OB feature: Joan Jett interview

Twenty years is a long time by anybody’s standard, no two ways about it. Twenty-five years ago the first US mobile phone, the Motorola Dyna 8000X, was introduced. Twenty-five years ago, what we now know as the Internet was just beginning to be cobbled together, as the military switched its Arpanet from the old NCP communication protocol to TCP/IP. Twenty years ago you could still get a Big Twin for around six grand, and a Sportster for three (I got the first of my long, beloved series of Sportsters in ’82, a shiny new 1983 model with the Super Glide tank). No matter how you slice it, the neighborhood of a quarter-century ago is a pretty venerable and respectable neighborhood to reside in.

And twenty years ago, rock and roll wild child Joan Jett was featured on the cover of this here mag.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

A little more than twenty-five years ago, in 1982, the wildcat-in-heat yowl that kicks off Jett’s classic “I Love Rock And Roll” was all over the radio, and all over the Billboard charts, announcing that this little girl had come to by-God play. And now, all those years later, Jett is still touring, still recording, and still kicking ass, serving due notice that she’s here to stay as well. Like this mag, she’s stronger, tougher, and better than ever. And also like OB, she’s committed to kicking out the old-school jams for the long haul, and not just as some dilettante hipster pose, here today, gone the minute the next flavor of the month comes along.
Joan started out as a teenage girl determined to make it in the man’s man’s world of rock and roll guitar-slinging, and she had to deal with a lot of naysaying along the way. Of her early days in the Runaways, Joan declares, “It was very frustrating for me, because on one hand, the boys in the press would say, ‘Girls can’t play rock and roll, girls don’t belong in this world.’ It never made sense to me, even as a 13 year old. Whaddya mean? I’m in school, I see girls playing Bach and Beethoven on the cello and violin. What they were saying was, you’re not allowed in this world. It’s a social issue; it’s not that girls can’t physically master the guitar, it’s that they’re not allowed to. They can be pop singers, they can be this and that, but not rock and rollers.”

But with the Runaways, and later on her own with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, she proved ’em all wrong again, giving the sniffy, “You can’t do that there here” squares the same sort of one-finger salute that bikers do every time they blast down the freeway on those socially-unacceptable two-wheeled freedom machines. And as with Harleys and just about everything else, it comes down to one thing in the end: “What it is, is sex. Rock and roll is sexual. Think about the Rolling Stones, think about Chuck Berry — people were scared to death to let their teenagers around these guys. And that’s what they weren’t allowing us to do: they couldn’t allow us to own our own sexuality. We couldn’t say, ‘this is what I’m gonna do to you,’ when pop music always says, ‘oh, you can do what you want to me.’ That’s my take.

“But also, on the other hand, in the 70s it was the height of feminism, and we were taking shit from the other side, from scandalized women saying, ‘You’re being sexual! You’re using sexuality to sell records!’ It’s like, so Mick Jagger can do it, but we’re girls and can’t be sexual, we have to be neutered? In America, the land of the free? Give me a fuckin’ break. So I have an issue with everybody.”

A break she did indeed get — or rather, made for herself. With the help of longtime manager/producer Kenny Laguna, she started up Blackheart Records to release a hit-rich album that 23 other labels had passed on, becoming the first woman to own and run her own record label. A string of top-40 hits followed: “Bad Reputation,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Do You Want To Touch Me,” “I Hate Myself (For Lovin’ You),” and plenty of others. In fact, “I Love Rock And Roll” is now Billboard’s #28 song of all time.

And she keeps right on keepin’ on, mining the rich vein of impassioned, basic rock and roll she always has, never turning her back on either the fans or the music that got her where she is. Her latest album, Sinner, has done well, and a greatest hits compilation is due out soon, possibly to include some new songs as well. Jett attributes her success and longevity to a solid work ethic: “A lot of times, when artists get success, they take time to enjoy it. And what I mean is, I’ve enjoyed my success, but they take time OFF. They come off the road for a year, they take trips and so on. I’ve never taken time off. I’ve never had one year since the Runaways when I didn’t play.”

Don’t look for any Spinal Tap-style noodling around with jazz fusion or some other lesser style in the name of some sort of self-indulgent “artistic growth,” either; Joan’s the real deal, and she intends to keep it that way: “Some people say, don’t you feel like you’re stagnating by not playing more experimental stuff? Don’t you want to change? Don’t you want to grow? And I tell ’em, no. I love that three chord rock and roll, I love hearing that sound the guitar makes, that you can feel in your pelvis and in your feet and in your chest.”

She has branched out in some ways, though, taking advantage of changes in technology and how music is produced and consumed to get her rock and roll gospel more widely disseminated: “Oh, we’re definitely trying to keep abreast of the changes as they happen, so we can either be ahead of the curve or at least on the front end of the wave. These days, the whole infrastructure of CDs and how you sell music has changed. It’s hard to gauge; you can’t just go by CD sales and all that anymore, when people can just go download individual songs and CDs….we’re really trying hard not to stay in the old pattern of selling CDs and that’s that.”

She also dabbled in satellite radio for a while, although the pressures of life on the road eventually forced her to give up her Sirius network show: “I was able to record from my house, which was helpful. But I’m away a lot, and it makes it very hard to do. I never really got into the whole business of being a DJ. I think it was a fun thing to try and play around with, and be able to play people some of my favorite songs, and just get that stuff out there.”

So given her impressive and lengthy record of accomplishment in a field not exactly known for welcoming female artists, might there be a spot in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame with her name on it? “Hey, in this world you never know. You just never know.” And when I ask her the question nearest and dearest to my own aging rock-and-roller’s heart — are you ever too old to rock and roll? — Jett responds with a simple “NEVER!”

That’s good enough for me. Keep on kicking it out in that great old-school way, Joan; we’ll be here for another cover shoot twenty or twenty-five years from now, and that’s a promise.

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