The Public’s Vindication of an Ex-Runaway
JOAN JETT’S ambitions have remained constant since the age of 15, when she formed all-girl metal rock band the Runaways and defiantly informed an indifferent country that she wanted to go where the boys go. Although the passing of time has toned her skills as a white noise guitarist to a fine ear-piercing point, and although she can finally scream through the wall of electricity, what changes there have been are less of intention, more of ability to follow these intentions. The Runaways were despised in America for several reasons; their manager Kim Fowley hyped them to hell and back as sexual titillation for horny young men (99% of their Yank audience, was male) and this repelled the rock critics who might have built their reputation. This country couldn’t handle five hedonistic jailbaits using the r’n’r dream to no greater purpose then having fun fun fun. The band themselves were aggressive amateur musicians, and if in Europe and Japan the noise annoys gangbang throttle riffs of things breaking down were accepted at face value, over here it was pre-punk product perfect time. The Runaways were never a great group, which is OK because they could be very good. But by the time they were getting good with the ’77 Waiting For The Night — an attempt to legitimitize, through a comprehension of the gender clichés they twistedly propagated, their vision of the rock lifestyle — it was too late. They couldn’t dodge their bad reputation, and in 1979, they gave up.
Three years later and things are a little different for Joan Jett…”It’s like all of a sudden — nobody would look at the Runaways, they’d laugh. Everybody really slagged us, everybody: no radio play, all bad press. Then the Runaways break up and you try this and you leave and you come back and finally. FINALLY…”
Joan’s second solo album — and first with back-up band the Blackhearts — I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll has gone platinum, the same-named single has gone gold. I have no idea why, it isn’t that much better than Bad Reputation. Nobody else can figure it either, and though Joan says “maybe at this time kids want to get back to basics” she qualifies the comment with “but I don’t know why, that I can’t answer.” One thing is certain, this isn’t a Loverboy-REO record company success. This is one from the heart.
On a wet Wednesday afternoon at her publicist’s offices in midtown Manhattan, Joan, her manager Kenny Laguna (who used to produce Tommy James and the Shondells) and I attempt to put the bits and pieces together under the mother hen eyes of PR lady Jeffy Powell. Joan is looking unequivocally gorgeous, better than on the cover of the album. The pronounced toughness that comes through when she is sullenly pouting (all those pictures!), or the anguished face-pulling that’s a prerequisite in her concerts disappears when she smiles; when she smiles Joan looks like the girl who always sat at the back of class in junior high disrupting the proceedings when things got just too tedious, and getting away with it with a flutter of her long eyelashes. She got off the road the day before and spent the night at the home she shares with Kenny and his wife Meryl for the first time in far too long.
Joan is also in a mild state of shock: “It hasn’t hit me yet and when it does, it will knock me sideways. I don’t know how I will feel. Maybe it’ll hit me slowly, I have no idea. It makes you turn round and go ‘Ha ha ha,’ it really makes me laugh.” Joan’s pleasure is contagious, her throaty voice — similar to her singing one even when calm — jumps an octave whenever we mention her current preeminence. “This is something I’ve been dreaming about since I was 14, it’s just blown me away,” she admits, grinning. “Even if it stopped today you still would’ve had that place, they can’t take it away. Number 5 album and number 3 single! And some people say ‘Don’t you think that’s selling out?’ What can you reply? That’s not selling out at all, I’d have done this album no matter what. It happens that ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ is an anthem. Everyone said, ‘You can’t have a hit single with it, nobody will play it, it’s so hard,’ but you know, it’s an anthem when it’s No. 3 in the charts. I will personally flip out if it gets to the top.”
It does start to settle up for the years of struggling to little avail with the Runaways, a time in her life Joan seems obsessed with. The name crops up continually, and at one point she comes close to an illumination of exactly why they were reviled here: “America can be too uptight. No one in ’75 expected to have a five-piece all girl rock ‘n’ roll band that was under 19; swearing, drinking, doing everything a male band would do and being honest about it. They weren’t ready for it. I don’t know if they’re ready for it now, if another band like that came out. They can’t accept the Runaways, Americans can’t, except for the few who saw deeper than the fact that we were teenage girls — they listened to the music, they liked the whole thing. I always wanted to be in a big band, Kim [Fowley] always wanted to have a big band, and he used things that he thought would get us recognition. At the time we didn’t know it was going to be bad for us, we didn’t at all. We didn’t realize that ’til too late.”
Joan’s image has always been an integral part of her music, a tangible extreme with thoroughly provocative undertones; the stubborn g-u-r-l who took crap from no one and if any one didn’t like it they could take a flying one. What people didn’t notice was the guts and simple self-respect implied in her actions and attitudes. It pulled no party lines, not the male dominated “you can’t do that” rock one and not the sexual-defining liberated female one. It’s for good reason that young girls have been emulating Jett, she brings out extreme devotion in her fans — and I’ve met Joan Clones everywhere from New York to L.A. to London.
“Oh! I think they’re wonderful” says Joan of these strange creatures who dye their hair the same shade and will only wear black Pro-Keds because that’s what she wears. “It isn’t weird to me because I’m a fan of myself.”
“But it’s hard for me to think in terms of image. I feel as though I have no image. You see, I’m too close to it to tell. What I’m trying to explain is that I have no image. I do but I don’t. I do what I want to do, it’s me, what you see is what you get.”
“You know of course that she does have an image, right?” interrupts Kenny Laguna. “But that doesn’t relate to building an image career-wise. That person that is Joan Jett is Joan Jett all the time. The hard part was getting even our record company to realize that the way to build an image with Joanie is to let her be what she is. There is absolutely no conscious pretense. Zero. None of this was thought of.”
And the leather stuff?
“I love leather,” Joan states definitely. “It’s not an image. I mean I’m not wearing my leather jacket today, but I have my leather pants on. It’s like I can’t keep away from it.” How about suede, I cheekily inquire. “No. There’s something special about leather. It’s not an image, it’s a thing…it’s not an image, it’s… me!”
One of the effects of Joan’s rise in popularity has been a subtle shift in the way she is portrayed to the public; her most recent photographs find a rather languorously feminine Joan lazing on a beach in hot pants. Jeffy shrugs if off with “She doesn’t always wear leather, you know,” but these are the photos that’ll be the first representation of post-stardom Jett for much of the world. If she wanted to play butch that would have been the time. Otherwise, Joan’s success hasn’t altered her life much, she’s been on the road continually and the main difference has been one of, as Jeffy explained earlier, “changing venues from clubs to theatres and endlessly adding one on the end.” Joan hasn’t seen much of the money yet. (“though I’m not starving”), still hasn’t gotten her famous ’57 Chevy.
The change in status is more obvious in her manager Kenny. He nearly refused us this interview for numerous crimes against the artist, some real, some imagined. Mitchell Cohen comes in for a slamming for what was, more or less, a complimentary review of I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll. Complains Kenny: “The reviewer should’ve been happy to have a record that didn’t sound as though it was manufactured at a CBS factory. When you see a review like that, where he says ‘She should leave ‘Bits and Pieces’ to Annabella Lu’… if Joan Jett wants to have fun making an Adam & the Ants record…”
“What Adam & the Ants?” exclaims Joan. “That drum stuffs from Gary Glitter and John Lydon.”
“I was surprised at CREEM,” Kenny goes on. “They were always up front with us. The reason you’re doing this interview is because Joan likes CREEM.”
“I didn’t think it was enough to get upset about. CREEM always likes to slag me off, they like to get hold of me and just…it’s a bum like Rick Johnson. I don’t care, I don’t like Rick Johnson.” Our Rick destroyed the Runaways’ fairly dire Queens Of Noise five years ago. “He was so wrong, it seemed like he sat there and decided ahead of time ‘I don’t like the Runaways’ — forget about the album, forget about the music.” Joan promises to beat him up if their roads should cross; tickets will be available from CREEM headquarters.
But these are minor quibbles compared to the breach of conduct (a big one by our standards that occurred in The Beat Goes On section of the August ’81 issue. Under a heading that read: “Jett Forsakes Touring For Reading” and a picture of her reading CREEM in a car, was a predictably silly paragraph about how Joan had grown tired of performing in concert. Kenny isn’t the slightest bit amused and brings up the subject for the second time when I question whether he’s over-protective (mistake, mistake, but too late): “Am I protective is a better question. Who’s the judge? The press? Who write jokes or print fucking pictures of her when she was 14 and fat? All they do is make an asshole out of her. They make up stories, they put quotes next to her picture that were never said which I thought was against the rules. And you say everybody knows. Wrongo. The magazine is read right across the world…”
Joan: “Kids believe the press, man. If the press says I’m going off the road the kids’ll believe it. I’ll never go off the road.”
Laguna: “Overprotective of an artist who has been vindicated by the public? I feel that the press was a big protector of Joan Jett, but certain magazines are no better than CBS, they are conglomerate in their attitude and they think they’re above everything else…” Well, you get the picture. And after more of the same Kenny calms down enough to admit, “Maybe we lost our sense of humor when Joanie was mistreated by the record industry, maybe that’s it, maybe you’re right, maybe we should be able to laugh a little bit.” Laguna’s ill temper is closer to amusing than annoying, in fact quite fun — especially when he’s insulting somebody else, which he does a lot. Joan obviously loves him and when he leaves the room describes him in rapturous terms:
“Kenny’s great. Kenny has balls. So many people don’t have balls anymore. Everybody else said “Forget it, Joan Jett can’t do it — no way.’ Kenny and I are so much alike. We fought, we said ‘Fuck it, if people won’t take us this way we’ll do it that way.’ We fought because I wanted to play, I wanted to be on the road and Kenny wanted it to work; for some reason he believed in me, he saw something in me. And we fought, we fucking fought. And we did something that no one in the industry is going to forget for a long time. A good right to the ribs!”
I’m not sure if I’d term Joan Jett’s perseverance “fighting the industry” but she has sure worked hard since forming the Blackhearts. I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll was made on the road.
“During the weekdays we’d be in the studio and during the weekends we’d travel around the New York area, the Northeast, doing gigs. So we were doing both without really stopping. Which was good I thought, it really kept us together, it kept us sharp.”
“I work all the time — it’s like being an athlete. I can do two months straight easily. We are supposedly one of the hardest touring bands in a long time and now we are thinking about cutting it down a bit, maybe even take a couple of days off. I’m still going to work, but I like to relax a little, too. Even when I’m just hanging around my house I’ll be writing songs and doing things like that, but I do like to work a lot. There’s something, though, that I cannot do — I’ve seen people who can do it and I don’t know how they manage it — that’s night after night drinking and doing cocaine, shit like that I cannot conceive. I went through it a bit with the Runaways and it’s madness. Plus, being the lead singer doing an hour and a half and headlining, I’m singing and screaming and running around the stage putting out all this energy, I couldn’t go on stage with a killer hangover. It’s something you learn with experience. Luckily the Runaways were a big learning experience. And that’s another factor — I’m ready to kick ass now.”
Kick ass now?! Joanie talks as thoughshe’s stepped straight out of 1972. I’ve cut out loads of “a-fucking-mazings” and “mans” stuck on the end of every other sentence, as in “in-fucking-credible-man.” She’s a complete throwback to long gone days of rock naivete, as though the past five years haven’t happened. I think it’s that naivete that attracts me to her music today. In 1982 the term “rock ‘n’ roll” is meaningless to me; I love music — all types of music, that’s why I write about it, and I won’t be stopped in that love by three little words that are more an archaic form of reference than a viable idiom. Worse still, words that are used to propagate a tired form of teenage rebellion, a rebellion that breaks hearts and kills people. They’ve realized that in England, which is why many writers term this the post-rock period. That doesn’t mean that rock is dead either. It means that it depends who is using it and that now funk or reggae or disco or country or salsa are equally viable forms of expression for youth. It means that it’s time America opened its eyes and realized that all that stuff the hippies and their icons and the 70’s nihilists and their icons, and the punks and their icons were telling us DON’T WORK. When I suggest this to Joan she physically recoils. “It’s the only thing that I know how to do. I could wash dishes in a cafeteria, I could probably be a waitress, though I’d be horrible. I could never be a dancer. I could never do any of that shit.
“Rock ‘n’ roll is where I belong and there’s no way I’d do anything else. What do you want to call it? Rock? OK, call it rock, call it whatever you want, but I like to sweat. I get into it, I love it, I love what I’m doing. I’ve been doing it since I was 15 and when you start that young there’s nothing else. I mean that guitar — man, it’s my life.” Yes, well all right…but then I ask Joan who she listens to and she reels off a list of early 70’s glitter queens with nary a rock star, a Jagger or a Townshend or a Dylan, among them: Gary Glitter, Bowie, T-Rex, Mudd, Sweet, (the inevitable) Suzi Quatro, Barry Blue. I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll itself is closer to this aesthetic, covers of bubblegum hits like ‘Crimson and Clover’ (she did ‘Do You Wanna Touch Me’ on Bad Reputation) and pop songs like Dave Clark 5’s ‘Bits and Pieces’. She resurrects ‘Victim Of Circumstance’ from Waiting For The Night and dispenses with the metal riffriffs. ‘Run Away’ is a fine pop melody. When Joan describes the type of sounds she enjoys she might well be describing the music she makes:
“That chant style, it’s very effective, it’s very powerful — it makes you feel as though you’re in a gang and you’re all singing. The English started it — maybe, maybe I’m wrong — because of the way the crowds shout at their soccer matches, and they started putting these chants into the music. That makes the music that much more exciting and you can sing along with it. Up-front drums, up-front bass, danceable. Anthem-y, that’s the style I love. When I was 12, 13, 14, I really started getting into it. Like T-Rex, the first album I ever bought was Electric Warrior.”Incidentally, the same first album that Richard Barone of the Bongos bought.
When Joan, was 12, 13, 14, she was living on the East Coast. When she was 15 she moved to Los Angeles (I asked her why she moved and it’s the only question she dodges), which is where the Runaways were based. “I lived in the middle of West Hollywood right across the street from the Whiskey A Go Go, everybody hung at the Whiskey and before there was a good show everybody came and partied at my house; people were fans of the Runaways, they found out where I lived and it was no big hassle, it was fun, I knew a lot of Runaway fans. There was a closeness there, we’d sit and talk. I’m getting it in New York as well — where I can, out in Long Island. I can actually talk to people and they act quite surprised, they go ‘Oh shit, she’s not going to bite my head off.’ I don’t know where they got that idea.”
“I’m bi-coastal. Mentally it’s like L.A. is home and New York is home. I get resentful when I hear New Yorkers bad-mouthing L.A., saying they’re phony people. I could be wrong but sometimes I feel people feel I deserted L.A., because I always used to be in L.A. bands. But the truth is there is more on the East Coast. If you’re a working band, which the Runways always were and the Blackhearts are, you’re always on the road. In L.A., you can’t travel here and there, it’s too expensive. We didn’t know what did happen would happen. How can you tell those things? We didn’t know we’d go so high so fast.”
Things are rosy and busy for 22-year-old Joan Jett. The long-awaited movie, a “B” flick original planned as a vehicle for the Runaways, We’re All Crazy Now, will probably see the light of day (“It hasn’t yet, but I’m sure it will as much as I don’t want it to”), there’s the tour of the States to be completed and the audiences are getting wilder and wilder, trips to Europe and Australia are in the cards, maybe even Japan — where the Runaways were one of the 5 most popular groups and greeted on their one trip there Beatlemania style.
Joan Jett’s move from cult phenomenon to radio phenomenon is one of the happier twists of fate; after meeting her I find myself thinking of something English rock critic Julie Burchill (who canonized Joanie in The Boy Looked At Johnny: The Obituary Of Rock And Roll) once said: “Joan Jett is a nice girl.” Very nice.
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