The general public didn’t have much of an idea about The Runaways queerness because they were being marketed as young women up for some rock and roll fun with the audience, which was 90 percent male. The young women wanted to play music, wanted the focus to be on the music, but in the 1970s, they were an anomaly and were also being produced and sometimes managed by Kim Fowley, who is infamous for his perverted and abusive tactics. The Runaways were often positioned as jailbait, which wasn’t helped by the corset Cherie picked up to wear on stage, despite being only 17.
Queens of Noise tries to answer a lot of questions about The Runaways, although like the other books and films, everyone remembers things differently. Their ideas on feminism, their sound, their influences, what happened in the studio or on tour, it’s all brought up again with the surviving members (Sandy West passed away from cancer in 2005) and juxtaposed with interviews and reviews from their career. Evelyn McDonnell also talks with several people who have been around or inspired by The Runaways, including Kim Fowley, Kari Krome, Sandy West’s family members, producers, Kathleen Hanna and Suzi Quatro.
In the book, Suzi talks about how Joan used to come to her hotel and wait for her to come down to the lobby, or stand at the side of the stage at her shows and watch her intently.
“Sometimes it was a little too much though, I must admit. She was obsessed with me for a while, which I am sure she would be the first to admit. But again, always cute.”
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Kathleen offers up tidbits about how The Runaways and Joan inspired her to become a musician. Joan would eventually produce a three-song CD for Bikini Kill that Kathleen says is her favorite recording she’s ever made. It’s undeniable that Joan was the Runaways success story. Although Cherrie and Lita went on to make solo albums, and Jackie Fox is now a respected entertainment attorney, Joan is a rock and roll icon. Gibson manufactured a guitar in her name; she’s had three albums go platinum or gold with her band The Blackhearts; and earlier this month Hollywood declared August 1st to be Joan Jett Day. She celebrated with a sold-out star studded show at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip.
A staunch vegetarian who reps for PETA, Joan is an outspoken activist for things she believes in, which now includes feminism despite early career resistance to align herself with women’s liberation. She’s also played a huge role in seminal punk, riot grrl and grunge history, producing The Germs‘ (GI) (the band had queer singer Darby Crash) and touring with Seattle band The Gits after their frontwoman Mia Zapata was tragically raped and murdered at the height of her career in 1993. Joan also started her own record label, Blackheart Records, which is home to Girl in a Coma, The Dollyrots and The Eyeliners.
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Over the weekend I went to see the Women Who Rock exhibit at the EMP (Experience Music Project) in Seattle, where I was happy to see a lifesize photo of Joan, clad in leather with her guitar hanging over her torso while she smirked at the camera. Inside next to legends like Carole King, Madonna, Stevie Nicks and Billie Holliday, The Runaways had a space with a jumpsuit and the lyrics to “Cherry Bomb” from their first rehearsal with Cherie as vocalist. And right beside them was a place just for Joan, with her pink blazer, Bad Girl T-shirt, tight black pants and Converse sneakers from her I Love Rock N Roll record.
For the past few years, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts have been nominees for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Although they’ve been passed over twice now, it’s interesting that The Runaways have never been put up on their own. Rightfully both should happen in the years to come, and that could make Joan the first female to be inducted twice. (So far only men hold that honor.) Funny how The Runaways started out in a misogynistic industry and continue to fight it more than three decades after they broke up. Joan would also be one of only a few out women in the Hall of Fame. Currently Ma Rainey, Janis Joplin, Laura Nyro and Dusty Springfield are those that hold the honor, all posthumously.
If there’s one thing you don’t know about The Runaways that Queens of Noise will fill you in on, it’s how little Joan cares about anything but playing music. Sandy West shared that same sentiment, which is why they were the ones who put the band together in the first place. Sadly Sandy was never able to fulfill her dream after The Runaways split, but Joan is releasing a new album with The Blackhearts—their first in seven years—this fall. In an interview, she called Unvarnished “her most autobiographical project ever.” She’s telling you her story, you just have to pay attention to music.