She loves rock 'n' roll
Aug. 9, 2000
Joshua Myerov
Staff Writer

Leather-clad, guitar-wielding, pop-punk musician Joan Jett got her start in Wheaton

Once upon a time, a pop music legend cavorted through the streets of Wheaton.

Today, her name is Joan Jett.

Back in 1973, she was Joan Marie Larkin -- a quiet, shy, "normal" 15-year-old girl, living in a Randolph Hills neighborhood, attending Wheaton High School, and teaching herself to play T. Rex guitar licks.

In late 1974, at the beginning of her junior year, Joan and her family moved to California when her military father was transferred.

There, in about one year, Joan Larkin, the unassuming "mouse" of a girl, as one former classmate described her, became Joan Jett, the 17-year-old leader of an all-girl punk band called The Runaways. (Jett now claims she was 15 at the time.) The girl who two years earlier couldn't even land a major role in her high school musicals was making waves in the national music scene and in Japan.

Today, Joan Jett is 41 (though she claims to be 39). She is a veritable rock icon, having survived nearly a quarter century in the tough-luck music industry, changing her look but never her sound. Her hits from the early '80s with her backup band, The Blackhearts, -- "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," "I Hate Myself for Loving You" and "Bad Reputation" -- are rock anthems whose power chord riffs resonate in the collective memories of those who came of age in the decade of greed.

"I Love Rock 'n' Roll" alone sold 14 million copies, one of the best-selling singles ever.

"Joan decided what she does best and what she sounds best doing, and she's stuck with it," said Jett's high school friend, Eddie Cockrell, now a movie and music critic.

'A pretty regular kid'

More than 25 years after leaving her Garrett Park neighborhood, Jett remembers fondly her youth in Montgomery County, playing baseball and hanging out on streets like Schulykill Road and Boiling Brook Parkway, and bowling in organized leagues.

Her recollections of a charming, but otherwise unremarkable childhood are almost shocking coming from the woman New Music Express magazine called "the patron saint of a pierced, dog-collar wearing, unabashedly pansexual rock 'n' roll nation."

"I was just a pretty regular kid," Jett told The Gazette last month. "I don't think I was ever too much of a troublemaker. I went to school. I didn't cut classes. I was pretty good."

Pretty good was right. But clearly not pretty great -- at least in the acting realm.

In the 1973 school production of "Fiddler on the Roof," Jett was not among the more than 20 lead characters in the cast. Instead, she was one of 25 nameless "villagers."

"She was a behind-the-scenes person," said Cockrell, who played the butcher in "Fiddler." As head of the props crew, Cockrell said, "she was delighted to find she could wear all black" so she wouldn't be seen during plays. "It was cool to wear all black."

Cool, maybe, but as Larry Casertano, the rabbi in "Fiddler," put it, "How she turned into Joan Jett, I'll never know."

She loved rock 'n' roll

As Jett tells it, she decided to buy a guitar and take lessons while a student at Wheaton High.

At her first lesson, she said to her teacher, "Teach me how to play rock and roll. He looked at me like I was crazy," she recalled. "He taught me 'On Top of Old Smokey.' I quit after one lesson and I started teaching myself guitar chords."

While in the D.C. area, Jett remembered going to the American Theatre to see a performance by the cutting edge, glam-punk group New York Dolls. Jett always had good taste in music, Cockrell said, even if she preferred groups like New York Dolls, who were often perceived back then as "evil incarnate."

Cockrell said he remembers drinking Schlitz beer in Jett's basement and listening incessantly to T. Rex's "Bang-a-Gong" while she practiced picking out riffs on the cheap guitar and feeble amplifier she'd bought. Cockrell said he kissed her, too, but wouldn't expand on that.

"At that age," Cockrell said, "there were a lot of people who wanted to be in the rock 'n' roll world."

Jett was one of them, Cockrell said, but hardly the only one. In fact, Cockrell read from his 1974 Wheaton High yearbook, in which Jett had written him, "I hope you will remember me whether you become famous or not. You will."

Bad reputation

"I see a lot of the Joan I remember when I see her now," Cockrell said. "She has a 'look at me, I'm fooling the world' kind of smile. She really enjoys having passed through the mirror [of fame]."

But even to herself, the Joan Jett of '75 was a far cry from the Joan Larkin of '74.

"I wasn't at the age where I expressed my individuality," she said. But "everything was simmering in me. By the time I got to California, everything exploded."

By the early '80s, Jett had polished her image as the leather-clad, guitar-wielding, pop-punk purist who unabashedly flaunted her sexual liberation to the world.

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts' cover versions of songs like The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog," and The Ramones' "Bad Reputation," while racy in their original versions, became even more suggestive when sung by Jett.

"I don't give a damn about my bad reputation," Jett sings in her distinctive growl on her 1981 hit. At that point, she had been in the music business six years, and she was just 22.

She certainly wasn't the same "quiet mouse type" that Casertano remembered.

"You would've never thought she'd go on to do what she did," he said.

Class reunion bragging rights

A few weeks ago, the Wheaton High School graduating classes of '74,'75 and '76 held a joint class reunion. Jett, who would have graduated in '76, wanted to go but was unable. She is still in regular contact with at least a couple of Wheaton High School graduates. Jett's schedule, however, was predictably overbooked.

Had she gone, she certainly would have had bragging rights above all others.

At just 41 (she turns 42 Sept. 22), Jett has sung the national anthem at Baltimore Orioles games to the point, she said, it's become cliché.

She has starred in a movie, "Light of Day" with Michael J. Fox -- of which movie critic Cockrell said, "She's not at all bad." She has made cameo appearances on television shows such as "Walker, Texas Ranger," "The Roseanne Show," "Ellen" and others.

She continues to make music, recently releasing a single, "Fetish." She continues to tour (returning to this area Oct. 7 for Taste of D.C.), and continues to run her independent record label, Blackheart Records, as she has for almost 20 years.

How many other Wheaton alum can put that on their resume?

Joan Larkin can.