During the month of September 2012, the IASPM-US website will feature essays on the topic of “The First Time I Ever Heard…” Each of our authors for this series will explore that magical moment most of us are so familiar with, when a song or artist or genre first entered our sound universe and knocked everything off its axis, if only for a moment.
In my childhood home records played all the time. My parents had the requisite 1970s hi-fi, and listened to the political music of the period along with the more common Lubbock sounds of Buddy Holly, Joe Ely and the Flatlanders. One of the earliest presents I can remember was an old 8-track, where my brother and I constantly played our only cassettes: Oak Ridge Boys and Iron Butterfly. It was something we could be rough with, not like the records. Records were sacred- to be handled with care, put away, never scratched. When I got my first listening “equipment” it was 1984- a turntable and double cassette player that was far improved from the portable cassette player I’d bought with green stamps. As soon as I had it, I needed records. I commandeered my parents’ records first- Janis Joplin, Jim Croce, John Lennon and Credence Clearwater Revival. Then I started buying my own records at garage sales and bargain bins. I was a collector before it was hipster, a ten year old connoisseur.
The recording that changed my life came on one of those garage sale records. I walked to a neighborhood garage sale with my best friend Brea (an ardent fan of Madonna, while I was more a Cyndi Lauper and Motley Crue aficionado), and there we found a goldmine: a stack of 45s, each one a dime. I had 50 cents. I came home with a handful of 1980s classics, such as Cheap Trick and Pat Benatar, but the real treasure was Joan Jett. “I Love Rock and Roll” was released just two years before, and was a popular tune in my working-class neighborhood. I had even taped the video on Friday Night Videos, watched Joan lean against that record machine. Any Joan Jett record was, I surmised, a rocker. I didn’t even pay attention to the songs on the record, just snatched it up to bring it home. The record was a 1982 release from Boardwalk, side 2 “Oh Woe Is Me,” side 1 “Crimson and Clover.”
I had never heard either song.My 1982 45rpm recording of “Crimson and Clover”, Boardwalk Records, 1982.
It was 1984, and nobody thought Joan Jett was queer- at least nobody in my neighborhood. She was another leather-clad rock vixen, only she was singing and slinging an axe. In fact, in 1984 we said a lot of things in my neighborhood about what “gay” people looked like. I was told on more than one occasion that gay people wore the longer of their mismatched earrings in the left ear, while straight people wore their single dangling earrings in the right ear. I was ten, and barely had an idea what “gay” even was. I just knew that it was something we whispered about, and that it normally meant somebody was telling jokes about our female phys ed teacher. But Joan didn’t teach phys ed, and I had no idea where she wore her dangly earring. The only other female rocker I listened to was Lita Ford, and she sang about getting into fights at a party. These were tough chicks, they got what they wanted when they wanted it. They didn’t take anybody’s shit. And they weren’t these cute, perky pop stars who just didn’t cover the way I felt a lot of the time. In my neighborhood cute girls got the boys, but tough girls got to hang out with the boys. In the end, that’s what I wanted- or so I thought at the time.
I got home that day, and Brea and I played records while we got out the curling irons and Aqua Net, in preparation for an evening at the local Joyland Amusement Park. It wasn’t until the next day that I put the Joan Jett record on, and listened to the lyrics: “I don’t really know her, but I think I could love her.” I was stunned. I’d never heard a woman sing about a girl before. I panicked and took the needle off the record. What did that mean? Joan thinks she loves a girl? After giving it some thought, I decided there must be a different answer. Joan liked boys, after all, I’d seen her with a guy that must’ve been about 17. I knew how to play music, and had indeed performed songs that weren’t written by me- I decided I knew the score. Someone else had written the song for her. None of that, however, stopped me from playing it incessantly. I knew every word by the end of the day, and sang it loudly even if I changed the lyric to “him.” It wasn’t just the lyrics, it was the emotion. The growling sweet thing, the moaning what a beautiful feeling: it was as though there was a mystery I was supposed to be able to solve
About a month later I was housesitting for the family across the street- or more specifically, watching their cable so I could see MTV, a channel we didn’t get at home. It was 1984, so in heavy rotation were Van Halen’s “Jump,” “When Doves Cry” by Prince, and nearly the entire Cyndi Lauper debut album. Along with George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” and the occasional Ghostbusters theme song, MTV didn’t stray from the heavy rotation when I came over to water plants that summer. But on this day it was the video for “Crimson and Clover.” Sandwiched between “Call Me” and the Pointer Sisters- who knows what individual was at the helm that afternoon. There was Joan in her black leather pants, shag haircut and dark eyeliner. I don’t hardly know her, but I think I could love her. At first the video screen showed only Joan’s lips mouthing the words to the song. Like Rocky Horror, I thought- I hadn’t seen that movie but knew about it, and had no idea how transgressive the comparison was. Then, she was smiling. Joan Jett, smiling? Tough girls don’t smile, we snarl. Then she kept singing. I’m not such a sweet thing, she sang as she stared into the camera with a snarl. I wanna do everything, and her eyes widened like the proverbial kid in the candy store. I was absolutely entranced. Of course tough girls weren’t sweet, but is that what she meant? What is everything? Do I want to do everything? She reclined on a couch and bit the heads off roses, those roses that sweet girls get. The bridge began with a knowing nod. The video was over before I realized I hadn’t even hit record on my Friday Night Videos VHS tape.
Then I couldn’t stop thinking about Joan Jett.
I don’t necessarily mean sexual thoughts- when you’re ten, thoughts aren’t that specific. I knew I wanted to know what everything was. I kept listening to the song- along with “I Love Rock and Roll,” which I owned by then. What did she want from the guy dancing by the record machine? Which song did she really mean? And what do leather pants feel like? Possibilities began to open up, questions that I was too scared to ask were simmering in my brain. I kept replaying the video in my head, and all the looks and gestures added up to one thing: that I didn’t know what was going on anymore. So I did the only thing I could think of- I started wearing my dangling earring in my left ear. I still don’t know why, or how I came up with that as a solution. Maybe I was just rebelling in my own way. Maybe I was sending a message to myself. Maybe I just wanted to start some trouble. I wanna do everything. . .
It was ten years before I came out to anyone, when I was wearing Doc Martens and blasting Riot Grrl albums from my dorm room. I wrote WWJJD, “What Would Joan Jett Do” on my walls and played KRS records ordered from Olympia. My “Crimson and Clover” 45 was on the turntable for every crush I had, every secret date, for the girl who broke my heart. Then when I met my wife, I went home and played that well worn 45. I think I could love her. Joan Jett didn’t make me queer, by any means. She kept me looking for everything, though, over and over.
Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone (PhD American Studies, U Kansas) is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Curator of Collections at University of Central Missouri. Her research focuses on the interplay of space, sexuality, and popular music in American scenes. Dr. Clifford-Napoleone was named Visiting Scholar at the Leather Archives and Museum for 2012-13. She lives in Missouri with her wife, dogs, and a really loud sound system. More information can be found on her website or on her blog Queer F* Heavy Metal.