The Bitch Is Back

(Originally published on MOLI 7/16/8)

Some 20 years ago, Southern rock band Molly Hatchet opened for punk pioneer Joan Jett. Charming singer Danny Joe Brown “warmed up” the crowd with a little stage banter: “I can’t believe we’re playing before some bitch.” Jett’s road manager slammed the dirtbag against a wall and his own band soon canned him. Jett played on; it was the kind of sexist crap she had to put up with a lot as the rare woman on the hard rock circuit and it wasn’t going to stop her. “You’re living in the past/ It’s a new generation,” buddy.

Fast forward: On Saturday, July 12, Molly Hatchet opened for Jett again at the Riverfest in Beloit, Wisconsin. This time the night was all smiles. Jett stood on the stage overlooking the downtown Riverside Park while the Hatchet churned through their hits (“Flirting with Disaster,” anyone?) in a comradely show of solidarity. Between the sets, guitarist Bobby Igram thanked Joan repeatedly for letting his band open for her. He even had an invite: Would Jett come on the Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute cruise with them in January? The tattooed love goddess was uncommittal. (Me, I’m getting my pitch together to cover what I’m sure will be an endless all-star “Freebird” jam.)

“She’s O negative,” Jett’s longtime manager, producer, and sometime keyboardist Kenny Laguna said as we stood backstage and watched her watching Hatchet. “She can play before any crowd.” It’s true: Yes, it’s somewhat disconcerting to watch a woman who’s still crafting smart, timely, poignant anthems like “Five” and “Naked” having to trot out “I Love Rock’n’Roll” on what’s essentially an oldies (“classic rock”) circuit. A week before the Beloit gig, I caught Jett at the Miccosukee Casino in Miami; there, the opening act was Foghat.

But Jett’s a professional and no elitist. I’ve seen her play at CBGB’s and at the Warped Festival, and she treated the mix of bikers and families at the Riverfest and casino with the same dedication and respect that she showed at those gatherings of the hipoisie and pierced. Maybe I’m projecting, but it seems to me the erstwhile Runaway is aware that out there in the crowd in Beloit was some awkward teenager, or 20 of them, who needed to see and hear a self-made woman sing about identity and desire and changing the world maybe even more than the gathering of the faithful at the birthplace of punk did.

For me, it was an ultimate rock ’n’ roll moment. I stood on the side of the stage next to my five-year-old son playing air guitar and my 72-year-old dad drinking beer; it was both of their first real shows. In the background, across the river, stood my alma mater: Beloit Memorial High School. Jett was playing on my home turf. I was in town for a smidgen of glory myself; earlier that day, I signed copies of Mamarama at the town bookstore. The fact several of my old teachers, but only one former classmate showed speaks volumes about my own awkward adolescence on the shores of the Rock River (yes, that’s really its name).

Jett closes her set with a cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” a song about the acceptance of difference – about treating everyone like they’re O negative. The thousands gathered on a perfect summer night on the banks of a swollen, brown Midwestern waterway cheered. Not bad for a bitch.

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