Sometimes you don’t have to go anywhere in order to come back. ”I don’t think that our idea of how to play music has changed really at all since 1980,” says Blackhearts frontwoman Joan Jett, 33. ”Basically, it’s three-chord, sweaty rock & roll that we’re always after, that I feel comfortable doing, that I’ve always done. I can’t really see deviating from that too much. I wouldn’t know how.”
Two decades after her mother bought her a $40 Sears guitar for Christmas, Jett has a new album, Pure and Simple, whose rock-solid stance may seem newly chic, but only because of the company she keeps. Performing songs with and by Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, L7’s Donita Sparks, and Babes in Toyland’s Kat Bjelland, among others, Jett plugs into the riot grrrl scene — a movement of militantly noisy bands bent on demolishing rock’s male bias. In the late ’70s, as a member of Kim Fowley’s Runaways, Jett began as one of the pubescent glam- rockers who inspired the term ”jailbait rock.” Now she’s taking her rightful place as a punk godmother.
Those new grrrlfriends don’t represent a radical departure for someone who ”listened to [the Sex Pistols’] ‘God Save the Queen’ 40 or 50 times on headphones the first time I heard it.” A native of Rockville, Md., Jett began playing with the Blackhearts in 1980 in New York on CBGB’s hallowed stage and opened for such bands as the Ramones. Shortly before, she had produced the first album from L.A. punk pioneers the Germs (whose guitarist, Pat Smear, later joined Nirvana). Even the song that propelled Jett into the commercial stratosphere — ”I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” — was first recorded with ex-Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook for a Dutch label. Rerecorded for Boardwalk records in 1982, the anthem spent seven weeks at No. 1, destroying Jett’s punk credentials in the process.
”Joan and Nirvana are the exact same thing, 10 years apart,” says Jett’s longtime manager/alter ego Kenny Laguna. But whatever Nirvana did for [and to] grunge, Jett feels women still haven’t quite arrived at rock parity. ”I remember thinking, ‘I hope one day people don’t look at women like they’re out of their minds when they want to pick up an instrument and play,”’ Jett recalls. ”And I think we’re getting a lot closer to that.”
There’s no doubt that as a musician Jett is a woman in charge. The all-male Blackhearts (Kenny Aaronson, Thommy Price, and Tony Bruno) have never edged into her spotlight, and Jett rules even as a writing partner. ”She doesn’t ‘go work’ with someone else,” says ex-Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg, who cowrote ”Backlash” for Jett’s 1991 album, Notorious. ”You come and work with Joan. She makes sure she puts her stamp on everything.”