Rock Royalty: After almost 40 years in the business, Joan Jett has paid her dues, earned her cred

Rock Royalty: After almost 40 years in the business, Joan Jett has paid her dues, earned her cred

June 13th, 2014 by Shawn Ryan in Life Entertainment

Joan Jett

Joan Jett

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

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For Paula Cannon, her love of Joan Jett coalesced one day in seventh grade. Onstage. In front of the entire school.

"Joan Jett and her 'I Love Rock 'n' Roll' would cause me to be some air-freak guitar-band girl with nothing but plastic black garbage bags pressed and taped skintight to my body in front of the whole school in a talent show as lead singer screaming 'I love rock 'n' roll,'" she recalls. "That day, Bridgeport, Ala., knew who Paula Cannon was, and she found out herself!"

No doubt there are thousands of young girls who grabbed a hairbrush or air guitar and headed for the mirror when Jett was cranking out hits like the No. 1 "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," "I Hate Myself for Loving You" and "Do You Wanna Touch" in the '80s. Jett was the epitome of cool rock chick -- guitar slung low, tight leather outfits, thousand-watt smile and an uncompromising yet approachable dedication to three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust rock.

Randy Black of Chattanooga remembers when WOWE-FM (now WRXR Rock 105) first went on the air back in the 1980s and played "I Love Rock 'n Roll" for 24 hours straight.

"I liked her because her tunes rocked and they were often fast-paced," says Black, who later held down the 5 p.m.-to-midnight deejay shift at the radio station, a job that had him "playing a lot of JJ."

And JJ is still doing it at 55. Last September, Jett released "Unvarnished," her first record in seven years. Always a road warrior, she's been out on tour in the months since its release and, along with the usual indoor shows, she's hitting more than a dozen outdoor festival and fairs this summer.

She began working on songs for the album back in 2011 but wanted to take them out on the road, put them in front of an audience, before recording them.

"It's one thing for you to love a song, but you never know what it is until you get out there in front of people," she told the Commercial Appeal in Memphis. "Not just to see how the audience responds, but how the band feels about it. It hones the song in ways that you couldn't really do in a rehearsal room or a studio."

Having been in the game since forming the all-female Runaways in 1975, Jett is now feted as rock royalty and, in the past year, she's been wracking up prizes that honor her longevity. She's been given a "Golden God" award by Revolver magazine, received the first ever Icon Award from Alternative Press, been given her own Joan Jett Day in West Hollywood, where she grew up, and got to stand in for the late Kurt Cobain when she sang "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with the other members of Nirvana when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April.

There's even a line of T-shirts peddled by Bust magazine and a song by the Launderettes that both ask: "What Would Joan Jett Do?"

"It's humbling and great and lovely, but I'm not a big chest thumper, in the sense where I like to talk about myself and how great I am," Jett told the Commerical Appeal.

Staving off the swellheadedness that can easily come with such accolades is critical for her music, Jett says.

"Because once you start thinking about who you are, that is the death of you and the death of connection and the death of all the things that are important to music," Jett said in Spin. "For me, it's about connection. It's just I happen to be onstage, and the person in the audience isn't. Even though everybody's lives are different, in general we're all human beings, and we go through the same things: disappointments, the pleasures of life, life and death. That's always been a really big part of the show to me, making sure the audience feels connected."

Connecting with the audience is one thing, but connecting one-on-one can be a bit different, she says. While acknowledging her rock chick persona -- leather, sweat and all -- Jett insists she's the same person onstage and off. But others sometimes don't seem so sure.

"People always seem to be surprised that I'm just so regular," Jett told the Morton Report website. "I don't know what they expect, but I figure that my image does it. They picture me always wearing black leather and they think I'm six feet tall. And I'm not six feet tall." (Actually, she's only five-foot-five.)

Contact Shawn Ryan at at 423-757-6327.