In the end, I never did get to actually talk to Joan Jett, though the quotes contained within this story did come from her. Even though indie-weekly fabulists are getting lectures at Harvard these days, I'm not down with making stuff up. Everything attributed to Joan comes straight from her notepad. The day I was supposed to interview her, she had lost her voice and had to have her guitarist Kenny Laguna read me the answers. Setting up the interview was a comedy of errors, misconnections, and misunderstandings, and, if that wasn't enough, the day of the interview I received an e-mail telling me that Sandy West, drummer of Jett's former band, the Runaways, had just lost her long battle with cancer.
By the time I finally got in touch with them, both Jett and Laguna were in mourning. Still, Jett soldiered on; if you're the baddest of the bad girls, you pour a 40 on the sidewalk for your homegirl and then go out and -- voice or not -- rock the crowd. Jett is a consummate professional; she's hailed as a virtuosic guitarist and most of her music, including her new record, Sinner, is polished to a sheen. She knows the business inside and out, having toured the world multiple times, released nine No. 1 hits, and started her own label, Blackheart Records.
The Joan Jett story goes something like this: After seeing the New York Dolls play Philly at the tender age of 12, Jett picked up a guitar and recruited some rebellious girlfriends to form the Runaways. They loved rock 'n' roll, and they wanted you to put another dime in the jukebox, baby, and become superstars. The Runaways busted up after three years, and Jett headed to L.A., where she put an ad in the calendar section of the L.A. Times and L.A. Weekly that said: "Joan Jett looking for three good men." She didn't give a damn about her reputation, and soon she had the most successful indie hit ever. Over the next 26 years, she had hits, played at the opening of the Panama Canal, collaborated with riot grrls, did an anthem for the WBNA, and became a feminist icon.
Jett has fashioned a new record this year that sounds like ... well, pretty much every other Joan Jett record. That's not a criticism per se; Jett knows exactly what works for her and what her fans like, and she's smart enough to know not to screw with the formula. Sinner is fast and punchy, with big guitars and anthemic vocals, and is calculated to appeal not only to her loyal fan base but to introduce Jett to kids whose parents saw the Runaways at CBGB's. In an effort to reach the younger set, Jett headlined the Warped Tour this past summer.
"People referred to it as the 'Joan Jett Summer Camp,'" Jett says, believing her Warped Tour experience secured her some new audience members. "Generally, about 40 percent of our crowd is under 20, 20 percent are over 40, and the rest fall somewhere in between. We tend to get a lot of families and parents bringing their teenage kids, which is great. I have an amazing mix of people interested in the music. We have a lot of disenfranchised, working-class people who are inspired by the songs, but I also have someone like [designer] Todd Oldham naming a furniture line after me."
Jett's desire to be a uniter and not a divider spills over in to other aspects of her life, including her political actions. "I only started being open about politics in 2003, because I didn't want to alienate any potential fans. Howard Dean reached out to me because I contributed to his race, and I got pulled on to the roller coaster of the campaign. I was on stage during the famous "scream" speech and delivered his petition to the elections office in New York." Despite her support of Dean, Jett is eager to make it clear that she doesn't look down on those who disagree with him. "I don't hate Republicans, although I hate their policies," she says. "My main goal is to create a space for respectful dialogue." Jett also points out that "my political ideas do not affect my patriotism." She has performed overseas for troops on several occasions.
When asked about the passing of two major institutions -- CBGB's and Tower Records -- Jett offers up very different and counterintuitive responses. "CBGB's was a wonderful place, but clubs tend to run their course," she says. "I'm not really obsessing over it." The closing of the Tower Records chain, though, brings a more dramatic response: "It's the end of an era, and indicative of a huge shift in the market. The record store where you could walk in and make discoveries is long gone. The whole way of earning a living as a musician is undergoing a radical readjustment, and this is just the tip of the iceberg."
If there is one thing Joan Jett can do, it is survive radical changes. A friend of mine told me that "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" was the first 45 he ever bought, and plenty of kids went home from the Warped Tour and downloaded her songs. Jett has said she plans to continue making music "until I am in my box." I'm inclined to believe her.
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts at the Big Easy on Halloween at 8 pm. Tickets: $20. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.