Amy Ray Gets To The Heart Of Joan Jett
It is likely that Joan Jett has been an inspiration to just about every legitimate female rock 'n' roller to emerge in her wake. As a member of Kim Fowley's LA jailbait combo The Runaways, she penned the group's signature song, "Cherry Bomb," and has been without question the most consistent of the group's members since their breakup in 1979. With The Blackhearts, her music is marked by a simple directness and scrappy enthusiasm, qualities that ensure that classics like "Bad Reputation" and "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" will have us putting dimes (OK, quarters and bills - times have changed) into jukeboxes for many years to come. While the beginning of the '90s was not a particularly golden period in Jett's creativity, in the past few years she has come back strong, forging alliances with a new generation of girls, grrrls, and women, who no doubt feel as indebted to Jett as Joan feels invigorated by them.
A long-in-the-works new album from Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Fit to Be Tied, should be out early in '98 on Blackheart/Warner Bros., but in the meantime there's a new greatest hits collection out on Mercury for those in need of a compact history lesson. Additionally, her minute-and-a-half charge-through of "Real Wild Child" on the recent Iggy Pop tribute album is arguably the only track that deserves a place on the disc at all. Several months ago, over a leisurely meal in Manhattan, a seemingly unlikely fan - Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls - talked with 37-year-old rocker Joan Jett about an assortment of issues. Lucky for us, she brought a tape recorder...
Politics and Rebellion
Amy Ray: You seem more political than when I first met you.
Joan Jett: "Yes."
What do you attribute it to? Are there certain people that you hung out with, or is it growing older, or anything?
"Well, the first thing I think of is just getting older. Just watching my peers, seeing especially other women. There's so many other women playing music, of all types and strengths and levels I've always been aware of not being made a second citizen. You know, I think all of us as women feel that. But, hanging out pretty much with men all my life, even though I was in The Runaways, and being with The Blackhearts, I've pretty much been surrounded by men all the time, and it's very easy to, uh, let 'em slide, in a way. If you're not being really aware of what's being said. I think in the past several years, I've really noticed it a lot more, I don't let little tiny jokes slide any more. You know what I mean? Nothing gets by me anymore." It's like, you get older, and you don't have anything to lose anymore.
"I've got more tolerance, but I've got less tolerance for bullshit. Across the board, whether it's got to do with women, anything."
Do you think just the act of playing rock 'n' roll is rebellious? Regardless of what the lyrics say?
"Definitely, and even more so, it doubles if you're a woman. You're breaking every rule. You're playing rock 'n' roll, and you're acting like a 'boy,' you know. You're being 'pro sex,' I think a lot of people look at it like that."
I wonder if it's still rebellious on the same level, or if artists have to write something that's really tangible lyrically, and really precise, for people to consider it rebellion anymore. Because, so much more is accepted now. I think rock 'n' roll is rebellion, no matter what. It's a place where anything can happen. But it's like, the media wants more and more, they want you to push the boundaries more than you already are.
"I think some people do a double duty. In other words, you're entertaining, right? You specifically, you're entertaining, you're a musician, you go out and you sing and play for people, they get off on that. But you're also making statements, you're being political, you're talking about what you believe in, and hoping that people also get something from that, besides enjoying the music. Other bands have no message, other bands, it might just be the music. And that's fine, too."
Do you run out of things to rebel against as you get older, or do you just pick your battles more carefully?
"Yeah, I think you pick your battles, but I'm still always fighting the [idea] that this is some kind of phase or something. Like I'm some kind of freak, like other girls can't grow up to be what I've done. Like it's a one-off thing. No, wrong, there's gonna be other ones behind me. I think because a lot of times I'm gregarious, I laugh, I'm friendly, even though I've got this sort of 'tough' image and stuff, I like people to feel like they can approach me. But certainly, I'm rebellious. I am not the way, well, I guess the way I was taught girls should grow up. Anymore, how they're taught today, I don't know how they're taught today. I don't know what they think. But I still see a lot of girls not claiming their power. Just sort of letting other people tell them what to do, and that's a learning process, like it was for me. I let many people tell me what to do, until I said, 'No. Now it's my turn.'"
Do It Yourself
Why did you start Blackheart Records?
"Because, after The Runaways broke up, I met Kenny Laguna, and we started writing songs together. And eventually he produced the songs that we wrote together. And I couldn't get a record deal, because, uh, I suppose my reputation was bad, ha ha ha. Labels said, 'We want nothing to do with this.' So, whatever."
How was it set up? Did you have distribution, and hire a staff?
"What we did was, first we got a record deal in Europe, to release what became Bad Reputation. In America, we had no record deal, so we just took that same record, and made up something called Blackheart Records. And just printed up the records. We made 5,000 - Kenny used his daughter's college fund for the first 5,000 - and we put 'em in the back of a car and sold 'em at gigs. And those first 5,000 sold out real fast, 'cause we had a buzz happenin', like on Long Island and the Tri-State area, because we were doin' a lot of gigs."
How did Boardwalk Records figure into your career?
"Remember Casablanca Records? Donna Summer? It was a subsidiary of that. They're the people who eventually signed [us] in America, after we were selling these records out of the trunk. Boardwalk was the label we were on when 'I Love Rock 'N Roll' became a huge it. When 'I Love Rock 'N Roll' was still heading to number one - it was at number eight - Neil Bogart, who was the president of Casablanca and Boardwalk, died of a heart attack suddenly. So the whole Boardwalk situation went into bankruptcy, so we never got shit for any of that. The whole 'I Love Rock 'N Roll' thing went totally out the window. So we had to start over again. And then we signed with MCA."
Do you have preferences politically, business-wise, or musically between major labels or indie labels? Like, where does your heart go, when you think about who you want to work with, or what bands you listen to, or politics?
"I think I'm pretty much a DIY girl, because we all know when organized business gets hold of things, how the chain of command, things get lost in the shuffle. And that can still happen on a smaller level, and you have to be competent. So, really, there's so many things that go into making a success, whether it's on a major label or independent, or just a band selling their records out of a trunk."
Alright, what makes punk music punk?
"Wow. Good question Obviously, that's so individual. I think it's gotta have a certain level of honesty, first and foremost. I don't think I wanna stay away from the absolute stereotype, of 'It's gotta be aggressive, hard guitar music.' I like things that sound raw. That doesn't mean it's shitty, it just means it's emotional, you can feel the musicians playing, you can almost hear the strings being stroked, you can hear the skins being hit, you know. There's a certain essence that comes through the record. It's really hard to put your finger on it. And it might be really individual to me, what I personally define as punk, and what would be defined as punk in the commercial world."
Do you think when punk is embraced by the mainstream, it changes the essence of the music?
"No, I don't buy that. I don't buy that sort of 'Oh, everybody knows about them, so they're not punk,' it's like, gimme a break! It's either there, or it's not. When it's gone, you won't hear it anymore. It goes back to that intangible. A sense of urgency in getting your message across. I mean, some people just wanna relay their feelings, just sort of put it out there. Other people think what they've got to say is important. Other people think what they have to say is important, but they must push it on everyone, and I think there's different levels. I hope I'm in the middle one. Urgency, but not needing to push it on everybody. Just putting it out there, and making sure the people who you vibrate with will catch it."
On Growing Up
Have you noticed your musical and lyrical qualities changing over time? Because, as I listen to the records, I felt like the music was becoming a little more diversified around the time of Up Your Alley. And then, the lyrics, it's very subtle, but have they become a little more vulnerable?
"I know what you mean. I'm sure the lyrics have become a little more diversified. I'm feeling, in a certain way, that I wanna share more of myself. But I think you have to figure out a way to let people in, you know."
It's not just you, it's the way that you talk about things that has more depth.
"Well, maybe it's to expected, as you grow, and learn to look at life different. Of course, that might come out in the way you write."
It's riskier. I've found that with some of the stuff you did with Desmond Child, Paul Westerberg, there's this musical thing that's happening, too.
"Writing with someone like Desmond or Paul, that's when it really becomes key to just maybe throw out ideas, where if I have an idea for a title or a riff, that's what I'll throw into it."
When you wrote with all those guys, did you feel like you had to know them?
"No, I didn't"
So, you had no boundary, no vulnerability issues you could just into this room and write with these people, just let it all out? I think that's really hard.
"If I'm asked if I have any ideas, then I'll say, 'Yeah, I've got a great idea for a title, I want this song to be called 'Backlash.' Unless there's a good reason Paul can tell me why something shouldn't be called 'Backlash,' then I don't have any reason to feel insecure about that.
I wanted to talk about Evil Stig. What got you involved? Were you a fan of The Gits before?
"I had never heard of The Gits. I spent a lot of time in Seattle in the spring and summer of 1993, 'cause I was writing songs with Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill, and Kat from Babes In Toyland. And that summer, a friend of mine told me about this band, The Gits, and this lead singer, Mia Zapata, who had just been found raped and murdered, and everybody was all freakin' out you'd go see bands, and people were really depressed about it, and they talked about it. And so, I told Kathleen Hanna about this, and she also knew some of these people, and we decided to write a song about it, but instead of writing a song about feeling powerless, we wrote a song about beating a stalker, you know, kind of like, being stalked, and being attacked, and knowing enough to get away, and live. So we wrote this song, and it was on our last record, which is Pure And Simple. We did a video for this song, called 'Go Home,' and in the video put, 'This is dedicated to Mia Zapata,' and at the end of the video it said, 'Mia Zapata was brutally raped and murdered in July of '93. Her murderer has never been found.' So, we were trying to inform people that way, but since the video never got any airplay, nobody saw it. But then the band called me, and said thanks for being concerned And I said, I'd love to help you, and maybe there's a way we could do something a little more interesting, and maybe we could do some Blackhearts songs, and maybe if it works, we can try to do some Gits songs, and I'll sing leads. And I could feel that it was a little bit of a strange proposition. I think that they realized that my heart was true about this. It wasn't a publicity stunt."
When we grew up in Atlanta, the music community was really we exchanged gigs, and we had all this camaraderie, helping each other out all the time. Did you have that when you were coming up through the music scene?
"I think I've been through a couple of those. 'Cause with The Runaways, in the beginning of punk, when there was none of that, really, and then all of a sudden there was The Germs, and X, and all these bands in Los Angeles, and yeah, there was a real camaraderie, I think, there More of a friendship thing. Especially between me and those bands, because I was really into punk, more than the other girls, so it was more of my own camaraderie within the music community. But I do feel that today, too. I wanna reach out to other bands, and do shows together, and whatever."
I go see punk bands that are obviously inspired by you. Is there anybody recently who's inspired you, musically?
"See, I never see what you're talking about. But, I don't know I think all the women, and the girls who are out there playing music really inspire me. Anybody that I'm aware of that I am lucky enough to come across, regardless of whether I'm really into it or not, just the fact that they're out there doin' it because there were no women doin' this when I started. I mean, it was so obvious. And there are now, and so, for me, I can never take that for granted. I can never let that go. I have to always appreciate that. But within that, there are probably too many women to name that inspire me. But, people like Kathleen Hanna, you know, Bikini Kill, who just, against all odds, are really, just like pissing in the wind, they don't care what anyone thinks."
"Fugazi's a big one I think those guys are feminists, so I really recognize that side of it... I just sense a real sort of humanistic thing, you know, it's not playing up so much on men, women, it's just, 'Hey, we're all human beings.' And I really love their DIY thing. Every show's five dollars. Every show is all-ages. And it's always to their specification. Regardless, they never settle. And we know how hard that is to do And, not to mention, in that arena, it gets tough to take a hard line about your politics or anything. You'll have Ian out there saying, 'Hey, we're gonna stop the show, 'cause people are getting beaten up out there.' And I've heard things from women saying, 'Look, I don't need him to protect me!' It's like, come on, man, he's not trying to single you out, saying you're a weak woman, that you can't take care of yourself. I start to get really annoyed with that sort of, 'I don't need him to take care of me' sort of bravado. Yeah, let's see that once you got a boot up your ass."
Alright, last question: If you could change anything about your musical path, what would it be?
"I've been asked that before, and you know, I wouldn't change anything. I think all my experiences have been for a reason. You know, I could say, yeah, I wish I wasn't so fucked up in the Runaways. I wish I was more aware of some of the various business details over the years. But, you know, it all brings me to this point, and I'm glad my life's been like it's been. I think I've had a good one. I've been able to do a lot of things a lot of people haven't, that other people would dream of. I've been able to live out my fantasies, and dreams! So, I'm real lucky."
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