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Kim Fowley

The movie Zelig might be a suitable analogy for the life and career of that unique personage born Kim Vincent Fowley. It’s the fanciful tale of an individual who is able to insert himself at key moments in history, something Fowley accomplished at regular intervals over the past sixty years. But unlike Woody Allen’s character Leonard Zelig, Kim was not really a chameleon – his lanky frame and frequently off-beat attire put paid to that notion – and he certainly could not blend into the background of any scene. Instead, the man loudly demanded that people paid attention to him, whether they wanted to or not.

Fowley was the king of hype, the honcho of hustle, the sultan of the schuck; in fact, in rock’n’roll terms, Kim Fowley not only defined that role, he more or less invented it. But even the most colourful propaganda could not fully cover the breadth of achievement Kim Fowley attained in the music business. Behind the names of the better known acts he would brag about discovering, producing or mentoring – from the iconic (gal rockers the Runaways) to the risible (80s big-hairs like Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses), there lies a litany of one-shot, see-if-they-stick productions and obscure 45s or cash-in albums resulting from handshake deals and temporary A&R stints. The vast majority of these came from Kim’s first decade as a music maven, the 1960s, and many of the more interesting or significant items are collected on Ace’s essential Fowley retrospective, “Incredible But True.”

For some Fowley aficionados – this writer at least – that was his golden period. The unwanted child of jobbing movie actors, Kim learned independence at an early age and that, combined with street smarts and a remarkable confidence, set him in good stead to succeed in a Hollywood music industry that at the time thrived upon indie productions and the quick sale of a master. His ascent was rapid, and this history is laid out in typically Fowleyan detail in the above-mentioned compilation, but Kim was driven and seemed perennially restless. So, for example, after his association with major hits like ‘Alley Oop,’ ‘Nut Rocker’ and ‘Popsicles And Icicles,’ not to mention a lengthy string of misses – records that he produced almost weekly, often just to be able to eat and pay the rent – Kim arrived in London with the flimsiest of excuses, and ingratiated himself with everyone from Cat Stevens to the Soft Machine. From Finland to Australia, Dublin to New Orleans, over the course of his career Kim made sure he was where the action was. Too iconoclastic to ever become a music industry “suit,” he kept his nose to the street, and had an uncanny knack of being at places at just the right time to become the self-appointed guru of what was happening, whether it be Topanga Canyon hippies or Sunset Boulevard decadents. If he wasn’t inserting himself into a scene or switching into full-on Svengali mode for a hot new act, Kim was at least grabbing the available publishing, getting paid to produce the demo or the first single, and establishing his A&R sixth sense once again.

One thing I always noted about Kim, despite some interesting divergences - producing Helen Reddy, for instance - was that he more or less stuck to his forte: basic rock’n’roll. It’s next to impossible to get a reasonable grip upon the entire Fowley discography, whether it be as a producer, songwriter, or upon a considerable tranche of solo recording (some of the latter, such as ‘The American Dream’ or ‘Motorboat,’ were amongst the best things he was ever involved with). It probably numbers in the low thousands. Few would deny that Kim’s talent was his mouth, not his voice, and he was no musician. But, just as with Phil Spector, most of the time you could spot a Fowley production at a thousand paces. His recall of the specific events behind any given project he had been involved with was also something to marvel at, even if his reminiscences might be couched in a trademarked hyperbole. Because of this, some interviewers or chroniclers may have doubted the veracity of such memoirs. But in my experience, most everything Kim claimed to have done panned out as true. I have lost count of the times I have dug through a vintage label’s archives, only to come across a typically colourful communiqué from Fowley that puts him right where he said he had been.

Kim was relatively erudite and willing to give anybody the time of day, if it meant he could do the pitch. Like many larger-than-life rock’n’roll personages, he came alive with an audience, whether on the phone or in person. Whenever I ran into Kim at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles on a late night snack-attack, he’d be there holding court with his latest protégée, invariably young and female with more than a passing resemblance to Joan Jett. But I also spent a considerable amount of time with him out in Redlands, an undistinguished suburb two hours east of Hollywood, where for a time he lived by himself in a small home which seemed remarkably isolated. In truth, Kim was somewhat wary of me at first, because of my friendship with his erstwhile associate Gary Paxton. Thankfully I learned early on that his bark was worse than his bite, and I cannot recall how many truly hilarious insider snippets Kim shared with me during many unavoidably lengthy conversations over the years. He could be very, very funny. Once, through a simple misunderstanding, he had thought I was trying to tape him surreptitiously - which is not my style at all – but in that moment I learned that Fowley remained gun-shy and somewhat paranoid, even after having survived as long as he had in the business.

Kim was producing, hustling and ligging right up until the end: I last saw him in August 2014 at the premier of the Seeds documentary, in which he reprised a recurring, and not undeserved role, as acid-tongued sage of all things trashy and Hollywood. Even in a wheelchair he made sure to announce his presence to the theatre and presided in the foyer afterwards, making sure to advise me that he had several songs in one chart or another that particular week. He once told me, with a customary combination of arrogance and self-deprecation, “I’m neither an businessman nor an artist, I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m justifying immature behaviour in modern times. No business manager would allow someone this gifted to waste this much time, ever.” Whatever one’s view of Kim Fowley, in the long run, his distinctive role in not just the record industry, but rock’n’roll itself, cannot be denied.

Alec Palao