Joan Jett has always cultivated a tough-looking exterior -- the leather-jacketed cool, the way she wields her guitar as a weapon.
She has always looked ready for battle, and throughout her legendary career as one of rock's most powerful women, she has had some doozies.
You want to rattle Ms. "I Love Rock 'n' Roll"? Ms. "Bad Reputation"? Give her an award.
On Saturday, Jett and her band the Blackhearts will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with a star-studded ceremony in Cleveland, alongside Ringo Starr, Green Day, the late Lou Reed and others. It's the rock world's biggest award and Jett says she's excited about the event and grateful for the honor.
But the longtime Long Beach resident says she's still adjusting to the long windup to the event.
"I'm a very nervous type of person, so preparing for something like this isn't really fun, it's stressful," she says, calling from Manhattan, where her label Blackheart Records is based. "You want to make sure everything is done properly and give respect to people you need to respect. On that level, it's stressful."
Jett says this kind of attention has taken her by surprise. "On one hand, it's kind of thrilling to be chosen -- you know that it's being done by many of your peers," she says. "On the other hand, it's not why I got into a band -- to win accolades. . . . The accolades come from the audience, from the fans, from how much they get into -- or not -- your music. That's really been my focus all these years -- making records and playing live. Winning awards was not really part of it. Now that it has become a part of reality, you try to keep it in its proper perspective."
"We're gonna have a good night," she adds.
Jett's induction comes 33 years after she and the Blackhearts took the world by storm, ruling the airwaves for seven weeks in the spring of 1982 with a simple declaration, "I Love Rock 'n' Roll."
"Once I got there and I realized we had the No. 1 record in the nation, it was quite a thrilling feeling," Jett recalls. "It was really thrilling because so many people had said it wasn't possible."
Even today, as major labels have declined and independent labels have more regular successes, what Jett, the Blackhearts and her songwriting partner-manager-producer Kenny Laguna accomplished with "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" would still be seen as incredible.
Jett can still rattle off what all the naysayers kept telling her the problem was: "It was me. I was a girl. That kind of music wasn't in right then. It was an indie label, not really powerful at all. There were a million reasons why I couldn't make it, and I was told that over and over again."
"This record really succeeded on the power of the people, the people requesting it . . . when that still mattered," she says. "People bombarded the stations to play it, and I think that's really what did it."
Jett was already a star of sorts when she was trying to get support for her work with the Blackhearts. A native of Philadelphia, Jett had been playing in bands since she was 12 and her family moved to Los Angeles. By 17, she had started an all-girl band called The Runaways, which had landed a major-label contract and a huge hit overseas with "Cherry Bomb."
When The Runaways disbanded, Jett teamed with Laguna to work on new music. They recorded a demo in hopes of landing a new major-label deal.
"On that demo was 'I Love Rock 'n' Roll,' 'Crimson and Clover,' 'Do You Wanna Touch Me?,' 'Bad Reputation,' 'You Don't Own Me' -- that's four [out of five] songs that became hits after they said there were no hits," Jett says. "You had to wonder, do these major labels even listen to the songs that people send them? Did they not want to listen to it because I'm a girl or a Runaway? I don't know what it was. All I know is that 23 majors and minors said no. So we just did it ourselves. . . . That was the only way we were going to get it done."
In a way, that's how Jett and the Blackhearts found themselves in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well. Artists are eligible for induction 25 years after their first significant release, meaning the group has been eligible since 2006, due to the 1981 release of "Bad Reputation." But after two nominations, they were still on the outside, despite their very, very good reputation.
That changed at last year's induction ceremonies at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, when Jett performed a stunning version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with the surviving members of Nirvana, as part of their induction.
"If you were there, you could hear people saying, 'I can't believe she's not in the Rock Hall,' " says Jason Hanley, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's director of education. "For a lot of people, after seeing that performance, they thought, 'She's gotta get in.' "
Though many artists would be terrified of tackling such a significant song, Jett says she found that performance much less stressful than her preparations for her own induction. "I knew about that less," she says. "It was about 10 days out when they asked me about it, so I didn't have super long to think about it. Of course, I was very nervous, but I was also such a fan that I couldn't say no."
Jett says she has never seen footage of the performance and prefers her own memories of the moment. "It was so surreal," she says. "You don't know how many times I listened to the song and that album growing up. That's really what carried me through. You can't control how people are going to accept what you do or not. You just have to do it because you love it and play with this band because you know these guys. . . . One part of me was scared, going, 'Oh my god, look at this big Nirvana song and it's up to me to get it across to the people.' On the other hand, you think, 'I just gotta do it. These guys gotta do it. I'm gonna do it.' We did it. And it was a lot of fun. I was actually very calm playing it, which was kind of surprising. I felt like I really had it under control."
Hanley, a native of Holbrook, says Jett's great stage presence and rock artistry were on display during that performance, as they are when she does her own music. "She has always been rock and roll all the way through," he says. "She just lives and breathes rock and roll and her music really does represent the great attitude and power of rock and roll."
Jett's love of rock has inspired her artistry, Hanley says. "She took the roots of Chuck Berry, that guitar-driven, riff-driven rock and roll and used it to create a new sound," he says. "She has always been taking classic elements and infusing them with a new sound. You could see that with her last single 'Any Weather.' "
And Jett isn't through yet.
Help from The Who
She recently wrapped up a tour with Heart and will start a tour with The Who on Wednesday. (That tour includes stops at Nassau Coliseum on May 20, Barclays Center May 26, and Forest Hills Stadium on May 30.)
It's a tour that means a lot to Jett, who will never forget the help that The Who gave her when she was starting out. Jett and Laguna, who had previously worked with the group, had holed up in The Who's Ramport Studios to work on her debut. "We were in there and we didn't really have money at all," Jett says. "We were about to sign a very bad record deal when, out of the blue, Pete Townshend came over to our flat, discussing with us what we're doing. We asked what did Pete think of this record company that we were about to sign to and Pete said, 'Don't do that.' . . . Basically what happened is that [The Who] said, 'Make your music and pay us when you can.' That really freed us up. That album became the 'Bad Reputation' album and the rest is history."
"And we did pay them back," Jett adds. "That's the kind of thing that they did for bands and for people that they cared about. They took care of me, and if it wasn't for them, who knows. I'm not saying I wouldn't have still been a band or wouldn't have still made a record, but that was a big, big help to have The Who behind you. And that's why for many, many years we thanked The Who on our records."
Jett says The Who tour and the Rock Hall induction are making 2015 a grand year.
"It helps me realize that I really did recognize my dream and make it come true," she says. "I'll be in this place, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with people I look up to. . . . I don't think I'll ever really understand that, that I'm somehow in the same category as all those other people. It's still hard to rectify it and realize that it's you. I'd rather be a little bit humbled rather than, 'Well, of course.' "