'I feel like we invented merch!'
Jessie Atkinson
11:00 27th September 2021

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Joan Jett and Kenny Laguna have been, Jett says, “a little army trying to fight together” ever since 1979. That was the year that Jett, then only 20, started out as a solo artist following the collapse of her teenage band The Runaways. “We got 23 rejection letters from all the majors and minors” Jett tells Gigwise, still ever so slightly unbelieving all these decades later. “She was clearly good looking, wrote really good songs and yet we couldn’t get through the door,” Laguna adds, “people found it threatening.” Jett sums it up in a gravel-toned deadpan: “I was playing with my dick too much.”

Laguna and Jett are a close platonic coupling. Best friends; co-songwriters; the manager and the talent. The two of them circumvented the glass ceiling all those years ago by releasing Jett’s solo work on their own independent label Blackheart Records and have lived their lives in close tandem ever since. Those future smash-hits (‘I Love Rock’n’Roll’, ‘Crimson and Clover’, ‘Do You Wanna Touch Me’) - nobody wanted them”. The labels’ loss, of course. “Now we own the records” Laguna says matter-of-factly, “and they’re worth a lot.” 

It’s not a surprise Jett calls Laguna a “godsend”. Even now, as they sit together on the other side of the Atlantic on a camera-less Google call, the two bounce off one another, sharing ideas and saying so out loud if they disagree with something the other has said. Overall, though, theirs is a tight, shared thought process. One that derides the commercialisation of rock’n’roll, quails at the rise of fascism in their country and hasn’t got any fucking time for social media.

“I feel like a lot of people make records just to be famous now” Jett muses, “and just do whatever that will get them in the spotlight.” In particular, the pair agree, this is a problem that has gotten progressively worse over the past twenty years. “I noticed it in the early 2000s. All of a sudden you started seeing bands like Fall Out Boy and Pete Wentz on TV all the time. And then other bands started doing that. And the separation between rock’n’roll being a rebellion against the status quo [instead] became ingratiating to the status quo.”

Of course, the advent of social media only added to this, creating an ouroboros of crowd-pleasing-to-facilitate-sales. “I liked it when our idols didn’t share every little bit [of their lives]. We didn’t know what the early idols were doing,” Laguna says, adding with a humour tinged with sadness: “We didn’t know when they had stomach trouble.” “Sometimes”, Joan concedes, “you can’t be all things”. And yet it also confuses her to see artists’ every meal being pasted up for all to see. “The mystery is gone” she says simply.

I ask questions that pertain to how things have changed, particularly in the music industry, and though Jett admits she’s “probably gotten a tiny bit more cynical”, there is little to no outward indication that this is true of the musician. Rather: the fears and irritations she and Laguna share are more like universal truths than Back In My Day foibles.

Take politics. The rapidly-changing, oft frightening landscape of tribalism and fascism is something that most of us can agree is pretty shit. Thoughtful and quietly seething, Jett is more eloquent in her observations. “When I was growing up, my family was very middle class. We weren’t rich, but we lived in a neighbourhood and everything seemed normal. Now I don’t see those types of families making the sort of money my family made: it’s either you’re kind of rich or you’re very poor.”

Laguna extrapolates: “I’m feeling democracy at a precipice, in a place where it could disappear” he says. “My theory is that the reaction to a Black person being President was really much deeper and more racist than we realised at the time when Obama was in. That’s how we ended up with Donald Trump.” 

It’s a bleak landscape to look out on: one of tribalism and ignorance, both willful and manufactured.  “What does that mean for a musician who goes out there?” Jett wonders aloud. “We’re going to find out what that means. I’m thinking everything from: nothing changing to: maybe getting shot on stage or something. For real.” Later, she makes a similar point: “I just wanna be able to talk and exchange ideas without worrying about getting killed.”

Despite the dangers associated, Jett still thinks musicians can have an impact on people and their politics. Some people, anyway. “I think you’re going to find a portion of the audience that’s receptive to [those messages], depending on how things are said. I think there’s absolutely a section of music fans who are into finding out what your message is.” She adds, sagely, that “you don’t win people over by calling them morons. If [artists] go to interviews and point the finger, that doesn’t work. People don’t want to hear it.”

She’s right of course, though morons are certainly in the mix too, evidenced in part by right-wing Rage Against The Machine fans expressing distaste at Tom Morello airing his not-so-revelatory political views on Twitter. “They only listen to the musical aspect and the yells of the lead singer, mimicking the words but not really listening to the words,” Jett nods. 

Have groups of people always been that way? Of course. But does that stop the pure prevalence of these trolls less painful? Nope. “Rock’n’roll used to be the messenger” Laguna notes. He sounds matter-of-fact rather than sad, but the statement still has a melancholy ring to it. Rock’n’roll, in the 1970’s and ‘80s was often political, rarely made with sales in mind, and totally un-self-conscious. It was also doing a lot of the legwork in terms of beaming politics into teenagers’ bedrooms. “There was so much social commentary in the music and there’s just less of it now,” Laguna states. 

Read any book; watch any tribute film; hear any behind-the-scenes chatter from the time and it is difficult not to romanticise. Of course, it wasn’t all good – the major and minor labels’ indifference to a woman playing the guitar is just one, rather mild example. But let’s put our rose-tinted glasses on for a moment, shall we? Conjure the image of a young Jett and Laguna touring the U.S.A., selling records out of the trunk of their car, pulling in $8 apiece rather than the 80¢ they might have gotten had they been picked up by one of those 23 labels. “Suddenly, we’re this little label and we’re on the radio, selling the records!” Laguna remembers. “Our first office was Kenny’s trunk. We’d sell albums out of the trunk after the gigs. And this was way before anybody sold anything at gigs – they just sold tickets. I feel like we invented merch!”

Still, these are not people who are under any illusions: “When I was a kid I thought that the highest form of life was an Elvis Presley,” Laguna laughs,but I’ve grown to realise that the highest form of life is a biophysicist who’s curing cancer or a special ops guy who’s jumping out of a plane seven miles up with an oxygen mask and GPS trying to save his country. The thing of thinking that you’re better than your average bear because you have a hit record, that’s a joke. The guy who figured out the vaccine, that’s a guy who’s better than the average bear.”

Jett: mellow yet fiery, eloquent yet curious, agrees. “I get loving yourself, but I don’t get being narcissistic. It feels much better to me to feel humble, to feel grateful for my life and for what I’ve done.”

THIS INTERVIEW APPEARED IN THE FIRST EVER GIGWISE PRINT MAGAZINE. BUY YOUR COPY HERE.

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