Monday, September 17, 2012

JOAN JETT is a Nice Girl!

Text by Julia Masi, intro by Robert Barry Francos
Interview © 1981; RBF intro © 2012 by FFanzeen
Live photo at CBGBs in 1977 © RBF; other Images from the Internet

The following article and interview with rockin’ Joan Jett was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #7, in 1981. It was conducted written by Julia Masi.

It was pretty fortunate that I got to see Joan Jett perform in the Runaways three times in New York. The first time they played in the city at CBGBs in 1976, right after the freshman album came out, the minute stage was still on the left side. The club was filled with horny record company people who were there to check out the young chicks and for the free drinks (for them, not us). Of the fan like me and Bernie Kugel who went to hear the music, only about a dozen got in, including us. We had to sit at one of the tables way in the back against the wall, while the rest of the suits didn’t really bother with the music, they just pointed and laughed. Their loss, because it was a great show.

The second and third were in 1977, and are a bit confused for me, chronologically, but if I remember correctly. I saw them next at the Palladium opening for the Ramones. Then there was CBGBs once again, with Joan Jett as solo lead singer, with the new bass player after Jackie Fox was gone. The B-Girls did a rousing opening set.

For this interview, Julia had a bit of a tussle with a management person, who did not know she was scheduled to interview her. That aside, Julia and JJ (as she’s known to her friends) got along pretty well, and Julia has some fond memories of their talk. – RBF, 2012

The press has been unkind to Joan Jett. Stereotyped as a raunchy rock’n’roll tough-girl, she’s spent most of her career as a singer, guitarist, and songwriter in combat with vicious rock writers. As the driving force behind the Runaways, she was never taken serious. And now that her solo endeavors are earning her the respect she deserves, the press is sharpening their pencils and searching for new ways to rip her to shreds.

At the Peppermint Lounge in New York City, on January 23, 1981, Joan strutted to the center of the stage. In a black spandex outfit and baseball sneakers, her white guitar obscuring her gyrating hips, she sang out in rebellion:

”I don’t give a damn about my bad reputation
You’re living in the past, it’s a new generation
I don’t care what people say I ain’t gonna change
And I don’t give a damn about my bad reputation.”

“Bad Reputation,” the title song from her solo album on Boardwalk Records, seems like a half-truth. Why should she care about a bad reputation when it has helped to make her what she is today? Posing as a “bad girl” on stage is proving to be a viable part of Joan’s appeal. Ever since she was 15 years old and took off with her first band, the Runaways, she’s known that tough girls sell records and rake teenage boys into the concert halls.

Dedicated to their music, the Runaways penned almost all of their own music, with help from their producer, Kim Fowley. Their liberated lyrics and songs, performed in raunchily style, helped them captivate Europe. In Japan, their live import album was a best seller at one time. Their Japanese success was astounding. They received three gold records and were hailed as symbols of Western women’s liberation.

But in America, their following was limited mostly to teenage boys and nasty reviewers. “The press hated the Runaways, except the ones that were fans. It’s hard to explain. They used what we said against us. They’d have their articles all written before they came to the interview.” She remembers a reviewer who “totally destroyed a Runaways album for no good reason. I’ll still beat him up if I see him,” she laughs, goofing on her tough girl façade. “Or maybe I won’t beat him up. Maybe I’ll just do something to embarrass him. Wait ‘till I’m at a party or something with a lot of people and do something to embarrass him. It all depends on what you think a tough girl is.

“People think that if you swear and drink you’re a tough girl. But that’s the way most girls are. I think the way I dress – ‘cause I have black hair, wear black leather, black eye makeup – has a lot to do with people thinking I’m a tough girl.” Although she’d rather not be photographed without the heavy make-up she dons in concerts, she is naturally quite striking. Her translucent, white skin is contrasted by dark brown eyes and straight, shaggy raven hair that falls to her shoulders. Offstage, she still prefers to wear basic black, but there is a gentleness to her manner. Her voice is softer than you’d expect and she smiles frequently. Obviously, she does care what people say because she’s gracious to her interviewer, chooses her words carefully and tries to keep the record straight.

“Oh, God! Why did they print that?” She refers to a photo layout in a popular Manhattan weekly featuring a shot of Joan and her drummer, erroneously announcing that they are newlyweds. “It’s ruining my love life. It’s a pain in the ass. And print that in big letters! I’m never getting married, man. I don’t want no paper binding me to anybody. Hopefully, I’ll fall in love, make a million dollars and run around the world with someone I love.”

Her life has been hectic ever since the Runaways disbanded in San Francisco, New Year’s Eve, 1979. Joan entered the ‘80s kicking off a variety of solo careers. She produced the debut album of a Los Angeles punk band, the Germs [the lead singer of the Germs, Darby Crash, killed himself with a drug overdose on December 9, 1981 – ed., 1981], and proved that she knew what she was doing on both sides of the studio controls. The Los Angeles Times lauded the Germs album as one of the best of the year. But Joan “can’t stand to be off the stage,” and went to Europe to record an album of her own. The album, original titled Joan Jett, is a “transition from the Runaways to building my own band.” It sports more covers than we’re used to hearing from Ms. Jett, but her voice is getting stronger and seems to fit material, like Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’ “Woolley Bully” very well.

Of course, Joan did write “Don’t Abuse Me” and co-wrote a few of the other songs on the album. And she does have a very impressive cast of characters acting as a surrogate band, such as the Sex Pistol’s Steve Jones and Paul Cook, and Blondie’s Frank Infante and Clem Burke.

Distributed solely in Europe, the album quickly caught on as one of the hottest selling imports in America. Joan was distressed to learn how much American kids were paying for the record (in some cases up to three times what it should sell for). And so in an effort to kill the import, she and her producers created Blackheart Records and brought the album to America. The Blackheart version was no sooner in the stores when the major record companies became interested in it, and now the album is available on Boardwalk Records. According to Joan, there are only minor changes on the import and the American version.

After the album was released in Central America, Joan was expected to tour. She came back to the States and recruited the Blackhearts, four Los Angeles musicians. She decided against forming another all-girl band, “Because, first of all, I could never do that. The Runaways is such a part of me that I thought it would be sacrilegious, or something like that, and we’d never get taken seriously.” The Blackhearts are being received well. “When the album came out, we did a tour of Europe, all the places where the Runaways were famous. We didn’t get the reaction we thought we would. Then we came back to America and we were getting all this radio play. It was totally the opposite of what we expected.”

Oddly enough, now that the Runaways are kaput, they seem to be attracting more of a following. “It’s amazing. I’m still trying to figure it out myself. We’re doing gigs all the time. I‘ve been seeing so many people in the last few weeks, all ex-Runaway fans who come up to me and say, ‘I’ve been a fan of the Runaways since the first album.’ And that was when, like ’76? And they’re like about 18, so I guess they were 14 years old when the album came out.” She doesn’t deny the impact her old fans have on her new career, but she doesn’t see them as the bulk of her audience. “We’re acquiring new fans. There’s such a range of people in the audience, from the very young people to middle-aged men, like in their 30s or 40s. It’s pretty weird when you see married couples in their 40s walk in. It intrigues me.” She asks, her voice almost in a whisper, “Why would they want to come see a loud rock’n’roll band?” She stops to think about it. “I hope I’m not like that.” Joan plans to still be “up on stage singing with all I’ve got.”

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