Born: Michael Susanne Steele or Susan Thomas
June 2, 1955
Birthplace: Newport Beach, Calif.
“I was really attracted to rock music because there is a lot of freedom and no particular rules.”
~ Michael Steele
Mysterious and Multi-faceted
By Michael Holloway
Michael Steele may not have been the original poster child for rebellious youth, but she certainly redefined the image when she brought her trademark fire, wit, and determination to LA back in the late 1970′s.
Steele certainly came from progressive stock, as she was the daughter of a commercial pilot (her mother) and a car wash magnate (her father). She was a very private person even before she ventured into music, and was a self-confessed bookworm as an adolescent.
Not exactly the type you would expect to become a rocker. She seems to have a dual nature, as if two women live in the same body, one gregarious and one introverted, always striving to coexist yet retain their individuality.
This is not to say that Steele has multiple personalities in the clinical sense of the word, but she is a very mysterious and multi-faceted woman, never reflecting the same emotion twice.
Even her birth name is a source of debate among fans, since she is credited as having two, Michael Susanne Steele and Susan Thomas. For some inexplicable reason, the truth in the matter is difficult to verify since Steele is noted to guard her privacy well, even though she appears vivacious on stage and in her recorded music.
What I do know about Steele is that she is beautiful, immensely talented vocally and as a bass guitarist, and is a gifted songwriter.
Unfortunately, despite Steele’s assumptions about the music industry, there proved to be a lot of rules, at least in the early days of the women in rock movement.
Steele (left) started her career in obscure bands such as Boy’s Ranch, Snakefinger, and Slow Children, and was eventually hired as a member of an early incarnation of The Runaways, alongside Joan Jett (right) and Sandy West (centre).
Steele’s stint with The Runaways did not last long. In fact, she only recorded a demo album with them before she fell out with the band’s manager Kim Fowley and was ousted.
This demo was shelved until the mid-1990′s when it was released under the unfortunately apt title, ‘Born To Be Bad.’
The quality of the recording is wretched and Steele herself was reported to be offended by its release. Moreover, she was offended by Fowley’s trying to capitalise on the revival of The Runaways by marketing her demo with them as a ‘collector’s piece,’ an obvious euphemism for reject.
Feud with Fowley
There was no love lost between Steele and Fowley, in the liner notes of ‘Born To Be Bad,’ he even makes snide remarks about her fame with The Bangles by making unfair comparisons between them and Wilson-Phillips, stating that the latter’s pedigree as musicians gave them an edge over The Bangles.
Fowley: “Is fashion fading on the gangtrain? The early Brian Wilson and John Phillips never lived it; the later Brian and John became absorbed by it. Does that make Chynna, Wendy, and Carnie any variation of The Runaways? Note: Micki Steele became a Bangle, Wilson-Phillips became an improvement of The Bangles’ sound and vision.”
It is Steele’s belief that Fowley bore a grudge against her for refusing to succumb to his oft-times noted tyrannical management.
When the arrogant Fowley clashed with the headstrong Steele, it was like a bull moose trying to stop a speeding train on a busy railroad. Steele knew she would either have to give in to Fowley or crash and burn. Either way, the bull moose had set up an effective roadblock.
However, Steele surprised both by quitting. She would rather make it as a musician on her own terms without Fowley’s interference, which to him was unforgivable.
In one of her rare early interviews, Steele recalls Fowley’s last words he ever spoke to her: “You have no megalo, no magic. This is the only chance you’ll ever have to be a rock star and you’ve blown it.”
She adds: “Perhaps my musical thing didn’t lend itself to his slutty jailbait design, but the way Kim treated me made me depressed for a long time. Then I got angry, and I decided I was going to show him. So it was a harsh experience, but it firmed my resolve. It’s especially nice to know he was wrong about the rock star thing.”
Steele certainly did prove him wrong. When she met the Peterson sisters, Vicki and Debi, and a young hopeful named Susanna Hoffs, she immediately felt a connection with the other women.
They had recently parted ways with their bass player, Annette Zalinskas who had wanted to sing lead in the band they had formed, while everyone else wished to share the vocals evenly.
Upon reflecting that her ideal band would be like The Yardbirds with Fairport Convention vocals; Vicki Peterson was so impressed she hired Steele right then and there. The women’s love of 60s music and their desire to create a similar sound, yet with their own style cemented the bond between them and soon The Bangles were on their way to success.
Steele had arrived too late in The Bangles to perform lead vocals on the songs for the debut album already in production, but her bass skills surpassed those of Zalinska’s and became a staple ingredient in the band’s success.
For the sophomore album, ‘Different Light,’ Steele performed a cover of Alex Chilton’s ‘September Gurls’ (spelled that way on purpose) and performed the middle verse of the iconic Bangle anthem ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ which was written by Liam Steinberg.
One fallacy among Bangles detractors, because the band often wrote with other song contributors or covered other artist’s songs, is they were not serious songwriters. Perhaps that might seem evident among casual listeners of the hit songs played on the radio, which were either covers or collaborations with outside writers.
However, true Bangles afficionados will note that the core of The Bangles songs were in fact written by Hoffs, the Petersons, and Steele, or any combination thereof. The fact that these songs were not played on the radio does not detract from their excellence in songwriting, vocals, and instrumentals.
The other song Steele contributed to ‘Different Light’ was her own composition entirely. ‘Following’ is a hauntingly moody piece about the mindset of a stalker. Unlike Meredith Brook’s gripping musical shocker ‘Your Name’ which clearly focuses the listener’s sympathy toward the victim, Steele’s song provocatively asks the listener to consider the stalker’s point of view.
Steele’s stark contrast with the more bright and bubbly songs featured on ‘Different Light’ would become her trademark. Of all The Bangles, Steele has always been the most mysterious and the most introspective. Her songs are generally darker in tone and much like the infamous shower scene in ‘Psycho,’ startles the listener to attention after being allowed to relax with the other Bangles gentler styles.
Eight Solo Recordings
Perhaps it is for this reason that Steele’s song contributions to The Bangles are so few in number, though rich in quality. She only recorded eight solo songs (not including her verse in ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’) over the course of three out of four albums, but her songs are instantly memorable.
‘Glitter Years,’ for example is a trippy expose of the drug-fuelled 1970s glam-rock era with an uncanny and dead-on accurate imitation of David Bowie in the song’s final refrain.
Other highlights include psychedelic rockers like ‘Nickel Romeo” and “Between The Two”, the surrealist “Something To Believe In”, and the unrequited romance of “Complicated Girl”. The most poignant and emotive of Steele’s songs would have to be “Song For A Good Son” with its theme of a young child torn between his grief over a mother who has just passed away and desire to be accepted by an indifferent father.
Although Steele remains a much loved and influencial member of the classic Bangles eras, 1984-1988 and 2000-2004, she decided to leave the band in 2004 for reasons unknown. Steele’s only correspondence with fans was a letter forwarded by Vicki Peterson about how blessed she is to have wonderful fans but she felt the need to move on. No other explanation was given for this sudden departure. Steele’s position in The Bangles is now occupied by Abby Travis, already a much loved vocalist and bass player in her own right who also fills in for other bands when asked.
As for Steele, her family life, love life, and her current activities remain shrouded in mystery. There are reports that she suffered a major depression after The Bangles split up in the late 80s and although the band reformed, she felt out of place with a group of women who were all new mothers. Another rumour is that non-band related traumas in her personal life were the cause for her retirement.
Other accounts state that Steele is not depressed at all, but is enjoying her retirement with her large family of dogs, and is very happy.
Perhaps the most hopeful rumours are those that state Steele may be actively working on solo material. Whatver the case, the lady does not feel compelled to come forward and give her side of the story or let fans know what’s she’s up to. We just have to accept Steele for the talented enigma that she is and hope for the best for her in her personal and professional life.
Photographs Courtesy Michael Steele
For more forays into the mysterious world of Michael Steele, feel free to visit her Official MySpace. Michael Steele Discography