Volume 4 Issue 3
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
OFFICIAL FAN CLUB
THE DOCTOR IS IN. . .
AN IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW WITH KENNY LAGUNA
Joan just did a few dates with The Gits on the West Coast. How did the shows go and how did they come about?
Joan was doing the Pure and Simple album writing with Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill. She spent from February to late fall of 1993 in Seattle. Mia Zapata was raped and murdered going home one night in July of 1993. The whole community was really shook up. The song "Go Home" was written about women being stalked and attacked. It was about taking responsibility for your own safety. It's not the story of Mia Zapata, but it was written in the wake of her death. We put that out and someone connected to the Zapata family asked us to do what ever we could to put pressure on the cops to find her killer. We listed it on the vinyl album and we also dedicated the video "Go Home" to Mia Zapata. At the end of the video it says, "Mia Zapata of the Gits was brutally raped and murdered on July 7th 1993. THE KILLER HAS NOT BEEN FOUND." (Webmaster note: Zapata's killer was eventually found and convicted in 2004.) "Eventually we heard from the band, The Gits. They were the band that Mia was the lead singer for. They were desperate for money for their private investigator fund. We came up with this idea that we would do some shows where Joan would take Mia Zapata's spot in the band and sing lead. We did some rehearsals and it turned out that Joan could really sing these songs great. We decided to tape and film the shows. There will be an album and some sort of video. It has a certain momentum and we're getting offers in other cities. They toured under the name Evil Stig.
Will the Evil Stig album contain any of Joan's material that was played live at the gigs?
We think so, but that hasn't been decided yet. We think we might use a couple of appropriate ones like "Activity Grrrl." At the Rock Candy show in Seattle they did "Go Home," "You Got A Problem," "Crimson And Clover," "Do You Wanna Touch Me?," and "Bad Reputation." On another night they did "I Hate Myself For Lovin' You," and in Portland they did "Everyday People." I'm sure we'll pick one or two of those songs to be included on the record, but no decisions have been made.
As we speak, you and Joan are in the recording studio in Vancouver, Canada. Are you mixing the Evil Stig album?
Well, another thing came up. We always write with Jim Vallance who is a really great songwriter and we're up here writing with him. We wrote a song with The Gits and him called "I Was The Last To Know." That will be on both projects (Evil Stig and the next Blackhearts album). We also ran into Bob Rock. Bob is one of the biggest producers in the world right now. He fell in love with The Blackhearts. At first, Joan helped him out by performing at a charity for the Children's Hospital in Vancouver. He does it every year and when they found out that Joan was in town, Bob and his manager asked Joan to perform and she did. In fact she performed with members of Skid Row with Bob Rock playing bass. It was a big success and Bob said he would cut a couple of sides with us. We thought that was really good. We cut two sides, the four, then we ended up coming back and doing four more. He's about to do a Metallica record, but their schedule changed a little bit, so we were able to finish eight sides with Bob Rock which will be the beginning of the next album. We'll probably cut as many as twenty and pick the best ten or twelve. So that's what's going on here.
Will the band continue to work around Bob Rock's schedule and finish the next album?
Yeah, we're trying to make the next record. I'm a little concerned that it may not come out until January of next year. I would love to get this Gits record done and out. That one will be a little easier because the material is a finite thing. We wrote one new song and there's a song that Mia never got to sing because it was recorded a couple of days before she was killed. Those two new songs are great, and I don't think we're going to create any other new songs. We're using songs that were already created and that's a finite subject. As far as Joan's thing, there's no room for error on this next record. The last couple of records, Notorious and Pure and Simple are the best records we think we've made, they received critical success, without receiving the sales success of their predecessors like Up Your Alley which was double platinum. We're going to make sure that this next album is even better with hit singles.
On April 9th, Joan and the Blackhearts performed at the NOW (National Organization for Women) rally in Washington, D.C.
Joan joined N.O.W. just like a regular person - she sent in her fifteen dollar check and she got a handwritten note back on the membership confirmation from Partricia Ireland who is the President of NOW. The note said how thrilled they were if this was indeed Joan Jett the singer and that they were all big fans. Then we sent a bunch of records down to NOW and eventually we got a phone call about this big rally they wanted Joan to be a part of. It was a little complicated, because we were on the West Coast, but we flew in and did two songs, "Spinster" and "Androgynous." "Androgynous" is a song written by Joan's friend, Paul Westerberg, but The Blackhearts performed those two songs in front of 250,000 people.
Speaking of Paul Westerberg, Joan just recorded the old Cole Porter song, "Let's Do It" with Paul for the movie soundtrack, Tank Girl. How did you get involved with the soundtrack? Initially, didn't Joan record the song with Bad Religion?
The director and music supervisor called us and asked if we would sing this Cole Porter song. We asked some of the people at our label and they said this was a cool record. You can see it with the people involved, it's a very good bunch of people. We agreed to do it and went into the studio with Bad Religion. We cut the track and it came out a lot better than anyone had dreamed. In the movie, the song "Let's Do It" plays a significant part of the plot. It's not our version in the movie, but the Tank Girl who is kind of like a woman road warrior, makes someone sing her favorite song, which is "Let's Do It." We did a kind of punky version of the song with Joan and Bad Religion. When we got done with it, Bad Religion's manager decided he didn't want it to come out as a single. He never thought it could be that good. We like the guys from Bad Religion, but they wanted us to put another voice on it, so we called our friend, Paul Westerberg. He was really into it and did it. So the guys in Bad Religion are playing the backing track with Thommy Price playing drums and Tony Bruno playing bass. So you have Bad Religion, who also did all the background vocals, Joan, The Blackhearts and Paul Westerberg on one track that Cole Porter wrote. That probably won't ever happen again.
The song for "Let's Do It" has been getting a lot of radio play. Any possibility of a video?
Yes, the record company has asked us to do a video, but we're having a little trouble getting Westerberg into the video. When Westerberg didn't want to do it, Joan didn't want to do it either. We're waiting to see how this thing plays out. Westerberg is a great man and he deserves a hit.
Kenny Aaronson didn't appear on the track for "Let's Do It." Is Kenny still with The Blackhearts?
No he's not. We have a new kid who's really good and he sings great. I've been forced into action the last couple of years and it's just too much for me to be out on the road and run the business from hotel rooms and raise my daughter. We now have a guy who can go out there on stage and play great and sing so I don't have to be on the road.
That explains why you've been at most of the band's gigs, trudging across the stage in your sneakers to the keyboards, sometimes stationed off to one side, other times not visible. On very rare occasions, Joan will introduce you to the audience. Is that the way you prefer it?
Yeah, except that I don't ever want her to introduce me. The only time she introduces me is when something I play during the show annoyed her and she gets even by introducing me. That's the only time it happens. I've assumed a role as a quiet member of the band. I had my time when I was with different groups. I have a different look and it's appropriate for me to take the role as sideman.
Do you still get a kick out of going out and performing every night?
I like it, and I love being in a rock and roll band -- that's the best. But I don't care for all the traveling and being stuck in a lot of different places when I could be in New York doing good business or just raise my kid now that she's a teenager. I feel like my time is limited. Plus I've been doing this my whole life. If I were single and things were the way it used to be when I was a teenager -- when I was a teenager I had hit records and I was on the road with Tommy James and the Shondells, and The 1910 Fruitgum Company. The 1910 Fruitgum Company was never on the road, but one time we did a Carnegie Hall concert and the Ed Sullivan Show. I've had a pretty good time, but right now, I have other things that are a priority and being on the road is pretty tough.
Did you think that you'd still be doing this after all these years?
When I was a kid I didn't really think about it. I guess I thought I would just continue forever. But when I accidentally became a manager, I really never thought I would be doing it again. Then I had the opportunity where I was put back into action. This was a tough year and it required a lot of extra work keeping everything together. Doing that and running the business from hotels is pretty weird.
What is your role in the band aside from being the manager?
I've been playing keyboards and singing on and off since the beginning. I've played on all the records. I do most of the keyboards on the records and the background vocals. I do arrangements with Joan and pick the songs with her. Basically the records are made that way. I guess that is my role.
Your influences and instincts are so different from Joan's on the outside -- Joan having glam/punk tastes and you having a pop resume, what do you feel you both bring to each other's work? How does one point of view affect the other?
Joan is very hardcore. If she were left alone the records would sound like the ones she's produced like, The Germs G.I., which is a very legendary punk rock record. She did a Dischord Record like Circus Lupus and Bikini Kill. Bikini Kill is pretty accessible, but The Germs is very hardcore -- that's Joan. I come from a rock and roll pop background. My bubble gum background fell into the late seventies new wave and what they called punk. I did a lot of Berserkley records and had hits with Jonathan Richman and I worked with Greg Kihn when he started to have hits. For some reason, that bubblegum background fit into what the punks were doing and I was able to be a part of that. So in a way, Joan and I sort of connected there. That's how we got together, because I was asked to produce The Runaways, which I ended up not doing. When she broke up with The Runaways, I got together with her just to write songs and produce records. It wasn't meant to become the permanent thing it is. The way we look at it is to balance things out. If I'm left alone the album's going to sound like a Beach Boys or Tommy James record; if Joan's left alone, it's going to sound like a super hardcore punk record. In between we get this punk-pop thing happening which I think is the basis of her career and success.
There's been a lot written in newspapers and magazines about how you and Joan met and became partners, but how do you work together as artists: when you write songs together, does the music come first? Or the words?
There's no rule because every song is different. Usually the songs that work out great are the ones where we have a title and riff idea. We start with a riff and title like "I Hate Myself For Lovin' You." I think those are the best ones. Then we struggle sometimes with the lyrics. In the case of "Activity Grrrl," Joan wrote it by herself based on seeing those riot grrrls -- Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. She saw a show one night and was inspired by it.
When you're producing a song that you wrote or co-wrote, do you view it differently than a composition by someone else?
No, I think I've gotten past that at this point in my life. When I was a kid, it would have made a big difference because I would have liked the stuff I wrote better automatically. Right now, all I like are songs where Joan comes off sounding great and if they sound like hits that's even better. As a matter of fact, if I could not write at all, that would be good, but Joan presses me into action there. I get a lot of work done when she's working with Desmond or Jim Vallance. It's always great when she's with someone she co-writes with so I don't have to write. It's hard because I find if I spend my morning doing business it drains the same part of me that the songs come from, so it takes a humonguous effort to be creative and write songs.
How did you get started in the music business? What sounds influenced you?
I grew up in New York. I was born in Manhattan five years after World War II. Everybody was moving out of the city after the war and I ended up in Queens for a bit, and finally graduated high school out of Oceanside. That was a cool little place. I started playing music when I was six years old. I grew up in a family of artists. There was never a question that they wanted me to be in some sort of artistic endeavor. My parents had an idea that I would be a classical pianist like my great aunt Lucy Brown, who was in the song "Mack The Knife." There's a tradition in my family. My great grandfather started Actor's Equity with Lionel Barrymore. The intent was that we would do fine art. But then Elvis happened, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and The Rolling Stones. . .that was the route I went. By the time I was nine year old, I knew what I wanted to do. When I was a little, little kid, I actually played electric bass with the marching band. Somehow they worked it out where there was electricity and that's how I was involved. When I was twelve or thirteen I was pretending I was older and playing in bars professionally. By the time I was in high school I was more of a bad kid, so I wasn't part of that formal thing. I was playing the keyboards and the guitar a lot, and joining local bands. One of the best things I did was play a concert with a radio station in New York which was one of the first rock 'n roll stations and they used to give shows. In those days there were six or seven hit bands who would play their hits and maybe their follow-ups. Nobody played more that one or two songs in a show. You'd see six bands and that was what the show was -- it wasn't one rock 'n roll band going out there and playing for an hour. It was a bunch of hits performed and that's all. As a kid, I was playing those shows probably because I was willing to work for twenty bucks a day. I lucked out and in a way became part of the industry. Then when I was fifteen I was in a high school band, and some guy from United Artists signed us to a record deal. We put out a record called "Pauline" by The Viscaynes. After that record stiffed I was told the lead singer of The Critters quit with a record at number twelve on the charts to join the Navy. Around that time the war was starting in Vietnam. He split and I went over to Kama Sutra because they had a relationship with United Artists and they hired me to be the lead singer of The Critters. Then they hired me as a songwriter. I just hung out at Kama Sutra and learned to be a record maker. I was with some of the greatest people in the business. There was a group of about fifteen guys and every single one had big hits over the next few years -- Bo Gentry and Richie Cordell, Tommy James, Richard Perry who became a giant producer and produced Nilsson's "Can't Live If Living Is Without You," Ringo's big solo record after The Beatles, Barbra Streisand, and the Pointer Sisters. There was also Bobby Bloom, who was my roommate. Bobby sung a hit called "Montego Bay." He was shot and killed in California when he was 25 or 27. He helped write "Mony Mony." He was a pretty successful guy. Thomas Jefferson Kaye had his own solo career and wrote "One Man Band" for Three Dog Night. There was Anders and Ponica -- Vinny Ponica became a really big producer who produced Melissa Manchester's big record with "Midnight Blue," and others. Vinny and Pete (Anders) wrote "Do I Love You" and "The Best Part Of Breaking Up" for The Ronettes. They also wrote "New York's A Lonely Town" and I joined their band and still did things for The Critters. Everything was so crazy in those days. There were so many drugs and such craziness going on around that record company. We never really followed through on The Critters thing, but then we had The Tradewinds. We had a record called "Mind Excursion," which came out and was going to be a big hit record but it got banned by some politicians. In a world where The Rolling Stones were singing, "You don't smoke the same cigarette as me," and the Beatles were doing all these little innuendoes in the music, they picked on a band like The Tradewinds. At the same time the biggest band on the label, Lovin' Spoonful got busted and got into all kinds of trouble with the radio stations who were involved with the drug dealing at that time. That was the beginning of the drug revolution and FM radio. Everything was interconnected. It was a different connotation, it wasn't like they were selling heroin. It was like a counter-culture movement that was interconnected. The guys selling LSD and marijuana were the same guys financing a lot of the radio stations. When Lovin' Spoonful kind of ratted out the guys, Lovin' Spoonful and The Tradewinds fell off the radio and we were sitting there with nothing to do, so we started selling our songmaking ability for twenty dollars a song. We didn't care if you didn't even have a title, we'd write the song for you. We'd do anything just to get that twenty dollars a man per song. We figured we could do nine songs and make $180 in one day. A lot of the songs were coming in like nursery rhymes. Suddenly we had a record called "Simon Says" by The 1910 Fruitgum Company and that was really us -- the group The Tradewinds. I think the song went number one. After that came "Yummy, Yummy" which was the first big hit by The Ohio Express.
Were these hit songs co-written by you?
In today's market some of these songs would be considered co-written. What we did then was sell our services to finish these records. We were beyond co-writing, we were putting it all together. If a guy would come in with a title, we'd write the rest of the song. We didn't put our names on it because what we really wanted to do was get the twenty bucks. So if a guy came in without a song we didn't rat him out, we'd just finish a song and get our money. That's how all that started. In those days we'd also sell out our names and royalties. So if we'd written a song, a lot of times we would be given $500 to take our names off of it so the businessmen could put their names on it. That's what we were doing. We became six or seven different bands like -- Music Explosion who had the hit "Little Bit Of Soul," Crazy Elephant with "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'," we did all the Tommy James records, and we did Derek who had the hit records "Cinnamon" and "Backdoor man." That was Johnny Cymbal. It was all the same five guys. When we went into the studio, we didn't even know what band we were recording for that day. We just made these records and then later they (Kama Sutra) would decide which band got that record. That's how I got into it. Bubblegum died in about five minutes because of the FM explosion and we were out of vogue. I think at that time all of us were looking to get more credible. After bubblegum died I was loading boxes and not making any money. Then a guy who was The Who's first manager and producer, got this idea for us to come to England and use the techniques we had. Our era was the end of the Tin Pan Alley in New York where you were just creating records and songs. We were writing 75% of the industry when I got into it but after the first few years of the British invasion, we were probably only doing 20%, which was still significant, but no longer was New York in control of the whole industry. So I got the opportunity to go over to England to be part of Motown's English operation which was all white music and rock 'n roll. It was a little cut-throat, but I did get friendly with The Who and their manager, Bill Curbishley, who is still one of my best friends. Bill and The Who helped me when I ran into Joan Jett and nobody wanted to sign her after The Runaways. I said I would try and make a record with her and see if we could get Joan a record deal. So The Who gave us the studio and use of their travel agent and we ran up a $60,000 bill. That's still a big amount of money today, but when Joan started, that was an awesome amount of money. It was enough to make a whole album which turned out to be the first record, which was originally called Joan Jett. Now it's called Bad Reputation. So we made that record on The Who's tab. We paid them back and that's the story.
Do you still stay in touch with any of those acts?
Occasionally I see Tommy James and we're still friends. We definitely always exchange messages through mutual people we run into. Bo Gentry, who was one of my really best friends has died. Peter Anders is now in Providence and his son is my godson and his daughter is my goddaughter. I'm still close to them. Occasionally I see Richie Cordell, although he doesn't work with us anymore with The Blackhearts, we're still in touch with him. Occasionally we still see The Who and I'm still very much in touch with their manager, Bill Curbishley, who now manages Page and Plant. He's one heavy dude in the industry. Peter Meaden, The Who's first manager and producer committed suicide about fifteen years ago. A lot of people I've known over the years have died. I'm also still friends and working with the legendary Darlene Love.
In 1992, Blackheart Records released THE JETT AGE. Now three years and hundreds of letter from fans later, Blackheart is releasing THE JETT AGE PART II containing the videos not included on the first home video.
In the beginning, it will only be available through the fan club. That's the only place fans will be able to get it and eventually down the road we may start offering it at shows like we did with The Jett Age. The new video will include a live version of "I Love You Love," plus clips for "Everyday People," "Fake Friends," "Do You Wanna Touch Me?" and a bunch more.
Are there any more tour dates planned?
Actually we've put ourselves in a state of flux. We were going to go to Europe in March and now we have an offer to tour Australia at the end of May. Because we're trying to fit into the changing schedule of Bob Rock and doing The Gits thing, we put everything on hold. We don't have any tour dates planned at the moment, but it's time for us to get out there and do some dates. We played so much in the Northeast that it was time to stop and give it a rest. Joan has become very important as an artist in the Northwest. When we play Seattle it's a major event. We're going to make a plan over the next few weeks. Joan's ready to do some more dates.
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