By Ellen Chappelle
Musician Joan Jett rocked the house during an assembly at Scriber Lake High School Monday afternoon, but not with her music. She just talked. Not as an adult swooping in with lofty plans to educate the students, but as a fellow human being just trying to be herself rather than conform to someone else’s ideas and plans. And she had them eating out of her hand.
Scriber Lake teacher Greg Lange saw the movie “The Runaways,” based on Jett’s days with her first band of the same name, and was struck by the similarities between Jett and his students. A kid who didn’t fit in during her teenage years, Jett was teased and picked on by others, just like many of the students at Edmonds’ alternative high school. But she perservered, seeing her differences as strengths, and went on to become a bona fide rock star – and one of only two women named to Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.
Lange thought Jett would be the perfect person to encourage the students. So he simply wrote her a letter and asked her to come. Jett was touched by the letter and loved the idea. And since she was scheduled to play a concert in Tacoma Saturday night, she agreed to come speak to the kids Monday.
Jett and long-time friend and business partner Kenny Laguna didn’t follow notes or have a tight, three-point talk as they took the microphones. They just told stories from Joan’s life and she shared her heart in an effort to encourage the eager crowd.
Jett, who always loved music and “thought being in a rock and roll band would be cool,” grew up on the East Coast and received a guitar from her parents for her 13th birthday. After the family moved to California, Jett began to believe she “might be able to make this dream a reality.”
And she did, starting The Runaways at the tender age of 17. Traveling the world and playing with the Runaways was Jett’s “dream come true.”
But it was the 1970s and girls didn’t wear black leather and play rock and roll back then. Jett and her all-girl band became popular in other countries, but never really achieved much acclaim in the U.S.
“Dress like a girl, act like a girl – that didn’t work for me,” said Jett, clearly saddened by the lack of success back home. The band “was my baby and now it was being laughed at.”
Interestingly, the Runaways were most popular in Japan, where “women were still second class,” explained Jett. She believes their popularity was partly due to the fact that the band members were all girls – a fact that empowered the female Japanese audience.
Jett encouraged the students not to worry about societal norms, but to follow their hearts. “Find something you love” and go for it, she said. “Don’t be afraid! At least if you try, you tried!” And even if you don’t reach your goal, “you’ll survive and you’ll be a stronger person.” Then find something else and try again.
Jett tried again with solo albums on her own label (sometimes selling them out of her trunk) and with her well-known second band, the Blackhearts. This time, success came her way and she’s still producing and performing today.
Laguna encouraged the kids to set reasonable goals. He explained that if you can just make a living at music – or whatever you love to do – that in itself is success. “That should be your goal,” he said, “not to be Elvis.”
Using Jett herself as an example, Laguna said, “Joan, for whatever reason, was motivated not to go through life without a high school diploma.” Disciplining herself to reach that goal has been important in her life, he noted. “This school gives you that opportunity,” he stated. “I beg you all to take it.”
Jett agreed. “The GED was important to me. I’m proud that I did that,” she said as the audience burst into wild cheers and applause. “Stick with it! Go for your GED at the very least.”
Laguna also explained that Jett really felt she had something to say to the students, which is why she decided to come. “I can relate,” Jett said simply.
“She said no to [American] Idol,” said Laguna. And she turned down Dancing with the Stars, too, despite both shows’ invitations to do a “Joan Jett night.”
“But she said yes to come here!” said Laguna, as the audience applauded.
“Idol – not Rock and Roll. Dancing with the Stars – not Rock and Roll,” stated Jett. “But you guys? Rock and Roll!!”
The students, of course, cheered wildly at this. Several also asked for hugs and gave her their artwork during the question-and-answer session. They were clearly moved by this rock star who was, really, just like one of them.
Asked what message he got from Jett’s visit, one student replied, “That we rock! And that we should stay in school.”
With a background in theatre and journalism, Ellen Chappelle is perfectly poised to covers the local arts scene for My Edmonds News. She also keeps busy writing and editing for artists and small businesses, publishing an informational site for dog owners and creating handcrafted jewelry. Please keep her posted about all things artistic in Edmonds by emailing her at [email protected]