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Although Joan Jett has been called the “Godmother of punk,” this rocker’s rise to super stardom came with plenty of twists and turns. From the time Joan picked up her first electric guitar at age 13 in 1971, she was met with the refrain that “girls don’t play guitars”—and that they certainly don’t play rock. Joan spent the rest of her life proving these naysayers wrong, founding one of the first all-girl rock bands at age 16 before skyrocketing to the top of the charts as the frontwoman of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.
Donita Sparks is a singer, songwriter, guitarist, writer and actor. She first rose to fame with legendary all female American rock band, L7, which remains active to this day.
Sparks was instilled at a young age with a keen sense of political and social activism. She, along with her bandmates, founded Rock for Choice, a pro-choice organization with the Feminist Majority Foundation producing numerous nationwide benefit concerts. She is particularly known for her raucous live performances and rebellious persona.
Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved to rock. Her name is Joan.
When Joan was 13, she listened to famous rock bands on the radio and imagined herself playing the guitar’s driving chords. That year, when Joan’s parents asked what she wanted for Christmas, she said three words: an electric guitar.
But she wasn’t sure if she’d get it. Joan’s parents had always told her she could be anything she wanted to be—from an astronaut to an archaeologist—but they didn’t know “rockstar” was on the list.
Then, when Christmas came along, a thin box sat under the tree. She unwrapped it— and her heart leapt. It was her very own electric guitar. She drew it out of the box, and it glittered in the soft morning light.
Joan could only play one note at first, but to her ears, it was the sweetest thing she had ever heard. One day, Joan knew, she would rip up and down that guitar like a pro—and she would show people around the world that girls. Can. Rock.
I’m Donita Sparks. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode, Joan Jett. Loud and proud singer, righteous guitar player, and the “godmother of punk.”
<END THEME MUSIC>
|A GIRL WITH A GUITAR
Joan and her guitar were already inseparable.
She took all her feelings and poured them into her guitar. When Joan’s parents divorced and her father left the house, Joan struggled with all the changes. Her family had only recently moved to Los Angeles, and Joan didn’t have a lot of friends. But the guitar was always there.
Joan signed up for guitar lessons, and when her teacher asked her what she wanted to learn, she said, “Teach me how to play rock ‘n’ roll.”
The teacher shook his head. “Girls don’t play rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. He taught her a simple folk song—“On Top of Old Smokey.”
This was a big “NO” for Joan. She learned the chords he taught her, but that was her first and only guitar lesson.
Joan didn’t like that people like him thought she had to strum out folk tunes instead of slam out rock songs—just because she was a girl. So, she bought a book and taught herself. She played records from her favorite bands over and over again until she got each chord and rhythm exactly right.
She played until her fingers were sore.
The more Joan learned, the more she wanted to make a band. An all-girl band.
Joan hung out at all-ages music clubs in Los Angeles, and one day, she mentioned the idea to a music producer. He gave Joan the phone number of a girl who played drums and lived on the other side of town.
One hot summer day in 1975, Joan took four buses and rode for hours to meet this drummer, Sandy West.
Sandy and Joan had a lot in common: They were both about 16, they both loved sports, and they both really wanted to be in a rock band.
In the rec room above Sandy’s garage, Sandy slipped behind her drumset and picked up her sticks. Joan was nervous. She had never played with someone else.
As Sandy started drumming, Joan felt the music flow through her—the vibrations and the rhythm—and her fingers moved over the strings of the guitar like each note was meant to be.
When Joan finally looked up, she and Sandy were both grinning from ear to ear.
Two girls jamming out in a rec room? Joan didn’t think anything could be better than that.
Soon, a music producer introduced Joan and Sandy to some other girls—a bassist, another guitarist, and a lead singer.
When they played together and sang together, to Joan, it felt like magic.
They weren’t the first all-girl band, but they were one of the first all-girl bands to play the rough-and-tumble rock that back then was for “boys only.”
Their music was loud. Their guitars wailed. Their voices soared into screams and yells.
They wrote their own songs, and they sang about what it was like to be a teenager growing up in the 70s.
They called themselves The Runaways.
They got them gigs at local clubs, and by 1976, they were signed to a label—and recording albums.
Joan would see her OWN albums in the record stores where she shopped. Her dreams were coming true.
Some teenagers loved The Runaways because they looked and sounded like them. Other people thought an all-girl rock band was like aliens landing on Earth—something wild and fascinating that you never thought would happen in real life, but that you had to pay attention to.
Soon, they had a bunch of loyal fans. But when they were on the road reporters asked them rude questions. They were less interested in the music and couldn’t stop putting The Runaways down for being girls.
Then, as they became more successful, men sometimes called them bad names. At some performances, some men shouted at them, and some even spit on them!
Once, Joan was knocked over when someone threw a bottle at her. But she just got back up and kept on playing.
After tough shows like that, she would sit backstage and cry.
All she ever wanted was to play guitar. Why was it so hard for men to believe that women could rock?
But Joan knew—they would have to pry the electric guitar out of her hands before she would ever give up.
|RISE AND FALL
While Joan and The Runaways sometimes struggled in the United States, their albums became number-one hits in other countries, like Japan and Australia.
When they toured in England, they were met with sold-out shows and adoring fans. And when they took their tour all the way to Japan, thousands of screaming girls and women showed up to cheer them on.
Abroad, they were superstars!
By then, the band had been together for two years, and though they made great music, things started to fall apart.
Their producer did not always treat them well. The girls’ relationships and friendships with each other were also starting to break apart.
Soon, they fired their producer. Then, the lead singer left. Then, the bassist. Joan had the feeling that she would be next.
She couldn’t bear the thought of being fired from the band she started. So, as 1978 came to a close, Joan left the band.
Joan was only 20, and The Runaways had fallen apart.
As the days went by, depression tugged Joan down. She drank a lot, and she tried to imagine new dreams, but they all seemed fuzzy and far away.
Maybe I can join the military, she thought. Then I can travel, and I can belong to something important.
But first, she had to do one more thing: The Runaways had signed a contract to write and perform some music for a movie that was actually about the band. Joan didn’t think it was right to back out of commitments, so she decided to make good on that promise—all by herself.
Joan aimed to write eight songs in only six days, which led her to work with producer and songwriter Kenny Laguna. Kenny was so impressed, he offered to help Joan make a new band—one that SHE would lead.
All Joan wanted was to write, play, and perform music. She wanted to keep making that connection between her music and the hearts of every person listening in the audience.
So, she agreed.
|JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS
Soon after, Joan put out an ad in the LA Weekly: Joan Jett wants three good men, it read. Show-offs need not apply.
Joan knew there was no way she could play with all girls again—not because she didn’t love it, but because it would remind her too much of The Runaways.
Joan set up for the auditions in a big rehearsal studio in Los Angeles. She felt her hands sweat as she held onto her guitar, waiting. One at a time, musician after musician entered the studio.
Together with Joan, they wailed on guitars, plucked notes on the electric bass, and hammered at the drums.
At the end of the auditions, cymbals were still crashing in Joan’s ears. But she knew what she was doing, and she knew who to pick.
Joan had found her band: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.
Joan sang lead and played guitar, ripping out raucous chords and belting out the songs’ lyrics.
For weeks, they played on Tuesday nights—the slowest night—at a local club in Los Angeles. But within a month, they were playing on the busiest night—and selling out the club!
Still, they couldn’t find a label that would sign them. In fact, 23 labels turned them down!
So, they made their own record label, recorded their own album, and sold their records out of the trunk of Kenny’s Cadillac after concerts. Joan even had ownership of her own record label, which was almost unheard of for a woman at the time!
Eventually, the band moved to New York City, and on the East Coast, their fanbase only grew. Soon, at every gig they played, there was a line all the way around the block.
Kenny had friends in a big rock band called The Who, who let Joan and Blackhearts use their recording studio. Soon the band released an album called Bad Reputation.
People loved Joan Jett’s voice, and her shaggy black hair. They loved her swagger, and the black leather jacket she wore.
Soon, Joan became a true rockstar—and her band’s second album has sold over 10 million copies and counting! The first song on the album, “I Love Rock and Roll,” soared to the top-100 charts—and was the number one song in the United States for seven weeks!
Soon after that, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts traveled the world, playing under bright lights before screaming fans that sang along to every word of their songs.
|PEAKS AND VALLEYS
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts continued making music for decades. They knew that any band was only as good as their last album, and some albums did better than others. But no matter what, Joan kept playing and singing, and the band kept touring—performing at the tiniest gigs and the hugest stadiums.
Then, in the 1990s, Joan took on a new role: She helped produce other rock, punk, and feminist bands.
She remembered what it was like in The Runaways and how so many people had told her that girls couldn’t play guitars. She remembered men in the audiences throwing things, and how interviewers had asked her if she was planning to get married—instead of asking her about her music. It had always made her so angry.
But now, she could do something about it. So she used her power and influence to help other women musicians and punk rockers find their way to success and make their voices heard.
Throughout all these ups and downs, one person remained a constant in Joan’s life: her business partner Kenny Laguna.
Over the years, the two became best friends—and these days, they can finish each other’s sentences. Joan even moved in with Kenny’s family for a while and helped take care of his daughter, Cari, who eventually joined their company.
Joan said that music is her first love. But it’s friends like Kenny who have become her family.
“Best friends… keep you alive,” Joan said.
In 2015, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts won one of Rock and Roll’s biggest honors: They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!
In an auditorium full of other famous rockers, Joan and her band were called up to the stage.
The crowd erupted in cheers, jumping to their feet.
Joan sauntered up to the podium in her black leather jacket with a big smile on her face—and Kenny and her bandmates right behind her.
The audience continued to clap, whistle, and shout.
Soon, Joan’s eyes filled with tears. “I was really going to try not to cry and be tough,” she said into the microphone. “But that’s a little overwhelming there. Thank you very much.”
Joan thanked a lot of people that night. But she also had something important to say about the music she loved—and loved to make.
“I come from a place where rock and roll means something,” she said. “Rock and roll is political. It is a meaningful way to express dissent, upset the status quo, stir up revolution, and fight for human rights…. Rock and roll ethic is my entire life, and I’m thankful to all the people along the way that let me be me.”
Of the 921 people inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from 1986 to 2021, Joan remains one of only 76 women given that honor!
|A GIRL CAN DO
Joan Jett blazed a trail into the world of rock, and each time she got knocked down, she just got back up again. Today, rockers of all genders continue to be inspired by Joan, her music, and her never-give-up attitude.
So if you’ve got an itching to pick up some drumsticks, jam on a guitar, or sing your heart out, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t.
As Joan sang in one of her songs, “A girl can do what she wants to do / And that’s what I’m gonna do.”