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By Michael E. Miller
Lita Ford has been a professional musician since she was a teenager. As the tough lead guitarist with L.A. all-female hard rockers the Runaways, the statuesque California blonde held her ground onstage and shredded as ferociously as heroes Ritchie Blackmore and Jeff Beck. The group recorded four studio albums (and a live disc during a rapturously received tour of Japan) before disbanding due to creative differences. Guitarist (and, on the last two albums, lead vocalist) Joan Jett wanted to pursue a bare-bones, punky sound, while Ford's interest in the heavier, more metallic side of things was only growing.
Ford made her solo debut in 1983, with Out for Blood, a ten-track blast of glam-metal fury with street-gang lyrics and screaming leads and solos. And on its cover, she swapped her Runaways look of T-shirts and bell-bottoms for a black leather ensemble that revealed the body beneath.
"Me and the bass player came up with that," Ford laughs by phone from New York, when reminded of the Out for Blood cover ensemble. "That was quite a long time ago, so I had to think about that. The bass player [Neil Merryweather] made that outfit. He used to make leather stuff, and he was really good at it, like the gauntlet on my hand and the crotch piece, he actually hand-made all that stuff. So that was an easy one, having him in my band, he was a really talented guy as well."
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In a way, Ford's come full circle since that album cover in '83. She has a brand-new release, Wicked Wonderland, and it's the heaviest, hardest thing she's recorded since her earliest days. And inside the lavish booklet and on her website, the 51-year-old married mother of two is pictured in a variety of leather and fetish ensembles and sometimes holding an axe (a real one, not a guitar) or a double-barreled shotgun. Lita Ford is a badass, possibly more now than ever after 15 years out of the spotlight.
She's been married since the mid-'90s to Jim Gillette, former lead vocalist for the over-the-top glam-metal act Nitro. In recent years they've been living a secluded life on an island in the Caribbean — fishing, growing their own food, and homeschooling sons James and Rocco. Even the album was a family affair: Gillette, who also produced it at their home, handles co-lead vocals on many tracks. And, as Ford says with a laugh, "the kids were there when we were making it. You can probably hear them yelling in the background of some tracks."
When Ford walked away from the industry, she did so as decisively as can be. "I pretty much was a full-time parent," she says. "We did record some songs for my older son, just for fun, but other than that I didn't really play too much once I had my first son. I really hung it up for a while. I got bored with it, like some people get bored with whatever they do. But it's something that's also addictive. It's in my blood, and I'm not ready to completely hang it up. I've gotta give it another go-around for me and for my family. I want my kids to see me play."
Though the songs are hooky, with choruses you can pump your fist and sing along to, Wicked Wonderland strays quite far from the pop metal and radio-friendly hard rock of 1988's Lita and 1991's Dangerous Curves. (Those, of course, are the albums that sported hits like "Kiss Me Deadly," "Close My Eyes Forever," and "Shot of Poison"). It's a heavy, industrial-tinged album, almost closer in spirit to a Rob Zombie or Marilyn Manson disc, and Gillette's vocals are hoarse and grunge-influenced, not the high-pitched shriek of his previous work. "I needed somebody to hit the heavier side, which, being a female, I can't do," says Ford. "So I wanted him to be able to cover that side of the album.
"We just started jamming, and that's what we came up with," she says of the new sound. "We didn't want to do an album that was lightweight and adult contemporary, which is what people would probably expect from somebody who's 51 years old. But I just wanted to rock. I think a lot of Lita fans will listen to my stuff and say, 'It doesn't sound like her, but then again it does sound like her.' As soon as the vocals kick in or the guitar kicks in, you know it's me. It didn't lose the Lita vibe — my voice still sounds the same."
Almost all the songs on Wicked Wonderland are about sex — but not in the love-song-with-an-edge way Ford's earlier material was. These are raunchy anthems sung by a woman whose bedroom tastes run to the kinky side. "Bed" includes lyrics such as, "Tie me to the bed/Bow your head when you approach your queen... You give me pleasure with pain and always make me scream," and has been licensed to the fetish website Stockroom.com, where Ford and Gillette have a mini-store selling gear they personally endorse. "I love wearing their clothes and using their toys. They're just very classy, very wonderful, high-quality items," she says.
On the surface, such lyrical content might seem like a surprise coming from a woman who lives far from civilization, homeschooling her kids — and who's also included a song called "Patriotic S.O.B." on Wicked Wonderland. But Lita Ford hasn't transformed into a female Ted Nugent by any stretch. "I am a little bit patriotic/conservative," she says, "but I think Jim is more so. That song actually wasn't supposed to be a Lita song, but then I was like, 'Whoa! Wait a minute! This song rocks! We gotta use this song!' It absolutely fits because of our new president, and the way things are going with that. It's our first black president, you know? It's a very right-with-the-times song. So it's got its place on Wicked Wonderland, even though it's not sexual. It's one of my favorites."
Ford's currently on the road with Queensrÿche, whose new release is the self-explanatory concept album American Soldier. Rather than do a traditional opening set, though, she's appearing with the headliners, singing three songs with them as her backing band. "I'm gonna sing with Geoff Tate, we're doing 'Close My Eyes Forever,' then we're gonna do a couple of new songs," she says. "Jim's gonna come out and sing, too. So it's not like I'm the support act or they're the headliners, it's a team effort."
She plans to assemble a band of her own for festivals and other tour dates in 2010, and who knows? It might turn into a full-on family affair. As Ford explains, "James is now playing guitar, he's 12 years old, and he shreds. He's doing great. We gave him a Goldtop Les Paul for his birthday a year ago, and he uses it every day. Rocco is into drums; he's only eight years old but he loves heavy metal and wants to play drums, so he's working with that. Yeah, they're little rocker kids."