Joan Jett’s Legacy in Cleveland, Ohio
The Rock Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will be held TOMORROW Saturday, April 18, 2015 at Cleveland’s Public Hall. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts are among the inductees. We can quibble about the configuration of the particular band being inducted, however, the group’s one constant, Joan Jett, well, you cannot dispute her legacy as a musician. Why? Because her archetypal role as a woman rock musician is not so much without precedent, but without a doubt, deserved. Early on, Jett’s black leather gear and ever-present shag haircut was less about establishing androgyny, and more about paying homage to one of her musical idols, Suzi Quatro. The Motor City rock star bass player who in the 1970s had a string of hit singles that helped pave the way for female bands like the Runaways caused radio personalities, rock critics and record buyers to accept gender diversity in both underground and pop music. Jett’s induction cements her position as an elder statesman of rock—something which became inevitable when she founded the Runaways and then her own band, the Blackhearts. And it’s fitting that it will take place in Cleveland.
If you don’t know much about the process for induction, according to the Rock Hall of Fame, artists are eligible 25 years after the release of their first album. What the committee gauges is the acts’ relevance to the field of rock and roll music. In 2011, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts were first nominated for induction by an “international” collection of artists, historians and music industry folk who sometimes don’t get it right, but this time, did not get it wrong.
What you may not know is that Joan Jett’s ties to the Rock and Roll Capital of the World run deep. I saw a young Joan Jett onstage with her band the Runaways at the Cleveland Agora many years ago. She headlined here as a solo act before returning with a new band the Blackhearts, and she made her motion picture debut in a film set on the backdrop of a Midwestern town very much like Cleveland, Ohio.
Cleveland State University is set in the vicinity of venues and iconic hotels that were important to the history of Rock and Roll. The old Holiday Inn at 22nd, of course, Swingos Celebrity Inn on 18th; and Music Grotto at 24th Street. Even the on-air personalities from the flagship FM radio WMMS like Kid Leo, Matt the Cat, and Ed “Flash” Ferenc, came from Cleveland State. You cannot understand how important a venue Hank LoConti’s Cleveland Agora was at one time. If you are in the Rock Hall of Fame, you may have performed at the Agora. The Runaways and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played there on a Thursday night, March 10, 1977.
What was great about this ballroom was that you could get close to the stage and see the act up close. My friend Jeff Wright and I bought our tickets and ventured out in the cold weather to 24th Street so that we could see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but more importantly, we wanted to see the Runaways because they were part of the glitter pop movement which was burgeoning at the time—the costumes, the makeup, and the hair was reminiscent of KISS. Sure, the group merged into the punk movement where they shared the stage with bands like the Ramones, Sex Pistols, but at the time they were punk because they played fast and they played loud.
There weren’t many black kids in the crowded room, but, everyone was friendly and excited to see the Runaways. I remember rushing the stage to see them up close and take pictures with my Yashica 35mm camera. When vocalist Cherie Currie bit down on her blood capsule, which had become a part of the band’s spectacle, I unknowingly got splattered. Being lucky enough to see the band on one of their first stops in Cleveland was more important. Someone pointed to the dried blood on my forehead on the way out of the venue.
Years later, Joan Jett again returned to Cleveland in May 1986 along with Michael J. Fox, who was fresh off of starring in “Back to the Future”. They spent about several weeks in town to shoot Paul Schrader’s film, “Light of Day”. The whole city was buzzing because a rock movie was being shot here. The press kit revealed what Schrader’s vision was for the film. “Light of Day” is not a music film about demos and limos – all that star-search bull,” say the writer and director of hit films like “Taxi Driver”, Schrader. “I wanted to set the film in a bar band rock and roll environment and Cleveland has always been one of the best cities for rock music. Also, I’m from that part of the country, so it just seemed like a logical place,” explains Schrader. “There’s no glamour. Sometimes I refer to it as, “Long Day’s Journey Into Cleveland Heights”."
As on air jocks pumped listeners up with news about the production locations, Jeff and I followed their cues and took to the streets to watch filming. We were fortunate enough to get inside the tiny Euclid Tavern during the filming of the bar scenes. We had an easier time in the early 80s when singer Paul Simon filmed, “One Trick Pony” in Cleveland. We were able to get on set and watch the B52s perform a scene.
While Simon’s film failed at the box office, the anticipation was high for Joan Jett’s first film in which she played Patti Rasnick, the mother of an illegitimate child who fronts a band with her brother Joe Rasnick, portrayed by Michael J. Fox. We went downtown to Playhouse Square the next year for the premiere which was held at the Ohio Theater. Jeff and I couldn’t afford to pay to attend the opening—that was for all the wealthy people who pulled up in limousines that day. But we did see the movie and everyone was impressed with Joan Jett’s performance. Knowing that Cleveland was the setting of another movie about music helped build the city’s legacy as the home of Rock and Roll. More importantly, it marked the transition in the remarkable career of a young woman who nearly 30 years later awaits entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Grammy nominations and platinum records aside, Jett’s body of work is validated by her work ethic—she has never given up. If no one offers her a record contract, she goes out and creates her own Blackheart label. She has worked on Broadway starring in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”; starred in TV series and motion pictures, served as Executive Director for the 2010 film, “The Runaways”, and produced such Riot Grrrl acts as Bikini Kill and L7. In short, Joan Jett has done it all.
In an interview Jett once said, “I don’t want to lessen my own achievements, but it’s just not that difficult [to play in a band]. If you’re in good health and like to travel, I don’t see why more women don’t automatically want to do it.” She’s straightforward like her music—simple, but to the point three chord rock and roll. The Blackhearts were first nominated in 2011, however, it’s fitting that the band goes in this year because the ceremony is being held in the home of Rock and Roll—a place where Joan Jett played frequently and cemented the found of her legacy.
Jett told Rolling Stone Magazine how she felt about being inducted in Cleveland: “To me, it all makes sense. Some of my earliest great memories of playing on the road are from there. There were clubs around Ohio known as The Agora. I remember a lot of the Runaways’ early big gigs and successful shows and actually some of our early bootlegs were done in Cleveland. I’ve always had a great respect for the town. We did a couple months of filming in Cleveland (for “The Light of Day”) and some live footage, so it’s always been part of my life and career. I think it’s real and it’s fitting that I’d go in there.
Charlotte Morgan is a writer who lives in a northern neighborhood of Cleveland where she works on her memoirs and occasionally writes about music. She is a graduate of Cleveland State University.