Badass. Swagger. Firebrand.
How many words can you use to describe Joan Jett? She’s the one who showed the world of rock that girls can do it just as well as boys. She’s the spitfire who burst onto the music scene in her teens and has maintained her place at the top of the rock pile for four decades—first as a member of the all-female band The Runaways, and now as the leader of Joan Jett & the Blackhearts.
Recognized as one of the world’s best rock guitarists—Jett is currently on the road with her band, opening for The Who on their “The Who Hits 50” North American tour. And on April 18, she’ll be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, immortalized for anthems like “Bad Reputation” and “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll.” Just before hitting the road, Jett sat down to talk with HT about the nature of success and the path that she has followed.
When you were 13, you moved from Maryland to California. That must have involved some culture shock.
It did. My dad was an insurance guy, and he got transferred to southern California. West Covina was my first stop. It was really different than the East Coast—just the whole vibe, the laid-backness.
Did California nurture your aspirations in music?
Absolutely. I don’t know if you ever heard of this club back in the ’70s—Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco on the Sunset Strip. I was reading about Rodney’s in Circus magazine when I was back East. I wanted to be the sort of person—I don’t know—that was different. I was the weirdo in school; people use to look at me and howl “Diamond dog!” as I walked down the hall. Rodney’s catered to early ’70s British glitter rock, like David Bowie and T. Rex and Slade and Quatro—all this stuff that American radio didn’t really touch. Rodney’s catered to that kind of music, and it catered to teenagers. It was a teenage club; they didn’t sell booze or anything—it was just a disco. You were like too old if you were 21, you know?
What do you think accounts for The Runaways being able to break through and be successful?
What we were doing was so different: We weren’t just saying, “Hey, we’re female!”—we were saying, “Hey, we’re teenage girls!” We were girls growing into women, and we wanted to access all those things, really, that anybody would, whether you were a boy or a girl—your sexuality, your discovery of music and dance and culture.
What accounted for the Runaways’ success was that we had a band that could actually play, and we had a manager—Kim Fowley—who was very good at getting press and knew a lot of people and was able to get us a record deal. But we still had to prove it. You can get a record deal and all that stuff, but you still gotta go out on the road and play with all these other bands that can play. You have to hold your own, and I thought we did that very well.
After The Runaways broke up, did you think your career was over, or were you confident that you could move forward?
Oh, man, I thought my career was over for sure. I mean, it was a very down time. But you can’t look back and say, “Oh, it was a bad thing that we broke up.” It was kind of natural. What are we going to do: be 21 and still call ourselves “The Runaways”? So just like we grew into the band, we also grew out of it. We grew apart, and I didn’t want to get fired from a band that I started, so I just kind of called it quits—New Year’s Eve, 1978.
It was pretty devastating because I felt the whole city was laughing at me. I thought everybody was saying, “We told you it wouldn’t work! We told you girls—we told you, we told you, we told you! Hah!” I mean, I was really down and depressed.
How did you climb out of that?
I was just lucky. About that time, I met Kenny Laguna, who came to work with me to write songs for a project that The Runaways had signed to do—We’re All Crazy Now—kind of based on The Runaways’ career. The movie was still going through, and I didn’t want to get in trouble: My manager at the time knew Kenny. We wrote eight songs in three days, but more importantly, we became best friends—like instantly. You just energetically feel it.
You and Kenny founded Blackheart Records in 1980. Can you explain his influence?
Man, I’d have to think about that for a minute. He was in a lot of bands growing up. He’s got so many strengths; he’s a very musical guy and very knowledgeable. He can do a lot of things—a great person, great musician, very intelligent, and he knows business. He’s been playing since he was 11 or 12. He was with Tommy James and the Shondells and a lot of bubblegum groups. He learned by paying attention to what was going on. He’s very business-savvy, which I think a lot of people in the business aren’t; I’d like to be more business-savvy myself. But there are strengths that we have together.
You’re touring with The Who. It must be pretty amazing to be onstage with rockers you grew up on.
Absolutely. It’s incredible and really special—it brings the whole story full circle. After Kenny and I met and were working together, we had written our first album and nobody would take us seriously; nobody would give us the time of day. Kenny knew a lot of powerful people and asked for some favors, but nobody could do anything. Then Pete Townsend suggested talking to Bill Harrison, his manager, and Bill said to go to their studios in London, do what you gotta do and pay them when we can. That was the most amazing thing, and we recorded what became Bad Reputation. He threw us that lifeline, and we did pay them back. That sort of generosity from that type of band—I thought it was really incredible. And now it’s come full circle, playing with The Who on their anniversary tour. I’m getting chills talking about it!
Is that kind of loyalty rare in the rock world?
I think it’s rarer, for sure. The business has changed so much; loyalties have shifted. Some are more loyal to their own selves and to the almighty dollar.
How has the rock world changed?
The word “rock” has kind of been taken away. Food rocks, parties rock, clothes rock—everything rocks. But rock, the label, the word, has been watered down. It doesn’t mean anything … everyone’s a rock star, even if they’re a pop star or any kind of star. Star chef? You’re a rock star! The meaning of that word has been taken away. I’m quite happy with just being a musician.
This is a huge year for you. On April 18, you’re being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Oh, man, that’s another thing that’s so hard to take in. It’s a great thing, really a great thing. But I just want to emphasize that I play music because I love it, like so many musicians. So to get an award like this … I don’t know. It’s not really anything I aspired to, particularly—initially, it wasn’t even there. Then they created this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but you can’t focus on that; you just have to go out and play your music and be who you are.
You’ve been named on many people’s list of top rock guitarists. Now you’re coming off recent shoulder surgery. Has guitar playing contributed to your shoulder problems?
I think a little bit, maybe. But I chalk it up to the fact that, in my whole life, I’ve been pretty much a tomboy. I play ball; I was pretty rough when I was a kid. In The Runaways, Sandy West, the drummer, and I would wrestle like crazy, insane people. And in the early ’90s, I went to the Baltimore Orioles fantasy camp, where, if you’re a fan, you can spend a couple weeks’ worth of spring training. You get a uniform and have teams; you play two games a day and get coached by the major-league coaches. It’s really incredible. Everybody probably thought it was funny that I was trying to kill myself doing this stuff: “Hey, Joan! You’re not a pro. Ease up—you’re going to hurt yourself.” But I went as far as I could. I wanted to pitch. Mike Cuellar [the former Orioles pitching star] taught me how to throw a screwball. He said, “If I teach you to throw it, you gotta throw it, no matter where it goes!”
High Times sent you a batch of high-CBD balms and lotions. How did they work out for your recovery?
Useful, very useful. I don’t understand why marijuana was made into this evil thing so long ago. Beyond whether or not you smoke joints, you can’t deny the medical benefits of legalizing. It’s been definitely found to work for various issues. I saw an interview yesterday with a woman whose son was hurt in some kind of accident—head injury. He’d have these pain explosions, and none of the drugs that the doctors could give him relieved it. But his mother gave him some pure cannabis oil, and that stopped his pain. But now the mother’s possibly in trouble. This kind of stuff is ridiculous—ridiculous. And that’s just on the medical side of things.
On the personal side: Of course I smoke pot. It’s not a big deal. I think you have to be responsible, like with anything.
What do you think your influence has been musically?
It’s not all just about the music. The music’s about anything in life, anything you wanna be. People are always telling you what you can’t do—you come up with an idea and it’s “Oh, why would you do that?” I think sometimes that it’s just a natural, human thing to try to stop people from doing what they want to do: “You can’t, you can’t, you can’t!”
I say you can—and you’d better try, because if it’s your dream and you don’t give it a shot, you’re going to always wonder if you could have done it. If you do take a shot and it doesn’t work out, at least you felt secure in your own self and took the shot.
After The Runaways, I was completely laughed at by everyone… Kenny can verify that. We formed our own label and then we put it out, and everybody turned it down. We got 23 letters that said, “Good idea, good idea, but no songs here.” What they didn’t hear was “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me” and “Bad Reputation.” Either the record companies don’t have people with ears, or they don’t listen to the tapes they’re sent. Whatever the reason, they just send out excuses.
It turned out good for us, even though at the time it was devastating. It forced us to improvise. Kenny took a big chance by taking his 3-month-old daughter’s college savings and printing up 500 records. We’d sell them out of the trunk of our car at local gigs. The 500 went whack—like that. Then we printed 500 more, and that was beginning of Blackheart Records. You gotta take the bull by the horns.
You’ve always maintained a very strong feminist stance. What’s your advice for women in general?
Believe in yourself. It’s self-evident: If you believe in yourself, you know it; when you don’t believe in yourself, you know it too. You gotta work on that. Believe me, man, there’s times when I feel very frail. In fact, I do right now, because I just lost one of my animals, who I had for 14 years.
It’s thrown me for a loop. Thank you very much—but, you know, it’s like I gotta figure it out, I gotta figure it out…
You’re a spokesperson for PETA and Farm Sanctuary. Where does your activism spring from?
Well, we’re all the same, I think, but animals don’t judge. They’re just pure. If the lion wants to eat you, it’s not because he’s mad at you. He’s hungry, you know what I mean? It’s just his instinct. I just find animals to be very pure, and I relate to them well. I’ve had all sorts of animals from the time I was very young. My parents were surrounded with animals, and I just love them. Animals and little kids, I get along with really well—they’re not afraid of me. They look at me and they’re sort of intrigued.
What led you to become a devout vegan?
I was a major meat-eater all my life—red meat, bloody, rare steak. I was like that when I met Kenny. Kenny has been a vegan since he was 11: He saw the bodies in a butcher shop and then he saw his dog. But it didn’t really sink in for me then—I don’t know why. I mean, someone who’s such an animal lover, why wouldn’t I go, “What the hell am I doing?”
It wasn’t until the late ’80s, when I was reading this book called Diet for a New America by John Robbins. He wrote about the food industry from the farm to the table. His interests weren’t necessarily about the animals, but he exposed the process. I was on the road anyway, though—I wasn’t eating a lot of meat because it was too heavy. I was eating a lot of breakfast-like food: pancakes, French toast and stuff. But by the end of the book, I didn’t want to eat any meat at all. I really got the connection. All of a sudden, it made sense, and I’m like: “Why am I doing this? I love animals!”
Final question: What accounts for your popularity in Japan?
I can’t… When The Runaways went over there in ’77, we were stunned. We didn’t know what to expect. We were swarmed—but instead of boys, it was all girls. It was incredible! They would rock the car! I was excited about it, but some of the other girls were kind of scared. It was on the edge of scary because were unprepared for it, and we didn’t have the security that we should have had. In Japan at the time—I’m not sure what it’s like now—women were very much second-class citizens. But The Runaways were taking our stances, and these girls would come out and scream for us. It was quite an amazing tour.
Did you ever think it might have been because you resemble those superhero girls from Japan—the shag hair and big eyes? Has anyone ever suggested that?
No, no. But that’s pretty cool, though.