There are not too many reasons left in this life for me to pile into a small sedan with a group of friends and drive for six long, hot hours to Fresno. But when Joan Jett, the Queen of Awesomeness, beckoned last summer, the correct response was to brave the cramped, sweaty foray into the Central Valley and head for the Fresno County Fair.
My love for Joan Jett traces back to 1993, when I first heard "You Don't Know What You've Got." It was heartbreaking. At the time, I was living with a girl who couldn't stand to hear my name anymore, and the song was one of many breakup anthems we'd share. Five years later, another girl, another city, another Joan Jett song: "Why Can't We Be Happy?"
It appeared that Joan Jett had a slew of relationship problems, and man, could I relate. "Don't Abuse Me," "Let Me Go," "Had Enough"--they were the concise and detailed stories of my own life; simple, honest songs that I could have written myself. They were also poignant reminders that I was neither simple nor honest enough to do so, and all this coming from a woman whose biggest hit merely stated that she loved rock and roll.
Four or five girlfriends later, there she was: Joan Jett playing in Fresno. Our carload of four battered travelers pulled up to a dirt parking lot after getting in the traffic jam from hell amid the defeating sensation that maybe Joan Jett will actually suck, and this, all of this, will have been a huge waste of time.
I had of course envisioned an arena-rock scene with large-scale stage production and thousands of screaming fans, but after asking around, we eventually stumbled upon the stage: a small, latticed gazebo between the photo booth and the deep-fried-avocado stand. On the two-foot high platform, a child hypnotist was trying to lull 10-year-old girls into believing they were Britney Spears, and a grassy audience area was pocked with a few disinterested people near a card table lonesomely displaying a few Joan Jett T-shirts. The sounds of the Zipper clanged in the background.
This is what we drove six hours for?
But the area slowly filled with fans. People from all walks of life crowded around--newlyweds, skinheads, middle-aged businessmen, bull dykes, preteen mop-toppers. Some even climbed on top of tables and blocked everyone's view, causing near riots. In the distance, we saw a golf cart driving toward us, carrying the band. This was it! The moment we'd been waiting for had arrived.
Joan hit the stage decked out in black leather with a band full of punk rockers, ripped into "Victim of Circumstance" and effectively turned the little latticed gazebo into Shea Stadium with her first signature howl: "The police were waitin' when the sun came up, / 'You better move your ass or we'll really get rough!'" The past six hours instantly drained away as a forgotten memory. It was an absolutely ridiculous situation made awesome and transcendental.
All the famous cover songs were there: "Everyday People," "Roadrunner," "Do You Wanna Touch Me," "Crimson and Clover" as well as a wink-wink version of the Replacements' "Androgynous." The nonstop, full-blast party made us all forget we were at a hokey-ass county fair. There was only one problem: Neglected were all the sad original songs that drew me into Joan Jett's world in the first place, and the new ones ("Fetish," "Naked") sounded way more horny than heartbreaking.
But is that really a bad thing? At any rate, I think we're much happier now, me and Joan, having both found the right woman. She even seemed to enjoy belting out "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" for the millionth time, bringing a fleeting moment of joy to a godforsaken city under the burned-out carnival lights, and it was even worth the long, long drive back home.
Joan Jett plays Monday, July 3, at 7:30pm as part of the entertainment at the Marin County Fair. Civic Center Drive, San Rafael. Free with $13 fair admission; deep-fried avocadoes extra. 415.499.6800.