Kenny Laguna is Joan Jett’s longtime musical partner, collaborator, producer and friend. Kenny first met Joan in 1979 at the Riot House on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. Initially he was asked to meet and produce what turned out to be the last Runaways’ album, Joan’s former band. The Runaways were a group of five teenage girls from Southern California formed by Jett and Runaways drummer Sandy West. Commercial success eluded the band in America, but they found massive success in Japan, where the group recorded their legendary live album Live in Japan in 1977. The Runaways gave their last performance New Year’s Eve 1978 in San Francisco. In the spring of 1979, Joan was in England trying to get a solo project going. While there, she cut three songs with ex-Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones, two of which came out as a single in Holland only. (The third song, “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” was included on the 1993 “odds and sods” release (http://www.joanjett.com/Lyrics/jjfb.htm Flashback.) Back in Los Angeles, Joan produced the debut album by local punk rockers, the Germs, and acted in a movie based on the Runaways (with actresses playing the rest of the band) called We're All Crazy Now! (the title was taken from the Slade song). The movie was never released, but one good thing came out of the project, Joan met Kenny Laguna. “Her old manager called me and wanted to know if I would be willing to write some songs in a hurry with Joan Jett,” recalled Kenny. “My wife, Meryl, told me that I should go and meet Joan because she really liked what she had been reading about her in the press. So I went to Los Angeles and checked into the Riot House and in walked Joan Jett. That’s how I met her. We wrote some songs that weekend, one of which was ‘You Do’'t Know What You Got.’”
“Even before meeting Joan, I used to know the Runaways' old manager, who was a publicist I met through the Who organization. They wanted me to produce one of their albums. I remember that I was actually going to the airport to fly to Amsterdam and meet them when I ran into Matthew King Kaufman of Beserkly’s Records in the lobby of the hotel I was staying in. He offered to drive me to the airport and on the way he said, ‘Look, you could go to Amsterdam and meet a band you’re not even confirmed with or you could come to San Francisco, California and produce Greg Kihn with me.’ At the time I thought that was a better idea, so I went to San Francisco instead. I did hear from the Runaways once during the recording of their album because they weren’t happy with what was going on and they wanted me to jump in, but I didn’t. I wound up forgetting the whole thing until their old manager called and wanted me to write with Joan. He was very concerned about a $5,000.00 investment he had in her and he wanted to make sure he got that back. He said a few things about Joan like she was wild and other nasty things that eventually got back to her. She was a little unhappy with him. Then she ran into Steve Leber from Leber/Krebs. Steve thought she was a star and wanted to manage her, so she flew to New York and stayed at my house. Steve’s partner decided that punk rockers were Nazis and he didn’t want one in the office. So here I was with this girl who had fired her manager and didn’t have anyone to do business for her.”
Initially, Kenny was interested only in co-writing with Joan and producing an album for her. “I never wanted to be called a manager,” stated Kenny. “I date back to a time when the manager was your buddy from high school who carried your bags. I wanted to be known as a producer. I figured we’d do a little . . . together and forget about it like I normally did as an independent producer. Joan and I went to a few managers, one of them was a really big guy who stole a song idea of ours, another guy did this, one did that, and by the time we were done we had finished the album, but we still hadn’t found a manager. I became her musical partner because I was doing a lot of the work unofficially for a while and getting more and more involved.”
Joan’s solo debut with Laguna and Ritchie Cordell producing, using the Jones-Cook British tracks plus guest musicians Sean Tyla and Blondie’s Clem Burke and Frank Infante was released in Europe only simply entitled, Joan Jett. The album was rejected by no less than 23 major and minor labels, before Joan and Kenny decided to release it independently on their own Blackheart label. “I really dug Joan and I thought she was really talented. It really got me that no one would sign her . . . I thought she really deserved it. It was very discouraging because every label turned her down. We couldn’t think of anything else to do, but print up records ourselves, and that’s how Blackheart Records started. It was more or less Joan’s idea to do it ourselves.”
Joan and Kenny used their personal savings to press records and set up their own system of independent distributors. Kenny was unable to keep up with demand for Joan’s album, yet no American record company was even remotely interested in signing Joan. Eventually the album was picked up by Neil Bogart who signed Joan to his new label, Boardwalk Records. He re-released the album in January of 1981 under the new title, Bad Reputation. The album was given adequate distribution and was a moderate success, bearing witness to Joan’s spirited sense of commitment.
With Kenny’s assistance, Joan formed the Blackhearts with three obscure New York area musicians: Gary Ryan on bass, Eric Abel (replaced shortly thereafter by Rick Byrd) on guitar and Lee Crystal on drums. After almost a year of touring, Joan’s first album with the Blackhearts, entitled I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll, came out in December of 1981. The album included a version of “Little Drummer Boy” on the pre-Christmas editions. The album’s impact on the music scene was immediate with the LP reaching the Top Five, while “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” hit the very top of the Billboard’s Charts on March 20, 1982 and stayed number one for seven weeks. Joan Jett had come back from nowhere.
Through it all, one thing has remained consistent in Joan Jett’s career and personal life - Kenny Laguna. He was there at the beginning and has weathered the good times and the bad. “We’re very good, close friends. In the world that I live in, loyalty is one of the most important things. There’s never been a thought of walking away from Joan, although I’ve heard it before and been advised many times to walk away. It’s like this is my friend and regardless of what the business is, I’m going to stay with my friend. We have a mutual respect for one another and we’ve never been in competition. We both feel that the other is really the better. There’s never a rivalry about who wrote what or who wrote more. Our friendship and respect is what holds it all together,” says Kenny.
“We have a business that is a partnership. I do more of the management than Joan does, but there’s a lot about the management that is defined by Joan. A lot of the artistry that I get involved in, or the production Joan gets involved in even might not be credited. We do everything along with Meryl (Laguna) as a team. For people to understand, everyone’s roles are defined on the record jackets and for business. It’s my job to take the heavy stuff, but a lot of the business decisions come directly from Joan and Meryl.”
And now, fifteen years since Joan first met Kenny the two still share a love for what brought them together in the first place: music. “We have a unique relationship that sometimes has incredible advantages. We’ve been together so long that we have a real understanding about what kind of music we should do together; which is a little bit of my pop sensibility and a little bit of her punk sensibility split right down the middle. It’s been termed POWER PUNK but whatever it is, it is our unique hybrid of “Yummy Yummy” meets the Germs.”
During Joan’s career, she’s worked with the Sex Pistols, the Beach Boys, Paul Westerberg, L7 and Bikini Kill to name a few, had a number one hit with “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” plus a string on Top 40 hits. Looking back on Joan’s career as a whole, Kenny remembered several events that stand out. “Obviously ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ exploding and becoming a big record was an incredible moment. We played a stadium when ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ was hot in England, and I turned to my right and there was David Bowie and Freddie Mercury standing there. I thought that was an incredible moment. Going to East Germany was special, too, because Joan was the first act, musician, poet or anything to go there. She refused to have any publicity on it; she just wanted to go there and play for the fans. Joan getting the movie role over any actress and singer in Hollywood for ‘Light of Day’ was a wonderful and satisfying moment. Headlining for 60,000 people in Thailand was really good. The most incredible moment on promoting a record was ‘I Hate Myself for Loving You’, which was left for dead. It was the longest developing record in 1988 and was a very record hard to break. Those are the best ones if you can get them. That was a very special moment.”
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts have a new record deal with Warner Brothers, but Joan and Kenny plan to continue to independently release albums by other artists through Blackheart Records. “We have a Characters record that just came out, maybe a Noise Boys and hopefully another Metal Church record. Sometimes we release records through Blackheart because we like the people, other times because we like the music. Either way, we want to keep the Blackheart label going as an outlet for bands who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance.”
Over the years, Joan Jett has remained honest to her vision of true rock and roll. She is unique and continues a career that has never been influenced by style or passing fashions. “I would like people to know that Joan is still very young. People tend to think that she’s old because she’s been around for so long, but she started in this business as a teenager. It’s important to know she did start so young,” noted Kenny. “People should know that Joan doesn’t do any commercials whatsoever. She doesn’t do any product placement because she thinks it’s sneaky. I would say that she has turned down at least ten million dollars in endorsements because the product people like her and know the fans trust her. Joan’s integrity is untouchable. There’s no way that money could ever make a difference to her. Joan is a very good person, very sincere and what you see is always what you get without manipulation or pretence. She also has a lot of concerns for charities. She does a lot of children’s charities and works with widows and orphans. She does a lot of things all the time that aren’t well known without any publicity, but that’s the way Joan wants it.”