Generation gaps evidently mean nothing to Joan Jett. Following the comical but not insignificant late-’70s existence of the fake-rebel Runaways, Joan Jett was ushered into her solo career by an older generation of radical rockers — two of the tracks on Joan Jett (retitled Bad Reputation for its major-label relaunch in 1981) were produced and performed by ex-Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook. A dozen years later, following a hugely successful mainstream career that set her on a fast track towards middle age, the Baltimore-born singer/guitarist was rejuvenated by her welcome into a younger cadre of musical upstarts who view her as a feminist role model. These days, she seems younger than ever. The newest numbers on Flashback, a highly selective 22-song odds’n’ends retrospective are a live ’92 performance with L7 of the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” and 1993’s “Activity Grrrl,” a song Jett was inspired to write by Bikini Kill, a band she also produced. Otherwise, Flashback offers such intriguing items as the scrapped Pistols-backed version of “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” and Jett’s personalized version of the Pistols “EMI” (“MCA”).
Always a contradiction of commercial accommodation and left-of-the-dial aspiration, Jett sounds unfazed by the incongruity of songwriting collaborations with both Paul Westerberg and Desmond Child on the slickly run-of-the-mill Notorious. Likewise, Jett’s covers album, The Hit List, includes her renditions of “Pretty Vacant” and “Roadrunner” alongside AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” and the Kinks’ “Celluloid Heroes.” Like the good Orioles fan she is, Jett keeps her eye on the ball.
Even on Pure and Simple, the most ambitiously uncommon album of her career, Jett can’t simplify her life. While moved to unprecedented levels of boisterous energy by her obstreperous disciples — Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill), Kat Bjelland (Babes in Toyland), Donita Sparks and Jennifer Finch (L7) all stop by to write and play with her — she still employs the same old song-factory pros. (In one of rock’s oddest culture clashes, Hanna, Child and Jett all share songwriting credit for the tunelessly hostile “You Got a Problem.”) Still, a renewed sense of purpose and Hanna’s random antagonism helps Jett survive a daunting stack of big-league producers, and Pure and Simple is a punchy, no-frills collection of chunky electric guitar chords, 4/4 beats and melodically shouted choruses as catchy and cool as any in her past. Searching for a sense of place, Jett spends the album trying to deny her self-consciousness: “As I Am,” “Wonderin’,” “Spinster” and “Insecure” all acknowledge uncertainty and plead for acceptance — if not understanding. Her tributes to new pals (“Activity Grrrl”) and murdered Gits singer Mia Zapata (“Go Home”) are too oblique and awkward to convey much, but the point of her concern is well taken. Whether she is a riot grrrl or just plays one in the studio, Jett has never been better. Even her handlers might have learned something from this one. (The album, CD and cassette contain different sets of songs that suggest a careful bit of demographic calculation. Bjelland’s “Here to Stay” and Sparks’ “Hostility” appear on vinyl but not CD; the reverse is true for Child’s schmaltz-slathered “Brighter Day” and onetime Bryan Adams songwriter Jim Vallance’s wonderful “Wonderin’.”)
Jett subsequently deepened her involvement in the indie-rock world and her commitment to the memory of Mia Zapata by performing three early-’95 benefit shows fronting a band with the former Gits, who had already regrouped as Dancing French Liberals of ’48. Evil Stig, the pro temp quartet’s semi-live album (the proceeds of which were marked for a fund to find Zapata’s killer) consists largely of Gits songs — half of them from the 1994 Enter: The Conquering Chicken album — but also contains Pure and Simple‘s “You Got a Problem” and “Activity Grrrl” (not “Go Home” — that went to the Home Alive compilation), a needless remake of Tommy James’ “Crimson & Clover” (the song was a hit for Jett in 1982) and a poppy Evil Stig original, “Last to Know.” It’s weird the way the album doesn’t differentiate between the freewheeling stage work and overproduced studio efforts, but that’s always been typical of Jett’s not-quite-in-tune career. No matter. This gutsy, hoarse and rousing record that strikes a workable balance between the veteran’s arena experience and the younguns’ raucous punk animation is an important and impressive step in Joan Jett’s creative rehabilitation.