By Ken Sharp
Lita Ford was one of the original Riot grrrls, along with her fellow compatriots in The Runaways. Upon the band’s breakup, Ford forged on as a solo artist, upending macho perceptions about the authenticity of a female guitar hero. Ford proved all the naysayers wrong, emerging as a legitimatize musical force, gender be damned, racking up the smash hits, “Kiss Me Deadly” and “Close My Eyes Forever,” a duet with Ozzy Osbourne. Since returning to the music scene after a long sabbatical, Ford is back this year with both an album, “Time Capsule” and a revealing autobiography, “Living Like a Runaway,” which offers a no-holds-barred look at years spent on the rock ‘n’ roll highway.
GOLDMINE: Writing your book, “Living Like A Runaway,” what were the toughest and most emotional areas to tackle?
Lita Ford: One of the things might be my relationship with Tony (Iommi, guitarist for Black Sabbath). Tony and I had a lot of good times, but there was a side of him that was terrible.
GM: Did that side of him come out
LF: No, it took a little while. The very first place things went bad was on a plane where I was stuck on a freakin’ jumbo jet over the ocean going to London, and there really was nowhere for me to go. I couldn’t escape. That’s when he punched me. I was just dumfounded. I was like, “What did I do to deserve that?” I don’t think any woman can do anything where they deserve to be punched unless they are abusing a child or something like that. I know a lot of people are angry at me because I’m speaking the truth and they think I’m a liar. But he was abusive. There’s a lot of different kinds of abuse. There’s mental abuse, there’s rape. There’s physical abuse where people hit you, and Tony was a very big guy and he did massive quantities of drugs. And he will be the first person to tell you that he did a lot of drugs. I think all of that combined, maybe it was something that ran in his family? Maybe his father was like that? I really don’t know for sure.
GM: And here you are being abused by someone who was one of your biggest formative musical influences.
LF: Yes he was. I loved him. He was my hero. But when your hero turns around and hits you . . . he almost killed me let alone just hit me in the eye on the plane. That was just the beginning. But he almost killed me. I was in love with this guy. He was my superhero, and when your superhero turns around and attacks you like that, your dreams are shattered. You have a vision of this person and you want to believe that this person is everything you hoped him to be, and he wasn’t and I was devastated. That was awful to write about, but I wanted the book to be real and I wanted the book to be true. It was not easy. I ended up writing the book myself. I had help putting it together on the computer, but I wrote it myself. The co-authors weren’t capturing my voice; they weren’t following me. It was like, “No, this happened first!” It had to be right ‘cause so much happened in these 40 years that I was in the music industry. So much happened that I don’t think they could keep up, honestly.
GM: The Runaways were signed to Mercury Records and the band, all teenagers, entered the studio to record your first album. Share your recollections working on your debut album.
LF: Don’t ever put a Heineken on the console. (laughs) I knocked over a Heineken on the console and it cost me $750 to have it fixed. Oh, my God … I never ever put a drink near a console of any kind after that. Stick it on the floor. But it was different because it was something I hadn’t done before. I listened a lot to Kim (Fowley) and took his direction as a producer because he’s obviously been in the studio many times. It was fun jamming with Sandy (West, drummer). Sandy was really my anchor. We really jelled musically, too. I would jam with her on bass. We would have fun just goofing off.
What happened when I joined The Runaways in the very beginning, a couple of weeks after I joined the band, I quit because I didn’t know what homosexuality was. I’m a teenager and I had never been around it; I’d never heard of it. My parents never taught me that sometimes guys go with guys and sometimes girls go with girls. Back then it was not out of the closet yet; it was very hidden.
GM: Are you referring to Joan (Jett)?
LF: Well, it was really all of the girls except Jackie (Fox, bassist). Cherie (Currie, singer) was bisexual, Joan was gay and Sandy was gay. Basically, all of them except for Jackie and I was just flipped out. I thought, “What if they come on to me?” I didn’t know how to handle it because I like men. So I didn’t know what to do. I got really scared and confused. What do I do? How do I handle this? Do I want to be in a band with these people? So I packed up all of my gear and I left.
GM: What brought you back?
LF: I had bad nightmares after I left that I had done the wrong thing. I came to peace with myself that being gay is not a big deal and it’s not gonna hurt and and it’s not gonna hurt to be around it, so long as they don’t come on to me, which none of them ever did because they knew I wasn’t gonna have it and they probably weren’t interested in me anyway. So I thought as long as they don’t come on to me, I’ll be fine.
GM: You met Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, who came to see the band play at The Starwood in Hollywood. That night they asked you to play bass in Led Zeppelin?
LF: Well, I loved John Paul Jones and I knew all his bass lines because I can play bass as well as guitar. At that time I knew all of his bass lines. I didn’t know they were having trouble in the band. I had no idea. So all Robert Plant said to me was, “You don’t play bass, do you?” That’s all he said, and I went, “For who?” And he kind of looked around the room and I looked around the room and I walked off. First of all, I didn’t know they were having trouble and I’m a kid and I’m a chick. I’ve already got a band that I fit in and I don’t think I would have fit in Led Zeppelin. People don’t believe me and think I’m lying about it, but it did happen.
GM: After The Runaways split, you forged a solo career. Was this transition easy or more difficult that you thought? I understand that Eddie Van Halen gave you the support you needed to venture into those waters?
LF: Yeah, Eddie did. He was very supportive and he never looked at the fact that I was a female. That never entered his mind. He just said to me, “Lita, what are you doing?” You see, I was ready to give up at one point. I was so frustrated. I didn’t have a lead singer and I wasn’t a lead singer back then. I could play guitar like there was no tomorrow. Edward said to me, “Just do it! You’re already doin’ it! What are you waiting for, permission? C’mon!” So it was like, sh*t, he’s right. He’s really right. I need to just get off my ass and make this come to life and make it happen whether I’m the lead singer or somebody else is the lead singer, it doesn’t matter. You gotta get it goin.’
GM: You’ve said that singing didn’t come naturally to you. When did you begin to feel comfortable in that role?
LF: I worked at it. I had to really work at it. I took vocal lessons and I listened to other vocalists. It took time and it wasn’t something that came natural like guitar playing. Guitar playing, for me, was something I just was able to do. I was able to hop on the damn guitar and be able to play. It was amazing. But vocals were a struggle. I sang backup in The Runaways but that was it. I never went any further with vocals in The Runaways. I was more concerned with playing guitar. Being a teenager, you were still trying to find yourself as a human being. But vocals were something I had to work at. Some of my best performances are later on in life. I know that my album “Living Like A Runaway” has some of my best vocal performances. Gary Hoey produced that album and those vocal performances just came out. Live, as the years go by, you have a tendency as a lead singer to forget how to be a real lead singer and how to sing. And that’s why a lot of people lose their voice or they have surgery or something happens to their throat because they forget how to sing and they start singing wrong. But I try to sing and not scream; that’s the difference. Sometimes you go see these bands and the lead singer comes out screaming, and you don’t have to do that. You should be able to whisper over a Marshall stack and get it across.
GM: What were the hard life lessons you learned from those days with The Runaways that set you ahead with your solo career?
LF: That’s a tough one to answer. Learning to deal with people and trust is a big issue in a lot of situations. People promise you the moon and they don’t deliver. Where is the moon? You just had it a minute ago. Where did it go? (laughs) So trust was a big issue.
GM: Your solo album, “Dancin’ on The Edge,” helped establish you as a credible artist, not just a chick who played guitar.
LF: It was. The “Out for Blood” album was really a breakthrough period and “Dancin’ On The Edge” as well. What I had done on the “Out For Blood” album was I got rid of the second guitar player and I was the only guitar player in the band, which gave the audience nobody else to look at and say, “She’s not playing that, that’s’ him!” It would go so far if there was a guitar solo being played by me the camera man would have the camera on the rhythm guitar player even though he’s not playing the solo. They would still video tape him. I’m like, “Goddammit, I’m not winning for losing here!” The only way to deal with it was to just get rid of the second guitar player or keyboard player and do it myself. On “Out For Blood,” I had a three-piece band like the Jimi Hendrix Experience and that really helped spotlight what I could do.
GM: Aligning yourself with producer/songwriter Mike Chapman helped transform you into a superstar. What made that partnership work?
LF: Mike believed in me. He believed in me as an artist and he believed in me as a guitar player. He made me work real hard, but he just believed in me. I loved working with him; he was great.
GM: Was the song “Kiss Me Deadly” already written or was that written for you?
LF: “Kiss Me Deadly”’ was a song that Mike owned the publishing to. It was written by Mick Smiley. When he first brought the song to the table, it was a slower song and it was down a couple of keys. (Sings lyrics in a lower voice) “Went to a party last Saturday night, didn’t get laid, got in a fight…” I thought, OK, what if I sing it like this? (sings song in higher vocal register) “I went to a party last Saturday night…” What if we raised it up and speeded it up and give it some energy and some life? Mike was like, “Yeah, great idea, let’s do it!” That song, of course, because of the “uh huh, it ain’t no big thing” … that statement right there attracted everyone’s attention and, of course, the getting laid lyrics attracted everyone’s attention. It became an instant hit.
GM: How did you come to write and duet with Ozzy on “Close My Eyes Forever”?
LF: That song came together in a day, a night. Ozzy came to the studio with Sharon (Osbourne) to drop off a housewarming gift, and Ozzy didn’t want to leave. Sharon got bored and left and we ended up writing. The next thing I know the sun’s coming up and I’ve gotta get Ozzy home. We were both too drunk to drive, so I put him in a cab and Sharon was not happy. She was not happy at all. I don’t know what she thought we did that night, but really all we did was play music, play pool and had some drinks and wrote a Top 10 hit single.
GM: You toured with Rainbow in the early ‘80s and got a chance to spend time with Ritchie Blackmore, one of your heroes. Did you ever jam with him?
LF: He was a huge influence on me. Actually, Kim Fowley gave Ritchie my phone number because I was in love with Ritchie. I was like, “Oh my God, I love this guy!” I loved Deep Purple, the whole band was just phenomenal. And, of course, with Ritchie being the lead guitarist, I was fixated on him. Kim Fowley knew this, so he gave Ritchie my phone number and Ritchie called me. I swear I just about crapped my pants. I get this phone call and he says, “Do you wanna come over?” (laughs) I was like, “What? Is this really happening?” So I went to his house and we played guitars and he showed me a few things, one of which was what he called the “Snake Charmer.” That was a minor scale, slinky, sexy, evil-almost sounding. Very cool stuff. I still apply that today to some of my own stuff, but I do it in my own way. I don’t want to rip him off. I try to play like Lita Ford not Ritchie Blackmore. (laughs) But he taught me a lot; he pulled out a cello and played for me.
GM: You’ve always been an artist imbued with supreme confidence. Where does that strong sense of self come from?
LF: I think that comes from my parents. Both my partners were very, very supportive. A lot of people would think that it’s the opposite. They might think, “Oh, she must have had a f**ked-up childhood and something must have happened to her when she was a kid.” No, nothing like that happened at all. I had the best mother and father anybody could ever want. I was really blessed. They were supportive of me no matter what I did. They were supportive when I was in The Runaways and they were supportive when I wanted to stay out late at night. I’d get home at four in the morning and never had any questions asked, like “Where were you? Who were you with? Why do you smell like cigarettes?” (laughs) I never got that. My dad would be the one who came and picked me up. He was like the designated driver. (laughs) I’d be like, “Dad, I’m too stoned to drive, come and get me,” and he would.
GM: You carry that confidence with everything you do.
LF: I was never not confident with what I was doing, no matter what other people said to me. I felt as long as I had my parents backing me up I was OK. As a matter of a fact, on their tombstone I had the words engraved, “My best friends, my companions, my parents.”
GM: Wrapping up, tell us about your latest album, “Time Capsule.”
LF: ”Time Capsule” was a bunch of 24-track analog tapes that I had sitting in my closet in the Caribbean. During my divorce, I went back to the Caribbean house and got the tapes. I got 15 24-track analog tapes in two suitcases and got out of there. I got home and we baked the tapes. I was afraid the tapes were gonna fall apart because they had been in sea air and they were recorded in the ‘80s. So we baked them to hold everything together and transferred them to digital and then gave them a listen. We found all these different musicians that were on these great songs with me, people like Gene Simmons, Robin Zander, Rick Nielsen, Bruce Kulick, Billy Sheehan, Jeff Scott Soto, the list goes on. Rodger Carter played drums on all of it. Just great stuff. I thought we’ve gotta put this out. This has to come out. So I called it “Time Capsule” because it’s really what the album is.