By: Dennis Cook
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
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."
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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We Must Bleed
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. 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.
Besides her own music, Jett has had a hand in producing some terrific rock 'n' roll over the years including one of the most revered, important punk albums of all-time, (GI), the 1979 debut of The Germs, which served as the blueprint for the '80s California punk movement that included Black Flag and The Dead Kennedys.
"The scene at that time was so crazy. People were partying and whatnot, so it was in the context of that late '70s madness. When I met Darby [Crash] and Pat [Smear], I believe it was during The Runaways. We were making our second album called Queens of Noise out in Santa Monica, and I think Darby and Pat were fans of The Runaways and said they had a band. Eventually I started hearing about The Germs and I'd go see them around town. I thought they had great songs but everybody was always so whacked you could never tell onstage. It just sounded like a bunch of noise. But, when you could actually hear the songs they were excellent," recalls Jett. "So, at one point they asked me if I'd be interested in producing a record for them. The only reason I can think they asked me was The Runaways had done a couple albums and maybe they thought I knew what I was doing. Now, I'm just guessing. You'd have to ask them why they picked me [laughs]."
"We had four days in the studio, and the first three days we were very serious about it. We got the basic tracks done and I used little tricks I'd learned like doubling the guitars and vocals to make things fatter and thicker. I think we had a great engineer, which was extremely helpful. I was really into it. I wanted to make a great record. That was the first three days, and the last day was, uh, a little looser [laughs]. I think I wound up passing out on the couch, which was immortalized in the song 'Shut Down' on the record. That was the one track they did live in the studio. The other tracks they recorded just the music and maybe Darby did a dummy lead vocal, but we'd go back in and put in the guitar solo and have Darby do his vocals, and do them again and do them again, to make sure he got a great performance. I was glad I was part of it, to see that band form and grow and build a following. Nobody knew them and now they're this famous punk lore. Darby was really a great guy, a very intelligent guy, a sweet guy, when he wasn't crazy."
Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth
Stone age love and strange sounds, too
Come on baby, let me get to you
Bad nights causin' teenage blues
Get down ladies you've got nothing to lose
Jett's catalog is littered with pleasure buttons like "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" and The Runaways' "Cherry Bomb" (quoted above) that produce visible, instantaneous crowd combustion. A forthcoming greatest hits collection arriving late summer will be like a miniature rock history lesson delivered with fire and smartly controlled abandon – short, sharp bursts of the primal stuff flowing in rock's veins.
"'Crimson and Clover,' 'I Hate Myself For Loving You,' 'Bad Reputation,' 'Do You Wanna Touch Me?' - I guess these songs happened at a period of time for people that reminds them of pleasurable things and people just explode when we play them," observes Jett, who excels at crafting songs that get the job done in just a few minutes. "It's not always easy to do. It's hit or miss. You just happen upon it. You just happen to be tapped in at that moment. Other times you sit down and nothing happens. 'Bad Reputation' was one of the first songs Kenny [Laguna of Tommy James and The Shondells, a longtime Jett creative foil] and I wrote together after we met. We discussed The Runaways and what happened during that time, the lack of positive response and what we thought it was, my age within The Runaways and how I had a bad reputation for no reason besides having a black leather jacket, black hair and make-up. People sort of equated me with this dangerous person. At one point bantering about I said, 'I don't give a damn about my bad reputation.'"
Despite being pretty well rounded, Jett frequently taps into archetypal rebel motifs, a classic storytelling device but with the added pleasure of a terrific beat you can dance to and guitars that rattle your bones.
"It's not just for outsiders or way out there rebels but for the average person. When I see the way people react to 'Bad Reputation' I think most people have someone in their life that tells them they're never gonna do good or holds them back in some way. I think a lot more than pure rebels can relate to it," Jett says. "They find something within it that speaks to the underdog in them. All of us, from time to time, feel like an underdog, like we don't get our due or wonder how we can change anything about the architecture of our life or its trajectory."
Joan Jett will be touring all summer. Find her dates here.
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