If you spent any time on the streets of Hollywood in the 1960s or 70s, you were bound to eventually run into Kim Fowley.
Who was Kim Fowley? That answer depended upon whom you asked. His indentification varied greatly: pop Svengali, hit record producer, hip scenester with his tap on the latest music trends’ pulse, womanizer extraordinaire, dark overlord, talent scout, songwriter, monster, friend, chameleon, singer, opportunist, self promoter…
You get the picture. He was all that and more — a real, bonafide Hollywood character.
Kim was easy to spot in a crowd. He was rail thin and very tall. He moved through crowds with an elegant grace, his heavy-lidded reptilian eyes always on the prowl…
Living in Hollywood, I saw Kim from afar a lot, often in the company of the “Mayor of Sunset Strip”, little Rodney Bingenheimer. They made a real Mutt ‘n’ Jeff pair.
I first met Kim at a rock festival at Devonshire Downs in the San Fernando Valley, ca. 1968. The Doors had finished their set. Next up was a band called Solid State. Kim Fowley was the festival’s master of ceremonies (a service he later provided for John Lennon at the Plastic Ono Band‘s first public appearance in Toronto). He gave hip advice and peppered the crowd with dryly hilarious bits of pop wisdom in between acts. I sensed a distinct lag in Solid State’s coming to the stage, despite the fact that they seemed all set up. I was close enough to the stage to hear that their drummer had gone missing, caught in Valley traffic. Kim stepped up to the mike.
“Is there a drummer in the house?”
I leaped on to the stage. Kim handed me a pair of drumsticks and said, “Go.” I was suddenly playing before a crowd of several thousand people, providing the rhythm for a band I had never met, whose music I had never heard. It was absolutely exhilarating. After a couple of songs there was a line of drummers waiting to take their turn at the stool. Kim gave each one a shot (I thought I was great at the time but, in hindsight, I probably sucked. But man, what a rush!).
As I became more and more of a part of the Hollywood music scene, I heard more and more Tales of Kim. He produced a few hits you might have heard: His first pop hit was “Cherry Pie” by Skip & Flip (warmly covered later by the great Australian band Daddy Cool). “Alley Oop” was a #1 record for the Hollywood Argyles. Fowley produced The Murmaids’ “Popsicles Icicles” (a #3 hit written by a pre-Bread David Gates, whom Fowley had picked up hitchhiking) as well as “Bumble Boogie” (#21), a driving rock version of Rimsky-Korsakov‘s “Flight of the Bumble Bee”, followed by “Nut Rocker”, a rocked-up boogie piano version of Tchaikovsky’s “March” from his “Nutcracker Suite” (UK #1; US #23 — a big influence on Keith Emerson who later recorded it with ELP) both recorded by a session band under the moniker B. Bumble and The Stingers.
The long fingers of this pop Zelig touched The Byrds, the Beach Boys, P. J. Proby, Cat Stevens (Kim wrote the B-side to Cat’s first single), Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Gene Vincent, Alice Cooper, Leon Russell, Kris Kristofferson, Helen Reddy, Warren Zevon, KISS, Ariel Pink, Sky Ferreira and Slade, among many others.
Kim Fowley recorded solo LPs as well, all of which found their way into my record collection. When he wanted to, Kim could sing with a classic rock voice similar to Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere & The Raiders.
Kim is perhaps most well-known for putting together, mentoring, producing and (reputedly) having sex with The Runaways.
Fowley recruited the Runaways in 1975 by placing an ad in Who Put the Bomp magazine (I became the magazine’s art director when it shortened its name to BOMP) and ended up producing the band’s 1976 self-titled debut album and co-writing their biggest hit “Cherry Bomb”. This all-girl group would become an icon and inspiration to girl rockers everywhere. Included in this tight rocking unit were future stars Cherie Currie, Lita Ford and Joan Jett. The Runaways, a movie that was made of their rise-and-fall story, painted Fowley as a dark villain.
Kim was nothing if not always eminently quotable. He described himself thus: “I’m everybody’s worst nightmare and somebody’s wet dream. I’m a horrible human being with a heart of gold, or a piece of shit in a bag of diamonds. I’m a bad guy who does nice things, as opposed to a nice guy who does bad things.”
His (accurate) description of the Sunset Strip scene:
“The Sunset Strip is a civilization for the broken-hearted, the mistreated, the overlooked, the underloved and the doomed.”
I got to see some sides of Kim up close when I ran into him in my Sunset Boulevard bank one day. I introduced myself and told him I was in a band. He immediately dropped whatever he was doing and took interest in me. We went up to his office (same building; the entire structure later became the headquarters for the L. A. branch of Motown Records) and he gave me a few 45s. “Learn these songs and get back to me.” They were singles he had produced. The records had gone nowhere but he still believed in the songs — and, for some reason, in me (despite my pleading that this was “our big chance”, my band lacked interest in learning or recording Kim’s material. I’ve still got the singles).
I had heard of Kim’s reputation as a rock Lothario who had (literally) bedded thousands of women. I saw first hand how that worked.
Going through my bank’s lobby and even inside the elevator we encountered several attractive women. Kim asked each and every one: “Do you have a husband or a boyfriend?”
If the answer was “Yes”, he returned his attention to me. If the answer was “No”, he immediately sexually propositioned them. Kim was playing the odds. If, in the course of a day, he asked 200 women to sleep with him, and just 10% said “Yes” (it was pre-Aids 1960s and 70s, a very easy time to get laid), that was another twenty woman under his belt, so to speak. Kim had no problem with rejection (he never pushed himself on anyone, as far as I could see), as there was always another pretty girl (and potential bedmate) just around the corner.
I grew up, built an art career, made movies, got married, moved to Pasadena and had kids. I’d see Kim rarely. When I did, it was usually at music-related events. The last time I saw him was about a year ago, at an art show opening at the Nucleus Gallery. As I recall, it was a group show on zombies in art (of course I had works in the show). We caught up with each other. He was still a serious hustler. I watched as he skillfully wheedled promises from a number of people who approached him. Like David Bowie, Kim was adept at changing his physical persona. On that night, his once gigantic thicket of massive curly hair now cut short and slicked back, he looked like a hip version of Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, as if the monster had wised up and had become a driving force in the music biz.
Kim eventually succumbed to bladder cancer, an ignoble end to a storied career, but which apparently didn’t affect his lusty sense of humor, as evidenced by these sick bed photos:
So, of all the labels that graced upon or were heaped upon Kim Fowley, which was the most accurate?
I can only think of one that I think all who knew him just might agree upon:
RIP, my strange amigo.