You're living in the past, it's a new generation
And a girl can do what she wants to do
And that's what I'm gonna do.
—from Joan Jett's Bad Reputation
Feminist foremother Simone de Beauvoir may have put it more elegantly, but the sentiment is the same. Jett, 23, is one of those people who have come a long, long way. She is part of the new sorority of sirens like Debbie Harry and Pat Benatar who have climbed to the top of the rock pile. Jett's breakthrough was her teen anthem I Love Rock-n-Roll, which hit No. 1 on the charts last spring and lingered there for seven weeks.
Jett is no Joanie-come-lately to the femme fad; in the mid-'70s she was a member of the Runaways, an all-girl precursor of the Go-Go's who played straight rock but came across like jail-bait. Today she plays neither the temptress nor the victim, preferring a self-confident posture that has more in common with Bruce Springsteen than, say, Joni Mitchell. Adorned in biker black ("It makes me feel safe") and wielding a guitar onstage, she has said of her vocal style: "I'm not a singer—I'm a screamer."
Likewise her Jett-propelled fans, who have turned out on four continents to cheer Joan through everything from her high-octane version of The Little Drummer Boy to her emotionally defiant You're Too Possessive. In November Jett broke through the Iron Curtain with a rare performance in Weimar, East Germany. She has played close to 700 venues in three years of almost nonstop touring. "This is what I love to do," enthuses Joan. "The sound and the kids just bring out the aggressive part of me."
Jett grew up as Joan Larkin in Rockville—where else?—Maryland. She got her first guitar at age 13. Two years later she joined the Runaways. After considerable exposure—and bad press—the Runaways ran out of fuel by 1979, and Jett quit, leaving her without a vehicle for her drive. "Depressed and scared," she took an emotional nose dive and headed for Europe, where she "slept on a lot of floors" and played in clubs. A heart valve infection landed her back stateside—in the hospital. Soon after, she met music producer Kenny Laguna, and the two went to London, where they recorded her debut album, Bad Reputation, with friends like ex-Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook.
Jett approached, by her count, 26 U.S. record labels before she and Laguna (by then her manager) issued the LP on their own. When it came time to assemble a permanent touring band, she placed an ad that read: "Joan Jett wants three good men." And the Blackhearts were born. "It would have been sacrilegious to have another all-girl band," she explains. They eventually snagged a deal with the late Neil Bogart's fledgling Boardwalk Records. Jett takes obvious pleasure in thumbing her nose at the record companies that passed her up. The Bad Reputation video clip shows a series of tin-eared executives turning down the tune and telling her she "can't sing."
Claiming no lasting romantic attachment, Jett lives with manager Laguna and his wife and daughter in their Long Island home. She hopes to issue another collection next summer, and her suitcase is ready as she prepares to take more refuge on the road. "I'm just a softy dressed in black," she once said, "trying to make it any way I can." And succeeding.