Lita Ford has worn many hats in her 40 plus year career, all of them comfortably. As a guitarist in the seminal all girl band The Runaways, she was a pioneering musician. After two hit singles (Kiss Me Deadly and Close My Eyes Forever) pushed her album ‘Lita’ to platinum status, she was a rock star. After a string of memorably seductive videos on MTV, she became a sex symbol. And now, after her autobiography “Living Like A Runaway” was lauded for its honesty and uninhibitedness, she can add the title best selling author.
In our conversation, we discuss Lita’s love for the guitar, the music video that foretold her career, why she used to pay men to take off their pants, how she can’t seem to avoid unexpected meet and greets in the grocery store, and what she was thinking when Robert Plant popped the question.
Robert Ferraro: Lita, I’m looking at my bookshelf and I see names like J.D. Salinger and David Halberstam and Hunter S. Thompson. Yet, my favorite author of the past year is Lita Ford. How the hell did you pull that off?
Lita Ford: Ha! That’s awesome, because it wasn’t easy. It took me 5 long years. I definitely had a rough go of it. Do you know how many computers I smashed? One stuck in the wall of my kitchen. [laughs]
RF: You’re a famous recording artist. When people come over and see it, just tell them its modern decor. [Lita laughs] Why was writing the book so difficult?
Lita Ford: I had a very hard time with co-authors, because they couldn’t understand what I was trying to say. When you write a book about a lifestyle people aren’t familiar with, it’s hard for them to wrap their head around what you’re trying get across. I found that true of both women and men, so I eventually ended up getting rid of the co-authors altogether and saying, ‘Screw it. I have to do this myself. It has to be real.’
RF: I don’t think it could have worked any other way. You’ve been been a public figure for a long time, and your fans know your voice. It inhabits the book.
Lita Ford: That’s exactly what I wanted. After awhile it became clear that the old saying, “If you want something done right you have to do it yourself” definitely applied to my book.
RF: Since your work on it dates back 5 years, that means you never attempted to write this while you were married?
Lita: Oh, no. I never could have written this when I was married. My ex-husband (Nitro singer, Jim Gillette) wouldn’t have allowed me to reveal the things I did. He never really knew the real me. I bet you he read my book 50 times after it came out.
RF: Because he would be so surprised by what he read in it?
Lita: Definitely, and I don’t care.
RF: Having heard you describe how bad your marriage was, I always look for signs of it in your interviews or public appearances from that time. You appeared to be really happy. I know how naive that sounds.
Lita: I went along with a lot of things back then just to keep the peace. Things that I didn’t necessarily agree with. I just wanted to avoid a huge knockdown, drag out fight. I couldn’t handle the fighting, so most of the time it was, “Yeah, whatever he said.” It’s interesting that you mentioned looking back at videos, because I’ve seen videos from some Rock ‘n Roll fantasy camps I went to. The first one I did was with (Gillette), and I can see that he was in the room with me the entire time. That was a constant, no matter where we were. He would never leave me alone for a second. I also noticed the way that I was walking. I was a little hunched over, like I had my tail between my legs. Which is basically how I felt.
RF: That’s very un-Lita like.
Lita Ford: I never do that. That’s not me. My mother used to say (in an Italian accent), “Stand up straight, Lita! Don’t hunch! Shoulders back!”
RF: I’m glad you mentioned Mom, because some subjects that you wrote about received a lot more attention than others. The extremely close relationship you had with your now departed parents really stood out as a strong spot. It’s not a common rock ‘n’ roll story.
Lita Ford: When I was younger, I thought that everyone had cool parents like I had. My mother was born in Italy, and she was a real character. My father was British, and I was born in London myself. I was raised in two completely different cultures, mixed together.
RF: Which one of them ruled in your house?
Lita Ford: The Italian side, of course! My father was in love with Italian culture and language, and they played Italian music in the house all the time. If my parents were discussing something and didn’t want me to know what they were saying, they’d speak Italian. I’d always try to pick out some of the words so I could figure out what was going on!
RF: It wasn’t just where they were from, but how they parented you as well.
Lita Ford: Oh, definitely. It was great being raised by two people who weren’t your typical parents. They never asked me, ‘Why are you coming home at 4 in the morning?’ or ‘What have you been doing?’ or ‘Who have you been doing it with?’
RF: You would have had some interesting answers for them if they asked you a little later in life.
Lita Ford: [laughs] When I was high school age and too drunk to drive, I could call my father to come get me at any hour, and he wouldn’t say a word about it the entire way home. He would just let me be. Well, he’d let me be drunk! [both laugh] The whole, “Why did you wake me up at this hour?” or “I don’t want this to ever happen again!” are things I never heard from them.
RF: Still, it doesn’t seem like you went too far off the rails. You became a member of the Runaways, not an actual Runaway.
Lita Ford: No, I had too much respect for them. I think that’s what stopped me from taking it too far. When I wanted my first electric guitar, I absolutely did not want them to pay for it, because they had already bought me two acoustic guitars. I had been using them to practice Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore and Grand Funk Railroad songs for a long time. I knew the licks, but I needed a cool electric guitar to play them on.
RF: And you had one picked out…
Lita Ford: A chocolate Gibson SG. I went with my mom to the medical center where she worked, to try to get a job. I was willing to do anything – mop the floors, whatever. I just wanted to earn the money to buy this awesome guitar. I stuffed my bra with tissue paper so I could appear older, even though I had big boobs already. When a woman there agreed to hire me, my mother was about to casually mention how old I was, and I cut her off and said, “I’m 16!”
RF: How old were you actually?
Lita Ford: 14. They never said anything, and I saved up $375 and bought the Gibson SG.
RF: How about an amp? Those are expensive for a 14 year old as well.
Lita Ford: I actually used to plug into a Sony reel to reel tape recorder, which was as big as a television set. It was huge! I pulled the speakers off and slapped on the echo, and just like that I had an effect. It worked like a delay, and sounded great. And it was loud! My parents had a back house on their property, and I used to keep it out there. I would learn songs by ear on a record player. If I couldn’t pick up the lick right away, I would slide the needle back in the groove just a little bit, so that I could go over a single note again and again until I learned how to play the complete solo. It was fun!
RF: You also used to pick out guitarists’ subtle mistakes on record.
Lita Ford: I used to do that with Jimmy Page all the time. He’s obviously a great guitarist, but everyone knows he wasn’t the cleanest player in the world. A lot of his playing was feel. If he recorded those albums now, there might have been a temptation to go back and re-record some notes. To punch them in, like we can today.
RF: Through both style and tone, I can often recognize a Lita Ford guitar solo. What was involved in developing that? Is it something you purposely set out to do?
Lita Ford: I think I developed my own style simply by playing a lot. I mean, I tried to learn how to write riffs like Tony Iommi, and how to double pick like Ritchie Blackmore, but I was also playing a lot of other stuff and looking for a feel. I didn’t have all the tools musicians can fall back on today. They use click tracks and other machines, and I think they point your guitar playing in a bad direction.
RF: Not to mention what they do to vocals.
Lita Ford: Right? I mean, if you couldn’t hit a vocal note in the old days, then you didn’t hit that note. You’d find another note that you could hit. Today, a machine will take whatever note you can reach, and push it up to the note you want. Some artists are lost today when you take all this stuff away from them, to the point that they don’t even know how to keep time. I met Ritchie Blackmore fairly early on in life, and he taught me how to keep time. That was crucial for me.
RF: Ritchie provided you with inspiration through his playing with Deep Purple, and he taught you how to keep time, but he also gave you another gift that basically changed your playing forever.
Lita Ford: He did. He gave me his guitar pick, which is in a bizarre shape that almost nobody uses. They call them home plate picks, because they’re in the shape of a home plate in baseball. It’s shaped like a rectangle, but it comes to a sharp point at the end. I’ve been playing with them forever. I have to get them from a company in Japan, which is why I don’t throw them in the audience. They’re too valuable.
RF: And because it sounds like they could kill somebody.
Lita Ford: [laughs] Probably!
RF: It’s cool to hear your enthusiasm when you talk about the guitar. I feel like most of the discussions I’ve seen with you over the years were largely about music, until your book came out. Since the book, people mostly want to talk about who you slept with.
Lita Ford: It’s funny because I was talking to Robert Sarzo, (brother of famed Quiet Riot and Whitesnake bassist Rudy), and he said, “Lita, everyone is talking about who you had sex with, but I read your book and I honestly find a lot of romance in your story.” I loved that he said that, because I do think there is a lot of romance in there. How my father met my mother, me and Nikki (Sixx), me and Glenn Tipton (of Judas Priest). It wasn’t just sex and drugs.
RF: Sure, but who cares if it was? A hundred male rock stars have written books and listed their conquests, and they were congratulated for it.
Lita Ford: Well, that’s very true.
RF: The Runaways started all this debauchery for you. They came along at an exciting time, and you obviously played a big part in them being considered an important band. I’d like to think that the title of your last album (Lita’s Living Like A Runaway was released in 2012) and book renewed the public’s interest in the group, but as good as they both are, the movie (2010’s The Runaways) obviously created most of this buzz. What did the film get wrong?
Lita Ford: I’ve never seen the movie, only the trailers.
RF: None of it?
Lita Ford: None. And from what the fans tell me, it’s all about Joan (Jett). It portrays Joan as the top girl – the one that did it all. She didn’t, of course.
RF: Joan was probably moved to the front of the story, because she has the widest mainstream appeal of all the members.
Lita Ford: Cherie (Currie, bandmate in the Runaways) told me that towards the end of production, they actually started removing songs that she sang, and replacing them with songs that Joan had sung on. I’m sure that they made me out to be a total bitch. Listen, all I wanted to do was play music, while they were worried about doing drugs. And they didn’t ask questions, so I did. That made me the bad guy.
RF: What type of questions?
Lita Ford: Important ones, like “Where’s the money?” and “We just played 4 shows at the Whiskey. How much did we make?” They were opposed to that and would get angry with me. It got to the point where I would take a bottle of Black Label and sit in the stairwell of the hotel, just so I could be away from everyone.
RF: You also felt isolated because of the perceived sexual preferences of the other members. Homosexuality wasn’t something you were prepared to handle at that point.
Lita Ford: Yes, but people should remember that above all, the Runaways were teenagers. We were going through a time in our lives no matter what. We were becoming adults together. Any teenager goes off the deep end from time to time. I read an article on Miley Cyrus a few years ago when she cut off all of her hair and dyed it blonde. Her mother said, “She’s not doing anything that another kid her age wouldn’t do. She’s just doing it in front of the world.” And she was absolutely right. I’ve been there.
RF: It’s a double standard. Not unlike what we mentioned before, regarding your sex life.
Lita Ford: Exactly.
RF: In 1975, Robert Plant – whether he was drunk or sober, serious or joking – said what to you?
Lita Ford: He asked me if I’d play bass for Led Zeppelin. I guess they were having some issues with John Paul Jones, which nobody really knew anything about, including me. Recently it came out that they actually were having problems at that time, and it made me think Robert could have been serious. He didn’t see me as a female, and really none of the male musicians that I knew in the industry saw me as female.
RF: C’mon now.
Lita Ford: Well, they would want to have sex. [laughs] But they didn’t see me as a female guitarist. Just a guitarist. The only people who were preoccupied with me being a woman were fans or journalists, not musicians.
RF: Would you have been satisfied playing bass in Led Zeppelin?
Lita Ford: I loved John Paul Jones, and I loved his playing. I learned his bass licks as a fan, just for fun. If I had replaced him, I would have had to say goodbye to one of my favorite musicians on the planet, which I don’t think I could have done.
RF: I think there is even more to consider. If you took the gig, you obviously wouldn’t have been anticipating what happened to John Bonham – you would have been committing for the long haul. Would you have been satisfied playing someone else’s bass-lines for 40 years, at the expense of not writing your own songs, or singing, or even playing guitar?
Lita Ford: God, I never thought about it that way. [long pause] I don’t think I would have lasted that long. Maybe 5 years. I was 18 or 19 at that time, and I still had a long way to go in my life and career. I’m sure I would have been happy while I was there.
RF: Anticipating leaving Led Zeppelin after a few years shows an independent streak that you’ve always had, even when you were in a democracy like the Runaways. In your solo career, you are the lead singer and featured musician on your albums, you write many of your songs, and star in your videos. The name of your biggest selling album is ‘Lita’, for goddsakes. You’re the boss.
Lita Ford: Well, I am definitely very hands on with my career, whether it be in the studio or designing a concert shirt or booking a tour. And if I see something I don’t like, sure, I’m gonna speak up.
RF: I’ve heard through the grapevine however, that you’re a good boss.
Lita Ford: I have a ton of respect for my band members. My tour manager said he’s never seen an artist treat their band members the way I treat the people I work with. I give them a cut of the merchandise money if their picture is on the product. If they do something above and beyond what they are expected to do, I’ll pay them for it. And sometimes on the road I’ll give them stupid little things that they appreciate.
RF: Like what?
Lita Ford: Shampoo! [both laugh]
RF: Speaking of your band, your bassist Marty O’Brien posted some really cool footage of you playing a festival in Norway recently. When you’re playing at the ends of the earth, and the sun is still shining at 11:30 pm, and thousands of crazy Norwegians are singing your songs back at you, do you have time to say to yourself, “Well, this is different?”
Lita Ford: I do, and you know what entered my mind? Led Zeppelin. ‘The Immigrant Song’! [sings] “We come from the land of the ice and snow where the midnight sun…” That kept running through my brain. It was a very cool setting.
RF: Where are you most popular, outside of the United States?
Lita Ford: Hmm, it’s tough for me to say where I’m most popular, and that’s a real sore spot with me, because I blame it on bad management. At this point of my life, I honestly know a little bit more than a lot of managers in the business. I’ve been doing this for over 40 years. I was unhappy with my last manager in a lot of ways, and not playing Europe often enough was one of them. I love my current manager, because I respect her knowledge and she can see the big picture.
RF: Is the music business tougher now, or back in the day?
Lita Ford: I think it’s tougher now. I didn’t have to worry about as many different things in the 80’s.
RF: Sharon Osbourne was your manager for an important part of that decade.
Lita Ford: We started together just before the ‘Lita’ album, whenever that was.
Lita Ford: The one with Ozzy and Lemmy and Nikki?
RF: Yeah, that was ‘88. Time flies.
Lita Ford: That’s for sure. Sharon came on just before that. She was the last piece of the puzzle. I had put together all of the songs, found a producer, recorded the album, and signed a record deal. The only thing that was missing was management. I didn’t need a manager to do all of that.
RF: Why Sharon?
Lita Ford: I really wanted to work with a woman, but at that time, I didn’t have a lot of choices. Woman or not, Sharon also happened to be the most powerful manger at the time. I was sitting on the Queen Mary (the famous ship, permanently docked in Long Beach, California) doing oyster shooters and drinking Bloody Marys, and I just decided to pick up the phone and call Sharon and ask her to be my manager. I’ll never forget her saying, in her little British voice, [Lita imitates Sharon] “Yeeeeeeesssss! Of coouuuurse!!!”
RF: So far in this conversation, you’ve done an Italian accent and an English accent. Your parents live on, right?
Lita Ford: That’s true! And a really awesome thing of you to say.
RF: I’m sure Sharon was valuable to you, but the foundation for your career was laid a few years before. I can argue that your video for 1984’s ‘Gotta Let Go’ established your image and identity clearer than virtually any early video has done for any artist. Do you remember the video well?
Lita Ford: Hmm, pretty much. For the most part.
RF: You’re in a kitchen, dressed conservatively, washing dishes. Then some men break into your house and they put you in restraints and they have all this power over you. Until, out of nowhere, someone throws you a guitar! You catch it, and your life improves immediately. You transform from a meek housewife into a “hot metal chick” wearing hot metal clothes, and you’re suddenly empowered to beat the living hell out of all the bad guys with your axe, but not until…we have a gratuitous shot of your ass.
[Both share a long laugh]
RF: That’s Lita Ford 101.
Lita Ford: That is so funny! It was actually the video director’s idea. That was his vision, based on how he viewed me. He thought he could see me beating the shit out of a bunch of guys with my guitar. Do your remember that scene where I was holding a banana? [in the final cut of the video, only a ‘bad guy’ is seen with a banana]. That was because MTV wouldn’t allow any guns to appear in videos. We had to use a banana instead. I could hit them with my guitar though!
RF: And you did. Another thing about that video is that there were several close ups of your nail polished fingers during the solo, so people would know it was you who was playing – a concern of yours early on. A lot of consideration went into even the simplest videos back then. Did you have any fun doing them?
Lita Ford: I loved MTV. And ‘Gotta Let Go’ was great, are you kidding me? Dressing up like Lucille Ball
and doing the dishes? I had an awesome time.
RF: Every Halloween, millions of housewives and working mothers are excited to dress up as rocker chicks, and you’re psyched when you have to dress up as someone who washes dishes.
Lita Ford: [laughs] It was fun! I do have to say that thanks to MTV I played a big part in people wearing jeans with holes in them.
RF: Without a doubt. Although we might have to give Joe Elliott ‘ripped jeans’ honors on the male side.
Lita Ford: That’s right. Now they sell for hundreds of dollars! It’s crazy to think about.
RF: You probably weren’t buying them off the rack back then.
Lita Ford: No way, are you kidding? This is how hard they were to come by. I was riding shotgun in my friend’s car one day and saw a guy who worked for the phone company climbing a telephone pole in jeans that were totally shredded. I told my friend, “Pull over! I want this guy’s pants!” I walked over to him and said, “I’ll give you $100 for your jeans.” He looked down at his pants with all the rips in them and said, “Really? Um, ok. I have another pair at home if you want those?” He ran home and brought me his other pair, too.
RF: The ‘ripped pants’ videos you mentioned earlier, belonged to two monster hits off ‘Lita’ (Kiss Me Deadly and Close Your Eyes Forever), but you also had other popular songs on it like ‘Falling In and Out Of Love’, ‘Can’t Catch Me’, and ‘Back To The Cave’, to name a few. We know it is your most commercially successful album and your most popular album, but is ‘Lita’ your best album?
Lita Ford: I felt that way at the time, and for awhile after that I guess. But, I really like ‘Living Like a Runaway’ a lot. It’s my favorite record. I didn’t have to make anything up, you know? It was real, and because of that, I think it’s strong.
RF: It is strong, and it is most definitely real.
Lita Ford: Now I have some music for Hollywood, for sure. Take any track off of ‘Living Like a Runaway’, put it into a horror film, and you’re good. [laughs]
RF: Sure, but there is some upbeat stuff on there as well. I think the title track might have bought you another house if it was released during the MTV days.
Lita Ford: I think so too.
RF: It was a pleasant surprise for some people that you could still sing and play that well because you were away for so long (Lita released only one album over a 16 year period), and from a production standpoint, it is probably your best sounding record.
Lita Ford: The songs and the sound came together so well because no one got in my way. No record companies, no management, no pressure. It was just me and Gary Hoey (widely respected rock guitarist and producer) and we locked ourselves away in his studio in New Hampshire. That’s as far from Hollywood as you can get. It’s secluded, no one comes by to visit or distract you, and no one is trying to take your picture when you go out. A year later, we came out of it with ‘Living Like a Runaway’. Gary and I gel perfectly. Musically, he finishes the sentences that I start. As a
producer, he’s just bad-ass.
RF: What makes a bad-ass producer?
Lita Ford: Someone that will inspire you to go places you didn’t think you could go. Sometimes there will be a note I won’t be able to hit vocally, and I’ll just want to say screw it. Gary will say “No, Lita, you are going to hit this note.” Again, I’ll tell him that I can’t, and he’ll pull out a guitar and play [Lita imitates a guitar playing a scale of notes] and say, “See, you can get there from here.” Then we’ll go do it again, and I’ll hit it.
RF: The way you describe what your recording sessions are like now, and how much you enjoy who you’re recording with, is worlds apart from the situation surrounding your previous comeback album (2009’s ‘Wicked Wonderland’).
Lita Ford: [pained noise] That was not a Lita album. Not as far as I’m concerned. My ex husband wrote songs with a producer in L.A. while we were living in Florida. They did a lot of it behind my back, at night, after I went to bed. He would also stay up late and drink champagne and write things on Facebook that people thought were coming from me, while I was asleep. I didn’t find out about most of it until after we were divorced, but that’s another story. In no way, shape, or form is that my album.
RF: You’ve taken some public hits for various things since your divorce. Admittedly, I will never know what that feels like. But from this distance, I don’t think you had been picked on very much prior to now. I actually saw you as the darling of most hard rock and metal magazines. I mean, compare your 80’s experience with what happens to female sex symbols now.
Lita Ford: [reluctantly] I suppose. I mean, they didn’t have ‘Blabbermouth’ or ‘Metal Sludge’ or all those other sites back then.
RF: Or any internet at all.
Lita Ford: By the way, I’m in the grocery store, just so you know. [laughs]
RF: How often do you get recognized when you’re out food shopping?
Lita Ford: [speaking softly] A lot. It’s insane! I don’t get recognized every time out, but it happens a lot. I can wear the dumbest clothes and put my hair up in a bun, and people still notice me, and say, “Hey Lita! Can we get a picture?”
RF: And you say, “Sure, just let me put down these frozen pizzas.”
Lita Ford: [laughs] It’s nuts.
RF: A picture is a common request nowadays because of smartphones, but what are some other things complete strangers ask of you when they see you?
Lita Ford: I get invited everywhere. “Come over to my house for a barbecue!”, “Come meet my Mom.”, “Come to my party.”
RF: Shopping had to be an even bigger adventure when you were on television every 5 minutes, right?
Lita Ford: A little bit, but I still used to go because I loved to cook. I had a store close to my house and I would go out and get the ingredients for a lasagna, cook it, jump in my corvette, and drive down to the studio. I’d walk in with my guitar under one arm, and a lasagna for the guys under the other.
RF: Speaking of the studio…Lita, what happened to your green B.C. Rich guitar?
Lita Ford: Oh my God, what a question. That’s great.
RF: Can you tell me the story?
Lita Ford: Ah, my beautiful, green B.C. Rich Mockingbird. In my book there’s a photograph of Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi, the guys from Spinal Tap, and myself, and I believe I’m holding it.
RF: You are. And once again, you look like you’re going to hit people with it.
Lita Ford: That’s the guitar. It had an ebony fret board, and I just loved it. But one day, it went missing.
Lita Ford: Stolen. I was 99% sure I knew who did it, but I could never prove it. So a few months later, I was looking for a guitar player, and in comes a guy to audition. He starts taking his guitar out of the case and he’s so proud of it. He said, “Hey Lita, check this out. Isn’t it sweet?” Robert, it was a green B.C. Rich Mockingbird. My green Mockingbird! My jaw fell to the floor. I said to him, “That’s a great guitar. Where’d you get it?” and he told me he bought it off some guy on the street, which made total sense. I couldn’t take it away from him though. I didn’t have the heart. I said, “Nice guitar, it sounds great. I hope you enjoy it.”
RF: Not only did you let him keep it, but you never even told him it was stolen, did you?
Lita Ford: I just couldn’t do it. He was so in love it with it.
RF: That was very gracious of you, because you were in love with it too.
Lita Ford: I definitely was.
RF: I can hear that you’re still in the store. Has anyone noticed you yet?
Lita Ford: I don’t think so. But you know what? I’ve found that if you hang around long enough,
someone will always notice you.
Lita’s website is: http://www.litafordonline.com/
Follow Lita on Facebook: @litaofficial
Follow Lita on Twitter: @litaford
Purchase Lita’s book ‘Living Like a Runaway’
Purchase Lita’s album on itunes: ‘Living Like Runaway’
Robert Ferraro is a freelance writer and broadcasting school graduate, who has produced radio talk shows, and Major League Baseball broadcasts. In between, he has held over 50 menial jobs, all of which he departed when he couldn’t find anyone interesting to talk to.