Thursday, March 18, 2010

Brushes - Part 10

This is another installment from the musical memoir I wrote in 1998 (and have been tweaking ever since), called “Brushes with the Great and Near Great,” chronicling some of the famous folk I got to meet during my 13-year career in music retail.  Today’s story covers meeting up (repeatedly) with one of my all time idols.  And as it turns out, there’s a movie about her coming out today (in limited release, nationally on 4/9/10), one that is long overdue, if you ask me.

I only have one more story, but it spans many years.  It could have really been included any one of these chapters, because it crosses through them all.  Call it my rock and roll love story.  Call it the story of a Boy and his Queen.  Since 1981, I’ve been a tireless supporter and devoted fan of Joan Jett.  Our paths have crossed many times, each one leaving me more jazzed than the last.

I learned about Joan when I was in college radio.  I was doing my show one afternoon, when the program director came in and slapped this album down in front of me and said, “Check this out, you’ll like it.”

I looked to see this tough leather-chick on the cover.  “Hmmm.”

I flipped a turntable into ‘cue’ mode, (meaning only I would hear it) and dropped the needle onto a track that I thought sounded interesting, one called “Do Ya Want To Touch Me.”  I was greeted by a fat rush of power chords and thought, I think we’ve got something here.”

Thus began what would become many years of playing and promoting Joan Jett.  I played her on my show each week, played her in the car, at parties, for friends, etc.  It was kind of cool when she broke out later with the big hit “I Love Rock and Roll,” because I could say, “Hey, I was hip to her before.”  But in another way, it seemed like a bummer that “my personal find” was now a star for the masses.

A couple of years later, I took a trip out to Baltimore to see friends and family.  As part of the festivities, we got the use of my Dad’s company seats for an Orioles game.  I rode out with my friend Billy, one of our old Barn crowd.  Along the way, he’d asked me if I was still sweet on Joan Jett.  I, of course, was, and asked if he was still sweet on his old fave, Stevie Nicks.

When we got to our seats, about 3 rows behind the O’s dugout, Billy says, “Hey, there’s Joan Jett!

I’m thinking, “Yeah, right Bill, we talk about Joan in the car and now there she is.” 

There she was.  She was right down in front of the dugout, talking with someone on camera for Home Team Sports Network.  Then she began signing autographs for the kids down on the rail.  I went down too, but didn’t press forward.  I was content just to be within 5 feet of her. 

Later, during the 3rd inning break, they began playing Joan’s “Crimson and Clover” over the PA.  I noticed that they were showing her on the Diamond-Vision scoreboard, sitting in her seats.  Then I noticed the camera with the red light on it, pointing up at us.  I looked down our row, and there was Joan, sitting about 10 seats down.  Holy shit!

At the next inning break, I went around and asked for her autograph, on an old check stub that I had in my wallet.  (I knew enough not to bother her during the game.)  I told her how I’d been a fan for a long time and that I certainly never expected to meet her at an O’s game.  She told me that she’s always been an O’s fan and went to a lot of games.  I went back to my seat a thoroughly happy individual.  I noticed that a lot more people started coming down for autographs.  Eventually, the ushers began keeping people away, during the game.  But at every break, she signed for all comers.  This was when I began to suspect that she was quite a lady.

I was living in Cleveland and managing the Coconuts in Maple Heights, when this was confirmed.

I was sitting in my office, one day, talking on the phone to Kenny the Viking and opening mail.  As I opened an embossed envelope from CBS Records, what I saw so completely shocked me that I dropped the phone.  It was an invitation to a listening party for Joan Jett’s new album, Up Your Alley, featuring an appearance by Joan herself.  I’m pretty sure Kenny thought I’d gone berserk and I guess he’d have been right.

This was a big deal for me.  This was my first listening party where the artist was showing up, and it was not just some unknown, but a big name on a major label.  I guess CBS was looking for something big.   Joan’s follow-up to I Love Rock and Roll was called Album, cut for MCA.  It was only a moderate success, but spawned several videos for the emerging MTV.  The next was Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth, which completely disappeared from the map.  This next one for CBS was supposed to be the big comeback.

I went to the party loaded for bear.  I brought my camera, three of her albums, and a Spin Magazine, on which she was pictured on the cover.  I was taking no more chances with piddly little check stubs this time. 
I don't know who the other girl is, but they look like a pair of mismatched bookends.

Joan came in looking smoking hot in her leather coat and pants.  I waited for the initial push of schmoozers to subside, before jumping in.  They were playing the album now, and it sounded hot, with some real crunch.  When I got my chance for face-time, I told her that I couldn’t wait to get this album in the car and turn it up.  She signed my magazine, and her Bad Reputation album, and I had a picture taken with her.  I was in heaven.
A Boy and his Queen.

A little while later, I noticed that she wasn’t too busy so I went up and got another album signed.  Even later, I saw her up at the bar by herself, getting a drink, not a soul around.  I approached again, apologizing for being a pest and asked her to sign one more.

She fixed me with those enormous brown eyes and said, “It’s no trouble at all.  Without fans, who am I, you know?” 
We talked a little bit longer and then that was it.  I’d concluded the audience with my queen and found that my admiration had been well placed.  She was an honest, gracious, genuine human being that just happened to get on a stage and pump out simple, glorious, three-chord rock. 

I felt that I could now die happy, I’d just met, chatted up, and posed with the Queen of Rock and Roll.  Little did I know that I was just getting started.

In the course of managing my store, I had occasions to deal with marketing companies.  These were places that promoted and tracked sales activity for their clients.  They would call managers like myself, ask how their albums were selling, how I was reporting them, and then fill us in on touring schedules. They would then set us up with promos, posters, and tickets.  I had a terrific relationship with one company in particular.  Dori, from Image Marketing, called about once a week and we grew to become good phone friends. 

One thing you always do with these marketing companies is that if they represent someone you particularly like, you make damn sure that they know all about it.  Much to my delight, Image had been representing Joan for quite some time, so we had discussed my affinity for Joan at great length.

One afternoon, Dori called and right out of the blue, asked if I’d like to talk to Joan. 

No, but maybe if you had Yassar Arafat there you could put him on.”  Of course I wanted to talk to Joan!  Whaddya crazy?

Apparently, Joan was in the office, making phone calls to preferred accounts and Dori had me in mind immediately.  She would call back in about a half hour.  This gave me time to run around the store and leave orders to absolutely not be disturbed once that phone rings.  If the building catches fire, call the fire department, slip a note under my door, and get out.  I also had time to come up with a list of stuff to talk about.  If I was going to have her undivided attention, I wanted to have something worthwhile to talk about.

So finally, I got my call, “Dori on line one.”  Damn, what I really wanted to hear over the intercom was, “Bluz, you have Joan Jett on line one.”  Oh well, you take what you get.  Dori asked if I was ready.  I was, and then there was Joan.

We talked mostly about record biz things…when’s the next album, when will the old stuff come out on CD, that kind of thing.  We talked a little about songwriting, and how so many of her songs seem just right for what I may be feeling.  She mentioned how she always makes songs neutral, as in “you,” rather that “he” or “she,” so that anybody can relate to them.

In the end, I told her how nice it was to talk to someone you admire and find them to be a regular person and have them treat you with decency and respect.  She told me how nice it was to be talked to like a regular person.  She said she’d be in town soon and she’d look forward to seeing me backstage.  Dori would be sure to hook me up.  And that was it.  Our talk lasted about 20 minutes.  Dori was shocked.  She told me Joan didn’t talk to anyone else for anywhere near that long.  I was thrilled.

Joan’s next trip to town was in October, opening for Robert Plant at Richfield Coliseum. It so happened that it was the same night as our district Halloween party.  Choices had to be made.  Not that mine wasn’t obvious, but I opted to do both.  I started out at the party, then changed into regular clothes and went (by myself) to the show.  I met Joan in the locker room before her set and had her sign the Up Your Alley album.  We also posed for what has become my favorite shot of the two of us.  We took one, but she decided that she wasn’t looking right, so she wondered if we could take another?

 “What, and stay here with my arm around you?  I don’t think I can stand for that.”  

We took another.  I gave her a birthday card too, belatedly I knew, but I was hoping the thought would count.  I don’t think she knew what to do with it. 
"Hell, I'll stand here like this all night!"

I talked briefly with Ricky Byrd, her guitarist, and had him sign the album.  I told him how much I was into “I Hate Myself For Loving You.”  He told me that the next single was going to be “Little Liar” and it would be huge.  Well, it wasn’t huge, but not because of any shortcoming in the song.  After this conversation, I gave it some more attention, and couldn’t get over how Joanie totally kicks its ass at the end.  She’s got this wail of rage and disgust when she cries, “I believed in you!” before turning it into one of hurt and disbelief, repeating “I believed in you!”  It always gives me shivers.

Anyway, I watched their 45-minute opening act bit, then I left to return to the party.  How could some nobody like Robert Plant come close to what I’d just experienced? 

Joan’s next trip through the area brought her to the Palace Theatre in Akron.  Dori was able to hook me up with backstage passes, but I had to buy my own tickets, as the label had already done the freebie thing when she opened for Plant.  But this time, she was headlining, so it would be money well spent.  I decided to take my friend Kelly (with whom I’d seen Boston), so we hit the road together.

We waited with about 20 other people in a very small backstage area, for the band to come down before their set.  When they did, Joan saw me right away and came directly over to me. 

I know you,” she said, “I don’t remember your name, but you look familiar.”

I was thrilled.  (She knows me!)  I re-introduced myself, telling her where she remembered me from and then introduced her to Kelly.  It was cool being able to personally introduce Joan Jett to a friend of mine.  I got some more stuff signed, but never got around to getting some more pictures taken, much to my chagrin.  It just didn’t seem like the right atmosphere, with so many people in too small of an area. 

The show was killer, and gave her much more of a chance to stretch out.  She really puts on a show, expending a lot of energy.  At one point, I heard a familiar drum beat, but not from any Joan Jett song.  I leaned over to Kelly and said, “I think that’s Dirty Deeds!”

Indeed it was and was quite an unexpected pleasure.  It all made sense later that year, when Joan released The Hit List, an album of classic covers, including AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.

I was in Albany the next time I saw her.  I had just started at the home office when she came to play Saratoga Winners.  I came to learn that my mentor, Vinnie, had a long and colorful past with Joan and at one point, had supposedly threatened to have her manager’s legs broken.  But in the long schmoozing tradition, all was forgotten when new business beckoned.  They were on the phone several times, prior to their arrival in town.  That Vinnie would get us in to see Joan was a given.

I took my friend Tina, another former assistant manager that I’d spun off into her own store.  We saw ourselves a great show, and then we waited around for the house to empty.  Shortly, Joan’s manager, Kenny Laguna, appeared saying that Joan wasn’t going to do a meet and greet.  Her voice was gone and she wasn’t supposed to talk.  Vinnie told us not to worry and to stay put, then he disappeared into the dark corridor.  He emerged in a few minutes, saying all was well. 

There was only Tina and myself, and a couple of other girls when Joan came out.  She was wearing a black leather jacket and ball cap, with a towel around her neck.  The poor dear could barely speak above a whisper.  As this was at least two years from when I’d last met her, and in a city hundreds of miles away, I didn’t expect that she’d remember me.  Actually, I didn’t even mention our past meetings, not seeing any positives that could come out of it.  I didn’t say much, as I didn’t want her to hurt her voice.  That she was out there at all in her condition spoke volumes.
Joan with my friend Tina.

My turn.

I never got the chance to introduce the Ex to her, though we saw two of her shows.

The first was when she played an outdoor FLY 92 Summer Jam, headlining with Debbie Harry.  I was no longer with the Company, and I was hoping to spot Vinnie lurking somewhere in the wings, but I never saw him. 

Later that winter, Joan came to Saratoga Winners again and Vinnie told me he’d be there. But during the show, I got accosted for taking pictures by a couple of no-neck bouncers.  They made me tear the film out of my camera, and almost threw me out.  Bastards! 

By the time the show was over, I was in no mood to schmooze, I just wanted out, vowing never to set foot in that dump again.  We left without even looking for Vinnie, or trying to see Joan. 

These last two failures were a disappointment, but I really can’t complain.  I’ve had a remarkable chance to get to know someone who will, when all is said and done, go down as a pioneer in women’s rock.  Joan was 16 and on the road with The Runaways, at least 5 years before female bands like the Go-Go’s had even met.  In the mid 70’s, there just weren’t girls with guitars, aside from Nancy Wilson of Heart.  The fact that she’s not yet in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a crying shame.  Many past and current female rock groups point to Joan as an inspiration and an example of how one could be a woman and play rock and roll.  

All I can tell you is that treats her fans like gold.  That, and she never, ever, stops rocking.

Note:  On Friday, 3/19/10, a movie about her first group, The Runaways, will be released.  Kristen Stewart will portray Joan and Dakota Fanning will portray band mate Cherie Curry.


Mary Ann said...

Joan J. looks fantasic in these pics. She is indeed a love. You shoudda married HER. She will Rock forever.
Has anyone seen the little drummer kid drumming to "Hate Myself For Loving You"? She inspires even three year olds.

bluzdude said...

Mary Ann:
I’da been happy to marry her, but I don’t think she was shopping in my department…

Mary Ann said...

She need to go to MensWear! But Bless her always.

The Guy's Perspective said...

This was a sweet story Bluz. Really nice to read.

I am a JJ fan, but now I'm an even bigger fan. Why? Because when I hear that someone like her treats her fans with respect and gratitude, it makes me respect her even more, and renews my faith in the music business, at least for today.

stilladog said...

I have always heard about what a nice lady Joan Jett is. Your story confirms it. Only a Blackheart on stage. In life, a Good Heart!

Camden Yards in the late 90s was a good place to see famous folks. Nobody goes there anymore though.

bluzdude said...

GUY and Dog:
She really was a doll... never lost sight of how it feels to be a fan.

When I saw her at the O's game, it was still Memorial Stadium, probably 1985 or 86. Years later, once I lived here, she played a post-game show in June of 2003, right there on Eutaw St. (after serving as Bat Girl for the preceding Old Timers game) I didn't have a chance to get close enough to say anything as she came and left from the stage, but she was still rocking it.

Cher Duncombe said...

Bluz, you are The Man!

bluzdude said...

Now I'm just another dude lamenting my waning youth and wading in the memories.

The older I get, the greater I used to be!

Bachelor Girl said...

The Guy and I joke about Maggie Gyllenhaal, but I really WOULD step over his dead body to get to Joan Jett.

Still A. Fan said...

I had a crush on Joan myself. I remember sitting at a boy/girl party in Jr. High at a friends house and we must have played "I Love Rock-N-Roll" 30 times that night. My freshman year in college, or maybe my sophomore year, either 88 or 89 she came to my university. It was in the gym, festival seating. The concert started at like 8. My friends and I got there around 5 and we were the second group in line. When the doors opened we BOLTED for the stage. I stood front row right the frick in front of the microphone. They had a stage set up about 3-4 feet off the ground. To this day I remember she wore a yellow half-shirt and I was hypnotized by her stomach. She was completey bad-ass. I have 2 vinyls of JJ. I hope she reads this. I go through celebrity crushes one at a time and she was mine for years until Wynona Ryder stole my Now that I'm married I can't comment on celbrity crushes.

Natalie Portman.

bluzdude said...

B Girl:
I might have thrown her out of bed for eating crackers, but there would be a hell of a tussle on the floor.

JJ is past 50 and STILL looks like she's carved out of stone. Belly-up to the stage is the greatest way to see a show... I used to love to do that. Now, I'm all, "but my feet will hurt..." It was so much nicer being young and indestructible.

You have my support with Natalie Portman, although I'm always conflicted... when I see her, I can't help but think of her from The Professional, when she was what, 12?

Same with Drew Barrymore... sure she's all grown up and yummy, but all I see it the little girl from ET and Firestarter.