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An ex-Runaway makes a return

In the days when hair-metal bands ruled the Sunset Strip and MTV -- i.e., in the age of rock depicted in the musical and movie “Rock of Ages” -- sex roles were rather Neanderthal. Male musicians patrolled the stage; video vixens rolled around on the hoods of hot rods.

One woman smashed her ax through this sexist paradigm. Lita Ford looked like a vixen in her hot, short outfits. But she played like -- well, she played like Lita Ford. After all, the hard sound and glam look of her previous band, the Runaways, helped pave the way for the Hollywood metal circus. With their eyeliner and hair spray, Motley Crue and crew copped the Runaways’ style. Crue’s Nikki Sixx has explicitly said the Runaways lured him to L.A. (where, for a while, he hooked up with Ford).

Now, after 11 years of semi-exile on a Caribbean island and a harrowing divorce, and just in time for ‘80s-metal nostalgia and Runaways revivalism, the mother of all metal is back. Ford has a new record, is embarking on a “Rock of Ages” tour with Def Leppard and Poison (hitting Irvine on June 22), and is living in Southern California, where she grew up. She’s even talking to her former Runaways bandmates Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, stirring reunion rumors.

“I get to be Lita again,” she says with a sigh of relief by the pool of the Grafton Hotel on a recent spring day.

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Let’s just get this out of the way: Ford looks amazing. Tatted up, in boots made for kicking butt, her blond hair still flowing, lovely Lita is the bad-to-the-bone biker chick incarnate. And she’s a true pioneer. Some 30 years after Ford’s athletic riffs gave the Runaways bona-fide musical credibility, it’s still rare to find a woman lead guitarist.

“I saw her as a sex symbol,” admits Gary Hoey, an accomplished guitarist who produced Ford’s new album, “Living Like a Runaway.” “She’s actually a great guitar player.”

“When you hear something like that on a record, I feel like a lot of people are trained to think a full-grown man is doing that,” Kathleen Hanna, former singer of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, says. “To be able to conceptualize that it’s not a full-grown man, it’s actually a teenage girl doing it -- it changes what is possible for yourself as a girl, as a woman.”

Ford was born in England. “The English Patient” could have been based on her parents’ romance: Her father was a British soldier who met her Italian mother in a hospital after a grenade blew off his middle fingers and half his face. “He was left with the metal salute,” Ford notes, raising her pinkie and index finger.

The tight-knit family moved to the U.S. when their only child was 4 and eventually made their way to Long Beach. At 11, Lita got her first guitar. By 16, she had joined the Runaways, the first band of all teenage female musicians to sign a major label deal and tour the world.

“Lita could play guitar like a ... and she was a girl of 17 and blew people away,” recalls Jett. “Lita could really move up and down that guitar neck like I’ve never seen.”

The Runaways split by 1980 and Ford, burned by the harsh criticism that got directed at the all-girl band, hired guys to support her solo act. She had a few chart-topping hits in the ‘80s, including “Kiss Me Deadly” and “Close Your Eyes Forever,” a duet with Ozzy Osbourne.

Freaked out by 9/11, Ford moved to a private island with her husband, Jim Gillette, of the band Nitro. They had two kids. It sounds like an idyllic existence, watching dolphins swim by, but Ford says that it became a nightmare. “When I got to that island, things went from bad to worse. Then I couldn’t get off. There was literally no way to get off.”

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Ford wound up fleeing her family and filing for a divorce. She lost custody of her sons. On the new song “Mother,” she sings, “The only way to hurt me was through my love for you/ I am your mother/ Please understand why I had to leave/ The pain was deep/ He was hurting me.”

“I just want my kids to be OK,” she says. “And I don’t know if they are. They’re the loves of my life. I wrote the song for them in case they don’t know what happened, maybe they’ll be able to understand later.”

Much of “Living Like a Runaway” is about what Ford went through. That channeling of energy gives the album a powerful visceral charge. It’s a rawer record than her ‘80s pop metal. “I told her, ‘We need to make this record from a place that’s personal,’” Hoey says. “ ‘If you can dig into that place and pull something out, it will be a very powerful record.’”

Ford turned to teenage energy to get her through her middle-aged meltdown.

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“I had to run away from home. I started thinking about the Runaways days. And I started thinking about running crazy and running wild, living on the edge, and I was living in style.”

Admittedly, Ford may be trying to cash in on the renewed interest in her old group since the 2010 biopic “The Runaways,” starring Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning and Scout Taylor as Ford. Taylor had a small part in the movie because Ford refused to sign her life rights to the project, which was based on Currie’s book and executive produced by Jett. But the ice that has long frosted the onetime bandmates’ relationship recently thawed a bit.

Jett and Ford broke bread together last fall. “It had been decades,” Ford says. “It was weird. When I saw her, it was like seeing Joan. Same old. She looked great. We always got along.”

“It was really great seeing her,” says Jett. “It was great to give her a big hug. We went through so much and I think did so much, and I think we really changed things, and I think hopefully now she can see that a little bit.”

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Jett put Ford in touch with Currie. They too had dinner. Over the decades, the guitarist had scuttled attempts at Runaways reunions. But now, she says she’s ready.

“Now’s a perfect time. I’m all for it,” Ford says. “I just need Joan’s OK.”

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calendar@latimes.com

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Lita Ford with Def Leppard and Poison

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, Irvine

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Tickets: $20-$150

Info: www.livenation.com


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