Joan Jett: Speaking To The Underdog

By: Dennis Cook

Joan Jett
There's something undeniably appealing about Joan Jett. Tough, great rough 'n' tumble songwriter, unrepentantly sexual, oozing charisma, stylish as hell and rockin' as all get out. When her muscled arms grab an electric guitar and she fixes you with her thickly mascara ringed eyes, well, you gotta be made of sterner stuff than most of us if your knees don't wobble a little. As she slyly queries on one of her biggest hits, "Right or wrong, don't it turn you on?"

Perhaps more than any of these details it's her unshakeable sense of self-possession, a bold line in the sand that says, "You wanna try me? Go for it!" Broadly, Jett's music combines the primal energies of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" with The Sex Pistols' "Holidays In The Sun," sprinkled with spoonfuls of '60s girl group energy, Ramones bluntness and Grand Funk Railroad's stadium igniting fervor. She is Mary Magdalene to Nick Lowe's Jesus of Cool, a societal outsider beloved by the Lord. However, not many fringe figures have Number One tunes around the globe or a fantastically active career that stretches from 1975, when she left home at 15 to co-found seminal all-girl punk-garage rockers The Runaways, right up until today. Frat boy favorite and punk girl icon, Joan Jett is a complex person, but it's those very complications that have kept us fixated on her for more than 30 years.

"I think you've got two extremes that girls are told they can be. You can either be a dress wearing, lipstick wearing kind of girl or the athletic, short hair, tough chick. There's nothing in between," says Jett. "Most women live somewhere in between. They're not at the extremes, but there's nothing out there for them. It's even difficult to find clothes to wear if you reject these two roles. I have trouble just finding something comfortable."

The world hasn't ever seemed to fit Jett off the rack, forcing her to define her own way of doing things, from how she dressed to the kind of music she made and even running her own label, Blackheart Records, since her self-titled 1980 debut (better known as Bad Reputation, the wider 1981 re-release).

"I'm not too sure it was purposeful. I had no choice really but to forge my own way because there just wasn't anything. If I wanted my music to be heard, I had to form my own label. I just kind of created my own path, and I feel like I've been fairly successful at that, whatever that means [laughs]. I'm still able to work this many years after The Runaways, which is an absolute blessing to still be playing music. I'm very blessed," offers a suddenly quiet Jett.

Let's Don't Take No Chance

Joan Jett
Coming out of The Runaways in 1979, Jett was seen as a standard bearer for punk but she also had a sweet tooth for '60s party pop, and what could be more punk than ending your first solo record with a sincere, Pabst Blue Ribbon swiggin' take on Sam The Sham's "Wooly Bully"?

"I don't know what to say about that," laughs Jett, who acknowledges those expectations but never let them affect her. "I don't really care. Maybe that's part of punk ethics, too, just do what you want to do and is enjoyable. Fans certainly liked it. It was just a fun thing to do at the time, and I'm not even sure what inspired it now."

She's always had a fantastic nose for perfect cover songs, including her signature tune, "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," which was penned and recorded by The Arrows in 1975. However, it was Jett's x-factor that made "Rock 'n' Roll" an international sensation and a thunderous pleasure grenade whenever she tosses it in concert to this day. Again and again, she susses out songs by others that often suit her better than the originals, transforming them into something of her own despite not having a hand in their initial creation. Recently, she crawled inside The Replacements' "Androgynous" from the iconic Let It Be, and despite the history clinging to it, made it something truly Jett.

"A lot of times it's things I relate to as a fan, songs I return to when I need some sort of solace from music, either lyrics that I can say, 'I feel like that,' or just something uplifting. Sometimes it's a musical thing, like I want to hear certain guitar sounds," says Jett. "There were a lot of different reasons I was drawn to 'Androgynous' – loving that record, loving those words and what he's talking about, and I'm a big Paul Westerberg fan. I really don't consider myself a typical girl, in the sense that the roles you see women play for the most part in day-to-day life are sort of a much more feminine caricature of what girls are. I personally don't fit that mold. I kind of straddle things. I'm a girl, I'm happy about it. I love being a girl, a woman, whatever you want to call it, but I also like accessing those parts of me that aren't traditionally called feminine."

Joan Jett
Jett is a consummate entertainer, especially live, where she combines quality material and playing with superb performance instincts. It's good music but like a lot of acts from Philly she's hellbent on making sure you have a goddamn great time, too.

"It's really important. These days a lot of bands get caught up in the spectacle of it – the lights, pyro and stuff like that – but if the music sucks there's no real connection. To me, it's all about connection. It's all about those thousands and thousands of moments," waxes Jett. "I bet you can remember shows you've been to over the years, something you were really into, and you locked eyes with someone in the band and there was a smile or something special, and there was that moment you had with them that nobody else can have. That was your moment and their moment at that exact second in time. To me, that's what it's about, creating these years of moments you have with people, many of which you're unaware of and will always be unaware of."

This writer's own moment occurred in the late '80s at the Watsonville County Fair in Northern California. While a hog contest snorted in the background and farmers showed off their freakishly huge produce, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts devastated a small crowd. Pressed against the lip of the stage, I was pelted by sweat pouring off Jett's pitch-black tresses as she kneeled and howled The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog." The grin she shot me when she opened her eyes during the final chorus remains an ivory prize in my mind's flipbook, a snapshot of losing one's fucking mind and loving it. And she's been generating these kinds of moments for over three decades.

"Pyro can't create that. A big flash? Big fucking deal! Something that's actually personal, an exchange of energy between two sentient beings, that's what I'm talking about. To me, that's part of the show," says Jett. "The audience is as much of a show as the band. If the audience isn't into it it's tough. You want to try and bring them along and enjoy it as much as you are."

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