God Bless Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

Joan Jett & the Blackhearts at Lollapalooza 2012
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts at Lollapalooza 2012

Pete Townshend doesn't pick his openers lightly. To be fair, he probably doesn't pick his openers at all, but the last time The Who passed through Houston Chrissie Hynde's Pretenders had the honors. So at the very least, it's an educated guess that someone in The Who's camp might have a taste for badass brunettes.

This time around it's Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, who are opening the entire "The Who Hits 50" tour that pulls up to the Toyota Center loading dock tonight. Jett and her accomplices are newly minted members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame themselves, and rightfully so. No disrespect to Linda Ronstadt, Darlene Love or Wanda Jackson, who are all wonderful pop and/or country singers, but you have to go back eight years before the last lady rocker to make it into the Hall, the incomparable Patti Smith.

But Smith is a poetess, who channeled the grime and liberation of the CBGB scene into songs that exploded with onomatopoeia and jazz-like word-riffs like this one from "25th Floor: "Desire to dance/ Too startled to try/ Wrap my legs 'round you/ Starting to fly." Jett, though, is a rocker to the core -- normally sporting low-top Converse and the motorcycle jacket she wears like a uniform -- down to her soft spot for oldies like "Crimson and Clover" and "Hanky Panky." In their own way, her songs are as poetic as Patti Smith's, but often a lot more blunt: "I don't give a damn 'bout my reputation/ Never been afraid of any deviation," she sings on "Bad Reputation," the 1981 song that put her on the map once the Runaways had run their course.

But long before Kristen Stewart -- who would go on to play Jett in the 2010 biopic The Runaways -- was even born, the Philadelphia native born Joan Larkin co-founded that band of L.A. teenagers, which were once called the first all-female group to play "aggressive music"; certainly their stomping riffs would have made T. Rex or Slade proud. Notwithstanding the reviews of the movie or the dubious marketing tactics employed by their manager, the late Kim Fowley, history has been kind to the Runaways: "In the end, the Runaways' sound and attitude proved crucially important in paving the way for female artists to crank up the volume on their guitars and rock as hard as the boys," notes Allmusic Guide. And not by coincidence. Jett wrote the group's one song that has most been passed down through history, "Cherry Bomb."

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Back then, Jett also had the foresight to found her own record label, Blackheart Records, with partner Kenny Laguna, a former member of Tommy James & the Shondells who also produced Jett's eponymous 1980 solo debut album and the next year's Bad Reputation. The year after that, "I Love Rock and Roll" -- built around a few simple chords that ooze attitude and Jett's "may, yeah, may" refrain that focused listeners on her like a laser -- blew the whole game wide open.

Back in 1982, nothing else in the Top 40 sounded anything like "I Love Rock and Roll." Pat Benatar and Stevie Nicks were around, and the Go-Go's were just getting hot, but Patti Smith had temporarily retreated to raise a family and the Top 40 belonged to country-pop crossover singers like Olivia Newton-John and Juice Newton. It was also a huge year for Toto; never mind several members of the band playing on Michael Jackson's Thriller, the group itself had one of the biggest hits of its career with "Rosanna," a tribute to David Arquette's older sister. Other big hits that year included Soft Cell's "Tainted Love," Quarterflash's "Harden My Heart" and Willie Nelson's "Always On My Mind."

In almost every aspect, rock and roll was a bigger part of the pop conversation then than it is today. John Cougar had two songs in the year-end Top 10, while Steve Miller Band and J. Geils Band had a pair of latter-day fluke pop hits with "Abracadabra" and "Centerfold," respectively, but at No. 3 "I Love Rock and Roll" beat them all. If not for Rocky Balboa (and maybe Mr. T), Jett would have probably beaten "Eye of the Tiger" too.

Last week, the parent album of "I Love Rock & Roll," also titled I Love Rock and Roll, was reissued in a "33 1/3 Edition" that tacks on a 1981 live recording of Jett and the Blackhearts on their NYC home turf. Today, the famous line "put another dime in the jukebox, baby" has all but outlasted jukeboxes themselves, not to mention anything at all that costs a damn dime.

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Even today, the link between Jett and singers like The Pretty Reckless' Taylor Momsen and Halestorm's Lzzy Hale (as well as those ladies' backing bands) is pretty straightforward. A generation ago, female-led groups like Bikini Kill, L7 and Babes In Toyland began singing Jett's praises (loudly); contributors and co-conspirators on Jett's 1994 LP Pure and Simple include all of the above, most prominently BK's Kathleen Hanna, Jett's co-author on "Spinster" and "Rubber & Glue." The following paragraph is taken from the official Blackheart Records press release for the album:

Here, after all, is the women who produced The Germs' seminal punk album GI, who toured with The Ramones, recorded with The Sex Pistols and invited everyone from R.E.M. to The Butthole Surfers to open for her. More recently, she has produced tracks for the above mentioned Bikini Kill and Dischord's Circus Lupus. She has also attracted several promising young alternative bands to Blackheart Records.

Today one of the half-dozen or so acts on Blackheart Records is San Antonio's Girl In a Coma, who have recorded four albums for the label and become one of Texas' most beloved punk bands. The label's flagship group, meanwhile, released their first album in seven years in 2013, Unvarnished; on the whole, its songs are volatile enough to strip paint. And across the Internet, message boards are filled with questions like this one we found at fanpop.com: "How do I act like Joan Jett?"

"I'm kinda sick of my personality (if that makes any sense)," explains "MusicGirl33." I want to be more....rocker girl."

The answer didn't come from Jett (we think), but it's hard to imagine she would disagree:

Just be true to yourself let music be your soul dont care what other people stay love your friends and music, let life take it's path speak your mind and never let anyone put you down. fight back. follow yor [sic] dreams and never give up try your best at everything.

dont care what they say joanie would be so proud of you.

Rock on, Joan.

God Bless Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

BONUS: HOLLYWOOD JOAN One of my absolute favorite Jett songs is the Blackhearts' cover of the Troggs' "Wild Thing," as seen in the climactic scene of 1989's Major League, above. A few other movies/TV series featuring the band on the soundtrack:

"Bad Reputation" Easy A Baby Mama Shrek Freaks and Geeks (multiple episodes)

"Cherry Bomb" Guardians of the Galaxy RV Dazed and Confused

"I Hate Myself For Loving You" Kick-Ass 2 Ghosts of Girlfriends Past Striptease

Joan Jett & the Blackhearts open for The Who tonight at Toyota Center, 1510 Polk. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

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