Sep 02, 2021
9 mins read
An extract from a forthcoming book:
24 April 1982 - The Breakfast Table:
I'm looking at a copy of Sounds or Melody Maker that's come through the letterbox.
"Holy cow! Joan Jett is number 4 on the chart!"
I give the fossils the evil eye and go back to scanning the week in music for signs of life.
It was validation of sorts. I'm 14. A chance sequence of events has led to me being a big fan of The Runaways from a pretty young age. By 'big fan', I mean I listened to the two albums I had unearthed from the record store based on the cover picture alone. They hardly got any coverage in the UK music press, so unless you were plugged into something magical like Creem or Hit Parader (which I used to steal from an independent newsagent when I couldn't afford them) there was little chance of discovering much else beyond what was written on the album sleeve.
Such was the hole in my knowledge - with hindsight, I can squarely blame that on the lack of mag coverage - I didn't even know they had split up until I discovered Joan riding high at number 4. It was one of those moments when that 'thing' you've been talking about for years becomes important to other people and you overnight become The Man.
Usually for less than 24 hours before everybody gets tired of you being an idiot about it anyway.
I had no idea I Love Rock N' Roll was a cover of the 1975 Arrows song. That came much later. At 14, you don't care much about those kinds of things. I'd put money on that still being the case for a lot of people in 2021 when it comes to the song. You'd probably even find people who think the song belongs to Britney. That's kind of the way things go with songs.
Cut to: a school disco some weeks later. I sincerely hope that it was officially a fancy dress disco because John (my partner in crime throughout my school years) and myself, decided to go as Ace Frehley and Gene Simmons. It was probably the same as every other school disco we had ever been to, fancy dress or not. They played music neither of us liked and we stood around like wallflowers, slightly drunk on whatever we'd been able to steal and daring each other to approach girls we were into... only this time we were not so invisible. It's hard to blend into the background when you're dressed as Kiss. I owned some wrestling boots that were a far cry from The Demon's dragon platform boots, but it was as close as I was going to get. Put that together with a pair of jeans and a denim shirt, I wasn't fooling anybody. I just looked like the same old loser I'd always been... with Gene Simmons face paint on.
In the foyer, there was a maths teacher being suspiciously nice selling orange juice - my memory is a little vague about this but I assume that's why we were out there and not inside getting down to Odyssey or Chic. A couple of skinhead guys turned up out of nowhere. Skinheads scared the crap out of me back then but I always kind of appreciated how they were 'all in' with what they were into. You couldn't be half a skinhead or pretend to be one. You either were or you weren't. I don't even remember them being at our school but it's always possible that they just looked different in a school uniform (thus proving it is possible to disguise yourself as a skinhead I guess). Anyway, one of them took one look at me, called me a dick, laughed and punched me in the face. Hard.
Over and out.
With blood dribbling from my mouth, my transformation into The Demon was complete - and there was at least another hour to go before my old man came to pick us up - just writing that makes me cringe, but that's school for you.
Then, like a cascade of thunder, accompanied by Joan's riffing Gibson, (a Gibson Melody Maker if memory serves) I Love Rock n Roll came pumping through the canteen doors. It's a riff that's a call to arms. If it comes on in the car, it is in fact international law that you tweak the volume up and wind the window down. It called to me right then. Everything fell into place. I was all in - no disguise. Together, Ace and Gene took over the empty canteen floor, shaking our fists in the air, thrashing our non-existent hair, declaring to anybody that would listen, that hell yeah - we loved rock n roll too. We were even prepared to bleed for it.
The cool kids kept our wall warm for us until our 2 minutes 55 seconds were over.
Everything combines flawlessly in this song - even more so than in the original. The drums are simple. Tribal even. They beat like your heart because it is your heart. The bass is right there alongside it, so tightly tucked in that you don't even notice it chugging away there unless you look for it - which is how it should be. The guitars? Oh, how they bleed - doing that rock/pop/punk thing that only Joan Jett owns in this way while she leads the battle cry so many think they understand but very few really do. Perhaps that's the mastery of this song. You can love it regardless of your faith. It stealthed its way into the chart on the back of being simply irresistible. Nobody can deny the power of I Love Rock n Roll. I take my hat off to Alan Merrill and Jake Hooker because that's what I would definitely call a legacy.
One thing I've learned over the years though, is that a victory for outsiders never lasts for long.
The wall is a lonely place to be. I'm glad I'm not 14 anymore but I still wouldn't change it for a single thing.
Many years later, 12 in fact, I find myself snowed into Syracuse, New York State. Nobody is coming in and nobody is going out. It's pretty bad (by UK standards it's apocalyptic) but actually, it's also great. My buddy JJ and me... we only went to spend a few days in Manhattan but when we got there, we found we only had enough money for one night in a hotel (that's a whole other story by itself). It was too cold to sleep at the train station (which is what we usually did in London) so we put our heads together and discovered an overnight Amtrak train to Syracuse was cheaper than a room, so we got on it and slept, arriving refreshed and ready to roll at 4am... in temperatures that would make hell freeze over.
Funnily enough, not much happens in Syracuse at 4am in the middle of winter. My best recollection of waiting for the sun to show its face was breaking and entering a jellybean machine to get some sugar into the system. Dressed like it was a regular old day in June in the UK (go figure), we wondered what we had done.
Truth be told, we both thought we were going to die on that station platform and somehow, that was OK because we didn't know anybody else who had made it this far away from home.
There's lots of detail I could throw in here but I'll cut to the chase. By nightfall, we found ourselves in a club called The Lost Horizon. Entry $5. Drink all you can included. The scenario wasn't quite as dumb as Ace and Gene at a school disco but if you can imagine two guys wearing days old eye-liner walking into a club populated by Judas Priest worshipping lumberjacks, you'd have a very exact picture of what it looked like that night.
We eyed each other up wondering if we should make a hasty retreat back to the jellybean machine but as it turned out, those lumber guys made us more than welcome. Maybe it was because we were British and sounded like The Beatles, but I actually think it's because Nothing Else Ever Happened up there. Look it up on a map. It's Very Far Away... or at least it was to us.
JJ made himself busy doing what comes naturally and commandeered the DJ decks to play the latest Wildhearts CD, which he permanently carried in his coat pocket to play it for as many people as he could along our stupid little road trip. In itself, that's worth writing about but that one's not my story to tell.
I really, really, 100% truly was, standing by the record machine when she smiled and asked my name. We struck up a conversation. I also knew for a cold, hard fact that she wasn't anywhere near 17. Early in the evening, my best guess was that she looked like the mother of one of The Runaways but as I waded my way through that $5/All You Can Drink deal, she turned into a 1978 version of Cherie Currie before my very eyes and I was sunk like a pirate ship.
Somehow, I had made it to the the city of my dreams, behaved like a beatnik hobo, drunk a magical native potion and been transported into the arms of The Foxy One herself from the album cover of my dreams. It was all coming together more or less as I had planned!
Because there was a live DJ that night - who so happened to my wingman - the jukebox was turned off. Shame, because there were some good songs on it, but as fate would have it, J pulled a record out of the DJ box and gave me a shout for asking him to come on this ill thought out road trip. What did he play? I hear you ask...
He dropped the needle onto I Hate Myself For Loving You. It's my favourite Joan Jett song. I think it's as perfect as I Love Rock n Roll, it just has a different sentiment. There go those tribal drums again bolstered by a driving bass-line. Big crunchy guitars that destroy without trying too hard at all. What the hell is there not to love about this song?
More to the point, how come it only made it to number 46 on the chart?
Anyway, it was one of those great nights out that I have practically no memory of aside from the early part of the evening as detailed here. I later recall making snow angels with lumberjacks, walking to a petrol station with them for cigarettes and Hershey bars (we had become obsessed with them since the plane touched down), getting into the back of a pick-up truck with Maureen, J and some other people but that's about it for me until the morning, when we were once again to be found stranded at Syracuse train station, where I found a piece of paper in my pocket with a number on it and the name 'Maureen' above it with a little heart as the full stop.
I never called. I might have fallen in love, never made it home and ended up living in a trailer park hating myself for loving her.
But I do still love rock n roll - and Joan Jett. With all my heart.