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The Runaways: Wild Thing 

How Sandy West was lost

Thursday, Mar 18 2010

On a summer day in 1975, a 16-year-old girl carrying a Silvertone guitar took four public buses from Canoga Park to a two-story house in Huntington Beach. At the door, she was greeted by another 16-year-old, a surfing beauty with piercing blue eyes, feathered blond hair and muscled arms. The two strangers climbed to the above-garage rec room, which doubled as Sandy Pesavento's bedroom. Sandy sat down at her red Pearl drum set. Joan Larkin plugged in her guitar.

"We just clicked; we locked in right away," says the guitarist. "She was so friendly and outgoing. She was like me: She was a tomboy, she loved sports, she was a roughhouser. I couldn't believe how she played. She was such a solid, strong, powerful, really good drummer. I don't even want to say for being 16 — for being anything. She had this shit down and it was powerful."

That suburban rec room was ground zero for the Runaways, the all-girl teenage band that busted down rock barriers and took an unbelievable amount of shit. Sandy West and Joan Jett, as they would soon become known to the world, formed the nucleus of the group that is now the subject of a much-hyped feature film, The Runaways, directed by Floria Sigismondi and starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning as Jett and singer Cherie Currie.

click to flip through (4) PHOTO BY JERRY VENEMANN - West, pounding the skins
  • West, pounding the skins

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Declaring themselves the queens of noise, Jett, West, Currie, guitarist Lita Ford and bassist Jackie Fox were pre-punk bandits fostering revolution girl-style, decades before that became a riot grrrl catchphrase. West, played in the film by Stella Maeve, was a powerhouse who proved that girls could play just as hard as boys. The band's breakup affected her more than any other Runaway, and during the following decades, as she created great, little-heard music with other players but fell into horrific, sometimes violent, drug-fueled episodes, she continued to advocate for the band's reunion — or at least their due critical appreciation.

Yet West is the one band member who is not around to see the Runaways get the kind of attention that eluded them when they were treated as a jailbait novelty act. On October 21, 2006, the strong, charismatic, bighearted woman succumbed to the lung cancer that first struck her while she was in prison on a drug charge. It was a tragic end for a bon vivant whose very entrance filled a room with energy, a drummer who beat a path for girl musicians, a tomboy whose skills and search for thrills included a facility with guns, a California dreamer who created, and was passed up by, musical history.

Sandy wasn't supposed to be there. She told her parents that she was going to Disneyland, but actually, she was at a happier place on Earth that Saturday night during the summer of 1975 — the parking lot of the Rainbow Bar and Grill. Sandy knew this Sunset Strip spot was the place to hang out if you wanted to meet rock stars and/or their handlers.

"She was with her friends from Huntington Beach," says Kim Fowley, the pop-industry veteran who would become both the Runaways' manager and, to some at least, their villain. "They were up there standing around like everybody did that didn't have ID to get into the Rainbow or the Roxy. They were up there as tourists, weekend warriors coming to Hollywood."

Fowley speaks derisively of young suburbanites, but they were the demographic key to the Runaways, whose homes ranged from the San Fernando Valley to Orange County. On weekends, teenagers from all over L.A. converged on West Hollywood, first at Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco, then at places like the Sugar Shack (teens only) and the infamous Starwood. There, they discovered the music of David Bowie, the New York Dolls, Sweet and Suzi Quatro (Jett's hero), and could even rub elbows with stars like Led Zeppelin.

"There's Sandy standing there looking like [Beach Boy] Dennis Wilson's sister," says Fowley. "She was with a bunch of musicians in a musician's stance. One of those, 'Hi, I bet everybody here should know I'm a musician.' Like Billy the Kid coming to town ready to have a gunfight. So I said, 'Are you a musician?'"

Sandy's timing was dead-on. Just that afternoon, Fowley had auditioned Jett. He gave her phone number to West and, not long after, Jett took that long bus ride to Huntington Beach, where the girls played basic rock progressions — Chuck Berry and Rolling Stones riffs — and "bonded over the straight, pure thing of rhythm guitar and drums locking up," says Jett. They played over the phone for Fowley, who was having lunch with a writer from Billboard. Fowley held the phone up, and the writer smiled at what he heard. "At that moment, I knew it would work," he says.

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