Local Current Blog

I Love Rock’N’Roll: On meeting Joan Jett and the harsh reality of life backstage

Andrea Swensson with Joan Jett, Lori Barbero, and Mary Beth Mueller (Photos by Andrea Swensson)

The snow was falling hard and fast in fat, sloppy flakes the night I pulled into Mankato, Minnesota, to see Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. It was the kind of storm that we’ve been getting a lot of this spring; one that starts suddenly and dangerously but then dissipates, leaving everyone confused and the streets soaked and glistening. As it turns out, it was the perfect setting for the latest in a series of bizarre brushes I’ve had with rock ’n’ roll royalty.

For a concert taking place smack dab in the middle of Women’s History Month, it felt appropriate that my companions for this evening were a pair of legendary local ladies: Mary Beth Mueller and Lori Barbero. Mary Beth, the widow of Soul Asylum bassist Karl Mueller and founder of the non-profit organization Kill Kancer, was behind the wheel; Lori Barbero, who just picked up her sticks to drum in the recently reunited Babes in Toyland, kept our spirits high with her constant laughter in the backseat.

You know that scene in The Wizard of Oz where the mustachioed gatekeeper of Oz doesn’t want to be bothered by the bunch of lowly travelers ringing his bell, but as soon as he sees Dorothy’s ruby slippers the gates swing wide open? That was what it was like going to a concert with a couple of rock-scene vets like Lori and Mary Beth. Between the two of them we ended up getting something like five backstage passes at will-call, and before we knew it we were being ushered up to a prime spot on the arena floor to watch Joan Jett command the cavernous arena room.

Joan was ferocious, and watching her perform made me feel invincible. She was dressed in a sparkly jumpsuit that cut down so low on her chest that you could see the chevron tattoo on her sternum. The uninhibited way she flung her tiny, sculpted frame around the stage and told dirty jokes between songs was nothing short of inspirational. Did I mention she’s 56? When she set up the intro to her Runaways hit “Cherry Bomb,” the entire room exploded. Between Lori bopping to the beat and pumping her fist in the aisle and Mary Beth laughing and snapping photos, it made for one of those giddy and empowering concert moments that I won’t soon forget.

There was hardly any time to soak up all that glorious, glowing energy after the set, though, because we were suddenly on the move again. Lori flashed the backstage passes from her pocket and we were led behind a curtain and into the back hallways of the arena. It was then, and only then, that the reality of the situation started to sink in. Oh no. We were about to meet Joan Jett.

For so many music fans, the mere idea of going backstage has an intoxicating appeal. If musicians can be that mesmerizing on stage, what kind of magical activities must they be getting up to on the other side of that velvet rope? It isn’t just enticing. It’s enough to drive people mad.

Over the years, I’ve had the chance to see people who I thought were otherwise well-adjusted individuals turn into raging assholes in pursuit of getting backstage, their egos inflated to the size of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. I’ve seen friendships buckle when one person slips backstage at the Varsity while another is forced to stand in the crowd with the mere mortals. And I’ve seen grown men throw temper tantrums in an effort to convince Conrad at First Avenue that their friends are totally back there, man, and they should be, too.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that the time has come for us to face a harsh truth: Going backstage is not all that cool. In fact, it’s usually really, really awkward. And if you care at all about keeping the mystique of your rock ’n’ roll idols alive, you will stay the hell away from the cold concrete hallways and lukewarm hummus plates that await you on the other side.

First of all, it is usually way too well lit back there. At the Joan Jett show, we were suddenly whisked away from the dark, flattering light of the arena floor into a full-on fluorescent assault. Between the bright lights above and the gleaming white brick walls, it suddenly felt like we were in a psych ward. When we reached Joan’s greenroom door, we were told that we would have to wait a few minutes, and as we leaned up against the wall I couldn’t help but think back on all the other times I’d endured this same surreal experience.

The first time I went backstage at a major arena show was back when violinist Jessy Greene was touring with the Foo Fighters. It was my one and only chance to meet Dave Grohl, and I spent it pressing up against the same kind of cold wall, wishing I could disappear into the white bricks altogether as I eked out the weakest “hello.” And then there was the time I thought it would be fun to bring my dad backstage to meet Todd Rundgren, and we ended up being thoroughly creeped out by all the superfans hungrily hovering around him, hanging on his every word. “I don’t understand that,” my dad said later. “I don’t have any desire to be that close to the musicians I admire.”

Before I could get too lost in an existential fame crisis, though, the door to Joan’s dressing room swung open and there she was. Standing at about the same height and with the same larger-than-life eyes as Prince, Ms. I Love Rock ’n’ Roll was extraordinarily laid-back and soft spoken—almost the exact opposite of her presence on stage. Her dressing room was tiny, barely the size of a coat room, with only a few chairs, a table, a bathroom, and a fridge crammed into the small space. She sat down on one of the flimsy folding chairs, icing her sore shoulder, while her longtime musical partner, Kenny Laguna—who has been with Jett since her time in the Runaways, and previously played in the group Tommy James and the Shondelles—counted up her merch and doled out t-shirts and tote bags.

“I like your necklace,” I managed to blurt out, motioning to the tiny pewter cat hanging around Joan’s neck. Her eyes softened as she told me that it was an homage to her cat who had passed away last fall. “I suppose I’ll stop wearing it whenever I get over him,” she said, shrugging.

The casualness of it all made me think of a lyric from Emily Haines: “They were right when they said we should never meet our heroes.” But there was something so wonderfully humanizing about Joan’s off-stage chill; her prowling around the little dressing room, opening the fridge to empty all of the packages of yogurt, veggies, and pita bread into a bag to take along to the next tour stop. We spent the next few minutes shuffling our feet and snapping a few quick selfies, then were discharged back out into the hall.

After encountering her in that bizarro backstage world, I don’t know that I’ll ever listen to Joan Jett’s music or watch her videos the same way again. But I also don’t know if that’s a bad thing. Like she sang on stage that night in Mankato, “I’m strong yet I’m fragile”—and in that way, I feel like I might have a little Joan Jett in me now, too.

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between 89.3 The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the May edition of The Growler.