Joan Jett has not lived an ordinary life. From the time she was 15, she was in a band, starting with The Runaways, an all-girl rock 'n' roll group which also featured Lita Ford and Cherie Currie. When The Runaways broke up in 1979, Jett went straight to The Blackhearts, which has been together ever since. Her voice is the essence of rock 'n' roll: It can be tough, sultry, mean, and sensual all at the same time. When she sang "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" in 1981, that wasn't just a novelty or a tip of the hat to a musical genre; it was a heartfelt declaration that was as sincere as any love song. Jett is a touring workhorse, punk-rocker, godmother to all "riot grrls," glam queen, and good musician. She recently took a break from working on a new album to talk to The Onion about her recent recordings, her critics, her work with The Germs and The Gits, and more.
The Onion: How's work on the new album progressing?
Joan Jett: Well, it's slow. I guess that's the way it goes. It's progressing. It sounds great, what we've gotten done, and we're trying to stay busy. I'm still writing songs. I'm not done until it comes out. I guess that's good, the creative process.
O: Are you producing it yourself?
JJ: No. I'm definitely involved, for sure. I've always got something to say. I don't feel the need to have a credit for that. I've got enough credit on my own records. Kenny Laguna will be producing, and Ted Templeton's been doing a lot of stuff. The stuff sounds really good. It'll be out as soon as we can get it out—within the next couple of months, for sure.
O: You've done some other production stuff yourself, specifically the Circus Lupus seven-inch.
JJ: Oh, wow! I haven't really heard anyone bring that one up!
O: How do you get involved with that? Do people approach you often?
JJ: Not often, but that's the way it's happened every time I've done something. The first thing I did was The Germs in 1979, right after The Runaways broke up. I had known Darby Crash and Pat Smear for a couple years; they were big Runaways fans. I remember them telling me, "We formed a band," and I remember seeing them play all over L.A. I guess they figured I knew what I was doing, 'cause The Runaways made a few albums and I'd been in the studio. They asked me to produce it, and I had a great time. I think I did a good job. I just tried to make them sound like they did live, which is really what I try to do with anybody I produce. The next thing I did, I believe, was Circus Lupus, which was over 10 years later. That came about when I went to see them someplace in New York. They were on Dischord Records, which is Fugazi's label. [The members of Fugazi] are friends of mine, and they let me know that this great band was in town. We met and hung out, and got along really well. They were going into the studio to do a single, and they asked me if I would do it. And I said, "Yeah, I'd love to." So that's how that happened.
O: So people know you from all your incarnations and approach you for that?
JJ: Yeah, I suppose. And the Germs record was a big record for a while. I think most bands know of The Germs and know that record. If they know that, then they maybe know I produced it. Maybe that's where it came from.
O: How old were you when The Runaways broke up?
JJ: How old was I? God, I was 18.
O: How did that affect your outlook on life to have been brought up in rock 'n' roll?
JJ: It's not your average existence, for sure, being on the road since you're 15 and being verbally abused because you were being true to what you did. For playing rock 'n' roll, for chrissakes? I mean, we didn't hurt anybody. We were having a good time. To this day, it blows my mind when I think about it, how weird people were. They couldn't handle teenage girls playing rock 'n' roll. They just couldn't handle it.
O: Did the abuse come from the audience or the promoters?
JJ: Mostly it was from the press. The music fans you could get to, because they were fans. Obviously, some people are thick, and they're not gonna see what they don't want to see. If they just want to see pussy on stage, that's what they're going to see. That's all they're going to see. If they are willing to be won over… And a lot of guys were; I've gotta give them credit. People did come to the shows and say, "You know, I came to see you just because you were girls, but you rock!" Those kind of things made it worth it, because you were really reaching the people. But the press had this view of who we were, and that was it.
O: Maybe it was threatening to them to have a bunch of teenage girls joining in the rock fracas.
JJ: Well, exactly. That was exactly why they didn't want to give us any kind of life, because we were threatening. We were threatening to the status quo, and they just didn't want to have room for girls playing rock 'n' roll. It bothered them. First, people just tried to get around it by saying, "Oh, wow, isn't that cute? Girls playing rock 'n' roll!," and when we said, "Yeah, right, this isn't a phase; it's what we want to do with our lives," it became, "Oh! You must be a bunch of sluts. You dykes, you whores." That's what it became. Then it became a name-calling contest. Once that happened, we got pissed. We'd all fight back, and we were 16. We would swear. So it became a shouting contest, and the headlines were, "Runaways Guttermouths." They completely got around talking about the music by making everything sensationalistic, talking about how much we smoked or how short our skirts were. You know? I mean, that's what the articles were about—not about the music, not about how we rocked. You know what I mean?
O: It must have been hard to wage a war against the press, because they're the ones who have the last word.
JJ: Exactly. So there was nothing we could do. There were occasionally writers who were on our side. One U.S. writer in particular, Chuck Young, always gave us a fair shot. He used to write with this magazine called Crawdaddy. Some of the people in England gave us a fair shot, for the most part. We got our asses kicked all the time. It was definitely tough. The record company didn't really care enough. They weren't excited. I never really understood why they signed us in the first place. They didn't do anything except put the records out. To me, you've gotta do a little bit more than that. If you're not going to do anything, at least help us help ourselves. Give us the money to do the right promotions. Whatever. Everything was a struggle.
O: Do you still get some of that reaction today?
JJ: Well, I think at this point, a lot of people have made their mind up about me one way or another. I'm sure there's a certain segment of writers who won't ever give me the time of day, hate me, don't get me, don't think I'm good, or whatever. I guess that's fine. It's only an opinion. There are other people who do get it, and can be objective. I could be wrong, but a lot of people, except for really young people, have made up their minds one way or the other.
O: Have young people been picking up on you, discovering you?
JJ: How young are we talking?
O: Say teenagers. By then, they've been listening to rock for a while and have heard a wider variety of it.
JJ: Well, I'll tell you, I don't know how aware teenagers are of me. I think it really depends on the teenager and how well-versed in music they are and what kind of music they like. Especially since I haven't had a lot of recent huge MTV hits or huge radio hits. I have had some radio success recently, but I don't know that it's necessarily things that teenagers would have heard. I don't know how much it filters down.
O: How do you decide which cover songs The Blackhearts wind up doing?
JJ: Oh, man, usually they're just songs that I'm a fan of. To some degree, the message has to be something I can live with, something I believe in. I try to be little bit obscure, and try not to pick songs that are really obvious. I think it's fun. People might bitch about cover songs, but, hey, I write songs, too. A lot of the songs I've recorded are songs I write. But why not? I've got no ego involved here. I don't have to prove myself as a writer to myself or anyone else. I've written hit songs, and I don't have to prove anything. I think it's fun as a music fan. Even though I'm in a band, I'm a fan, too, and it's fun to be able to play some of these songs just for the hell of it. If it's a message that you believe in and a riff that you like, why not?
O: Is it true that you recorded 48 different versions of Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner"?
O: Will there be a "Roadrunner" double-album?
JJ: No. They're all pretty much the same. We did this thing where I actually recorded only a certain section of the song, but it was different towns or different cities. I might have even broken it down, because there's this section in the song where it says, "I'm headin' east on St. Mark's Place over to Tompkins Square Park down by the power lines." Maybe in Chicago it was, I can't remember right now, but it was probably like, "I'm headin'… wherever, on some, like, famous road there. Over to da da da da da." I did that for a lot of major cities and a lot of smaller cities. It was sort of a way to really personalize it. It was easy enough to do. It was exciting, I thought. How many times do bands do that? Hopefully, people got a kick out of it in each town when they heard it broken down like that.
O: It must have been a pain in the ass to go over it 48 times.
JJ: It was kind of fun, because I only had to do each one once. I got on the phone with a radio person from each place, and we talked about the streets and the places. It wasn't boring or a pain in the ass. I pretty much wrote the stuff down and did it in one take. It was fun.
O: Do you think you'll ever perform with Evil Stig [the band consisting of The Gits and Jett minus Gits frontwoman Mia Zapata, who was murdered in Seattle in 1993] again?
JJ: Man. I don't know. It's so hard to say. First of all, it's not like it's just my thing where I make the decisions and say, "I wanna play, guys. Let's do it." This was something that came together out of a tragedy. I think that if there was a reason to, if we could make some money, if we could find Mia's killer… You know, there's a lot of ifs. I just don't know. I certainly wouldn't say, "No, it's not possible," but there's certainly nothing in the works. There hasn't been any discussion of it. I'm in touch with these guys. I speak to them from time to time, but we haven't spoken about doing any shows.
O: Has there been any progress in the Mia Zapata investigation?
JJ: Not that I know of. I think it's still at a dead end. I don't know that they still have a private investigator on it. I know that if something had happened, in any way, I would have heard about it.
O: Who do you like in rock 'n' roll right now?
JJ: I'm a big fan of Fugazi, and also a band on their label called Lungfish. It's very intense. Very rock 'n' roll. When I use "rock 'n' roll," I don't necessarily mean Chuck Berry rock 'n' roll. And I love Bikini Kill. God, I leave so many people out when I do this. I just got turned on to this all-girl band out of Palo Alto, California, called The Donnas.
O: Oh, yeah. They're probably about 18 or so…
JJ: Yeah, and I think they're great. All kinds of stuff.
O: "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" really catapulted you into the limelight. How did that change you and the band?
JJ: I don't know how it changed the band so much. It just changed the level at which we did things. Instead of traveling in a beat-up van, we were traveling in a tour bus or jets. It changed the level that we did everything at. It was definitely a mindfuck. I wouldn't change it for anything. The experience was incredible. A lot of it was really intense, and scary, and weird, and nasty, and people treat you funny. You become a product, which is very strange. I went from being so low in the gutters to being so up there, going to number one and being able to turn around and say, "Ha ha." I mean, I didn't want to do that too much, and I didn't. But I felt it. You don't want to laugh too much, because you know it could all be over in a second.
O: And you don't want that to come back and haunt you.
JJ: Yeah, right. You don't want to have bad karma. It's not that I want anyone else to suffer just because people were assholes to me, but I want people to recognize it. Also, you have to realize that shit is ultimately fleeting, and that people who don't have respect for you or don't like you aren't all of a sudden going to like you because you have a number-one record. It's not going to make any difference to them, and they might like you less. It really doesn't matter, and ultimately, you have to take it for what it's worth, which is that it was a really special record at a really special time. Not many people get to have a record that's number one for two months. That was great. I got to be on a lot of big tours, and I got to go around the world a few times. We were real busy, which I liked. I like to work hard, and I like to play live, so it's lucky that I like that stuff, because that's what we did. I think on another level, unless you're really cautious, it's easy to lose touch with everything because of the workload, because you're always on the move, because you're never home, because people blow smoke up your ass to your face and then turn around and say things behind your back. This is reality. It's what happens. When you're living that kind of life, you don't know how to live what would be more of a traditional sort of life, like cooking for yourself, or window-shopping. Those are the kind of things I've been learning how to do over the past several years. I never did that stuff. My life, since I was 15, has not been what most people's lives are. It's hard for other people to understand, because that's not their reality. To even talk to somebody about it, they can listen to you, but they may not be able to relate because they haven't lived it. How can they possibly understand?
O: You'll always have the people who say, "Yeah, it must be hard having a number-one hit and flying to shows."
JJ: Believe me, I had a blast. I'm not complaining at all. Not at all. For the most part, I had a blast. Like anything, it's not like it's all fun-and-games, and all easy, and all accolades. Nothing is like that. That is the bullshit we get sold when we're young: that you grow up and you find a mate and you're happy ever after and you get a job and you retire and life is good, and that's not really what happens at all. Life is painful and it's joyful. That's the part that we finally realize getting older. That's why people escape with drinking and drugs, because life is painful. Or they escape into sex, or they escape into all sorts of places.
O: Do you ever wonder what your life would be like if you hadn't done rock 'n' roll?
JJ: Well, I don't really wonder. I just figure that if I didn't do this, I probably would have gone into sports.
O: What sport do you favor?
JJ: It's hard to say. I grew up playing baseball and things like that, but I don't see any professional women's baseball. It's exciting to see that they have women's basketball now; the women playing hockey in the Olympics and winning gold is really exciting. Little girls will realize that they can grow up and do that. I don't know what I would have done. It doesn't matter now. I probably would have wanted to do something like that.
O: Do you think you're ever going to act again?
JJ: Yeah, I'd love to. It's just a matter of getting offered the roles. I just did a film last year called Boogie Boy. It should be out some time soon. It was just at the film festivals. It will be out either late spring or early summer. I play a musician. It's a small part; I just have a few scenes. It was fun. I'd love to do more acting. We'll just wait and see what comes my way.
O: Do you ever talk to any of your former bandmates from The Runaways?
JJ: We've spoken a bit over the years, and I'm sure I'm going to be speaking to them a bit more. I want to get together and rehash some of that stuff, because we had a good time. In fact, I was gonna speak to Lita [Ford] today, but I haven't gotten a hold of her yet. It's nice that we still can talk.