Iconic rocker Joan Jett will be a highlight of DeLuna Fest's Saturday lineup. / Special to GoPensacola.com
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After bursting onto the late-’70s rock scene as a member of the iconic all-girl rock group the Runaways (“Cherry Bomb”), Joan Jett found even greater success at the head of her own group, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, in the early 1980s. After being rejected by every label in the business, Jett went the indie route and clawed her way to the top with the smash single “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” which topped the charts for seven weeks and is still one of the 100 biggest songs in the history of the Billboard charts, some 30 years later. A string of hits would follow — “Bad Reputation,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me,” “I Hate Myself for Loving You.”
Today, Jett is considered one of music’s true icons, a role model for all of the female rockers that followed her, the godmother of the riot grrl movement and living proof to any artist who has ever been told that they can’t succeed that, with enough hard work and talent, yes, they can.
She’ll inspire tens of thousands more people when she takes the stage at DeLuna Fest. Ahead of the festival, she shared some of her philosophy and the story of her life in a phone interview.
Q: In a lot of ways, you were one of the first indie artists. Talk about that.
A: Well, you know, if we’d had our way at the time, we wanted to be on a major label, It would make us feel legitimate. This was right after the Runaways had broken up, and I started writing songs with a guy named Kenny Laguna, who did a lot in the 1960s bubblegum stuff, he was in a lot of bubblegum bands including Tommy James and the Shondells, was a writer, a producer — good songwriter. So we met to write songs, and became really good friends right away. I asked Kenny to produce these songs that we had written, and we went off on trying to start a new band, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts.
Once we had formed the band and had been writing a bit and had an album’s worth of material, we recorded it and wanted to put it out on a major. Kenny had a lot of great relationships in the music business — he was working with The Who, he had friends in Lieber Krebbs organization, who had Aerosmith, AC/DC, Scorpions and tons of really famous acts. So we figured that he would just call one of his friends, and we would probably not have too much of a problem getting a deal.
Well, it turns out that nobody could help us. We did the regular thing of sending our music that we had, which did include four hits — “Crimson and Clover,” “Bad Reputation,” “I Love Rock and Roll” and “Do You Wanna Touch Me” — sent them to all the majors and minors. We still have the rejection letters, and they sent back all sorts of reasons — “No songs”; “interesting artist, but we’re not really looking in this direction right now” — just lots of ways of saying “no.” Which to me felt like, “either you guys can’t hear hits, or you don’t listen to what people send you or you just have already decided you don’t want an artist like me.” But I don’t think it was a genuine reflection on the songs that we sent them. Otherwise, are you gonna tell me that it’s a good idea for a company to turn down four hits? In retrospect, what became four hit records?
So we really had no choice but to try to do it ourself. Since we had toured in England quite a bit, and had done some European stuff, we sort of decided to put the album out and just sell it out of the trunk of our car and try it that way. And we printed up like maybe 500 copies initially of what became the “Bad Reputation” album — it was just called “Joan Jett” at the time — and we sold them out of the trunk of Kenny’s Cadillac as we went around to our local gigs in the Northeast.
At the same time, we were really lucky because we had great support from the radio stations in the Tri-State Area here. New Jersey, New York, Long Island and all the stations here were extremely supportive. Those were the days when disc jockeys still would take requests, and play what came to their mind, or if there was an artist they liked, they’d give the record a shot. So we had really, all the major stations in the New York area supporting us. So if we did a little club gig someplace, they’d help us promote it, or maybe we’d do a little contest — we did a whole bunch of stuff like that.
So I think that if you’d taken out one aspect of any one of these things, things may not have happened the way they did. We got on a roll, we sold all the records out of the trunk of the car and had to print up more, and the radio was supporting us, then with lots of touring, we were finally able to break into some of the college radio, and from the college radio, it went from there.
Eventually, once kids really got a chance to hear it on a radio station, it really wasn’t a matter of promotion, it was just sort of that instant, groundswell song — certainly, “I Love Rock and Roll” was. It was just one of those records that when a kid heard it, that was it. It became a request, and it generated its own action. From there, we got a foothold and started out.
Q: Do you think that the root of your success is the reason why, over the years, you’ve been so embraced by the punk rock community, the indie rock community, the riot grrl community; why you’ve achieved such stature in those communities?
A: I think, yeah, because at its root, one of the great things about punk rock is that it’s a do-it-yourself thing. So you know, I think at every turn, when people tell you you can’t do something, that you shouldn’t do something, that you’re not allowed to do something — and y’know, we’re not talking about robbing a bank or killing people, we’re talking about making music — so, I think to just go up against the odds of saying, “you’re not gonna make it. You’ll never make it. You’ll NEVER make it. It’s never gonna happen.” People just laughing at you. And just sort of saying, “well, at least I gave it a shot. If I don’t make it, at least I tried.” That’s better than never trying at all. It’s just about having some fight and some will.
People are told “no” all the time about their dreams. If you’re a teenager and thinking about what you might do with your life, and say, “oh, I want to be something,” and it’s something that’s maybe a little bit different then what your friends are doing, and they shoot it down — “what’re you gonna do that?” and they start laughing at you — and all of a sudden, you become very tentative about seeking out your dreams. Everybody tends to laugh at anybody that goes off the beaten path, no matter what it is — and I’m not just talking about rock and roll, you could be a nuclear physicist, or anything that’s just not what people expect you to do, and you’ll take (heat) for it.
It just takes a deep belief in yourself, and sometimes not belief, it’s someone else telling you that you can do it — your family, your friends, a teacher, strangers. You never know what that one thing is gonna be that will make you feel that you can do it. But sometimes it’s a day by day, step by step thing — that saying you hear all the time, “you just keep putting one foot in front of the other.” It’s kind of like that. You can never rest on your laurels. You can never go, “well, I had success and so people will always accept me.” You’ve gotta go out and keep fighting every day.
Q: It seems crazy that you’re not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet. Is that something that’s important to you?
A: I think if it happens, it’d be great, and if it doesn’t, I never got into this to win that, if it even existed back then. That wasn’t one of my things. I wanted to play concerts, I wanted to sell records, I wanted to do all of the normal things that a rock and roll person in a band would want to do. But achieving “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame success” ... it’s great if it happens, and if it doesn’t, you just can’t take it personally.
Q: You are considered one of the top -- if not THE top -- woman rockers of all time. Who are some of the other artists that you would put up there with you, that you respect?
A: Ooh, I really don’t like ranking people. There’s a lot of people that I’m a fan of, but as far as putting them in a ... I just can’t even think that way, you know? It just doesn’t work for me, because I don’t think of myself in the same way at all, that anybody else does, trust me. You start believing your own press, you’re in trouble, man. I just don’t think you can believe your own press.
Q: You worked on the movie about your first band, the Runaways. Talk a bit about that experience. Was it weird having someone else walk around basically being you?
A: Yeah, I guess it was pretty strange, but it was strange in a very pleasant way. I really felt that the cast did everything they could, certainly in the short amount of time we had to do that movie. The girls that we worked with (Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning) had just finished the “Twilight” movie two weeks before and had literally two weeks to rehearse the Runaways film and get into the characters. I thought they did a great job.
Q: Say someone comes to you and says “we want to make the next chapter of the Joan Jett story.” Would you be cool with Kristen Stewart playing you again?
A: I’m not so sure she’d want to go through it again. (Laughs) I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I can’t imagine anybody would want to see another movie about me.
Q: You’re an amazing songwriter, but you’re also known for taking other people’s songs and making them your own. What are you looking for when you’re looking at doing somebody else’s song, and how do you make that a Joan Jett song?
A: Really, you want a great song. Sometimes the lyrics have to be applicable, but not all the times. We’ve done really silly songs -- well, I don’t know if you would call it silly, but I don’t even really know exactly what all the words mean, although I think they’re dirty — a song like “Wooly Bully,” that’s just kind of fun and crazy. And then there’s songs that I grew up with, like “AC/DC” by the Sweet, which is a song I thought was fun to do and a little provocative. Other songs are suggested to me that I might not be really super-familiar with, or I might know them better than I thought I did, I give everything a shot. And sometimes I choose really obscure things.
There are tons of them that we’ve tried that just don’t work — songs you love, maybe that you grew up with, that you think would make a cover, but some, you cannot compete with the original. And it’s not even about making it better, it’s about making it different enough, interesting enough, and sometimes they just don’t work, so you just give up and hope that nobody ever hears it. (Laughs)
Q: Given the way that the Blackhearts started out, is it safe to assume that you own all your master recordings?
A: Yeah, which is great. So it’s great the way it turned out that everybody said no, because now we still own all of our stuff, and that gives me a lot more of my own decision-making than if somebody else held the cards.
Q: So then you personally decide whether your music is available via certain streaming services, or sold through iTunes, and that sort of thing?
A: Yeah, some of them have to do with things like publishing, but the things that we own, we can set the terms over.
Q: What can fans expect from your show at DeLuna Fest?
A: Pretty much what we do is straight up rock and roll. For the kids that know that we have some hits, we’ll be doing some of the hits, songs that people know, popular album tracks, and we’ll be doing some brand new songs that we’re in the midst of recording. We’re getting closer (to the album being finished), hopefully it will be soon.
Q: Finally, you’re friendly with the Foo Fighters, who are one of the festival headliners and who are playing the same day as you. Do you think there might be an opportunity to jam together in there?
A: (Laughs) I would love to. We’ll have to see what they say.
After bursting onto the late-'70s rock scene as a member of the iconic all-girl rock group the Runaways ('Cherry Bomb'), Joan Jett found even greater success at the head of her own group, Joan Jett
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