Q&A: Joan Jett on Her Big Hits and Runaways Drama

Rock's original tough gal talks being loved by Pete Townshend and scorned by Clive Davis

Joan Jett performs in Los Angeles.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Joan Jett performs in Los Angeles.
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With Twilight star Kristen Stewart portraying Joan Jett in an upcoming Runaways biopic, a new hits collection on the way and even a Christmas album on Joan Jett's Blackheart label, Rolling Stone caught up with rock's original tough gal and her longtime co-writer/manager Kenny Laguna to chat about Pete Townshend, being burned by Clive Davis and recording the perfect cover.

You've got a new Gibson signature model guitar now?
Joan Jett: I sure do. It's a Gibson Joan Jett Melody Maker. It's copied from a guitar that I've used for years and years. The Melody Maker works with me well because it's light and it's easy to handle.

Kenny Laguna: It's called a California style, they only made a very few of them. The one she bought from Eric Carmen, he had played it on those Raspberries hits. Over the years she made modifications. They're very unique, it's part of what the Joan Jett sound is. This guitar is totally backordered. They're so popular we can't even get them. We're trying to get one so we can get it to Pete Townshend, we can't even get one for Pete!

Speaking of Townshend, is it true that the who put up the money to make your first album?
Jett: Oh absolutely, yeah, we would not have been able to make that record if they hadn't helped us. They basically let us record what became Bad Reputation and [said], "Pay us when you can." Because Kenny had been friends with the Who and Bill Curbishley, who was their manager for many years. They let us come into their place and do it.

How did you wind up starting Blackheart Records to put it out?
Jett: [Laughs] Basically, when nobody wants to sign you, you don't have much of a choice. In retrospect it looks like a brilliant decision, but at the time, we wanted to get signed. We sent four songs — "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," "Crimson and Clover," "Bad Reputation" and "Do You Wanna Touch Me" — to all the labels at the time, and we still have all the rejection letters. It boiled down to printing up the records ourselves. Kenny had an infant daughter at the time, who's now running the record label, at the time he had put away some money for her college, and he took that money out to print up [the records]. We started selling these records out of the trunk of a car at the gigs, and they would sell.

Laguna: Clive Davis could have had us for nothing. We still have his letter, he said, "Joan's an interesting artist, but she would need a song search." After we had the Number One record in the world, I sent a letter to Clive saying, "If you signed Cole Porter, you'd do a song search." He never really forgave me for that, because the guy has a fragile ego.

Jett: They didn't miss one hit, they missed four.

I'm sure you haven't missed any with the new greatest-hits album that's on the way.
Laguna: We're trying to come up with at least two new songs [for the album]. But when we have to come up with a new song that compares with the huge hits that we had, that's a tall order. It's scheduled for May or June right now. And there'll be some of the hits that we kind of left behind, like the Mary Tyler Moore song ["Love Is All Around"], we did it as a favor for Women's College Basketball, and it became the number one request in the United States for two, three weeks. A lot of your hits have been covers. How does it feel to record your own version of a song you love by someone else?
Jett: It can be a really tough thing, because being a music fan you know in your head these classic records, every nuance, every guitar sound, every drum solo, every ad lib... it can be really hard in my own mind, in my fan mind, to equal the original. So you do them because you're a fan of the music, but I think being the artist, I don't feel like I've ever achieved that thing where I felt like we did it better, or even close. It's sort of a paradox, you want to do it because you love the song, but you know that you can never equal the song. It's a daunting task.

Many people don't realize one of your biggest hits, "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," is a cover.
Jett: I think I saw the Arrows' version on TV in 1976 [when I was] in the Runaways. I went to the record store and bought it... hoping that the Runaways would cover it, but it never happened, I think the other girls didn't like it too much, so I just hung onto it, hoping I'd have a chance to do it again in some fashion.

How did you feel about the way the Runaways were depicted in the documentary Edgeplay, especially in terms of the hostile relationship with manager Kim Fowley?
Jett: I've always gotten along with everyone in the band, including Kim. Kim and I were songwriting partners, we got along great. I think he is an eccentric wildman... I've seen him recently, and he is exactly like he was in 1975. I get a kick out of him, and I consider him my friend. Nobody was held hostage, if people weren't happy, they could have quit, and nobody did. So I don't know what the hell they're talking about. And that's why I didn't get involved — because it was like a big Jerry Springer thing. You know what a great movie you could make? You know how many bands we played with? You know how many people we influenced? And that is the kind of movie you're gonna make? Count me out, baby. When you want to talk about real rock & roll stuff, I'll talk.

When you're working the other side of the fence, how do you choose artists for Blackheart?
Jett: Now it's becoming something where we can give people an opportunity. And certainly girls who are having a tougher time, as I felt myself, but it's obviously not limited to girls, we're just looking for good music, bands that want to work hard. Some of the newer stuff that we have out now I'm really partial to. I'm loving the Girl In a Coma record. It's beautifully melodic, beautiful words, and sort of a dissonance to it. I just think they're extremely talented.

They're on your new holiday collection, A Blackheart Christmas, which includes your version of "Little Drummer Boy."
Jett: "Little Drummer Boy" we did long time ago. My mother was a Johnny Mathis freak, so at Christmas time, that Johnny Mathis Christmas album always came out. I guess I kind of always gravitated to the "Drummer Boy," maybe it was the rock & roll thing or something. I want to pick a different song to do [next time]. I prefer to sing a non-religious Christmas song like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" or something like that.

Laguna: We'll sign you up for that one, Joan!

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