Year of the Jett
Joan Jett wanted to play dirty, sweaty, sexy rock’n’roll – and she sure as hell did, first with her riot grrl band The Runaways, and then with the Blackhearts. She tells SINÉAD GLEESONabout getting covered with spit, looking up to Suzi Quatro and being played by Kristen Stewart
OFTEN WHEN doing interviews with really famous musicians, there is a gatekeeper to get past before you get to talk to the star. In Joan Jett’s case, it’s not an anonymous record label exec, but her long-time collaborator and pal, Kenny Laguna.
“Did you know that Joan is Irish?” he asks. I didn’t, but then remember St Vincent educating me on the American concept of “black Irish” (pale skin, dark hair) and figure this applies to Joan. Her real surname is Larkin, and Kenny tells me there are a “ton of Duffys in her family”. Unintentionally, the first five minutes of our interview turns into an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?The first thing you notice is the voice, which is husky as hell. “I’ve had a family tree done and we’ve traced it back to the 1700s. I know we came from Co Mayo.”
Old Ireland and the firebrand female rocker aren’t obvious bedfellows, but then Jett has never been a stereotype. The epitome of riot grrrl rock, she is a massive sports fan and a committed vegan. Her kohl-eyed, black-clad image hasn’t put off her huge military following (she has played for US troops), and she is a supporter of animal rights. This dedication is a thread that runs all the way back to her early music days. It’s easy to forget she was only 15 when she formed The Runaways. Youth made them vulnerable, but there was more to the opposition they received.
“The feminists would accuse us of being too sexual, of using our image to titillate, but we were teenage girls who thought about going out, hooking up and doing all of those things teenage girls do. It was real, and I think that was even scarier to people.”
Much of the opposition came from men, who didn’t know what to make of the band. Jett was once knocked over on stage by a bottle to the head. She got back up and kept playing her guitar.
“When guys thought it was just a phase they’d belittle us, but when they realised we were serious they got nasty. It’s difficult to get across to people what it’s like to be spat at. They expected us to run off stage crying, but we didn’t, we just stood there.
“After the gig, I would be dripping in spit, and just put my head in my hands and cry out of sheer frustration. I just didn’t get what the problem was, but I just can’t back down – unless I’m physically knocked out and have to be carried off the stage. And being carried off was the only way you’d get me off the stage, not by scaring me off it.”
The Runaways found huge international success, releasing five albums from 1975 to 1979. Comprised of Cherie Currie, Lita Ford, Sandy West and Jackie Fox, the band toured consistently, opening for bands such as Tom Petty and Van Halen. Along with The Slits and Suzi Quatro, the landscape of female rock musicians was sparse in the mid-1970s.
“What Suzi Quatro did for me was make me realise that girls could be successful playing rock’n’roll. I realised that if I wanted to do that, there were probably other girls like me who probably wanted to do it too. It wasn’t that we wanted to have a ‘girl sound’. We wanted to be The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin – we wanted to have the same menace that the boys did. We wanted to play dirty, sweaty, sexy rock’n’roll, so when people told us girls couldn’t play, that wasn’t want they meant. They meant that girls couldn’t play rock’n’ roll because it implied sex, which means that they’re in charge and owning it.”
In autumn a film chronicling the band’s breakneck career will be released, called simply The Runaways. Jett was heavily involved in the project, and is proud of it. Rather than a complete biopic, she thinks of it as “a snippet of The Runaways’ career”.
“So much happened. It’s hard to fit it all in, but the film definitely gives you a sense of what it was like to be in that band. The actors were incredible. Kristen Stewart [who plays Joan] was great. She’s a real person, down-to-earth, authentic. She put real pressure on herself to do the work. We spent a lot of time together over the two weeks before we started shooting. We were in the studio rehearshing, getting them to play instruments to the music. It was a lot for these girls to become a band in a short time, but by the time we started shooting they had a definite sense of ‘hey, we’re in a band’. It’s important that they were able to get that sense of camaraderie across.”
If The Runaways were Joan Jett’s musical baptism, it was her solo career that really made her a star. While trying to set up the band that would become The Blackhearts, she posted a classified ad “looking for three good men”, and it’s easy to assume that The Runaways experience had put her off being in an all-female band.
“It wasn’t that all, because The Runaways were so special. To me they were the be-all and end-all – it was thebest. To start another girl band would almost have been sacrilegious. Plus I knew the press would have just made comparisons – that I wouldn’t have even gotten out of the starting blocks.”
The band had several big hits, including the iconic I Love Rock’n’Roll, but it wasn’t easy for them to get signed, despite the high profile of The Runaways. When they had been turned down by 23 record companies, Jett set up her own Blackheart label, and owns all the rights to her music.
Over the past two decades she has produced albums for Bikini Kill and The Vacancies, and guested on Peaches’ Impeach My Bushalbum. The film will introduce Jett to a whole generation who weren’t aware of her, and this year she feels very “out-there”. Last month, a book about the singer was published by Todd Oldham, an old friend. In it, visually and textually, there’s a real sense of her over the years.
“Todd said he wanted to publish an art book about me with a lot of pictures. He suggested we take 30 years of interviews and use them as the text. We broke them down into subjects to see how consistent my views were over the years!
I like that it shows me as a person, not just as a thing, so there are pictures of me as a baby, as a little girl. Yes, I wore dresses and ankle socks. It rounds out the picture of who people think Joan Jett is, and it made me aware of how much I’ve gotten to do in my life – how lucky I’ve been. I don’t take anything for granted. It might sound corny or hokey, but that’s the stuff that matters, and you have to be able to live with yourself at the end of the day.”
-Joan Jett supports Green Day at Marlay Park, Dublin, on Wednesday. Joan Jett is published by AMO books. The Runaways is released here in autumn