Joan Jett: Jett Set
Originally published in Guitar World, May 2010
With a new two-CD retrospective in stores and the star-studded flick The Runaways in theaters, Joan Jett is flying high again.
“I’m a barre-chord basher,” Joan Jett says. “That’s pretty much what I do.” It’s what she’s been doing since 1975, when a teenaged Jett, an East Coast native transplanted to Los Angeles, formed the seminal female rock outfit, the Runaways. The band, which included co-guitarist Lita Ford, drummer Sandy West and corseted sexpot singer Cherie Currie, released four studio albums over the course of its brief career (with Jett assuming lead vocals for the last two), and racked up one enduring hit, the Jett-copenned “Cherry Bomb,” from the group’s self-titled 1976 debut.
While the Runaways' punky glam-pop sound failed to garner them substantial Stateside fame, they have since come to be regarded as rock and roll trailblazers of a sort, as well as been credited as a significant influence on new generations of female guitar-based acts. Now, the band’s story has been brought to the silver screen with the release of the major motion picture, The Runaways. The movie, based in part on Currie’s 1989 autobiography, Neon Angel, tracks the band’s raucous rise and fall through the experiences of its three primary movers: Jett, who is portrayed by Twilight star Kristen Stewart, Currie (Dakota Fanning) and Runaways manager and impresario, Kim Fowley (Revolutionary Road’s Michael Shannon).
Jett, who served as an executive producer on the movie, says that Stewart was a natural when it came to filling her sizeable shoes. “She and I move through space a lot alike; our energy is kind of similar. So I told her to just trust herself, and trust her instincts.” Jett did, however, have a few words of advice for Stewart as far as portraying her onstage. “I would yell at her, ‘Fuck your guitar!’ ”
Following the Runaways dissolution in a mess of drugs, ego clashes and mismanagement, Jett, in characteristic form, continued to bash her way through the largely male-dominated rock landscape. She launched a solo career, founded her own record label, Blackheart (a word she also appropriated for the name of her band, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts) and proceeded to rack up single successes like 1981’s “Bad Reputation,” 1988’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You” and 1982’s “I Love Rock ’n Roll,” her smash hit cover of the 1975 Arrows original. These and other solo tracks (as well as a handful of re-recorded Runaways classics) are collected on a new two-CD compilation, Greatest Hits.
Today, Jett continues to tour with the current incarnation of the Blackhearts and is preparing to record a new studio album, her first since 2006’s Sinner. At 51, the self-described barre-chord basher is as brash and defi ant as ever. “If you feel strong, if you feel sexy, then you act that way,” Jett says. “If you don’t, it’s a hard thing to fake.”
GUITAR WORLD Despite the growing appreciation for the Runaways over the years, in the larger music landscape they’ve remained very much a cult act.
JOAN JETT Hopefully the film will change that a little bit. This is a real Hollywood movie, with real movie stars. So maybe it will introduce the Runaways to people who have never heard of us and lead them to explore what we did and listen to the music. That said, I also think the movie has been mischaracterized as a biopic. It’s not the definitive word on the Runaways. The focus is more on Cherie, myself and Kim. To me, the Runaways as a band is more the environment in which the movie is set.
GW There’s a scene in the movie where your character is told that girls can’t play rock and roll. I’m guessing that was something you heard on more than one occasion.
JETT Oh yeah. Many times. Many, many, many times. And even as a kid it didn’t make sense to me. What does the statement “Girls can’t play rock and roll” even mean? Are you saying that girls can’t master an instrument? Because I remember as a kid being in band class with girls who played the cello, who played the violin, who could play Beethoven and Bach pieces. So, no, that’s not it. What you’re saying is, socially, girls aren’t supposed to play rock and roll. Because socially, rock and roll means sexuality. It’s that thing that made parents afraid to let their kids go see Chuck Berry, because Chuck Berry was gonna run off with their daughters. Or the thing that made TV stations film Elvis from the waist up. That’s what rock is about. Think back to the Sticky Fingers album cover. Or Robert Plant standing onstage with his shirt open, and you can see the bulge in his pants, and he’s holding his mic down by his crotch. Rock and roll is infused with sex. Go listen to “Whole Lotta Love”—that thing drips. It’s so dirty.