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What’s the only thing better than becoming the first acclaimed all-female rock band? Becoming the first all-female rock band to get your own biopic. At least that was the feeling during Wednesday night’s premiere of The Runaways, the true story of the five teenage girls who spent the Seventies kicking their way down the Sunset Strip and into the boys’ club. On the red carpet at New York’s Landmark Sunshine theater, the E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt called the Runaways “my heroes.” Debbie Harry embraced Runaways rhythm guitarist Joan Jett. Chloe Sevigny showed up in black leather, perhaps as a tribute to Jett’s favorite kind of pants. Outside, teenage girls lined up for autographs — one was even clutching what looked like a brand-new guitar.
Asked about the young rockers amassed behind the velvet ropes, Runaways star Kristen Stewart, who plays Jett in the film, was thrilled. “If I go out there and everyone’s wearing shag haircuts like Joan,” she said, “I’ll know we did something right.” Sure enough, if Stewart earned one rhinestone for every shag haircut outside, every inch of the metallic strapless dress she wore that night would be bedazzled by now.
For the second time in the past 30 years, the Runaways are becoming icons, and the film makes it easy to understand why. Director Floria Sigismondi, who’s made music videos for the White Stripes and Marilyn Manson, offers a fresh, unapologetically girlie twist on hoary old rock biopic clichés. So instead of groupie orgies, there’s a very sweet love scene between Jett and singer Cherie Currie, who never takes off her roller skates. And instead of fights over record contracts, there’s heated debates about the fashion-forwardness of pink corsets.
But there’s never any doubt that these feathered-haired vamps aren’t just as serious about playing music as corseted beauties like, say, David Bowie. It’s just that this is a coming-of-age story, not only for the teenage girls in the band, but for rock & roll itself, which was changing right along with them. “The Seventies was a perfect time to be a teenager, because it was such an era of experimentation with sex and drugs and rock music,” says Sigismondi. “And the Runaways were a truly experimental band: they did all the things young girls weren’t supposed to do.” That includes getting high in airplane bathrooms and urinating on some rude rocker dude’s guitar (as Jett does in one scene).
True to that spirit, Sigismondi is also doing a few things she’s not supposed to do, like casting two former child stars — Stewart and Dakota Fanning, both flown in from a little vampire movie franchise you might have heard of — in a feature that deals frankly with subjects like pill-popping and softcore porn and masturbation. As one blog recently joked, it’s Twilight Girls Gone Wild.
At first, Fanning was anxious about playing Cherie Currie, especially since she knew her real singing voice would be used in the film. “Even the thought of singing karaoke has always terrified me,”admits the 16-year-old actress. “And I had never felt the power of a band behind me.” So Sigismondi arranged for Fanning to practice with the Living Things, an L.A. rock band that features the director’s husband, Lillian Berlin. Currie also taught Fanning her favorite trick: wrapping the microphone chord around her leg, and then unspooling it until it flies into the air for her to catch. Soon, Fanning was so comfortable onstage that she invited her own mother to watch her writhing around to the jailbait anthem “Cherry Bomb,” which includes heavy-breather lyrics like, “I’ll give you something to live for / Have you, grab you ’til you’re sore!”
Currie was impressed. “I got knots on my head the size of lemons when I didn’t do that microphone thing right,” she admits. As a token of her admiration, she lent Fanning a prized Runaways relic: a Davie Bowie belt she’d made herself at age 15. Fanning wears it proudly during the film.
Stewart also heavily researched her role, though she did most of her homework on the bathroom floor of Joan Jett’s hotel room in Seattle. She’d flown out to see Jett play on New Year’s Eve of 2008, and the two women spent the whole night sprawled on the linoleum, talking excitedly about the Runaways. Jett burned albums and live bootlegs for Stewart, and even allowed her to borrow tape-recorded letters to an aunt that Jett had made at age 13. “Getting her voice down at that age was really important to me,” says Stewart, 19. “She’s just saying things like ‘I’m eating a microwave pizza now!’ It’s funny that this total rock star was once just like any other lazy teenager.”
Now, that former lazy teenager couldn’t be more proud. Jett admits that seeing the 19-year-old actress on screen was “like looking into a mirror.” And she’s proud that her band is finally getting its due. Though their debut album never sold more than 25,000 copies, Jett has since gone platinum with her group the Blackhearts, and Runaways lead guitarist Lita Ford may be the best-known heavy-metal goddess of all time. Plus, Jett says, the Runaways’ message — that girls can do whatever the hell they want to — is still important for people to hear. “Women are still second-class citizens,” she says. “I was flying back from a show in Japan, and the flight attendants walked around first class asking all the men what they wanted to drink, and no one asked me. That’s why it’s important for me to get this movie out there, not just to inspire girls to pick up an instrument, but to tell them, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Make your own victories. Make your own mistakes.’ ”
That also goes for Currie, who once refused an interview with a certain music magazine. “I turned down the cover of Rolling Stone, because I knew the girls would kill me,” she says. “Kids, how do they deal with something like that? We were so young.”
Originally published in Guitar World, May 2010
GW There’s basically an orgasm in the middle of the song.
JETT Exactly. And kids wanna do that. That’s why teenage boys form bands. And girls, they feel those same things. To deny that is really kind of fucked up. And it’s fucked up for teenagers who aren’t given a voice. So all we were trying to do in the Runaways was sort of give voice to that. We just happened to stumble into it very naïvely, not really knowing what we were getting into and not knowing it was going to be so threatening to people. But as we began to realize that it was threatening, all of a sudden it became the principle.
GW That sense of threat extended to your peers as well. In the movie, during soundcheck before a show, the Runaways are given a rough time by the bigger, male, headlining act. That incident supposedly occurred during your tour with Rush in 1977.
JETT Yeah, that’s true. But I’m not even so sure it was the members of Rush that were giving us crap as much as it was their road crew. They would be standing on the side of the stage, laughing during the show, throwing paper and wads of stuff at us. And I remember Cherie walking onstage and slipping, because we were all in platforms. Stuff like that. So it was like, people were threatened, but they were very juvenile in the way they took it out on us.
GW Afterward, your character breaks into the band’s dressing room and urinates on a guitar. Did you really do that?
JETT No, no, no. That whole scene, going into the dressing room, that was a complete embellishment for the movie. The Runaways never wrecked any other band’s gear. That would not be the way I would handle things. The way for me to get back at somebody has always been to blow them away onstage.
GW For the live scenes in the movie did you offer Kristen Stewart any advice as far as how to portray Joan Jett?
JETT One thing I made sure of was when she held the guitar that the pickup was right over her crotch. But basically, when I’m onstage I try not to think. As soon as you start thinking, you screw up. You have to just be in the music, because it’s really easy to get spooked. So with Kristen, if she was onstage and maybe not feeling it, or I could tell she was thinking about too many things, or worried about the camera or whatever, I would yell at her, “Kristen! Pussy to the wood! Fuck your guitar!” [laughs] Because you have to stay connected to it, you know?
GW With male players, there’s the cliché about the guitar being an extension of your manhood.
JETT Exactly. And I think that’s true for everybody. You want to expand. You don’t want to shrivel up!
GW After the Runaways broke up, was there ever a moment where you weren’t sure if you would continue in music?
JETT Oh, totally. I was devastated when the Runaways broke up, for a million reasons—my dream was over, I felt we had failed, I thought maybe it was all my fault. And I just felt really laughed at. It was like you could sense all of Los Angeles going, “We told you it wouldn’t work. Ha-ha.” And I was probably drinking too much, partying too much, kind of spiraling downward. So I definitely thought about other avenues. I even briefly considered enlisting in the military. I figured it’d help me get myself together, I’d get to travel some, maybe get some discipline.
GW Once you made the decision to continue as a solo artist, you were turned down by more than 20 record labels.
JETT Kenny [Laguna, Jett’s longtime producer/business partner] knew a lot of people, and he figured he could get me a deal quick, no problem. But everybody he went to said, “Can’t help you, Ken, can’t do it.” And they all gave various excuses that he thought were ridiculous.
GW Such as?
JETT “She can’t play.” “She can’t sing.” “She’s too intense.” “Maybe she should lose the guitar.” I’m sure there’s probably a few others that Kenny never even relayed to me because he thought it’d hurt my feelings. But we still have a lot of those rejection letters.
September 30, 2008
When Joan Jett picks up the phone in New York for her Spinner interview, two things are immediately apparent: First, the tale of her three-decade plus career is evidenced wholly by her speaking voice, which is throaty and unintentionally gruff. It’s the wear of a Philadelphia-born punk named Joan Marie Larkin who left for L.A. at 15 with a rock ‘n’ roll dream in one hand and leather in the other. Three years later, Jett formed the Runaways, and thus began her kicking-and-screaming ascent to rock iconism. Dubbed the original riot grrrl, Jett would garner several other titles along the way: chart-topper, entrepreneur, activist, actress, producer, sex symbol and all-around badass, included.
This brings us to number two: Joan Jett commands, though not literally, respect. Her middle- finger- to-the-establishment reputation sits backseat to the woman on the line — a woman who, despite her persona, felt misunderstood at the onset. She issues no bounds as inquiries go, answering each question with cool authority and, often, laughter. “What do you want to know?” she begins. And so it does.
You’re releasing a greatest hits CD/DVD later this year. What was it like for you to sit down and sift through nearly three decades’ worth of material?
I have the most contempt… to look at myself [musically] and be like, “No, no.” Do you know what I’m saying? It’s like looking through dated pictures. It’s kinda weird to look at old videos or old photos. But I’m glad I did it. Sometimes, sitting around and making records, you don’t really hear it. You’re just recording and loving the songs, taking them out on the road and playing them for people. People remember what’s recorded but I don’t listen to my records over and over again. I don’t go back to the recordings unless there’s something I need to refresh myself for the band — the tempos or a structure of a song. But I’d love to do that because I put a lot of hard work into the records I make. It can be fun to go back and take a listen. Also, there are a few [new] tracks that’ll be on the CD. They are songs that we haven’t really played live yet, but they’re written out.
You were one of the first female musicians to start her own record label, Blackheart Records, more than 25 years ago, and it was done out of necessity because 23 labels rejected you.
That’s crazy, right? As an artist, you want some control over what you’re doing. But it’s common — we all want to be signed to a major label. It’s part of that dream: being in a band, signed to a major label, have a big record come out. But nobody wanted anything to do with me, my music or my band. It was really… tough.
Why do you think you were rejected?
I don’t know. It’s really hard for people to see it — that atmosphere and mindset that people had about girls in music or girls in rock ‘n’ roll 25 years ago. I’m not playing the typical girl role and I’ve taken a lot of shit. It’s hard for me to judge. I can’t tell what it is about me. I don’t walk around smashing s—; I’m not that kind of scary person. I don’t know what about me was so threatening.
Regardless, I know that we sent them a few songs: ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ ‘Crimson and Clover,’ ‘Do You Wanna Touch Me’ and ‘Bad Reputation.’ We got a good deal of rejection letters. People wrote back, ‘You have no songs here,’ ‘Drop the guitar.’ It was incredible! These companies turned down not one hit but four songs that wound up being hits. That’s just a part of rock ‘n’ roll. Now, either the companies don’t listen to what we send them, or the people that listen can’t hear hits or they’re so blinded by their prejudices that they can’t get beyond that. Whatever the reasoning, it’s kind of scary. In the end, it was good because I kept control of my music. I guess it turned out for the better.
It’s especially ironic then, given that you’ve since become an icon — a pioneer in both punk and rock — particularly on the female front. How does that sit with you?
It’s very humbling. I don’t think it makes sense, even beyond people saying it to me. It’s a really nice feeling. It’s great that people think that.
Describe the girl who founded the Runaways back in the ’70s.
Boy, well, we were all very typical teenage girls but we all had very distinct personalities — styles, so to speak. We were all somewhat different, but the music took us and we definitely came together with rock ‘n’ roll ethic. Cherie [Currie] had that British glitter sound. We’d switch off on vocals and I’d do more rock ‘n’ roll stuff and she’d sing the more melodic, popular stuff. Jackie Fox was probably more of an intellectual. Sandy West would have been the sports girl, the surfer girl. And Lita [Ford] would be a combination of party girl, surfer girl — total vixen and sexy mama. We were just a bit between rebels and sex symbols.
People would say I’m the tough one. People would say I’m the mean one. I had a certain sense about music and about my personal style. I wasn’t comfortable in dresses — it wasn’t my thing. It was about pants and leather and dark hair and dark makeup. At the time, it wasn’t the way that girls would do it. The thing that always gets to me is in rock ‘n’ roll, you own your own sexuality. In pop music, you say, ‘You can do what you want to me.’ Rock ‘n’ roll says, ‘I’m gonna do what I want to you.’ When girls are saying that, it could be really threatening. I never got that. I don’t understand it.
You recently performed at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, yet you’ve yet to be inducted yourself despite years of eligibility. When will it be your turn?
Well, I tell you, I don’t really think about it too much. I don’t worry about all of the awards. If I get inducted at this point, I would be honored by the people whom I’ve played with for many years.
In the summer, you will be touring as part of the second annual True Colors tour. What does it mean for you to be on a tour that’s sole purpose is to support and brings awareness to the LGBT community?
It’s really vital to raise issues that are important to the community. But beyond that, gay, bi, transgendered people love rock ‘n’ roll, too. That’s what it’s about — the music. There are many other issues that need to be brought to the forefront and it’s great to be involved in that. I’ve known Cyndi [Lauper] for years as well, so it will be great to be on the road with her.
Throughout your career, journalists have asked you about your sexual orientation and you’ve yet to say outright what it is. Why do you think people are so curious?
You know, I… why does anybody want to know anything to that extent? They want to know until they know, and then it’s not a big deal. First of all, don’t dictate to me what I have to declare about myself. It’s about setting boundaries. If you open up a door to your whole life, once that door’s open, you can’t shut it. You can’t open it up for some parts and keep it closed for others.
It really boils down to this: I want to please everybody. I want every guy and every girl thinking that I’m singing these songs to them, because I am. If I make a hard, fast case on where I stand then that takes away a lot of the fantasy. Music entails a lot of fantasy. I want people to be able to go there with me. Some people might think it’s a cop-out. I don’t care. That’s how I feel.
In addition to social activism, you’re quite active in politics. You’ve visited the troops many times and avidly supported Howard Dean in the last presidential election. Are you following the upcoming election, and if so, who are you supporting?
I’m still pissed about what happened to Howard Dean [laughs]. Yeah, I’m following along and I will support whichever Democrat that wins and gets to the election. It makes me a little bit nervous that Hillary Clinton and Obama rip each other apart in the primaries, but I think it’s good to have a healthy debate about a lot of these issues. A lot of people are getting involved. That’s really important. Everybody’s lives are on the line.
You turn 50 in September. What does that mean to you?
I don’t think about the number. It all comes down to how I feel. Right now, I’m having fun and I’m feeling good. That’s all that counts.
Joan Jett’s surprise hit of the Bruce Springsteen composition, Light of Day (the title track from her motion picture acting debut of the same name), had reinvigorated her music career in 1987. And Jett cashed in on the newly rekindled attention, issuing 1988′s Up Your Alley, her first major hit album since the early ’80s.
Although Jett had become notorious for the amount of cover songs she included on her albums (they usually far outnumbered her original compositions), Jett scored a big hit co-written with Desmond Child, I Hate Myself For Loving You. Another Child/Jett original, Little Liar, proved to be another highlight, as well as covers of Chuck Berry (Tulane) and the Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog. Somewhat more pop-oriented than her previous punkier releases, Up Your Alley was a successful ending to the ’80s for Joan Jett. The album contains the single I Hate Myself for Loving You, which reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100, and had been used as the theme song for Sunday Night Football NFL games in America (with altered lyrics, by two singers) during the 2006 and 2007 seasons. The follow-up single Little Liar continued Joan‘s chart success, reaching #19 on The Billboard Hot 100 in late 1988, early 1989.
Up Your Alley peaked at #19 on the Billboard 200 album charts and has since been certified Platinum.
1. I Hate Myself for Loving You (Jett, Desmond Child)
2. Ridin’ with James Dean (Jett, Ric Browde, Ricky Byrd)
3. Little Liar (Jett, Desmond Child)
4. Tulane (Chuck Berry)
5. I Wanna Be Your Dog (Dave Alexander, Ron Asheton, Scott Asheton, Iggy Pop)I Still Dream About You (Jett, Ricky Byrd, Gary Rottger)
6. You Want In, I Want Out (Jett, Desmond Child)
7. Just Like in the Movies (Jett, Ric Browde, Ricky Byrd, Kenny Laguna)
8. Desire (Jett, Kenny Laguna, Diane Warren)
9. Back It Up (Jett, Ric Browde, Ricky Byrd)
10. Play That Song Again (Jett, Ricky Byrd, Frank Carillo)
• Released: 1988
• Personnel: Joan Jett; Chuck Kentis, Ronnie Lawson, Desmond Child, Arno Hecht, Kenny Laguna, Mick Taylor , Paul O’Neill, Hollywood Paul Litteral, Frank Carillo.
• Label: Blackheart/CBS Associated
• Producer:Kenny Laguna, Desmond Child, R. Browde, Thom Panunzio
I Hate Myself For Loving You was released as the first single, backed with a live version of the Jett composition Love Is Pain (the original version of which appears on 1981′s I Love Rock ‘n Roll). Little Liar was the second single, backed with an obscure Jett/Laguna composition What Can I Do For You, which had been recorded for a movie Jett was set to make in 1979 that was never completed. The song eventually turned up again on the Jett fan-club only CD 1979.
Two videos were shot for Little Liar, the first of which told the dramatic story of twin Joan Jetts (one in white, one in black) fighting over a man they were both dating. It received heavy rotation on MTV, but was quickly replaced with a highly-stylized in-concert video with Ziggy Stardust-like artistic flourishes.
Former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor played the guitar solo on I Hate Myself for Loving You.
Joan Jett found “Crimson and Clover,” by Tommy James and the Shondells in Kenny’s record collection. Kenny had been a Shondell and played on the original recording, so Joan started playing it at a soundcheck as a joke. What started as a joke, became anything but, as people loved it! The hit single was a rare recording as Joan sang and played the song live with the band in the studio. There are no overdubs and the recording is essentially a live recording, just as musicians in the ‘50’s had done.
The band’s huge success in Japan today is a matter of speculation by fans and band members themselves, who, accustomed to abuse and humiliation in the United States, were surprised by the treatment of international stars in Tokyo. About the surprise and the fame that was to stay in Japan, Joan Jett said:
We were big, like the Beatles. Nobody told us we were well regarded there. We went through a lot of shit in the U.S. and a lot of shit in England too. Although they were a little more receptivios and a little more understanding in England, but still spent a lot of shit. But when we got to Japan, it was literally as if we were the Beatles, but were the girls who were fans. In the U.S. and Europe, most were guys yelling “Get your clothes.” In Japan, where women are actually considered second-class citizens, thousands of girls were following us down the street with hair brushes saying “Brush your hair.” they did not wanted to be bad and yank their hair, then they gave you a brush so that you could comb your hair.
Clip hair as souvenirs and were being chased down the street together to present at the hotel, flowers in room five-star hotels, jewelry and silk kimonos. The shows were packed with a fanatical and loyal audience which was in line to see their ídolas live. The result was a burst of Japan on the radio, video recording, interviews and performances on Japanese TV.
Joan Jett has become a figurehead for generations of female rockers, influencing everyone. She has been called the “godmother to female musicians witht loud guitars and idealistic dreams” by The New York Times, as well as “the queen of punk,” “the original riot grrrl,” and “the last rock star.” We figured tha since Joan, who has been vegetarian for several years, has done everything but interview with peta, it was about that time.
Was there any one thing that made you go vegetarian?
I was on the road eight months a year, and meat was too heavy to eat late at night, so I ate other things. I slowly lost my taste for meat, and at the same time, I experienced a slowly dawning awareness that it is unnecessary to eat animals in order to live in this world.
You have a reputation for being pretty tough and kick ass. What do you think when people say that being a vegetarian or vegan is a sign of weakness?
I think it’s the opposite. People who say things like that are the weak ones for eating animals when it is completely unnecessary to do so in order to sustain life. To give into the urge to eat flesh just because you can—now that’s weak! It’s like eating your dog or cat. It may take something like bird flu or mad cow disease to convince people to stop killing animals for food.
What would you say to the CEO of KFC, David Novak, if you were stuck in an elevator with him?
I might point out that chickens recognize each other by their facial expressions and how most ignorant humans just aren’t aware of it. Maybe if you can plant that seed of awareness, it will gnaw at the minds of compassionate individuals.
How do you feel about people who wear fur?
I believe they are callous and self-involved. With such good-quality imitation fur available for making clothes, etc., there is no reason to torture animals. It’s the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ syndrome. Put fur lovers’ legs in a steel trap for a few days, or whack ‘em on the head with a club, and maybe they’ll get it.
We understand that you’ve always been a big animal lover, even when you were a kid. What’s the craziest or most unexpected thing you’ve done to help an animal or animals in trouble?
I have four cats—all strays directly from the street or shelter. I feed lots of stray animals in my town and have picked up several lost dogs and luckily got them back to their families. I do not knowingly kill any living thing—including insects or rodents—and I thank my food for sustaining me. I’ve run around my house like a nut, trying to protect birds that have gotten in somehow, and my cats were closing in on them. The birds got out alive. I also save moths from my cats.
What can kids do to help improve the lives of animals?
Kids should really be involved in what they eat and where their food comes from. Support your local farmers! Read the book Diet for a New America. It discusses food production in America and how things go from being a cow in a field to being a steak on your plate. It’s a process, so take your time, and decide again for yourself, after taking in some of this info, what is right for you.