She may consider it “about the dumbest thing I’ve ever done,” but Joan Jett‘s 1982 “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh, Yeah)” video has finally proven its worth. When Beavis and Butt-head salivated over Jett’s bikini- and-raincoat-clad hard-body in the clip, it exposed her (huh-huh) to a generation of fans whose idea of an oldie is “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And if some still see her as a ’80s time traveler, Our Lady of the Perpetual Power Chord has other ideas.
On a bitterly cold winter afternoon, Jett (now 33) is ensconced in a midtown Manhattan studio, cementing an unholy alliance. She’s eagerly playing back some new songs for two members of the riot-grrrl progenitors Bikini Kill, whose leader, Kathleen Hanna, co-wrote three songs on Jett’s new (as yet untitled) album, due out in late spring. The Jett-Hanna composition “Spinster” rips from the boombox with alarming ferocity, and the coupling makes total sense. Jett’s don’t-bore-us-get-to-the-chorus ethos is reinforced by this punky injection of life force, and in this company her gum-chewing, perma-teen sneer takes on an almost political edge.
Despite appearances, Jett’s riot-grrrl collaboration is no cynical grab for credibility. It’s part of a love affair with the Lollapalooza generation that flowered when Jett left Epic Records two years ago. Although her rather prosaic album Notorious performed decently for the label, both parties agreed to call it a day, freeing up Jett to release her early albums (and a handful of other titles) through her own Blackheart imprint. (Ownership of her master tapes was a typically savvy move by Jett, who also wields an impressive stock portfolio.)
During the time Jett was working on the Blackheart projects, she underwent the “religious experience” of seeing L7 co-headlining with Fugazi at a benefit show. She started attending more alternative shows, looking on from the mosh pit as a new generation of distaff rockers took center stage, redefining gender roles in a way that her own first band, the Runaways, never quite managed to do.
“Back then everyone was waiting for us to take our clothes off,” says Jett of her teen punk posse. “Today women are making sexual statements all over the place: Women bands are taking their tops off and writing slogans on themselves, whatever. When we were playing, there was no support – moral or otherwise. It was us against the world.”
Their fight may not have been in vain, since many of the female musicians that Jett was admiring from the mosh pit acknowledged her as a guitarist-singer role model. A kind of mutual admiration society resulted, with L7 substituting for Jett’s longtime band, the Blackhearts, at a pro-choice benefit, in L.A., and Bikini Kill falling her to produce their “Rebel Girl” single after hearing “Activity Grrrl,” her three-chord tribute to them.
At one Babes in Toyland show in New York City, a Warner Bros.’ A&R man spotted Jett and made the connection between her and the current crop of female musicians. He signed Jett and put her to work on her new album. In addition to the Jett-Hanna collaborations, the LP features songs co-written with Babes’ Kat Bjelland and Donita Sparks of L7. Hanging out with these new-punk types has, says Jett, given her a refreshing blast of the spirit of ’76 – up to a point. “There is the same sense of community there was, but back then so many people were high,” she says. “I’m not so sure if that’s the case now; the bands I’m around certainly aren’t.”
Schooled as Jett was during Los Angeles’ rampant glam-rock era, it’s difficult to imagine her partying with the ascetic Bikini Kill, no matter how well they jell musically. “I did most of the talking,” she says. “I gotta maybe teach them some jokes or something.”
One scene that defies the imagination is Bikini Kill’s PC Kathleen Hanna swapping licks with golden-tressed tunesmith Desmond Child (Michael Bolton, Aerosmith). “Put all your expectations aside – it’s really good,” says Jett, whose other pragmatic writing pick was Bryan Adams sidekick Jim Vallance.
“Things work in cycles,” says Jett. “I feel it’s a good time right now. I’ve got so much energy, I could do back flips right now.” Did she say back flips? Beavis and Butt-head will definitely be impressed.
This story appeared in the March 24, 2994 issue of Rolling Stone.