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.
GW There’s basically an orgasm in the middle of the song.
JETT Exactly. And kids wanna do that. That’s why teenage boys form bands. And girls, they feel those same things. To deny that is really kind of fucked up. And it’s fucked up for teenagers who aren’t given a voice. So all we were trying to do in the Runaways was sort of give voice to that. We just happened to stumble into it very naïvely, not really knowing what we were getting into and not knowing it was going to be so threatening to people. But as we began to realize that it was threatening, all of a sudden it became the principle.
GW That sense of threat extended to your peers as well. In the movie, during soundcheck before a show, the Runaways are given a rough time by the bigger, male, headlining act. That incident supposedly occurred during your tour with Rush in 1977.
JETT Yeah, that’s true. But I’m not even so sure it was the members of Rush that were giving us crap as much as it was their road crew. They would be standing on the side of the stage, laughing during the show, throwing paper and wads of stuff at us. And I remember Cherie walking onstage and slipping, because we were all in platforms. Stuff like that. So it was like, people were threatened, but they were very juvenile in the way they took it out on us.
GW Afterward, your character breaks into the band’s dressing room and urinates on a guitar. Did you really do that?
JETT No, no, no. That whole scene, going into the dressing room, that was a complete embellishment for the movie. The Runaways never wrecked any other band’s gear. That would not be the way I would handle things. The way for me to get back at somebody has always been to blow them away onstage.
GW For the live scenes in the movie did you offer Kristen Stewart any advice as far as how to portray Joan Jett?
JETT One thing I made sure of was when she held the guitar that the pickup was right over her crotch. But basically, when I’m onstage I try not to think. As soon as you start thinking, you screw up. You have to just be in the music, because it’s really easy to get spooked. So with Kristen, if she was onstage and maybe not feeling it, or I could tell she was thinking about too many things, or worried about the camera or whatever, I would yell at her, “Kristen! Pussy to the wood! Fuck your guitar!” [laughs] Because you have to stay connected to it, you know?
GW With male players, there’s the cliché about the guitar being an extension of your manhood.
JETT Exactly. And I think that’s true for everybody. You want to expand. You don’t want to shrivel up!
GW After the Runaways broke up, was there ever a moment where you weren’t sure if you would continue in music?
JETT Oh, totally. I was devastated when the Runaways broke up, for a million reasons—my dream was over, I felt we had failed, I thought maybe it was all my fault. And I just felt really laughed at. It was like you could sense all of Los Angeles going, “We told you it wouldn’t work. Ha-ha.” And I was probably drinking too much, partying too much, kind of spiraling downward. So I definitely thought about other avenues. I even briefly considered enlisting in the military. I figured it’d help me get myself together, I’d get to travel some, maybe get some discipline.
GW Once you made the decision to continue as a solo artist, you were turned down by more than 20 record labels.
JETT Kenny [Laguna, Jett’s longtime producer/business partner] knew a lot of people, and he figured he could get me a deal quick, no problem. But everybody he went to said, “Can’t help you, Ken, can’t do it.” And they all gave various excuses that he thought were ridiculous.
GW Such as?
JETT “She can’t play.” “She can’t sing.” “She’s too intense.” “Maybe she should lose the guitar.” I’m sure there’s probably a few others that Kenny never even relayed to me because he thought it’d hurt my feelings. But we still have a lot of those rejection letters.
GW So you formed your own label, Blackheart Records.
JETT We had to. And, in retrospect, I’m glad it went that way, because now we own all our stuff. But it was totally DIY, selling records out of the trunk of the car after the show, getting the music directly to the fans. And I mean, back when we were being turned down by all these labels, the songs we had been sending around were “I Love Rock ’n Roll,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me,” “Bad Reputation,” “Crimson and Clover.” All eventual hit singles.
GW Your mainstream breakthrough finally came in 1982 with “I Love Rock ’n Roll,” which was a huge MTV and radio hit. The guitar sound on that song is massive. Do you recall what you used on that recording?
JETT Oh yeah. I actually still have all that gear. The amp was a Music Man 212 with EV [Electro-Voice] speakers. And I don’t believe I was even using a distortion box at the time; I just went straight in. And I had my main Melody Maker, which has a special pickup in it called a Velvet Hammer [designed by musician Red Rhodes] that is no longer in production. That’s the guitar Gibson used as a reference to make my signature model. [In 2008, Gibson began producing the Joan Jett Signature Melody Maker.]
GW In the earliest days of the Runaways you played a Les Paul. Why did you eventually switch to the Melody Maker?
JETT The Les Paul is a beautiful guitar but it’s heavy as shit! I had a beautiful blond Deluxe—actually, I still have it—with the switches reversed, because I only use the treble pickup. So the treble pickup would be on when the toggle switch was in the up position. That way I could just hit it down to kick off the pickup. I used that guitar on the first Runaways record and then switched to the Melody Maker sometime in ’77 around the time of [the Runaways’ second album] Queens of Noise.
GW Between the Runaways and your career as a solo artist, you’ve been a working musician for roughly 35 years. Not bad for someone who was repeatedly told that girls can’t play rock and roll.
JETT Well, when I was a kid, my parents told me I could grow up to be anything I wanted. And I took that to heart. I really did. So I wasn’t gonna let other people tell me what I could or couldn’t do. And I certainly wasn’t going to let other people tell me I couldn’t play rock and roll music, or that I couldn’t play guitar. Forget it. It just wasn’t gonna happen.