Saturday, January 17, 2015

Kim Fowley (1939-2015)

By the time he was fifteen, Kim Fowley, who died Thursday from bladder cancer at the age of 75, knew what he wanted to do with his life. The son of actors Douglas Fowley (the apoplectic director in Singin' in the Rain) and Shelby Payne, he had an unstable childhood bouncing around foster homes after his parents divorced. But Payne later married pianist/arranger William Friml, son of ASCAP co-founder Rudolph Friml, and young Fowley found himself surrounded by film and music industry types in the 1950s who kept tossing around the name Paul Gregory, a producer/agent who helmed greatest film of all time candidate The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955). Gregory was the type of character who rose to prominence with the decline of the old Hollywood studio system in the post-WWII years when long-term contracts gave way to putting together self-incorporated talent into package deals. A greater emphasis was placed on the hustle and with a heat generator like Gregory as his inspiration, Kim Fowley embarked on a career as the archetypal rock 'n' roll hustler.

To grasp the breadth of his hustle, one need only learn that he was associated with both Helen Reddy and GG Allin. His CV reads like a target riddled with many, many desperate attempts to hit a bullseye. He would latch onto an act either on their way up (The Runaways) or on their way down (The Byrds). But only very early in his career did he get the timing right producing The Hollywood Argyles' "Alley Oop," a US number one in 1960, The Murmaids' "Popsicles and Icicles," and B. Bumble and the Stingers' incredible "Nut Rocker," a boogie woogie version of "The Nutcracker Suite" on which Fowley took songwriting credit. When those pension plans dried up, he launched one of the most dumbfounding recording careers in rock 'n' roll history.

It was really more a negative image of a recording career. Here was this thing over there called rock 'n' roll or psychedelia or glam or punk or new wave and Fowley would fire off a cheap, cynical exploitation of it in order to generate any sort of buzz. "The Trip," a decent-sized hit in 1965, established his m.o. -  a monologue rambling about something mock-transgressive while a band dribbled on anonymously in the background. As teens in the 1980s, my Gen X friends and I adored "The Trip" and Outrageous which we heard as chinks in the Boomer armor, blatant attempts to con the counterculture into buying back bits of itself. But Fowley was capable of real songs such as "Bubble Gum" from Outrageous, later covered by Sonic Youth, and the late 1970s ├╝ber-catchy power pop nugget "Motorboat." When Kiss went meta on Destroyer, naturally they turned to Fowley for two hilarious snapshots of the rock star grind - "King of the Night Time World" and "Do You Love Me?" And he was hustling right up to the very end, providing several songs for Ariel Pink' 2014 album pom pom. Too bad there's no copyright in lighting lighters at concerts, a practice Fowley was said to have initiated for the Plastic Ono Band at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival in 1969.

Kim Fowley was sleaze incarnate, a skeevy rock 'n' roll lizard perpetually slithering his way to the next big thing. For a taste of his grotesqueries, read the epic Ugly Things interview (finally made available here) on an empty stomach. But we're unsettled by Fowley because he lays bare the mechanisms of the capitalist treadmill. We're all hustlers to a certain extent. And now that we're all becoming self-incorporated free agents, Kim Fowley's anti-career has the feel of a premonition about it.

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