Joan Jett's Bad Reputation

By Dorri Olds 10/02/18

“I’ve been hurt,” says Jett. “I’ve had my head split open by a beer bottle, a rib cracked by getting a battery thrown at me—this big metal rig thing….just because I was a girl, I’d get spit on.”

Kenny Laguna and Joan Jett
Kenny Laguna and Joan Jett PC: Bad Reputation, Magnolia Pictures

Bad Reputation is a loving tribute to legendary musician and feminist icon Joan Jett. The trailblazer turned 60 on September 22 and keeps on rocking. At 13, Jett’s parents granted a wish by buying her an electric guitar and amp for Christmas. She had no idea how to play it. At her first lesson, the male teacher said, “Girls don’t play rock and roll.”

Then the film explodes. Jett screams into a mic:

I don’t give a damn about my reputation!
You’re living in the past, it’s a new generation.
A girl can do what she wants to do and that’s
What I'm gonna do.

Go Joan Jett!

In an exclusive interview for The Fix, director Kevin Kerslake (As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM, Nirvana’s Come As You Are, Bob Marley Legend Remixed) told me, “This film is Joan laid bare. Viewers get to process it on that level. I don’t feel there was anything verboten, you know, forbidden to ask, so the dynamics of her life play out as you see them in the film.”

Clearly, Kerslake is a fan. He sings her praises, particularly when it comes to Jett’s habit of championing others.

“Joan’s soul is all about rock and roll,” he told me. “She’s an activist too—for animals and for people. She has produced a lot of albums for musicians she believes in. And, if she gets credit, she immediately ropes in other people to share it with. She’ll never take it solo.”

Right before receiving that first guitar, Jett had read about a club in Hollywood called the Rodney Bingenheimer English Disco. They were the first to play music by Blondie, Iggy Pop, Bowie, and the Sex Pistols. Archival footage shows boys and girls in heavy makeup, fishnets, leather and sporting nutty hairdos, short skirts and platform shoes.

“It was a disco for teens,” says Jett in the film. “If you were like 21, you were already too old….It was a club full of weirdos in a city that’s known to be full of weirdos.”

She says the club played “raunchy music” and some of it she describes as “clean dirty,” meaning it used suggestive double-entendres. But some of it, she says, was just plain dirty.

“That music hit you in a spot that you couldn’t really describe,” says Jett, “and it made you want to do it. There was [a feeling] down there,” she says, alluding to her vagina. “But as a kid, you can’t quite put your finger on it, yet.”

Realizing the unintended pun, she grins.

At 15, Jett was determined to prove that girls could play as well as boys. She formed the all-girl punk band, The Runaways. They became a tight group of friends with the electric energy of adolescents. It’s exciting to watch the ballsy young chicks owning the stage, with Cherie Currie singing their biggest song, “Cherry Bomb.”

The band showed more promise and gained a bigger following, but the “boys club” of rock ’n roll hated it; apparently their egos were threatened. The Runaways were called “cute” and “sweet,” but as their popularity grew the words changed to “slut, whore, cunt.” Jett says Jimi Hendrix had predicted that women playing rock and roll would be perceived as aliens. That proved true for The Runaways.

“I’ve been hurt,” says Jett. “I’ve had my head split open by a beer bottle, a rib cracked by getting a battery thrown at me—this big metal rig thing….just because I was a girl, I’d get spit on.”

In 1977, Joan Jett and her band The Runaways played at CBGBs punk club where I spent many nights of debauchery. I was into concoctions of crystal meth, cocaine, and Bacardi rum, which led to delusions. My skewed thinking told me if I memorized a musician’s lyrics, we had a relationship. Joan Jett knew me as much as I knew her. She seemed invincible.

When the band fell apart, so did Jett.

Director Kerslake told me: “She was [self] medicating over losing her band. It was a very dramatic experience in her life—both spiritually and physically. And it almost killed her.”

“How did I personally deal with the crumbling of The Runaways?” Joan asks in the film. “I drank a lot, starting at eight in the morning.”

Convinced that LA was laughing at her, Jett imagined everyone thinking: “We told you it wouldn’t work. We said you couldn’t do it.” That’s when she could no longer tolerate living in Tinseltown and split. She moved into a home in the ’burbs that became a party house. Old photos show a crowd of drunk and stoned pals draped around her living room. Jett had sunk to a dark place. Finally, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders pulled her aside and said, “Honey, you gotta pull it together.”

Jett says, “I was angry. I didn’t know how to make sense of a world that gives girls shit for playing guitars. I thought, ‘Don’t you guys have more important things to be upset about?’”

One night she became very sick, sweating profusely, and was rushed to the hospital. Kerslake said it was luck that Jett survived. The rocker was told she had a serious heart infection.

“I considered that a perfect metaphor,” said Kerslake.

After her diagnosis, Jett knew that her body could not take much more abuse.

“I thought, I’m going to fucking kill myself.” She quickly clarifies for the viewers that she means accidentally, not by suicide.

Throughout the film I felt tremendous compassion for Jett. I mean, I could see her strength; she comes across as someone who knows who she is. Despite all that she has accomplished, she also shows sincere humility and gratitude. (Side note: she looks fantastic and still exudes sex appeal.) But I wondered what happens internally to a pioneering performer like her who works for decades in what’s known as a tough industry—especially for women. She’d been just a kid when misogyny was unleashed on her simply because she was a girl who loved playing guitar.

Then, something beautiful happened. Kenny Laguna came into the picture. He had been a successful hitmaker for bubblegum bands when he first met Jett. She was still drinking then and he describes the beginning of their collaboration:

“She was hanging out with a bunch of people who all ended up dead.”

It was true, she’d gotten herself in with a tough crowd that included Sex Pistols’ bass player, Sid Vicious, his girlfriend Nancy, and Stiv Bators, the lead singer of the Dead Boys. Jett refers to herself as “a mess” when she met Laguna. But the musicmaker and his wife Meryl believed in Jett’s talent and recognized her potential so they were willing to take a chance on her despite how beat-up she looked. With Laguna’s help, Jett became a successful solo artist and released the albums Bad Reputation and I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll. Together they started Blackheart Records in the early 80s.

I was curious how she stopped drinking. That wasn’t disclosed in the film. My guess is that she flat-out wouldn’t talk about that publicly. The movie implies that she just said that’s it and quit. Her hardheaded black and white approach to life would support that method for sure. Still, I would’ve liked to have seen that in the movie. But for me, the most pressing question was about Jett’s love life. Did she have any long-term, significant, romantic relationships? That wasn’t discussed either and I was surprised about that missing chunk of her life. But then Jett herself answers that question at the end of this very engaging flick. (I watched it five times!)

“Depending on what you think is a normal, regular life,” she says, “being in a band, you’re pretty much all-consumed with it. Is that healthy? I don’t know. I’m not a doctor. Probably not super, but, you know, it’s what I enjoy. I think it makes it difficult to have relationships. That would probably be, if you want to call it that, a sacrifice. To say music is my mate would be a pretty fair statement and I get a lot from it. But it’s not a person. And I think I know the difference.”

Jett and the Lagunas have been together since 1979 and their affection for each other is evident in the film. They consider each other family. “Joan also has a very close group of friends who all participated in this movie,” Kerslake added.

This woman smashed the glass ceiling she faced. During her expansive career she’s been racking up multiple platinum and gold records, Top 40 singles, and the blockbuster anthem, “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll.” She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 and Bad Reputation includes a moving clip of her receiving a standing ovation from rock legends—her peers.

Bad Reputation is now in theaters and On Demand.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.