She's got a big, swanky tour bus, the Blackhearts backing her up, a savvy manager, legions of loyal fans and an ultra-cool black leatherjacket. Whaat more could a hard rocker want?

JETT PROPELLED

March 01, 1992|By PATRICK A. MCGUIRE

It's one of those big, plush rock and roll dreadnoughts, and it's slipping down Interstate 95 toward Baltimore like a silver dollar skipping over water. This baby has everything: designer Venetian blinds, real wood paneling, two VCRs, tres chic bathroom tile that overflows into the main aisle right up to the wet bar. There are a dozen cozy bunks, a full-length mirror and, of course, rock and rollers.

In this case, very hard rock and rollers: a tattoo-ridden, all-male trio of Blackhearts with large hair, excellent sunglasses and a drummer with a ring in his nose. At the moment, they sit up front, giggling and cavorting over an Andrew Dice Clay video. Their curling, hanging cigarette smoke mingles with the sound of the Diceman waxing putrescent; the air up here is exactly what the atmosphere will be like on the morning after doomsday.

Way in the back, where she has made it clear she isn't amused by the sexually explicit blurtations of the Diceman, sits Joan Jett, the 31-year-old leader of the band. As usual she is clad totally in black: short-cropped hair with the luster of polished onyx; a black, long-sleeve turtleneck set off by layers of silver chains, each supporting a silver ball or a pendant; her fingers sport a glitter of rings and around her wrists a jangle of simple silver bands competes with a lone black scarf wrapped around a forearm. Her jeans are tight and black, falling over soft, black leather boots. From her waist she has just removed a huge black gunfighter's belt that slings a black leather fanny pack along her hip.

But there, beside her, almost a presence unto itself, sits the piece de resistance, the sacred coat: a black leather, chrome-studded biker's jacket with more belts than a cheap saloon. It looks tough enough to clear out a joint on its own.

All of that black serves only as a stark, slightly unsettling, sometimes alluring contrast with her face. Pale, heavily made up so as to be almost theatrical, it says ever so brazenly "read my lips." And those lips are as red and as startling as a trooper in

the rear-view mirror at midnight.

But then, as improbable an ending as a Woody Allen punch line, her eyes come into focus. A gentle, sweet, non sequitur brown, they betray a soft vulnerability behind her leathery image. You can even hear it in her voice, a deep, raspy purr, like a panther with laryngitis.

"I guess I have to take credit for the name Blackhearts," she says, grinning. "I thought it would be easy for people to write the name of the band on bathroom walls. So it would be remembered."

Across the aisle, a sandy-haired ex-keyboard player named Kenny Laguna nods. "It's a nautical term," he says. She frowns at him, this man who rescued her career from oblivion 10 years ago and who has served ever since as her manager and mentor.

"Really," he says. "From the days of pirates and tall ships. I looked it up. A blackheart was someone who went his own way."

She digests it for a moment, lowers those brown eyes. She says almost to herself, "A blackheart is a loner."

ACTUALLY, BLACKHEART FITS Joan Jett almost better than it does the boys at the front of the bus. Her uncompromising approach to her music (Kenny prefers the word stubborn) has long kept her out of the Top 40 -- the musical path to the land of commercial success. Her image as a tough-talking, hard-rocking biker vixen with a bad reputation, has kept her largely a cult figure, a quirky enigma who every now and then surprises the pop world with a perfectly viable hit like "I Love Rock and Roll" or "I Hate Myself for Loving You."

The trouble is, every time her appeal broadens, the hard-core base of her fans -- to whom she feels an almost visceral loyalty -- shouts betrayal. In the meantime, the pop-music establishment,

still remembering her punkish days in the '70s as a member of the first all-girl band, the Runaways, and a pal of Sex Pistols bad boy Sid Vicious, never quite accepts her. She gets scant, if any, attention on Top 40 stations.

And so, instead of playing the big amphitheaters, she dogs the small-club circuit -- her tour bus is heading even now toward a rendezvous with Hammerjacks, bringing Joan, a former Marylander, back to the fringes of downtown Baltimore. Endlessly gigging her way across the country, she and the Blackhearts play in places like Buffalo, N.Y., or Fargo, N.D., or Pipestone, Minn. But, she says, she loves it, says she doesn't regret that one of her former bandmates from the Runaways -- Julie Fox -- has gone on to become a Harvard lawyer. "In my next life I can do that. How many times do you get to do this? To get to be able to do this? For a reason deeper than I know . . . "

Buried within all of that depth lies a stubborn idealism. She steadfastly refuses, for instance, to lend her name or voice or lyrics to lucrative television commercials. She rails at the way a beer jingle can use a pop song to push its product but corrupt the mental associations one has for the song and its time in history.

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