Joan Jett's surprise appearance fronting the reunion of Nirvana members Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear on Saturday, Oct. 6, at CalJam (Grohl's retro-style music festival in San Bernardino) was foreshadowed for many fans — including this writer — weeks earlier. Bad Reputation, the new biodoc about her life, contains footage of Jett's jam with the guys during Nirvana's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, and it's one of the doc's highlights. Which is really saying something because Jett has had an amazing career, as a songwriter, performer, torch bearer for rock & roll and force of nature. The documentary features countless clips, starting from when Jett was the soft-spoken L.A. teenager who formed The Runaways, and throughout her transcendent career as a solo artist and MTV video star.
But the Hall of Fame clips — both the year she was inducted (and intro'd by Miley Cyrus) and the Nirvana one — cemented her status as a true rock icon, someone who deserves mention alongside the likes of still-living (male) legends Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page and Iggy Pop, as well as departed ones like Kurt Cobain. Her alluring rasp fits perfectly into Nirvana's sludgy hooks, and as I watched the film at the Nuart premiere last week, I thought, "Damn, I'd love to see that live." This past Saturday I got to, along with thousands of other elated rock fans. Jett captured the "teen spirit" and then some.
Before that, I spoke with Jett on the phone for the second time (the first was during a tribute to her by the now-defunct Sunset Strip Music Festival) just last week, and she was as cool and forthcoming with her thoughts as ever. Even when she doesn't want to talk about stuff (her personal life, mostly), she's very real with you about why. She says exactly what she's thinking and feeling, and she does it with conviction and fervor. This badassness, of course, comes through in her music, and it's part of why she's a rock star with so many admirers (both male and female) who love, lust after and worship her with the same zeal she expresses for rock & roll. Joan Jett is rock & roll, and while Bad Reputation may not delve too deep into the dirt some may expect, it does reveal how she overcame so much — sexism, bad judgment, some tough breaks — to achieve her dreams. This woman was born to do what she does, and her story shows how following one's passion no matter what can lead to real nirvana.
L.A. WEEKLY: How did Bad Reputation come about?
JOAN JETT: I can't take any credit for it and neither can Kenny [Laguna]. It was Carianne Brinkman, who runs our label [Blackheart Records]. She is also Kenny daughter and I'm her godmother. I've known her since she was 3 months old, when I moved into Kenny's house in New York. I lived with his wife and their little baby. She was like the Blackheart mascot, a little rock & roll baby. I lived in the same house with them til she was maybe 11, 13. So she wanted to show people the unique relationship between myself and her father, you know, my songwriting partner and producer and all that. We had a unique situation, and I think she was trying to look for a way to express that. Several years ago we had been doing some filming, some live videos for something, and I'm not even sure where it was but she got an idea and wanted to start a documentary. She had some kind of vision about it. So she asked if I would mind if if she started documenting stuff and looking for footage and trying to put together a story, and I said go for it.
Since the producer of the film is like part of your family, obviously there was trust there.
Absolutely. Yeah. I mean what's the point of doing a documentary if it's not real. So I wanted her to be able to tell the story but have sensitivity to it. She was perfect, you know?
The trust factor is huge for you, isn't it? I've interviewed you before and I know that you're pretty private. So did you have any concerns really showing yourself in this? Did you talk about not getting into the personal life part and focusing more on the professional?
No, I just knew instinctively she would show what was important. That's not an interest in the story. That's tabloid stuff. If you want to see that, it's easy to, you know, go to the supermarket and buy a tabloid, and really in the scheme of my life, the time I spent doing crazy stuff is minimal compared to everything else. To me that's boring and it's cliché and it's tired. It's, you know, lazy.
So what is the story — your story — presented in the film? Is it a feminist story about the challenges of being a woman in the rock world? What do you see as the main takeaway?
I think it's about perseverance, and about joy and about following your dreams. It doesn't have to be framed in a feminist way. It's about, you know, persevering and not letting other people dictate what your life is going to be. I mean, it sounds so cliché , and it is, but some people are always wanting to stop other people from going for their dreams. And yeah, I understand that at the root of the woman thing, it's threatening. People are threatened by strong women, and it's not just men. Some women are also. Why that is and what the root of that fear is, I don't really get. I'm still trying to figure that out.
The film covers your early days with The Runaways, of course, and Kim Fowley. But it doesn't address the controversy that surrounded him or the stuff that came out after Jackie Fuchs shared her story a couple years ago.
Well, look, my take on Kim Fowley is completely opposite of, I guess what most people think, [or] whatever Kim's reputation is. I had a completely different vibe with him. We were good friends. I felt safe with him. He taught me a lot about music. I lived in his house for at least a year, and at some point Lita [Ford] lived there, too. He was on the phone with my mother every night for hours, talking. So I had a completely different view of Kim as a person but I know that he used every bit of his weirdness to make people uncomfortable, you know. He was a tall, weird-looking guy and knew it made people uncomfortable, and he liked to put that on people and he pushed it. But, you know, I can't really address the Jackie stuff because I don't know. That was not my experience. I don't know.
Kim was significant in the early part of your career. He was known for being tough. That's touched upon, as it was in the theatrical film about the band, but not much.
It's touched on a little bit but probably not the way some people are looking for. But no, it isn't really addressed in this, because when I talk about The Runaways it's the good stuff, not the tabloid crap. We were a good band. We kicked ass. There are a million live tapes of us online that anyone can find. We were a kickass band and it's not like we had been playing together for years either, we had just gotten together. We were five disparate people that came together from different parts of L.A. but we gelled and we were a unit, and we were really good. That's the Runaways story I want to tell.
It's so easy with teenage girls to go to that place. Teen girls are human beings. They're sexual. To dismiss that whole part of a young woman's life because it makes people uncomfortable to talk about is ridiculous to me and you know, The Runaways were teenage girls writing about our lives. But people are not comfortable with girls being The Rolling Stones.
What are things like today with the surviving members of The Runaways?
I've never had a hostile relationship with any of The Runaways and I believe that is still the case today. I mean, we did a magic thing together. I love them. I have no sort of bad vibes with any of them and as far as I know we're all on good terms.
People probably still ask you gals all the time about a reunion. What do you say?
To me, such a big part of The Runaways is Sandy West, who played drums. She's the person I started the band with, and I just think that it would be too far to go, No. 1. Two, I think that everybody would immediately start comparing it or just start joking about old women trying to recapture their youth. And to me The Runaways was just too special. It's like if you missed that three and a half years, it's not coming back and it is what it is, and I'm not trying to chase it and what it was. You know, it just doesn't feel right.
It was announced right around when the documentary came out that you released your full catalog on music streaming sites. Before it wasn't accessible. Can you tell me a little about that?
I'm not even sure why our stuff was not available to stream. Before just a couple albums were, but now I believe everything is available, including the movie.
What are your future plans? More touring?
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
I'm going to Australia in January. That's as much as I know right now.
Do you still love touring after all these years?
Yes. I enjoy what I do, being onstage and making that connection. I mean, to me that's what it's all about, and you definitely have to get more out of it than just, you know, doing it for the money, or for whatever reason you're doing it for. To me it is the love of the music and the connection and the joy that it brings people and myself at the same time.
Joan Jett and The Blackhearts open up for Morrissey, Thurs., Nov. 1, 8 p.m., at Microsoft Theater at LA Live, 777 Chick Hearn Ct. Tickets here. Bad Reputation is available for streaming on Prime Video.