Joan Jett? The ultimate rock & roll badass, she’s an archetypal, almost mythic figure, one assuredly on a cultural and artistic par with her boldest predecessors, and if there were a Mount Rushmore for female American musicians, she’d be right up there, the final link in a revolutionary chain that began with WWI-era Red Hot Mama Sophie Tucker, 1930s Queen of the Blues Bessie Smith, 1940s Jezebel of Jazz Anita O’Day, ‘50s rockabilly shouter Wanda Jackson and ‘60s acid blues belter Janis Joplin. Yet when the teenaged Jett jumped into the game during the mid-’70s, she hit it harder than all of her illustrious forebears combined, nailing rock & roll with a stinging, brilliant series of recordings that have all achieved a life of their own (even if she sometimes never saw a dime from them).
It hasn’t often been very pretty for Jett; when she first made noise with all-female teenaged sensations the Runaways, she had to contend not only with elitist press put-downs deriding them as being a “fake rebel band,” she also had to put up with Sunset Strip Svengali Kim Fowley, a fading sub-Spector control booth wonderboy whose primary modus operandi in his iron-fisted handling of the band was to ceaselessly tell the girls that whatever they were doing was “dogshit.” Clearly the Jett psyche has suffered more than a few punishing blows, but her staunch refusal to take any of it seriously speaks volumes as to just what a tough chick she really is.
She’s also tough to pin down for an interview, and, speaking recently over a static-blasting cell phone connection, Jett seemed equal parts guarded big-head, untamed wild child, shrewd business schemer and, of course, all-around rock goddess. Asked about her earliest start, she says “I was really big on the movie Cabaret. I did a lot with that, and it was the thing that really inspired me to get into show business. I liked acting before I was even into rock & roll. I started playing guitar when I was about 13. I’d say probably really early on, I was listening to T. Rex, David Bowie, stuff like that, but I also liked things like “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple, because it was easy to learn how to play the chords, or Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”—songs like that with the big, fat, slow chords.”
She parlayed that feverish combination into a modern interpretation of classic rock, so potent that it not only anticipated but sometimes transcended punk rock. “I was all into that,” she says of the punk heyday, and in fact, after the Runaways broke up circa ‘79, she hightailed it to London, rented a houseboat on the Thames and held one long, mad party there, with guests like Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook, who produced several tracks for her self-titled 1981 comeback disc. From the definitive, self-penned Runaways classic “Cherry Bomb” to her 1982 smasheroo “I Love Rock & Roll”—a song that spent nine weeks at number one, but only after no fewer than 28 labels passed on it; despite such rank discouragement—those rejections inspired her brilliant “Bad Reputation”—she has, wisely, concentrated almost exclusively on herself: “I’ll tell ya, I listen to what I listen to, and don’t really pay attention to what’s goin’ on—I don’t pay attention enough to give you an opinion on the state of music in general.”
And what she sees in the business is not much to her liking: “There are other aspects, like the consolidation of radio, that makes things very difficult—like the fact that the play lists are being picked by computers as opposed to human beings . . . my (satellite) radio show is one of two whole different things, one is me just being a jock, and the other is trying to get your songs played on stations in each city—very different. I don’t control the play lists, otherwise I’d be getting played on all of them!”
Now, with her latest, typically high-powered release Sinner, Jett’s coolly consistent mixture of dive-bomber guitar and dirty, declarative shout strikes the ear as irresistibly as ever. It’s a tore-down, messed-up, high-intensity sound that’s fueled millions of late-night keggers, wild fantasies and dance floor showdowns. Yet Sinner also features several songs that take a more contemplative approach—nothing to the point where one can start bandying about such egghead rock critic bullshit as “artistic maturation,” but do point in an intriguing direction—have these been lying around, waiting to find a home, or is she in the midst of some kind of creative upshift?
“I really just write what I need.” she says. “I don’t have songs sitting around, I might have bits and pieces . . . it’s done in spurts, here and there. I think I’ve wanted to write about politics and spirituality for a few years, and now I’ve finally been able to do that with songs like “Riddles” and “Change the World,” especially . . . it’s hard to say why, but I think I was fearful for several years to approach those subjects because you can come off being really preachy or corny, so I stayed away from it, but it’s coming out in the music—and with the state of what’s going in our country, it’s getting to the point where you have to talk about it.”
And so Joan Jett the rock & roll warrior marches on, and despite intermittent releases and a hit-and-run inconsistency on the road, she maintains an in-and-out, one-off-gig schedule averaging about 150 shows a year. Just don’t try to tell her how or what to do; at her last Southern California appearance (not counting her stint on this summer’s Warped Tour) at the Orange County Fairgrounds on New Year’s Eve, she did an agonizing 15 minute tune up, ignoring a rising chorus of boos. Later in mid-song, when a grandfatherly fan somehow wandered onstage and attempted to hug her, Jett jabbed her elbow into his ribs, then kicked the old dude without so much as a glance at him or missing a beat. Baby, that is rock & roll.
JOAN JETT & THE BLACKHEARTS PERFORM WITH THIRD GRADE TEACHER, CHARLEYHORSE AND SILVER NEEDLE AT THE KEY CLUB AT CASINO MORONGO, 49500 SEMINOLE RD., CABAZON, WWW.MORONGOCASINORESORT.COM. SUN., 7 P.M. $50.