When most teenage girls were aspiring to become prom queen, preparing for their driver’s license, and confined to classrooms, 17-year-old Lita Ford was already crowned Queen of Noise, riding in limousines, and taking lessons from the school of life as lead guitarist and “eldest” member of the groundbreaking, hard-rocking, all-female Runaways. Now, more than 3 decades later, Ford has no regrets about putting down her schoolbooks and picking up an electric guitar. “I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything. As a matter of fact, I think it’s just the opposite. For instance, geography—I actually got to go to those places, instead of just reading about them. Now you can go online, but back then, all you had was a textbook. So it was very educational—the currency, the food, the people, the locations.”
And while the Runaways were on the road learning about the geography of the land, they were changing the landscape of music. “That was 1975, when the Runaways came out. We were before our time—It wasn’t typical for a teenager to be a celebrity back then. Now it is,” Ford says.
When The Runaways infiltrated the male-dominated realm of hard rock, their bold, sexual lyrics and loud, aggressive playing drew devoted supporters, as well as skeptics who questioned Lita Ford’s credibility. “People would say, ‘Girls don’t play guitar,’” she recalls. “And it just encouraged me to play more. It opened the doors for other women that wanted to play guitar. You don’t have to have a penis to play guitar [laughs].”
You don’t have to have a penis to play guitar.
Despite lacking that particular appendage, in some ways the Runaways still behaved like typical teenagers of any gender. “During that time, you’re a raging hormone, so you want to sleep late, you don’t want to get up early, you want to hang in bed, you want to stay up late,” Ford says. “It’s like, ‘no, you have to catch a flight. You cannot stay in bed.’ When you’re an adult, you’re able to handle that a little bit better. You’re a little more self-disciplined.”
After five whirlwind years of touring and recording—and learning how to get up in time to catch their flights—the Runaways parted ways. But Lita Ford wasn’t ready to lock her guitar in its case just yet. She was going to try flying solo. “When the Runaways broke up I wanted to portray my guitar playing first. I wanted to be recognized as a guitar player,” she emphasizes. “And back then my heroes were Richie Blackmore, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant on vocals. So for me, I had to do it by myself. I couldn’t have any other guitar player in the band. I had to be the only guitar player. But the problem was, I didn’t know how to sing. So I had to try to find a singer that really could sing great. I couldn’t find anybody. So I thought, ‘I gotta learn how to sing. I gotta learn how to do this myself á la Jimi Hendrix style with just him on vocals, him on guitar, and his bass and drummer.’ I rented a warehouse and I got in there with my amplifiers, I got a PA system, and I just screamed and played guitar at the same time, and tried to sing.”
At first, Lita Ford found all of this multi-tasking a bit daunting, inspiring her to try a radical approach. “I kept finding myself having to look down at the fretboard to see where my fingers were,” she explains. “That was another challenge for me, trying to figure out how to play guitar but don’t look to see where your fingers are. So I started to get into Johnny Winter because Johnny Winter was a guitar player and a lead singer at the same time, and he never looked at his guitar playing. So I had a special guitar made that had no frets and no dots, so even though I was playing the guitar and looked at it, I still didn’t know where I was. I had to feel my way through to try to figure out how to play and E chord or an F sharp without looking at it and be able to entertain the audience at the same time.
“Once I got all that dialed in,” Lita Ford continues, “and I was able to entertain an audience, play guitar, sing lead, and front the band at the same time, I did my first album, Out For Blood. Then slowly I was able to add a second guitar player, and I was still recognized for playing the guitar—not the guy.”
The payoff for all of that hard work was not only showmanship and craftsmanship onstage, but numerous pop-metal hits including Gotta Let Go, Kiss Me Deadly, Back to the Cave, Falling in and Out of Love, and the chart-topping ballad, Close My Eyes Forever, a duet with Ozzy Osbourne.
Now, after a decade-and-a-half, Lita Ford has released Living Like a Runaway (SPV/Steamhammer) a hard-driving, powderkeg of an album available in four different versions—vinyl, standard CD, limited edition CD with two bonus tracks, and digital. Its raw emotions reflect the ordeal of divorcing her husband of 16 years, ex-Nitro singer Jim Gillette, who met and married her in 1994 after a two-week romance. “We moved to live in Oregon where it was quiet and peaceful. I wasn’t working at the time because the music scene had pretty much turned grunge, and to tell you the truth, I really needed a break. I had gone through the Runaways days, I’d gone through all the Lita Ford days, and it was almost 20 years of playing when I got married to Jim. So I was ready to chill out.”
After having two sons, Rocco and James, the family decided it was time for a change of scenery, and moved to their very own deserted island paradise that eventually became more like a prison. “We moved to the Caribbean and lived in a house that Jim built. I home schooled my children and spent all my time with my kids, just being with them and walking the beach. It was wonderful being with my children. Unfortunately, Mr. Gillette is extremely controlling,” Lita Ford divulges. “Just too controlling for me. So in 2010 I filed for divorce.”
While many of the songs on Living Like a Runaway convey the turbulence of that divorce, they also allowed Ford to let off steam when she was at the boiling point. “I’m very bitter because of what he’s done to my kids,” Lita Ford states. “People use their children when they go through divorces, and they want their children to like them better than their significant other. That’s wrong, because your divorce is about you and your ex. Your divorce has nothing to do with your child. So it was the darkest time in my life when I wrote the album, Living Like a Runaway. I had nowhere to release my anger. The only way I could release it was through my music.”
One of those therapeutic songs is the haunting Mother, with palpable anguish in lyrics like, “My little ones, do you know how sorry I am/Just know you’ll always have your mother,” co-written by producer/guitarist Gary Hoey. “We started stripping everything away and we left the song with just acoustic guitars and lead vocals, and it made it so personable. You can hear every breath and whimper in that song until the bridge,” Ford describes. “And that’s the angry part of the song, because I’ve been alienated out of my kids’ lives by their father. This is my song to them. I hope one day they’ll hear it and they’ll understand that what happened in our relationship was nothing to do with them, and that I love them—be now I have no communication with them. They’re still on a deserted island.”
Another song about love’s scars is A Song to Slit Your Wrists By, originally penned by Nikki Sixx for his own ex-wife 15 years ago, and sledgehammered into a more industrial, Nine Inch Nails vibe by Ford and Hoey. “We really did Lita-ize it because it’s nothing like the original Nikki version. It’s a completely different song.” Ford adds, “Nikki’s been a real good friend. And he’s helped me through divorce, because Nikki went through some horrific divorces.”
But good memories bubble to the surface, too, in the song’s title track. “Living Like a Runaway refers back to the Runaways days. We were running crazy, running wild, living on the edge, yet living in style. And it refers to growing up in a teenage rock band on the streets of Hollywood and touring through the US and Europe. I remember my mom would always say,” Ford shifts into an exaggerated Italian accent, “‘Go kick ass, those people. You just kick ass, those people.’”
Still fondly reminiscing, Lita Ford continues, “And riding in the back of a black limousine, I would literally stare at the stars, because the drives were so long, and I would pray for God to make me a better guitar player and guide me.”
Gary [Hoey] is my producer. Now he’s in my band as my guitar player. He is not my lover. He never has been and never will be.
Ford’s tone turns playful when discussing writing the album with Hoey. “I would spend about four or five days with Gary, and all we would do is write and record. Gary is my producer. Now he’s in my band as my guitar player. He is not my lover. He never has been and never will be. But I gotta tell you,” she says with a chuckle, “it’s like having the best sex of your life when you write and record a song that you love! And I love the whole album.”
Before Lita Ford would write that album and bask in the afterglow, she had to come back to the United States and adjust to a life that was more turf than surf. “One of the reasons I came back was I wanted to play Rocklahoma,” she explains. “And I had been on this deserted island for 10 years. I hadn’t worn makeup. I hadn’t even really worn clothes [laughs]. I had to convert myself back into civilization. But everything had changed. I couldn’t even dial a fricking phone number, because they added [new] area codes. I didn’t know how to work the freakin’ phone!”
Maybe she was puzzled by the phone, but Ford was still completely dialed in as queen of the fretboard, a fact that hadn’t been forgotten by her fans when she played Rocklahoma. “There was a vibe at the show like somebody was there from a higher level,” she says. “And I asked one of the promoters, ‘Who’s here that’s so exciting that everybody wants to see?’ And they just looked at me and went, ‘Lita, it’s you!’ And I went, ‘What? Really? Wow, how cool is that!’ It was the best feeling in the world.”
And now that Lita Ford has the new tunes from Living Like a Runaway, under her studded leather belt, she’ll get to road test them when she teams up with Def Leppard and Poison this summer on the Rock of Ages Tour. “It’s a lot of work and I’m just gearing up,” she says of preparations for the tour that, as of this writing, will hit Irvine, California on June 22. “I’m getting all my amps polished, and getting some new stage clothes made, and I’m just getting really excited. I miss everybody.”
Despite her prowess as a musical pioneer and metal icon, Ford speaks with great respect and appreciation for her fans. “I’ve received the best letters. Oh my God, they’re so heartwarming,” she enthuses. “And it’s not just girls. It’s males, as well—young and older men. I’ve been an inspiration to a lot of people. And it’s the best. It is absolutely life-changing for me in a great way.”