Interview: Joan Jett, Queen Of Noise

She talks about what she really learned in The Runaways, her exercise regime, and how she almost kicked Rush's ass.

By , Contributor

Joan Jett, former Runaway, leather-clad style icon, and Queen of Noise for all time has proven that her domain extends much further than the CD player. Not only has the feisty singer appeared on the silver screen and toured army bases in the Balkans during the skirmish in the former Yugoslavia at her own expense. She has also traveled to India, reads weighty texts like Conversations With God, and not only recorded with Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook, but produced the first Germs album, the fierce punk band that launched Pat Smear and Darby Crash on an unsuspecting world.

She tells The Morton Report what exactly is so threatening about a girl with a guitar, talks about her feuds with Rush and Molly Hatchet, whether she deserves her “Bad Reputation,” and whether or not she’s "Joan Jett" all the time.

You're the first female rocker to succeed in traditionally male territory. How have you managed while others have given up? What has kept you going?

I think maybe the belief that it still mattered, in some way — that rock and roll could change your life. Not making it more than it is, but a song can just hit you at a certain time in life. Or it could be a TV show, it could be a movie, something that just struck you and gave you courage and energy to continue following your dream. I just always thought rock and roll stood for something. What, I'm not quite sure! Anymore, anyway. But a certain integrity, I suppose, just being true to your own self, and that it allows you enough freedom that someone can be who they are and be completely different than who I am when I'm being me. And enough room for everyone to be who they are.

What song spoke to you the most when you were a kid?

That's kinda tough. It's always hard to find one song that's sort of defining, because certainly through all those early teenage years there were many, many songs that I loved, whether it was just the guitar sound that I liked, or the style of the song. I mean there's a million songs that struck me. But I think maybe if I was gonna choose one time period or artist, maybe I'd say the mid-'70s glitter scene, because it was so different than what most teenagers were hearing.

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And I just happened to be lucky enough to be living in the Los Angeles area at the time, and I had read about a club that was happening in Hollywood called Rodney's English Disco. And they played all the records that kids over here never heard, things that were happening in England at the time, which was three-minute, very guitar/rhythm-oriented, big choruses, gang vocals. That was the style, and Bowie, Gary Glitter, Mud, Sweet, Suzy Quattro — a bunch of bands that I got turned onto at that time. But if I had to pick one I'd probably say David Bowie. The whole, Ziggy Stardust record was about someone trying to aspire to be a star. So I could relate to a lot of the lyrics.

They say novelists write the same book in different ways. Do you see one theme in your songs?

Sex is always the theme in my songs. Or has been. It could be a straight-up sex song, it could be just about falling in love, falling out of love, or that being in love sucks. I think that one theme, unfortunately - or fortunately - is the undercurrent of sexuality, or just sexualness.

Do you think you grew into that or was the sexuality there from the very beginning?

You know me from the Runaways phase, and the thing about the Runaways was that the press so much keyed on the girl aspect. In hindsight, obviously, but there was an undercurrent of sexuality, but it wasn't that we owned it. It was some kind of freak show or something. Like everybody was waiting for us to do something outrageous, but not because it was good for us, just because it was good for them.

You’ve said a few years that if you had a reunion with the Runaways, the worst thing would be if you all did get along and decided to go out on the road again. Why would that be so terrible?

To just to have taken so much crap the first time around, and people being curious and never having seen it, and then doing it again just for whatever reason we’d do it, and then having people say, "See? That's why they didn't make it," or "Look at these old broads trying to recapture their youth." It's more the idea that was so revolutionary, and still is, because it's still not a mainstream thing, seeing girls playing hard rock and roll. My theory is that rock and roll is a very sexual thing. And to allow girls playing rock and roll means that they're being blatantly sexual. And in America, girls and women aren't allowed to be. That's why you still don't see it. The pop thing is huge, but people love the illusion of that rock rebel thing. It's a little bit dangerous. So therefore now all these people rock. You know what I mean? When they're using a descriptive word, they use the word rock, and that's very offensive to me.

joan-jett-guitar.pngYou once asked "What's so threatening about a girl with a guitar?" But it's because it is sexual.

You know, I don't understand what's threatening about a girl being sexual. Give her the tools, and she's an enlightened person. Keep her in the dark and she's a pregnant 14-year-old. That’s what we are. We're a shamed country. We hide everything.

What do you think your greatest strength is?

Not even knowing that the possibility that you can't succeed exists. It’s not even in the realm of reality. I don't know where that comes from. I don't know if that's just being reinforced as a child, being told by my parents that I could be anything I wanted to be, and doing it at such a young age. And, because the fact that I was able to be in a band, you know, I just figured, well, I'm doing it. There's no reason I can't do it. I'm a big person on logic. You know, there's no logical reason why girls shouldn't be able to do this, or I shouldn't be able to do this, or I should stop doing this if I'm still enjoying myself.

Are you Joan Jett all the time, or are you able to turn it off? It seems as if you’re always on tour.

Oh, totally. I've been on the road for so long, I'm finding that when I'm home, I enjoy just being home. It's not like I'm going out every night. I'm not going out to clubs. It's not like I live across from the Whiskey A-Go-Go. But I just try to enjoy other aspects of my life, I guess because I've immersed myself so much in my career and on the road and just kinda with my head down and just chugging forward, that all of a sudden, I looked around and went, "I don't know New York. I don't know my friends. I want to spend time with my animals." So when I am home, I'm viciously protective of my space.

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What would surprise people about you? What do you do in your spare time?

Well, I ride my bike on the boardwalk. I just shuffle around town. I spend time at the beach, or go cat food shopping. When I'm in Manhattan I'm just enjoying the city. Just walking around with friends or having a meal. People always seem to be surprised that I’m just so regular. I don't know what they expect, but I figure that my image does it. They picture me always wearing black leather and they think I'm six feet tall. And I'm not six feet tall. I also think people have a feeling I'm gonna be really mean or just make 'em not feel good or something if they come up to me.

Having known you since you were 16, you've always been fierce.

But I was never mean.

No but you’ve always been very serious.

Yes. Well, yeah, I always took that aspect of my life serious as a heart attack, as they say. You know what I mean? If anyone ever said anything against girls were playing rock and roll , I was ready to war.

Did you ever have into a fight? Ever gotten physical?

I've gotten verbal. I don't believe I've gotten physical. If I did, I don't remember. It would've been long, long ago. But no, I've had a few verbal spats with people who were schmucky enough to cut us down while we were opening for them or something.

You don't want to name names?

No, I don't care. One time the Runaways opened for Rush, I think in Detroit. I remember those guys standing on the side of the stage laughing at us and stuff. And you know, if I was Rush, I wouldn't be laughing at me. Then there was that southern band, Molly Hatchet. The guys said, "I can't believe we're opening for a bitch." And then there was the Scorpions.They were mad because they were a German band and we were bigger in Germany than they were and they were having a real hard time ego-wise dealing with that. But for the most part people are really, really cool about it.

Is there a song that's most you? Maybe "Bad Reputation"? Or is there a signature song you identify with?

Well, “Bad Reputation” would certainly be right up there.

Do you feel you deserve your bad reputation? Why do you think people consider you have one?

Well, I think the reason I have a bad reputation is because I'm a girl and dare to do these things that, you know, boys do.

What do you like to be remembered for? Does it bother you that people call you the godmother of the riot grrrls? Miley Cyrus cites you as her spiritual mentor, but how do you see it?

It's nice that people say that, or have that sort of impression of me, in the sense that I've been influential to some people. But, God. I don't know. See, I simplify it so much more, I just say I'm just a rock and roller. That's how I look at it. And remembered as, I can't really say the first because it's a subjective thing. Other people might think some other girl did it first. But just as one of the first women to really play hard rock and roll. And mean it, and sweat, and get dirty. It’s hard for me to break it down like that. It just feels weird, you know, to say anything beyond I'm a rock and roller.

Do you have a motto?

Well, you know what I say, and it's not just for gigs, but it's really for any time when I'm feeling a little out of sorts and not feeling - what's the word? Social. And you know I have to be social, whether it's doing a show or just be in a situation where you're mixing with people. And I realize how much people's moods can affect the room or vibes. You know when you walk into a room full of bad vibes, you can feel it. Or if you walk into a room with good energy, you can pretty much really feel it. And I think what I say to myself is two things. I say, "Be light," or "Be a light." As opposed to being deadness, and so it says everything to me. It says be in a good mood. You know, just be light. Be pure essence. Be pure being. Just be, you know?

And it's much harder to do than it sounds, but it's a great exercise. As a human being, it's just a good way to bring awareness to everything you do, or just every thought you have. All it means really is tap into who you really are because you can control your mood. You're in control so it's like that whole thing of trying not to let your surroundings dictate how you're gonna feel, you know? You want to be the light in all the chaos. You want to be the person that puts a smile on other people's face. It’s something I genuinely use, pretty much every day. My mantra.

Do you feel like the price of fame has been too high for you?

No. I suppose it depends on what you want, really, you know? It does make it a little difficult just to deal with people on a regular level, because you just never know people's motivations. And I say just from experience of knowing people who really just want to know you because of who you are but it's nothing to do with whether they like you as a person or not. It's more like they are dealing with an image or something.

But as far as feeling if it's too high, no, I haven't really felt that. I feel like I'm trying to take control; I don't want to get to a point where I resent any of that, you know? Or resent any success. I think you can balance it, and that's why I try to spend a lot of time at home with my animals. When I can, with my friends, but I do tend to isolate myself a lot. I'll be working and then when I'm not working, as opposed to hanging out with people I'll just isolate myself. I have to watch that to make sure I don't do that too much. I don't want to get agoraphobic.

Do you find you write every day?

No that's one of the things that I have been trying to work on. Recently we've had a bit of a struggle trying to get a new studio record out. And as we'd get one album ready, and then it wasn't, it was delayed. And then we'd get another one ready, and then that was delayed, and over the course of a couple of years it started to really de-motivate me. And I started to have a writer's block problem, which is really hideous if you've ever been in that situation. I kept forgetting what it's like to write a song, I start to think that it should just pop out. Like maybe a few of 'em did when I was 15 and 16.

And I have to remind myself it's work. You have to sit down and work, and do it. You're not gonna like have an epiphany and something's gonna pour out. That might happen, but you can't sit around waiting for that. So you know, that's just another thing. But I am writing now, and I'm not writing every day but I'm writing more often than I'm not.

And you know, we were talking earlier [about] is there a theme that I always write about. And I said sex, or love, has been a theme, and I think a lot of songwriters throughout the ages have written about [that]. But you know, as you move through life, I start to think, well, I want to write about something else, so that's another issue I'm trying to figure out, how to write about other things. I'm not saying that they're more important, it's just different subject matter that I'm not used to dealing with.

And I get really hesitant because I'll stop myself before I even get done and say, "That sucks." Well, I don't want to lead you to believe that I'm not writing at all, because I'm definitely writing but it's not always a song that comes out. It might be just a few lines. And I do go back to it. Things are a lot of times better than you think they are when you put it down.

You’ve said that “Emma” by Hot Chocolate, makes you cry. What else touches your heart? When's the last time you cried?

Couple hours ago. Oh, I cry all the time. I am very emotional. Very. As serious as I am, I'm that emotional. And certainly I find that the older I get, I just think the more connected I am to life. I'm a little bit more rooted, and humanity touches me. The sadness of it, the beauty of it. You know, that a lot of times you miss because we're moving so fast. But all kinds of things make me cry. It could just be a touching commercial. But actually I was pretty moved hearing about the rescue of Jessica Lynch, the girl in Iraq. Because the picture... they showed a still photo of her coming out and she looked... it was like so many things in her face, like just total fear, disbelief that she was being rescued. The whole thing makes me sad.

You said spiritually you and Paul Westerberg came from the same place prior to writing “Backlash” together back in 1991. What did you mean, what place does he come from?

Spiritually came from the same place. Yeah. I was talking about how I think we're aliens. I had a blast working with him. I'm a really big fan of his in general just because I think he's a great songwriter, and I was a big fan of the Replacements. So it was around that time that I was really listening to the Replacements a lot, and I thought it would be great if we could write a song together, and he was interested. So we did. And he came to New York and did the video with us, and it was a lot of fun. But you know he’s — what's the word I want to use? He comes from the same place, to me, but he has that Iggy vibe. It's that garage, punk, but really good stuff. He's got a brain, he's a smart guy.

Do you think rock is still hard work? Does it take a lot out of you?

Yeah, definitely. Yeah, it drains me, totally.

Do you have to do anything prior to a tour, like work out harder?

Well, I should. And normally I would, but the gym where I live is closed. So what I would normally do is I would work out a bit before we left for the tour. Not too much, it's more cardiovascular really than anything. Because you go from a dead stop to just all these songs, and you can't really spend a lot of time breathing because then it's just people standing on stage. So I have to figure out something. So I probably will do a lot of bike riding, you know, maybe run up and down a lot of steps. Just nothing fancy, just something you could do anywhere.

Do you still do yoga?

A bit. I don't go to a place or a class. I practice on my own.

Do you have a goal for yourself. Someplace you’re aiming towards?

To be a little easier on myself, and just go with the flow a little bit more. I mean I try to go with the flow pretty much but I still... yeah, those Virgo constraints come in.

But hasn’t it gotten better as you’ve gotten older? You seem more comfortable in your body.

Yes, I think as I've gone through life I'm able to just see more who I am, accept certain things, but also realize that I may have to work on a few things too, and that's fine. For me it's all about awareness. Regardless if something's right or wrong to you, just be aware of it, and not be in denial — which I find so many people do.

What's the greatest misconception about you?

Yeah, unapproachable, just that people are a little afraid, or apprehensive.

Any rituals or warm-ups before you go on stage?

I stretch. And I do vocal warm-ups. You know, scales and stuff like that.

What have been the rock history moments for you?

I'm lucky because I've had a couple of rock [history moments]. Certainly, you know, in the Runaways I got to hang out with Robert Plant. You know, in early '75 or early '76. No, Cherie was in the band so it had to be '76. He came to see us play. Anyway, Robert Plant, in 1976. And yeah, the Sex Pistols stuff. Hanging out with Sid Vicious and in London, we were supposed to be doing an album but it never happened, and the other girls were hanging out with a band called Thin Lizzie. And I was hanging out with the Sex Pistols, and it was just so diametrically opposite, you know? It was so clear to see that I was into punk rock and the other girls weren't.

What year was that?

I think it was '78. All the Runaways were staying on a houseboat. On that same trip, I was also hanging out with Sid [Vicious] and Nancy [Spungen]. That was right before they came to America. And you know, that hoop belt that Sid would always wear, it was a black leather belt with rings on it. I gave that to him in England. I bought that at the Pleasure Chest in LA, and I used to wear it all the time, you can see a lot of Runaways pictures with me wearing that belt. And I gave it to him just as a gesture, because I was a fan. And he started wearing it, and in all their pictures of them in America when they did their tour. I just think that's funny.

Was Nancy as horrible as the movie made her seem to be?

You know, she didn't really talk to me much so I really don't have any bad things to say or anything. I was just talking to Sid, and she didn't say anything at all. She wasn’t weird or nasty or anything to me, she was just there.

You said being in the Runaways was one of the best things that ever happened to you. What was the most important thing you learned from being in the Runaways?

Wow. That's a good question, but that's hard. The most important thing I learned in the Runaways. Wow. I want to say something positive, because there were so many, I mean—you just learn about, to a degree, how things are done. But you know, I want to say that I learned not to trust people. Which is a horrible thing, because it goes totally opposite to what my instincts are. I want to trust but you have to be careful on every level.

Look beyond the surface.

Yeah, you just have to, yeah. You just have to, because you don't want to lose too much of your innocence or your genuine naïveté. I don't think naiveté is bad, necessarily. I think it connotes a certain innocence and I think that's good, to not be so cynical. I don't want to be cynical about things. But yeah, I think if anything I probably just learned to just be a little more careful on every level. Whether it's business, just everything, just to be somewhat cautious.

I know you dropped out of school to start the band. Have you ever thought about going back to college and doing something?

I do think about it, sometimes, about going to college, or just take a class in something I'm interested in. Which, you know, could be a lot of different things. Archaeology. I was always interested in that as a kid, that was what I wanted to do. One of the things I wanted to be was an astronaut.

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Jaan Uhelszki was one of the founding editors at Detroit’s legendary Creem magazine. Since that time, her work has appeared in USA Today, Uncut, Rolling Stone, Spin, NME, Relix, and Guitar World. She is the only journalist to have ever performed in full makeup with Kiss. Luckily she only had to put…

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