Former Rolling Stone editor and renowned rock writer Dave Marsh once described singer Joan Jett as “the female Chuck Berry." It’s an apt description. Jett’s career began with the punk-y all-girl rock combo the Runaways, and she capitalized on that experience with her 1981 solo album, Bad Reputation, which delivered radio hits such as "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" and "Crimson and Clover,” a cover of the Tommy James tune. To hear Jett tell it, getting her solo career going wasn’t easy.
“We sent four songs — ‘I Love Rock ’n’ Roll, ‘Crimson and Clover,’ ‘Do You Wanna Touch Me’ and ‘Bad Reputation’ — to all the major and minor record companies,” says Jett who performs tomorrow night at the new Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park’s 2,200-seat Hard Rock Live theater. “We got 23 rejection letters, all of which we still have. They said they weren’t interested. You gotta go, ‘Do they listen to the tapes people send them? Can they hear hits?” They didn’t just miss one. They missed four. [I guess] it was a blanket fuck this girl, she’s not getting deal no matter what. But to this day, I don’t know what the reasoning would have been.”
So Jett and her songwriting partner Kenny Laguna took the $500 he had put aside for his daughter’s college fund and put the record out themselves. It turned out to be the right move. Jett, who helped turn the teen-girl group the Runaways into a hard rock hit, had a smash on her hands with the resulting Bad Reputation.
“We were getting support on the local radio stations. They would support a local artist,” she says. “A whole buzz started to build about the band. That became Blackheart Records and the rest is kind of history. We kept it ourselves and we’re glad we own our own stuff. Sometimes, the rock ’n’ roll gods are looking out for you.”
Jett’s new album, Unvarnished, doesn’t deviate from the tried-and-true. Jett’s raspy voice sounds better than ever and songs such as “Any Weather” and “Soulmates to Strangers,” both of which have catchy pop hooks that reveal her glitter rock roots.
“I don’t think my style has changed much,” she says. “I have grown up a lot, even since my last album in 2006. I had some losses. I lost animals, whom I think of as family. I lost best friends and both my parents. I wrote a lot about life being fragile. I live in a town called Long Beach right here on Long Island. It touches less on falling in love and going out and partying, some of the subjects I had focused on in the past because that’s what I was living. There’s some of that on this record but not as much.”
Looking back on the Runaways, she says she wouldn’t change anything about the group that broke up in 1978.
“I think it had to go down the way it did. It couldn’t have lasted much longer and retained the same name. You can’t be a runaway after you’re legal,” she says. “I have logical thoughts like that. It fell apart naturally and organically the way the bands normally do implode. We went through all the same issues that most bands go through and broke up. Even though rock is what we did, a big part of it is the fact that we were teenagers doing it. Yeah, you could put us back together but it wouldn’t be the same thing. It just wouldn’t.”