During the ’60s and ’70s, Kim Fowley was one of those behind-the-scenes superstars that it was impossibly cool to know. He has associated in one way or another with John Lennon, Frank Zappa, the Modern Lovers, Gram Parsons, the Byrds, the Seeds, the Doors, Blind Faith, Alice Cooper, Gene Vincent, Slade, and Blue Cheer, among others. That the wider public had never heard of the guy only enhanced his prestige among the elite few that had. With Fowley’s impressive resume of underground cred, he seemed somewhat miffed that his friend, Rodney Bingenheimer, was given the pseudo-prestigious title “Mayor of the Sunset Strip” rather than him in the recent documentary of the same name. But if Fowley has no one to blame but himself for being relegated to a mere deputy (and he probably does), he can consider his work with the Runaways as the cause of his demotion.
Though they’re known today mostly as the dewy-eyed launch pad for Joan Jett and Lita Ford, the Runaways were viewed askance when Fowley assembled them in the late ’70s. The jailbait stance they so consciously struck made most who saw it extremely uncomfortable, and Fowley’s role as architect gave the whole affair the stink of exploitation. After all, what kind of man would take a group of innocent little girls like Joan Jett and push them into singing about sex ‘n’ drugs against their natural sugar-and-spice tendencies? Kim Fowley, that’s who, and even if a career full of sleaziness and trend-hopping had failed to tarnish Fowley’s insider cool, the Runaways were too much for him to take; the episode stripped him of much of his original cachet for the next couple of decades.
So what’s a has-been L.A. hipster to do with himself? Start all over again and pump up the self-promotion, of course. Thus, we have Adventures in Dreamland, an album that could only be called a comeback after ten years of silence. Admittedly, Fowley’s recording career has never been his full-time job. Rather, it seemed like a good way to shore up his credibility on the scene. Fowley’s psychedelic exploitation record, “The Trip,” featured on the legendary Nuggets box set, sums up his approach neatly: figure out what the youth parade of the day is and then make like you’re leading it. Nearly 40 years later, little has changed. Adventures in Dreamland, like most geriatric comeback records these days, is desperately seeking to sound contemporary, which it does by appropriating limp hip-hop beats and using socially conscious lyrics. The former, naturally, sounds pathetic, but the latter is what really makes Adventures embarrassing. When he’s not busy appointing himself Mayor of the Sunset Strip in a song of the same name (sour grapes, anyone?), he’s usually taking aim at corrupt Hollywood culture. A good thing, too, because no one before now has ever bothered to point out that L.A. is full of phonies. Just listen to this spoken-word interlude from “Mayor” for some fresh insights: “When you go walking through Hollywood when you wake up, you see all this Babylon, Armageddon, kind of fantasy thing. You suddenly think you’re the star of a movie, but in reality, you’re in denial… You’re confused, you’re abused, and sometimes, you’re used.” And if you think that looks good on paper, just try listening to Fowley croak it out in a voice that makes him sound like one baadasssss librarian. He’s trying to be Lou Reed, but if Lou Reed can’t even pull that off these days, Fowley’s chances stand at approximately nil.
The Reed comparison is especially apt (if not in a way Fowley would like) since Adventures in Dreamland so clearly wants to be Reed’s New York for the West Coast, sketching out scenes of decadence and depravity with the detached cool and implied heart that Reed got just right for his New York trilogy. But Fowley talent is as a hanger-on, not an artist, and his swipes at his beyond-easy So-Cal targets are so broad and shallow that they wouldn’t even elicit so much as an approving nod from noted playa-hater Joe Lieberman. By trying to take on everything that he sees wrong with modern culture, Fowley skips over every quotidian detail that makes worthy social critiques feel earned and true. Rather than sounding like an old sage, he sounds like an angsty teenager, indulging in all the juvenile nihilism that makes notebooks of high school poetry such mortifying claptrap. If a sexagenarian like Fowley hasn’t gotten past that stage in his art by now, I think it’s pretty safe to write him off for good.