Sunday, November 11, 2007

Joan Jett still loves rock'n'roll

Kenny Laguna, an affable fiftysomething with hair like spun sugar and the air of a man who has been around the music business just a tad too long, has a theory about why Joan Jett isn’t the global rock superstar she once looked like being. “It's a game,” he suggests, “that Joan doesn’t know how to play.” Beside him on the sofa, the 49-year-old singer and guitarist he has managed and produced for a quarter of a century puts it more succinctly. “I don’t kiss the ring,” she says.

Jett is famous primarily for two things: she helped found the LA all-girl punk band the Runaways in 1975, co-writing their biggest song, Cherry Bomb. And in 1982, with her new group, the Blackhearts, she had an international No 1 hit with I Love Rock’n’Roll, going on to sell 10m copies of the album of the same name.

In America, she tours almost constantly, to a fan base made up equally of people who have been with her from the early days and newer converts turned on by the props given to her pioneering work by acts – the Distillers, Juliette and the Licks, the Donnas – who arrived in her wake.

In Britain to tour with Alice Cooper and Motörhead (now there’s a bill), Jett also has an album to promote: Sinner is her first UK release of new material for more than 15 years. She doesn’t seem at all bothered by no longer being the huge star she once was. What riles her is the difficulty she believes still exists in getting rock music made by women to a mainstream audience. “It’s virtually been at a standstill since the Runaways,” she says. “And I can’t figure it out. It baffles me what the threat is to people from girls playing guitars.” She’s uncompromising about the purity of the music she makes and admits that might be part of the problem. “I don’t really aspire to go further outside of what I do; I like three-chord rock’n’roll, I’m not going to experiment. So I box myself in.”

It’s not, she says, that there aren’t offers – to do all sorts of things. But she learnt early on, when the Runaways’ manager, Kim Fowley, tried to market the band as amoral jailbait with only a passing acquaintance with the instruments they played, that such things can come back and bite you. “I didn’t realise at the time,” she laughs, “that that was a fight I couldn’t win.”

A victory of sorts came later, when she stuck to her guns; and, despite dwindling record sales, she still sells out tours back home. “It’s never really a case of having to debate, ‘Well, do I sell out or don’t I?’ There’s no question. It’s not me.”

“Joan’s never had the need to be more famous,” Laguna chips in. “She’s a part of pop culture. I Love Rock’n’Roll is No 27 in the Billboard all-time top 100, up there with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and White Christmas. She’s a cultural phenomenon – a woman playing pure rock’n’roll, singing to hard guitars. Who has done that since?”

On the song Five, which Jett co-wrote way back in 1999 with Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna, she rages against the celebrity-hounding press. By keeping her head low, Jett has avoided the treatment dished out to others. “I don’t cater to it,” she says. “A lot of the people who get treated like that, there’s something sensational about them. If I was stumbling drunk out of clubs all the time, my picture would be in the press too.” The times she appears tend to be when there is fresh speculation about her sexuality. A recent spike occurred with the video for her new version of the Sweet’s ACDC – already a fairly provocative choice of cover. Starring the actor and glamour model Carmen Elec-tra (who had confessed to having had a long-time crush on Jett), it led to an explosion of rumours that – you can guess this, can’t you? – the pair were lovers. Jett has for a long time refused to discuss the issue head-on. “I won’t define it like that: this is what I do do, and this is what I don’t. I demand to be able to sing to everybody. When I want to sing a song about sex, or love – what, all of a sudden half the audience is cut out? Or I go, ‘I’m going to sing about President Bush now, so anyone here who’s on the right can’t listen, because you won’t understand’?”

Sinner’s lead track is Riddles, which samples Donald Rums-feld’s infamous “unknown unknowns” speech. It sounds like a single, I suggest. Laguna, whose extraordinary CV includes collaborations with Andy Warhol, Dar-lene Love and Jonathan Richman, sighs. “There are these scientist types, you give them a few thousand dollars and they analyse a song – they probably use electrodes, for all I know – and they came up with Riddles as a hit. We’d been working on the track for years, but, just as we release the album, everyone puts out an antiwar song.”

Jett is more committed than that: she has been putting on concerts for troops posted abroad for years now. “We actually go into war zones,” she says. The troops are, “just babies”, she observes. “It’s frightening. But the government has created such an atmosphere of fear that if you say anything against the war, it’s virtually treasonous. If all these people in Congress love the war so much, I’d like to see how many of their kids are going off there. If you really believe in it, sign up, have the draft – tax the country.”

She has never disowned the Runaways; on the contrary, she’s enormously proud of what they achieved. “We were serious. Yes, we walked a fine line. There was the thing of knowing you’re girls and wanting to use that, but not wanting to not get taken seriously, because then they can go, ‘It’s just tits and ass.’” However much they tried, though, the band by and large met with precisely that response. But, Jett argues, try to “picture five 16-year-old girls running around puritanical America.

And we were just being ourselves. It wasn’t like, ‘What can we do now to get in the press?’ We just had to show up”. Jett has dabbled in acting over the years – forthcoming film roles include cameos in Repo!

The Genetic Opera, and the splendidly titled Endless Bummer – but now there are plans for a Runaways movie that will see her played by someone else. “We want it to be as realistic as possible,” she says.

“One of the [Runaways’] mothers said to me recently,” Laguna adds, “ ‘If we’d had any idea what they were getting into, we’d never have let them go.’ She’d no idea they were going to be thrust into this dark drug world. It could only happen in LA; if they’d been from any other city, the parents would have said, ‘What, are you nuts?’ But in LA, it was like, ‘Listen, you might get f***ed, you might die of an overdose, but you could get a hit record, so do it.” Jett lets out a huge throaty laugh at this.

But she also looks as though she’s glad she came out the other side. She loves rock’n’roll (she’s touring with Motörhead, for heaven’s sake), but it’s not a cause she’s ever going to give up her life – or her dignity – for.

Sinner is released on November 19 on Blackheart Records. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ tour continues on Tuesday in Brighton.



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