Joan Jett: Rebellion Personified – American Songwriter

Captivating rock star Joan Jett thinks about her legacy, but not in the way many others might. Hers is a nuanced perspective in which she hopes her name can help carry on her music and the important songs and messages she’s been a part of. Yet, at the same time, Jett works to consciously sever herself from the potentially egotistical sensibility that somehow the musical sun could ever rise and fall at her behest.

In truth, Jett is, of course, a legend. She’s rebellion personified, which is and was no easy task to achieve. But to let in the various permutations of what that word—legend—means it can cloud or blind one to what’s important. Namely, maintaining a personal openness to the world and to others. Instead of living starry-eyed, Jett wants to live a philosophically-minded life, to be one of those people who leans into encouragement and not dismissal. She wants to tell others: Go for it!

“It’s surreal,” Jett says. “I use that word a lot. Because I want to remember that I am not this person. It’s not me. You’ve got to be really careful—the me, me, me aspect of it. The ‘I’m great, I did all this.’ I always try to go back to, ‘No, I am just the vessel and where this comes from, I don’t really know.’

Photo Courtesy of Olivia Jaffe

Jett’s home is on the beach. One wall of her living room shows the ocean. Her two cats, Felicia and Cleopatra, lay about. Felicia was a rescue. There are plants and the walls are colorful. Jett is not a white wall kind of person. She likes variety, things to investigate. She wants her mind occupied so that it does not veer into phoney territories. How to step away and “just be the witness.” It’s a philosophical exercise as much as lifting weights is a physical one. Being who she is, Jett’s life has been one of great attention. From starring in the all-girl group The Runaways as a teenager to fronting her band The Blackhearts and rising up the rock charts while wearing studded leather jackets. But for Jett, it all began with an electric guitar and an incorrect-yet-know-it-all teacher.

“I got such a reaction,” Jett says, “when I wanted to learn how to play electric guitar.”

Early on in her playing days, recalls Jett (born Joan Marie Larkin), she approached a teacher and said to him that she wanted to learn the instrument. To her surprise, he was flustered and blurted, “Oh, no! Girls don’t play electric guitar!”

“He was so taken aback,” Jett says, “that I was like, ‘Oh my God, what have I hit on here?’”

At that moment, Jett was stunned. In her head, she knew she was just a person—a girl, yes—who simply wanted to learn to play the electric guitar. But the flabbergast, the idea that “girls don’t do that,” drove her immediately and clearly toward something new.

“I knew what he was saying,” Jett says. “In school, I played clarinet with other girls who played cello. We did Beethoven and Bach. So, he wasn’t saying girls can’t learn instruments. He was saying rock ‘n’ roll is sexual and you don’t want to hear girls talking about sex and owning it.”

Growing up, Jett heard the music of Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Glen Campbell, and others. Her father liked classical music. Later exposed to Top 40, Jett remembers hearing a diversity on the air that she doesn’t quite hear the same way today—Stevie Wonder, Grand Funk Railroad, Alice Cooper. The stuff she heard, she wanted to make those sounds too. She also read rock magazines like Creem and Circus and learned that culture.

Throughout her career, Jett has thought of herself as a rhythm guitar player, not a lead player. She digs the rhythm guitar because it holds down the beat and intermixes with the vocals in a way that buttresses them. At one point, she remembers hearing the song “All Right Now” by the British band Free. She also remembers the explosion in her mind.

“That song, one of the chords—or at least it’s my interpretation of it when I hear it—the rhythm guitar is basically the whole song and holds down everything,” Jett says. “But I could hear a little bit of out of tune-ness to one of the chords. As they’re going through the song, a chord bends out of tune a little bit. And I don’t know what it was about that specific sound or that moment in time or just the way it made my body feel hearing it, but I wanted to make those sounds.”

Jett says she wanted to physically feel that guitar sound bend in her hands. She’s a sucker for a whammy bar, she offers. Whatever it was about those warbling vibrations, it kicked off her love of the instrument. Now she knows the feeling well. And it’s a different occupation from shredding on a lead guitar solo. It’s hefty, not frenetic. It’s the stuff that moves people to action before they even know it. And at a young age, Jett was all about action. She wanted to push against conventions and towards new territory.

“It wasn’t rebelling against my parents, it wasn’t school,” Jett says. “It was society. It was society saying one thing, that girls can be anything they wanted to be, but [also] don’t pick up an electric guitar. Like, ‘what?’ It didn’t make any sense to me.”

At the time, though, it wasn’t as if Jett was hatching some grand plan. In fact, she says, if she had thought about it in larger terms, it may have dissuaded her and she may have just gone a direction of lesser resistance. But no. She wanted to strum her electric six-string and have the songs ravage the conventional landscape. To do so, when Jett was 18, she co-founded the legendary band The Runaways, which, among other hits, brought the world the song “Cherry Bomb.” Prior to founding the band, Jett had moved to California with her family from the east coast a few years earlier and, eventually, she found more lady rockers. The all-girl group, however, did not survive without its difficulties.

“We had to face the whole resistance thing,” Jett says. “I felt it on the individual level with the guy saying girls don’t play the electric guitar, but as a band and as a unit of all teenage girls, we got hassled a lot. You could deal with touring and going on the road and all that stuff. But it was just getting through the constant battering of ‘girls don’t do this’ and ‘you’re too sexual’ and ‘you’re wrong, wrong, wrong, bad, bad, bad.’”

Jett says that all she thought the band was doing was reflecting to the world who teenage girls were. Despite the fact society wanted them “out of sight, out of mind,” Jett knew, of course, that teenage girls thought about sex, had sex, and were, in other words, normal people. So, why not be more open about it?

“Get over it,” Jett says.

Photo Courtesy of Olivia Jaffe

Once the Runaways broke up, though, Jett had to get over some sadness of her own. To her, the band was her “baby.” But, she says, things needed to change. Time passes, people get older. So, she sought another group. Now, it would be the Blackhearts, soon to be of “Bad Reputation” and “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” fame. She wanted to find guys to play with so that the new group wouldn’t be compared to her last one. She also surrounded herself with people who knew the industry well and who could help her navigate the “minefields” of the business. But why do all this? Why put yourself in the public eye, under such scrutiny? For Jett, it’s about the power of sharing work and connecting with other people. It makes everything negative, tolerable.

“It’s very powerful,” Jett says, “especially when you’re singing words that are true to you. And even better when you find that it connects with other people and you see them enjoying it. It’s cathartic.”

On stage, Jett has had many moments in that way that it’s difficult to remember one. It’s a pleasant wash of catching audience members’ eyes, sharing a smile between verses. Those moments are yours and yours alone, she says. To hold forever beyond the glitz and glamor, beyond newspaper headlines and awards. On other occasions, listeners have told Jett how much her music has gotten them through horrible times. Others tell her how it’s accompanied them in their best moments. (How many times have you heard “Cherry Bomb” or “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” and had a smile on your face?)

“I see what it does for people,” Jett says. “It really is magic. To be any part of that magic for somebody is pretty special.”

This past year (2021) marks 40 years since Jett and the Blackhearts released “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The song, written by Alan Merrill and Jake Hooker, was first recorded by the British rock band Arrows in 1975. But Jett came out with a version of it in 1979 with two members of the Sex Pistols—Steve Jones and Paul Cook. And she released the now famous version with her band, the Blackhearts, in 1971. That became a No. 1 song for seven weeks. Not to be outdone, in 2022, Jett will release a new acoustic collection of songs, including many of her hits, like “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

“We reinterpreted them to a degree,” Jett says. “But they’re still absolutely recognizable. They feel a little bit different because they’re acoustic.”

A melody change here, a different inflection there, the new acoustic albums will showcase how time impacts a composition—specifically, timeless ones. But it will also show how time can impact a song’s composer. Jett is, of course, a deity when it comes to the electric guitar. To wit, she’s largely steered away from acoustic material because, at the time of her formative years, women were often relegated to only acoustic songs (read: largely toothless material). But Jett says she had great fun recording the new work and she keeps an acoustic sitting around her living room these days, with her cats and plants and colorfully painted walls. It’s just another chance at the synergistic loop of creativity.

“It comes back to that release and connection,” Jett says. “Releasing for the sake of releasing whatever it is—happiness, tension, all of it, life. But it’s also a connection with other beings. Not just people. Animals respond to music, plants respond to music.”

Jett says she talks to plants, puts her hand on trees whenever she can. “I’m a weirdo like that,” she shares. Sometimes things will just jump out to her. They make her wonder: How long has this been here? What other people have passed by it before? These are what interest her most elevated sense of self. Those other people who choose to be consumed by status and the more plastic senses of success are just exhibiting a convoluted sense of fear, Jett explains. She can see it in them. And that ain’t her bag. It never has been and never will be.

“We’re all stopped by those people who call themselves friends or family,” Jett says. “Who think they’re doing us a favor when they say, ‘What are you nuts?’ When they should be saying, ‘Go for it, go for it.’ I want to be the person saying, ‘Go for it.’ If we all went for it, we might be in a little bit better place than we are today.”

Photos by of Roger Erickson.

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