On Thursday (January 15), the music world lost a true original. Kim Fowley, the LA scenester, pioneer of acid-fried psych and puppeteer/tormentor of brilliant punk band The Runaways, died aged 75.
Fowley was a man who loomed in the fringes of American music for decades, too weird to be fully in the mainstream, too Ziggy-like to melt into the background. Though proper pop stardom eluded him, he played in a high school band with occasional member Phil Spector, had a string of one-hit wonders under various guises in the UK and US and was connected with many major figures in music, from The Stones to Joe Meek, The Beach Boys, Guns N’ Roses, Jimi Hendrix, Kiss, The Byrds, Van Morrison and – most recently – Ariel Pink.
Strange stories about the man abound, such as the one Ozzy Osbourne told Lester Bangs about Fowley advising him to “go to Mexico and buy a corpse, and take it onstage and stab it”. Sure beats biting the head off a dove.
Fowley managed to switch from being a poster child of flower power to the svengali behind one of the first punk bands, The Runaways, which Fowley assembled after meeting a 15-year-old Joan Jett at an Alice Cooper gig. Fowley’s management technique included various methods to harden the teenage band to the industry, including – according to the recent film biography of the band – throwing jars of peanut butter at them during rehearsals. The band’s Cherie Currie later described him as “a beast”, but Fowley described his role as “a necessary evil”. “It’s necessary for a band to have charisma, and it’s necessary for a band to have a Kim Fowley in there someplace,” he said in 2012. “The behind-the-scenes people are as much a part of rock ‘n’ roll as the guys onstage.”
I had one brief encounter with Fowley at a rare UK appearance in the early 2000s. Fowley was in Manchester curating a night for local DIY label and promoters Akoustik Anarkhy, who had invited him over to display his latest roster of discoveries. They included, oddly, a Backstreet Boys-style boy band. Fowley himself was prowling around the venue – the basement of a shabby hotel in Manchester city centre – looking like something from a horror film: steely eyed, ashen-faced and other-worldly.
I asked him if he’d be performing himself, because I was a fan of his beat poem-like single ‘The Trip’ (the version by Godfrey, ‘Let’s Take A Trip’ on one of the ‘Pebbles’ albums is much better, but I didn’t tell him that). Fowley looked at me, piercingly. “Hell no!” he snapped.
I asked why, and he leaned in. “You see all these girls here?” A bony finger surveyed the room. “If I were to start performing, all these girls in here would fall in love with me, and want to sleep with me. You know what would happen next? All their boyfriends would want to stab me. A room full of guys, all trying to stab me. Do you want to see me get stabbed? Do you?!”
I edged away, slightly terrified. The stories about Fowley suddenly made plenty of sense.