Joan Jett savoring the respect, accolades of a powerhouse career

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BY JEFF ELBEL | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

Joan Jett may sing that she doesn’t give a damn about her bad reputation, but a lifetime in music finds her with major respect anyhow. During last year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Jett performed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with the surviving members of Nirvana. This year, Jett joined the Hall’s rock legends when she was inducted.

THE WHO Special guests: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts When: 7:30 p.m. May 13 Where: Allstate Arena, 6920 N Mannheim, Rosemont Tickets:$49.50 – $154.50 Info: ticketmaster.com

Jett is pragmatic about the honor, but appreciative. “I’ve never been in a band to win awards,” she says. “The purpose is to make music and have fun with the fans. But when I went up to do my speech, there was a standing ovation and it was very moving. It has been such a struggle from the time I started in the Runaways, whether it was ‘girls can’t play rock and roll’ or the million little hurdles.”

“To see not only the fans, but the industry standing up meant a lot, especially from other musicians. I heard that Paul and Ringo stood up. I realized I’m not just off in the corner doing this by myself with nobody noticing.”

Joan Jett | Photo by Roger Erickson

Joan Jett | Photo by Roger Erickson

Jett’s tenth album “Unvarnished” arrived in 2013,boasting further evidence of mutual admiration between Jett and the Nirvana camp. The single “Any Weather” was co-written with former Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl. The song’s buzzsaw pop recalled the hard-rocking bubblegum snap of Jett’s ‘80s hits, fused with the chugging power and attitude of the Ramones. “I had the title, an idea what I wanted to write about, and a riff,” says Jett. “We took that and started jamming on it.”

Fragile” found Jett writing from positions of both vulnerability and strength. “It was cathartic for me,” she says. “My mother had just passed away. I was writing about how I felt about losing my parents, but it could be about losing anybody. The third verse is about love. Love can be strong, but it can also be really fragile. I’m finding out in life that so many things are a paradox. They’re both at once.”

It’s a far cry from cheeky singles like “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah).” “As I get older, I want to write about things other than sex, drugs and rock and roll,” says Jett. “I love writing about that stuff, but as you grow up, you can’t write about that 24/7.”

Jett’s public standing has allowed her to raise awareness for social issues of personal importance. “I can distill it to three things,” she says. “Children, the environment, and animals are what I care about.”

In 2010, Jett supported PETA by distributing the organization’s Vegetarian Starter Kit. She insists that formal training isn’t necessary. “You can make your own starter kit,” she says. “Look at your diet, what you like that isn’t meat. I like beans, and there’s a million kinds. Just cut back a little bit, and see how you feel. You don’t have to do it all at once.”

Founding Blackheart Records in 1980 with songwriting partner Kenny Laguna, Jett was among the first women in rock with her own record label. Taken from her first record with the Blackhearts, Jett’s cover of the Arrows’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” topped the pop charts for seven weeks in 1982. The success was gratifying, but Jett’s satisfaction came from more than airplay.

“We did this without the machinery of a big record label,” she says. “Initially, it sucked because we wanted to be on a label, but nobody wanted me. I still have all those letters rejecting ‘I Love Rock and Roll,’ ‘Crimson and Clover,’ ‘Touch Me’ and ‘Bad Reputation.’ We did it as an independent on every level. I’m very proud of that, and the people who work at Blackheart and made it what it is.”

Jeff Elbel is a local free-ance writer.

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