Lita Ford is Still the Queen of Metal: Review of her memoir LIVING LIKE A RUNAWAY

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Anyone who’s been around me for any length of time knows that I have always been a huge fan of Lita Ford. And, even if you didn’t know it, you probably figured it out when you read the dedication to Vagabonds #1 (On the Run). So, even though I didn’t learn about her book until recently, you’d better believe I bought a copy and devoured it.  (The book was released in 2016.)  Living Like a Runaway is Ford’s memoir about her life—and not just her career in rock. Near the beginning of the book, she recounts her childhood, moving from England to Boston and then Texas before finally settling in Long Beach, California. Her love for her parents comes through every single chapter and, later, you can feel that same love for her children.

But I wanted to read her perspective on her rock career. While I was brought up as a strong young woman with the examples of my mother and grandmothers (and even my father, all of whom taught me there was nothing I couldn’t do), seeing someone like Lita Ford play amongst the big boys of metal was proof that a woman could do what a man could—or maybe even what he thought she couldn’t.

Reading first about the Runaways was awesome. I hadn’t enjoyed them in my youth, unfortunately, because I hadn’t yet discovered rock. I grew up in a household that listened to a lot of country, but my mom embraced the disco era of the mid to late seventies. I loved it, too, and still to this day hear old disco tunes that make me feel groovy. 😉 So no Runaways for me. I instead discovered Lita Ford when she became a solo artist.

I remember I was in high school when I first heard Joan Jett (I believe I was a freshman, but don’t quote me). Yes, I loved rock and roll by that time (cutting my teeth on AC/DC before discovering the entire world of hard rock and metal out there), but not her brand. When I heard Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, I felt like I was listening to music that belonged in the fifties and early sixties. It wasn’t anything I was interested in jamming out to—not when there was Black Sabbath and Judas Priest instead.  No offense to Jett, but she wasn’t anything spectacular in the world of rock. So when Lita Ford first came on my radar (via my Hit Parader magazine, because my rock station didn’t play her stuff), I was curious. She was already the queen of metal as far as I was concerned, and her music kicked ass. I scratched my head, trying to figure out why she was engaged to an old coot like Tony Iommi at the time, but what did I know? I also knew she’d been engaged to Nikki Sixx, another one of my favorite artists, but my focus was on her music.

Dancin’ on the Edge is still one of my favorite albums of all time, and the follow up, Lita, is also amazing. Reading her recount the formation of the Runaways as well as their breakup and her desire to keep making music made for an entertaining read, in spite of the fact that a good many of the questions I had are still unanswered. I remember anticipating an album from her called The Bride Wore Black (in ’84 or ’85–I can’t remember now). Instead, we had silence until Lita, years later, and she also switched labels and she and Iommi broke up. What happened?  She explained the breakup with Iommi, but she doesn’t say a word about difficulties making that album. By the time Lita came out, I was going to college in an isolated mountain town in Colorado, where metal could only be enjoyed on MTV (usually on “Headbangers Ball”), and so when I saw “Kiss Me Deadly” on the station one night, I freaked out. SHE’S BACK!!! Needless to say, I bought the album a couple of days later and played it almost nonstop for months. While that actual song wasn’t as hard as I liked my music, I found a few faves on the album that I still love to this day, songs like “Back to the Cave,” “Blueberry,” “Falling In and Out of Love,” and—my most favorite—“Can’t Catch Me.” Anecdotes like Lemmy having written it for her I had long ago learned (all you have to do is read the song credits), but now I could read her take on them.

Like a typical rock star, we get to read about some of Ford’s experience with drugs (starting with a “fucking football”) but she skims over a lot of it; however, I did get the impression that drugs were a big part of the problem with the Runaways. More than that, though, Ford let us know about all the notches on her bedpost. I discovered that I have similar taste to Ford (aside from Iommi, of course). She hooked up with guitarist Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest many a time—and I always adored him. Yes, being a guitarist helps immensely, but the guy was just hot! She also had a five-way with Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, Aldo Nova, and her friend Toni. Ford not only kissed but told–lots. However, I was disappointed to read what she had to say about George Lynch. He was one of my all-time favorites in the 80s, and I had the hugest crush on him. I used to joke about marrying him (much to my grandfather’s chagrin). Ford disclosed how lots of men in the metal industry would sabotage her equipment (reading about Poison had me irritated, to say the least) or just plain talk down to her because she was female. When Lynch told her that “girls don’t play guitar,” she said she told him that guys like him made her want to play all the harder. I respect that. Unfortunately, it made me lose a lot of respect for Lynch, a guy I felt like was one of the greats of the hair band days.

I love Ford even more now, though, not just for that but for other things. If you’re a metalhead like I am, you know that there are lots of groupies who do untold things just to say they were with a guy in a band, but Ford makes you wonder if it’s not the musicians who start off by encouraging that type of behavior. She talked about opening for Poison and how the guys in the band would “pick” the women they wanted to be with for the night. Ford had this to say:

It was disgusting. The women probably thought they were going to a party, but they were just pieces of meat for the band and crew that one night….It was degrading to women in general, and it was upsetting to me to see other women being treated like fucking cattle.

But she took so much shit out on Poison the last night of the tour, much of it deserved. I’ll let you read all about it in her book.

So when Ford took her hiatus in the mid-90s, I thought I understood why. In 1997, I’d seen a VH1 special about 80s metal, and it featured Lita Ford and George Lynch, among others. Ford was feeling pretty glum about the music scene in general, but Jani Lane of Warrant summed it up pretty well when he said he remembered going to the label to discuss their next album and saw large pictures of Kurt Cobain and other grunge rock stars posted all over the room. The writing was literally on the wall. Rock music had changed. As a fan, I was glad. Two of last two hair metal albums I remember purchasing were Lynch Mob’s Wicked Sensation and Skid Row’s first album. By that time, metal music started sounding tired and old, like songs I’d heard a million times before but done better. Oh, and a lot of bands were also releasing acoustic albums (it seemed like Guns N’ Roses started the trend, but I could be wrong.  Cinderella came out with one around that time, too).  Even Mötley Crüe’s album (not unplugged) Dr. Feelgood felt uninspired to me. I still bought several albums but didn’t listen to them much. I felt depressed about it and thought maybe it was because I was an adult. (Insert raucous laughter here!)

So when I heard Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam shortly after, I embraced them. It was new, it was heavy enough, and I’d felt like I’d been flailing for a while without music to gnaw on. Bush wasn’t too bad and there were others that kind of kept me going until nu metal hit the scene and a flood of music poured down that hasn’t stopped since.

But back to that VH1 special. When Ford appeared on the show, I remember she was on the beach with a guitar in hand, but she was complaining about the state of music and how she couldn’t sell anything. I thought maybe she just hadn’t adapted with the times like other bands had managed to do (Metallica and GNR come immediately to mind). But, reading her account, you discover—in her own words—that a good many labels and producers just “didn’t know what to do with” her. She was a square peg and they had round holes and no imagination.

Looking back at her 90s albums, though, I think maybe something else was going on. Ford lost both her parents and she herself knew that those losses played on her heart something terribly. I look at her videos and listen to the albums of that time, and I wonder if she also wasn’t able to adapt as I’d thought originally. One video (“Shot of Poison”) shows her acting the sexpot, playing on her femininity and sexuality instead of her music (and that song was a bit too poppy for me anyway). Whether the image she projected was thanks to a label’s insistence or her own desperation to hang onto her formula for success, I don’t know, because even though the “Kiss Me Deadly” video highlighted how hot she was, there was no denying (by the end of the song, at any rate) that she was a hell of a guitarist.  (“Larger Than Life,” though, was a song worthy of Ford and I’m sorry I didn’t get to enjoy it back then.  I suspect she and most of my old favorites fell off my radar because the local radio station was playing nothing but grunge and nu metal.)

Which reminds me…it also made me angry back in the 80s when they had pretenders like Vixen—all girls who didn’t sound hard and heavy. They looked like Madonna with poofier hair. No, thanks. I like my metal heavy, and—aside from “Kiss Me Deadly” and “Close My Eyes Forever”—Ford often delivered just that, at least when I was a hardcore fan in the 80s.

But by the time Ford took her hiatus, I was drowning in new hard rock like Godsmack and Korn and raising my own family. And it’s so funny that, years later, about the time I was wondering, “Gee, I wonder whatever happened to Lita Ford?” she was back on the scene. She was talking about parental alienation, but in a lot of the videos I saw (not knowing about the album Wicked Wonderland), she also seemed a little out of it.  In more recent interviews, she seems more “normal.”  Ford never said it that I’ve seen elsewhere nor that I read in her book, but she did talk about her ex being a “control freak.” She never said it, but I will go to my grave believing she was a victim of domestic violence. Just the fact that her husband Gillette, with whom she raised two sons, isolated her (building a house on an almost deserted island) hints at the kind of control those kind of men exert. And even the strongest woman can become a victim—it has nothing to do with her fortitude but everything to do with the master manipulator she fell in love with. Ford managed to get out and save herself.

There is no doubt that she loves her sons very much but they have been estranged from her, seemingly brainwashed by their father. Ford didn’t say that; I inferred it. She refrained from saying anything bad about their father in the book because she does love them so much. But she talked about, near the end of the book, trying to get a hold of her sons in every way she could possibly imagine. Her sons are now, I’m sure, old enough to make their own decisions, and it is for that reason that I want to quote one last excerpt from her book:

To my sons, James and Rocco: I want you to know I’ve tried calling you, texting you, writing you letters, sending messages on Facebook and to your martial-arts schools, and using any other form of communication possible to reach you. Every message seems to have been intercepted. You are the true loves of my life.

I hope Ford is one day soon reunited with her sons. There is nothing like a mother’s love, and they deserve to know just how very much she cares for them. I wish her nothing but the best.

And now for me to listen to her newest album, also titled Living Like a Runaway (which kicks ass, by the way).

Just two more random thoughts and notes…

  • One of my other 80s guitar heroes, Yngwie Malmsteen, gave her a Stratocaster (that she unfortunately no longer has—I’ll let you read those details in her book as she recounts her first marriage).
  • Ford talks about lying next to her mother during her final days and saying, “It’s okay if you go, Mom.” I remember saying the same thing to my mother, so needless to say, I cried hard when I read that part of her memoir.
  • Probably my favorite part of the book was when she talked about learning how to sing and play guitar at the same time.  Playing guitar came naturally; singing did not.  She went so far as to remove the frets from her guitar so she had to look at the audience!

If you love 80s metal and if you love Lita Ford as much as I do, I can’t recommend this book enough.  Sure, there are a few things I could have gone without knowing, but I still love this woman wholeheartedly, and I’m so glad she’s back!

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