As a 4-year-old little towheaded girl, I watched the television screen with a gaping mouth, focusing on the black-haired woman yelling about loving rock 'n' roll. She was forceful, and she looked so cool. I remember how catchy the song was, but most of all, I remember that I believed her.
That was my first experience with how I would come to feel about rock 'n' roll. There's still nothing like hearing her growl through "Bad Reputation," and no matter what, I always, always come back to the likes of the original riot grrl.
Joan Jett has affected thousands of little girls just like me in the 30-plus years she has been rocking. She began with The Runaways, the five women best known for dropping a "Cherry Bomb" on the music world, and roared her way past her teenage years into maturity with Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. Jett made sneering over a mean guitar cool for women in rock and continues to influence musicians through her band and her successful label, Blackheart Records, which she founded with longtime production partner, Kenny Laguna.
You'll have your chance to get your face rocked off June 20 when Jett headlines Jubilee!JAM in downtown Jackson. She talked to the Jackson Free Press about how it all began for her and what comes next for her famous guitar.
You joined up with The Runaways pretty young. You dropped out of high school when you were 15, and one of the things I read about you is that you went back to high school when you went to L.A.
No. And first of all, I was older: I was 16. I was in school at the beginning of The Runaways, and I couldn't (continue traditional classes). The schedule was too crazy, and I was a senior at the time, and I decided to get my GED and get my diploma equivalent and get out early so I could go do all this stuff. I never left school. I actually enjoyed school. I think it's important.
Looking back, would you do anything differently?
Considering my mindset at the time, I wanted to be an entertainer. I was in theater in school and the chorus class and all the music things you do in school, and I was hoping to be an actress. I got into "Cabaret," and it fired up all those instincts: singing, performing on stage, acting, all those things. I think I gravitated toward the stage because it's what was available to me in school and things like that. As I started to grow up a little bit and started listening to a little rock 'n' rollas opposed to the Osmond Brothersmy mindset took on a different (direction). I started to hear a guitar, a distorted guitar, and listened to Led Zeppelin or the New York Dolls, Black Sabbath.
I went to concerts when I was fairly young. I saw Black Sabbath when I was 13, the New York Dolls when I was 13 or 14, and I think those were really crystallizing because then you can see all the elements that attracted you in the first place to performing. Like you know, I want to be on stage because of "Cabaret," the music, the decadence of what was portrayed in "Cabaret," the 1920s in Berlin. I think that rang all the bells of a kid growing up. You're a teenager, and you start thinking about different things; you start thinking about love and you think about sex, and anybody who says different is lying, as we all know is the case. So I was just being a teenager.
So how did rock 'n' roll happen?
It just so happened, I asked my parents for a guitar for Christmas. It had to be an electric guitarit couldn't be a folk guitar; it had to be electric. And I thought they weren't going to do it and they did. So they got me a little
guitar, a little Silvertone, I think it was, and a little amp, and I made a lot of noise the first few days, and then I went to take a guitar lesson with a guitar teacher. And as a kid, you think you're going to learn it all in one day, and I remember going in and (being) very exuberant and saying: "Teach me how to play rock 'n' roll." And the guy looked at me like I was from another planet, you know? I just think the whole thing with the electric guitar and maybe, he didn't care at all. My take was that he did care, that he didn't want to teach me rock 'n' roll because I was a girl, and so he tried to teach me "On Top of Old Smokey."
When I reflect, I realize that you have to learn the basics before you can just learn something, so maybe he was trying to teach me the basics, but maybe not. But I quit and I got one of those "learn-how-to-play-a-guitar-by-yourself" booksjust you know, learn basic bar chordsand I sat in my room and tried to learn the guitar and tried to play to some of my records, but you know, it's tough if you're not really inspired, so I was doing it half-assed.
So then my father got transferredwe lived on the East Coast, and he got transferred to Los Angeles. Now at this time, I was reading all the magazinesCircus and Creamand I used to read in Cream about this club called Rodney's English Disco, a club for teenagers that played all this British glitter music, played singles that American kids had never heard because that music wasn't popular, and disco was becoming really big in the mid '70s. And so when I moved to California, I began to think: "I can really make this happen. I'm close to Hollywood; maybe I can make an all-girl band. If I play guitar, if I want to play rock 'n' roll, there's got to be other girls that want to do what I do. I'm in Hollywood."
So that was my attitude going into it, and so I started going to this club that played (David) Bowie and T. Rex and Susie Quatro and Sweet and Gary Glitter and all these ... rock 'n' roll songs with big choruses and hand claps. It was really catchy, and you could dance to it. And so, you know, combine that with the classic rock stuff you grew up with on the radio, and that crystallized my rock 'n' roll visionwhat I wanted to set out and do and start this band of girls playing rock 'n' roll.
I figured everyone would love it, everyone would freak out and love it and that was my main teenage vision of what I wanted to do. But the reality was completely different.
People didn't love it; people didn't think it was cute. People took great offense to it, which then crystallized me even more, and I got even madder and madder that it was so inequitable for no reason. We wanted to be and do what Led Zeppelin was doing, get up on stage and be sexy and sing about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, just like the boys. We took a lot of sh*t for it, from both sidesfrom feminists and from the other sidepeople saying, "Don't use your sexuality." But you know, it's part of life; it's part of what everybody is and to be otherwise is dishonest.
Do you have advice for female musicians to do what you did? You've been really awesome about adding these women to your label (Blackheart Records) who want to follow in your footsteps of being these strong female songwriters and rock musicians in the face of music now.
You know, advice is so hard to give because, I guess, sometimes when you're in the heat of it, you don't even know what you're doing, you're just in the flow of it. Sometimes people don't even know what they want. They think they know what they want. I mean, is this something that you even want to do for a career or something you just want to do for a couple of years for fun? I think that's the first thing you've got to decide because if you're going to be serious about it and make a career of it, it's going to be really difficult for a lot of factors. ... I have wondered for years why there aren't more girls playing rock 'n' roll this many years after the Runaways. ... They're in every city. I meet these girl bands, and they're good, they're really good. So they're there, and they don't have an outlet. They don't have a place to play, an audience to support them.
So I mean, I think people are really cruel, and if you sit there and think about image and what's projected, and we talk about it so much today: about girls getting terrible images of what they have to be to be successful, and they have to be skinny, skinny, skinny and beautiful and flawless, flawless, flawless. You got the older guys grooming younger girls, and (the guys) can look like sh*t, but the girl's gotta be perfect. It's unrealistic, but that's what it is, and that's the reality of what you're gonna go into. So, I think that people get so nasty and call you so many names. I think that so many times girls just say, "F*ck this, man. I don't need this sh*t. I'm just trying to play music, I'm trying to do something good and creative, and I'm taking this real brutal hostility for no reason. I don't need this," and they go do something else.
If you could do it all over again, would you?
It's hard without support, without some kind of success to give you a reason to keep doing it. You know, if you're out there not making money, not getting gigs and still taking a bunch of crap for just trying to play music, what's the point? If you're not getting enough back from your audience, and all you do is take a lot of crap from people who don't think you should be doing that, a lot of girls say, "Well. I don't need it." That's the only thing I can think of, because girls live a lot more in their self-esteem than guys do. You know, they have trouble about their self worth, myself as well. But I chose this battle long ago, and I'm sort of conditioned, you know.
If I had it all to do again, I don't know. I don't know if I'd be able to stick with it. Remember, I had people with me with a similar vision, so there's strength in numbers.
The Runaways were out there and we actually got a label deal and got a little success in various parts of the world and sustain it for a little while, but that didn't even last. It was three and a half years from beginning to end and, you know, when I think about it now, that's the blink of an eye. That seemed so full at the time; every day something was going on, so full.
I guess I'd say: Be cool about what you want, and sometimes that's hard to do, to know "do I want this for a career or have some fun for a while?" because when the fun stops, then you're going to stop. But if you're really serious, you're going to fight for it.
How do you do that?
You got to find like-minded people who are going to share in your vision. You (have) got to play live. It's about the connection, locking eyes with somebody, smiling and having that moment together in music. And those are the moments that make me want to do it. I get people who come up to me and say, "I had such a good time" and "You looked at me" or "You sweated on me" or whatever, and I think about when I went to shows and somebody in the band looked at me, or I had a moment with a band and whatever it was, and that was my moment. That's what I try to recreatethat idealistic vision of rock 'n' roll, which is kind of really gone now.
We use "rock" as a verb, and everybody's rockin'. Everybody's rockin', and they're rockin' the dress, and they're rockin' this. I'll tell ya, for me, it's kinda sickening. Rock means nothing. It doesn't hold what it used to hold in the '70s. It's a dead word.
How can you influence taking back the word, what it means?
I don't know. I don't think you can. It's just, you just have to go out and do it and hope that you get people to notice and go, "OK. That's what rock means." You know, everything comes and goes in a cycle, and soon enough the word will fall out of favor, and there'll be another word used and then the word "rock," "rock 'n' roll," "rock star" will take back the original meaning.
I guess it's thrown around
It's used flippantly. To me it always used to mean something. I don't know. I guess I'm holding on to ideas that never existed, and now they're totally gone and you go, "man."
Well, it meant something to you and I don't think you're alone in that. What do you think about being labeled "the godmother of punk," "the original riot grrl"?
I think it's something I'd never say about myself. I just don't see it that way, I guess. I can kind of see people's perspective on it. I guess it's that people have to label you. Why do they have to say it at all? Why can't they just say "rock 'n' roll musician"? It just doesn't resonate with me. I'm not insulted by it, I just don't think of myself that way.
A lot of people know you've acted as a producer for the Germs and Bikini Kill, and now you've got these new acts on Blackheart Records. Talk to me about being a producer.
I love to produce, whether it's our own records or with another band. It's always been a band I love. I've always been lucky to be working with a band like the Germs, which was my first onewe were friends, and they were actually Runaways fans before they started The Germs and well, I guess, they probably figured I knew what I was doing because I'd been in the studio like three time with the Runawaysso they asked if I'd produce them. And, you know, it was a lot of fun, but I was working with them as a fan and having seen the Germs a million times and their shows. You just got to get the gist of the songs. They were so great, and we were able to get in there for four days and you got to listen like a fan.
I'm not a producer who wants to go in and do grand things and all sorts of aural tones and create these walls of sound. That's not my thing, unless that's what the band does.
I just kind of want to reproduce what I hear live and make it sound really great. And you know, you don't hear a lot of great rock 'n' roll anymore, to me; just (like) these great Social D records and the Replacementsjust these great three-chord rock 'n' roll, 3-minute songs, no flashy stuff, just the band, but sounding really good, (with) big choruses. And that's what I tried to do with Bikini Kill, and that's what I do with Girl In A Coma.
Let's talk about your show. You've played here several times, and now you're playing in Jackson.
I think it's going to be a blast. We've always had great shows there. The audience has always been really friendly to us. I hope it'll be the same, and we get good weather.
What are you listening to these days?
I really listen to the same stuff I grew up listening to. It can fluctuate. I can really zone in on some (David) Bowie for days or weeks, and I was listening to Led Zeppelin earlier. I've been listening to the Runaways a lot since they're working on this movie ("Neon Angels"), so I've been revisiting some of that. I have a terrible time with lists. I can't rank these things. Some days Sex Pistols are my favorite; some days it's something else. It's all over the place, Rolling Stones ...
And now you've got your own guitar.
Apparently people like it. It's selling very well for Gibson. It's great. It's just a basic Melody Maker I use. I worked on the design on the placement of the knobs. It's simple and basic for people learning and people who just wanna play.
Did you ever want to have your own guitar, or did Gibson just approach you?
You know, I never even thought about having my own guitar. Gibson had actually made guitars for me before, when I did the movie "Light of Day" with Michael J. Fox, and it was in 1987, around that time. We were in a fictional rock 'n' roll band, and I didn't want to use my guitars, because I thought they were too representative of me, and I wanted to differentiate a bit and I wanted to use Gibson. So Gibson made me some single cutaway melody makers, and (I) sent them a Marlboro pack and said, "Make 'em this red." They made me three guitars for the movie, and that's what I used in the movie. They weren't Joan Jett models, just a one-off thing. This is definitely very special, and I'm very honored by it.
So we've gone over time, and ...
Are you coming to the show?
Oh yes, absolutely. I was telling my mom about talking to you today and she said, "That's perfect for you!" because I was one of those many little girls who wanted to be like you.
That's so great.
And so, I didn't quite make it. I write about it.
Do you play?
I am learning right now. I just got an acoustic, so I'm learning.
The hardest part is getting past the calluses, so once the fingers start hurting, just tough it out for another week, and then you'll have calluses, and it won't hurt anymore.
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts play Saturday, June 20, at Jubilee!JAM in downtown Jackson. Advance two-day tickets are $29; $19 single-day. Visit http://www.jubileejam.com/.
Damn, this is good. Great stuff, Neola--I particularly love the closer about how it gets easier once you've built up the calluses (metaphorical much?).
- Tom Head
I love this article. It is the perfect perspective of a well-conducted interview by someone who happens to be a fan. Nicely done.
And what she said about the calluses: perfect. :)
- Lady Havoc
Awesome interview, and nice capturing of dialogue in written form. I liked how you left in the "you know"s and the "I mean"s, because I could imagine Joan Jett talking in a casual, confident way. I loved reading about her evolution into a musician, and then into an influential female rocker. Also, she said nice things about Jackson - big points.