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JOAN JETT Refuels at 50
When JOAN JETT picks up the phone in New York for her Spinner interview, two things are immediately apparent: First, the tale of her three-decade plus career is evidenced wholly by her speaking voice, which is throaty and unintentionally gruff. It's the wear of a Philadelphia-born punk named Joan Marie Larkin who left for L.A. at 15 with a rock 'n' roll in dream in one hand and leather in the other. Three years later, Jett formed the RUNAWAYS, and thus beginning her kicking-and-screaming ascent to rock iconism. Dubbed the original riot grrrl, Jett would garner several other titles along the way: chart-topper, entrepreneur, activist, actress, producer, sex symbol and all-around badass, included.
This brings us to number two: JOAN JETT commands, though not literally, respect. Her middle- finger- to-the-establishment reputation sits backseat to the woman on the line -- a woman who, despite her persona, felt misunderstood at the onset. She issues no bounds as inquiries go, answering each question with cool authority and, often, laughter. "What do you want to know?" she begins. And so it does.
You're releasing a greatest hits CD/DVD later this year. What was it like for you to sit down and sift through nearly three decades' worth of material?
I have the most contempt... to look at myself [musically] and be like, "No, no." Do you know what I'm saying? It's like looking through dated pictures. It's kinda weird to look at old videos or old photos. But I'm glad I did it. Sometimes, sitting around and making records, you don't really hear it. You're just recording and loving the songs, taking them out on the road and playing them for people. People remember what's recorded but I don't listen to my records over and over again. I don't go back to the recordings unless there's something I need to refresh myself for the band -- the tempos or a structure of a song. But I'd love to do that because I put a lot of hard work into the records I make. It can be fun to go back and take a listen. Also, there are a few [new] tracks that'll be on the CD. They are songs that we haven't really played live yet, but they're written out.
You were one of the first female musicians to start her own record label, BLACKHEART RECORDS, more than 25 years ago, and it was done out of necessity because 23 labels rejected you.
That's crazy, right? As an artist, you want some control over what you're doing. But it's common -- we all want to be signed to a major label. It's part of that dream: being in a band, signed to a major label, have a big record come out. But nobody wanted anything to do with me, my music or my band. It was really... tough.
Why do you think you were rejected?
I don't know. It's really hard for people to see it -- that atmosphere and mindset that people had about girls in music or girls in rock 'n' roll 25 years ago. I'm not playing the typical girl role and I've taken a lot of shit. It's hard for me to judge. I can't tell what it is about me. I don't walk around smashing s---; I'm not that kind of scary person. I don't know what about me was so threatening.
Regardless, I know that we sent them a few songs: 'I Love Rock 'n' Roll,' 'Crimson and Clover,' 'Do You Wanna Touch Me' and 'Bad Reputation.' We got a good deal of rejection letters. People wrote back, 'You have no songs here,' 'Drop the guitar.' It was incredible! These companies turned down not one hit but four songs that wound up being hits. That's just a part of rock 'n' roll. Now, either the companies don't listen to what we send them, or the people that listen can't hear hits or they're so blinded by their prejudices that they can't get beyond that. Whatever the reasoning, it's kind of scary. In the end, it was good because I kept control of my music. I guess it turned out for the better.
It's especially ironic then, given that you've since become an icon -- a pioneer in both punk and rock -- particularly on the female front. How does that sit with you?
It's very humbling. I don't think it makes sense, even beyond people saying it to me. It's a really nice feeling. It's great that people think that.
Describe the girl who founded the RUNAWAYS back in the '70s.
Boy, well, we were all very typical teenage girls but we all had very distinct personalities -- styles, so to speak. We were all somewhat different, but the music took us and we definitely came together with rock 'n' roll ethic. Cherie [Currie] had that British glitter sound. We'd switch off on vocals and I'd do more rock 'n' roll stuff and she'd sing the more melodic, popular stuff. Jackie Fox was probably more of an intellectual. Sandy West would have been the sports girl, the surfer girl. And Lita [Ford] would be a combination of party girl, surfer girl -- total vixen and sexy mama. We were just a bit between rebels and sex symbols.
People would say I'm the tough one. People would say I'm the mean one. I had a certain sense about music and about my personal style. I wasn't comfortable in dresses -- it wasn't my thing. It was about pants and leather and dark hair and dark makeup. At the time, it wasn't the way that girls would do it. The thing that always gets to me is in rock 'n' roll, you own your own sexuality. In pop music, you say, 'You can do what you want to me.' Rock 'n' roll says, 'I'm gonna do what I want to you.' When girls are saying that, it could be really threatening. I never got that. I don't understand it.
You recently performed at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, yet you've yet to be inducted yourself despite years of eligibility. When will it be your turn?
Well, I tell you, I don't really think about it too much. I don't worry about all of the awards. If I get inducted at this point, I would be honored by the people whom I've played with for many years.
In the summer, you will be touring as part of the second annual True Colors tour. What does it mean for you to be on a tour that's sole purpose is to support and brings awareness to the LGBT community?
It's really vital to raise issues that are important to the community. But beyond that, gay, bi, transgendered people love rock 'n' roll, too. That's what it's about -- the music. There are many other issues that need to be brought to the forefront and it's great to be involved in that. I've known Cyndi [Lauper] for years as well, so it will be great to be on the road with her.
Throughout your career, journalists have asked you about your sexual orientation and you've yet to say outright what it is. Why do you think people are so curious?
You know, I... why does anybody want to know anything to that extent? They want to know until they know, and then it's not a big deal. First of all, don't dictate to me what I have to declare about myself. It's about setting boundaries. If you open up a door to your whole life, once that door's open, you can't shut it. You can't open it up for some parts and keep it closed for others.
It really boils down to this: I want to please everybody. I want every guy and every girl thinking that I'm singing these songs to them, because I am. If I make a hard, fast case on where I stand then that takes away a lot of the fantasy. Music entails a lot of fantasy. I want people to be able to go there with me. Some people might think it's a cop-out. I don't care. That's how I feel.
In addition to social activism, you're quite active in politics. You've visited the troops many times and avidly supported Howard Dean in the last presidential election. Are you following the upcoming election, and if so, who are you supporting?
I'm still pissed about what happened to Howard Dean [laughs]. Yeah, I'm following along and I will support whichever Democrat that wins and gets to the election. It makes me a little bit nervous that Hillary Clinton and Obama rip each other apart in the primaries, but I think it's good to have a healthy debate about a lot of these issues. A lot of people are getting involved. That's really important. Everybody's lives are on the line.
You turn 50 in September. What does that mean to you?
I don't think about the number. It all comes down to how I feel. Right now, I'm having fun and I'm feeling good. That's all that counts.
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