Joan Jett’s career is now the stuff of movies and Barbie dolls, but she still rules on stage
Somewhere in Joan Jett’s career, after decades of touring and playing a pure, stripped-down rock and roll with a decidedly punk/glam rock feel — which she still champions in an age of hip-hop and R&B — she became something unexpected.
Joan Jett became a rock icon.
For a performer like Jett, who has spent much of her career brashly breaking down walls and preconceived notions like “chicks can’t play guitar,” it’s not always an easy fit for her.
“It’s a great honor and I hear it when people say it to me and I don’t want to take it lightly and kind of brush it off,” Jett says in a telephone interview with Atlantic City Weekly. “But in another way I kind of have to. I can’t take that seriously. I can’t think of myself like that. I just don’t. But I am humbled by it. Still, once you start believing that, you know, I just don’t ever want to be a jerk.”
When Jett and her band the Blackhearts roll into Harrah’s Resort Saturday (Dec. 12), however, her fans won’t doubt it for a second. She remains instantly recognizable as one of the greatest rock guitarists ever, one of only two women to make Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest guitarist list. Her sound and image, the black leather and hair (though she has occasionally shaved it off) and energy on stage are hers and hers alone.
And the icon checklist doesn’t stop there. Not when they are making a movie based on your early career (The Runaways due in 2010 ) with one of the hottest young actresses in Hollywood (Kristen Stewart) cast as you. And then, just to drive the point home, a Joan Jett Barbie Doll has been released this year in time for Christmas.
It’s a long way from the late ’70s when Jett first appeared on the punk scene with the Runaways, a band that while successful overseas, never gained more than a cult following in the U.S.
Still, Jett has embraced the film, which is based on lead singer Cherie Currie’s 1989 autobiography Neon Angels. Currie’s role is played by Dakota Fanning. As an executive producer, Jett has worked closely with Stewart to recreate, well, herself.
“It’s been pretty surreal,” she says. “First of all, she cut her hair and that certainly helped my vision of it. She wasn’t wearing a wig. She was actually living in the hair and I would hope that it helped her a little bit to embody it.”
“I thought that just in general our energy, the way we handle day-to-day things, plus our physical movements in space, were very similar. A lot of kind of fidgeting, a lot of playing with the hair — a lot of that stuff sort of came natural. But for a lot of the physical aspects, she watched me a lot, so it was surreal, but in a nice way. It wasn’t uncomfortable and it wasn’t creepy.”
Though Stewart’s portrayal of Jett has been gaining a lot of attention, Jett is quick to point out that the film is about the group, not her.
“I have to really stress that this is not a biopic,” Jett says. “It sort of goes over how the band started, but you can’t take each aspect as a fact. The way I look at it this movie is based on Cherie’s book and I see it as basically a parallel narrative … so I’m not ever going to able to judge it as a true Runaways story. Because that’s not really what this is. To me, it’s more of the story of two girls and how they deal with this event in their life called The Runaways.”
For Jett, the story of how bands get started is also still a major proponent of her career as a producer for Blackheart records, the indie label she started with Kenny Laguna in 1980. Started to release her solo material, the label still sports a stable of up-and-coming punk rock bands such as The Vacancies and Girl in a Coma. And Jett still takes an active role in finding talent.
Looking for rock acts isn’t exactly easy, however, in a time when hip-hop rules. Jett, however, says she still finds acts like The Vacancies, which have opened for her and the Blackhearts, simply by staying in the rock trenches and listening to other bands while on the road.
“One thing that hasn’t really changed is that you have got to be able to be a great live band or you have to aspire to be one,” she says. “People love to go see live music. Bands love to play and it’s a way to get your music out to the people. And that immediate experience, a lot of times, creates the most special memories in your life. I mean I’m sure you can remember some of the most special concerts you went to early on in your life and so do I. Everybody has those memories so for me, that’s the goal, to create those moments.”
Bands today, of course, can use the Internet in ways Jett could never have dreamed of when she began her career. But despite the access to the public, she still misses the days when bands had to make it on the radio.
“The record business has really changed, and technology really helps bands,” she says. “But I also think you’re missing out on a lot. You know, DJs that used to play requests on the radio. Just that people used to listen to the radio. Kids actually had control over what songs were hits. Because they were the one’s that requested them.”
Jett’s signature song, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” is a perfect example she says.
Jett’s last album was Sinner released in 2006, though a greatest hits album is scheduled for release soon. Her Atlantic City appearance isn’t tied to a new album and is part of a steady schedule of appearances she makes every year. It gives her the freedom to mix it up when she performs.
To the casual rock ‘n’ roll fan, the name Kenny Laguna probably won’t ring a bell. But to music insiders, Laguna’s name carries some formidable weight. The performer-turned-producer was still a teenager when he produced hits in the 1960s for Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers, Tommy James and the Shondells, Darlene Love, Jay (Black) and the Americans and the Ohio Express. The bubblegum sound changed Laguna’s career. Then along came Joan Jett, who changed his life, and he hers. “The first time I heard [Jett] she was 17 and she reminded me so much of Darlene Love,” Laguna says of his 1976 introduction to Jett, who was already performing with her...
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