways. I’ve already written about this revolutionary band and am now proud to include bassist Jackie Fox in my circle of social media friends. Since memoirs are all the rage (I’m reading Hillbilly Elegy right now), here’s where mine starts. (I should note that I wrote this piece before the disturbing allegations surfaced about the rape culture surrounding the young band,)
Chapter 1: The Runaways – Queens of Noise
Soundtrack song: “Neon Angels on the Road To Ruin”
Being a young rock fan in a rural southern town, like Stone Mountain, Georgia, in the 1970s pretty much sucked. The drinking age was 18, but that might as well have been 30 when you were 13. Besides, there were no rock clubs, let alone all-ages ones. There was no satellite radio, no iTunes, no MTV, nothing. If it weren’t for 96 Rock on the FM dial and some older kid’s copy of Circus magazine, you might as well have been living behind the Iron Curtain. You were stuck on Hee Haw Island with a bunch of rednecks who thought radical fashion was clogging with tap shoes on. You know the movie Deliverance? These people were not cheering for Ned Beatty. They were cheering for the other guys.
Stone Mountain was about 10 miles away from Atlanta, but it felt like a thousand miles from the exciting metropolis, whose motto was and is, “The city too busy to hate.” We had moved into one of the new subdivisions in 1972, when I was 8. Housing developments, like Woodridge, were popping up all over the whispering pine forests outside Atlanta. Each one would have about four or five styles of homes that would just repeat. Along with them came strip malls anchored with Eckerd’s drug stores and Big Star grocers. There was no suburban planning that envisioned places for young people to go or venues for musicians to play in. My house on Birch Ridge Trail was only near other houses exactly like it. The only good news was that they hadn’t invented video games yet, so we ran wild in the streets, the woods, and the half-built houses.
There were also really no ethnic or youth subcultures of any sort, other than the jocks and freaks of Redan High School. It was a time when if you didn’t listen to Ted Nugent or Waylon Jennings, you were branded a “pussy.” I remember in 1978 wearing a T-shirt by a new Australian band I had been getting into. I learned about them in Creem magazine. I was coming out of Spanish class and some longhaired redneck cornered me in the hall and said, “AC/DC, what is that? Are you some kind of a fag?” In those days, “AC/DC “ was slang for “going either way.” David Bowie was AC/DC. It’s not slang anymore. A year later I saw that same asshole in an AC/DC shirt. “OK, Blazak, you were right on that one.” Actually, I think he called me “Gayzak.”
There was plenty of rock to find if you were willing to look. I got into The Who and the old mod bands I read about in rock history books and dreamed of Vespa scooters. The Beatles were my fantasy band. I was a sergeant in the Kiss Army. You couldn’t really see any of this music, up close at least. I went to my first concert when I was 9-years-old. My parents had the wisdom to take me to see Elvis Presley at the Omni Coliseum. I was hooked. My first real rock concert was when I was 12; Queen with Thin Lizzy opening. 1976. Brilliant. For my 13th birthday in 1977, my mom took me and some friends to see Kiss. It was the Love Gun tour and my head exploded. I pretty much went to every single concert after that.
But at those shows, you were always a million miles from the stage. And this is long before Jumbotrons. Now you can go to a big concert and watch it on TV for only 150 bucks. In 1977, you paid $10 for a ticket and watched in through a cloud of pot smoke and firecrackers. Around that year, I began reading about this thing in Creem called “punk rock.” There was an article about a club called CBGBs in New York. The band on the low stage was called The Ramones and the guitarist’s Converse sneakers were hanging over the edge of the stage. People in the crowd were touching him. I didn’t know what it sounded like, but this was what I wanted, an end to the barrier between the musician and the fan.
There was really no way to find this music in Podunk Town in 1977. The radio was blasting big anthems for big arenas. Boston, Yes, ELO. And disco was creeping in, threatening to destroy every electric guitar in sight. I didn’t know that there were hipster record stores in Atlanta, like Wax N Facts and Wuxtry, that my mom or dad might’ve taken me to. I just knew that there were bands with names like The Dead Boys, The Jam, and The Sex Pistols that were playing music that I needed to hear. Some of it slipped through on Dr. Demento’s comedy radio show (I can still remember his playing of the Tuff Dart’s “Your Love is Like Nuclear Waste”). Some of it popped up on TV shows like Rock Concert and Midnight Special, where you might catch Mink Deville or Blondie. Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend, Barbie Benton, had a show called Sugar Time! That had an episode called “Punk Rock.” Her singing group, Sugar, decided to “go punk” and dress in trash bags but didn’t like people throwing trash at them (which is what punks did, according to the network).
A local UHF show called The Entertainment Page (live five days a week!) was a lifeline from Atlanta. They interviewed local and touring bands and showed videos long before there was an MTV. Groups like The Motors and Generation X blasted out of the TV in the family room. What I could hear was exhilarating! The guitars were loud, jagged and up front. The vocals were snotty. The songs were short and desperate. No endless guitar solos. In 1977, with some fellow eighth graders, I went to see Led Zeppelin at the Omni and fell sleep during “Moby Dick.” Boring.
Suddenly, salvation fell out of a magazine. I was reading Rolling Stone and an insert ad fell out on to the floor. The deal was this; you taped a penny to the card, mailed it in, and you could get twelve albums! There was something about buying a certain number of records over the next few years. Who cares? The albums listed in the ad were OK, some I already had. I needed to find another member of the Columbia House Record Club and get access to the database (again, music websites were almost twenty years off). My friend David Coston (and fellow Kiss Army member) had some of the monthly catalogs. I was ready to find 12 punk rock albums. Unfortunately, there were no punk rock albums. No Television. No Sex Pistols. But “punk” in those days was much broader. It included Patti Smith, Blondie, and The Talking Heads, all of whom would make it to the record clubs.
So I used my 12 spots to fill out my record collection. A few Kiss albums, A Rock N Roll Alternative by the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Cat Scratch Fever by Ted Nugent (I didn’t want to my ass kicked). I had 11 and needed one more. There was an album called Queens of Noise by The Runaways. I had read about them in Creem or Hit Parader. They were all girls but they looked serious. It seemed pretty punk to me so I put the catalog number (271338) in box #12. All the music I had listened to had been boy bands who liked to wack off on endless solos. Maybe an all girl-band would be my ultimate punk weapon against Nugent bully masculinity.
When the twelve albums arrived, I quickly forgot about the other eleven. The snarling teen chicks from the Sunset Strip were my ticket into the subterranean world of underground rock. Loud, fast, rules. The booming bass of “Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin” drove my neighbors in the Woodridge subdivision to drink (or crank up their Waylon Jennings). I stared at the picture of Joan Jett, Jackie Fox, Cherie Currie, Lita Ford, and Sandy West, on the cover of Queens of Noise, and dreamt of escaping with them into the backstreets of Hollywood. I would never again feel the need to listen to what everyone else was listening to. I was on my own.
I continued to follow The Runaways as my identity as the lone punk fan at Redan High School evolved. David lent me his import copy of The Runaways Live in Japan and I leant him Waitin’ for the Night. Soon I got my hands on those Ramones records. I talked to Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie on The Entertainment Page and they gave me tickets to the Parallel Lines show at the Fox Theater (with Rockpile opening). I started dressing more “new wave” (which caused endless taunts). I would sneak a safety pin on to my Blue Oyster Cult concert shirt; peg my flaired Levi’s from The Gap with mom’s sewing kit. I found import singles at record stores by bands with funny haircuts. I told people I went to the Sex Pistols show in Atlanta, but you had to be 18 to get in and I was only 14. I did see The Runaways with The Ramones that year and lots of people (including myself) trying to be “punk.” I was sad when singer Cherie Currie left the band and then The Runaways split up. But when Joan Jett’s first solo album came out in 1980, all was forgiven.
By 1980, I had become a bit like Mike Damone in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. I wasn’t making out with girls to side one of Led Zeppelin IV (or any other music). But I was the guy with the great concert tickets. For whatever reason, my parents seemed perfectly OK with letting their teenage son camp out just about anywhere for concert tickets. In 1979, I dragged a sleeping bag and a lawn chair outside a Rich’s department store in the blackest part of Dekalb County (to insure a smaller line because all the white kids were at Lenox Mall) for the Kiss Dynasty tour (2nd row). In 1980, I camped out downtown in the freezing winter for Springsteen’s The River tour (20th row). That summer, I was back downtown camping out for Who tickets, for three days (8th row). Good seats meant I could usually find a date. I had front row center for AC/DC’s historic Back In Black concert at the Fox Theater and took the first girl who said she wanted to go.
Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation was one of the first cross-over records from the underground. The Talking Heads and Blondie were on mainstream radio but they did it by sounding more commercial (even, gasp, disco). But Joan did it by sounding more like Suzi Quatro. Bad Reputation rocked hard. Even better, the girls who ignored me (unless I had front row tickets to see The Kinks) dug the female voice blasting out of the speakers in my 1973 Gran Torino. It was actually cooler to listen to Joan Jett than Christoper Cross! 16 was going to be my year. When I landed the job at Turtles Records on Memorial Drive, the geeky kid who liked “fag rock” suddenly was on the inside. I would be selling tickets to concerts I used to camp out for. I could sell cool music to the indbred, Nugent-loving rednecks to blast out of their Trans Ams. And I sold a shit-load of Joan Jett.
One of best parts of record stores in those days was the in-store appearance. Artists promoting their latest release would hang out in record stores and sign autographs. There’s a great scene in the film FM of a young Tom Petty doing an in-store at the Tower Records on Sunset. I skipped school in 1980 with a few other new wavers to meet the B-52s at an in-store at Oz Records in Stone Mountain. Before that I stood line for an hour to meet the Ramones at an in-store at Peaches. Turtles had plenty of in-stores. I got to organize appearances by Missing Persons and Iron Maiden. When Joan Jett released I Love Rock N Roll in 1981 I prayed we’d get the in-store.
I Love Rock N Roll became a smash hit pretty quickly. It had the same Gary Glitter-turned up to 11 sound as Bad Reputation, but by 1981, rock radio was tired of Nugent and Styx and all that wanking. The kids just wanted to rock. So they began to play more of the gritty new sounds from “independent” artists. Joan had been turned down by 23 record labels for the Bad Reputation album and just decided to create her own record label, Blackheart Records. By 1982, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts were all over the airwaves and featured regularly on the new craze, MTV. I got to do a lot of the “I knew her when,” thing. Like tales of when I saw Joan with The Runaways play with The Ramones in a wrestling hall in 1978.
My store didn’t get the in-store. Instead it went to the Turtles #12 at Northlake Mall. But I was there with an armful of Runaways albums to prove that I knew her before MTV. I wore my green satin Turtles jacket and yellow Turtles T-shirt. I didn’t want to be confused with the screaming fans that hadn’t heard of Joan before 1981. I was an insider. An industry person. An 18-year-old fanatic. I tried to be super-cool with her but in the photo of our encounter you can see a big streak of Clearasil on my jaw that I forgot to wipe off. So I wasn’t that cool, but Joan seemed impressed that I was a big Runaways fan in Podunk. And she had the coolest leather jacket.
My fandom of Joan hardly waned over the years. I was excited to see her on the bill with The Who later in 1982. There was no stop in Atlanta so a fellow dorm-mate from Oxford College named Chris Jones and I drove down to Orlando to see the November 27th massive concert at the Tangerine Bowl. The Blackhearts were on the bill between The B-52s and The Who. When the Florida rednecks saw me in my mod gear (similar to what The Who themselves wore in 1965), I got shit like “Faggot!” and “You must be here to see the B-52s, you faggot.” But nobody asked me if I was AC/DC. Chris and I got as close to the stage as possible. It was an open field even though 11 fans had been crushed to death at an open-seating Who concert in 1979. It didn’t matter, I had to be as close to the action as I could.
When Georgia’s B-52s (who recorded “Rock Lobster” at Stone Mountain Studios!) hit the stage, the few hip kids cheered but the Florida rednecks were having none of it. The booed and shouted homophobic slurs, but that Athens party band partied on. Then some geniuses began taking their shoes off and hurling them at the group, ignorant to the fact that their beloved Who were viewed with the same curiosity less than twenty years earlier. Shoes began raining down on the new wave combo and the B-52’s began to look nervous, like they were going to be devoured by an angry mob of backwater zombies. Then this biker momma to the left of me reached into her purse and pulled out a rather large dildo and flung it towards the stage. It hit keyboardist Kate Pierson straight in the face. The rednecks howled in approval and the B-52s walked off the stage.
When Joan Jett and the Blackhearts took the stage, the hillbillies started up again. They paid full-price for their tickets and didn’t want to see any “faggy” bands. They wanted The Who. When the first pair of sneakers hit the stage, Joan stopped mid-song, gave an intense glare, and shouted out, “Fuck you, asshole!” Then she walked back and turned up her guitar amp. The band launched into “I Love Rock n’ Roll” and the crowd went nuts. She tamed the savage redneck with a black eye-liner stare and power chord.
I saw Joan again in 1995 after I moved to Portland. After the brutal 1993 Seattle murder of Mia Zapata of The Gits (seriously, one of the most balls out rock bands unknown to the masses), Joan jumped into the effort to find the killer. She formed a band with the surviving Gits called Evil Stig (Gits Live backwards) and did an album and tour to help fund the investigation. When they played at LaLuna, Joan was bald and as mean as ever. Evil Stig played the best of The Gits and The Blackhearts, including “Crimson and Clover.” I’ve always been impressed with Joan commitment to supporting the issues of women and sexual minorities through kick ass rock. Her 1993 song, “Activity Grrrl,” about the Riot Grrrl scene is required listening in my Youth Subcultures class. She’s a true hero and I have her autograph.
The other members of the Runaways have had a more challenging time. Lita Ford was on top for a while in the MTV days, thanks to Sharon Osborne. Her hair was massive, and, for a brief moment in rock history, she beat the headbangers at their own game. Jackie Fox went to Harvard and got her law degree. I was in L.A. in the late 1980s with Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, the band I managed, and we caught Redd Kross doing a show at the Ford Amphitheater and they brought Cherie Currie out on stage. She had appeared on their crazy Tater Totz album (a vanity project rooted in Yoko Ono absurdism). They brought the house down with The Runaways’ “Cherie Bomb.”
In 1998, I was in LA for a sociology conference or something, and staying with my friend Jim Barber. He became Drivin’ N’ Cryin’s manager after I was fired, and later he was Courtney Love’s boyfriend (which means he’s in this book). I noticed in the LA Weekly that the Runaways’ drummer, Sandy West, was playing at The Coconut Teaszer on Sunset and had to go. I was with Christina, my first wife, who was about to learn about my Runaways obsession. The show in the tiny club was great. Sandy wasn’t the teenager I saw 20-years earlier in the wrestling hall, but she rocked full on, banging the drums like a construction worker (which she was at that point). And the night took off when her old vocalist, Cherie Currie, joined the band for a run through of some Runaways classics. I was back in my bedroom in Stone Mountain, staring at the cover of Queens of Noise. Amazing.
After the show, the members of the band, including Sandy and Cherie, hung out on the patio in the warm West Hollywood night. I talked to Sandy about how much I enjoyed the show and how great her drumming was. Then I told her the story about how Queens of Noise was the random 12th pick for the Columbia House Record Club in 1977 and it changed my life. Sandy loved the story so much she dragged me over to Cherie and made me repeat the whole tale. I added that it was that record that gave me the confidence to stop listening to Ted Nugent and start finding other underground music.
I’m so glad I had that moment because Sandy was diagnosed with cancer in 2005 and died the following year. And now, thanks to the Dakota Fanning/Kristen Stewart film, everyone knows about The Runaways.
I attended the Portland premiere of The Runways on April 5, 2010. It was a benefit for one of my favorite Portland organizations, The Rock N Roll Camp For Girls. (My 40th birthday party was a fundraiser for the camp.) Sandy West’s sister was there and so was Cherie Curie. During the Q&A, I mentioned that I saw The Runaways with The Ramones in 1978 and it was a big punk rock event. I asked Cherie if she thought they were a part of the punk rock phenomenon and she just made a face. “I didn’t know what punk rock was until we went to London and saw all these people with pierced faces and spitting on each other. It was disgusting! No, we were just a pure rock and roll band. We just wanted to rock.”
As she made her way out of the Hollywood Theater, I cornered her with my Queens of Noise album, the one I got from the record club in 1977 that Joan Jett signed in 1982. I tried to tell her about meeting her with Sandy in Hollywood in 1998, but the other fans began to move in. I was happy to get her to add her signature and pose for a picture. Even if it meant missing out on free tickets to see Joan Jett and the Blackhearts because I missed my raffle ticket being called. The fact that the film brought a whole bunch of kids the music of The Runaways is good enough.
2011 Postscript: After the 2010 meeting, Cherie Currie accepted my friend request on Facebook. I love that your childhood heroes can now share your random thoughts and vica versa. However, Cherie’s random thoughts tended toward ragging on President Obama and generally trying to be the female Ted Nugent. I found it strange that the woman who still brags about having sex with Joan Jett would turn out to be a right-wing asshole.
In June, Cherie reposted a YouTube video I had linked to my page of nutjob Arizona governor Jan Brewer claiming that illegal immigrants were coming to America just to have babies (Brewer later claimed that they were all drug mules and beheading people). Cherie’s comment on my video read:
It amazes me that a woman doing her job and protecting her citizens give her the title a right-wing bigot. I give her the title of ‘Stronger and more American then the man we made President’.
When I tried to engage her and her teabag army in some civilized debate about the Arizona immigration law, she defreinded and blocked me. Sometimes it stings to find out your rock idols are true douchebags.
2017 Postscript: I put on Queens of Noise when I posted this. (I streamed it on Spotify because my autographed vinyl copy is framed.) Christ, it sounds as good did 40 years ago. “Born to Bad” is a monster anthem, Jackie’s zooming bass on “Neon Angels,” and Lita Ford shredding on “Johnny Guitar,” lordy. Why isn’t this album in there with the rest of classic albums? Oh, yeah, chicks. Now excuse me while I play some air bass in my kitchen. 1977 = 2017 FTW!
10 thoughts on “Jukebox Hero 1: Queens of Noise”
Similar story – small town, punk, live saved by rock n roll – but I didn’t get to see/meet bands. Very cool.
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while the genre of music you liked was not mine. my dad was a classical music freak that played it all day long in our house. i was into the more mellow type of song. today i play music in my house all day. i have a five disc player and put in my one group in turn, for concerts of a certain one. used to have one that held 150 but it broke. no money to replace. to me a house without music is like being in a coffin. of course i like Mathis but also love Queen. my music gives me great joy. by the way you were a great looking kid. i lived close to Memphis and my sister was wild for Elvis. would go and stand at the gate. never understood that. now am into Bette Midler and such. i say videos of her in the gay clubs and fell in love. music fills the soul with joy.
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This is one of the coolest articles I’ve ever read!