Living Like a Runaway: Q+A with Lita Ford

Lita Ford is the undisputed Queen of Heavy Metal, and after reading her long-awaited autobiography, Living Like a Runaway, I can say one thing’s for certain: Heavy lies the crown.

As the lead guitarist in the pioneering all-girl teenage glam-rock band the Runaways, Ford had a lot of critical eyes on her. When she started her solo career, she was free to explore the music she revered: heavy metal. During the ’80s, Ford was the highest-profile female lead guitar player in all of hard rock and heavy metal. Eight albums, platinum sales figures, and plenty of leather G-strings later, Ford was a bona fide icon.

While plenty of people are harping on the book’s salacious moments—folks, welcome to rock n roll in the ’70s and ’80s, it ain’t no big thing—the most entertaining, alarming, and insightful parts of Ford’s book have nothing to do with her sexual conquests. She is prone to finding herself in hilarious, ridiculous situations (one time she was compelled to hide under a table eating cheesecake backstage during a Scorpions concert), but also tumultuous ones. 

Unsurprisingly, Ford had to deal with a ton of bullshit simply because she was a girl—and then a woman—who played a mean guitar solo. She also endured abusive partners; two marriages; the deaths of her awesome, beloved parents; and one music-industry debacle after another. Toward the end of the book, Ford’s life is downright bleak. She had two sons with her second husband, but when the marriage ended, her kids suddenly stopped speaking to her and seeing her. In the end, her return to rock n roll was her salvation.

Ford spoke to Decibel about her legacy, from the Runaways to her recent rebirth. God save the Queen.

I’d argue that most kids are drawn to heavy metal because of its rebellious qualities, its outsider status. But after reading your book, I never really got the sense that you were rebelling with heavy metal. It was more that you loved it because you loved the music. Period. Is that right?

Yeah. It was like it was embedded in me even before I started playing guitar, because I knew I wanted a guitar. It’s just something that’s in my blood. I liked the way music made people feel. I was really drawn to that. People would come over from all over my neighborhood and they would sit there in awe and watch me play. I would look at them and say, “What’s the big deal?” And they would say, “How do you do that?” And I would say, “Well, like this! Here, you try!” And they would look at me and say, “I can’t do that,” and I would say, “Why? Why not?” I couldn’t figure out why they couldn’t do it more so than them figuring out how I can do it. What really topped it off for me was when I went to my first concert with my cousin to see Black Sabbath play at the Long Beach Arena. I walked into that arena and, of course back then, it was full of smoke, the way it smelled, and the place was packed. It held about 10,000 people. People were falling off the rafters, out of the balconies, onto the stage—it was total insanity. It was almost like the band had put some kind of spell on the audience and made them feel a certain way. I wanted to be able to do that, I wanted to be that person that puts a spell on somebody to make them feel the way I felt.

I had a bet with myself. I said, “How many pages of Lita Ford’s book am I going to get through before it’s mentioned that she’s a female guitar player.” Well, I got halfway through Dee Snider’s first paragraph in the intro before it was mentioned. He said he bought the Runaways album “mentally daring the Runaways to be good.” And then he heard your guitar—and the dare was over. I thought he was being really honest about daring you to be good simply because you were girls in a band, and I think it’s a fairly common attitude among men. I have to ask you, in all your infinite wisdom on the topic, why is it so difficult for guys to think women can hold our own in anything we choose to do?

Well, it’s a man’s world, you know. It is. But then again, nowadays you hear things like a woman pilot talking over the intercom, and you think, “Wow there’s a woman flying this plane!” Little things like that, it just sticks out. Whereas before in the ’70s, I don’t think there were women pilots. You wouldn’t see them at American Airlines; they were pretty much just doing it for pleasure on their own, but not really working for an airline—because they were women! Nowadays they have accepted females in the music industry, but we have our own category. We have the girl guitar or the girl magazine or play-like-a-girl records. It’s just like, why can’t we all play? We all are human beings. It doesn’t mean that just because I don’t have a penis I can’t play that riff. It doesn’t make sense. I feel like the Runaways were the ones that really opened the door for females in music, and myself being the lead guitarist, even more so because singers are singers—nobody gets looked at for being a singer. “Oh she sings, great.” But when she plays guitar with balls and attitude, people look around the room and say, “Where’s that noise coming from?” even when they’re looking right at it! It still doesn’t register. So they look for it. Which is why I put together a three-piece band when I first started my solo project. I put together just me, Dusty Watson, and Neil Merryweather because I didn’t want to give the audience another guitarist to look at. I wanted them to say, “Fuck! It’s her! She’s the one playing the guitar!” Otherwise, the attention would’ve gone automatically to the guy. Even if he just stood there strumming a couple chords and nothing else, he still would’ve had the camera on him while I was in the corner playing the solo.

Lita with her mom and dad. Courtesy
Lita with her mom and dad. Courtesy

You went from being cherry picked by a man, Kim Fowley, to be part of this all-girl band to your solo career where you chose who you were playing with and you were the band leader. What was that transition like for you?

I had to reinvent myself because coming out of the Runaways, that was one thing. That was a band. Now I was a solo artist. I had to be creative and try to reinvent myself. Visually I wanted to come up with a look, when I met Nikki Sixx, he cut my hair. Neil Merryweather was amazing at making clothes. He helped me put together these outfits of leather g-strings with spiders on them, bustiers, fishnet stockings and nothing else. Then we had the Out for Blood album cover which was banned in a lot of stores because the guitar was bleeding! That’s ridiculous! I didn’t have any pants on! That’s okay? No one even noticed I didn’t have any pants on, but you’re going to complain that the guitar is bleeding? It’s a piece of wood. Everyone: Guitars don’t bleed. It’s just really amazing stuff I had to go through. 

At that point when you started your solo career, what did it mean to you to be the only female lead guitar player in hard rock and heavy metal when those genres were skyrocketing to mainstream popularity?

It was a statement. Absolutely. I had to make a statement because I wanted to get a record deal and I wanted to prove myself as a guitar player. I had to drive it home and drive it in their face a la Jimi Hendrix. There was no guitar player in Jimi’s band other than him. Of course, everyone said, “Wow, he’s playing that guitar like nobody else can play.” Even today, people are still trying to copy him. And I wanted to be one of those people, even if it took a long time because the Runaways were so before their time. When Out for Blood came out in ’83, it was still before its time. I just wanted to attract attention, do everything everyone told me not to do, and play guitar. They didn’t want me to play heavy metal or hard rock; they wanted me to play lightweight stuff like, oh god, who was it at the time that was really pop-rocky, real cute and sweet, happy? “I’m dancin’ on sunshine!”—c’mon! That’s great and everything, but that’s not who I am. And I refuse to do what you tell me. Maybe I would’ve sold more records if I had done that, but that’s not who I was. “Take off your blush, Lita! You’ve got too much makeup on.” No, I’m not taking it off.

Well you had tremendous success. So you were right and they were wrong. So there.

Ha! Well, one of the highlights of my life was being given Guitar Player‘s Certified Legend award in 2014. When they gave it to me, I was absolutely speechless. Had to have it.

Another pioneering thing I think you did was that you always seemed very comfortable as a sexual person. You’re a great-looking woman—props to your parents—you were always very sexy and you fully owned your sexual-ness. To me, that was very empowering. Do you think that part of that confidence was due to the fact that you were so gifted as a musician, or was that just part of who you were, regardless of what you could do?

Well, when I reinvented myself as a solo artist, I did play up the sexuality because it attracted attention, and it made heads turn, and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to say, “Hey world, look at me,” you know? But then again it could be distracting, but who would’ve looked at a girl dressed in a frickin’ muumuu jammin’ on guitar? I had to give it some attitude and character and something where people were gonna go, “Oh my god, I want her picture on my wall.”

I want to talk about writing the book. How did you prepare for such a grueling undertaking?

First I had to find the right co-author and that’s pretty much what took the longest amount of time. People kept saying, “Why isn’t the book done yet? What are you doing?” I’m not going to put this book out till it’s right, till it’s 100 percent correct. I want to be able to say what I want to say because I feel like I’ve lived three lifetimes in one body (laughs). Putting it all together in one book, I needed the right person to help me, and I couldn’t find ’em. I mean, just trying to find a housekeeper is hard enough—can you imagine finding someone to write your book with you? So it took some time, and I went through a few people, gave ’em a shot, and it didn’t work. I ended up pretty much doing it myself. I had to.

The book got very dark toward the end, and parts of your story reminded me of Ronnie Spector’s. She was shut in at the hands of her husband and not really able to go anywhere because she was so sequestered. The fact that you had to Google yourself and watch your old videos to remember who you were, that blew my mind. How did music play a part in helping you return to yourself?

Thank god for Google! (laughs) Thank god for modern technology! I don’t know that I would have found myself again if I hadn’t seen it, if I hadn’t done the videos, and people hadn’t put them up on YouTube. I don’t know that I would’ve been able to do it again because I didn’t—I completely lost who I was. I mean, I was hanging on by a thread. I knew that I was a Ford, and my mother and father embedded that in me at an early age. The one thing I hung on to was who I was as a child, where I came from as a child, and the strength they gave me to fight back and fuck this guy and get out of there. Unfortunately, he did a lot of damage and is still doing it. I just didn’t want the book to be all about that. I just wanted to have some respect for my children and hope that they read the book if they can and come find me. They’re gonna have to find me. I don’t know where they are.

Anybody that ever questions your love or dedication as a parent just has to look at the fact that you put your kids before your own story in this book and decided to not slag your ex or dwell on the situation. You protected your kids from becoming a spectacle. That shows immeasurable character, and I was floored at just how moved I was. I really need to commend you for that. 

Thank you.

I have one more question. I love your last album, also titled Living Like a Runaway, and I know you have a new album coming out called Time Capsule. How is it different this time around for Lita Ford?

I have a wonderful team of people that I absolutely adore. They know the whole story behind me. They’ve got my back. We work together as a team, and when I take a step forward, they take a step forward, and they know that. I’m just really, really blessed. Since I left and filed for divorce, I feel like God really is watching over me and giving me things that I ask for. It’s so bizarre. Even making Living Like a Runaway, Gary Hoey produced it, the two of us in the studio. It was just amazing how it came together with the songs. The songs tell the story. They’re real, true songs. The next album is a throwback album to the ’80s. It was some analog tapes that I had transferred to digital that are loaded with celebrities. The songs are incredible. That’s coming out after the book. We launched If you go to the site, you’ll see that we’ve got the book, the new album, all kinds of goodies that my crew put together, a little video—it’s just really cool. [My publisher] Harper Collins is also helping us out by offering the book through Pledge Music. Harper Collins have been amazing. They have my back. I said to them, “This book is a fight!” and Peter from Harper Collins said, “You know, Lita, the best books always are.” And with that vote of confidence, I knew I was going to get through it with their support. They didn’t push me for time. They were patient, they waited, they helped, they were awesome. I was really blessed.

Lita Ford live dates:
3/5: Beverly Hills, CA @ Saban Theatre (With Ace Frehley)
3/6: Las Vegas, NV @ Brooklyn Bowl (With Ace Frehley)
3/19: Toledo, OH @ Savage Arena (With Brett Michaels, Ratt, Warrant, Firehouse, LA Guns and Trixter

4/1: Reading, PA @ Reading Eagle Theatre in the Santander Arena
4/2: Hampton Beach, NH @ Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom
4/5: Huntington, WV @ Big Sandy Superstore Arena
4/6: Lexington, KY @ Singletary Center
4/7: Raleigh, NC @ The Ritz
4/9: Biloxi, MS @ Hard Rock Live
4/11: Springfield, MO @ Gillioz Theatre
4/12: Tulsa, OK @ Brady Theater
4/13: Wichita, KS @ Cotillion Ballroom
4/15: Fargo, ND @ Fargo Civic Center
4/16: Sioux City, IA @ Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
4/19: Huntsville, AL @ Mark C. Smith Concert Hall
4/20: Spartanburg, SC @ Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium
4/21: Johnson City, TN @ Freedom Hall Civic Center

4/24: Ladson, SC @ 98 Rock Fest