I am so excited to have Greg Barth, author of the gritty-as-fuck Selena series, to guest post on my humble blog, sharing about one of my favorite musicians of all time, Joan Jett. Take it away, Greg!
I write like a girl. And not a nice one.
I guess I should say I write like a woman, and ordinarily I would. But I had a good teacher, and – when I look back to when I first “met” her – yeah, she was a girl. I initially encountered her in 1982 when I was eleven years old. The first words I heard her say were, “The po-lice were waitin’ when the sun came up. You better move your ass or we’ll really get rough.” Now that got my attention.
It was summer, and I think it was the first night that I ever stayed awake all night long. My brother had this Joan Jett and the Blackhearts album on vinyl. It was I Love Rock ‘n Roll. On the cover was an unsmiling woman with dark hair, dark eyes, wearing an orchid-colored blazer. A light-blue bandana tied around her neck.
I had a friend over for a summer sleepover, and we started playing the record that evening. We wound up playing it over and over, flipping from side to side, until the sun rose the next morning.
I don’t know why I started with side B. It was the edgier of the two, and had the most punk-influenced sound, but I couldn’t know that at the time. For whatever reason, those songs are the ones that stuck with me the most from that album.
I fell in love with Joan Jett that night. In some ways I entered my teenage years at that moment. The sheer amount of defiance she channeled in that growling voice of hers – it made me want to be a rebel.
She had an attitude that I was attracted to. She wasn’t what everyone thought she should be, and she wasn’t going to change for anyone. “Really gets you down when you don’t belong, an everyone around says you growed up wrong…” Joan Jett didn’t live by the rules or expectations of society. She was something else, and it was up to people to get used to her on her terms. Or not. Didn’t matter either way to her.
Joan Jett possessed a certain resilience. When it came time for me to write Selena, I drew on that feminine, rebel strength from the purist form I’d seen it in – the woman of my youth who sang, “I’ve been laughed at, I’ve been shut out. But let there be no doubt. Never been afraid of the chances I’ve been taking.”
Fast forward to July 1983 – one year later. Same girl. Same band. Summer again. New album. Longer hair. And so damned hot. I was born in July, so I was thirteen by then. Magic age.
The new album was Untitled, which was appropriate, because you couldn’t find the damned thing anywhere. It was one of the very best things of 1983 – that no one knew anything about.
Kmart pulled it from their shelves. It was too nasty by their standards, and Kmart was all I had in my small town. It’s hard to imagine in this connected age, but at the time, this cassette became a highly coveted and hard to acquire item. The new record had this dirty song on it called “Star Star”, which was a cover of a Rolling Stones song. I can’t comment on whether you could buy the Stones’ version at Kmart or not. I didn’t get into them until Undercover was released in November of that year, and I was no longer a kid and was too cool for Kmart by then.
But if you were lucky enough to find it, it was a tenth-generation re-copy somebody made on their cassette player and passed it down, and down, and down, until you got to hear it in all its degraded, copied quality. But that didn’t matter. This shit was contraband. This was something you weren’t supposed to hear. This was the kind of thing you kept hidden under your mattress. At thirteen, you were being bad by listening to this stuff. And what stuff it was.
The cover of “Star Star” was everything they said it was and then some. She said all those things. But that wasn’t the best part. There was “Handyman” and “The French Song.” I learned respect for the French language from that album. “J’aime faire I’amour, sur tout a trois.” English translation? “I love to make love, especially with three.”
On Untitled, Joan Jett sang about things that I’d never heard girls (or women, for that matter) talking about. She talked about…those things.
From “Handyman.” “Now I’m afraid, I been waitin’. I’m sick and tired of masturbating. So confused, with love an’ hate and I say cum as fast as you can. I need my handyman.”
It was the audio equivalent of crack cocaine. I dreamed of really meeting this woman. But secretly feared she’d kick my ass.
And yeah, I channeled a lot of those songs into Selena. The attitude, the rebellion, the unwillingness to live by society’s rules.
When 10:55 AM rolled around, I was at the liquor store waiting for the clerk to open the door. I wasn’t the only one. An old man was in line ahead of me. For the record, he looked more impatient than me. When the door opened, he went in ahead and grabbed a miniature grocery buggy from a line of them at the front. I shit you not. I watched him as he went around and put in several fifths of vodka, gin, and bourbon into the buggy.
When I retire, that’s me. It only took me a second to follow up with, Retire from what?
–Excerpt from Selena by Greg Barth
But Untitled was more than just randy lyrics. There were other kinds of songs on there as well. Sweet songs. Things like “A Hundred Feet Away” and “Secret Love.”
The summers of 1982 and 1983 were a long time ago. A lot of years passed from the time I heard those songs to the day I started writing Selena in 2015. But the impression was still inside me. It was a deliberate action on my part to listen to everything by Joan Jett that I could while working on that first book.
I wrote one of my favorite scenes while listening to Joan Jett’s version of “Dirty Deeds.”
I parallel parked half a block from the diner. I popped the trunk and got out of the car. I grabbed both shotguns, one in each hand, held by the curved grips. My fingers rested gently on the triggers, elbows crooked, with the stocks resting against my shoulders, barrels pointed downward at an angle toward the ground.
The night air was invigorating. A breeze tingled the bare skin of my arms, legs, and tummy. My sneakers made no sound as I approached the diner parking lot. The coke surged through my system – every sense heightened, every muscle on edge and ready to spring to action.
I approached the diner from the opposite corner of the guy smoking by the mop bucket. He brought his cigarette to his lips and paused as he saw me move into the parking lot. We made eye contact. I wanted to tell him to go away, but I said nothing. In an instant I was across the lot, legs still moving fast. My heart pounded. I picked up speed as I went up the walkway on the edge of the building and through the door of the diner.
–Excerpt from Selena by Greg Barth
There was a certain sexual ambiguity that found it’s way into Selena’s character. This was probably most apparent in the third volume, Suicide Lounge. I listened to a lot of Joan Jett’s Sinner album while writing Suicide Lounge, and I can see where it comes through on the page.
I always thought Suicide Lounge was the sexiest of the set, but reviews stating there wasn’t enough sex have caught me off guard. I think it’s due to a lack of explicitness, but the best part of love scenes (the build up to them, in my humble opinion) is there in spades.
To my knowledge, Joan Jett has never made a public statement about her sexuality (and why should anyone be expected to anyway?), but there’s this. And what a beautiful thing this song is.
“A.C.D.C. She got some other lover as well as me. A.C.D.C. She got some other fella as well as me.” That’s what I think it might feel like for anyone who lets Selena find a place in their heart.
The Selena series will see its fifth and final volume, Everglade, release on July 1. I think it’s appropriate that this comes out in July. For all I know, July 1, 2017 will be the 35th anniversary of when I first heard Joan Jett. I mean, it could be, right? So I’m going to go with that. Feels like coming full circle on this.
It’s been a sheer blast to write this series, and it’s been a lot of fun to draw the magic of inspiration from a musician I’ve loved for so long. I’m going to miss Selena, hearing her voice in my head, watching the things she does, but I’ll always have Joan Jett.
Do I think Selena is a lot like Joan Jett? No. Would there be a Selena without Joan Jett? Also no.
Greg Barth is the author of the Selena series consisting of Selena, Diesel Therapy, Suicide Lounge, Road Carnage, and the forthcoming Everglade (July 1, 2017), all published by All Due Respect Books. He hosts the podcast Noir on the Radio. Greg lives with his family and pets in Bowling Green, KY, where he writes on occasion.