The final event of EMPLA was Critical Karaoke, a clever exercise invented by Joshua Clover where participants have the length of a song to talk about a song, while the song plays. The dozen participants had very different styles and subjects, from the Mamas and the Papas to Lupe Fiasco. And it was a blast. I chose “California Paradise” by the Runaways. Below is what I said; you can see a picture of me saying it here:
The Runaways used to open their shows with “California Paradise.” The midtempo rocker established the mythology, the particular 1970s American dream of hedonistic freedom that the band of teenage girls repped and peddled: fast cars, fast women, salty winds. Kim Fowley calls the song the female response to the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” “It’s a great album cut for rock critics and masturbating youth,” their ever quotable producer, etc., says.
The Runaways at once were those California girls, and they were not. The members all hailed from various pockets of the Los Angeles basin – the Valley, the OC, Long Beach. But they weren’t exactly the “cutest” objects of the brothers Wilson throbbing fantasy. By the time the Runaways recorded “California Paradise,” in the Beach Boys’ studio, Brothers, for their second album, Queens of Noise, they were firmly their own subjects, writing their own fantasies – or ironies. After all, by the mid ‘70s, beach blanket bingo had turned into Babylon bacchanal, more dystopic than utopian. Cherie Currie missed a few days of the Queens sessions in order to abort the child with which she had been impregnated by the Runaways’ manager, Scott Anderson. Listen to the way she hisses “you’re so nice… paradise.” Those are the sibilants of a snake; they’re vaudevillian boos.
I spent the last few years immersed in the sometimes inspiring, sometimes horrific history of the Runaways. It was an intense personal journey in some ways: I was returning to my own California girl roots. I’m a relatively rare species, a third-generation Californian, though my parents fled the smog and Reagan when I was 4. Around the same time the Runaways were traveling the world, singing about busting out of jail, I was becoming a teenager trapped in the heartland. The Golden State represented my own romanticized roots and exotic other. We’d go back to visit, and at night, my cousin Cathy – two earth years and 100 light years ahead of me – and I would sneak out and walk the streets of Van Nuys, looking for adventure. Maybe I’m glad I never found the Sugar Shack, the infamous teen disco where the Runaways allegedly found Currie. Or maybe I’m jealous.
It took me four decades to come home — Back to the garden. And I have to admit, in our beachside villa, we live a Californian paradisaical existence. The sunshine never ends – except for the daily fog. Paradises are always fantasies. The Runaways were smart enough to know that at sweet 16 – and sing about it anyways.