Joan Jett Interview for The Runaways

With Kristen Stewart playing her in a new biopic, Joan Jett explains to Paul Byrne why she still loves rock’n’roll.

When Joan Jett first performed on our fair isle, she was a mere 16-year old. The eldest member of the all-girl five-piece band, The Runaways, was 17 at the time, and the heady cocktail of unbridled female sexuality and very loud guitars naturally caused quite a stir. If not very many record sales. That would come later for Jett, when, with her next band, The Blackhearts, she would score a worldwide hit in 1981 with a cover of The Arrows’ I Love Rock’n’Roll.

Back in ’76, Runaways lead singer Cherie Currie liked to take to the stage in corset, panties and fishnet stockings. Reviewers – predominantly male – duly worked themselves into a lather. More Spice Girls than Patti Smith, The Runaways were formed in 1975 by eccentric rock entrepreneur Fowley at his friend Rodney Bingenheimer’s glam-loving English Disco, which was just about to shut up shop on Sunset Strip. A year later, The Runaways had their debut album out; three years, and five albums, later, they disbanded.

Jett has always been precious about her first band, refusing to get involved in a 2004 documentary, ‘Edgeplay’, but now, with a Jett biography having hit the bookshelves in March, and a Runaways biopic (starring Twilight’s Kristen Stewart as Jett and Dakota Fanning as Currie, and based on Currie’s autobiography, ‘Neon Angel’) about to hit our screens, the woman born Joan Marie Larkin is finally ready to put her side of the story on record.

PAUL BYRNE: With a surname like Larkin, you’ve got some Irish roots, right?
JOAN JETT: I do indeed. My father was Irish, and I believe he came from County Mayo. Want to explore that a little bit more when I have the time…

Well, it certainly explains your sexiness, your talent, and your great artistic abilities. We should talk about ‘The Runaways’ movie, which you executive produced. Are you happy with it?
Well, the process is extremely difficult, getting there, but I think the movie definitely gives you a sense of what it was like to be in The Runaways. And I think that was the goal; to give it a genuine sense of what it was like, and to show the rock’n’roll essence, the authenticity of it, and I think they got a lot of that.

There’s only so deep down you can go with a mainstream movie, former member Vicki Blue’s 2004 documentary ‘Edgeplay’ concentrating largely on the dark side of The Runaways story. Struggle with the balance here?
I never wanted a movie in the first place. I figured, all they could do was screw it up. So, I wasn’t really into it, and Kenny was trying to help Cherie get her book published – which is how all this started. And then he ran into walls there, and he thought that maybe it could be a TV movie, and he ran into walls there. He kept trying to make things happen, and eventually he ran into these people who became the screenwriter and the director. And then I had to really make a decision. That was the point where I knew, this is real now. This is going to be a movie. I had to decide, do I want to be involved, or am I going to say, no, forget it?

I decided, once I was going to sell them my life rights and stuff, that I wanted to be involved in all of it, and be there as much as possible. And once I met Kristen Stewart, and talked to her about the role, and about her take on it, I was really pretty confident that she was going to have what it takes to get where she needed to get. So, I think a lot of it comes down to the actors, that they took it so seriously. They did a lot of their own research, and then Cherie Currie got to work with Dakota Fanning, which I’m sure was helpful for Dakota. And I was there on set every day, watching Kristen, to be there for her, if she needed to ask me any questions. ‘How would you do this?’
I also wanted to watch the movie production. I wanted to make sure that nothing got too far – what’s the word – afield? So, this is a movie, so there are a few embellishments, but it’s based on a lot of factual things, and I just wanted to stay around and make sure that it was in the realm of reality.

In ‘Edgeplay’, Cherie talks of wishing someone would take a gun and blow Kim Fowley’s brains out. Was there some nasty issues going on there?
No, when I saw the ‘Edgeplay’ thing, I thought, these girls were in a completely different band to the one that I was in. I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Not to mention the fact that they were free to leave at any time. So, if they weren’t having fun, why did you go? Why did you show up? So, I don’t have too much sympathy for the retrospective, looking-back victimhood. I don’t dig it, and I don’t believe that Cherie really feels that way, even now. If you were to ask her that question now, I think she’d say no.

You didn’t get involved in that documentary – did you detect an approach you didn’t approve of?
Oh, absolutely. I thought it was a Jerry Springer rip on The Runaways. You’re talking about the time that we came out, all the subjects the documentary could be about – all the great bands we played with, all the tours we did, other people we influenced. The documentary had so much firm ground to plumb, and for them to just go the Jerry Springer route was really disappointing, and I wanted nothing to do with it. Because that’s not what I recall at all.

I read that it was your then-manager Toby Mamis who handpicked The Arrows’ I Love Rock’n’Roll, claiming it would be your anthem one day…
I gotta take issue with that. I don’t know what he’s talking about.

Wherever the song came from, it’s both a blessing and a curse to have a that one song that everyone knows and loves. Does your relationship with ‘I Love Rock’n’Roll’ go in and out of love?
Right. I just want to clear up how I found it. I saw The Arrows on Top Of The Pops or something, when The Runaways were in England. And they were playing the B-side of their single, which was ‘I Love Rock’n’Roll’. So, after I saw it on TV, I went down to the record shop and bought the single. And I wanted The Runaways to do it, but we’d already covered a song with the title Rock’n’Roll in it, so the rest of the girls didn’t want to do it. So, I just held on to the song, figuring that some day it would come in handy.

And it did.
Yeah. As to the relationship with the song, I had to come to terms with that early on, because there’s a part of me that goes, ‘Hey, we have other songs!’, but there’s something in this song that really resonates with people, and connects with them. And you just can’t fight that. If you want to sit there and be frustrated about it every night – that people aren’t recognising your other songs, and are focusing on ‘I Love Rock’n’Roll’ – then, you’re going to be miserable for the rest of your life. So, I just have to be grateful that I was able to have some sort of relationship with this song, and that it was a hit.

Words – Paul Byrne

The Runaways is at Irish cinemas from Sept 10th