Joan Jett on Being 'The Queen of Rock 'n' Roll' (INTERVIEW)

We caught up with the rock icon to talk about her recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and find out what drives her passion for making music.
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Todd Aaron Jensen
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We caught up with the rock icon to talk about her recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and find out what drives her passion for making music.
Joan Jett Photo

Joan Jett, the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll, is a 2015 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Photo: Roger Erickson/Courtesy Blackheart Records)

Five minutes after Joan Jett calls you from New York, the line cuts out briefly. A car has crashed into a power line outside the venue she’s playing that night and the Big Apple city block’s gone dark. Such is life for The Queen of Rock 'n' Roll. “I hope everybody’s all right,” she says. “Nobody needs that kind of trouble.”

Last month, the multi-platinum Jett – whose four-decade career is a perfect collision of brass-knuckled trouble, punk rock sass, leather-clad sneers, indelible riffs, and perfect melodies – was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside Green Day, Bill Withers, Ringo Starr, and (posthumously) Lou Reed and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Though the rock icon is “very honored” by the recognition, she says, “I’m not playing for awards. I’m playing for people.”

Ever the workhorse, Jett is touring in support of her exquisite, fierce 2013 album, Unvarnished, playing masterful sets as the opening act on The Who’s 50 anniversary sojourn, while spreading the word about her new fashion line with alternative retail outlet Hot Topic. One of Jett’s favorite is a sleeveless black t-shirt she designed, emblazoned with the words: “I don’t give a damn about my bad reputation.” Yep, that about says it all.

The Queen of Rock 'n' Roll. This is not a terrible moniker, right?

Not at all. It's a great moniker. But I feel real humbled by it, you know?

What's that Spiderman line? "With great power comes great responsibility." Is that how it is for the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll?

Well, I suppose so, but the responsibilities for my own self are just really to try and make sure I make the best music that I feel I should be making and to then get out on the road and play for people, really, is what I like to do. That's the way I connect.

Joan Jett Photo

Jett says making a connection through music is humbling: ". . .when people tell you stories about how your music got them through these most difficult times," she explains. "It gives them roots or an anchor or something. It does for them what it does for me, somehow." (Photo: Roger Erickson/Courtesy Blackheart Records)

For all of the quantum changes in the music industry, it still comes down to that lather, rinse, repeat cycle. It's still about making the best music possible, and then taking it out and doing it live, person to person. Does that sound right, in your career?

Well, to me that’s really fundamental. The live show really needs to be there for people to experience music the way I think, ultimately, it should be experienced —person to person, collectively in a group, live. You make records so people can take the music home with them and stuff, but it’s really about playing live for me. It comes down to that crucible. Can you do it live? That connection is so important to me.

It's the campfire situation or the church, right?

Yes, it is. It's magic and it's subjective because you can never really know exactly what you're doing for the people. Sometimes a song that you're singing for the one person it just reminds them of a good time — their happy youth or their partying days or whatever. For other people, that same exact song gets them through some kind of trauma or difficulty they had in life where they needed this music. To them, it was a life and death situation. And to me, that's where it's really humbling — when people tell you stories about how your music got them through these most difficult times. It gives them roots or an anchor or something. It does for them what it does for me, somehow.

Often, when an artist is honored, as you’ve been, with induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it becomes a time for reflection. How has making music and taking it to the people changed for you in the time you've been doing this? Has the message or the meaning or the purpose or the drive changed for you over the years?

I'm sure to some degree it has. Starting at 15 or 16 years old, it's definitely going to be a little bit different for me at this point in my life. But to me, music is the one constant. It's always been there and it's the thing that's changed the least in my world. Really, the whole business has changed since I started. A lot of people have a difficult time understanding the landscape as it was when I was starting out. If you're talking to a 15-year-old kid now and talk about what it was like when you were 15, it's sort of a world they could not really recognize. You know what I'm saying?

It must be gratifying to be inducted, yes? 

I'm very excited about this and I'm very happy to be inducted. It's an awesome thing. I am honored and I think it's a thrill, but you don't get into a band to win accolades and things like that. I think the music is the most important thing, and if people recognize you along the way for doing something unique or special, then I think that's great. But you don't do this so that's the result.

Joan Jett Photo

Jett is currently touring in support of her album Unvarnished. (Photo: Roger Erickson/Courtesy Blackheart Records)

It may be Internet apocrypha, but I read that you’ve only taken a couple of guitar lessons in your entire life. True?

My parents got me my first guitar when I was, like, 13, and they thought I should get some lessons so I could actually play the thing. I didn’t love the idea of guitar lessons. First of all, when you're a kid, you don't want to hear that you've got to learn the basics. You want to learn how to play and you want to learn now, and I wanted to learn how to play rock 'n' roll. So I [found a] teacher in the back room of some music store, and I had my electric guitar thrown over my shoulder, and said, “Teach me how to play rock 'n' roll.” The guy looked at me like I had three heads. So he sat us down together and tried to teach me how to play “On Top of Old Smokey.”

Did he live to tell the tale?

Well, I took the lesson. I was friendly to him, but then I just never went back. I bought a “learn how to play guitar by yourself” book, which taught me basic chords, and I’d sit next to my record player and try to learn the songs that I was buying at the time — "All Right Now" by Free, "Bang a Gong" by T. Rex, that kind of stuff. Led Zeppelin was a little too hard for me to master at the time, but just learning basic chords really helped. I know a lot of people learn "Smoke On the Water" when they're learning basic rhythm chords and I did that one, too.

It must have occurred to you at some point that there is a whole generation of burgeoning musicians doing exactly the same thing with your records now.

Well, I guess in the back of my mind, that thought is there, but to kind of think about it feels kind of weird. This is not about me. I'm lucky. I get to be the vessel. But really, I'm here to say: we can all do what we want — as long as you're not hurting somebody else — whether it's a girl playing rock 'n' roll or being a nuclear physicist. It's about doing things that people tell you that you shouldn't do.

That’s pretty rock 'n' roll.

People are quick to tell you what you can’t do. They never tell you what you can do. I think encouragement, whether it's obvious encouragement or whether you get it from a song on somebody’s record, just saying, "Hey, she did this, so I can do it,” I think that’s important. I think however you get it, it's important to be encouraged in life.

Speaking of needing encouragement: your solo debut was rejected by 20-something major labels before you decided to sell it out of your trunk. Is that true?

Yeah, 23 to be exact. It was all of the majors and all the minors that existed at that time. No one wanted it. We wanted to do a major label. We didn't want to have to put it out ourselves, but I was a little different, I think, from what people expected. I didn’t look like other girls at the time, which might be hard for people to imagine now. Today, you’d look at me and go, “What’s the big deal?” But in that climate, I was unique or something. That’s the nice way of putting it.

Rock of Ages Artists: Rock Respect: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts payed tribute to rock 'n roll music in 1981, with 'I Love Rock 'N Roll.' Originally recorded by the London-based band Arrows, Jett's soulful vocals and sexual undertones made the song famous. (Photo: Redferns)

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts payed tribute to rock 'n' roll music in 1981 with the anthem 'I Love Rock 'N Roll.' (Photo: Redferns)

But you keep on keepin’ on. 

Well, yeah! I mean, we all go through hard times and loss and growing up and falling in love and all that stuff. It's not easy no matter who you are, whether you're in a band or whether you're someone who works behind a desk eight hours a day. Life is a journey, and it can be great and difficult and all those things at the same time. You just keep going.

If you ever run out of songs you have to write, you could always go back to “On Top of Old Smokey.”

(Laughs) Yeah. Maybe. I should probably finally learn that damn song!

The 2015 Rock and Roll Hall Fame Induction Ceremony premieres on HBO on May 30th.