Of all the subgenres of the celebrity autobiography, none is likely to be grimmer or sleazier than the rock star memoir. The pop music business often doesn’t do well by its participants and the lifestyle it breeds can often cut down performers in their prime. It’s also a business full of predators looking to prey on impressionable fame-seekers in financial, psychological and sexual ways. Neither of the last two statements should surprise anyone but being confronted with the flesh-and-blood reality of their human cost is a different thing altogether.
And Neon Angel: A Memoir Of A Runaway doesn’t spare the reader one iota of that often brutal reality. Indeed, author Cherie Currie puts the reader in the front seat to watch closely as she relives the “chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out” experience that she went through during her stint as lead singer of the Runaways. Even if you’re a veteran of reading books like this, you might not be prepared for how hard this one hits.
The story starts with Currie as a teenager, stranded in the San Fernando Valley and living out her life as a rebellious, glam rock-loving dreamer. Her early days are marked by strife on the homefront and fights at school as she dreams of the stardom represented by her musical icon, David Bowie. Things seems to take a classical Hollywood turn when Currie is “discovered” at her local hangout by music-biz hustler Kim Fowley. He introduces her to fellow rock-loving dreamer Joan Jett and suggests she join an all-girl they’re putting together. Despite a tough audition, Currie makes it in and begins living out her rock-star dreams.
Of course, she soon discovers the road to stardom is not unlike running a gauntlet. She is quickly worn down by an endless stream of recording sessions, concerts and battles with bandmates over how she is the focus of the publicity (a recurring attack platform for her frequent nemesis, guitarist Lita Ford). The fact that Fowley is blatantly manipulating her and taking advantage every step of the way makes it all worse. She jumps ship after a few albums and tries her hand at solo recording and acting but the lifestyle begins to outpace her ability to keep up with it… and there are some dark, dark times that she must suffer through post-stardom before the light at the tunnel’s end will become visible.
All of this might sound achingly familiar, particularly if you are familiar with the rock star memoir format, but rest assured that Neon Angel never allows the reader to get too comfortable. Currie is the kind of person who feels her emotions very deeply and she has the ability to convey them on the page with scalpel-sharp precision. Her uniquely evocative style makes the book tough going: unforgettably harrowing moments in the book include an occasion where Fowley essentially pimps her out to a young male star for an evening to get the band some publicity and a terrifyingly rendered section where she is kidnapped and subjected to a vicious sexual assault by an unhinged d-level celebrity. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself putting down the book more than once during these passages to catch your breath.
If this is all beginning to sound like too much to bear, it should be noted that Neon Angel is ultimately life-affirming — and not in a corny, “Hollywood ending” sort of way. Currie survives her travails, comes to a point of self-realization that allows her to put away self-destructive behaviors and manages to pick herself up without being bitter or self-pitying. There’s no redeeming love affair or religious conversion: it’s purely self-directed. It also helps that Currie is amazingly even-handed in her perception of how she played into what was going on around her. She might not spare others (Fowley and Ford come off pretty poorly) but she’s just as tough on herself, perhaps even tougher.
In the final summation, Neon Angel’s pull-no-punches style is rough on the reader but it’s well worth the read for anyone interested in the history of the Runaways… but if you’re just looking for cheap thrills, consider yourself warned. You will get much more than you bargained for between the pages of this book.