Jake Fogelnest, Kim Fowley, and the Weird, Dark Underbelly of Rock ’n’ Roll

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Kim Fowley is one of those names that mean absolutely nothing to the vast majority of the public and a great deal to a tiny but obsessive subset of cultists. In a very special episode of The Fogelnest Files, host Jake Fogelnest describes Fowley as one of the all-time great Hollywood weirdos but it’d be equally accurate to call him one of the all-time great Hollywood creeps. It’s likely Fowley would agree with that characterization.

In the podcast episode and outside of it, Fowley aggressively cultivated an image as a debauched Frankenstein’s monster of id and ego, a pop music Svengali with a lusty, salivating interest in teenagers that was equal parts sexual and professional. He wasn’t just a bad boy; he was considered by some to be positively demonic, a show-business devil tempting nubile young Eves with the ripe apple of pop stardom.

Fowley was a towering figure in every sense, a hulking, sentient slab of pop culture history best known for creating and molding groundbreaking girl group The Runaways. Fowley’s management of The Runaways is a perpetual source of controversy and when Fogelnest talked to Fowley in late 2013, allegations that Fowley had raped one of the Runaways in front of the other band members had resurfaced and been forcefully denied, once again, by Fowley himself, and some of the other Runaways. Fogelnest brings up the allegations and Fowley once again denies them, dismissing them as a rock and roll urban legend, the kind of seedy, sordid pop myth making that has long characterized so much of rock history.

Fowley is, in other words, exactly the kind of Norma Desmond-like figure Jake Fogelnest lives to interview. There is an element of drama to the podcast that comes with knowing that if Fogelnest had handled the situation the wrong way, his corpse might be rotting away in one of Fowley’s sex dungeons as I write this. Fogelnest rose to fleeting early fame as a preposterously precocious teenaged prodigy cracking wise on MTV on Squirt TV but has subsequently worked hard to develop a more lasting, sustainable fame as a peerless student of old, weird Hollywood and Los Angeles.

In that capacity, he is the perfect person to interview Fowley in the twilight of what was a very long, strange and eventful career that stretches from the scruffy garage rock and bubblegum pop of the Kennedy era on through The Beatles and punk and everything that followed. Fowley was a Zelig like figure with a story and a connection to just about everyone in the history of pop music. He’s all too eager to share those stories with Fogelnest.

As he concedes in the introduction to the episode, the moment Fogelnest stepped into Fowley’s weird world The Fogelnest Files becomes a Kim Fowley production. Fowley does not seem to understand exactly what a podcast is, or what exactly Fogelnest is doing there, and refers to what he’s doing as radio repeatedly. Fowley seems like the kind of old man who remembers an afternoon in 1965 more vividly than he does the day before and uses the podcast as a showcase for two of his most recent proteges, Fabulous Miss Wendy and Lady Satan (Perhaps to their detriment, Fabulous Miss Wendy and Lady Satan both come off as pleasant and cheerful), who play guitar while Fowley talk-sings nonsense and chirpily answer questions about how they came under the sway of this strange old man.

The podcast consequently takes on the strange quality of an impromptu variety show/free-form ramble/freak fest. Fogelnest is filled with earnest questions for Fowley, who is inclined to answer a perfectly innocent, open-ended question with a comment about drinking piss and eating assholes. Fowley is less interested in having a conversation with Fogelnest than in delivering a stream-of-consciousness monologue that combines fact with fiction in ways that suggest Fowley either doesn’t understand the distinction between the two or simply chooses to ignore it.

Against all odds, Fogelnest actually gets Fowley to focus on some of his questions rather than the rampaging madness inside his own skull, and at one point legendary Los Angeles DJ and all-around personality Rodney Bingenheimer contributes the podcasting equivalent of a Tonight Show walk-on, because of course he does.

Late in the podcast, Fowley turns what he still seems to think is either Fogelnest’s radio show, or his ham radio broadcast, or possibly just a show he’s broadcasting telekinetically to like-minded eccentrics, into a showcase to plug a list of projects he’s working with, like a gent Fowley hard-sells as a Lindsey Buckingham version of Paul McCartney who has proven his bona fides as a commercial entity by making a small fortune playing casinos in a Fleetwood Mac cover band. There’s an added poignancy to knowing that Fowley probably did not live to see these projects realized and that even if they were released in his lifetime, it’s doubtful they would receive much press or publicity.

Fowley is melancholy and mock-monstrous here, tender and creepy, a trash culture King Lear surveying his strange life and career. Fowley would die only a few months after this episode aired and it stands as the perfect tribute to his strange charisma and perversely inclusive sensibility. Considering the context in which the podcast was recorded, Fowley’s lusty, enthusiastic and sustained vulgarity is both kind of sad and a bold rebuke to mortality, all the more remarkable for being delivered in the lingering shadow of his impending death.

Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

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