Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Neon angel on the road to ruin

I'm frightfully late in reporting this sad news, but I only learned about it this morning while perusing Mick Lasalle's blog. (Mick is the film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and a crackerjack writer.)

Sandy West, the drummer for the all-girl '70s rock band The Runaways, died in October of lung and brain cancer.

Even if you don't remember who The Runaways were, you've definitely heard their influence if you've listened to American pop music anytime in the last 30 years. Both of the band's guitarists, Joan Jett and Lita Ford, went on to considerable success as hard-rocking solo artists. Their original bass player, Michael "Micki" Steele, later joined The Bangles of "Walk Like an Egyptian" fame. Lead singer Cherie Currie became an actress, costarring in Foxes with Jodie Foster, and making an appearance in This is Spinal Tap.

More importantly, though, The Runaways proved that women could compete in the hard rock arena on equal footing with men. These girls — at the height of their momentary fame, all of The Runaways were teenagers — played their own instruments, wrote at least some of their own songs, and not only fronted the band — they were the band. Without The Runaways, we might never have heard of The Go-Go's, Blondie, The Donnas, Shonen Knife, Hole, or possibly even the Dixie Chicks.

Sandy West wasn't the most visible of The Runaways — Joan, Lita, and Cherie competed for that title. A plain-faced, mousy blonde surfer chick, she wasn't even the cutest. (That title — at least in my testosterone-fueled adolescent opinion — went to doe-eyed Jackie Fox, Michael Steele's replacement on bass.) But Sandy was the band's heart and soul. The Runaways were essentially Sandy's idea, which she pitched to record producer Kim Fowley, who became the band's manager and Svengali. Fowley put Sandy and Joan together, then searched the L.A. music scene to find the rest of the lineup.

In 1976 and '77, The Runaways recorded three studio albums: their eponymous debut, featuring their best-remembered song, "Cherry Bomb"; Queens of Noise, arguably their most representative record, which included "I Love Playin' With Fire" and my favorite Runaways number, "Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin"; and Waitin' for the Night. In the grooves of those LPs lie the seeds of American protopunk, later mined by such bands as The Ramones, as well as a raw talent that belied the youth of the performers.

After the band dissolved in 1979, Sandy West struggled to continue her music career. Sadly, she never enjoyed the rewards of fame that her former bandmates Joan Jett and Lita Ford achieved. In Edgeplay, an independent documentary produced by former Runaway Vicki Tischler-Blue (she replaced Jackie Fox on bass), Sandy spoke of the challenges life held for her in her post-Runaways years — working at various jobs outside the music field, and occasionally outside the bounds of the law. By all accounts, she never stopped mourning the demise of The Runaways.

She was diagnosed with lung cancer last year. When she died on October 21, 2006, Sandy West was 47 years old.

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1 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger Mr. Fabulous offered these pearls of wisdom...

I wasn't aware she had died, either. Great post. Thanks.

3:18 AM  

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