Music News

Queen of Blackhearts

It's the Fourth of July at Cricket Pavilion, and kids wearing tee shirts that pledge their allegiance to every band from Anti-Flag to Less Than Jake are pressed against a makeshift stage at this year's local Warped Tour stop to see a star their parents may, in fact, have pressed against a stage to see when they were kids. She even opens with a song they more than likely would've heard that night, "Bad Reputation," its "Blitzkrieg Bop"-on-Jolt guitar riff bashed out with a recklessness that says, "This song was punk before you kids were born."

By the time she takes the mic for a well-received opening sneer of "I don't give a damn 'bout my reputation," it couldn't be more obvious that this is where Joan Jett belongs, despite those seven weeks she spent at No. 1 with "I Love Rock N' Roll," or the fact that she once played a bandmate of Michael J. Fox's in a pretty bad movie.

As Jett says, "That's the kind of music I grew up with, spiritually and musically, that sort of punk-rock, do-it-yourself aesthetic."

Jett was born in Philadelphia and spent her early childhood on the move before developing her love of rock 'n' roll in California, where her family settled when she was an impressionable 14 years old. "I had read about this club in Hollywood," she says, "called Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco, in Circus and Creem. So when my family finally moved to California, I thought, 'Great, I can finally go to this place.' So I did. And it turned me on to these amazing records — Bowie, T. Rex, things like Slade and The Sweet and Mud and Suzi Quatro, Alvin Stardust — things no American kid ever heard or referred to. I was also buying things like Black Sabbath because they had those big, fat, slow guitar chords. But I think I gravitated more to the glitter because it was more accessible, more catchy — just three-minute hooky songs with giant choruses."

By 15, she'd become a teenage Runaway, contributing the glam-punk classic "Cherry Bomb" to The Runaways' eponymous debut. The Japanese kids ate it up, but this was 30 years ago. Here in the States, we still weren't ready for a group of teenage girls whose sexuality was often as aggressive as their music. And before long, they'd imploded, leaving Jett unsigned and contemplating military service.

Fortunately, Uncle Sam got the brush-off for Kenny Laguna, who became Jett's writing partner, manager, producer and head cheerleader. Facing rejection from every major label in America, Laguna put out her debut album himself on Blackheart Records. Boasting guest appearances by Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook, and Clem Burke of Blondie, Jett's self-titled album was picked up by Boardwalk and retitled Bad Reputation for obvious reasons. But it took a second effort, I Love Rock N' Roll, to make Jett the star no major label ever dreamed she'd be.

After topping the charts for seven weeks in 1982 with "I Love Rock N' Roll" (a B-side for The Arrows that she always knew could be a major hit if done just right), she kept things rolling with career-defining covers of "Crimson and Clover" (Tommy James and the Shondells) and "Do You Wanna Touch Me" (Gary Glitter).

All three hits, Laguna likes to point out, had been right there on the demo every major label in America turned down.

The hits tapered off after "Fake Friends" and "Everyday People" the following year, although she did bounce back in 1988 with one last Top 10 entry — the unlikely Warped Tour hit "I Hate Myself for Loving You."

As Jett's learned to look at it, "After a while, they start to question your relevance." But while it hasn't spun off any comeback singles, this year's Sinner is easily Jett's strongest, most relevant album in decades, boasting an infectious, gender-bending romp through "AC/DC," The Sweet's salute to try-sexual girls, and a spirited opening track, "Riddles," that blasts the Bush administration's tendency to "speak at us in riddles."

"We've got ourselves in trouble with no relief in sight," Jett sings, "every day is such a struggle 'cause they had to pick a fight." What really makes the song, though, is the part where Jett starts running down the laundry list of euphemisms they've come up with for initiatives whose titles are the opposite of what they really do — "Clear Skies, baby! Healthy Forests! No Child Left Behind."

And if she sounds a bit too gleeful shouting "Wake up, people," well, as Jett says, "It feels good to talk about these issues. I'm just asking questions, saying, 'Hey, does anybody see what I see or am I just crazy?'"

As the kind of artist whose appeal can take her from the far left of a Warped Tour one day to the far right of a red-state county fair the next day, she knew she might be running into trouble with a certain segment of her fan base by cutting something so overtly anti-Bush. She's seen it happen in her own life, where a favorite artist or actor says something political and suddenly she feels weird liking him.

But in the end, she says, "You have to decide what's important. I write a lot about relationships, love, sex, all that stuff. I think I can devote 20 or 30 percent of the record to bigger things sometimes."

What Jett would ultimately like to see is for the song to spawn a little of the healthy dialogue we all too rarely have about those issues in a culture where, ironically, because of talk shows, we've stopped talking to each other. "I think we've got to get to a place where we can have conversations again," she says. "We're so partisan and cliquish, on both sides, the right and the left, where people are so righteous in their positions that no one's willing to listen to the other side. People are so polarized that even with a good argument on either side, you're not gonna move 'em. And I just think it's not healthy to not be able to talk at all."

Despite the profile boost that came with playing Warped, Jett hasn't had much luck at radio yet with Sinner. But any number of the songs on Sinner could be hits if given half a chance, from "AC/DC" to "Watersign," a glam-flavored ballad co-written with Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill. And while Jett is more uncomfortable than most stars when it comes to demanding attention for her own accomplishments, she's proud of this new record, and she'd like to see it have its day in court.

"I don't personally feel like I've got something left to prove," she says, "because I feel like I've done it and I can do it, but it would be nice to have people appreciate the record. And they can't do that if they never get a chance to hear it. I'd just like to get a shot. And if it doesn't work after getting a shot, that's fine. But I need a fair shot."

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Ed Masley