Monday, March 28, 2011

'80s Music Monday and book review: Joan Jett

I'm pretty confident in my taste, musical and otherwise, but I do make mistakes now and then. And one mistake I made for a long time was being dismissive of Joan Jett.

During the '80s, I basically wrote her off as "old-fashioned." I'd been aware of Joan in the Runaways (although like most 15-year-old boys in 1977 I was all about Cherie Currie), and I really liked "Bad Reputation," which is very punk. But although I recognized "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" as a great song, the sound was a little too "arena rock" for me at the time.

I could be a bit of a punk/New Wave (and ska/reggae) snob back then, and the sheer popularity of the song was kind of a turn-off too. Most of the music I liked back then didn't have that much mass appeal (though ironically it seems more popular now than the stuff that was Top 40 back then), so I wasn't really comfortable with songs that everyone liked.

That's why I didn't pay much attention to Joan Jett during the '80s. But I was wrong about her. Not about her being "old-fashioned," because she is, in a way, but about her not being worth listening to.

Because Joan Jett is old-fashioned in the sense of "classic." Her music holds up really well. She managed to keep the heaviness of arena rock while stripping it of its excesses and giving it something of the purity of punk. Which is a pretentious way of saying what really matters: Joan Jett rocks.

So I was very interested to read this book:

Joan Jett, Todd Oldham ***

Mainly Joan Jett left me wanting more. It's by Todd Oldham, but it's mostly from his interviews with his subject, so it's told mainly in first-person-Joan. Which is good, except that the effect is more like a series of magazine articles than a book. It doesn't really serve as much of either a biography or an autobiography.

The basics are covered, from Joan's days as a teenage Bowie fan to the rise and fall of the Runaways to the lean days from their breakup until "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" to her ongoing success, but there's never much depth. There are interesting tidbits and insights along the way, such as that she prefers playing rhythm rather than lead guitar, and that she holds her guitar so low because she likes the feeling of the pickup vibrating against her pubic bone (something that probably actually goes a long way towards explaining why she is a true rock 'n' roll goddess), but I don't feel like I really know her after reading the book. I just know a little more about her, is all.

The photos are actually much better than the text. There are photos on every page. Unfortunately, though, the book works no better as a photo book than it does as a biography. There are no captions with the photos, so it's rarely clear how relevant they are to the text on any given page. There are credits in the back, but actually making use of them would require flipping back and forth page-by-page. That's very poor organization, obviously.

The main impression I got from the pictures is that Joan is unexpectedly beautiful. And I don't mean that in a Patti Smith not-pretty-at-all-but-beautiful-when-she-sings way, but in a flat-out very-pretty-and-actually-beautiful-from-the-right-angle way. It's a curiosity to me that I'd never noticed that before, because it's something that I (perhaps unfortunately) tend to pay attention to.

Anyway, I recommend the book, because as thin on text and poorly organized in terms of photos as it is, I still found it interesting. I just wish it was deeper and better organized.

And here are some videos, after the jump.

"Bad Reputation" (1981)

"I Love Rock N Roll" (1982)

"Crimson and Clover" (1982)

"Do You Wanna Touch Me?" (1982)

"I Hate Myself for Loving You" (1988, check out the big '80s hair)

"Real Wild Child" with blond Joan and a cameo by Joey Ramone

Book ratings:
**** Highly recommended
*** Recommended
** Meh
* Don't bother

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