The rock ’n’ roll gods are looking out for Joan Jett
Former Rolling Stone editor and renowned rock writer Dave Marsh once aptly described singer Joan Jett as “the female Chuck Berry.” Jett’s career began with the punk-y all-girl rock combo the Runaways, and she capitalized on that experience with her 1981 solo album, Bad Reputation, which delivered radio hits such as “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Crimson and Clover,” a cover of the Tommy James tune. Jett is in good form on her new album, Unvarnished, which just came out this fall. It’s another collection of catchy but aggressive tunes. She recently phoned from her New York home to talk abut the release.
What was it like being in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade?
It was very cold. It was actually fun waving at people. I was surprised that so many people were yelling at us in a nice way. I didn’t know what to expect. I watched it many times as a kid. On Thanksgiving Day when we were preparing meals it was on in the background. It was one of those American tradition things.
I can’t imagine you ever thought you’d end up in the parade.
I never even contemplated it.
You probably never imagined there would be a Joan Jett Day either.
Not really, no. That was a lot of fun. It was a great day. A lot of my friends came out to the venue and said some nice things about me on stage. Everybody had a fun time. We played a show and played a lot of our new album. It went really well.
Talk about what first drew you to rock ’n’ roll.
What I remember most when I think back to records and making the transition from listening to Osmond Brothers and Top 40 stuff to starting to hear the guitars on the rock stations and they were resonating. Songs like “All Right Now” by the Free, especially. They were intense, stop-and-start guitar tunes that bended out of tune. There was something very sexual about it. Not even in a having sex kind of way, but just in being connected to your being. I couldn’t describe it. I just wanted to make those sounds. I started listening to that kind of radio. I would hear “Bang a Gong” by T. Rex or “Smoke on the Water.” Those kind of records made me want to play guitar and I asked them for an electric guitar for Christmas when I was 13. They got me one of the Sears Silvertone ones.
Your first teacher wanted you to play folk music.
Yeah, but in all fairness, you have to learn how to walk before run. As I reflect back, I realize now that I had to learn to play a basic chord. I wanted to play rock ’n’ roll but this guy couldn’t break it down and teach me an easy chord version of a rock song. I guess it was such a weird request from a young teenage girl. This was the early ‘70s and he hadn’t seen that before I suppose. I was too polite to walk out so I sat there and endured the lesson and got one of those “learn how to play guitar yourself” books. I learned the chords to those songs. I probably went slow at first because it was a little bit painful but after my family moved to California when I was 14, I was thinking that I could make my dream come true. I was reading about a disco in Cream magazine that played all British glitter music like Bowie, T. Rex and Slade . . . stuff that Americans never hear. I could go to this club and there had to be girls like me. I thought, “I can’t be the only girl in Hollywood who wants to be in a rock band.”
Looking back on the Runaways, would you have changed anything?
I think it had to go down the way it did. It couldn’t have lasted much longer and retained the same name. You can’t be a runaway after you’re legal. I have logical thoughts like that. It fell apart naturally and organically the way the bands normally do implode. We went through all the same issues that most bands go through and broke up. Even though rock is what we did, a big part of it was the fact that we were teenagers doing it. You could put us back together but it wouldn’t be the same thing. It just wouldn’t.
What was the key to making such a successful transition to becoming a solo artist?
It wasn’t really immediately. We broke up in ’78. That year I met Kenny Laguna, who is now my manager, and we met to write songs. I had signed on to do a movie with the Runaways and I was contracted to write all these songs. The movie was still happening. I didn’t want to get sued. We wrote eight songs in three days and fulfilled the contract. We became best friends. Kenny learned about my story and saw how crazy people would treat me because I was a girl who wanted to play rock ’n’ roll. He had a lot of powerful friends. He called people and they told him they couldn’t help him. He got angry. He wanted to fight the same fight I was fighting. It was just not fair. The music was good. I wouldn’t play any games. I wasn’t being a sexy girl. I wasn’t getting tit implants or whatever. We wanted to sign to a major label. We sent four songs — “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me” and “Bad Reputation” — to all the major and minor record companies. We got 23 rejection letters, all of which we still have. They said they weren’t interested. You gotta go, “Do they listen to the tapes people send them? Can they hear hits?” They didn’t just miss one. They missed four. To this day, I don’t know what the reasoning would have been. We invested our money into the band. Kenny took his daughter’s college fund of $500 and we printed 100 albums and sold them out of the trunk of our car. They sold our right away. We printed more and they sold out. We were getting support on the local radio stations. They would support a local artist. A whole buzz started to build about the band. That became Blackheart Records and the rest is kind of history. We kept it ourselves and we’re glad we own our own stuff. Sometimes, the rock ’n’ roll gods are looking out for you.
Talk about the approach on Unvarnished.
I don’t think my style has changed much. That wasn’t the issue. It was just to write great songs. I had grown up a lot, even since my last album in 2006. I had some losses. I lost animals, who I think of as family. I lost best friends and both my parents. I wrote a lot about life being fragile. I live in a town called Long Beach right here on Long Island. We got wacked by Hurricane Sandy. There’s a song that touches on the spirit of people. I saw it first hand. “Make It Back” alludes to that spirit. A song like “T.M.I.” is about how we put everything about ourselves online. I come from a time when mystique was important. I’m commenting on it. It’s not really a judgment. The “Reality Mentality” is about how the reality TV mentality has seeped into real news. Somebody asks a deep question and you’re required to give a 30-second sound bite. It’s one thing for that to happen in the entertainment business but it shouldn’t happen in the news. I just wanted to make some comment on that too.
Did you have trouble writing songs or were you busy working on other projects?
We spent a couple of years touring the last record. I was always coming up with melodies. It’s a matter of sitting down and doing it, like homework. Sometimes you get nothing or other days you get something. Before you know it, you’re done and taking it to the band for rehearsal. I was doing the Runaways movie, which started in early 2009 and a lot time was taken up with that movie and then we were on the road with Green Day in Australia and after that, I focused on getting these songs done and getting into the studio. There was a lot going on.
Did you have someone specific in mind when you wrote “Soulmates to Strangers”?
No. Not one. Not one but more than one. I think so may people have that experience when you fall in love and think you’ve found the person you’ll be with forever. One day, you realize it’s not the person. You ask, “How do I disentangle myself?” It’s not just something that’s happened to me. It’s happened to a lot of my friends. It’s not a singular experience. It’s something that most people tend to go through before they find that person.
It can happen in friendships too.
Exactly. It doesn’t have to be a love relationship. You become friends and then something happens and you’re like, “Who is this person?”
You haven’t been inducted yet into the Rock Hall. Is that an accolade you’d cherish?
I didn’t ever get into this to get into the Rock Hall and Roll Hall of Fame. It would be great if it happened. It’s not something I think about too much. You can’t figure it out. If I get in, I’ll be happy. If I don’t, it’s not going to change anything.