Joan Jett: Built to Rock

Four decades after she invented a new kind of rock star, Joan Jett still has unfinished business

Joan Jett stands at a microphone in a Manhattan recording studio, almost ready to sing. Dressed for rock & roll work in a tight gray jersey, weathered jeans and sneakers, she shakes her arms and bounces on her feet like an impatient boxer. Her jet-black hair is a riot of feathery spikes. And she has a fat, torpedolike joint hanging from her mouth. The smoking, Jett says later, loosens up the edges and range of her distinctively craggy voice.

She also has "the best shit," according to Kenny Laguna, Jett's manager, co-producer and co-songwriter for the past 35 years. "Keith Richards had some of that," he announces with a hearty laugh, as Jett rolls her number on the mixing board before the take. "Said it gave him flashbacks to 1968."

Jett is making new music today with her longtime band the Blackhearts: the title song to a forthcoming film, Miss You Already, by Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke. Written by Jett, Laguna and guitarist Dougie Needles, the track is a razor-toothed surge of guitars with a hot chorus from the same pop-smart punk-rock pocket as the records that got Jett, 56, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 18th: the 1981 New Wave anthem "I Love Rock 'N Roll"; her hit covers of Gary Glitter's "Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)" and Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover"; Jett's first solo LP, Bad Reputation; and The Runaways, her 1976 debut, at 17, with that pioneering all-teen, all-female Los Angeles band.

She still sings like a woman with unfinished business. When she steps to the mic and sings "Miss You Already," a song about loss and precious memories, her performance is feral, frayed and direct. "Great ending, great last verse!" Laguna shouts as Jett returns to the control room. She's not so sure. The two are soon bantering over pitch and timing – Laguna with the high-volume brio of a New York beat cop, Jett in a deep rasp – with the flammable affection of an old married couple, which in a way they are. Laguna has been married to his wife, Meryl, for 44 years. But he and Jett, who is single, have been creative partners since 1979. She was reeling from the collapse of the Runaways and the sexist stigma attached to the group: that girls can't rock. Laguna had a long history in Sixties pop and bubblegum as a writer, producer and keyboard player. (He's on the Ohio Express' chirpy 1968 "Yummy Yummy Yummy.")

"I give her pop," Laguna says, summing up the match. "She gives me menace."

Today, Jett is acknowledged as an inspiration for the feminist-punk riot-grrrl movement, and her name is an established shorthand in fashion. "I've heard it from designers," Jett says, "people on runway shows: 'Let's do Joan Jett,' for makeup and hair." In the 2010 biopic The Runaways, Jett was played by Twilight actress Kristen Stewart. (The film was based on a memoir by singer Cherie Currie, but Jett was an executive producer.) And Miley Cyrus, a fan and now friend of Jett, has covered the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb" in her show.

Now Jett is entering uncharted territory for a woman in her line of aggression: that age when male elders like the Rolling Stones and the Who pass into rugged gravitas. She's come to this interview — in the living room of Laguna's Long Island home, a short drive from her own near the ocean — from a physical-therapy session. Jett recently had an operation on her right shoulder. She mentions other "guitar-playing wear and tear," including surgeries on her left hand and knee. But Jett attends to her health. She calls herself "close to vegan" and says of alcohol, "I'll have an occasional drink, but I don't drink."

She works with the same rigor. Jett was on the road with Heart earlier this year, and her current tour with the Who goes into November. "People look at women differently," Jett says irritably. "Men are viable into old age. Women all of a sudden become matronly? C'mon, man!"

Jett is the same age as Madonna but rarely used flirtation or sexual controversy to get noticed. In the Runaways, a band pitched as glam jailbait by late producer-manager Kim Fowley, Jett showed the least skin; she was typically seen in red leather or basic black, neck to ankle. The most sensual thing about Jett, even now, is the commanding gaze of her brown, wide, almond-shape eyes.

"I made a point in the Runaways not to play up the sexuality," Jett says, turning on that stare full-blast. "The Stones, guys like that, can be more in-your-face. But there was a mystique about David Bowie — you think you know, but you're not sure. That's a fuck of a lot sexier than putting it all out there. Do your thing, play your music." Jett's voice rises with emphasis. "People will think that's sexy." 

Jett is at once blunt and sly about her own sexuality. "All-inclusive," she says, then smiles and laughs. "These days, everybody writes about everything. They feel they have the right to know." Her smile gets thinner. "It goes back to that thing about not being bullied, not being told what to do. In fact, if you tell me what to do, I'm gonna put up a wall just because you tell me to do it."

Jett is an intriguing bundle of moods in conversation — warm, funny, reflective, challenging, proud — depending on the subject. She is mostly frank and often physically exuberant in making a point. When I mention that I saw the Runaways live in the late Seventies, opening for the Ramones, Jett looks up intently. "C'mon, did we play bad?" No, I say.

"We played great!" she counters. "I don't know if it was some sort of proving ground for guys, that they had to say the Runaways sucked or that meant you were gay. You see those famous pictures of Led Zeppelin . . ." Jett jumps out of her chair and strikes a 1973-Robert Plant pose, complete with a hand on her crotch. "But if a girl does that, it's whore, slut, whore, slut.

"Maybe it's my parents' fault for telling me when I was five, 'You can be anything you want,' " she says. "Other girls can give up. I get it. People can be rude. But I feel like I was in it for life."

Jett is more reserved, less certain, talking about her influence and legacy. "I have a tough time seeing it," she insists, at a much softer volume. "I'd feel conceited: 'Hey, that's my footprint.' "

Dave Grohl can sum it up for her. He remembers standing with her and Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear at a European festival, watching Iggy Pop and the Stooges. "In that moment," Grohl says, "I understood this lineage" — Iggy's influence on Jett and the Runaways; her support of the L.A. punk scene that produced Smear's first group, the Germs, and Stooges bassist Mike Watt; and their effect, in turn, on Grohl's other band Nirvana. "None of that would have happened without Joan as a rung on the ladder."

"You gotta put the Runaways at the same level as the Ramones and the Sex Pistols," Smear maintains. "They were doing in L.A. what those guys were doing in New York and London: getting kids to join bands. But I don't think Joan gets what people feel about her. Because she is a very modest person."

Joan Jett was born Joan Marie Larkin in a Philadelphia suburb on September 22nd, 1958. She was calling herself Joan Jett before the Runaways, when she became a nightly fixture at Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco on Sunset Boulevard in 1974. The crowd at the all-ages glam-rock club, hosted by the L.A. disc jockey, was "the equivalent of social-media stars," Jett says, citing one Chuck E. Starr. "He had big platform boots, fishnets, a Bowie haircut. I thought, 'If I'm going to have a phony name, what would it be? Joan Jett! And it's gotta be a double-t.' "

Jett has been her legal surname since the early Eighties. "It could have just been my desire to be me," she says, but acknowledges, "as I get older, after the passing of my parents, I realize, 'What if I go back?' "

She is the oldest of three children. Her father sold insurance; her mother was a secretary. The family moved often: in western Pennsylvania, then to Maryland — where Jett saw her first concerts, by Black Sabbath and the New York Dolls — and, when she was 13, to Los Angeles. "Then my parents divorced," Jett says, "which was traumatic." Playing guitar and going to Bingenheimer's club were her solace.

"Her hair was lighter, kind of brownish-blond," recalls Bingenheimer. "She didn't dress glitter — basically rock & roll, leather coat and jeans." And Jett didn't dance, the DJ points out. She listened to the music.

Jett started the Runaways in 1975 with drummer Sandy West after Fowley introduced the two. At first a power trio, the best-known lineup included Currie, guitarist Lita Ford and bassist Jackie Fox. "He gets a bad rep as a manipulator," Jett says of Fowley, who died at 75 in January and cultivated a polarizing aura — seedy pop genius sold with supercharged hype — over five decades in the music industry.

"He liked to put people off guard," she goes on. "If he walked into a room . . ." Jett jumps out of her chair again and does a fantastic imitation of Fowley's predator-stork stride, a flurry of karate chops and ninja kicks. "But isn't that what rock & roll is? Cool and dangerous?" Jett, who spoke at Fowley's memorial service, notes that he was her first songwriting partner — they composed "Cherry Bomb" for Currie's audition — and the two "shared the same mission statement: 'Take over the world.' " But "if there was something I didn't want to do, there was no way in hell." 

Jett and Laguna met in August 1979 at an L.A. session for a leftover Runaways project. Laguna, a New York native who grew up in an artistic household (Leonard Bernstein was a family friend), was used to assembly-line methods. He told Jett to wait outside while he cut the basic track with studio musicians. She told him different.

"She goes, 'No fucking way — I'll play on the track or there won't be a record,' " Laguna remembers with a proud laugh. "I dug that. So we make the record" — a song ominously called "You Don't Know What You've Got," which appeared on Bad Reputation. Laguna and Jett formed their own label, Blackheart Records, after 23 other companies turned that album down. Jett also joined Laguna's family. When he brought Jett to New York to relaunch her career, she took an apartment next to his and helped care for Kenny and Meryl's infant daughter, Carianne. When Carianne was five, the Lagunas moved to a house on Long Island; Jett had her own floor and drove Carianne to school in a black Jaguar. "Joan lived with us," she recalls, "until I was 14, 15."

Carianne is now 35, married and in the family business, co-managing Jett and the label. She says Jett "taught me throughout my life to be what you are. You could be in 10-inch heels and dress like Ziggy Stardust. And you can be the most maternal woman." Jett is the godmother to Carianne's two-year-old daughter, Zoe.

Asked if she ever considered having children of her own, Jett sighs. "As I grew up, I thought about what it would mean," she says. "But I was too focused on my own situation. If you want to call that selfish, fine. But at least I know it." Jett gestures around the Lagunas' living room with a broad smile. "I have family. And I get by."

Jett characterizes a normal day, off the road, like this: "Nothing." She pauses. "If I can help it." She cooks, watches TV and surfers on the beach, and mothers her two cats. Jett imagines that if she ever left active rock & roll duty, "I'd work at the animal shelter. Or I kick back on my royalties, just be out in nature."

That time is not imminent. Jett sees no difference between her teenage rock & roll desires and her working life. "It was about being onstage," she says. "It feels like a dream realized. It comes with hard knocks." But, she adds brightly, "It's awesome. And I feel blessed."