A pioneer for women in rock, Joan Jett stormed onto the scene at a time when young girls were too scared to pick up an electric guitar. Girls went to concerts to swoon over their favorite rock stars, not to become one themselves. But not Joan. She was, and still is (in the best way possible), an absolute anomaly.
But breaking social barriers comes with a flood of challenges, and The Runaways (Jett’s first band) had to endure obscene things: first and foremost – the degrading treatment of their manager, Kim Fowley. Here’s the disturbing tale of what he did to these young, wide-eyed teenagers.
On Christmas of 1971, 13-year-old Joan Jett wished for nothing more than a guitar. Her parents thought it was a strange request for a girl but decided to give their daughter what she asked for anyway. It was a cheap buy at Sears, $30 for both the guitar and the amp. Pumped and ready, Jett plugged it in and strung for hours (driving her parents insane).
She didn’t know how to play, so she went ahead and took a lesson. Her teacher, though, was willing to teach her only light-hearted, sweet, folk songs, not heavy rock. According to him, “Girls don’t play rock & roll.” She left him shortly after and taught herself the songs she truly wanted to play.
Still in high school, Joan started going to Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, a glam-rock bar on the Sunset Strip full of outrageous-looking people and famous rock stars. The guests wore tons of makeup (both men and women), sported crazy hair, and dressed in wild outfits. “It was a club full of weirdos,” Jett explained.
Her time there helped mold her unique, leathery, scruffy look. She dyed her hair black, styled it into a shag haircut, and painted her eyelids with a thick, black line.
The real reason she enjoyed going to the English Disco though (apart from the wacky crowd) was the dirty, rowdy music that blasted from the speakers. “It was music that hit you in a spot you couldn’t really describe,” she said.
Kari Krome was another regular at the English Disco. After chatting it up with Joan one night and hearing about her musical aspirations, she offered to give her her publisher’s number, a man named Kim Fowley. “You should tell him you want to form a band,” she suggested.
Joan took her up on the offer, rang Fowley, and told him she wanted to form an all-girl band. “I can’t be the only girl in all of Hollywood who wants to rock,” she insisted. Fowley asked her for a demo, which she didn’t have yet. She didn’t even know what a demo was at the time. But then came Sandy West…
Another familiar face on Sunset Strip’s untamed bars was Sandy West, a 15-year-old aspiring drummer. She drove up one night with friends to chill and look up at the stars at the Rainbow’s parking lot (The Rainbow was another popular bar). And as fate would have it, she ran into Kim Fowley, who knew exactly who to connect her with – Joan.
A few weeks later, the two got together. They had such great rhythm and hit it off incredibly well together. With a demo in hand, they marched back to Fowley, who, upon hearing them play, immediately began helping them find additional members to join.
At a local teenage nightclub called the Sugar Shack, a 15-year-old aspiring musician named Cherie Currie stood in awe as Joan Jett hit the stage and jammed. She approached Kim Fowley and bragged about her singing abilities and how much she would love to be in the band.
They scheduled an audition for the following day. Cherrie came in with her twin sister, hoping the two would be given a chance. But Fowley wasn’t interested in a sister act. He was interested in one loud, obnoxious, and rebellious young girl hungry enough to take over the world. Cherie agreed to play the part.
By December of 1975, The Runaways’ lineup was set. It consisted of Joan, Sandy, Lita Ford as the lead guitarist, Jackie Fox as the bassist, and Cherie Currie as the lead singer. They signed with Mercury Records and released their first self-titled album.
The girls wanted to play “dirty, sweaty, sexy rock n’ roll,” Jett explained to The Irish Times in 2010. They wanted to be like Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones. But they suffered tremendous backlash for no other reason than the fact that they were girls. Tabloids printed titles like “Lissome Lolitas or Teenage Trash?” and “Teenage, Wild, and Braless.” Unsurprisingly, the sexist media focused on their looks, as opposed to their music.
When the girls were told they couldn’t play rock n’ roll, it was less because people thought they couldn’t play the guitar or sing well. It was because being a rocker implied being an overly sexual, unrestrained, free human being. Something women “weren’t.”
So, in order to fit in with the rest of the guys in the scene, Kim Fowley encouraged the underage girls to strip, strut around the stage in their underwear, and pose for the cameras in ridiculous postures. He kept them on drugs, took their money, and called them “dog sh*t.”
If they wanted to be like The Rolling Stones, Fowley thought, then they had to be treated like “true rock stars.”
Kim Fowley used to call in men to the rehearsal room and order them to throw things at the girls while they practiced, rationalizing his degrading behavior by saying that not everyone is a fan of girl rockers, so they must toughen up and learn to “take things like a man.”
As unpleasant as it was, Joan admitted that those “heckling drills” actually helped her get over her stage fright. Nonetheless, Kim’s treatment was horrible.
But he wasn’t wrong about girls being booed on stage. Joan admitted once that audiences were really abusive at times, with people spitting on them during concerts.
The Runaways released five albums in four years and toured all over the world. While on tour, Kim Fowley kept mistreating them, denying the teenage girls proper education and health care, and messing around with their heads so they would turn on each other.
It wasn’t long before bad blood trickled into the band’s everyday interactions, making it impossible for them to function as a group. “Everything was just splintering,” Joan confessed. In 1977, Cherie Currie and Jackie Fox decided they had had enough and decided to split.
Fowley called all the shots. From what they wore on stage to how they moved. He even hired a choreographer to teach Cherie how to whip a microphone around and sling it up between her legs. Just look at their concert from ’97. Cheri, still a child, is wearing a white corset with black panties and singing “Have you, and grab ya till’ you’re sore.”
“He could be a jackass, but I understood what he was doing and what he was trying to tell everybody in his own Kim Fowley sort of way,” Lita Ford explained, “He wanted us to be hot. He wanted us to have attitude and charisma.”
Decades after bass player Jackie Fox left The Runaways, she spoke up about the magnitude of Kim Fowley’s monstrosity. In an interview with The Huffington Post, she talked about a terrifying night where Kim sexually assaulted her in front of a group of people, among them – Joan Jett and Cherrie Currie.
“I remember opening my eyes, Kim Fowley was raping me, and there were people watching me,” she explained. She added that her last memory was seeing Currie and Jett, pale as ghosts and frozen in place, staring at her from the side of the room.
Fowley used to drug the girls by shoving Quaalude down their throats. That’s how he got Jackie into such a helpless state. After one of their concerts, she was given about six pills, and got so dizzy that she had to lay her head down and rest. That’s when Fowley entered the room with another partygoer.
Kim asked the roadie if he wanted to have sex with Jackie, adding, “She doesn’t mind. Do you?” Jackie was half awake, her body limp, her arms collapsing by her sides. Clearly, she wasn’t in any position to protest. Slowly, Fowley unbuttoned her shirt and went on to do as he pleased.
Another witness that night was Kari Krome, the girl who connected Fowley to Jett in the first place. “Jackie was dead, dead, dead drunk—like corpse drunk. She was just laying down on her back, sound asleep, out of it,” she recalled. When Fowley picked up Jackie’s arm, “it flopped down like a marionette.”
Krome said she ran out of the room and started chugging down whatever alcohol she could find. “I didn’t know what to do,” she admitted, “Like what was I going to do? Go outside and drive and find a payphone and call the police? I didn’t want to call the police on anyone, but at the same time I knew what was happening was wrong.”
Jackie showed up to rehearsals a few days after the incident, unsure how the girls would react to her and whether she should even bring it up. The girls went on with their business, plugging in the guitars, strumming, singing, the usual. They hardly acknowledged Jackie’s presence in the room.
Jackie, only 16 years old at the time, decided it was better to forget it and move on. “I knew I would be treated horribly by the police,” she explained, “that I was going to be the one that ended up on trial more than Kim. I carried this sense of shame of thinking it was somehow my fault for decades.”
After Jackie went to the press with her story, Jett and Currie’s reaction to it was terribly disappointing. Both women said that they were “not aware of the incident.” Currie posted on her social media, “All I can say is if Joan, Sandy, and I saw an unconscious girl being brutally attacked in front of us, we would have hit him over the head with a chair.”
In response to her former bandmates’ denial, Jackie stated that she understood their difficulty to come clean about it. She wrote on her Facebook account, “My rape was traumatic for everyone, not just me, and everyone deals with trauma in their own way and time.”
Despite her love of The Runaways, Joan Jett decided not to appear in Vickie Blue’s 2004 documentary Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways. She refused to participate in the interviews and didn’t allow them to use any of the songs she had written. “If there’s gonna be a Runaways movie, it should be about what we accomplished,” she explained, “I’m not gonna participate in a Jerry Springer fest, bottom line.”
As to whether she fell victim to Fowley’s atrocities, she stated, “I never felt threatened by Kim. He never harassed me. I think he would have been afraid to.” She added that Jackie’s rape allegations were hard for her to listen and digest. She denied ever being in the room when it happened.
The Runaways’ run together ended in 1979, although Cherie and Jackie left two years earlier in ’77. Cherie left due to creative differences. She didn’t like where the band was heading in terms of music style. And Jackie, well, I believe Fowley’s treatment pretty much sealed the deal for her.
After Cherie’s split from the band, Joan took over the vocals and rediscovered herself as a musician who could do more than play the guitar. Her confidence grew, and by the time the girls disbanded in 1979, she was ready to go solo.
Joan took the disbandment of The Runaways hard. “How did I personally deal with the crumbling of the Runaways?” she shared in her memoir, Bad Reputation, “I drank a lot, starting at eight in the morning … I was angry. I didn’t know how to make sense of a world that gave girls sh*t for playing guitars.”
But things took a turn for the better after she met producer Kenny Laguna, who was fascinated by her the second he heard her play. “She was fantastic, but no label would take her on,” he told The Tahoe Daily Tribune in 2007.
Jett wasn’t one to sit around and wait. No one would agree to sign her? Fine. She would go ahead and sign herself.
Joan recorded her self-titled debut album and went with it to 23 labels. Every one of them rejected her. Along with Kenny Laguna, they opened Blackhearts Records and released the songs themselves. Laguna used to stand outside concerts and sell the album straight out of his trunk.
To Jett’s delight, the album was positively received, ranking 51 on the Billboard. She was overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment. Not only was she making it on her own, but she was proving everyone wrong. All the men who doubted her were now regretting it.
Joan wasn’t truly on her own, because by the time 1981 rolled around, she had a sturdy band behind her, a group of talented musicians who were happy to stand by the ambitious rocker. To people’s surprise, Joan insisted on hiring men to join her.
She told People magazine that she avoided another all-women’s band because she felt it would have been “sacrilegious” to do so. She posted an ad saying she was looking for “a few good men” to form The Blackhearts, and after picking her leads, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts was officially born.
Her first album with The Blackhearts, I Love Rock & Roll, blew everyone’s mind, reaching number two on the Billboard. The title track was a cover of an Arrows song, and it became one of the best-selling hits of all time, topping the Billboard for seven weeks, and it was crowned third most popular song of 1982.
The song was played on repeat on the new and groundbreaking channel, MTV, and featured Joan with her band, sneering moodily on stage in a bar. The nation was hooked, and with the help of MTV, so was the rest of the world.
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts followed I Love Rock and Roll with two additional albums. Unfortunately, neither of them got anywhere close to the first album’s success. Rolling Stone claimed that Joan’s follow-up works “don’t make a very strong argument for Jett as a major talent.”
Nevertheless, she continued touring with her band and shooting controversial and loud music videos with scenes that captured everyone’s eyes. In the years to come, Jett would become an inspiration for young girls all over the world, who dared to pick up a guitar after seeing her out there on stage.
Jett’s sexuality has been a topic of discussion from the moment she started her career. Yet she’s never officially come out with any statement other than that its “all inclusive” and that her fans should “assume away.”
As for motherhood, Joan said she considered it for a bit, but ultimately concluded that she would be better off focusing on her career. “If you want to call that selfish, fine,” she told Rolling Stone magazine. Even though she has no kids of her own, Joan is a godmother to the granddaughter of her manager and co-songwriter, Kenny Laguna.
Joan lost both her parents in a matter of two years. Her dad passed away in 2007 and her mom in 2009. She was extremely close to them, stating, “They made it possible for me to do this. They encouraged me. They got me the guitar. My father, who hated rock & roll, put up with it.”
The unfortunate turn of events led to her song “Fragile,” which Jett claims is “about life being fragile, love being fragile, how easy it is to break hearts.” She added that the first decade of the ’00s was a tough one. She lost not only her parents, but friends, pets, and close companions from different areas of her life.
Joan Jett flew to Afghanistan in 2002 to entertain around 500 troops who were there as part of “Operation Enduring Freedom.” She rocked for them in black boots, a fishnet top, and camo pants. “Being able to be in a place like Afghanistan and see what it is like – I mean, it’s surreal being here,” she told CNN.
Jett made sure to remind the troops that America is proud of them. She gave them a little taste of home, a little word of encouragement, and a whole lot of rock & roll. She told CNN that the trip made her appreciate her life and the country she was born in.
In 2010, Joan Jett worked as an executive producer for The Runaways, a film centering around the story of her band. And she knew from the get-go who she wanted to play her – Kristen Stewart. The movie’s shooting schedule had to be arranged around Kristen’s other commitment at the time, Twilight.
To prepare for the role, Kristen spent time shadowing the rock star, trying to learn her style of performance and body language. Jett loved how the movie turned out and praised Stewart for her singing and guitar picking.
Joan Jett’s acting debut was in the movie Light of Day (1987). It was written and directed by Paul Schrader (the genius behind Taxi Driver) and had both Jett and Michael J. Fox acting as siblings in a struggling rock n’ roll band.
The film received mixed reviews and showed low returns at the box office. While Jett had a great time filming it, she decided acting was not really the right path for her. She’s done only a few more acting roles since, including an appearance on Highlander: the Series and Walker and Texas Ranger.
Even though she was angry about having to change the title of this hit song, Joan says Bad Reputation is her favorite of all the songs she has released. The record (a Joan Jett original) was crowned the 29th best hard rock song in history by VH1. It was also used as the theme song for the TV series Freaks and Geeks.
Bad Reputation has a tough, rebellious tone that has resonated with a lot of fans over the years, including mixed pro-wrestling icon Ronda Rousey, who has used the song as her entrance music at a couple of sporting events.
In 2014, Nirvana was inducted into Rock n’ Roll’s Hall of Fame. Instead of the band’s late lead singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s surviving members invited Joan Jett to sing lead vocals on a remake of their popular song Smells Like Teen Spirit.
When calling Jett onto the stage, Nirvana’s bassist Krist Novoselic said he was surprised the rock star had not yet been inducted herself. Thankfully, the following year, Joan Jett and her band, the Blackhearts, were enshrined themselves in the Hall!
When she’s not rocking on stage, Joan revealed she’s “just enjoying the city.” She told The Morton Report in 2011 that she loves walking around and eating out with friends. “People always seem to be surprised that I’m just so regular,” she revealed.
Down to earth and easy-going, Jett is just like one of us. She shared that fans expect her to wear all black and leather every minute the day, but that’s far from the case. She also confessed that some people feel intimidated by her and expect her to be this angry rebel.
In 1979, a group of avid Runaways fans asked Jett if she would help produce their album. That group of people called themselves The Germs, and their one and only album, the one that was produced by Jett, became an icon and helped develop Bay Area’s hardcore punk scene.
Joan Jett was even included in a 2007 documentary about the band, The Germs, titled What We Do Is Secret. Jett’s persona was played by actress Anna Waronker.
“I just think it was a natural progression,” Joan Jett said of The Runaways breakup. Each girl grew up and figured out more and more who she was as a musician, so, naturally, they went in different directions. Everyone began to drift apart, and it was totally understandable.
Jett was straight up punk rock, yet Lita and Sandy wanted to dive a bit heavier into metal. “I’m fine with hard music. It’s just that I think Lita and Sandy wanted to go in that direction much more than I did,” she explained. All in all, things turned out well for Jett, who achieved great success as a solo artist as well.
The ’90s were a crazy decade for Joan. On the one hand, she wasn’t as popular anymore as she was in the ’80s. Her drummer Thommy Price admitted that they had to endure tough touring conditions: “We were doing all of these one-off shows. We’d be going to crappy little towns, doing a state fair,” he shared.
But they never stopped working. While their reception wasn’t as enthusiastic anymore, she kept reminding herself why she was performing in the first place. Music has always helped her heal, and she wasn’t going to stop because people weren’t as enthusiastic anymore.
There’s no doubt that Joan Jett has rightfully earned her spot as a legend in rock n’ roll history. She formed an all-girls band and stormed into the rock scene, something that no other girl has dared to do before (at least not without guys to back her up) and she also formed her own record label when no one was willing to sign with her.
She’s an entrepreneur, a feminist, a true rocker, a fashion guru, and a mentor for many. Joan Jett’s life story is a testament to her incredible strength and impressive ability to push through and break social barriers. In The Blackhearts’ Hall of Fame notes, writer Jaan Uhelszki described Jett as “the last American rock star, pursuing her considerable craft for the right reasons: a devotion to the true spirit of the music.”
Joan Jett is undoubtedly a pioneer for women in rock, but we have another woman to thank for inspiring her to do so. Growing up, Jett looked up to an incredible woman who came before her – Suzi Quatro, a musician from the ’70s who rose to stardom during Britain’s glam rock scene.
Her most famous hit is the single, Can the Can.
Jett has confessed on many occasions that her hair style, fashion style and onstage image were heavily modelled on Suzi, whom she later befriended.
At the height of their career, The Runaways toured the world. They served as opening acts at first for larger bands like Cheap Trick and The Ramones. Slowly, they grew in popularity themselves, and while it took some time for America to appreciate them, other countries like Japan were already crazy for them.
Their audience in Japan was eager to see them play, and they outsold huge bands like Kiss and ABBA. They recorded their live album at Tokyo’s Wel City concert hall, and it was scheduled for release only in Asia and Australia, but later ended up arriving in the U.S.