Joan Jett: “Ted Nugent’s criticism? It’s what I’ve dealt with my whole life – being written off”

The icon has released her first acoustic album, ‘Changeup’. Yet, Jordan Bassett finds, she shows no sign of mellowing, savaging her critics while paying homage to Miley Cyrus and Taylor Hawkins

The beach is deserted, waves crashing hypnotically into the surf. It’s a reassuring sight: steady, calming. The skyline melts into the sea.

“I’m right on the beach, so it’s awesome. The ocean’s there and planes are coming into JFK… It’s beautiful,” says Joan Jett as she continues to show NME the view from her home somewhere in New York state, before heading back inside and turning the camera on herself, revealing that instantly recognisable jagged black bob-cut and those cat-like almond eyes.

The view is the calmest thing about our riotous, hour-long interview, which sees the 63-year-old rock’n’roll icon tear into her critics with reckless abandon, while also kicking through the rubble of the boundaries she’s smashed since forming her taboo-busting punk band The Runaways in 1975. We’re joined on the call by her manager, producer and best friend Kenny Laguna, who’s currently in northern California and occasionally interjects to clarify details she can’t quite remember. In doing so, he can be more outrageous than Jett herself.

Advertisement

For anyone who’s seen the 2018 Jett documentary Bad Reputation, which depicts their four-decade relationship as being – in the words of one interviewee – “a marriage without the sex”, the duo’s constant affectionate bickering will be instantly recognisable. Speaking to them is like being spliced into a deleted scene from the film. At one point, she chastises Laguna for keeping his camera on, lounging in his bed while his granddaughter crashes around the living room next door. “Kenny! We don’t need to see the circus, OK? It’s a fuckin’ interview!” Jett barks. “OK! I’m outta here!” he bawls back, his screen turning black.

Laguna scooped Jett up after The Runaways imploded in 1979, helping her to go solo and form her backing band The Blackhearts. Her 1980 solo debut, initially self-titled and later re-released as ‘Bad Reputation’, was infamously rejected by 23 labels, before she and Laguna put it out on their own imprint, Blackheart Records, spawning her signature song in its no-bullshit title track.

To mark the anniversaries of that record and its monster follow-up, 1981’s 10-million-selling ‘I Love Rock ’n Roll’, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts have released ‘Changeup’, the radio-rock group’s first-ever acoustic album. The 25-track collection features mellower takes on their timeless classics ‘Victim of Circumstance’ and ‘Love Is Pain’, as well as The Runaways’ era-defining ‘Cherry Bomb’.

“It wasn’t planned”, says Jett, who explains that the project emerged from their intimate acoustic show at the Bad Reputation movie premiere in Los Angeles’ Nuart Theater in 2018. “It went really well. It felt good to us doin’ it and the audience seemed to respond well. So it’s just info you keep in the back of your mind when you’re touring and stuff.” When it came to doing “something special for the fans” in honour of those anniversaries, it seemed obvious to unplug the guitars. The initial plan was to record a few tracks, but “it went so well that we just kept goin’ and recorded pretty much everything we play live… We thought, ‘You know what? This might be really cool as an album. It’s something that we’ve never done.’”

Not many musicians are still entering fresh territory after 40 years, but Joan Jett has always been an emblem for breaking new ground – The Runaways, for example, received all manner of abuse for the crime of being an all-girl group in the male-centric 1970s LA punk scene (she has spoken of having a rib cracked by a missive from an aggrieved male audience member).

Jett continues to influence younger artists, too. In a 2020 cover story, Maryland rapper Rico Nasty told NME that her punky debut album ‘Nightmare Vacation’ was her “Joan Jett moment”, adding: “[She taught me] how to [hear] ‘No’ and smile. So many people told her that her music was too hard and too raw. When I came on the scene, I was definitely on the softer side but then I started telling people to kiss my ass.”

Advertisement

Does it ever get old to hear younger artists cite her as a catalyst for their own creativity?

“Never!” Jett exclaims, beaming at the quote. “Are you kidding? I live for that, for people to overcome the bullshit around us that people give us all the time. You can’t live your life like that, with other people telling you how your life is gonna be. [People want to] throw their conditions on you. No, man. If you wanna do something and you’re told ‘No’… give it a shot. If you don’t make it, at least you tried and you don’t have to die wondering, ‘Could I have done that?’ The world is weird, but it’s so important to me to know that girls – and boys – are hearing what I’m saying. You’ve gotta be persistent, especially if you’re different and you don’t fit into a mould. Because people will try to mould you, so you’ve just gotta be vigilant. But, you know, that can get tiring, too.”

Was there ever a time when Joan Jett felt her vigilance against other people’s conditions start to wane?

“Yeah,” she says. “After The Runaways, I was very distraught about the band breaking up because I thought it was a genius thing. But we got the shit kicked out of us just because we were girls. You know, we were a great band and we played a lot better than a lot of the guy bands around. And so it was really frustrating to me.” Her voice falters. “God, I still get emotional about it. Yeah, it was my baby. So that was tough and I was in bad shape. I was drinkin’; I was doin’ a lot of drugs. And, you know, got in trouble a little bit – not with the cops, but just health-wise.”

Joan Jett (left) and The Runaways performing at New York’s CBGB’s in 1976. Credit: Getty

After she met Kenny Laguna through The Runaways’ former manager, she says, “We hit it off right away. [You know] when you see somebody and you just feel comfortable? Which was so relieving to me ‘cause I was so… It was tiring, keeping your guard up all the time and not trusting anyone. That was probably the toughest time I ever had, the transition from The Runaways to The Blackhearts. But with Kenny, I had someone to fight with me, who believed in me.”

In forming The Blackhearts, she felt it important that her backing musicians were all male, as she was fatigued at The Runaways only being viewed through the prism of their gender. Still, record label bosses were blind to Joan Jett’s talent. She has kept the 23 rejection letters she and Laguna received: “You can see the biggest guys’ names in music, rejecting you. You’re going, ‘They missed four [hit singles]! So either they’re not listening to the music, they can’t hear hits or they already made the decision, ‘We don’t want her – make up a letter and get rid of her.’”

Like Rico Nasty said: Joan Jett heard “No” and smiled.

“Yeah,” she grins, “you hear ‘No’ and smile because then you knew you had to get up and teach somebody a lesson because they didn’t know what they were talkin’ about.”

It’s common for chart-topping artists to release their records independently in 2022 – just look at Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music – but was practically unheard of in 1980; Jett and Laguna were way ahead of their time. Was it scary to take a leap into the unknown?

Joan Jett & the Blackhearts in 2022. Credit: press

“Oh, totally,” she says. “We were so scared. We wanted to be signed to a major – badly. We weren’t looking to be independent, but we had no choice… I didn’t have any money, but [Kenny] took his daughter’s college fund and we printed up, like, 500 records and sold them out of the trunk of the car at gigs.”

It was the beginning of a journey that would eventually see Joan Jett & The Blackhearts inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, validating the leap of faith she and Laguna took four decades ago. Given her unlikely success, has she been left with a general distrust of the music industry?

“Always,” Jett replies firmly. “I’ve distrusted from the beginning, which is not really who I am – I’m naïve and I trust too easily… [But] you see, through history, this business – any part of the entertainment industry is tough and, you know, can chew people up and spit ‘em out. And there’s not a lot of sympathy for people because life is tough. Everybody is having a tough time. Look at the people in Ukraine. We’re talking about this? We’re lucky we can even talk about it.”

After almost five decades in the business, Joan Jett is still – somehow – completely untrammelled by the machinations of the music industry. When she talks, there is no sign of self-censorship, no indication of her straining to remember her media training as she responds to a question. When I fumble a particularly idiotic and badly phrased query about Jett’s influence on the current rock-infused pop landscape (or something), using Olivia Rodrigo as an example, she pauses for a moment, then deadpans, with perfect comic timing: “I don’t know, really, what question you’re asking me.”

She is refreshingly unguarded, too, when I raise the other strand of criticism that The Runaways faced throughout their short career. This is epitomised in Typical Girls: The Story of The Slits, a biography of the titular British all-female ‘70s punk band, when author Zoë Howe writes that “for all their adolescent aggression, [The Runaways’] focus was ultimately on appealing to men”. Jett explodes at the suggestion: “Appealing to men! That’s an absolute misread of everything. I mean, we wanted to be able to do what The Rolling Stones and Queen [did].”

She points out that The Runaways would wear “blood packs” and spurt fake gore over the stage when playing the grinding ‘Dead End Justice’, but “everyone focuses on the corset” that singer Cherie Currie sported for ‘Cherry Bomb’. “All these ‘strong’ women that say, ‘Oh, you can do anything’?” Her voice raises a few decibels. “No, you can’t! Because I got shit for it from feminists and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute – I thought you just told me I could do anything I wanted?’ I’m doing what I want, and I’m sorry if it appeals to men, but it also appeals to women! What can I say? I’m not trying to appeal to a sex; I’m trying to appeal to anyone. I’m trying to make connection.”

“Miley Cyrus is go-go-go 24/7. But she’s a really sweet person. She’s fun to work with”

Jett’s friend Miley Cyrus, who inducted her hero into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, dubbing her “what Superwoman really should be”, has also shrugged off plenty of misplaced criticism over the years. “You have to because you’ll go insane [otherwise],” Jett notes.

The duo met when they both appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011, just as Cyrus was shaking off her teeny bopper alter-ego Hannah Montana. As Jett has forgotten about the broadcast, a bemused Laguna (“it’s hard to forget something so big – it was the biggest show on television at the time!”) chimes in. “The premise was the young star asked her hero to come,” he says. “Miley brought Joan. I don’t know if Oprah would have wanted Joan Jett, but she had to put up with it because of Miley. And they did Joan’s songs. Miley knew them because she grew up with them… The publicist said, ‘Now, no matter what: no smoking pot with Miley. No matter what!’ And we meet her for five minutes and she goes, ‘Let’s go smoke pot.’ And, of course, that was the beginning of a great relationship.”

“She’s go-go-go 24/7,” says Jett, “so when I do see her, she’s doing a million things at once. But she’s a really sweet person. She’s fun to work with.”

Cyrus invited Jett and the Blackhearts to work on her rocky 2020 album ‘Plastic Hearts’, resulting in the pulsating ‘Bad Karma’. “That was fun,” explains Jett, “‘cause it’s different. I dunno, maybe it’s that I’m getting older and I’m more open to trying things, like singing on a friend’s song that’s a little bit different kinda music from what I do – or doing this acoustic thing. You know, you get so rigid in who you are, so I’m just trying to do things that are fun and real, with people that I like.”

Joan Jett and Miley Cyrus performing at the Tic Tok Tailgate party prior to Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida in 2021. Credit: Alamy

She exudes similar warmth when discussing the late Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, who died, heartbreakingly, in March: “He was a fuckin’ wonderful guy. Would light up a room. Kick-ass drummer.”

Jett and her band met the Foos “around 2010” and they “all really hit it off,” she reveals, adding that they crossed paths plenty over the years and toured South America together. In 2011, Grohl and the gang invited the Blackhearts to perform the song ‘Bad Reputation’ on The Late Show With David Letterman: “Just little things like that, they included me in. It was very, sort of, familial. We’re all sittin’ backstage, runnin’ through songs. I can see [Taylor] now on his drum pad, whacking away. He’s a wonderful guy. It’s really a tragedy that so many people who love him, lose him. But, you know, it’s not just physical. He’s around. And that’s hard for people to hear because they want the physical.”

Yet she turns fiery once more at the mention of right-wing American rock troll Ted Nugent, who recently slammed a Rolling Stone countdown of the “100 Greatest Guitarists”, insisting that Joan Jett didn’t deserve to be on the list. “Neither should he,” shrugs Jett, who placed 87th. Nugent didn’t rank at all and claimed: “You have to have shit for brains and you have to be a soulless, soulless prick to [include] Joan Jett.”

“Taylor Hawkins was a fuckin’ wonderful guy. Would light up a room. Kick-ass drummer”

“Is that his implication,” she asks, “that he should be on the list instead of me? Well, that’s just typical – it’s what I’ve dealt with my whole life, being written off. Ted Nugent has to live with being Ted Nugent. He has to be in that body, so that’s punishment enough.”

After a beat, she adds, unexpectedly: “He’s not a tough guy. He plays tough guy, but this is the guy who shit his pants – literally – so he didn’t have to go in the Army.” When she summons Laguna back on the call, I assume it’s because she’s said something spicy and, as might be the case in a regular celebrity interview, is seeking a managerial figure to smooth things over. Instead she asks him, “You wanna help Jordan?”, imploring Laguna to relay the full tale of Nugent’s supposed Vietnam War draft-dodging tactic (which the alleged pant-shitter himself shared with High Times magazine in 1977 and later retracted). “Oh, that’s a good one!” he replies delightedly, before spinning the yarn in a level of detail that can only be described as ‘eye-watering’.

Jett, with her manager Kenny Laguna and Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and Pat Smear, at her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. Credit: Getty

“So this,” Jett concludes ruefully, “is the tough guy who’s running around America, stirring things up against each other.” Satisfied, she attempts to move the conversation on – though Laguna butts in one last time: “Let me just say that people don’t always appreciate rhythm guitar players, and Joan’s character is on every one of her records, starting with The Runaways.”

“Thank you, Kenny,” she says with a look of love. “That was very nice of you.”

It’s the perfect end to a dizzying, wildly entertaining hour in the company of Joan Jett: an icon, a true rock’n’roller, a guitar hero and a grade-A shit-talker. When the world tries to hold you down, as she puts it herself, “You gotta start afresh and do your thing.”

‘Changeup’ is out now via Blackheart Records

Advertisement
Advertisement