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Joan Jett on 20 Years as Rock's Toughest Woman

"Why does society have a problem with strong women — women who know what they want and don't have to ask, 'Can I do this?'"

November 13, 1997 12:00 AM ET

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 773 from November 13, 1997 . This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story . Not a member and want to learn more? Go to our Rolling Stone Plus benefits page .

In 1976, Joan Jett was a black-leather-wearing 16-year-old living across the street from Los Angeles' notorious Whisky-a-Go-Go and writing songs like the classic fox anthem "Cherry Bomb." Her band, the Runaways, was the world's first hard-rocking all-female band, but the five JD-looking teenagers got jeered out of showbiz. Jett went on to form the Blackhearts, with whom she has had such hits as 1982's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," 1988's "I Hate Myself for Loving You" and 1990's "Dirty Deeds." Most recently, Jett has collaborated with members of L7, Bikini Kill and Babes in Toyland. Her forthcoming album, tentatively titled "Friend to Friend," shows her skills have been juiced by the new wave of women rockers, many of whom cite her as an inspiration.

What was your first gig like?

My first gig was with the Runaways. We did a keg party in Huntington Beach, Calif. It was at [drummer] Sandy West's house, in her rec room. There were tons of people there and tons of beer, and everybody was drunk. I was scared to death, so I think I had quite a few beers that night.

What did it feel like when your first record came out?

Incredible. Because we hadn't gotten to the point where we realized that the record label was full of shit, the press was full of shit, a lot of people weren't going to give us a chance just because we were girls. The dream was still intact. But soon, that wore off. Little problems would start to happen, with business and just people not taking you seriously. It's like if you had to go through every day being laughed at the whole time.

What were the assumptions about women in rock when you started out?

Dyke. Whore. Slut. That's all anyone focused on. The women were like, "Get away," and the men were like, "Dyke, whore, slut."

What do you think that was based on?

Let me try to explain. Say that you were a guy, and we're sitting here having drinks and talking. And you start coming on to me. You're the guy that thinks I'm a whore or a slut. But I rebuff you. So what am I now? A dyke.

Were there any advantages to being a girl when you started out?

It depends if you consider getting into the Starwood or the Whisky for free and people giving you free beers an advantage. I mean there wasn't anything that we got because we were girls that I remember in a positive sense. Everything was, "You're weaker 'cause you're girls. You can't take it because you're girls. You can't do it because you're girls. But you're cute to have around, so come in and get drunk."

Who were your role models or inspirations?

Early on, Liza Minnelli. And then when I got into the glitter stuff and I moved to California with my family, I got even more so into David Bowie, T. Rex, Sweet. Suzi Quatro was a huge thing to me, 'cause I never had seen a woman play rock & roll. And to see her with her bass, screaming, really inspired me. I thought, well, if she can do it, I can do it, and if I can do it, then there's got to be other girls out there that are thinking about doing this.

Were there any specific acts of sexism in the course of creating your work that you remember?

Yeah, I know there are, but not that I can think of. But I know they're there; I can feel them all simmering and my guts starting to churn just thinking about it.

Can you think of any specific moments when you felt alienated because you were a woman in rock & roll?

The Blackhearts were opening for the Scorpions, in 1984 or something, so we had just had a whole bunch of really big hits. We were playing in Italy and Spain. The audience, it was all guys, and they were like worked up into this frothy frenzy. They wanted to kill me. They wanted to fucking kill me — "You fucking cunt!" Violently trying to get to me, hawking lugies. I was covered in spit, and it was hanging off me, and I would sit there, and I wouldn't leave the stage. It was like, they're not going to make me leave the stage. I cried every night because I didn't understand why they hated me so much. I mean these guys would have killed me, and if they didn't kill me, they would have raped the fuck out of me. And we had to go through this for two weeks — it was horrible. And that was all about being a girl for sure, because I was like, why do they hate me so much? And they said, "Girls playing rock & roll — you shouldn't be doing this," you know.

Did you ever feel pressure to act like one of the guys, or did you want to act like one of the guys?

No, you know, I've always been a real tomboy since I was a little kid. I've always kicked boys' asses in a lot of things: games, tug of war, dodgeball. I'm not necessarily intimidated by really jocky guys. I can talk football with them, you know what I mean?

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