When 17-year-old Lita Ford showed up to audition for her first rock band, she was sporting a recently broken nose and an eye bright-red from a burst blood vessel. Fortunately, the buxom blond guitarist was trying out for a spot in an all-teenage band called the Runaways, and the girlfight badges were probably a selling point. If the battle scars weren’t enough, Ford’s playing sealed the deal.
The England-born, Long Beach-raised only child had deflected the ravages of puberty by teaching herself to play the leads of Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore, Tony Iommi and Jimmy Page. As she tells it in her straight-talking, dirt-dishing memoir, “Living Like a Runaway,” neighbors used to visit her 1970s teen-girl version of a suburban man cave just to watch her shred.
“It didn’t occur to me while I was growing up that I was doing anything out of the ordinary by liking the type of music I did,” she writes.
Of course, Ford got the Runaways gig, and the rest is herstory. As she affirms over and over in her book, Ford — a Guitar Player magazine “Certified Legend” — was the first female to play serious lead guitar in a hard rock band. The Runaways were teenage pioneers, and after they flamed out Ford went on to front her own successful group.
Along the way were celebrity trysts, drug-fueled hijinks, Spinal Tap-esque mishaps, and just plain brawls. But Lita gave it all up to have a family, then tragically lost her sons in a nasty divorce.
In the ever-expanding annals of rock memoirs, “Living” falls somewhere among Mötley Crüe’s bottom-feeding “The Dirt,” Chrissie Hynde’s unapologetic “Reckless,” and Tina Turner’s harrowing “I, Tina.” She’s no literary stylist or cultural critic, but Ford is a surprisingly skilled raconteur — or is that rock-conteur.
For all her bad-girl reputation, Ford came from a loving family. Her parents met cute during World War II when her English soldier father was taken care of by her Italian nurse mother. They moved to Boston when Ford was 4 and eventually found their way to Long Beach and then Lakewood, providing their child a strong, stable, middle-class home to always crawl back to. Her parents were so supportive of Lita and her metal career that Mama Ford even wrote an advice column for RIP magazine.
Ford devotes about a third of the book to her four years creating rock history with the Runaways. There are several reveals, some charming, some alarming. The ditty about nipple-hardening turn-ons that Lita and Sandy West used to sing on their long drive from Huntington Beach to Hollywood offers a distinctly distaff spin on the usual road-rash silliness. But on tour in Japan, Ford wound up in the hospital after waking up with a stranger in a bed full of blood; she still does not know exactly what happened that night, which left her with 14 stitches.
Strangely, Ford says not a word about bassist Jackie Fox’s 2015 claim that she was sexually assaulted by Runaways manager Kim Fowley at a party in front of other band members. Ford is mostly appreciative of the infamous Fowley, who died months before Fox’s story came out. She is not overly kind to any of her former bandmates and is particularly hard on Joan Jett and Joan’s longtime manager Kenny Laguna. She does dedicate the book to West, the ill-fated Runaways drummer who struggled with addiction and died of cancer in 2006.
Sex and drugs distracted the Runaways from rock ‘n’ roll, Ford writes, and that she — the only serious musician — just wanted to play music. That’s rather unsisterly but typical of Ford’s bravado — this is not a woman who suffers from low self-esteem. As that broken nose warned, Ford has a hot temper; she underplays the role her own violence played in upsetting band relations. Early on, she quit the Runaways in part because she was freaked out that other members were lesbians. She got over that, blaming her own cultural ignorance — but she never addresses how navigating a hostile world in the 1980s might have been harder for young lesbians afraid to reveal their sexuality than it was for Lita, a hot straight-cis blond. Lita doesn’t get analytical like that.
This is a disturbing prequel to what Ford describes as the nightmare of her second marriage (although Ford never names him in the book, she was married to Jim Gillette of the band Nitro). She provides few details of this 17-year relationship, “out of respect for my children,” she says in a boxed author’s note on Page 199. This leaves a rather large hole in Ford’s story. She does reveal that the family moved to a remote Caribbean island, where Ford devoted herself to parenting, home-schooling her two sons, and giving up her career. But she lost herself, and when she found the situation no longer bearable, she ran away and her ex-husband secured custody. She no longer has contact with her sons.
Ford and her husband have each accused the other of “parental alienation,” and her oldest son, James, now 18, has said Ford abused his brother and himself. Ford does not address these accusations in her book but heaps scorn on the courts for separating her from her children.
She writes poignantly about what happened to her psychologically. “Every night I would Google ‘Lita Ford’ on my laptop, sitting at the office chair. I would look at my old videos and listen to my old interviews, trying to recover my identity. Whoever that person was, ‘Lita Ford,’ I missed her.”
Lita is back. In April she releases an album of songs recorded in the 1980s, the heyday of her career.
In her book, she comes across as a straight shooter if not a deep thinker. The sex scenes provide the juice, but when she talks about learning solos straight from Blackmore, or out-jamming Holmes on stage, or writing songs with Osbourne, Ford proves that at heart she’s a great guitarist. That’s something no one can take from her.
McDonnell is the author of several books, including “Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways.”
Living Like a Runaway: A Memoir
Dey Street: 262 pages, $26.99