A chat with Kim Fowley: On poetry, rock and roll, Hollywood, and his least favorite L.A. punk band by Kimberly J. Bright
The infamous Hollywood music, ubiquitous talent spotter, songwriter, scene staple, cranky old geezer, namedropper, and likely Tourette Syndrome victim Kim Fowley passed away in January at age 75. His manic career started when he was still a teen-ager, eventually working with The Runaways, Venus and the Razorblades, The Byrds, KISS, Warren Zevon, Alice Cooper, Slade, the Modern Lovers, Cat Stevens, Helen Reddy, and Toyah Wilcox, to name a handful. In one of his last Facebook updates last year, Fowley estimated that he had been involved with over 3000 projects over 55 years. His memory was astounding, a very welcome trait in a cultural curator.
Listening to Fowley talk at you was entertaining — that is, if you didn’t mind the occasional random and seemingly unnecessary references to masturbation, dog feces, ejaculation, and setting things on fire. Michael Shannon’s portrayal of him in the 2010 movie The Runaways wasn’t far off the mark. His sense of humor was incredibly scathing, and he had a con artist’s ability to suss out people’s weaknesses within a few seconds of a conversation. On the other hand, however much he espoused outrageousness, trashy subculture, and dirty rock and roll, he was actually very well read and had an encyclopedic knowledge of music of all genres.
This previously unpublished 2007 interview is from an abortive project about the Los Angeles glam rock and punk scenes. Let me just add that Fowley knew a surprising amount about sports too. He first responded to my request for an interview on the worst, most inconvenient day possible: the day my hometown football team (the Indianapolis Colts) was playing the Super Bowl for the first time since 1971. He was furious. How dare I reschedule an interview because of a sporting event? Every time we ever spoke after that, he threw football metaphors and references into the conversation just to poke fun at me.
You really hate X. If X were such a terrible band, what made them so different from the other punk bands you saw in L.A.?
Kim Fowley: That question is too complicated to answer in the first place. Why are we even talking about X? Well, every band are different. If there’s 10,000 bands, they’re different in 10,000 ways. Yes, they are interchangeable using the same chords and have the same haircuts, but all bands are products of their time and their location, and what’s going on and the need to conform. If you went to a surf concert in 1963, they’d all be different, but they’d be similar. If you went to a rap convention, they’d be similar. If you went to the Grand Ole Opry, those people would be similar. Yes, they’re different, but there’s a sameness about them. There was nothing radically different about X the band.
There’s nothing wrong with X. There’s just nothing great about them. It’s grand that they existed and tried, but what they left behind is not as significant as “High School Confidential” by Jerry Lee Lewis or The Del-Vikings performing “Whispering Bells.” It doesn’t rank up there with “Wang Dang Doodle.” It doesn’t rank up there with Ken Nordine. Therefore, why should we jerk off at their shrine and come on the floor and roll in it and set ourselves on fire because we were never as good as X? Sorry, it doesn’t merit mass suicide.
Speaking of Ken Nordine, what did you think of him? Did you read any of the Beat poets or other spoken word artists?
Kim Fowley: Ken Nordine was a god. I met him in Chicago. I adore his records. He was very gracious. The same day I met Koko Taylor, who did “Wang Dang Doodle,” and Jerry Butler, I met them all, even the lead singer of Styx, all in Chicago in 1985-‘86. I was in Illinois doing house records. There they were, all of them, and Nordine next to all those people. Imagine all of them. Oh, that’s the photo that should have been taken that day! But yeah, he was tremendous. Wow, I mean, as far as the other ones, Ken is the only one for me. Alan Watts, you might think he came out of it, maybe not but possibly. If you want to get technical, I suppose Eric Nord’s Co-existence Bagel Shop is a precursor to that scene. He moved from Venice, went north to San Francisco and was involved in the City Lights-slash-Neal Cassady bunch. In Carmel, the summer of 1959, they had a poetry duel with a writer named Saul Bellow. I won that poetry duel. I later did a poetry duel with Bennett Cohen.
You know, I’m a published author. I acquired a division of Simon and Schuster. I wrote an ensemble book called Cult Baseball Players. I wrote seven articles on L.A., they just released that, which was just published by University of California Libraries. It was something of a weird thing. I mean, I don’t claim to be John Steinbeck, but at least I’m published, Exene (laughs). I wrote for my high school newspaper at University High School. I’m a lyricist. My lyrics have been sung by everyone from Joan Jett to Nirvana to KISS to Alice Cooper to Cat Stevens to Slade to Roger McGuinn with a band called The Byrds. It’s all on my website. Lyrics are a form of poetry, I suppose, if you ask me what a lyric is.
Did you attend any of the Beat poetry readings like Ginsberg’s?
Kim Fowley: I saw Allen Ginsberg in the Canyon [Laurel Canyon] with one of his boyfriends. Richard Alpert (Baba Ram Dass), there were various people around them, [Jim] Capaldi, wow, there’s a rock star. Bob Dylan played for guitar for me and I sang. I gave him a song title: Burning Hollywood. We talked about “Walls of Red Wing.”
What was it that you found pretentious? Was it the poetry aspect?
Kim Fowley: I am a poet. Poets work best when they’re dead. Poetry acts like a battering ram. Everyone has to deal with poetry as a battering ram.
Had you thought the same thing about Patti Smith?
Kim Fowley: No, because “Piss Factory” was astounding! That was a great record. “Redondo,” excellent. Patti Smith was original. Exene is Lydia Lunch on a West Coast level. I love lots of bastard sounds if it’s a well done product, but this was not a well done product. I mean, it was okay for the time, but the hoopla and the presumption that was the basis or seemed to be the perceived basis was unsatisfying. The music was oh, yeah, okay.
John Doe had Dave Alvin in the band for a while. Dave Alvin never wrote anything as good as Jack Scott. He didn’t write anything as good as Billy Lee Riley. [John Doe] played, what, Jerry Lee Lewis’ brother-in-law? He has a new record out on the same label, Yep Roc, as Dave Alvin. It’s derivative of something that’s wonderful. They don’t do it in a wonderful way. Chris Blueray took rockabilly and did something with it. Billy Swan, his single, did something with it. Dwight Yoakum did something with it. But these guys didn’t do anything with it. They tried. They didn’t hire me to do it for them. Is that why I’m annoyed? No, I’m annoyed because you keep hearing about stuff that wasn’t wonderful. The guys weren’t there in the ‘50s, but Kim Fowley was. I was there at the tail end. Granted I wasn’t that old, I was in high school, but I was a high school student listening to rockabilly and JD [juvenile delinquent] music. I ended up working for Alan Freed at nineteen, who invented the three, words “rock and roll.” I have insight. I got more insight, because I spent time with Gene Vincent. I heard the stories. He had warnings about pretenders and things. Those guys came off as “So what?” I produced an album, I’m Back and I’m Proud, for Gene Vincent, which has been reissued ten times since 1969, so somebody must like it somewhere, and Gene was a gentleman. Gene wasn’t pushy.
If they had come to you when they first formed and asked your advice, what would you have told them? What would you have told any new punk band?
Kim Fowley: Don’t take a bath. Eat a lot of BBQ. And take that beatnik poetry crap and stick it in a blender with lard and chitlins. Fight a little bit. Turn off the air conditioning. Just play things in the studio and have fun with greasy fingers. I don’t think that would have been accepted. What else would you have done with them? Don’t have them sitting around discussing neo-Fascism and bleak dissertations or whatever the hell that shit was based on. If you’re going to be in a thrift shop, you’re going to go to the attic or the basement first before you go to the thrift store to pick out what dusty clothes you’re going to wear, Exene. Don’t wash them before you sell them. Sell them with the dust on. You’ll make more money. Come on, let’s do it right. Melissa Etheridge does it right. She’s real! That’s a real person. I’ve never met her either but I’ve seen her perform live. The night she got her record deal with Chris Blackwell. Can I do a little monologue about what X represents and then we can be done and you can go deal with your children?
Sure. Go ahead.
Kim Fowley: In rock and roll culture there is the rock and roll book, which is generally written long after the rock and roll band has ceased to exist, and there are memories and legends about who they actually were. Sometimes you memorize it a certain way, and you hear the music and you laugh at yourself thinking that was great. Other times it’s as great as it was the day you first heard it. Other times you wonder why it was even mentioned at the time, let alone now. And that is where X fit in. They’re an unwelcome sidebar and an unnecessary footnote to the history of rock and roll, which probably started as an attitude thousands of years ago, but then the songs gave actual physical content, “Rocket 88” leading into “Sh-Boom,” and then we all know the thing rock and roll was because Elvis did it and Little Richard did it and Bo Diddley did it, and the usual people who are there in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are there for a reason. They were the pioneers of that music that changed the world. So when you think of rock and roll in that context, the people that got to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I would say that’s the icing on the cake, but that’s also the basement foundation too. It’s all there. Those people, they were the real deal. Then you get into the also-rans and the lesser-knowns, you almost poetically thought to hope they just had a raw deal and a bad break, and they could have been up there on a postage stamp someday, because their contribution and content was so overwhelmingly magical and satisfying that they deserve to be immortalized in a book like this. But X do not meet that criteria of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Baseball Hall of Fame doesn’t have some of the minor league superstars, or it doesn’t have people like Josh Biggs, they’ve got rookies of a certain class, most-improved kind of guy that never got noticed at the time. X had every opportunity. They had a strong media presence. They had Elektra distribution, so they had the shot. They had the opportunity. Billy Zoom had a moment where it could have gone well for him and his band, but it didn’t, and it’s nobody’s fault but theirs, because whatever they did, it didn’t transcend or translate into immortal slabs of hot wax, otherwise known as recorded product of a legendary nature. Granted, they probably had dreams. They probably meant well, and I apologize to them if I misread them as people, but the fucking pretension and all of that that went with having to deal with them as a consumer, hearing some whining and moaning and some sophomoric studies of poetry made me realize it was time to find something else to listen to besides X, which I did.
It was Hollywood, USA during that punk explosion. They were on that label, Slash Records, we’re the American version of Stiff Records, West Coast Babylon. So I paid attention, and what turned me off about them was the pretentiousness of the category they chose to corkle in. When you are white trash, you do it with dignity. If you are a redneck intellectual, do it with style. But you don’t immerse yourself in LA Weekly, Chik-fil-A fame of self-imposed fairy dust, bouncing around, with the premise of worthwhile content. Possibly their motivations were good. I never met anyone in the band, but the message was “We’re superior to you scum.” As a consumer, because I still to this day am a fan of music, people like Chris Spedding, people like Larry Finnegan, people like Roy Head. You never ask to meet them or read about them, you just had to have your life changed by their music. Lives were not changed by X. The only thing I acknowledge that was wonderful that they did was have Ray Manzarek produced them singing and playing on The Lost Boys, one of my favorite movies of all time. [Ray Manzarek produced Echo and the Bunnymen’s cover of “People Are Strange” for The Lost Boys soundtrack.]
I don’t think they were on the The Lost Boys soundtrack.
Kim Fowley: No? Well, they didn’t even do that right, so I guess they’re not important to me. And if you asked anyone in X about me, they’d probably say, “Oh, I never met him personally offstage, but he’s just another old hustler hack who had a moment in Hollywood with kings and queens of the street.” I’m sure that’s what Billy Zoom would say. Billy Zoom took a couple of shots at me in the press back in the day. I don’t remember the exact text of it, but Billy Zoom was setting himself up to be some sort of Jesus in blue jeans, dismissing me as an unwanted item in the rock firmament from his perspective. So fuck you, Billy Zoom, I’m glad you didn’t go platinum! You weren’t nice about the process of surviving in the rock and roll jungles. Hate me, dislike me, but you can’t ignore me. Resent me, but don’t work at it. If you work at it, I’ll remember you on the happiest day of your life. When you’ve forgotten my name or what I look like, then I’ll remember you. William Shakespeare was thinking of X when he wrote the line “Much ado about nothing.” I’m sure they meant well. Everybody means well. We all want to survive and be loved, but don’t come at me hostilely, because I remember. If I see them in hell a hundred years from today, I’ll still get them in some way. Fate will give me an extra hot dog. I’ll take Billy Zoom’s rage on a paper plate.
What type of bad feelings will this give? As many as possible.