Joan Jett

JOAN JETT

INTERVIEW BY STEVE OLSON
INTRODUCTION BY STEVE OLSON
PHOTOS BY CODY SMYTH and MICHAEL RUBENSTEIN

 

A Girl, a Runaway, a Blackheart, What some call a rock star… I would think someone who is true to herself, passionate about what she believes, and truly LUVS ROCK and ROLL… for all the right reasons. If they say it can’t be done, think again. Baby’s been proving them wrong for a long time now, and continues to do so, as well as fucking shit up as a true punk does…  “SOME PEOPLE WOULD TELL ME THAT I COULD DO ANYTHING, AND THEN SOME PEOPLE WERE TELLING ME THAT I COULDN’T PLAY GUITAR IN A ROCK N’ ROLL BAND. GIRLS PLAY CELLOS AND VIOLINS IN SYMPHONY ORCHESTRAS. GIRLS PLAY BACH AND BEETHOVEN. YOU’RE TELLING ME A GIRL CAN’T PLAY ROCK N’ ROLL.”

Hey, Joan.
Hey, Steve. How are you?

Good. How are you?
I’m good. I’m good. Yeah.

You’re good?
Super good.

Where are you now? Are you in New York?
No. I’m in Austin, Texas. I’m getting ready to sweat. I think it’s like, 90 degrees out there. I’m doing a show later today.

Outside?
Yes.

So can we just talk about the past a little bit, so that the readers understand?
Sure.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Philadelphia. I lived in Pittsburgh, PA for a couple of years, and then I lived in Erie, PA for a couple of years. I moved to Rockville, MD for five very formative years, from age 8 to 12. That’s when I started to get into rock n’ roll. I saw Black Sabbath when I was a kid. I saw the New York Dolls.

You saw the Dolls?
Yeah. I saw the Dolls in D.C.

Wow. How was that?
It was amazing. I was in the front row, and I stole David Johansen’s beer bottle. That was one of my first rock n’ roll souvenirs.

Perfect.
It was the whole band with Johnny Thunders.

Cool.
Then my family moved to LA.

Where in LA?
First we moved to Canoga Park. Later I moved to West Covina. I went from one valley to the other valley.

Nice.
Once I got to LA, I had these stirrings of wanting to be in a rock n’ roll band, and forming an all-girl band. I was close to Hollywood, so I thought I could make my dream come true.

How did you go about doing that?
Well, it was a very long, convoluted process, but I used to read about a club in “Circus” and “Creem” magazines.

Those were kind of like the Bible.
Yeah. Definitely. I used to read about a club called Rodney’s English Disco.

Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
It was this club on Sunset Boulevard. It was really geared to teenagers. They played all the British music that was coming out of England in the early ’70s that the American kids had never heard because it was all disco in America in the mid ’70s. So I’d go to this club, and all the kids dressed outrageously with huge platform shoes and glitter. Everyone was very androgynous. The boys wore make-up. Everyone was very flamboyant. It was all really cool to me. That’s where I was turned on to a lot of Bowie, T Rex, Sweet, Slade and Suzi Quatro. They were great records. They were three-minute songs with big choruses and handclaps and very prominent drums. Not to mention, I got to hear Suzi Quatro. Then I was thinking, “Here’s a girl doing it. It’s a girl playing rock n’ roll.”

Absolutely. “Glycerin Queen” and “48 Crash”. It doesn’t get better than that.
Exactly. So I thought, “If she’s doing it, than I can do it, and if I can do it, than there has to be other girls here in Hollywood that want to do it.” That was really the impetus. So I started talking to my friends to see if anyone played an instrument. I spoke to this girl that I used to hang out with named Kari Chrome. I thought she played an instrument, but it turns out that she was a lyricist. Her publisher and songwriting partner was a guy named Kim Fowley. She said, “Why don’t you talk to Kim? He might be able to help you.” I was very naive. So I spoke to Kim a little bit. I told him that I played guitar and that I wanted to form an all-girl band. He asked me if I had any demo tapes. I didn’t even know what a demo tape was.

Right.
We had a short conversation and I figured, that’s that.

How old were you then?
Fifteen.

You were a kid.
Yeah.

You were a kid with a big dream.
Right. I was just a kid with a big dream. A couple of days later, I was at the Rainbow, which is a restaurant on Sunset. Everyone hung out in the parking lot when it closed at 2 o’clock. That was the routine.

Right.
So the girl that became the drummer of The Runaways came up from Huntington Beach to Hollywood to hang out. She went to The Rainbow and recognized Kim Fowley. She went up to him and said, “I’m Sandy. I play drums in bands with guys, but I want to form my own girl band.” This was completely separate from my conversation with him. Sandy and I didn’t know each other at all. Kim told her, “I just met a girl that says she plays guitar and wants to form a girl band.” He gave Sandy my number and we got in touch. I took four buses to Huntington Beach with my guitar and my leather jacket. Sandy and I set up in a rec room and just played rock n’ roll. We called Kim on the phone and said, “Listen to this.” We played a few bars of something, and he said, “It sounds great. Let’s do it.” So the three of us, Kim, Sandy and I started auditioning girls to form The Runaways. That’s how we started.

You guys were huge in Japan.
Yeah. We were huge, like the Beatles. It was all very unexpected. Nobody told us that we were well thought of there. We went through a lot of shit in America and a lot of shit in England, too. Although they were a little more receptive and a little more understanding in England, we still took a lot of shit. But when we got to Japan, it was literally like we were The Beatles, but it was all girls that were fans. In America and Europe, it was mostly guys, yelling, “Take off your clothes!” In Japan, where women are really thought of as second class citizens, thousands of girls were chasing us down the street with hairbrushes, saying, “Brush your hair.” They didn’t want to be rude and pull your hair, so they’d give you a brush so that you could brush your hair.

So that they could have the hair in the brush as a souvenir.
Exactly. It was just incredible. So we were really big in Japan and really big in Scandinavia. It was the same thing in Scandinavia. It was all girls.

Really? That’s wild.
Yeah. There were boys too, but it was overwhelmingly more girls that we saw. When we got off the plane, it was all girls, standing there sucking on real pacifiers. It must have been a fad.

I bet.
Yeah.

Did you even expect that kind of reaction when you were first going to Japan and Scandinavia?
No. We didn’t. We had no idea what to expect. We were probably expecting the same sort of receptions we were getting elsewhere. It was somewhat receptive, but mostly it was people yelling derogatory things. But that wasn’t the case in Japan and Scandinavia. The people in Japan and Scandinavia were very great to us.

What about dealing with dudes in guy bands when you would play? Were they receptive? Or were they dicks?
There were a lot of dicks. There were some people that were receptive. A lot of people thought that it was cute, and kind of funny, but there were definitely bands that had a problem with us. One band that took us under their wing right away was Motorhead. The first time we went to England, Lemmy came over and gave me his bullet belt to wear. I thought he was giving it to me, but he took it back at the end of the show.

[Laughs.]
It was really cute, because here were these big tough biker guys that liked us. We did shows with them. It was really awesome. Then there were guys like Rush that gave us shit. But then you have to say, “Yeah, but they’re Rush.”

Right. There’s no comparison.
Rush. The Runways. Rush. The Runaways. I’ll take the Runaways any day.

So a lot of the guys gave you a hard time?
There were plenty of guys that gave us shit and were very nasty. That certainly carried on past The Runaways and into my own thing. I had bands say, “I can’t believe I have to share the stage with a bitch.”

What the fuck is that about? They’re just uptight and jealous.
It’s some weird testosterone thing. I don’t understand why they feel so threatened. I find it really interesting, as a social question about our society. What is it that gets some people so bent out of shape? They’re so locked into these roles that women have to be subservient and they can’t just own their own selves. I think with rock n’ roll, just the words “rock n’ roll” imply sexuality. They wouldn’t show Elvis from the waist down. Chuck Berry was thought of as someone who was going to come and take your 14 year old away. Rock n’ roll was always thought of as a very sexual medium. I think when a girl says she’s going to play rock n’ roll, she’s declaring that she’s owning her sexuality and telling you what she’s going to do with it and not the other way around. Some people find that really threatening.

Do you still get that nowadays?
Yeah. I just felt it super recently. I’m sure things are still said. It’s still out there. One of the Molly Hatchet guys said something about it not too long ago. I think people are more receptive now, though.

It still seems like men are a bunch of dicks.
I guess there will always be a certain segment that will never change. It’s like the 34% that still think Bush is doing a good job. That’s never going to change. There’s always the 34% that’s going to stay there, regardless of what he does. It’s the same with anything.

Yeah. I just wonder when humanity is going to set in and people will realize that it’s all good.
I’m coming to realize that I don’t think it’s ever going to happen.

No. It’s sad.
You just do what you can do while you can do it and that’s the best you can do. I think it’s all about moments now.

Right on. So The Runaways had their success. Why did you guys break up?
I think it all really came down to musical differences. A couple of the girls wanted to go in a heavier direction and I wanted to stay with mainstream rock n’ roll and punk rock. I was like, “Okay. Let’s just say goodbye.” So we broke up in 1979.

So you got to see the whole punk rock thing in England?
Yeah. I did. I left America in platforms and glitter, and came back all punked-out. I got to see the Clash early on, when people in America were just reading about them. I remember the people in LA were really excited, because we were the first people on the block to get to England and see what was going on. I went out and saw The Clash play on the first album. There were 2000 kids all jumping up in the air at the same time, which we had never experienced or even thought about in America. This was when they still called it pogoing. It was so overwhelming. It was just incredible. It was so powerful. It felt really good to see that and come back to the States and try to just carry that on.

Who were your influences then? Who turned you on in the whole punk scene?
I think it was everyone that came through that scene. Musically and emotionally, I was attached to The Ramones, and the Sex Pistols, definitely. I loved The Clash. My influences though… I think, early on, I was still influenced by a lot of the glitter stuff musically, but I found a lot of the punk rock structure to be very similar.

Yeah. I think it is. It’s just a little more simplified.
It’s the same with the bubblegum, too, like you were saying. It’s three chords with something hooky. As time moved on, X was a big influence. I must have seen X a billion times when I was in LA.

Likewise. I was 16, when I went to see X at Club 88 and the Other Masque.
You know what was a great show that I saw a million times? Devo.

Oh, yeah. Devo was amazing.
Devo were so radical when they came through in ’76 and ’77. They’d dress kind of nerdy and do all this crazy stuff. They’d beat the shit out of the keyboards and sweat all over the place. It was so dirty. I thought Devo were great.

I saw them in their little cowboy outfits up at the Mab’ in San Francisco, when I was young. It was like, “Whoa.”
It was good stuff. Then there were The Replacements and Social Distortion, and all the Dischord people. I just love what they do. I loved Minor Threat and Fugazi and that whole scene. That was pretty much where I lived, and still live.

I know it well. Did you hang out with Darby Crash and all those cats?
Yes, I did. I lived right across from the Whiskey. There’s a gas station across the street on the south side of Sunset. Right behind that gas station is a little two-story apartment building. I lived in the front apartment that walks right out onto the street. That was my place. Everybody came to my house to party before the concerts, because nobody could drink in the clubs. There was always a perpetual party going on there. I met Darby and those guys because they were fans of the Runaways. They used to come and hang out outside the studio and talk to me about forming a band. Once they did, I helped them.

You produced one of the Germs records right?
Yeah. I produced “GI”.

What a great record. I have to give it up to you. There was a lot of stuff going on, but when you hear the quality of that record, it seemed like there was a separation of productive value compared to some of the other stuff.
Well, you know what? There was a great engineer. I don’t remember his name, but he was great. We only had four days in there, and I was taking it really seriously. We were all pretty whacked out at the time, but I remember being really serious about it. We got the basic tracks done and then we did things that I’d learned with The Runaways, like doubling guitars and doubling vocals that added to the sound quality of the record. The band played great. We were all really serious for a few days and then I think on the last day I happened to fall asleep on the couch, which Darby epitomized in “Shut Down”, where he talks about me sleeping on the couch, but for most of it, I was right there.

[Laughs.] I saw the Germs the same amount of times I saw X and F-Word back then. We were the youngest kids there and they really didn’t dig us. They were like, “Oh, great. Some kids from Huntington Beach and Long Beach that are rowdy as fuck.”
People didn’t like you? Why?

We weren’t part of the nomad society. We were skater/surfer kids that just dug the energy. Brendan Mullen, the owner of The Masque of all people, would always say, “Get out. You can’t come in my club. You don’t belong here.” Then I became friends with Brendan. I was like, “Why can’t we come here? I have an ID that says I’m 21.”
That’s weird. I don’t really remember that happening to the young kids. You’d think they’d be embraced.

I did too, but it seemed there was a separation of, “You don’t belong here because you’re not from our city.” I remember it with X and a lot of those people. They were like, “You don’t belong here.” We were like, “Whatever. We’re still going to hang out because we dig what you’re doing.”
It was elitism.

Yeah. It was complete elitism. It was frightening and bizarre. I thought, “Wow. It’s kind of going against what I thought it all was about.” Who knows? I don’t care any more. I just thought it was bizarre.
Yeah. I hear stories like that, and I listen, and I think that you always have to make sure you never do that shit. With all the pressure and bullshit all around, it’s really easy sometimes to make people feel unwelcome. It’s important, especially when you’re trying to play music and connect with people to make sure that they do feel welcome. That’s who you’re trying to talk to, so it doesn’t make sense to try and ace them out.

Yeah. So how did you get the Blackhearts going and all that?
You knew Gary Ryan, right?

Yeah, the bass player Gary.
Right. He was Lorna Doom’s boyfriend.

That’s who I knew back then, through Gerber.
Well, let’s see. First, I met Kenny. I met him to write songs for a project. The Runaways had signed a contract for some movie. We were supposed to write music for this movie, but since I was really the only songwriter, I was the one under contract and I was the one with the most to lose if I broke the contract. So my manager at the time, called Kenny. I guess he knew Kenny from the past. He asked if Kenny would come out and write some songs with me. We needed eight songs in three days. So Kenny came out and met with me and we wrote a bunch of songs. We hit it off really well. He was able to see all the adversity that I was up against. People were giving me shit just because I was a girl and for no other reason.

Didn’t that piss you off?
Yeah. It pissed me off, big time. That’s what fires me up. Some people would tell me that I could do anything and then some people were telling me that I couldn’t play guitar in a rock n’ roll band. Girls play cellos and violins in symphony orchestras. Girls play Bach and Beethoven. You’re telling me a girl can’t play rock n’ roll? It’s not even about that. It’s a social thing. It’s not about capability. I think once Kenny saw that shit, he became really bonded to me. We became friends and songwriting partners and then I asked him to produce these songs we wrote together, and he did. Nobody wanted to deal with me on a management level, stemming from all that Runaways stuff. They were like, “She’s not talented. She’s got nothing.” So Kenny got stuck managing me. I specifically said that I wanted to form another band, but I didn’t want it to be girls, because I didn’t want all that judgment that comes along with it. I didn’t want to make another Runaways band. So we separated from that. I don’t remember if we auditioned people, or what, but it all came together. Then I had to move to New York, because when you’re a band with no money in LA, how many places can you go and still get home that night? There’s Riverside and Orange County and San Diego. But how many places can you play and still get home without spending money for a hotel? In New York, you’ve got Connecticut, you’ve got upstate, you’ve got New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Long Island, and you can still get home in one night. You have a wide area of places that you can cover, so we thought we could build the audience better. I wanted to get out of LA, because I didn’t like the energy. Everyone was laughing and going, “We told you it wouldn’t work.” I just wanted to get away from that energy and start fresh. So I came to New York and started anew.

Right. You’ve come a long way, baby. Let’s talk about the new record. I’ve got to tell you that the “ACDC” video with Carmen Electra and that song, I love it.
Isn’t it great?

It rocks, honey. You look way too hot.
Is there such a thing as too hot?

No.
I might agree with you, but I can’t look at myself like that.

I just think you look ultra fine.
Thank you.

Indeed.
I had fun doing the video and Carmen was great. She was very down to earth. It was fun doing the video with her.

How do you like your new record?
I love it. I’m really proud of it. It took a long time to do it. I think the songs are great. It encompasses more than what I usually write about, which is sex and relationships and love. It expands into politics and other issues. The sex is still in there, too.

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