1970s teen-rock queen Cherie Currie headlines next weekend’s Girls Got Rhythm festival in St. Paul.
It’s one of rock’s great, unsettled debates: Did the Runaways — the all-female late-’70s band recently celebrated in a movie of the same name — blaze the trail for other female rockers with their talent and gumption? Or did they actually set women back with their prefab posturing and jailbait imagery?
The Runaways’ long-sidelined frontwoman, Cherie Currie, obviously sides with the New York Times headline that called them “the girls that kicked in rock’s door.”
“Remember: We weren’t women,” said Currie, who will perform in Minnesota for probably her first time ever as part of St. Paul’s second annual Girls Got Rhythm Festival on Saturday. “We were 15- and 16-year-old teenagers, so we weren’t really thinking of what we were or weren’t doing for women.
“But I think there was a statement made by the fact that we did what we wanted to do — play rock music — regardless of whatever adversity or push-back we faced. And we faced a lot.”
As retold in the 2010 movie “The Runaways,” starring Dakota Fanning as Currie and Kristen Stewart as bandmate Joan Jett, the quintet was put together by a sleaze-generating impresario named Kim Fowley and sold to the world as sex-kitten rock ’n’ rollers. Its signature song, “Cherry Bomb,” was a play on Currie’s name. The band imploded after nearly four years of unprecedented scrutiny and scorn and, eventually, drugs and infighting.
Largely based on Currie’s autobiography, “Neon Angel,” the movie also showed the Runaways as dedicated musicians and devout rock lovers — and thus a band worthy of celebrating at the prideful Girls Got Rhythm Fest, Currie believes. She could not remember if she performed in the Twin Cities back in the day. (The Runaways did play here in 1978, opening for the Ramones at the State Theatre, but that was after she left the band and Jett handled all the lead vocals.)
“Everyone thought we were a novelty back then, and understandably so,” Currie said by phone recently from her home near Los Angeles. “When they saw the show, though, it would change their minds. For Joan and Lita and Sandy to be as good as they were at that age, that was something you had to sit up and take notice.”
After the band split up in 1979, Jett and fellow guitarist Lita Ford went on to become two of rock’s more successful female solo artists of the 1980s (sadly, drummer Sandy West died of cancer in 2006). Currie attempted a solo career but, as she now puts it, “I had a wildly different path laid out for me.”
She first turned to acting, starting with the 1980 movie “Foxes” alongside Jodie Foster. She might have made it long-term as an actor, she said, “but I had so many opportunities that were just blown out of the water because of my drug problems.”
California chain-saw mascara
Things arguably got more interesting after she finally kicked her addictions in the mid-’80s. Currie got far away from her rock ’n’ roll past, taking on menial jobs before becoming a counselor for addicted teens, fitness trainer and — her primary profession of late — chain-saw artist. No kidding. Her website, ChainsawChick.com, shows off her award-winning mermaid, dolphin and bear log carvings.
“I was heading to the beach one day and saw a couple guys carving by the side of the road, and I couldn’t get it out of my head,” she explained (or tried to, anyway). “A voice in my head kept saying, ‘You can do this.’ ”
On a deeper level, the chain-saw art was an extension of what Currie said was “an overwhelming desire to lead a normal life” after the Runaways. “My childhood had kind of been swept up into this tornado, and I wanted to find out what it was like to work minimum wage at the mall and those kind of experiences,” she said. “I needed some kind of grounding.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was envious of Joan and Lita” when their music careers took off, Currie added, “but looking back now, I wouldn’t trade what I had for any of it.”
At the center of that groundwork was raising her son, Jake Hays, with her ex-husband, actor Robert Hays of “Airplane!” movie fame. In a full-circle turnabout, Jake is now 19 and playing guitar in his mom’s new band.
“His dad was always the star in the family, and I was just Mom — until this movie came out,” Currie said. “So the last few years have been quite eye-opening for him.”
Around the time of the film’s release, Currie returned to the stage, opening for — guess who? — Joan Jett at an amphitheater in Orange County, Calif. Since then, she has been working on an album with drummer Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver) producing along with Jett’s longtime musical partner, Kenny Laguna. She’s playing a couple of gigs around Southern California before flying up to Minnesota.