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Joan Jett: 'How dare you tell me what I can and can’t do?'

So many people were threatened by Joan Jett's strength and talent. Misogynists tried to scare her off, but she was unbowed – and blazed a trail for all the rock'n'roll women who followed

US rock'n'roll great Joan Jett

Joan Jett. Image: Camera Press/Chris McAndrew

Joan Jett was born in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, in September 1958. Her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 12 years old. Within three years, she had formed her first band and was performing around town. Her parents divorced not long after the move, at which point she began using her stage name.

At 16, Jett became a founding member of The Runaways, playing lead guitar, providing vocals and sharing songwriting with fellow members Cherie Currie, Lita Ford and Sandy West. They travelled the world and built up a devoted fanbase while releasing four studio albums, and are best known for the 1976 banger, Cherry Bomb.

After The Runaways broke up, Jett started working with songwriter and producer Kenny Laguna, who would go on to be her manager and best friend. Together they put together a new band, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. Laguna and Jett have collaborated on all her releases since, including Bad Reputation, I Hate Myself for Loving You and the 1981 US no 1 hit, I Love Rock’n’Roll.

Joan Jett & the Blackhearts were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. She has been named as an influence by generations of artists including riot grrls Bikini Kill, The Distillers’ Brody Dalle and Miley Cyrus.

Speaking to The Big Issue for her Letter to my Younger Self, Jett explains how she overcame the sexists who tried to scare her away from music, and what it felt like to be lauded by her heroes David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Robert Plant.

My parents told me when I was five years old I could be anything in life I wanted to be. And I believed them. I wanted to be an astronaut or an archaeologist. I wanted to be all these things before I landed on musician.

At 16, I had already decided that I wanted to be in an all-girl band. Which I knew, to a degree, was going to be difficult. But the absolute joy in trying to accomplish that – and actually accomplishing it [Jett formed The Runaways when she was 16, they released their debut single, Cherry Bomb, when she was 18] – really outweighed any sort of danger warning signs that should have been flashing in my brain. I thought that people would love 16-year-old girls playing rock’n’roll, that it would be an instant hit. I didn’t see how people could look down on that. And then I got a rude awakening to what certain aspects of America were really about.

Very quickly, once people realised we were serious about it, the name calling started. Not just little names, but really hurtful names: cunt, bitch, dyke. And that’s meant to scare you to death. It did scare me to death. And I’m sure it scared all the girls to different levels. But what it also did was it hardened me. I just was incensed at the principle. How dare you tell me what I can and can’t do?

Joan Jett in 1975 - she'd just joined The Runaways
1975 Posing for a pic in Los Angeles in the year her band The Runaways form. Image: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

I would go backstage and cry after shows. Because I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand the hatred, for just playing music. You know, if you don’t like it, don’t watch it. But there was something about it that was a spectator sport. I was starting to realise that maybe it was going back to the days when people used to be killed in the town square, hanged or stoned. And I started to feel like that’s what this was, on a different level. It was a way for certain people in society to voice their displeasure at what we are doing.  

When the interviews started coming in, they would start asking sex questions. I realised in that moment: Joan, if you answer this question, they’re never going to ask you another question about music again. It’s over. So you can’t ever make it about sex. Sex is inherent in rock’n’roll. But they didn’t think we knew anything. So it was very interesting, sparring with people through that time.

What I would tell my young self is that people feel threatened by strong women. And that’s been the case, not just since America was around, but for thousands of years. That’s just reality. So people use these words to hurt you on purpose, to try to get you to stop. So I would tell my young self, take it all with a grain of salt. It’s meant to do exactly what it’s doing to you: hurt your feelings. It’s not to help you in any capacity, to steer you in what they feel is a proper direction. They’re just trying to get you to stop. 

I kept going because I wanted to make it easier for the next girl. Because I knew I had already thrown in my lot. This was what I was there for: to make things easier. And this is not to set myself up as any kind of martyr or anything. It’s like: you’re the universe’s instrument, so to speak. And if I give up, then everything my parents told me about how I could do anything: either they lied, or I don’t have the fortitude. And I just don’t believe that. 

Really the thing that kept me going was the fact that I had other people to fight with me. I don’t know that it’s doable if you’re utterly alone. I think most people who succeed at anything always have somebody to support them, somebody to tell them: you’re not crazy. And I had a variety of people: friends, my family, the other girls in The Runaways. 

Once The Runaways broke up, I didn’t know who was going to help me. I was lucky enough, blessed enough, to be in the right place at the right time. My manager at the time, Toby Mamis, knew a guy named Kenny Laguna, who was a songwriter, a producer, a musician who had been in a lot of ’60s bubblegum bands. At his wife’s urging, he came out from New York to meet me to write songs in Los Angeles. And we hit it off immediately, and kind of became best friends right away. I asked him to produce the songs we wrote together. He helped me put together a band, but nobody wanted to deal with me on any level. Nobody wanted to manage me, and so he got stuck doing all of it! [Joan Jett and the Blackhearts would go on to have hits with I Love Rock’n’Roll, Bad Reputation and I Hate Myself for Loving You. They still tour and record, on Jett and Laguna’s label Blackheart Records.]

Runaways Lita Ford, Jett and Cheri Curry with Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant in Hollywood.
1976 From left: Runaways Lita Ford, Jett and Cheri Curry with Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant in Hollywood. Image: Mark Sullivan/Contour by Getty Images

My younger self would find it crazy that literally two years from being in my bedroom listening to Led Zeppelin on my turntable, I would have a picture of Robert Plant wearing a Runaways T-shirt, standing with me and [Runaways singer] Cherie both wearing Runaways T-shirts. Or that David Bowie came to see The Runaways, not just The Runaways but came to see the Blackhearts too, with Freddie Mercury standing side stage. I was so petrified because we were opening for Queen. I couldn’t even go up to those idols of mine. 

Oh man, every day, I think about my parents [Jett’s father died in 2007, her mother died in 2010]. I think about the deep conversations we’d have about the world. They lived through very horrible times in their lives, you know. World War II, the Great Depression. I think, just by the way they were, I learned how to be. They were hard workers. They didn’t make excuses for anything. I would have never known that we would probably, in today’s terms, be considered lower middle class. I picked up a lot of things from my parents early on, and then they broke apart when I was 13. Which is when I kinda went, OK. I’m out of here too. 

They were both very, very, very proud of my success. My dad used to make fun of it: what are you listening to that racket for? But, I found out later on, he came to a lot of Runaways shows. I had no idea at all. 

I am 100% shaped by my upbringing. I think, to most people, my parents would seem like average parents. But the thing I didn’t know – and I’m gonna get very emotional, I can’t help it – my mom had three miscarriages before me. And so I kind of feel like I have four people inside of me, because I’ve got all those souls in one.

She would always say to me, you’re my favourite. And she’d say it within earshot of my brother and sister. And that killed me. At the same time, it made me feel great. It’s like, ‘You got two other kids standing here, mom, how can you say that to me? I know you’re happy I was born and then I wasn’t the fourth miscarriage. But come on.’

So, there are parts of me that wanted to go, Mom, what are you doing? Like smack her across the face, like she did me when I threw down some earmuffs that her best friend gave me when I was five. I didn’t like them because I was a tomboy. I didn’t want some rabbit earmuffs. She said, ‘How dare you? You never, never treat people like that. You always be kind and say thank you.’ And I never did anything like that again. Those little things stick with you. 

It’s hard to do, to go back to when I was 16. But one big thing I would add is: be present. Kids always want to move on to the next exciting thing, and I get it. But be present, man. Important moments can be great, and they can also be devastating and sad, but they all build who you are as a person. You can feel better about losing because you know it’s building your character. People who don’t lose anything, they don’t know even the meaning of winning. And those are all important distinctions to be able to make. Especially as a young person, forming who you’re going to be for the rest of your life.

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ new digital EP Mindsets is out now. joanjett.com

@laurakaykelly

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop. The Big Issue app is available now from the App Store or Google Play

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