Kim Fowley (Part One)
When I asked to interview Kim Fowley, I knew it would be extremely interesting. The facts speak for themselves. I mean, the guy has been in the industry since 1959 and the list of people he has worked with is endless. What I was unprepared for, was the absolute volume of stories that come pouring out. This guy has done and seen it all. Mention a name and you'll get a story --- a good one.
I was advised prior to the interview not to mention The Runaways as it was a well worn topic and that he had better anecdotes to share. And he wasn't kidding. It was a disappointment not to talk about the famous female band considering I had feverishly scooped up the debut record the day it was released after waiting for months. Imaging being a 15 year-old boy and seeing Cherie Curie and Lita Ford on a cover… And Fowley was responsible for it all. But I digress.
The 45-minute interview I had planned, stretched out to more than 90 and Kim was still going strong at the end, only curtailed by schedule limitations. In fact, this interview was conducted a few weeks prior to Christmas but it's taken me this long to transcribe it all. I thought I knew a lot about Kim but in doing research for the interview, I found out even more that I didn't. The guy is an absolute dynamo in terms of energy (despite having more than a few health problems that you'll read about) and his list of accomplishments is impressive.
Due to the length, we've broken the interview into two parts so look for part 2 to be posted shortly. In the meantime, enjoy this conversation with one of the most interesting ---- one could write it interesting --- characters in rock & roll, Kim Fowley.
antiMusic: You are such an inspiration for anybody in any walk of life to just get up and do something. You're just always working. Are you driven to work? Are you hyperactive? Is it a fear of financial instability or do you simply love what you do?
Kim: I'm bored by everything. That's why I create my own universe to amuse myself.
antiMusic: You wear a lot of hats such as songwriter, performer, producer, arranger, author, movie maker, facilitator, manager. How do you best relate to yourself? Is it all just part of one artistic movement or does it all branch out from one main starting point in your mind?
Kim: I have 28 separate personas with 28 separate skills. And then variations within those categories of those skills. I operate as a reflex to whatever happens. So if somebody wants to fight me, well, my girlfriend fights for me…she's in roller derby and kicks their ass. Or if she can't handle it, I'm army airforce trained and I just stop them from living. And let the 21 year-old girlfriend beat up some idiot in a club. But if it's a ninja assassin I'll have to finish him off.
But I don't get mad when I fight. And I don't get nervous when I perform. And I don't have anticipation on an anxiety level when I do meetings. Everything is as a response or counter-attack to something that's tossed my way. I'm 73 years-old so I have had the experience of being able to do all of these jobs so I can more or less take care of whatever the challenges are. And then most people aren't skilled in multiple jobs so they don't even get it.
I lived in New Orleans and I worked with some new songwriters and then they had their musician friends over. They said "What are we going to do?" I said, "Turn on a machine and make noise with your guitar and I'll make noise with my voice. We'll write an album's worth of songs and when it's over you can say something." So then 13 songs an hour later, they said, "You're a male witch". I said, "OK, that's a good response. Thank you." And then I left.
But that's what a professional songwriter does with a room full of musicians. "OK, play this." Dah dah dah dah, "OK, turn on the machine. I have a lyric that I brought with me or I can make up something. And you just do the song and get on to the next song." And I didn't suffer for three weeks or three months or three years to get the right motivation. I just cranked out some stuff....within their ability to play or not play. And it was just too much for them. And these were adult men who had been on a record label and everything. They were people who had been to New York and back. They had some international experience. And they couldn't handle it.
I was at university when I was 14 years-old with my own mathematical alphabet. By the time I was 19, I had been at 14 grade schools, 3 universities, 4 high schools. And I had been an actor at that time, too, for 11 years on camera. I was ahead of everybody. I had a girlfriend who was 27 when I was 11 years-old. I mean, I've had a very strange life.
antiMusic: You've had many health crises and yet describe yourself as "hard to kill" and "slow to die"….
Kim: I'm a bladder cancer survivor. I go every six months for the next 2½ years. It's the fastest growing male cancer so in between the treatments, it can come back. I'm a skin cancer survivor. Basal cell and prostate cancer. Positional vertigo. Bit by a West Nile spider. Then I had polio twice and pneumonia 9 times. Plus I've been shot. I've been knifed. I've been bricked and I've been bottled. And I've been in the Air Force of America so…
antiMusic: To what do you owe your ability to triumph over less than favorable odds? Are you a secret health freak with a magic tonic? Is it good genetics or are you just plain lucky?
Kim: Common sense within insanity. Good genetics and luck. My dad was 87 or abouts when he died and my mother was 82. So I guess I have between 9 and 14 years to go. Unless somebody's dad murders me for making love to their daughter.
antiMusic: After school you joined the military. What is your greatest memory of that experience?
Kim: The food and the clothes. They were free.
antiMusic: Sometime after your release from the army, you started working as a West Coast rep for Motown. How did you meet Berry Gordy and how did you convince him Detroit needed a West coast presence?
Kim: Ah, because it was time. I never knew him though. It was all over the phone and through the mail.
antiMusic: What were your actual duties?
Kim: Promotion and publicity of all Tamla-Motown in the western states.
antiMusic: What were some of your most satisfying accomplishments from your time with Motown? And was it hard convincing LA people that you actually worked for Berry Gordy?
Kim: They never heard of him. That was before "Shop Around" and he only had "Bad Boy" by The Miracles which was a regional hit on Chess and he had the Jackie Wilson stuff but people weren't following those records. I did. I knew who he was but other people didn't know. I was just another 20 year-old guy showing up with a record. And I had "Alley Oop" at the time. I didn't tour with the band because I was in the Airforce National Guard by then so I was a guy with a number one record as a co-producer, co-publisher, and group member not touring with the band. And then I produced records for other people too. I was a for-hire mercenary doing all this stuff.
antiMusic: At that time, you also worked for Alan Freed.
Kim: That was in '59, the year before.
antiMusic: What was your role and what was it like to work for the guy who coined the term rock and roll?
Kim: I was his food runner and his assistant. He used to go in the studio a lot. He had songwriting and producing and arranging skills and I went in and studied. You listened when Alan talked. If you were there, you learned. He was a mentor kind of guy. So I just learned a lot…the things you would expect to learn. Like etiquette in the studio and why certain songs were played and what sequence they were in and what to say and what not to say to the listeners. How to deal with managers and record company idiots who were trying to get you to play their stuff, when you didn't want to play it.
Because they make bring in six records and one is good. "Love that and the other five suck. Don't argue. You want me to play the last record? Then you and the other five records leave and drive home in your car and tune in at 4:30 and you can hear it yourself and tomorrow I'll sell 40,000 records for you guys." "OK, thank you Alan." "You're welcome." So you know, he didn't take every record they wanted him to play. He played what he liked. What he thought his audience needed to hear.
But I'm on the radio now --- eight years on Sirius-XM 21, Saturdays, 9 AM to 1 PM, PST and then a repeat show midnight to three in the morning and I just do the Alan Freed formula. Only I do Casey Kasem stories. I dedicate my radio shows to my listeners. It's not an ego trip for me. The music is the music that can get them though their lives --- that they need to hear…from my point of view anyway.
antiMusic: About the same time as you started work with Motown, you began your long career in writing, producing and performing. Were you a musical kid? Did you gravitate towards an instrument or music in school?
Kim: No, I was a genius kid. I learned to talk at 10 months. I could read and write at a year and a half. I had a step-grandfather who was one of the cofounders of ASCAP, with George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, etc and he co-wrote "Indian Love Call" and "Rose-Marie" by Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald who were the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of light opera and they were big musicals for MGM. So my mother married his son as her second husband and I met him and he thought I was more talented than his own son who was only an arranger. He wasn't a songwriter. So I learned a lot from him about how the business worked and songwriting…attitude and philosophy. I was 13-14 years-old.
So my father, Douglas Fowley, he was the director in "Singing in the Rain" with Gene Kelly. He made over 300 movies. And my mother was in Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall's movie "The Big Sleep". So I had the amazing step-grandfather and the adequate arranger step-father and the OK actor father and the sub-par but beautiful step-mother and real mother. And growing up, I had been from Malibu to Beverly Hills and got all the folklore that goes with the territory. So by the time I hit the rock & roll gutter at 19 in 1959, I was well-schooled. But I notice you're sticking to questions from 1939 to 1960 so far and that was 52 years ago. There's a book I put out called "Lord of Garbage" and it covers all the sh*t that you're asking about from 1939 to 1969 and the second volume comes out next spring. Finally there will be a third volume. (link)
antiMusic: What was the first song that you remember writing? What was the response when you showed it to people?
Kim: The first song I ever wrote, I got published. It got me a job. It was "Baby Don't Leave Me.". Bruce Johnston, later to write, "I Write the Songs" by Barry Manilow, wrote it with me and he wrote "Disney Girls" for The Beach Boys and he later became a Beach Boy. Later on, I got him a record deal under the name Bruce and Terry when he was doing a Jan and Dean derivative recording in 1959. I got him signed to Doris Day and Marty Melcher's record company and Terry Melcher was the son and step-son of Marty and Doris and he later went on to produce The Byrds and Paul Revere and the Raiders and so forth. And he was the producer but also was in The Rip Chords with Bruce.
So I didn't waste any time in, "Oh, here's a song. Now I'll go work for a company." I didn't just get it published like any dumb kid would do. I used it as a way to say "I'll get myself to work here and then I'll get my song published and then I'll get my high school friend's (Johnston) record released." So that's what I do.
antiMusic: Did you envision yourself as somebody that would go on to become a successful performer or did you have an eye on behind the scenes stuff?
Kim: I wanted to be a successful human being. Although I failed as a nice person in the traditional sense. I'm not a nice person in the way that Bill Clinton is or Walt Disney is or Santa Claus is. I do nice things but I'm a bad guy with a heart of gold so I don't come across as a nice person. But I'd rather be a bad guy who does nice things than a good guy who does awful things. And there's a lot of those people around. Like Ted Bundy who looked like a Kennedy and he was out murdering people. And he seemed normal and pleasant and that's how he got to kill people. Because he had the digestible look. I'm very creepy. I look like Frankenstein meets John Carradine, the character actor. I played Frankenstein on ABC-TV in '84 on the local Halloween special. I'm disturbing. I'm 6'4 3/4" and I wear black clothes and that type of thing. (pauses) You've seen me. You didn't invite me to your home for Christmas for a reason. I'm disturbing. Although I'd probably entertain everyone with stories. They might throw up the turkey though. .
antiMusic: How do you write songs? Does the melody come first or is everything springboarded from a lyrical inspiration? Has this process changed over the years?
Kim: It depends on the scenario. If it's a band or another co-writer, they say "Well we had an idea for a song about porcupines and we need to write a song right now." I say, "Good, what style? Oh, OK. Turn on the machine." And then the guy who is in the band would probably sing it so you have to memorize his accent and then you give him English lyrics if he sings in English. You have to do it so that when he opens his mouth it sounds like he wrote the words. You figure out his vocal range to see if he can even make the note and what the key is. And see how he or she breathes. And if they play an instrument, then see how they play their instrument. And then within their limitations of what they do well, then you fill it in with what you do well which is why you're there.
Or if it's by yourself, I can bang on a guitar or keyboard or a bass or set of drums and I can show a really good musician, "Play this." And I bang on it like some sort of primitive moron and everybody laughs. And I say, "Go on, laugh all you want. But I played the right part." And then the really good musician plays the part back and they go "Ohhhhhhhh." And then I turn on the machine and grab the lyric or if there's no lyric, then make it up, then comes the vocal melody and you work up the lyrics and somebody's banging away and suddenly it turns into money.
antiMusic: In 1962, you took Tchaikovsky's "March of the Wooden Soldiers" (from the Nutcracker) and presented it to HB Barnum. What did you hear in this song that you thought merited a fresh coat of paint?
Kim: Popular Christmas song. That's all. I knew it would work. I presented the idea to HB Barnum and he arranged my song but his version by Jack B Nimble and the Quicks didn't do well. A later version did well and he helped me out with an even later version which did better. That's one of the things about songwriting, maybe the first time you get it recorded isn't the version that people will buy. So in the case of that song, they didn't buy it on the first version and there were four versions and only two of the four sold. One sold more than the others anyway.
Then there's other songs….like "Popsicles and Icicles" by The Mermaids, which I produced, no one's ever covered it. But the style was used by Bob Crewe when he produced and co-wrote "Navy Blue" by Diane Renay. You can tell they heard the record because the techniques were there. There's a lot of technique borrowing. It's just like country music. After awhile you need a road map for "who's singing this?" After awhile all these guys have hats on. They all sing about the highway or something.
antiMusic: What were your impressions of the Emerson Lake and Palmer version?
Kim: I'm glad they recorded it.
antiMusic: Who was responsible for the name?
Kim: Me. I made 3,000 records and wrote 5,000 songs so these songs may be more important to you than they are to me.
antiMusic: You were apparently the first producer for the 'N Betweens which of course became Slade. How did you become involved and what were the sessions like?
Kim: I went to a club and they were playing there and were great live.
antiMusic: From the few tracks I've heard, Noddy Holder wasn't utilizing his chainsaw voice at that point?
Kim: It depends on who's listening. I did quite a few…I think it was 6-9 songs altogether. But…there were more than a few versions of the band. There was Slade and Ambrose Slade and the 'N Betweens and another one before. He always sounded like himself but the times changed, the producers changed, the musicians changed and he changed. But you can see the threads. Like the Beatles first album and their last album…it was still the same band. One's new and the other one got to learn how to do albums.
antiMusic: You also produced some tracks for the Lancasters featuring a young Ritchie Blackmore. Could you tell at that point that he was a person of great ability or was he just another guitarist getting started?
Kim: Yeah, well just listen. He was god on guitar.
antiMusic: "Satan's Holiday" has a bit of the riff of "Hall of the Mountain King" by Grieg in there. Was that due to your influence or was it…..
Kim: Of course it was my influence. I'm a musical encyclopedia.
antiMusic: He's said to be quite a forceful personality. What was he like to deal with?
Kim: Pleasant. I'm a stronger personality. But you know, if somebody knows what they're doing in the room, then there's no problem. I mean, I didn't find him to be judgmental or challenging. He was a pleasant guy. It was fun and we did it quick and see you later and have a nice life...which he did. His issues with other people later…I wasn't there. I don't know what happened or didn't happen.
antiMusic: How did you come to connect with Frank Zappa, eventually appearing on "Freak Out" his first record.
Kim: He was difficult. Not to me but I understand he was difficult to others. I recorded with him and he was pleasant and that was it.
antiMusic: I believe I read you're listed as playing a hypephone. What the heck is that?
Kim: It's when you grab your throat and you hang from a rafter. You're choking to death and you kind of sound like a chicken being strangled. So I would tie a rope or noose around my neck and almost pass out and sing like that.
antiMusic: And hopefully you didn't have to do too many takes (laughs)
Kim: One take on everything.
antiMusic: I think I read somewhere that you also were asked to sing at one of their first shows to an audience that included Mick Jagger. What do you remember about that show?
Kim: That was the live album. It was the "Freak Out" album with all the people who had appeared on it done live at the Whiskey a Go-Go. And Frank recorded the record the way it was sequenced on the vinyl and it came out pretty well. It's pretty good. It was quite a good album.
antiMusic: What do you remember about the performance itself?
Kim: I was God on stage! There's a photo online somewhere of Kim Fowley with the Mothers of Invention from the show.
antiMusic: Gene Vincent is a rock and roll pioneer. You would seem like an odd choice as a producer for somebody like him.
antiMusic: I don't know but the two names don't add up in my mind when I think about them. How did that come about?
Kim: Well, we're both cripples. I have all my leg issues and he has his leg issue….. (thinks for a moment) You see, back then. Everybody could do all forms of music. Including Gene Vincent who could sing ballads…I mean he wasn't limited to rockabilly. He could do country. He could do pop and adult and Christian, etc. So all of us were skilled in all these different types of music. Whatever walked through the recording studio door, we could handle it. I mean we were better at surf music than we were at jazz but we could do both, for example. I don't remember how we met but all of a sudden, there he was and let's make a record and we did.
antiMusic: I think I saw a credit that said Linda Ronstadt did backup vocals? How did she come into the picture?
Kim: She was our food runner. She called up and said "I want to come down and study this guy and how he approaches singing in the studio." I said, "You're running for food then." And she said, "I will."
One day, Doors producer Paul Rothchild and one of the Doors who was not Jim Morrison, one of the other three, I've forgotten which one, walked in with the girlfriends, uninvited to the Gene Vincent recording session. Gene was about to sing "Wicked Sexy Ways" by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and he said, "What impolite person has entered my studio?" I said, "Doors, girlfriends and producer." He said, "The guy in leather pants isn't there because he'd know better but the side men in his group wouldn't know better and the producer should know better. I have a gun right here in my boot. I'm not going to show everyone. I'm a crack shot with this weapon and if you guys and girls don't leave I will shoot you. And I don't miss. I really need you to leave my studio. They all ran out of the hall. And then he sang the best vocal on the record, that particular vocal.
Kim: That record's been reissued 13 times.
antiMusic: You wrote a song called "Bubblegum" that was co-written with Mars Bonfire and had the Three Dog Night band on the track which is one of my all-time favorite bands. I understand that you are a friend of Danny Hutton's. What stories can you share about him?
Kim: I talked to Danny Hutton just last week. He was in a band I produced called the Alpines. We were trying to make Ski Rock. You know, winter sports music which was a trend which didn't catch on. And James Brown…he tried, he sang "Ski Party". That didn't sell. And the movie Ski Party. Various people tried doing Ski Music and we all were wrong. Nobody wanted to buy it in large amounts. A few. "Snow Skiing" by the Rangers, "Ski Storm" by the Snowmen. And the Alpines doing "Shoosh Boomer". I produced all three, co-wrote all three. They were on Challenge Records. We thought, and the label thought…"Oh, we're the new Beach Boys. Oh we're the new Eddie Cochrane. Oh we're the new Safaris. Oh boy we're going to make millions making this ski stuff." Nobody cared. "Ski Storm" was a regional hit in St. Louis, Missouri and that was it.
antiMusic: You were hired to produce some sessions for the American Graffiti soundtrack. How did you get this gig and did you know it was going to be a success from the get-go?
Kim: I knew he was a genius because Francis Ford Coppola had just done Godfather 2 and this was his next project. So I figured if that was his next project, George had something going. George Lucas. He was a brand new director and I was going on the taste of Francis Ford Coppola. And then I was sitting at the Troubadour one night. I was about to produce Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids for Epic Records. And their manager, Peter Rachtman as in Riki Rachtman's father and the Rachtman daughter who did all the music supervision for the Quentin Tarantino "Pulp Fiction" movie, came up to me and said "Do you want to produce these guys for George Lucas?" "What do I get?" "Points, he's run out of cash." I said, "Sure, I know who he is and he's probably make it. I'll take a chance. Why not?" So he paid for plane tickets for me to go up to San Francisco and the boys were on their way up because they were actors and we went in there and did it and that was that. I still get royalties. That's a very honest guy. He still pays me royalties for that. And Harrison Ford and Richard Dreyfuss apparently all got a piece of the movie in later years. Not just the screen actor's guild minimum; they actually receive residuals of some sort. It's a rumor. He didn't have to do that but he did it anyway.
antiMusic: I'm a major KISS fan. Can you tell us how "King of the Night Time World" and "Do You Love Me" came to be recorded by them?
Kim: "King of the Night Time World", the first version of it, once again, the same as "Nutrocker, somebody else did it, not as well. And that someone else was The Hollywood Stars who self-destructed and that version was never released on Columbia. They're on Youtube. You can hear their demo version. And the other one was "Do You Love Me?" which was cooperative. The KISS producer, Bob Ezrin said, "I have an idea for a song. Do you have any words?" And I did and ended up lucky on that one. Both of those songs have appeared on over 35 KISS merchandise….Unplugged, Greatest Hits, Live, Orchestral, the cartoon show, various television uses and in their live show for two or three years. So KISS has been very good for the pension.
antiMusic: About the same time, presumably because of the Bob Ezrin connection, you co-wrote "Escape" with Alice Cooper. Did you get together with Alice to write or were you in your separate corners?
Kim: No that's another Hollywood Stars original. Both songs were done by The Hollywood Stars first. They were the male Runaways before The Runaways. They were like a west coast version of the New York Dolls only on more of a Raspberries level. It sounded like Eric Carmen was writing everything. All of the rest of their stuff was pretty pop.
antiMusic: I saw a letter on one of your sites that was from Peter Grant about a session that was supposed to be set up. Did you ever have any encounters with him?
Kim: Yeah, I recorded with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones before Led Zeppelin. The first time produced by Andrew Loog Oldham and the second time by Mickie Most. But we should skip ahead because right now you're stuck in the Hollywood Stars period which was 40 years ago. We still have 40 more years to cover. If you go to iTunes, you'll see a bunch of stuff…..I don't know. I just record all the time and I'm pretty good at this.
Oh, and I also sing under the name of Burning Bones. We think we're the new Rolling Stones and all the guys in the band are burn victims from the hospital that I went to for my first cancer operation. Some of the guys are dead now. We did a record a year and a half ago. I do dubstep too?
Kim: Oh yeah. (dryly) Just because I'm 73 doesn't mean that I'm dead yet. I have a 21 year-old girlfriend. I know how to go to clubs and hang out and watch people throw up bad drugs on each other at closing time.
(Look for Part 2 of this amazing interview with Kim Fowley on Friday)