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Cover Story: Joan Jett

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Joan Jett: Life’s A Riot

Joan Jett is a badass. Big surprise, right?

With a tough outer shell protecting a sensitive inner world, she personifies rock ‘n’ roll.

Think about all the definitions or synonyms used to categorize rock ‘n’ roll: rebellion, youth, wild, loud, anti-establishment, risky, barrier-breaking. Why not just insert Jett’s image next to the entry in the dictionary to give a full picture of the art form’s meaning? This year marks Jett’s 40th year as a musician – years that aren’t visible on her as she celebrates double nickels this month – and she shows no signs of stopping. If that isn’t rebellion, if that isn’t risky, then what is?

Unlike today, where it is ingrained in American youth culture, alongside learning the ABCs, to aspire to rock stardom, Jett was born to be wild in a suburb outside Philly in 1958. Her parents bought little Joan Marie Larkin her first guitar at 14, but it wasn’t until the family migrated out West that Jett discovered the center of her universe: Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco. Rodney’s was a Los Angeles nightclub on the Sunset Strip from 1972 to 1975 that celebrated glam and glitter rock. It was a place where 12- to 15-year-olds dressed up in platforms, fishnets, blue hair, and black eyeliner; chugged Watney’s Red Barrel beer and popped pills; listened to Bowie and Iggy and the Sweet and danced ’til they’d drop. It was here that “Joan Jett” was born.

Jett formed her first band by the time she was 15. Los Angeles producer Kim Fowley discovered the band at one of their gigs, became their manager, and renamed them The Runaways. After some lineup changes, the band included Jett on guitar, Cherie Currie as lead singer, Jackie Fox on bass, Lita Ford on guitar, and Sandy West on drums. The novelty of a band made up of five teenage girls landed them a deal pretty quickly with Mercury Records. They played their first official gig at the legendary CBGB’s in New York in the fall of 1976.

Jett shared lead vocals with Currie, played rhythm guitar, and wrote or co-wrote many of the band’s songs. They toured the world opening for bands like Van Halen, Cheap Trick, and Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. But when they toured Japan in June of 1977, they sold out arenas by themselves. The Japanese fans ate up songs like “Cherry Bomb,” which ended up topping Japanese charts. The band recorded five LPs total, with Live In Japan becoming one of the biggest-selling imports in U.S. and U.K. history.

The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle proved too much for certain band members, and The Runaways ultimately imploded somewhere between 1979 and 1980. Jett, however, remained undaunted. She moved to New York and spent time in the U.K., all in pursuit of a solo career. She recorded three songs there with Sex Pistols’ Paul Cook and Steve Jones, one of which was an early version of “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” by Arrows. Then she returned to L.A. to work on a film that was supposed to be loosely based on The Runaways’ career, and it was there that she met songwriter/producer Kenny Laguna. The two became friends and decided to work together, so Jett moved near Laguna’s home in Long Beach, N.Y.

With Laguna’s help, Jett formed the Blackhearts. After a handful of gigs with the initial lineup, a second lineup of the band toured the U.S. and built a following, especially in New York. Jett and Laguna used their own money to press copies of the band’s first album, Joan Jett, and sold them out of the trunk of Laguna’s Cadillac after every show. But demand for the record became too intense. That’s when Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart made a deal with Jett and signed her to his new label, Boardwalk Records, then re-released that first album, calling it Bad Reputation. After a year of touring and recording, Joan Jett And The Blackhearts recorded a second album for the new label titled I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll.

Jett’s most successful album to date, I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll sold over 10 million copies. The title track reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and stayed there for seven straight weeks in 1982. It placed 65 on Billboard’s All-Time Top 100 Songs list, and Rolling Stone put it at No. 89 on its roll call of 100 Greatest Guitar Songs.

Jett’s musical career has garnered her eight platinum and gold records and nine Top 40 singles, including the classics “Bad Reputation,” “I Hate Myself For Loving You,” and “Crimson And Clover.” She continues to run her label, Blackheart Records, releasing her own music as well as a few new handpicked artists such as San Antonio-based Girl In A Coma, The Vacancies, and The Dollyrots. She’s tested out her acting chops in movies and TV, appearing on “Law & Order” and on Broadway in The Rocky Horror Show. She has produced albums by Bikini Kill, Circus Lupus, and The Germs.

Is that badass enough for you yet? Jett seems to have the energy of four men.

Unvarnished, Jett’s 14th studio album, comes out in October. Although it has been seven years since her last album of new material (the double-disc Greatest Hits came out in 2010), the ’00s were a busy decade for her. Between the television appearances, her run on Broadway, and the rigors of heading a record label, Jett hosted her own weekly radio show on Little Steven Van Zandt’s Underground Garage channel on Sirius Satellite Radio for a year, executive produced her biopic The Runaways, and toured . . . and toured . . . and toured.

Jett has been touring almost nonstop for nearly 40 years. It took a long-neglected injury that made it virtually impossible to play for her to stop and take a break. The injury started in the early ’90s; she stopped for surgery in 2008. Even the way she injured herself is pretty badass.

Not only is Jett a huge sports fan (licensing her songs to the UFC, NCAA, ESPN X-Games, and NBC Sunday Night Football; singing the national anthem before Baltimore Orioles games, and regularly taking in WNBA New York Liberty games), she also likes to play.

“I’ve been a kind of a roughhouse-er my whole life,” Jett explains. “I’m a baseball fan and my team is the Baltimore Orioles. Every team has what they call Fantasy Camp or Fantasy Week, where you play with a bunch of other people who pay to play baseball for two weeks. [Jett was one of only five women at the camp with 100 men.] You can play any position you want, you get a uniform, you play games . . . and so I was a pitcher, I played second base, and I threw the ball as hard as I could. Nobody told me, ‘Joan, take it easy, you’re not a major leaguer; you’re going to hurt yourself.’ I think everybody probably thought it was funny watching me go so crazy. But I think I did some damage there for sure. I couldn’t pick anything up without my arm going numb and it started happening onstage. It was just time to deal with it.”

Jett and The Blackhearts debuted “Any Weather,” the first single from Unvarnished, on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in early August. The song about loyalty is classic JJ with a gristly vocal hook and bouncing guitars. Make no mistake, however, Unvarnished still rocks and rolls with Jett’s signature up-tempo, romp-and-roar style (that tough outer shell), even if the lyrics were inspired by a dark period in her life and how it affected her (those soft insides).

“I call this my ‘Decade Of Death’ because I lost a lot of people I loved, from companion animals to best friends to both my parents,” she explains. “[These were] people who helped me become who I am, by encouraging me and getting me a guitar and putting up with my noise and putting up with me going to Hollywood when I was a kid in those days when people didn’t do that. My point being that I realized, ‘Wow, man, it’s time to grow up!’ I mean, I know I’m grown up, but I gotta start really paying attention to some stuff. You know, you start to look at life differently . . . I think maybe the movie [The Runaways] is kind of a metaphor, because, on one hand, I was in the band, but, on the other hand, I was an executive producer. So you have two different jobs and how you look at things; one is you’re actually experiencing it, and the other is you’re kind of managing the experience.”

The epiphany that accompanied that loss gave her the inspiration for songs like “Hard To Grow Up.” “We all feel like 20-year-olds in our brains and yet that’s not the case,” Jett says. “You realize, ‘Oh my God, I have to do . . . whatever it is . . . it’s down to me now, not to somebody else.’ The song ‘Fragile’ was about losing my parents and the fragility of life. Even if you’re strong, how fragile that can be, or how fragile even love can be.”

“Make It Back,” she says, is a song influenced by what her hometown and others went through after Hurricane Sandy. “I live in a town called Long Beach, right next to the Rockaways, and so all the New York beach towns and even inland and New Jersey really got creamed,” she says. “And I don’t know if a lot of the national media really covered it like they covered devastation in other parts of the country. But it was devastating in the same way the tornadoes have been in the Midwest or the floods or Galveston getting ripped apart by a hurricane. I saw a lot more about that, but you didn’t see much about us. It was startling and frustrating, because you see so many people in need but no one really paying attention to it.”

Jett says witnessing those events made her better able to relate to people going through those types of tragedies. “First of all, you see, collectively, people don’t know what to do, everybody is horrified. Then you slowly see a shift and something happens, maybe it’s one person, something happens and they say, ‘We have to rebuild. We have no other choice but to build it back.’ Then, collectively, you see people’s attitudes change, and it’s a quite beautiful thing to see people go from feeling powerless to saying, ‘You know, if we stick together we can do this.’ And you see people from all walks of life and ages and income levels joining together to help the people that need help, whether it be food or clothes, because their houses are gone. So that’s what that song is about; it’s about that spirit that I saw personally in my town, and I’m sure it was going on in all the other towns that were affected.

“They’re definitely personal songs, but in a different way than some of the past stuff. I’m not just writing about love; you’re getting more of my life, I think,” Jett admits.

Joan Jett and The Blackhearts join a robust list of headliners at this year’s Chicago outpost of Riot Fest, taking place in Humbolt Park the weekend of September 13. It’s probably the most badass music festival to hit town in the past few years. Jett shares the first night with artists like Fall Out Boy, Sublime With Rome, Danzig and dozens more. The Replacements reunite on Sunday night, and given that Jett and Paul Westerberg collaborated on a song a couple of decades ago, we wonder if we might see some guest appearances during either bands’ set. She laughs at the inquiry. “Well, I just heard that they’re playing. We’re playing on different nights so I just may have to hang out and see them. But I haven’t had any discussions with anybody about that yet, so we’ll see what happens. It’s a good idea!”

We recommend Jett and Westerberg heed the advice embedded in their forgotten Tank Girl soundtrack gem: “Let’s Do It.”

Appearing: 9/13 at Riot Fest in Humbolt Park.

- Penelope Biver

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