METRO, JULY 24
Joan Jett always seemed like a good idea--a tough girl rock 'n' roller in a male-dominated world--though she's rarely produced the product to justify it. Caught in a 70s time capsule, Jett's touchstone songs--"I Love Rock 'n Roll," "Bad Reputation," and "Light of Day"--haven't had the resilience of dopey rock gems like Bachman Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business" or Bad Company's "Feel Like Makin' Love." Jett's always had just one beat, one musical idea, a stunning reservoir of faith in the power chord to propel her to the next high point in a career that has been riddled with low ones. With her steadfast embrace of a rock 'n' roll aesthetic that most people have dismissed as antiquated in this era of the antistar, she's survived as both dated hack and last true believer. But after hacking her way through an inordinately long career for one who's still young, she's now been rediscovered by a crop of girl rockers hungry for female icons. Jett's an idea whose time has finally come.
"One, two, three, four!" she cried out in hoary rock parlance as she hit the stage with the blistering "Spinster" at Metro last week. The last 20 years didn't seem to matter. To Joan Jett, straightforwardly devoted to every 70s rock shtick in the book, all life is on the stage. Everything else is just waiting in the wings. She pogos; she flails her sweaty hair; she flings her guitar picks to the audience; she punctuates her songs with yows. It would all be embarrassing, a guilty pleasure, but for the fact that she absolutely rocks out live, a moving reminder that maybe that's not such a bad thing after all.
Jett's like all rock stars, major and minor--you can't take your eyes off her--and that comes across on both stage and screen. In the 1987 film Light of Day, Jett and Michael J. Fox play siblings in a rust-belt bar band, slugging it out in dreary dives. Set in Cleveland, the film predictably ignores that city's seething punk history, focusing instead on a generic blue-collar rock band. The script is a mess, and the slight, fair Fox is hopelessly miscast as Jett's brother--when a fight erupts between them, there's no question the wiry Jett could take him apart. But she makes you care about the pair's dull music and doomed aspirations. Fox, a decent enough actor, was ultimately pretending in his role. Jett wasn't.
Despite a ream of mostly dumb, forgettable songs, that personal magnetism has piloted Jett through the years. Desperate to be a rock 'n' roll star, she was 16 when Kim Fowley put her in his all-girl hard-rock band, the Runaways. After she left the band she released her first solo album in 1981, willing herself from cartoon to life. For years since she's suffered career indignity after career indignity, never really finding her niche, with only some lingering critical affection and one absurdly massive hit single ("I Love Rock 'n Roll," number one for seven weeks in 1982) to show for it. She really does love rock 'n' roll, even in a modern music world where such outright displays of affection are anathema. In the Village Voice recently Ann Powers described Jett taking a New York club stage with Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna. "Howyadoin' New York? Let's hear it!" yelled Jett. Hanna rolled her eyes. But these generational differences aren't surprising. This scene wasn't unlike the one in The Last Waltz, when the Band brought out their old front man, irrepressible rockabilly stalwart Ronnie Hawkins. When Robbie Robertson rips into a lead on "Who Do You Love," Hawkins pulls off his cowboy hat and fans Robertson's hot licks. Hawkins goes on to pull out every single roadhouse trick he knows, whooping, screaming, preening, and generally getting in the Band's face.
In the old days it was called "holding a room," and it was born out of endless, desperate nights on the road, playing to every cheap seat like it was a presidential box, treating every venue, from shit-hole to coliseum, like it was the doorway to the big time. Jett's spent her life holding rooms, from Los Angeles to Indianapolis to Tokyo, and the only thing that's changed from Hawkins's chicken-wire-dive gestures is that Jett is playing with a slightly less antique set of moves. There's no winking or smirking to let you in on any joke, just a head-on plunge into her past, present, and future, which are indistinguishable.
At Metro the songs themselves were sometimes indistinguishable, one from the next, with the same propulsive beat and three-chord power attack erupting every time from rhythm guitarist Jett and her three-man band. She plugged her new album, Pure and Simple, because she wants people to buy it--a simple enough concept but one that goes against the grain of indie rock's mind-numbing notions of purity. Jett doesn't seem to care, in fact doesn't even seem aware of such current debates.
"Go ahead," she said before "Light of Day." "Sing, dance, whatever you bring to it." After all these years, Jett brings to the stage the same thing she brought to it when she first started out--the desire to be a rock 'n' roll star. That sounds like a conventional goal, as predictable as closing the show with "Bad Reputation." But actually pulling it off, in 1994, without seeming like a nostalgia trip is the most unpredictable thing she's done.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Karen A. Peters.