Interview: Joan Jett and Kenny Laguna

words by Mark Huddle | photo by Cody Smyth
| Monday, June 11th, 2007

jettwcody-smythOriginally published in Verbicide issue #20

Back in the 1970s, there used to be this notorious nightclub in my hometown of Lancaster, Ohio. It was called Siggy’s and the local Puritans were always up in arms over the goings-on there — usually because they were pissed that someone might actually be having a good time. In the summer of 1976, I was 15 years old. One day that is forever etched in memory, I was out riding bikes with a pal who like myself was hot on discovering the glories of rock and roll. As he cruised up to me, he excitedly announced, “Dude, did ya hear? The Runaways are playin’ Siggy’s tonight!” Wow, I thought, The Runaways! They were all over my most recent copy of Rock Scene Magazine. They were just kids like me. I was already aware that I was supposed to be more impressed by the fact that they were all women. That was all the music press wanted to write about. But more important to me was the fact that they were my age and they were doing it. They were making kick-ass rock! I’d already tried to pick out the chords to “Blackmail” on my Epiphone acoustic I needed to see them! I needed to see The Runaways!

So being the super-stud I was at 15, I snuck out of the house that night and pedaled my manly ass down the craziest bar in town in the hopes of somehow catching a glimpse of rock’s newest goddesses. The first thing that struck me as I rode up to the front of the bar was that this place didn’t seem so dangerous. I mean, these folks didn’t exactly look like me, but they weren’t fornicating in public or committing acts of cannibalism either. In fact, thinking back on it, the vast majority of the denizens of Siggy’s were your usual mix of power-drinkers and bikers who, it turned out, were surprisingly tolerant of the 15-year-old who was suddenly making the scene with them.

I started to make my way towards the front door but of course as soon as the door guy got a load of me, he shook his head and said, “No way, kid. Ain’t happenin.’” I stood there at the side of the building for a few minutes trying to figure out my next move. One of the bikers who’d witnessed my failed attempt at entry wandered over to me and said, “If I were you, I’d try the alley. At least you’ll be able to hear the band.” So I did. And he was right. I could hear the band just fine, and even better, I could see them. And even better than that, I could see Joan Jett. Trust me friends, the pics in Rock Scene didn’t do her justice. I took one look at her and I was smitten. And best of all, she could play! What could be sexier than a woman who could wail on a guitar like that? “Cherry Bomb,” indeed! I’ll make no apologies. That evening, standing in that dirty, urine-soaked, rat-infested alley, I became a Joan Jett fan-for-life.

How do I even begin to tell you how I felt when I was asked if I had any interest in interviewing Joan Jett? It took me approximately three minutes to dig out my Bad Reputation album. How often do you get to talk to one of rock’s truest heroes? And if speaking with Joan wasn’t enough of a rush, one of the unexpected benefits of the interview was getting the chance to also chat with her longtime musical collaborator, business partner, and friend Kenny Laguna. That man has seen it all at every level of the music business. (Kenny Laguna needs to write a book. End of story.) Together they’ve built Blackheart Records into an indie powerhouse. With a recent critically-acclaimed album, Sinner, and a triumphant series of shows on last summer’s Warped Tour under her belt, Joan and Kenny sat down to give me their unique take on women in rock and the state of the music business. Both were suffering mightily from the flu so I split time, speaking first with Kenny Laguna about the travails of running an independent record company in a wildly changing marketplace. And then Joan and I talked about the burden that comes with being both an iconic figure in the history of rock and roll, but also a woman challenging a male-dominated music industry and the broader culture that supports it.

Hey you guys. Thanks for giving us your time.
Joan Jett: No problem.
Kenny Laguna: Yeah, we’re glad to do it. The entire band is fighting a flu bug so I thought maybe I’d talk first, and fill in some of the history, and then you and Joanie can have at it

Perfect, because I definitely have questions about not only the state of the business, but the ways in which you and Joan have made a place for yourselves in it. So let’s get started. Given the state of independent media, I thought it would be nice if we could start by talking about Blackheart Records. You guys are kind of coming at this almost backwards. Joan had this early career with Mercury and the big record companies and you had this whole career — going all the way back to the halcyon days of the Brill Building — before you ever hooked up with her. And then post-Runaways she has trouble signing another contract. You start Blackheart — from what I understand you guys are currently 100 percent independent — you don’t even have a distribution deal here in the States?
Kenny: That’s correct. We do our own distribution. And we do it quite well, actually. There are so many barriers to independence in the marketplace. We’ve always been an ageist industry. But, you know, I was with Joan when she was left for dead at 18 years old. The Runaways had happened and that was it. No contract. And we struggle even today. We’ve struggled to get on radio since the get-go. We’ve had all those hits only because the public and the press supported Joan. Radio played Joan because they had to play it. We would worm our way on the radio and the records were very active. So we didn’t really have anything given to us. The acts that the radio stations loved — and they should be ashamed of themselves — were like Styx, Journey. They didn’t even play The Who very much. Now you hear them constantly, The Who and Led Zeppelin. But radio loved Journey and those kinds of bands. REO Speedwagon. That ilk. They did well for all the call-out research and Joan never really researched well. And we blew their minds with those records. But after “I Love Rock and Roll” was a hit and “Crimson and Clover” was a monster hit, and “Do You Want to Touch Me” we had a couple of Top 40 hits, but we were cooling off. Then we couldn’t get “I Hate Myself for Loving You” on the radio, but it was number one requested so we were able to overcome a lot of that. But it took a long time to break that record.

It’s been like that. Partly because she’s a rock and roller, partly because she’s a punk rocker, and partly because she’s a woman. So we’re facing that now with the new record. We haven’t really gotten any airplay on Sinner other than college [radio]. It was like Top 10 college. And with the specialty shows, Sunday night alternative, it went number one. Alternative radio, those guys are saying, “She’s not relevant. She’s too old.” You’re playing fucking REM and the Chili Peppers and they’re older than Joan! Mike Ness is older than Joan! But hey, we’re living with it.

We’ve had a great, great run. And hey, I’m going to get these things on the radio. Because there are definitely hits on Sinner. But I have to figure it out. To be a total independent, we have to find these alternative ways of hitting the mainstream. So it’s weird, she’s been on the front cover of the Wall Street Journal twice because of Cadillac. So we’re battling back. We do their “My Cadillac Story” and they plaster Joan’s face in their ads. And it’s quid pro quo. They aren’t paying us to do the promotion. Joan just loves her Cadillacs and that’s what she drives! But it’s an example of what we have to do to get ourselves out there in the mainstream.

Let me ask you this — of course there are these great young female rockers out there who cite Joan as an important influence, and I know she has this artistic relationship with Kathleen Hanna and the Riot Grrl movement has looked to her as an icon, but it doesn’t seem to me that it has changed the way the marketplace operates. There are tons of female artists who have responded to what Joan has done, but it doesn’t sound like the business side has acted accordingly.
Kenny: Well the truth is, and Joan always points this out, the stereotype that a woman is supposed to fall into hasn’t really changed that much. You remember when the Lilith Fair Tour was going strong and everyone was saying “Oh, it’s the ‘Year of the Woman.’” Yeah, if you sound like Joni Mitchell, you get to play something and they’ll call it rock. And they’ll whine about the “price of fame.” But those girls who sound like Rage Against the Machine, hell, they don’t get to surface. And Kathleen Hanna never really made the mainstream and she is incredible! But they never really opened the door. Courtney Love got on the radio, and she was half full of shit anyway. But she gets on the radio with a song that was totally toned down. And the Donnas — who started out with a little bit of ‘macho’ — when they finally made a record that went on the radio it was a toned down, made-for-radio record. I mean, we made poppy records, but Joanie did her thing and we just lucked out and managed to get it on the radio. But basically no one’s done it! We still haven’t had that balls-to-the-wall, wild woman fucking thing and made it go number one.

Could it work along similar lines as, say, a band like Nirvana? A moment where suddenly someone comes along and the record companies and radio get it? I mean, you’d think that Joan would’ve done it in that sense because here comes a band — Nirvana — that shows the corporations that punk rock can sell not just lots of copies, but also sell other products. Can the same thing happen for women, or are the gender politics just that much more difficult?
Kenny: Well, so far it is, but you never know. By the law of averages something might happen. Like “I Love Rock and Roll” happened in spite of the conventional wisdom because it was such a powerful thing. It was the number one requested record for four months and we were just a little independent label. It was amazing, right? Something again might happen like that. But right now it’s the men and the women — no one can sell a rock record.

I’ve been told by all the experts that rock and roll just isn’t going on the radio right now. There will be no more rock and roll hits. So you’ve got to be Justin Timberlake. And it’s kind of depressing, but things change and we’ll see. But remember, the whole radio industry is controlled by two or three companies. And so radio has become less relevant. It’s wide open on the internet, but there are thousands of songs out there. We just go forward hoping to make one of these records a hit. I thought “AC/DC” on the new album was going to be a hit because it just sounded like a hit to me. Who knows? Maybe it still will be.

The video is still all over the place.
Kenny: It is! It is! It’s an active thing. And we get a lot of downloads. I think it’s number two or three of all our downloads, and “I Love Rock and Roll” was on the charts all this year as a download in the Top 100! Which is amazing. So we’re downloading thousands of “I Love Rock and Rolls” which I actually held off of because I waited my whole life for a song that people would have to pay $17 to get a hold of and now they can get it for 99 cents. But when I didn’t do that, they were getting it for nothing! But the bigger issue is that radio didn’t embrace it. If you saw the comments from these snot-balls at alternative radio, I mean, “Joan’s not relevant,” I mean how could she not be relevant? She led the pack!

I know she’s doing the thing on Sirius — do you think satellite radio might be a way to open up that market?
Kenny: We got good support from Little Steven’s “Underground Garage” on Sirius but I didn’t feel it. I don’t think we’re ready yet. I told this to the heads of Sirius and they were really resentful of it, but the truth is they haven’t broken anything yet. Well, they claim they broke one or two things, but basically its not there yet. But you know the potential is there because they’ve made these amazing deals with the car companies and once you have satellite radio in your car, which I do, you figure out quickly that the potential is there. What bothers me now is the technology. What about internet radio? What happens to satellite radio when they put that in the cars? What do you think?

I think you’re right. We live in an age in which the next technological wave is just around the corner. It doesn’t look like [the satellite radio] market has opened up the way they thought it would. So I think you’re probably right — there’s something out there that’s easier, more efficient, and that everyone can get their hands on.
Kenny: That might be true, but you know the $12.50 a month is probably annoying to a lot of people. We can get the same content off of the internet, and the other thing is that they’re making those cradles for iPods so you have that option. And as great as satellite radio is, that can be replaced in a couple of months by the internet radio and you can get the same content. You can listen to it all. And it might be cheaper and you can incorporate all the areas of the internet, not just radio. I first saw the CD in 1980 in France and it was a curiosity. And it disappeared, and I thought, well, I guess that ain’t going to happen. And then in the early ‘90s it exploded, so that could happen, too. But as the technology changes the market changes, too.

That’s right. All the big companies are hurting because of those changes. They just can’t seem to figure out how to get out in front of the technology.
Kenny: I want to go back to something we were talking about earlier; that we’re self-distributed. Well, you know, anyone can be self-distributed. Every schmuck who can’t get a record deal self-distributes. We are really distributed. We have a direct relationship with Trans World, and Wal Mart. We have a direct relationship with Best Buy. And the one-stops, and Southern. I really enjoy not paying the extra percentage, but that’s not what it’s about. Nobody’s holding my money. They’re not playing games, because you know the big companies in the end add steps and then there’s a whole bunch of lawyers and accountants who are holding the money for a while. This way we send the records to the stores, and they send us the money. And then we can pay our artists. It’s perfect — and it’s pretty radical. And the only way we can do it is we now have a 25-year-old brand. It’s crazy.

People think hip-hop created indie labels, or Ani DiFranco. Nah, we’ve been doing it for 25 years and people should know about it. We didn’t do it to be clever. It’s not like Joan and I went to college to learn the business of music like these kids today. We did what we had to do because nobody wanted us. I remember one guy early on said to me, “How did you ever think of doing this, it’s so genius.” I said, I didn’t think of doing it. Nobody would sign us! All I ever wanted was to be on a big label. (laughter)

For all of the importance that Joan has as a sort of feminist icon, at the same time, it’s what you guys have managed to do beneath the radar screen because the companies didn’t have the foresight to know how big this could really be.
Kenny: You know, when I met Joan, The Runaways break up and the record company gives everybody in the band a deal except her on American Polygram. For some reason, they just left her for dead. If you want to look at it on paper, she was writing the songs and she was singing the leads! Why would you leave her out, you morons?

She goes to Holland and the Sex Pistols and her go in the studio and she cuts three sides. One of them is “I Love Rock and Roll,” and they think that is a piece of garbage and they don’t even think about it. I heard it, and I never dreamed it would be as big as it was, but I thought, that’s a pretty good song. Maybe I can make a deal to get this back. So I went in there and said to this guy (who I still know today) that I’d like to get this song back. And he goes, I’ll give you all three if you pay the studio bill. It’s $2,300. So I bought back “I Love Rock and Roll” for $2,300 with two other songs with the Sex Pistols, and that was one of the best deals anyone ever made in the record business! People were asleep at the wheel. Even when we were happening, we were already having hits and they still didn’t realize it! I mean, we just lucked out with this kind of ignorance that exists. Honestly, I truly believe that she should be treated the way Neil Young is treated. That’s part of the gender bias and it’s clearly there. But all that aside we’ve had a blessed run.

From everything I’ve read about the Warped Tour this summer, Joan really blew people’s minds. She seems to be an ageless force out there in a business that caters to the young. If she’s feeling up to it, let’s take this thing to the next level. Thanks much Kenny.
Kenny: And thank you Mark
Joan: Hey again, Mark.

Joan, hey, thanks again for the chat. I know you’re all feeling like hell today. Go as long as you feel comfortable.
Joan: Cool, man. The whole band is down with this.

I got to see the Warped Tour in Buffalo last summer, and part of the reason I went was to see you. The show I saw in Buffalo was a real celebration of you, your work, and the new album. How was the Warped experience for you?
Joan: Oh man, I had so much fun. I mean, I knew I would. I knew we all would. But it was beyond my expectations. There was great energy, great vibes, people were very friendly, the bands all had great camaraderie together. It was a wonderful experience. It was like a big block party. A rolling block party, punk rock circus kind of thing and it was great. Everybody was very nice to us and supportive and all the bands would watch each other. I’d ride my bike, my BMX from stage to stage and watch the different bands. Amazing.

Did it strike you at all that, for instance, when a Joan Jett record comes out, inevitably those of us who are writing about it, we want to talk about your contributions to challenging gender barriers and all this stuff, but then you’re out at a major event or on a major tour, like Warped, and the number of female-driven rock acts is still comparably very small…
Joan: Yeah…

…Or they’re segregated on one of the back stages rather than spread out through the venue. Given the contributions you have made, we haven’t really seen the marketplace change that much. Do you have a sense of why that is?
Joan: You know, people ask me that a lot and I don’t really have a good sense of why that is. I honestly think that people are still threatened by girls who are playing rock and roll. I’m not talking about using the word “rock” to describe a pop singer the way they do now. The media does it all over the place, anytime they want to give edge to somebody. So if you went by reading the papers you’d think there were lots of female rock musicians. But there aren’t. I think part of that — at least to me, I know from my own experience — is just that people feel threatened. But I don’t get that threat. And I can only sort of attach it to [the fact that] rock and roll by its nature is sexual. So girls playing rock and roll is saying to the world, “We own our sexuality.” I think that pop music is sort of about “you can do what you want to me” kind of energy, while rock and roll is “I’m going to do what I want to you” kind of energy. And I think maybe that just comes off threatening to people. I’m talkin’ about sweaty rock and roll. But I really can’t tell you why that would be. It doesn’t make sense to me. I think if the music is good and the artist is good, it shouldn’t matter what the gender is. I just don’t understand these barriers that are up like that.

You’re right about the Warped Tour; at least certainly last year, they did have a girls’ stage, and the year before that they didn’t have any representation! So these girls drove around with a truck that was their own stage. And they would open it up in the parking lot and just start playing. And Kevin liked that; he liked that sort of spirit and he invited them to be on the tour the next year. So unfortunately — or fortunately — things go in these incremental steps. Hopefully, in the next few years, you’ll see more girl representation, more female representation on the Warped Tour. But as far as the mainstream, why is there such resistance? I don’t know, and I am never going to figure out the answer to that.

I have two teenage daughters, and both of them have become interested in music. And there’s this local arts space in town, and the kids are always putting on shows; there’s a lot of DIY spirit and lots of bands come through and play. I swear that half of them have young women, either fronting the band or with multiple women, and there doesn’t seem to be any notice of it on the grassroots. They aren’t looking at a band and saying, “That’s a girl band,” or, “That’s a boy band.” But by the time it gets to the marketplace there seems to be this big wall up there. It’s striking. No one else seems to be talking about this except maybe the lawyers and accountants…
Joan: Right. But also, I think people can be very nasty to girl musicians too as soon as they realize they’re serious and its not a phase, or a fad, or something that they’re going to do until they get to college. If you run into a girl who’s trying to do this as a career, people get really nasty! They start calling you names for no reason! It’s just because. It’s outside what they expect a woman to do. And still, as free as we feel we are in America, there still is a very antiquated view of what women should do or are allowed to do. And if they step outside of that they’re criticized for it. I certainly took that as a teenager in The Runaways. We took a lot of shit for that stuff. We just didn’t get where it was coming from because it just seemed so illogical.

I’ve been reading this biography of Janis Joplin, and she was treated horribly. Here was one of the biggest musical stars on the planet and she just took endless abuse. Not just from people that she encountered day-to-day, but within the business itself that just would not show her the respect that her stature as an artist deserved.
Joan: I totally believe that. That it would come inside the industry. And sure, she got it from outside, too, from people who didn’t think she should be doing what she was doing.

Your success has at the very least opened up opportunities for you to make music with some pretty tremendous people. I know the four songs on Sinner that you do with Kathleen Hanna are just really wonderful. Do you have a lot of connections to that particular generation? Are there other musicians who you share that synergy with?
Joan: I certainly enjoy discovering people. I think that’s what we’ve decided we’d like Blackheart to be, partly, is an outlet for new bands, but certainly girl bands or bands with girls in them. We have two great bands on our label now — the Dollyrots and Girl in a Coma — two bands that I’m really excited about. But back to Kathleen. I was like a big fan of Bikini Kill, so I loved her stuff before we ever had the chance to write songs together. You know, Kathleen is great. She’s so outside the box. She forced me outside my comfort zone, which is a great way to write songs; it forces you to do something a little bit different than you’re used to. So it was just a blast to work with her. And I’d like to do it more if I can urge her to someday.

Back in the mid-‘90s, there was a moment there when you thought maybe the mainstream was going to open up to girl bands. Bikini Kill was making a lot of noise. You had bands like L7, Babes in Toyland, and I know there was a bunch I’m forgetting, but those bands particularly were making a lot of noise, and maybe it was just in the Northwest where I was hanging out during that time.

Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile…
Joan: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I was really into those guys, too.

Sometimes it’s unfortunate [that] when people encounter bands through the print media and the buzz is that these bands are all a part of this “Riot Grrl” movement, they all get lumped under this generic heading. Some people who are into it are going to go check them out. But just as often I think it turns people off. They don’t bother to listen first before forming an opinion. So the stuff gets defined so narrowly that it excludes a lot of people who might otherwise be attracted to the music.
Joan: That’s interesting. You may be right.

Let’s get back to the Sinner record. A lot of critics have noted the political bent of a lot of the songs, in particular “Riddles.” You were very active in the Punk Voter movement, and you were at some point active in the Howard Dean campaign. Your politics have been very public — does it surprise you that people would latch onto those songs?
Joan: Not really, if only because it’s something I’ve not really done in my musical life before. I hadn’t written about politics or spirituality or anything like that. I’d wanted to broach those subjects — things bigger than the things I’ve written about in the past, whether it be relationships, falling in love, falling out of love, sex, you know. To go beyond that, and write about social issues and politics. But when that’s not been your forte, it’s hard to do. Or you’re fearful of it, or a combination of those things.

I had some writer’s block for awhile, but it got to a point, seeing all the news, going over and spending time with the troops overseas, it just gets to a point where you say, “I’ve got to say something about this.” And certainly, in “Riddles,” we’re not calling anybody morons or anything like that. We’re just talking about how the administration uses language in a very confusing manner — like a riddle. The example we used was Rumsfeld. If you could follow it, it makes sense. But the point is you can’t! Beyond that, the song is about the Orwellian nature of a lot of the things our government is saying.

You wrote that song with a guy from the Vacancies didn’t you?
Joan: No, no that was “Change the World.”

“Change the World,” that’s right. That’s a band that’s getting a pretty serious buzz around here. Someone just sent me their CD and it’s excellent.
Joan: Oh yeah! That’s great. They’re a really great band, and of course they’re on our label.

Joan, you sound like you’re starting to wind down. I want to thank you again for getting out of your sick bed to chat with us.
Joan: It was my pleasure. Thanks a lot Mark

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!