All that’s left of the Sugar Shack is the writing on the wall. A pizzeria now stands in the strip mall where, during the mid 1970s, the infamous all-ages club drew nubile nymphets from the Valley and Hollywood. The erstwhile lip-gloss mecca is on the other side of Laurel Canyon from the Sunset Strip, in a cute little gabled complex that also houses an old-fashioned photo service and a restaurant named Classique Raphy’s. It’s kind of hard to believe that, after the shuttering of the even more infamous Rodney’s English Disco, this suburban outpost became ground zero for the fertile, decadent LA glam scene — this picturesque commercial corner was jailbait central. It was here that Joan Jett and Kim Fowley found a blond bombshell singer, Cherie Currie, for the all-girl band they were forming, the Runaways. The only traces of that past, along with other graffiti Magic Markered on the white walls of Joe Peep’s Pizza, are tags celebrating: “Sugar Shack.” “Hollywood.” “1776 Biecentennial. 1976 Biesexual (sic).”
Chuck E. Starr, the Sugar Shack’s gender- and genre-mixing DJ, told me he used to wear a T-shirt with that last couplet emblazoned on it. “Everybody was going with everybody; everybody was sleeping with everybody,” Starr said. “I mean the thought of sleeping with the same person twice disgusted you. Who would do such a thing?” Ah, the spirit of ’76: a twist of nostalgic nationalism with lifestyle change. Today, you can order your slice of memories with pepperoni to go.
Last Saturday Kari Krome — the “teenage Frankenstein” (her phrase) whose songs inspired the formation of the Runaways — took me on a tour of Hollywood and beyond: the mostly gone hangouts and haunts where the band met, partied, recorded, fought, fucked, and generally presaged by a couple decades the sexploitation antics of Girls Gone Wild.
“The Runaways were just teenage girls. That’s what rock’n’roll’s about,” says Krome. “The hookers, at that time, were on Sunset down by Rodneys. Joan, [roadie] Kent [Smythe], and the rest — I think [manager] Scott [Anderson] may have been involved — would harass the hookers. You know, it was the stupid shit you do when you’re a kid for fun. Hose somebody down. Except you’re on Sunset with a seltzer bottle and a crazy tranny is chasing you. Bad girls, beep beep!”
Rodney’s was Krome’s haven. She was a latchkey kid who used to hitchhike to Hollywood to be with other social and sexual misfits. “It was safe,” she says. “There were guys running around like Chuck E. Starr. He was practically the mascot of the place. Despite all the hormones jumping off, guys like him were sexually non threatening because they were gay. They made it a safer place to be. It sent a message that it was ok to be gay or bi, and that they wouldn’t hit on us. Rodney’s was gay/bi, a smattering of creepy swinger couples, groupies, and glitterbabies, and musicians and sexual predators. There were people jumping off on whatever. But it was also extremely sleazy. There were 15 and 16 year olds that were extremely jaded. Like mother and daughter groupie teams.”
Krome was a 14-year-old Carole King when Rodney Bingenheimer introduced her to Fowley. The infamous Fowley wanted her songs, so signed her to a publishing deal (which she quickly regretted). She wanted an all-girl band to perform her songs, so she introduced Kim to a 15-year-old guitarist she’d met (“we kind of like became girlfriends”). Fowley formed the Runaways around Joan Jett. As her idea took off, Krome, er, ran away — figuratively and literally.
Krome has mostly bitter memories of her rock’n’roll baptism (more details to come in my book, Queens of Noise). She’s the real deal, smart and talented, a survivor of poverty and broken families and Kim Fowley — a bonafide JT Leroy. And she was kind enough to show me where it all happened, or some of it at least.
The Hollywood of the short-lived glam era is long gone. A bank sits in the Runaways’ old rehearsal space on Santa Monica. The Starwood, where Bingenheimer discovered Runaways bassist Jackie Fox, is a Russian delicatessen. There’s a blow-out luggage sale where Iggy Pop once threatened to commit suicide at Rodney’s. Lurid nightlife has been made over as limpid commerce.
The Whiskey and the Rainbow Bar and Grill are still there, though they’re more like tourist simulacra of their old hip selves. Was Hollywood better when it was the empire of sleaze, when pederasts and predators were just part of the perverts? Back then, it was the place to go to escape the concrete patios and electrical towers of Krome’s grim Compton childhood. But it housed its own perils.
“Hollywood has its own breed of sleaze that’s really disgusting,” says Krome, who co-penned such Runaways songs as “Secrets,” “Thunder,” and “California Paradise.” “People just want to be seen. Now you don’t fuck with a minor. People feel really strongly about that because they see the results it can have on a child’s life. But back in the ‘60s, it was just anything would go.”