Grieving in Cleveland: the night Sandy West died

Jettheads love to share our Joan Jett stories. How long we’ve been a fan, the first album we bought, how nervous we were the first time we met her. But the topic that generates the most fellowship and camaraderie among us are our tour stories.

I’ve written about my first Joan Jett show here before, and all 20 of the shows I’ve been to in my 28 years of fandom are memorable to me for different reasons. But the show at the Agora Theater in Cleveland on Saturday, October 21, 2006, branded me the deepest.

cleveland_stub

We were restless that year, or at least I was. The Blackhearts hadn’t released an album since 1994, and I hadn’t seen them live in four years. (That’s like, 100 in Jetthead years.) They had never stopped touring or playing new music for us, but the mainstream world had largely forgotten about Joan. Intimate club gigs gave way to festivals, fairs, and rib fests. She was a symbol of a decade too old to be relevant and too recent to be trendy.

“Relevant” and “trendy” never concerned us, but waiting 12 years for an album when you’re used to getting a new one every other year is absolute torture. And 12 exhausting years of incredulous double-takes at the sound of her name—Who’s Joan Jett? Is she still around? Wow.

But by 2006, things were starting to improve. Blackheart Records was celebrating its 25th anniversary. The year before, Joan started a weekly Sirius satellite radio show on Little Steven’s Underground Garage. And in June, the band released Sinner, an album full of songs we’d been hearing live for more than a decade, plus a few surprises, and it was finally here! The cd lived in my car.

sinner_album_cover

Yet under all this excitement simmered a sadness we were not prepared to deal with. Sandy West, Joan’s drummer in The Runaways, was a year into her battle with lung cancer. A battle we all hoped she would win, and many of us were sure that she would.

Joan and Sandy, enhanced by Mikey Nichols

Joan and Sandy, enhanced by Mikey Nichols

The summer of Sinner came with a headlining spot on the Vans Warped Tour, a huge awesome event. I was much too far away, and I spent the whole time protecting my head from crowd surfers. “Crimson and Clover” spawned an actual circle pit! Trust me, that almost never happens at a Joan Jett show. It was beautiful chaos.

Yet that gig didn’t quite scratch my itch as it was only about 30 minutes long. But a headlining club tour started in the fall, and on October 21, I drove two-plus hours from Pittsburgh to Cleveland to see the band at the Agora Theater, a proper general admission club gig. I hadn’t been within sweat-flinging distance of Joan since 1997.

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One must arrive early for these things—there is a ritual, you see—but I wasn’t a teenager anymore. My fiancé and I defined “early” as a little after 6 p.m., and the heavy construction on Euclid Avenue made that challenging. There were only about three other cars in the lot when we pulled in, and we parked next to an orange Dodge Caliber along the chain-link fence that separated us from the tour buses on the other side. The Caliber belonged to two women from Michigan who turned out to be actual Jettheads. (My people!) The ritualistic sharing of the Jetthead stories commenced under the bright, setting sun.

Joan had just signed a few things for them through the fence; we’d missed her by about 30 minutes. I was sad to have missed the opportunity, but certain that there would be another one after the show. The next date was two days away in Minneapolis, so I knew they wouldn’t be in a rush. Thommy Price, the Blackhearts’ drummer, walked by us as we spoke, and I waved at him nervously. He waved back. I may have squealed.

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I managed to snag the second row about a foot to the right of Joan’s microphone. The crowd was thin, but that made my spot easier to defend from the wannabes that always rush in during “I Love Rock N’ Roll.” I just had to make it through three opening bands. Yikes. The Agora Theater is a cool venue, but the slanted floor caused my toes to crowd into the front of my shoes and put too much pressure on my lower back. This wouldn’t have been a problem 15 years ago. I had to remind myself to breathe.

A local band, The Velvematics, came out first—they were a last-minute addition to the line-up. They replaced another Cleveland band, Blackheart Records’ own The Vacancies, who had to cancel after the posters had already been printed. The Velvematics wore matching black outfits with white neckties, and the guitarist looked like Howard Stern.

The next two bands were two of Joan’s favorites: Valient Thorr, whose bassist wore a Blackheart pin on his leather vest and whose singer jumped into the crowd, shirtless, after climbing to the top of an amp, and Eagles of Death Metal, whose song “Whorehoppin’” was a regular feature of Joan’s satellite radio show.

Legend of the World, Valient Thorrdeathbysexy

I really wanted to enjoy these bands. And I tried. But all three of them had an unbalanced sound mix, and their singers all sounded like they were under water. I had no idea what they were singing about. I feel terrible now, because the Jettheads shared the floor with their fans, and I apologize for not doing their sets justice here.

I was bored and jittery, and I had nothing to distract me from the pain in my feet and lower back, except the few times I saw Joan in the sidelines—jamming to her favorite songs, eating a sandwich, and smiling.

“Bad Reputation” ended as usual, and Joan started her greetings, as usual. But something in the way she paused and took an extra breath struck me.

At nearly 10:30, The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” swelled, the theater darkened, and the Jettheads erupted on cue. The “Joan Jett and the Blackhearts” banner got stuck on one side as it dropped from the rafters; we chuckled. Finally, The Blackhearts took the stage, and ripped into “Bad Reputation.” Joan’s sound, thankfully, was flawless as always, so I could relax a little. I sang along with the crowd and settled into the groove. I was home.

After eight shows in 18 years, the set list was usually no mystery. First “Bad Reputation,” then Joan says hello to [insert city name here], then “Cherry Bomb.” I remember wishing they would change it up a little, maybe throw in some deep cuts. “Cherry Bomb” is probably The Runaways’ biggest hit, but they never used to play “You Drive Me Wild.” Or maybe swap out “Everyday People” in the encore. We hadn’t heard “Little Liar” in forever.

“Bad Reputation” ended as usual, and Joan started her greetings, as usual. But something in the way she paused and took an extra breath struck me.

“I need to say something before we continue,” she said. This was definitely not in the script, and she was not making eye contact. That was my first clue. Something was wrong.

“When I was a teenager, I was in a band called the Runaways,” Joan continued, gripping her microphone with both hands as the cheers went up. She took another breath, and stared into the balcony—where no one was sitting. I was frozen. Something in me knew what was coming next, and I desperately wanted to be wrong.

“Our drummer Sandy West has been very ill recently and…” Another breath. Oh God, please don’t say it.

“She passed away about an hour ago.”

The cheers collapsed into gasps. The shock was physical. Sandy must have died while I was cursing the sound tech and stretching my back. All of my hyperbolic whining about dying for new music and dying for a Joan Jett show, and this woman was literally dying from lung cancer a few minutes ago and now she was dead. I am a jerk.

“It’s very devastating to me.” The words caught in Joan’s throat, and she paused to rest her head on the microphone for support. She tried to hold back her tears, but a few managed to sneak out. I wanted to cry them for her, but I had no right to.

She picked up her head, and gathered enough strength to tell us, “I dedicate this next song and this entire show to Sandy.” We cheered again, because we didn’t know what else to do.

Cleveland Scene, 10/23/2006

Cleveland Scene, 10/23/2006

The band then launched into the most gut-wrenching, hard-driving performance of “Cherry Bomb” that I will probably ever hear, 30 years or so after Joan shared the Agora stage with Sandy herself.

I couldn’t sing along, or move. I said a prayer for Sandy as I studied Joan. I wondered how she, or any of us, would get through this show, this night. I was prepared to leave if she needed us to.

But she did not stop. The steel set in her eyes as she hunkered down for the show, purging her excess emotion out through the amps. She had a job to do, and she was going to finish it.

I felt like a leech for standing there. The need to flee overwhelmed me, but I had to stay, because it wasn’t about me. I needed to stay for Joan, and for Sandy. I had a job to do, and I was going to finish it.

I dismissed my aching body and ignored the lit cigarettes that threatened to burn me. I choked on my spit as I sang every word of every song at the top of my lungs. (Oh God—my lungs.) I pumped my fists in the air to Thommy’s rhythms until my triceps burned.

I did not rest. All of the “suffering” that I had complained about just moments before was not enough. I could take more. If Sandy and Joan could take it, I could take it.

Joan and Dougie Needles’ dueling guitars at the end of “Everyday People,” the last song of the night, were achingly perfect. I had never bothered to really feel them before, and it has been my favorite live song ever since. I saw them this summer when they did not play “Everyday People,” and I missed it, deep in my bones.

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The house lights came up, and we all headed for the exit in a fog. I didn’t think Joan would meet with us after all that, and I knew no one would blame her. I just wanted to stay long enough to watch the band board their bus and say goodbye. I took my place along the fence, and waited.

Joan walked out last, escorted by her manager, Kenny Laguna. She was hiding from the cold in a black hooded sweatshirt, staring straight ahead like a scared little girl who could use a superhero. On an ordinary night, we all would have cheered her arrival, but most of us were silent, out of respect and shared grief. I waved to Kenny as he walked back to the theater. He waved back and smiled. I stayed quiet.

The bus door closed behind her, and as I was about to leave, I heard mumblings through the crowd. They heard Joan would come out and meet us after cleaning up. I was amazed, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been. She had a job to do, and she was going to finish it.

So I stayed for her. I tried (and failed) to say something important while she signed my T-shirt, and went back to our car. We stayed another two-and-a-half hours in the cold, as everyone else left. Band and crew members talked to us from time to time, understanding why we were there. It seemed to make them happy, but it didn’t feel like enough. I saluted the bus as the tail lights shrank from view. I was the last to leave. I had a job to do, and I finished it.

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Epilogue

The world grieved with us. Sandy’s obituary was published everywhere from music publications like Billboard, to Time Magazine and Fox News. The outpouring was surreal. I didn’t know how big our family really was.

We shared the dream of girls playing rock and roll. Sandy was an exuberant and powerful drummer. I am overcome from the loss of my friend. I always told her we changed the world. — Joan Jett

The last ten years have given me a bounty of Joan Jett awards, movie and TV show appearances, The Runaways movie, another album, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and 12 more kick-ass shows. Today, I get the “who is she” question far less often, but it still happens occasionally. I don’t know how long this renaissance will last for us, but I will keep showing up as long as she does, and long after the trendy folk have left us in their sparkly dust. Because we still have plenty of work to do.

Spotlight on the drummer

Rest in power, Sandy. I am sorry I never got to meet or know you. I hope you’re jamming with David Bowie and Prince right now. 😀

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