Joan Jett rocks and socks gender bias

Rick Chandler
Joan Jett

Never underestimate Joan Jett.

Fighter, iconoclast, rebel, innovator, prodigy – she is all of these things. After more than 30 years in the music business, the Philadelphia native still has her feet set firmly on the ground and her heart in rock ‘n’ roll. Yet even with such classic hits as “Crimson and Clover,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me” and the raucous, everlasting “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” on her resume, the guitarist/singer/producer still finds herself fighting for respect.

It’s a fight she intends to win, and we wouldn’t bet against her.

“Joan always knew how to handle success,” said her longtime collaborator and manager, Kenny Laguna, a former member of Tommy and the Shondells. “She’s a survivor. But the dirty little secret of the music business is that women don’t always get a fair shake. That’s especially true in radio, where we have always had to fight to get her on the air. That’s always a chore.”

Born Joan Marie Larkin, her parents moved to Los Angeles when Joan was 12, and by the age of 15 she had helped form the band The Runaways, along with Kim Fowley, Sandy West, Lita Ford and Cherie Curry. With their base in heavy metal, rock and punk, they recorded five LPs and toured extensively, opening for acts such as Cheap Trick, Van Halen and Tom Petty. At first conceived as a novelty band, The Runaways drew crowds curious to see five teen-aged girl singers dressed in leather. But it wasn’t long before they outgrew that. Led by Jett on guitar and lead vocals, it soon became more about the music, as people began to realize that this band was for real.

Except for the U.S. music press, that is. The Runaways were popular overseas, but American radio wouldn’t take them seriously. After the band broke up in 1978 while in England, Jett pursued a solo career.

And it wasn’t long after that that Joan Jett and the Blackhearts were born.

“I was living in Britain then, working with The Who and Blondie and other bands,” said Laguna, a native of New York. “The Runaways had just broken up, and the only one left there was Joan. I worked with her on a film based on The Runaways’ career, called “We’re All Crazee Now,” and had a vision of what could be. She was fantastic, but no label would take her on. I love Joanie, but never wanted to be her manager. But she became a cause.”

Thanks to Laguna, Jett recorded her first album at The Who’s Ramport Studios, entitled “Joan Jett,” which was released in Europe (in the states, no fewer than 23 major labels rejected it). Jett and Laguna released it independently on their own Blackheart Records label.

“We couldn’t think of anything else to do but print up records ourselves, and that’s how Blackheart Records started,” Laguna said. “It was more or less Joan’s idea to do it ourselves.” And so Jett became the first female performer to start her own record label.

But while U.S. radio stations and record labels were cool to Jett, the music-loving public ate her up.

“We began touring, and it was clear that Joan was becoming a big star,” Laguna said. “In the Northeast, they were shutting down highways when Joan Jett and the Blackhearts played. But we still couldn’t get a record deal.”

One problem may have been Joan’s reputation as a party girl.

“She was pretty wild in those days,” Laguna said. “She would hang out with Sid Vicious and other wild musicians, and there were a lot of drugs and alcohol. I think producers were paranoid that she was going to OD on them.

“A lot of people then also decided that punk musicians were Nazis,” he said. “But she made it through all that. Somehow we did it.”

The big breakthrough came in 1981, when the Jett and the Blackhearts returned from a successful European tour and appeared in the live concert film “Urgh!,” (subtitled “A Music War”), performing the song “Bad Reputation” at The Roxy in New York City.

“Miles Copeland, manager of ‘The Police,’ was involved in that,” Laguna said, “and REM and the GoGos and a lot of famous bands were in it. It soon became apparent that Joan was a phenomenon. Later she opened for XTC at the Palladium in New York City, and just blew those guys off the stage. There was no stopping her then.”

Laguna was unaware of how popular she had become until driving through Florida one day in 1982, and hearing one of her songs on the radio.

“The disc jockey was saying that ‘I Love Rock ‘N Roll’ was the No. 1 song in the country that week,” he said. “I said, ‘What?’ We had finally made it.”

Mega hits “Crimson and Cover” and “Do You Wanna Touch Me” soon followed, and Joan Jet was officially huge. And remember “Everyday People” (1983), “Light of Day” (1987) and “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” (1990)? Joan Jett and the Blackhearts have never stopped churning out great music.

“We’re still at it,” said Laguna, who noted that the Blackhearts have performed 50 shows on their current Warp Tour, and still have 10 to go. They did more than 100 shows in 2006.

Joan and Kenny recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of Blackheart Records with the recently released CD “Sinners.” Ironically, they’re having a tough time getting radio air play with it.

Just like old times.

“All the girls have the same problem,” he said. “When is the last time you heard Janis Joplin on the classic stations, or even Courtney Love? Yet Tom Petty is always there. Pretty scary stuff.

“But our task is to overcome it. We can’t complain, because it’s been a great career,” Laguna said. “We’ve always just played the music we liked, never trying to chase success, but it has come to us.”

The two collaborate on every song, although most of the guitar riffs are Joan’s alone, as well as most of the song titles.

“I think we’ve lasted 25 years because we were never in competition with each other,” Laguna said. “And Joan was different than a lot of stars, in that when she got successful, she could handle it. When the doctor once told her that alcohol could effect her voice, she never took another drink.

“Success destroys a lot of rock stars, but not Joan. She’s too tough.”

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts

When: Saturday, Jan. 6 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Harrah’s Lake Tahoe

Cost: $45

To purchase: 1-800-786-8208 or http://www.harrah’ or at the door

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