It’s an Aerosmith morning for Lita Ford. “Pink, it’s my fave-or-ite color,” she sang in Steven Tyler’s drawl over the phone. The 57-year-old singer/guitarist is reveling in all her favorite things these days, even 1997 hits. That’s about the time she left the music industry to raise her sons on the remote British island territory, Turks and Caicos, about 600 miles southeast of Miami.
But Ford’s exile was all but idyllic. In her new memoir Living Like a Runaway, Ford explains how a ubiquitous Grammy-nominated artist went from rocking out with Joan Jett in the Runaways and dueting with Ozzy Osbourne on a Top 10 hit to utter isolation. Ford might not have made it back at all if it wasn’t for a chance encounter with her hair metal counterpart, Dee Snider, who visited the islands on a family vacation. The “Kiss Me Deadly” singer, who is touring with Halestorm this summer, spoke with Rolling Stone about living with the erratic Runaways creator Kim Fowley, her tumultuous relationship with Tony Iommi and the time Robert Plant asked her to replace John Paul Jones in 1975.
Hair metal wasn’t exactly a welcoming genre for female musicians and life on the Sunset Strip is portrayed as a boys’ club. How do you reflect on that period of your life?
I was pretty oblivious to the fact that I didn’t have a penis between my legs. It never dawned on me. All I knew is that I had fingers and I had the lust for hard rock. I wanted to play it and that’s what I went by. I never thought, “Oh, I’m not a dude and chicks don’t do this.” A lot of people in the industry thought it was wrong and didn’t want to accept the fact they were producing a female artist. Even some of my bandmates I had trouble with. They would think, “If she can do it then I can do it.” They’d come back a few years later and say, “Do you still need a guitarist?”
Taylor Swift at the Grammy Awards about men in the industry taking credit for her work. Does that ring true for you?
All the time. Mostly in the earlier stages of my solo career, during my first solo album, Out For Blood. As things went on, it seemed to get better. … The only people that accepted me as a musician was other musicians. People like Edward Van Halen, Billy Sheehan — true musicians like them accepted me.
What did you learn from working with Runaways manager Kim Fowley?
Kim Fowley was a huge influence. The girls can bag on Kim all they want but he really showed us how to have our own individual personalities [on stage] and how to have our own musical styles. He said, “Go ahead and copy your peers and heroes, but you can’t be them — you have to be yourself.” And he had to scrape, scratch and grovel for his own life growing up. He had his little Kim-isms like, “Let’s do the dog dance,” which meant lets go out and rock. Without Kim, there may not have been a Joan Jett. There may not have been a Lita Ford.
Your former Runaways bandmate Jackie “Fox” Fuchs recently came forward about Fowley allegedly raping her at a party while Joan Jett and Cherie Currie watched. Do you remember any talk of Fowley’s behavior back then?
No, not that I heard. Honestly, Joan, Cherie and I did not really hang out together even though we were in the same band. I’m assuming things went on that I didn’t know about. Jackie was one person I’d hang out with because the other girls didn’t want to be around her. I would room with her and got to know her pretty well. She never said anything about Kim Fowley touching her like that. But I know for a fact that girls who are raped or molested are afraid to mention it in front of the abuser. If the abuser is put in jail or dead, like Kim Fowley, then they feel safe and feel that they can mention what happened. I think that’s what happened with Jackie. Now that Kim passed she felt like she needed to speak out. A lot of people are like, “Why would she speak out now that he can’t defend himself?” And it’s because, I would assume, she was scared.
What was your reaction when you read her statement?
I wasn’t surprised. Then again, is it really true? I don’t know.
You almost left the Runaways early on after finding out that three-fifths of the band was gay or bisexual.
I didn’t know what it was and I was 15. It freaked me out. I was completely ignorant. I don’t even think my parents knew what being gay was. A long time after [the Runaways], my mother rented video from Blockbuster and it was porno and she didn’t know it. So she brings it home to watch with her girlfriends and it’s two guys getting it on. So she calls me up and explains it’s not the movie she wanted, but it’s two men having sex, and I said, ‘Yeah?’ And she said, ‘Do they really do that?’ I said, ‘Yes, mom, they do.’
Runaways drummer Sandy West seemed like your compatriot. Were you in touch with her before she died?
I was. Sandy and I had some problems and I didn’t talk to her for a while. All of a sudden I got a phone call from her and she was really sick, crying, and said, ‘I’m going to die.’ She said she’d been given three years to live and I knew by the tone of her voice it was not three years. She passed literally three months after that phone call. If she had told me the truth, I would have gotten on a plane to see her. But at least we got on the phone and said our goodbyes, said I love you. I spoke with Joan on the phone after Sandy passed. We really had nothing to say to each other, just tears. Our Runaways days are long gone and our friendship will never be what it was. She’s surrounded with very odd people, I’ve got to say. I think the president of the United States would be easier to get to.
Around 1999 there was talk of a Runaways reunion and Currie kind of blamed you for stifling it. Why were you opposed to a reunion then as opposed to now?
Joan got on the phone and instantly I wanted to hang up. It was just wrong, bad timing. Grunge was in full force — no one cared about the Runaways back then — they didn’t want to hear about it. Now, I think the Runaways would be huge again.
You wrote about several other famous musicians who just recently died like Lemmy Kilmister who cowrote one of your biggest songs “Can’t Catch Me” after a drug-fueled night at the Rainbow. Were you close to him before he died?
I was. My bass player Marty O’Brien and I had been invited to perform a Motörhead song at a party for Lemmy, which was about a week before his passing. He looked frail. I don’t want to remember him like that, because that’s not the Lemmy I knew. Cancer does terrible things to people. But he went happy. Lemmy lived the way he wanted to live. He did what the hell he wanted to do. He was there a week prior to his passing because he didn’t want to lie in a hospital bed, instead he said let’s go rock out. It made him feel better.
And your mother had an encounter with David Bowie?
Isn’t that funny? My father had passed away and she was alone, so I often took her on the road with me. At this awards show in New York City she was bored when I was getting my hair and makeup done. So she said, I’ll go look around and she disappeared. When I was done, I found her on the couch next to David Bowie. Honestly, Bowie in a weird way reminded her of my father. My father was this little British gentleman dressed nice with slicked back hair and spoke with a thick cockney accent. I think when she saw David, she saw my father.
Did you ever tell John Paul Jones about the time Plant asked you to play bass in Led Zeppelin in 1975?
No [laughs]. I didn’t take [Plant] seriously. I thought, “You’re going to replace one of my favorite bass players on the planet with a 17-year-old girl? Are you drunk?” And I walked away! I took it as a compliment, hugged him and we talked about music for a while.
It was risky to detail the high-profile trysts you had with people like Jon Bon Jovi, Eddie Van Halen and Nikki Sixx. There’s a double standard that women can’t be respected musicians and date musicians at the same time.
I didn’t think like that. I was just surrounded by rock stars. It’s like if you work at a bank and end up dating a bank teller. I was in a rock band and ended up dating rockers. Plus, none of us were married then. We were free spirits.
You wrote that Sharon Osbourne suspected you slept with her husband, Ozzy, the night you wrote “Close My Eyes Forever” together in 1987.
I’m guessing that’s what she thought. We haven’t spoken since then. I know at the time she was managing me, Ozzy had a lot of drug issues. He was at his worst. He was messing around and doing things he shouldn’t have been doing as a married man. I can see why Sharon would think I was one of those girls. But I would never have done that to Sharon. I loved her as a human being and as a manager.
There’s a myth that goes along with “Close My Eyes Forever” that Sharon locked you and Ozzy in a room and said “Don’t come out until you have a hit!” Do you have any idea where that came from?
No. What happened is I was in the studio with Mike Chapman working on the Lita album. Ozzy and Sharon came to say hello and bring me a housewarming gift — a life-sized duplicate stuffed animal of Koko the gorilla from the San Francisco Zoo. Sharon walks in with this gorilla with Ozzy, I took a break and we started playing pool. Sharon got bored and left without Ozzy. Off to the side of the studio was a room with keyboards and guitars and we went in the room, started jamming and we had written “Close My Eyes” by the time the sun was coming up.
You wrote a lot about how deceptive rock stars can be, particularly Ozzy’s Black Sabbath bandmate Tony Iommi. He physically abused you during your engagement. Did he ever reach out to atone for what he did?
No. We actually reached out [to Iommi] before we released the book and he never responded. We haven’t spoken since those days.
One of your first guitars was a chocolate Gibson SG, because you thought it was the one Iommi played. A decade later, you had to teach him his own riffs because he was too high to remember them. What was that like?
It leaves you bitter. It hurt me to discover that this person I thought was a god could be so fucked up and so mean. He wasn’t the person who I fell in love with or the person I had worshipped. Still today, I worship the musician because of what I remember about him, his guitar playing. I forget the rest. He’s probably totally clean and sober now. Back then there were just a lot of drugs flying around. It was almost like being with Elvis Presley — he could pick up the phone and have four doctors at his doorstep. He would get jars and jars of pills and cocaine on a daily basis.
The abuse didn’t start right away. The punch in the eye on the airplane was the first actual hit I took from him. He waited for a place where I couldn’t get away. I didn’t think he would do it again. I thought maybe it was the drugs, maybe he took something that would make him fly off the handle and once the drugs wore off it, it would be okay. I went to my mother and said I had a friend who’d been hit by her boyfriend. She said in her thick Italian accent, “Lita, he do it once, he do it again” and she was right. He did it again and that’s when I took all my stuff and the ring he gave me and went to a pawn shop.
You’re back working with some of your pals from the Eighties on your new album, Time Capsule. You can hear the influence of songs like “Kiss Me Deadly” on Taylor Swifts’ 1989, one of the the biggest albums of 2015. Why do you think the Eighties are having such a comeback now?
It just feels like the right time. People that lived the Eighties are getting older and they miss it. Now there are teenagers saying, “I wish I was there for that.” Time Capsule isn’t something I recently wrote — it’s a piece of the Eighties and a lot of musicians from the era contributed like Gene Simmons, Dave Navarro, Robin Zander, Jeff Scott Soto, Rick Nielsen and Billy Sheehan.
Have you heard the Hollywood Vampires?
That is so cool. I haven’t heard the album yet, but that is just so badass. I wrote a song a while back that I wanted to sing with Alice Cooper. Maybe that dream will come true.
I was actually just watching a clip of you and Alice Cooper presenting the Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance to Slash and Duff for “Patience.”
I talk to Slash every once in a while. We played the Whisky last January together and he wrote a piece for my new album.
No, the one after that — the album we’re writing right now.
You’re already working on your next album?
[Laughs.] Yes. We’re still in the early stages. But when something hits you, you’ve got to grab it.