Motor City Babylon

Legend Kim Fowley on life, death, Hollywood and the power and beauty of Detroit

Feb 29, 2012 at 12:00 am

If you love rock ’n’ roll and its history, Kim Fowley should require no introduction. From discovering Jan & Dean on the same day Buddy Holly died (and he was discharged from the Air Force) in 1957 and his first major hit records (the Hollywood Argyles’ “Alley Oop” and the Murmaids’ “Popsicles & Icicles”), straight through to his cameo appearance on Zappa & the Mothers’ Freak Out; introducing John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band (in addition to the Doors and a whole crew of rock’s founding fathers) at 1969’s Toronto Peace Festival, and working with the Seeds, the Modern Lovers, the Germs and Motley Crue, Kim Fowley has always been more than just a “Zelig of rock ’n’ roll” or the self-described “hustler,” the last of a dying breed, he’s often termed himself. Fowley’s discography and resume includes KISS, Alice Cooper, Cat Stevens, Blue Oyster Cult, Gene Vincent, Steppenwolf, Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Scorpions, Slade and the Byrds, to name only a few. He’s put the Runaways together. He’s met and knows almost every major figure ever involved in the genre — and definitely has the stories to back it up. He’s a legend, a madman, a lover of Detroit, and a true one-of-a-kind character, whose upcoming Blowout sets may very well be his final Detroit visit ever. On the other hand, he just might survive us all. …


Metro Times: So, I take it you decided to return to Detroit when you saw that Rick Santorum was leading in Michigan?

Kim Fowley: No. I’m only in favor of Snow Mercy for president. She is my current female companion, who is going to be my female JC Crawford. Remember Rev. JC Crawford who introduced the MC5 back in the silver ’60s? Well, Snow Mercy is going to be introducing Kim Fowley’s Psychedelic Dogs on the two different stages I’ll be playing in Detroit. She’s 6 feet tall.

And when I was recording her, I figured out she’s the Greta Garbo of rock meets a female Jim Morrison, with a Nico variation on Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. She’ll be onstage. But even more importantly, she functions as my nurse. I’m having bladder cancer recall surgery tomorrow morning. And I will then be leaving a hospital bed six days later to do this.

So maybe I’ll die onstage for Detroit, which Johnny Guitar Watson did in Japan. I think people would get off on that. But she’s not only my nurse. In case the enemy shows up, she’s also my bodyguard because she does circus training every day and circus performance that is pretty dangerous. And as far as the Republican primary in Michigan is concerned, Kim Fowley’s B-movie father Douglas Fowley [best known for playing the director in Singing in the Rain] was a Thomas Dewey Republican. And the day that Harry Truman won the election, my dad cried all day long. So that’s my brush with a one-time Republican past.


MT: Wow. So there’s yet another reason why you had to go in the opposite direction, right, Kim?

Fowley: Well… [Pause]. Four years ago, I supported Paris Hilton for president. So now it’s Snow Mercy for president. She’s too young for president. But she has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and is a fetish model. She has a teaching credential at university level. And is a dominatrix in a dungeon. No, I’m not a client. But she is magical. She is also co-director of Black Room Doom, which is — what is it? — it’s a female Spinal Tap on a female Jackass level. I did about half of the movie but I got tired of wrangling girls. I’d already done that with the Runaways and the Murmaids.

So, Snow Mercy is finishing the movie up, which brings to mind: I mentioned Paris Hilton. Well, she’s in a movie along with me, Johnny Depp, Keanu Reeves, Mickey Rourke, Slash, and Kim Fowley. It’s called Sunset Strip. It’s about what happens when you’re really young and you enter Hollywood for the very first time, which I did early because I had B-movie parents. The other people did it because they were either born into it or they just showed up real young to take on the challenges of Hollywood USA. The movie is premiering March 16 at SXSW at the Paramount Theater. It’s going to be the big movie where the film festival overlaps with the music festival. So Austin is our next stop. And from there, it’s the tour of Europe — France, Germany and Holland.

So I’ve got a lot going on between cancer surgery, Hamtramck and the Blowout, and Texas and Europe.

Plus, I have a book coming out — Lord of Garbage, published by Kicks Books in New York City. They are also publishing Harlan Ellison, Andre Williams, Sun Ra and Nick Tosches in our family of authors, with Billy and Miriam, who also own Norton Records, as our publishers. It’s a paperback of Kim Fowley poetry – from 1957 to the present, along with back stories of what was going on in my rock ’n’ roll life per year as the poems were being written. And mine was a total different experience of being a poet because ’57 was the tail end of doo-wop and rockabilly and I take it right up to today.

I completed the prose part of it in the hospital, dealing with blood, thunder and morphine. I’m using Iggy Pop as my muse. It’s like if Iggy was an author of books. And, of course, my poetry is beatnik because I come from that era. A lot are lyrics that bands I’ve worked with over the years were too afraid to record or were too stupid to realize how great they were. You were actually helpful when you were the editor of BAM and you let me write for BAM. You were a good editor.

You showed me how to make it more concise, the way it should’ve been. So, the book will be out in April to coincide with my European tour. I’ve had books out before, of course.


MT: You and I talked several times years ago about doing an autobiography.

Fowley: Well, I’ve been offered a lot of those kinds of things. But I figured I like the angle of the poetry book because I’ve been writing it for years. It’s my version of a diary, which I’ve been doing now for 55 years. And I’ve saved everything. So the poetry part was already written.

And then I’ve been in and out of cancer hospitals for surgery now for three and a half years. And so I would wait until the morphine was kicking in and I was bleeding into bags and delirious. And I would float away into prose.


MT: You and I used to also talk about a book of Kim Fowley stories, from ABBA to Zappa.

Fowley: Well, no one has asked for that yet. But this is basically about the mutilation of the music industry and the massacre of the movie business, which is now going on simultaneously. And I’m caught in the middle of it in a fucking sandwich. And the only way I could be sane there was by writing poetry. The sanity part never happened. But at least the poetry did. [laughs]


MT: What about current musical projects?

Fowley: Well, I have three companies. One of them is Flesharama, which is all-female artists. In addition to Snow Mercy and Black Room Doom, we also have Brianna Garcia. She’s actually from Detroit — what I hear is a dangerous part of Detroit called Redford. She’s a Jennifer Lopez version of Joe Strummer. And then we also have Double Love, which is one female George Michael and one female Eminem. And we have Versailles, who sounds like the Brill Building, like all the girl groups. And then there is this artist who’s quite famous in Europe called Noizee Noize. She’s a one-girl band. You see the guitar — but then you hear the bass and you feel the drums pounding before you realize just one girl with a Mohawk is doing it. And she’s

sitting right here with her dog. Say hello to Bill, Noizee.


Noizee: Hey, Bill!


Fowley: She has a new album coming out on April 1st, with a song, “Under Summer Skies,” co-written by Kim Fowley. And I’m going to be doing a remix of the song. I have so many projects, I can’t remember them all. But I also have Elmira, who is essentially a modern Cherie Currie. And there is a girl, who plays Michigan a lot, named Windy, who is a combination of Bridget Bardot and Mark Farner because she plays guitar like he does.

And then I have a company called Trasharama, which is Kim Fowley and rock bands, like Burning Bones and other groups. And then Flasharama is my R&B label, including Tiffany Grant who is a Mavis Staples version of Leonard Cohen. And then finally the fabulous Kendrick Dial, who is a social worker and comes across like the new Gil Scott Heron. So, I’m making plenty of music.

Plus, I’ve just written a new song with Joan Jett, which is the main song in the new Project Ash Zombie Cheerleader videogame for Warner Bros.! So what do you think of that? [chuckles]

That’s a mouthful, isn’t It?


MT: Jesus, Kim. You’ve got more going on than the major labels have going on these days.

Fowley: Well, I do acting as well. I’m in seven movies and three television programs that are being shown this year, including documentaries on Dick Dale, the Seeds, Bert Burns, the BMX Bandits, and even [Irish playwright] WB Yeats.


MT: So, tell us about what you’re going to be doing at Blowout.

Fowley: Well, Kim Fowley’s Psychedelic Dogs will feature Matt Smith [Outrageous Cherry], Troy Gregory [the Witches], John Nash [Electric 6], Bootsey X, and the Canyons of Your Mind horn section at the Polish National Alliance Hall, where we’ll be playing the same stage as the Dirtbombs. And then, to be exact, Kim Fowley’s Psychedelic Dogs, unplugged, will be playing the Blowout pre-party at the Magic Stick Garden Bowl on Wednesday. This is a reunion. I recorded with all of them in 1997, when we recorded the masterpiece, Michigan Babylon. Also, the unreleased gem, Culture of Despair. So we’ve already played together before and have done the hustle. We know how it works between us. We did each album in one day. We get along well.

So, it’s like John Fogerty in front of CCR, or Jim Morrison in front of the Doors. It’s one of those Mick Jagger in front of the Rolling Stones kind of things. But what the audience can expect is something called juke vibes. Do you know what that means?


MT: Like a juke joint?

Fowley: Yeah. Or a jukebox. You don’t know what you’re going to get. Jerry Lee Lewis is in the bayou but is he going to pull a gun on you? You’re not quite sure what it is. And so what I do is I show up, and like Phil Ochs or even Bono or Otis Redding — because they all had one thing in common — I will be singing about the moment. And improvisation. It’ll be what the newspaper was talking about that afternoon. So, the songs will be instantaneously created right in front of the audience. There might be a song about Michael Davis, from the MC5, who just died.

And there might be songs up there about the Republican primary. There will probably be songs up there about Motown leaving for the West Coast. There will definitely be songs about Detroit’s position in America right now.

As you know, I’ve always been a fan of Detroit. You and I met there the first time, when you were working for CREEM. Your brother came, I think, that one time. So, I’ve been in and out of Detroit for years. I always thought that Detroit was a warm place. I mean that literally. Because I lived in Chicago for a while and I remember coming to Detroit. And you guys have a dry cold compared to Chicago, which is a Moscow, Russia-like wet cold. But I’m probably the only person in the world who thinks of Detroit as a warm winter place.

But from what I’ve heard, Blowout is an excuse for 21st-century Detroit crazies to have their own noise and their own glory and their own Woodstock to remind themselves that they are in a city where rock ‘n’ roll is in the drinking water. In other parts of the world, there is a drought going on.

And most of you would probably commit suicide if you had to live in that culture of video games and digital music. There is nothing wrong with that. But I think that blood, sweat and madness onstage is really essential for a healthy rock ’n’ roll diet. And to me, Blowout seems to be saying heaven on earth for all the unloved and all the unwashed — here’s our chance to be a tribe.


MT: How long did you live in Detroit that last time you were here?

Fowley: Maybe for a week.


MT: Really? I was under the impression that you actually lived in Detroit for a while. I remember right after my house burned down in ’97, you called me from Detroit and told me I should come back because it was going to be the next hot city.

Fowley: No. But I’ve spent a lot of time there. You, of course, remember [CREEM founder] Barry Kramer. Well, he picked me up at the airport in 1967. And I was booked on Robin Seymour’s TV show at the time; I think it was CKLW TV. I didn’t have any appropriate clothes at the time because I’m a slob. I don’t dress up. So Barry said, ‘We’ve got to get you something psychedelic.’ We went over to, I guess it was Dearborn. We went into a store and I put something on that I thought was psychedelic. It turns out I had bought a woman’s outfit – for women from the Middle East. I didn’t realize it wasn’t actually psychedelic. And then people started calling up to complain about it when I was on TV. I imagine that blew up the switchboard. So I was on CKLW TV performing “Flower, Flower, Drum, Drum” — the white version of “Funky Broadway” — and I guess people in Detroit weren’t happy about the outfit. The second time I came back — isn’t there an island, some island that has a rock ‘n’ roll club on it?


MT: Belle Isle?

Fowley: Yeah, I went to Belle Isle. There was a club.


MT: The Roostertail?

Fowley: I don’t know. It was a place. And I did a two-man performance thing with [“Born to Be Wild” songwriter] Mars Bonfire. And I remember someone put a cigarette out in my palm that night. And I didn’t feel it. And as the audience was leaving the venue, I peed in the fishbowl they had there in the lobby. And all the fish died. And then the next time I came — after the one time when we met in the ’80s when I was producing a metal band — was in 1997. We played the Magic Stick with the same people I just mentioned. And Mick Collins joined us onstage, and he and I sang together. And then Andre Williams sang, too, with Mick. And then I came up — and we went back to our gig. I reunited with both Mick Collins and Andre when I was emcee in November at the anniversary of Norton Records show in Brooklyn. God, who did we have there? We had the Black Lips. And Dave “Baby” Cortez from Detroit! And ? & the Mysterians! All introduced by Kim Fowley onstage. And I sang with the Nortones and it was quite a time.

And Ko Melina, the former singer of Ko & the Knockouts, who’s now on Sirius FM, Little Steven’s Underground Garage on weekends — I’ve invited her to come and sing with us when we’re in Detroit. She’s a great singer — like the modern Ronnie Spector. And I’ve asked her to come out and sing a medley of “Counting Every Little Star” and “Telephone Line” by ELO, which she delivers in a Spector-ian manner. I just talked to her this morning. I’m also hoping that Wendy Case, the female Kim Fowley, will come down. She kind of looks like a young female version of me — only prettier. If she’s reading this, Wendy! Show up! Call Matt Smith. And then the other tall genius. Lucifer X, who recorded over at Jim Diamond’s studio and did two songs that Troy Gregory and I wrote for him. He’s 6 foot seven. So I’m hoping that he shows up, too. That will be a lot of tall people on one stage that night!

So, yeah, I’ve always thought that Detroit is the Glasgow of the United States. Because Glasgow, Scotland, is exactly like Detroit in terms of weather, rock ‘n’ roll credibility, music sleaze, garage, underground, underworld culture. And it has always been a place I wish I could have lived in. But I never got around to it. It will be fun after 15 years to show back up. But when I talked to you that time from Detroit, I was either still living in New Orleans or in the California desert. But I was also living in England and Ireland at the same time. And I’m always traveling around. So sometimes I think I live somewhere and I’m really just sleeping there. I don’t really live any place.


MT: What made you think that Detroit was going to explode back then, especially after only a week here. It was right before the White Stripes and all the excitement, Detroit’s last big hurrah. But how did you know?

Fowley: I live in the future. Like Buckminster Fuller said: Stay in the present and project into the future so that today becomes yesterday. And so, I’m already on my way to Austin right after Detroit. But that’s after I have cancer surgery tomorrow. And if I die on the operating table, then, Detroit, have a good time. I’ll see you in hell. And if not, I’ll see you on those two dates. And anyone who wants to meet me is welcome. If you have any songs or you’re a singer, or you’re in a group, check me out because I plan on hearing as much unsigned music as I can while I’m in Detroit. I’m bringing my checkbook with me just in case there is anyone worth giving money or opportunity to. Remember, my mom, Shelby Payne, who was the cigarette girl on the left in the famous scene in The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, she had sex with Howard Hughes. So there’s a distant possibility that I might be his illegitimate child.


MT: How do you like living in Hollywood again after all these years?

FOWLEY: Hollywood has lost its soul. They never got over the riots. So, now it’s Cleveland, Ohio, with palm trees. So if you want to live in Cleveland with palm trees, come to Hollywood. It’s now empty. It has this real empty vibe to it. You wouldn’t recognize it. I mean, it looks the same.

But there’s an emptiness and a feeling that not much is really going on here. It’s a place where you can still do music and movie business. But the club scene, the bands – the atmosphere for rock ’n’ roll or even pop music is nonexistent.I mean, there are good people here. There are good people everywhere. And these people are trying. But the Internet has taken away from local music, regional music. Because of Facebook, and YouTube, and Twitter, Tumblr, and all those places. A band can form tonight and come up with names and have friends already before they even play a gig. And 10 house party gigs from now, they can be selling their product on iTunes. And so it’s all possible. But it’s a different world. Not necessarily a better one but a different one. And there are some advantages to it.

And disadvantages. But to answer your question, Hollywood has become a place just to pick up money.


MT: I ended up liking The Runaways movie. And I thought that Michael Shannon did a good job playing you, although, as I wrote, he wasn’t as funny as the real Kim Fowley.

Fowley: He met me when I was — well, now I’m 72 years old. So, he’s 36, the age I was, give or take, when I was putting the Runaways together in the beginning. So he studied me — but he had a 70-year-old man to study. And he only had five hours to talk to me. So how could he have gotten the whole thing in five hours? But he also really did get a lot out of me in those five hours. I’ve also recently been making my own underground movies, though. You can see them on YouTube. For example, on YouTube, I have a channel called Dollboy: The Movie. I’m Satan of Silverlake. I’m Sexual Frankenstein. It goes on and on. I’m Golden Road to Nowhere. I’m also Trailer Parks On Fire. And it has over 1 million views. It sort of John Waters meets Jim Jarmusch on an American International level. Satan of Silverlake is a very big deal right now in Holland. And somebody who leaked a rough cut of Black Room Doom to the Dutch and they are now already writing about that. So, I’m just at a different place now than the person in that movie was.


MT: Well, nevertheless, I’ve been wondering one thing: Lady Gaga or Lana Del Rey?

Fowley: Snow Mercy. Next … No, I like Lady Gaga’s brain, the same way I liked Madonna’s brain. They’re Colonel Parker women. They have great management and marketing and overview skills. And they have a great show. Excellent product. And they’re very, very good at packaging themselves. I like the product.


MT: So, Kim, on a serious note, there’s been some rumors going around about you. How bad is this cancer?

Fowley: Well, I’ll explain my cancer story to you. But let me preface it with my polio story. Kim Fowley had polio as a six-year-old. Permanent paralysis. And then I was diagnosed with permanent paralysis again when I was 17. But both times, I was only paralyzed for a while. I had two different species of the virus. And then I had pneumonia nine times. And then I had something called positional vertigo. Now, in the cancer world, I first had a thing called prostate cancer, which I beat with radiation. I’ve been 19 years free of that. And then the day that George W. Bush invaded Iraq, I had a double operation for melanoma or skin cancer. I’ve been free from that for nine years.

And now this is the fourth time around for me — but it’s bladder cancer. On July 20, 2010 — which is when The Runaways Runaways movie came out on DVD on Sony and did $5 million worth of retail – they removed the cancer. But then, every three months, and now every six months, they’ve had to repeat the operation. It goes on for five years. What happens is the knives and the cameras go into the penis, go all the way up into the bladder, and they excavate parts of your body that hopefully doesn’t grow back. And they call you a week later and tell you if the cancer is back.

So guess what? My diagnosis will be on the day I’m on my way to Detroit. So I won’t even know the results of the operation until I come back from Detroit. And there is every possibility that I could die tomorrow on the operating table and will never get to Detroit. So, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens.

But in my mind, it’s easier to fight life-and-death if you’re in the music or movie business. Because that’s show business and it’s not based on reality. But I’ve also been doing cancer counseling and support since all this happened, just as I had help and support in the cancer community that has helped me. So if anybody in Detroit has been diagnosed, pull me aside – and I’ll tell you how o beat death’s ass. I think my cancer is now chronic, but it’s just so long as it doesn’t get in the lymphatic system. In the case of bladder cancer, though, you can’t do it with blood tests or MRIs or CAT scan. You have to keep repeating the actual operation. And I have another three and a half years of this to go.

So it’s … it’s humbling. I do all my old Catholic school prayers on the operating table. So I’ll be doing it again tomorrow at 7 a.m. If I don’t make it, thank you for… Have a good time! And if I do make it, we are going to change your life by bringing juke vibes into the room. We’re not doing any slow songs and it’s going to be up-to-date lyrical content. I’m going to have great musicians and great performers coming onstage with me. And it will really be a lot of fun to see everyone in Detroit again. You guys in Detroit have always had a great scene going on. Don’t mess it up!

Keep dreaming.


Bill Holdship is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected].


Kim Fowley's Psychedelic Dogs play the Blowout preparty Wednesday at the Magic Stick and Sat., at the Polish National Alliance Hall with the Dirtbombs, the Henchmen, Amy Gore & her Valentines, and Jeecy & the Jungle.