‘If you want to know about sex, it’s in the songs’: Joan Jett on punk, privacy and almost joining the army | Punk

When Joan Jett was 13 years old, she had her first lesson on the electric guitar her parents had given her for Christmas. “I went in there all excited and said to the teacher: ‘I wanna play rock’n’roll,’” she says. “And he said to me: ‘Girls don’t play rock’n’roll. Let me teach you [the folk song] On Top of Old Smokey instead.’” Jett never went back for a second lesson – instead, she bought a book and taught herself to play. It wouldn’t be the last time a man tried to put her in her place: “It’s the hand in the face telling you ‘You can’t do this’ or ‘Don’t do that’,” she says. “And it’s not just in rock’n’roll, it’s everywhere.”

This year marks 40 years since I Love Rock’n’Roll, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ cover of a song originally by the Arrows, reached No 1 in the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for seven weeks. The Blackhearts were Jett’s second band; her first, the Runaways, in which she played rhythm guitar, had barged their way on to the Los Angeles punk scene in 1976, making their debut with the raucous single Cherry Bomb. By 1979, they had split up. Since those heady, chaotic early years, Jett has barely stopped. At 63, she continues to release albums on her label, Blackheart Records, and, pandemic notwithstanding, tours relentlessly. As the decades have passed, veneration of Jett as a feminist pioneer and all-round force of nature has grown. In 2010, Kristen Stewart played her in the biopic The Runaways (with Dakota Fanning as the band’s singer, Cherie Currie), while in 2018, Bad Reputation, Kevin Kerslake’s documentary named after one of Jett’s signature songs, traced her rise from snarling teen to rock’n’roll grande dame.

It’s late afternoon at Jett’s Long Island home when we speak via video call. In a low-ceilinged room illuminated with fairy lights, she is relaxing after a late night playing her first concert in months. “Excuse my casualness here,” she says, slumped in an armchair, iPhone propped up on her knees. Dressed in regulation black vest and jeans, she is toned and athletic-looking. Her hair is just as it ever was: dyed black and heavily layered in the classic rocker’s shag cut. Liza Minnelli in Cabaret was among the inspirations for the teenage Jett’s look. “I loved the androgyny, or the gender-bending thing or however you want to put it,” she reflects. “My image was my armour. It’s not like I went around punching people, but people were intimidated and that was purposeful.”

Also on our call is Jett’s longtime manager, producer, co-writer and best pal Kenny Laguna. As a keyboard player in the 1960s, he performed on a string of bubblegum hits including Mony Mony by Tommy James and the Shondells. He and Jett have worked together since 1979, when the Runaways fell apart and she graduated from rhythm guitarist to lead singer of the Blackhearts. As Laguna puts it in the documentary, he brought the pop while she “brought the menace”. Their relationship is entirely platonic – it was Laguna’s wife, Meryl, who suggested he seek out Jett after reading about her in the British music press. Nonetheless, they sound just like a married couple with their bossing and bickering. “Lift your head up, Kenny!” Jett barks at him, when he lets his camera slip. “We can’t see your mouth. It’s very unnerving.”

Jett spent much of the pandemic at home going stir-crazy, so she couldn’t be happier to be back on stage. “It’s the longest I’ve ever gone [not performing] since I started in the business. There’s this song that Kenny and I wrote many years ago called You Don’t Know What You’ve Got, and that’s actually the case. It was pretty distressing, but then it was a gift in other ways. It forced you to slow down, and a lot of people have trouble with that, me included.”

The Runaways in 1976 (l to r): Jackie Fox, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Cherie Currie and Lita Ford.
The Runaways in 1976 (l to r): Jackie Fox, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Cherie Currie and Lita Ford. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Along with a tour, there’s a new album, Changeup, a collection of acoustic versions of old tracks including Crimson and Clover and Bad Reputation. Jett loves to find new ways to play old songs – “You find all these nooks and crannies that you didn’t know were there,” she says. When I ask if she feels she might go mad if she has to crank out I Love Rock’n’Roll one more time, she looks appalled: “Not at all. For me, you’re playing it in front of new people every time, so it’s new. It can never be the same. I don’t want to have a lackadaisical attitude about these things. I don’t ever want to fake it.”

Jett, who is the eldest of three siblings, credits her work ethic to her parents – her mother was a secretary and her father sold insurance. “I never saw them sitting around being lazy,” she says. “They instilled in me that I could do whatever I wanted to do, but I’d have to work hard at it.” For a while, they lived in Maryland, where Jett’s parents got her a horse. “We weren’t a rich family so I don’t know how they did that. But I’d travel about 40 miles on the weekends and I would take lessons in exchange for cleaning the stables. And I learned something from that.”

The family later moved to LA, where Jett started hanging out at Rodney’s English Disco, a Hollywood nightclub that would play “glitter music” by the likes of the Sweet, David Bowie and T Rex. The music impresario Kim Fowley also frequented Rodney’s and put Jett, who was just 16, in touch with a young drummer, Sandy West. Jett went round to West’s house, they jammed for a bit and then called up Fowley and played a song down the phone. He was so impressed that he appointed himself their manager and helped recruit the rest of the band: singer Currie, guitarist Lita Ford and bassist Jackie Fuchs.

The Runaways weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. At gigs, people threw bottles, spat at them and called them sluts. Jett would go backstage and cry. Critics, struggling to get their heads around the notion of an all-girl punk band, dismissed them as a novelty act. “No one gave us any credit that we could play at all,” she says. “And that was really galling because we played better than a lot of the bands we opened for.”

Jett onstage with the Runaways, 1977.
‘No one gave us any credit that we could play’ … Jett on stage with the Runaways, 1977. Photograph: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Weren’t her parents anxious about her being out all night playing dives? “I’m sure they were but they never said anything,” Jett replies. “They obviously told me to be careful and keep my wits about me. But they knew that I loved what I did.” Her parents had recently separated and, years later, Jett discovered her father used to secretly go to her gigs: “He would stand at the back and I never even knew he was there.”

In contrast to their chilly reception in the US, the Runaways were adored in Europe and, for a while, the band set up home on a houseboat in Chelsea in London. “England values rock’n’roll!” pipes up Laguna. “I mean, you guys make rock’n’roll stars knights, right? I guess we canonise our movie stars. The Sex Pistols went to No 1 with pretty raw songs in England, but in America they didn’t do anything. The Runaways had humungous hits in Japan and Scandinavia, but they weren’t even considered by most American radio stations.”

What paltry media coverage they got in the US invariably focused on their appearance and sexuality. Early in her career, Jett recalls doing an interview and being asked about sex. “And I thought to myself: ‘Well, here it is. If I answer this question, then every question will be about sex, and they’ll never talk about the music.’ I knew not to discuss my personal sex life ever – and I mean ever – in public, and not to feel bad about it. If they wanted to know about sex, it’s in the songs. It’s all there in the lyrics.” She’s not wrong: anyone curious about Jett’s sexual orientation need only pay attention to the pronouns in her version of Crimson and Clover (“Now I don’t hardly know her, but I think I could love her”). “Because you know everyone else has diarrhoea mouth now, and can’t keep it shut about what they do and who they fuck,” Jett continues. “I think rock’n’roll needs to have mystique. Especially with the way people are on social media – it doesn’t have that mysterious quality any more, which to me is tragic.”

The Runaways lasted three-and-a-half years, and Jett had a blast, travelling the world and meeting her heroes, from Ramones to Sid Vicious. But a shadow was cast on the band’s history when, in 2015, Jackie Fuchs alleged that Fowley raped her at an aftershow party while she was incapacitated on quaaludes, in full view of Currie and Jett. Fowley died six months before Fuchs went public with the allegations. Both Jett and Currie issued statements denying having witnessed the assault. Jett wrote: “Anyone who truly knows me understands that if I was aware of a friend or a bandmate being violated, I would not stand by while it happened.”

Jett with Kenny Laguna, 2018.
Jett with Kenny Laguna, 2018. Photograph: C Flanigan/Getty Images,

I ask Jett if the allegations led her to re-evaluate Fowley and her time in the band. There is a pause and she shakes her head. “I mean, Kim and I were friends. We got along, I wrote songs with him … I don’t know what else to say about it really.”

When the Runaways split in 1979, musical differences were cited, though Jett was also uncomfortable at the way the band were being marketed. A photoshoot in which Currie was seen reclining in a corset was a particular source of ire. After the band went their separate ways, Jett started drinking heavily (she’s all but teetotal now) and developed a heart infection that landed her in hospital. During her recovery, she toyed with joining the army. “I knew I could use some discipline and direction,” she reflects. Jett says she has always felt a strong kinship with soldiers, and has played shows for troops in Kuwait, Kosovo, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Puerto Rico, Oman and beyond. “I feel connected to the military because I almost joined. Like now, when you see countries [like Ukraine] really fighting for freedom, it’s very moving and I know not to take that freedom for granted.”

Jett was at her lowest ebb when she met Laguna. When I ask her if it was him that pulled her up and stopped her from self-destructing, she replies: “Absolutely. I had hope. Someone that believed in me. Nobody believed in me and all of a sudden this guy comes out of nowhere and writes songs with me. And then he hung around me and started to like me.” “Love you,” corrects Laguna gently, and Jett’s eyes suddenly fill with tears and she sniffs: “I’m getting emotional, sorry. I’m gonna put the phone down for a second. Kenny, you talk.”

Laguna reminds me that Jett was 15 when she started writing songs. “The first song she ever wrote was You Drive Me Wild. When Wanda Jackson heard it, she went nuts. She said: ‘I’ve gotta record this.’ Joan was a little kid writing this stuff. Her poetry was overlooked partly because of the electric [guitars] but also because people weren’t taking women rock’n’rollers seriously. If she’d been a guy, they’d have treated her like Tom Petty or Bob Dylan.”

Laguna and Jett still have the rejection letters from the record companies that passed on their Blackhearts demos – all 23 of them. Rather than throw in the towel, they started their own label and sold records at shows. For a time, Laguna’s Cadillac was the company office (the label is now run by his daughter and Jett’s goddaughter, Carianne Brinkman). The release of I Love Rock’n’Roll in 1982 coincided with the rise of MTV and suddenly they were everywhere. The single sold 10m copies and the band were soon playing stadiums.

Jett is back, the tears all gone. I remark that she seems to have taken several younger musicians under her wing over the years. Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, whose biggest single Rebel Girl was produced by Jett, has said she is “like family”. She is also close to Miley Cyrus, who covers Cherry Bomb at concerts, and who gave a speech thanking Jett “for fighting for our freedom” when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. “I always try to make sure that I connect with and support [young women] in any way I can,” she says. “Most of the time they’re going through the same things that I’ve been through many times over.” Despite this, talk of her legacy makes her uncomfortable. Jett doesn’t like to be put on a pedestal. “When people say “punk queen”, I’m, like, you got Patti Smith, man, you can’t compete with that. I want to be ‘a’ one rather than ‘the’ one, otherwise the only way is down. There’s this Maya Angelou quote which says: ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ I just wanna make people feel good.”

Changeup by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts is out now on Blackheart Records.

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