My mother swears that I was born on August 2, 1981 during a rare thunderstorm in San Francisco. The facts do not support her claim. The historical records show that San Francisco went through a record cold spell from July 6 through August 11 and there are no mentions of thunderstorms during that period. My father only remembers my mother showering him with abuse in multiple languages for being the perpetrator of the heinous act that forced her to endure such agony. My theory is that giving birth probably feels like an attack of thunder and lightning, and she probably wanted to attach special significance to the birth of her only child so she could feel I was worth the effort.
I will let her story stand out of respect for her willingness to endure all that for little ol’ me.
Other than that, 1981 was a pretty blah year. I have to live with the shame that I was born during the first year of The Reagan Revolution and can compensate for that social disaster only by citing two other significant events: Bob Gibson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and Joan Jett came out with I Love Rock and Roll.
The two events have a common thread: Bob Gibson and Joan Jett symbolize attitude. Gibson would knock anyone on their ass if they showed him up, and he devoted an entire chapter to the art of the close one in his fabulous biography Stranger to the Game. Joan Jett sang about kicking ass, not putting up with anyone’s shit and not giving a fuck about what anyone thought about her sexual proclivities and whether or not she was a switch-hitter.
I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll is an album dripping with attitude. This is obvious right from the start with the title track, where the drum intro leads to those kick-ass power chords in stereo backed by get-off-your-ass-and-onto-the-dance-floor hand-clapping. The rhythm settles into the groove and a slashing riff from the lead guitar introduces Joan Jett on the mike. Her voice is sullen, smart-ass, cheeky, street-wise and fucking hot. When the band fades and it’s just the drums and the claps, I love the way she delivers that line, “And I can tell it wouldn’t be long/That he was with me, yeah, me,” growling that “yeah” with defiant confidence. After the chorus I wait in great anticipation for that little scream she gives in between the verses: a scream telling you, “Yeah, I’ll fuck you, but I’m going to dig my fingernails into your fucking back.” She sounds like a cougar getting ready to tear into your skin. Although The Blackhearts stick close to the basic structure of the original by The Arrows, they bring a hell of a lot more attitude to the mix . . . and that’s why Joan Jett is famous for this song and people say, “Who the fuck were The Arrows?”
The Blackhearts weren’t a band to sit around on their asses, and the next song “(I’m Gonna) Run Away” keeps the beat driving and the guitars flying. Joan’s full of attitude on this one, as she bemoans the game-playing that often accompanies relationships and states she has no intention of putting up with any crap (“We’re fakin’ it, it’s time to admit it/You make me feel like an idiot”). More melodic than the opening track and supported by falsetto harmonies, this track expresses the intensely satisfying experience of calling bullshit when necessary.
John Lennon expressed his vision in “Imagine,” and Joan Jett expressed hers in the self-penned “Love is Pain.” I received I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll as a present for my seventeenth birthday—surprisingly from my mother, who had always left gifts of music to my father. Oddly enough, I didn’t remember ever hearing it before, though my dad showed me his original vinyl version that day. I held the CD in my hands, smiled awkwardly and asked her, “Why?” “Because it’s all about what you’re going through right now,” she explained succinctly. What I was going through was the sexual awakening that indicated that I liked girls as much as I liked guys and that I seemed to enjoy the experience of giving someone pain during sex. At this point in my life, I felt insecure and uncertain about those feelings. I had told my mother about my experiences, and she responded by lending me Story of O and giving me I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll for my birthday.
If I were religious, I would get down on my knees every day and thank God for my mother.
And you too, Dad!
“Love Is Pain” is a no-apology anthem for the integration of sex and pain. The punk movement had always stood in support of physical pain as part of the experience, something that parents of the time—conveniently ignoring their obsession for watching grown men maim and injure each other playing American football—found disturbing and bizarre. Joan Jett says, “Fuck that!” and sings about the joys and paradoxes of sadomasochism with positive pride:
Hey, you must obey
While you will bleed you know I need to get my way
So now, you listen up
You are my pup, I’ll beat you up in every way.
And when I speak to you
You answer true or I will make you black and blue
I love to make you wait, you take the bait
I know you hate and love me too.
We are not to blame,
In seeing love is pain,
We are not ashamed
To say that love is pain!
And we’ll do it again
The repetition of the words “We are not ashamed” meant everything to this confused teenager, and along with my visits to the Folsom Street Fair, helped me feel a little less demented.
Next Joan flips the American stereotype of the nagging wife on its ass in “Nag,” complaining about her whiny-moaner male partner. But her most powerful gender-bending statement comes in her cover of Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover.” Going way back in the time machine, it was standard practice in the 50’s and 60’s for an artist covering a song previously recorded by a member of an opposite sex to change the pronouns to honor the predominant dogma of heterosexuality. Joan Jett says, “Fuck that!” I knew the original version and I was terribly excited when I heard Joan Jett’s and realized with delight what she hadn’t done. She didn’t change the pronoun! This was about a girl loving another girl!
Ah, now I don’t hardly know her
But I think I could love her
Crimson and clover
Ah when she comes walking over
Now I’ve been waitin’ to show her
Crimson and clover over and over
Yeah, my, my such a sweet thing
I wanna do everything
What a beautiful feeling
Crimson and clover over and over
Another thing I love about this version is how much respect she shows for the original, which is also a beautiful piece of work. Still, I love Joan’s rendition a bit more because of its incredible tenderness: her voice sounds like she’s in the zone, completely entranced by the woman before her eyes.
Joan and the boys go back to kicking some ass in “Victim of Circumstance,” where Joan’s shouting call-and-response vocal in the chorus and a hot lead guitar solo make this one a certified ripper. Next up is their cover of Dave Clark’s “Bits and Pieces.” This one’s difficult to evaluate because I do prefer the pounding percussion of the original and there are few lead singers I love as much as the horribly underrated Mike Smith. On the other hand, Joan Jett’s take maintains the forward movement of the song, particularly on the transition to the bridge, where Dave and the boys had a bit of a hiccup. Let’s call it a wash and thank Joan for rescuing this solid rocker from oblivion. Here are two contrasting renditions: the original and Joan Jett’s version performed with the John Mellencamp band a few years back. Try not to cringe when you see the choreography on the Dave Clark Five performance on Top of the Pops:
Next is the slam-dance masterpiece, “Be Straight,” where The Blackhearts not only do a great job with the rhythm but a killer job with the background shouts of “Be straight!” The guitar rhythm is an echo of “I Want Candy,” but who gives a shit? Joan’s on a roll with her cat-scratch screaming and the drummer makes up for sleeping through “Bits and Pieces” with a solid effort. Next they really ramp it up with “You’re Too Possessive,” recycled from her days with The Runaways and the Waitin’ for the Night album. Having come out for S&M on “Love Is Pain,” you may wonder how Joan Jett had the gall to accuse anyone else of being possessive. Well, there’s a positive aspect of possession (as an expression of intense desire) and a negative aspect (trying to restrict another person’s choices). “You’re Too Possessive” exposes the dark side: the guy is obviously an insecure pussy who tries to use the mythical male birthright to enforce obedience. Fat fucking chance, dude! That’s Joan Jett you’re dealing with!
At this point in the record, I begin to feel sorry for my dad. His original vinyl version ends with “Little Drummer Boy,” one of the worst ideas a band ever had, even if it was only included to cash in on the upcoming holiday season at the time of its release. Later releases wisely featured the far superior “Oh Woe Is Me,” a song about how the rock idols of the 60’s had sold out and drifted away from the essence of rock ‘n’ roll, a development that fueled the disgust and anger behind the punk revolution:
What happened to my heroes?
They seem to disappear
The idols keep on singin’
But they don’t sound sincere.
The lead guitar on this piece, courtesy of the obscure Irvin Arifin Harahap, is pure rock ‘n’ roll nastiness. No sellouts here!
The 1998 CD release featured a few bonus tracks worthy of mention. Joan does my all-time favorite version of “Louie Louie,” because she attacks it with the raw energy the song requires. There’s a live version of “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got” that’s certainly worth a listen, but their version of “Summertime Blues” is hampered by weak background and fill vocals while suffering from comparison to Eddie Cochran’s exquisite original and Roger Daltrey’s Live at Leeds rendition. They also slapped on an alternative recording of “Nag” with The Coasters which lacks the spark of the original track. Overall, I think the record is better without the bonus tracks.
The combination of raw energy, female power and a full commitment to no bullshit rock ‘n’ roll make I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll one of my favorite albums of all time. Even though I discovered it seventeen years after its release, it had as much of an impact on me as any record I can recall. Joan Jett brought an attitude with her that makes her music scorching hot, but also sent a message that not only is it okay to be different, but that we should be proud of being different. That resonates perfectly with the anti-establishment orientation of great rock ‘n’ roll and it resonated with an insecure girl of seventeen who desperately needed to master the attitude of “Yeah, I’m different. Wanna make somethin’ of it?”