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The Runaways: Wild Thing

West, pounding the skins
PHOTO BY JERRY VENEMANN

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.

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.

 

They auditioned musicians. One day, a sexy guitarist from Long Beach with long, blond hair came to the rehearsal studio on Sunset and Vine.

"I walked in and Sandy and I hit it off right away," says Ford. "I started playing this old Deep Purple song, 'Highway Star.' She knew the entire song; I couldn't believe it. We just jammed it out. As soon as we did that, we were like, 'I love you.'"

Fowley and Jett found Currie at the Sugar Shack. After trying out a few bassists, they settled on Jackie Fuchs, redubbed Fox. Once set, the Runaways were promptly signed to Mercury Records. For most of them, it was their first band. None of them was older than 17.

Until tragedy struck the Pesaventos, Sandy was an active, happy child from prosperous, middle-class suburban L.A. Maybe because he realized he was never going to have a son, father Gene bonded with the youngest of his four daughters, fixing cars and playing ball together. "They were close," says Teri Miranti, the second-oldest daughter. "She related to him and he related to her."

Second-wave feminism and Title IX were opening doors for women, and the youngest Pesavento eagerly rushed through them. That challenge to do whatever the guys did was both Sandy's lifelong drive and part of her downfall. She played tennis and basketball, swam competitively, ran track, surfed, waterskied and rode horses. "She was incredibly energetic, hysterical, very funny, athletic," says Lori, the third daughter.

Sandy was smart, but she struggled in school. Lori attributes her difficulties to conditions with which she was diagnosed decades later: "Early on, she had a lot of challenges with academic performances primarily because she had a lot of learning disabilities, which later on in life we learned that she had ADHD. She had challenges that were around things like mood disorders, bipolar disorders."

In fourth grade, Sandy made it clear that she was not going to follow in the classical path paved by her sisters. Ellen played violin, Lori viola, Teri cello. The family wanted Sandy to be a violinist, so the daughters could form a string quartet. Sandy lasted about two weeks. "She said, 'No way,'" her mother, Jeri, says. "'You know what: I can be the first girl drummer in Prisk Elementary School.' That's how it began."

On Jan. 25, 1971, Sandy had just returned from school when Gene Pesavento had a massive heart attack at home, and died. "It was very traumatic for my family," says Lori. "It was off the Richter scale."

Sandy, 11, took it especially hard. "When I first met her, she talked a lot about her dad, how much she missed him," says Pam Apostolou, who befriended West in 1980. "Her dad got her."

In 1972, Jeri married Dick Williams, a former colleague of Gene's, whose wife had also recently died — and who, oddly enough, had three daughters, including a Sandy. The new, blended family moved to Huntington Beach, a place where they could start over on equal ground, not surrounded by memories of lost loved ones. Some of the daughters were in college or lived elsewhere. Still, the Huntington Beach house held five girls, three cats and two dogs who were trying to navigate deep hurt, massive change, puberty and one another's spaces. This was no Brady Bunch story.

"We were struggling at first, getting to know each other," says Jeri.

Sandy was outgoing, fun, easy to get along with, popular enough to be elected governor of her seventh grade. But Lori recalls her transition into puberty as bumpy. "She was very androgynous. She was one of those girls who didn't develop very early. People used to call her a boy. That upset her."

Around this time, Lori and Sandy were realizing they had something in common: They both liked girls. During her lifetime, Sandy also had boyfriends, but her primary relationships were with women. "Early on," says Lori, "she was very clear with me about her orientation. I don't sense she ever really struggled with it."

Music and sports were Sandy's outlets. By the mid-'70s, she was listening to hard rock and playing in a local band. Her drumming heroes were Led Zeppelin's John Bonham and Queen's Roger Taylor. Sandy poured her athleticism into pounding those skins.

"Sandy early on was pretty determined that she wanted to play rock music," Lori says. "It was a way for her to translate the grief. And she was a phenomenal natural drummer. I don't think the boys in the business ever even saw that coming."

By 1975, pop music had a noble history of female-vocal groups, but not of bands made up of women playing the instruments. Such acts as Goldie and the Gingerbreads and Fanny broke ground culturally but did not have much impact commercially. And they weren't composed of five hot teenagers, three of whom, at least — Lita, Sandy and Joan — could seriously play. Another, Currie, was a Promethean ingenue, a rape victim who strutted in a corset like it was armor and sang like she was going to draw blood. The Runaways created a West Coast version of glam rock that was part metal, part bubblegum and proto-punk.

 

The five strangers got to know one another fast. Shoved into a van and sent touring across the U.S., and then England, they eventually made it to Japan, where they were greeted with something like mass hysteria. The Runaways were like a girl gang, or a deranged sorority. "Being on the road was like taking a small child and a few of her friends to the zoo for the first time," says Currie. "There was wonderment of everything we were experiencing, good or bad. We were a family."

They were forging and experiencing something woefully rare in American society: the power of females working, creating, living and loving together. Occasionally, the love was physical. Currie got intimate with both Jett and West. "Back then in the mid-'70s, that was just what happened," Currie says. "At that time — David Bowie and Elton John — everybody was coming out. We experimented together. We had fun. We loved each other."

The Runaways had to become one another's support, because by choice and by circumstance, they were separated from their families. Currie's parents had recently divorced. Jett's father had left. Perhaps caught up in their own sorrows, the others didn't even realize West had issues. Sandy's parents loved her, but they didn't care for the music — and they certainly didn't care for Fowley.

"When he walked in the door, I was not happy," says Jeri. "He was not good news."

The Williams' understandable parental concern could have felt to West like lack of support. The band's name was a gimmick, but maybe, in a sense, she was running away from a relatively conservative upbringing. In order to be closer to the band and the action, West was living in West L.A. with her sister Teri, who was in college and had her own life to live.

"I think that [her] family didn't know what to do with her need to be a drummer, her need to kick ass, her need to dominate the world of rock & roll and be a crusader," Fowley says. "I think that was her burning need to get out there. She escaped the golden ghetto."

West saw the Runaways as a team. While other band members were taking shots at each other, she was quick to punch out anyone who threatened or insulted her bandmates. She told her friend Jerry Venemann about an incident when the band was hanging out with the Sex Pistols in London. On a houseboat on the Thames, Sid Vicious kept pawing at Jett, who was in no mood, or condition, for love. West told him to quit. Vicious kept harassing Jett, so West picked up the skinny bassist and dropped him into the river.

And then it began to seem that the people the Runaways most needed protection from were the people with whom they were working.

In Sigismondi's cinematic version of The Runaways, which opens March 19, Michael Shannon's Fowley steals the film — as any good villain should. There's no doubt Fowley, who was 36 at the band's inception, was the Runaways' evil genius, picking their name and accompanying bad-girl image, priming and primping — and pimping? — them for rock stardom.

The girls went along with this to a degree, dressing and posing provocatively. But sometimes, the sexploitation went too far. An English ad for Queens of Noise, for example, featured disembodied crotch shots of the teenagers in fetishistic gear. In article after article, male journalists slobbered over the Runaways, asking them for their body measurements, passing over their musical talents.

West's family blames Fowley for exposing her to the chemical lifestyle that ultimately derailed her. West herself spoke bitterly of the manager, and most of the people who know her say she stayed angry with him for much of her life. There were serious money issues. Bun E. Carlos, the drummer for Cheap Trick, remembers when his band and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers opened for the Runaways in Detroit in 1977. The girls were driving a rental car they hadn't returned and were "living off nothing, no advances, peanuts. The gild was off the lily for the band. We knew they were being taken advantage of." Still, Carlos says, "Without Kim, they wouldn't have been there at all."

Jett, who remains friendly with Fowley, firmly rejects the charge that the girls were his victims: "This whole abuse thing is maddening to me. I think in hindsight people have to create monsters, but they should look at their own shit and responsibility in not making it happen. If you feel abused, get the fuck out. Nobody was forced to stay."

 

Fox and Currie did get out of what by 1977 had become an overheated pressure cooker of underage sex, ready drugs and kick-ass rock & roll. In Japan, Fox cut herself with a broken glass and left the band, replaced by Victory Tischler, aka Vicki Blue. Currie quit a few months later, when the Runaways were in the middle of recording their third studio album, Waitin' for the Night. The final straw for the singer: a Crawdaddy! article in which Fowley said that the best thing Currie could do would be to hang herself.

Fowley admits he was in over his head as the Runaways' manager, denying either knowledge or memory of many of the charges against him. He was not on the road with the band and puts much of the blame for unhealthy high jinks on the tour manager, Scotty Anderson (who got Currie pregnant, according to her book).

"Their age group was rebelling against parents, teachers, Sunday school," Fowley says. "The feminist movement started in the early '70s, here we were in '75. Suddenly I have five warriors, cheerleaders with atomic weapons, ready to kick ass."

In the end, it was Fowley's ass the girls kicked, firing him in '77. The band was a trio by '78: West, Jett (who also sang lead) and Ford (on lead guitar and bass). They hired a new manager, Toby Mamis, and a new producer, John Alcock, a Brit who had worked with Thin Lizzy. "They had a sense of frustration that they were previously not really allowed to develop as musicians," says Alcock. "They wanted to focus more on the music and less on the image."

But by the time they recorded their fourth studio album, And Now ... the Runaways, their musical tastes were splitting. While West and Ford cut their teeth on metal, glam fan Jett was getting more and more into punk. "We all had dark stuff going on toward the end of the band, after Cherie left," Jett says. "I just sensed it was going to slowly die. ... Look at any picture of us as a four-piece; you won't find one picture of us smiling. ... We decided that New Year's Eve 1978 would be our last gig."

One song in the Runaways' live set focused on West's showmanship and singing: a cover of the Troggs' 1960s garage-rock classic, "Wild Thing," captured in a video moment in Japan. The instruments stop on the verses and West raises one of those long, sinewy arms — she had arms like Tina Turner has legs — and sings: "Wild thing, I think I love you." Then she smashes the sticks down for two beats. "I want to know for sure." She's pointing at the audience. "C'mon and hold me tight." Her hand is in the sky now, twirling the stick like a Wild West gunman. "You move me."

"Wild Thing" was West's signature. After the Runaways broke up, it became a way of life.

The Runaways introduced West to a lifestyle she never figured out how to move beyond. At the age when she should have been learning practical life skills, she was shooting heroin with Keith Moon (according to a story she told her sister Ellen). Careers and lives lost to drug abuse are unfortunately a dime a dozen in rock & roll, but West took an especially crazy turn. She freebased coke and took crystal meth. She became a drug runner and dealer's bodyguard. She carried a gun. She was involved in scary, violent scenes that she told only a select few friends about, memories of which probably only deepened her depressive states. She was arrested and jailed repeatedly.

Initially, West was excited to start a new, mixed-gender band with Ford, working with Alcock. But after a few months, when that failed to get off the ground and Ford moved on, she began to realize the enormity of what she had lost.

West saw the success Jett and Ford had as solo artists and was determined to compete. She formed her own group, the Sandy West Band. The music was good, but if labels thought the Runaways were dead without Currie, they certainly weren't interested in a band fronted by a drummer.

"She had a very healthy ego," says her sister Ellen. "She became delusional about how great she was. She had visions of being a really big star getting an enormous amount of attention. Meanwhile there was the deterioration of the addiction, all that going downward. It's such a Greek tragedy."

Family remained important to West. But she didn't see her parents and sisters that often. She seemed to feel alienated by how different her life had become. Instead, she built an alternative family. Often, West turned to fans for friendships. Some of those people were vital links in her support network, but there were also hangers-on who took advantage of her, who just wanted to party with a rock star.

 

"Because Sandy's life didn't move forward as well as the others', it was easier for her to fall back on drinking and drugs," says Alcock. "She started doing some fairly heavy partying with people I didn't know, somewhere down in the beach communities. Those were not great people."

She would disappear with these people, into black holes of drug-fueled behavior. Family and friends staged interventions; West went into rehab a few times. But she always fell off the wagon.

At one point, says Currie, "she came over to the house and she was freebasing cocaine, which I tried desperately to get her to stop. It was extremely difficult to watch her do it. Having been in her position, I knew all the begging in the world wouldn't stop her."

The thing that was destroying West, says Ellen, was "the evil drug ... crystal meth. One time I drove her home. I just remember trying to relate to her. I looked at her and saw her teeth getting black. I saw the tremors. She was disconnected, couldn't have a coherent conversation."

Sometimes, when West disappeared from friends' and families' lives, it turned out she was in jail. Her life of crime had begun harmlessly enough: On a Runaways tour in Europe, she, Currie and Jett were arrested for stealing hotel keys. Her stateside arrest record starts in 1988, when she was picked up in Orange County for driving under the influence. There were at least six arrests after that, in multiple counties: more DUIs, possession of controlled substances, possession of illegal substances, driving with a suspended license. She was able to serve some of her sentences concurrently. Friends say she took her jail time in stride, that perhaps it was easier for her to be institutionalized.

"She told me that in some ways being in prison reminded her of being in a band," says Lauren Varga, who befriended and played guitar with West in the '90s. "She said, 'I was living in such a bad way that when I went away, that was the only stability I had for a year. When I got back out, it was back into the chaos.'"

In fact, West was lucky to get put away for minor charges when she was doing much worse things. "Sandy got involved with mob-type figures," says Tischler-Blue: "Because she had this all-American-girl look, people wouldn't red-flag her. She started running drugs into the recording studios. Sandy loved coke. That was this turn that took her down a very different road. That road led to the underbelly of the Hollywood music scene. At that time, there were some really bad characters moving around. Heavy-duty drug people. Gunrunning people."

Looking tough but emotional, West talks about "the dangerous adventures of me" in Tischler-Blue's 2004 documentary about the band, Edgeplay. "Maybe that was the self-destructive side of me. Maybe I was out to push it. I was fearless. You go down and break somebody's door down. They've got guns all over you, you've got guns all over them. You don't know who's going to get killed. ... I had to break somebody's arm once. I had to shove a gun down somebody's throat once and watch them shit their pants. And then you look around and say, 'I just wanted to be a drummer in a rock band.'"

Near the end of her life, West lived in circumstances demeaning to a former rock star: in a trailer in San Dimas. She appeared to be getting her life together. She released a four-song EP that shows her multiple talents: singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, drummer. She shared the trailer with Jan Miller, a quiet widow nine years older than West with an adult son. They signed a domestic-partnership agreement, and with Miller's insurance, West was able to get a needed hysterectomy. She was playing with Venemann and had formed a band with guitarist Varga and others, which they jokingly called Blue Fox after the Runaways' bassists. She was also working different jobs — handyman, vet's assistant, drum teacher. She had a dog, CJ, her surrogate child. "I just want to settle down and have a family," she told Miller.

But then she was arrested again, for possession of drugs and paraphernalia. In the era of three strikes, this was one offense too many. This time, West was sent not to the relatively tame county jail for a short stint, but to state prison in Chowchilla for 18 months. She found herself surrounded by hard-core criminals.

 

Before she went in, she did rehab one more time, this time at a facility specifically for musicians. Friends say this stint may have succeeded better than others. "She really was a different person," says Varga. "She said, 'It's taken me almost 30 years to get over this band. I really just have to let it go.'"

But West didn't have time to find out if she was cleaned up for good. Not long after arriving at Chowchilla, she developed a bad cough. It was small-cell lung cancer — the deadly, aggressive kind.

West underwent chemotherapy while still in prison. When finally released, she returned to Miller's care, and they moved to a house in West Covina. By this point, West's family was back in her life, helping to take care of her. Currie, Blue and other friends were there often. Jett visited her. She and Ford talked on the phone.

West's last months of life were full of pain, as the cancer, which moved to her brain, ate away at her. She lost some of the things that defined her: her golden hair and the strength to drum. She gained religion and a determination to do good. When she recovered, she said, she planned to speak to young people about the perils of drug use. "Through her suffering, and she really did suffer a lot, she became closer to her faith and wrote quite a few songs that were spiritual," says Jeri.

West was moved to a hospice. On October 21, 2006, Ellen had the feeling she had to get there right away, so she drove like crazy from San Francisco. Half an hour after her arrival, Sandy "West" Pesavento died. She's buried at Forest Lawn cemetery in Cypress, next to her father.

West had two dying wishes, Miller says: to have her autobiography published and the music she was working on released. Varga is working on both, though West's family is not eager to have her secrets exposed. The family donates West's royalties to the hospice and to a scholarship fund at the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in Portland. So West is not only still inspiring other women to rock, she's helping to pay their way.

West did live long enough to sell her life rights to the producers of The Runaways and to know that the band might be immortalized on film. But Sigismondi's movie focuses on the relationship between Currie and Jett. Sandy West has only a bit part.

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