Joan Jett: Electric Warrior

Joan Jett in 1977 on Santa Monica Boulevard

It’s the end of winter, 2006, and Joan Jett is finishing up the final touches on her album Sinner in a New York studio, as her new song “Naked” blares over the speakers. It is classic Joan Jett: buzz saw guitars, sing-along melodies, and that amazing voice—rough and soft, sweet and tough at the same time—lashing it all together and taking it to new heights with every chorus. “Every bit of trouble that I cherished / Every bit of truth that I let perish / Every little bit of me is naked,” Jett howls, nearly pleads, and then sneers, “Yeah.”

This is rock and roll as it ought to be—raw and catchy and a little desperate. This is the music that has been Joan Jett’s lifeblood for 30 years, since she started the legendary Runaways when she was 15. Jett’s sound—succinctly described by longtime manager Kenny Laguna as a cross between “Yummy Yummy” and the Germs—is so prevalent these days it is easy to forget that she invented it. You don’t have to dig very deep below the surface of anyone from Green Day, the Donnas, and Bikini Kill to Avril Lavigne, Pink, and a slew of lesser bubblegum pop punk to find her. Every time a producer wants to sprinkle a little edge or credibility onto a manufactured starlet, from Ashlee Simpson to Kelly Osbourne, Joan Jett’s sound is borrowed. The irony is not lost on her.

Joan Jett has fought hard for her success. It was built in the face of hostile audiences, oblivious record executives, and entrenched resistance. She has held her ground in front of the meanest audience—even while being spit on, pelted with bottles and batteries, and insulted. Millions of records and about a dozen hit songs later, she takes it all with a grain of salt. She has earned some of the most loyal fans in the world and she has become a North Star for every girl who picks up a guitar. Besides, nothing is more rock and roll than kicking down doors and doing what everyone says can’t be done. And everybody knows Joan Jett loves rock and roll.

“The first records I remember really inspiring me to play guitar were T. Rex ‘Bang a Gong’ and Black Sabbath ‘Iron Man’ and the first New York Dolls record,” Jett remembers. “I started playing for real at 13. My parents got me a Sears Silvertone for Christmas. I had been bugging them for it. I tried to take some guitar lessons and was very excited and went in and told the guy, ‘Teach me how to play rock and roll!’ He looked at me like I was out of my mind and attempted to teach me how to play ‘On Top of Old Smokey.’ That was the one and only lesson I took. I got one of those ‘How to Play Guitar by Yourself’ books and just taught myself to play.”

It was just a couple years later when Jett formed the Runaways, the groundbreaking all-girl teenage rock ‘n’ roll band, with Lita Ford and Cherie Currie. “I moved to California when I was 13,” she says. “Coinciding with the time I was learning to play guitar. Moving was traumatic, because of the friends and all that, but that was the point when I thought, ‘Now I can make these dreams happen, because now I’m in California.’”

Managed by notorious Sunset Strip Svengali Kim Fowley, the Runaways gave Joan an early education in the sleazy sides of the music business and a preview of the obstacles that she would face in the years ahead. Tough teenage girls playing menacing rock and roll in an age of Captain and Tennille, the Runaways were written off as a novelty act in the U.S. (Predictably, Rolling Stone snubbed them as “Kim Fowley’s quintet of teen teasers.”) They were huge in Japan, though, and they were everything to Joan. She put her heart and soul into the band, walking the tightrope that stretches between the right to rock and the refusal to be exploited. Her look, sound, and integrity prefigured and influenced punk rock and it was punk rock that welcomed her when the Runaways fell apart.

“The whole idea of the Runaways to me is punk rock. And my first inspiration came from early British glitter music, and all the bands that were happening right around us. The Ramones, the Clash. We were lucky enough to tour right in the middle of it. It was really one of those moments you never forget. Especially being a teenager. But the Runaways were five different girls with five different influences. And half the band really wanted to go in a heavy metal direction and I didn’t. I wanted to stay more straight-up rock and roll. That’s really what caused us to split in the end. But it was devastating for me. The Runaways were my baby. They were my band. It was very traumatic. I did not look at it as freeing, or freedom, or anything like that. I felt very lost.”

Joan left Los Angeles and drifted to London, confused, unsure of what to do next. “I was just trying to figure out where to go. I didn’t want people to feel that girls couldn’t rock, that the Runaways failed. Because that is the vibe that people throw at you. Like, ‘Ha ha ha, we told you it wouldn’t work. We told you girls can’t rock.’” While in London, Joan met Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, and enlisted them to play on a demo of a song she had been wanting to record for a while. She had tried to get the Runaways to cut it on their last two records, but nobody had been interested.

Alone, far from home, with no band and no record deal—worried that she might have missed her chance, that her dreams were over—Joan Jett walked into the studio and cut “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

The response? Complete indifference. “Nobody heard ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,’” Joan says, sounding still stunned. “That was the funny thing. To everybody else it was just another song. And I have 23 rejection letters to prove it, from everybody.”

In New York, the crowds started building. “We were really well received. It seemed like it happened very quickly. The audiences were really intense. I don’t know if it was timing, or if it was the songs. We had great support from radio, though, which is nonexistent for up-and-coming bands now. Radio was very, very helpful.” With the Blackhearts, Joan went back into the studio and rerecorded “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” along with great versions of Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover” and the Halos’ “Nag,” and classic Jett originals like “Love is Pain” and “(I’m Gonna) Run Away.”

“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the single and the album of the same name, were released just before Christmas, 1981. It shot up the charts and stayed at No. 1 for two months. For Joan, it was like being on a rocket. She was suddenly an indisputable rock star, just as she always knew she could be. The massive success came with a price though. In addition to an ecstatic army of fans, Joan crashed head on into a wall of prejudice and stereotype. Many people just could not accept a woman on stage playing rock and roll guitar. A tour of Europe opening for the Scorpions got particularly nasty.

Back in Los Angeles, Joan was determined. She shrugged off the rejections and pushed forward. She put together a tough band and, with Laguna, started her own label to release the song herself. “I formed the Blackhearts and we moved to New York. I wanted to get out of L.A. I wanted to start fresh. For a band that has no money, for a struggling bar band, there are a lot more cities that you can play on the East Coast and go home at the end of the night. You can play Jersey, you can play Rhode Island, you can play Connecticut, you can play Pennsylvania, you can play Massachusetts, and you can play a million places in New York and still drive home. So that’s what we did, for all of ’79, ’80, ’81. Lots of touring, sleeping in vans, selling albums that we had printed ourselves from the trunk of our car. That was Blackheart Records right there. In the trunk.”

“They would work up these loogies,” Jett remembers. “And they’d let you know they were working on them, because you could hear it! The most disgusting noises you can make, hocking, working on these hideous loogies. And I would just be showered in spit and phlegm. It was a battle. But it wasn’t even about the music! I mean, I could have been channeling Elvis Presley and it wouldn’t have mattered. It was about trying to humiliate a woman onstage. And so they’d hock on me and I would be literally dripping in these loogies, these disgusting things hanging off me, off my guitars, off my clothes. And when that didn’t work, when that didn’t get me off the stage, besides calling me names, they’d start throwing things. At one place it was a bottle, and at one place it was a battery. I don’t remember which was where. One hit me in the head and gave me stitches and another hit me in the chest and broke a couple ribs.”

At the same time, Jett was up against a different kind of opposition from record executives who didn’t know what to make of her or her success. A stint on MCA inspired a cover of the Sex Pistols’ classic put-down “E.M.I.” with the letters changed to those of her new label. “I’m not sure that a certain level of label gets what kind of artist I am,” she says. “And that’s not a cut—they just don’t get it. They try to change you and change the essence of who you are. That’s why I just do my own thing.”

Her own thing has done well. She followed “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” with hits like “Bad Reputation,” “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me,” and the multi-platinum “Up Your Alley.” She stormed into the ’90s as a mentor and inspiration to the riot grrl movement, working with Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland and Donita Sparks of L7. At the same time, her near-perfect version of “Love is All Around” (the Mary Tyler Moore theme) became the anthem for women’s NCAA basketball. She wrote with Replacements front man Paul Westerberg, and together they recorded a raucous duet of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It.” Not the easily defined, lobbed softballs that the major labels beg for, but truly the stuff of a fiercely independent, self-reliant artist who has always followed her own instincts and blazed her own trail forward. And most importantly, it always sounded good.

The next few months are going to be busy for Joan Jett. She is gearing up for a summer on the Warped Tour, playing with bands she influenced heavily, for a young audience who fell in love with her sound secondhand. More than most performers, Joan Jett can connect with a crowd. She feels for her fans deeply. Watching her play live, it is almost as if she sees the reflection of herself staring back at her. An ocean of kids who love and believe in rock and roll, all the same age she was when she picked up a guitar and formed the Runaways. She thinks about this generation a lot, and the question she gets asked most is maybe the one that is closest to her heart, but the hardest to answer.

“I still can’t quite figure out why there aren’t more girls playing rock and roll,” she sighs. “Why they aren’t there. I think it is a combination of a lot of things. I think a lot of women get treated the way that I have been treated. And I think a lot of women aren’t willing to put up with their whole self-esteem being destroyed every day just because they are playing music. So I think sometimes people might say, ‘I don’t need this shit for a career; I’m going to do something else.’

“There are definitely walls up. I couldn’t tell you why and at what level. Is it the A&R people? Is it the presidents? Is it the record companies? Is it the video channels? Is it the press? It’s all of it. But if people want to play music, they should be able to. And if you happen to be a girl, you should be able to play rock and roll. So all I can say is: Girls, go play! If you want to play, go play! Things will change. The world is changing.”

–Ari Surdoval

Nice spurs. From the absolute ass-end of the Eighties, but she does this one great: Joan Jett tears into Chuck Berry’s “Tulane” on Letterman.


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