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warping the vans 

Joan Jett and other rock vets add gravity to Warped Tour '06

Joan Jett is old enough to be the grandmother of some of her current VANS Warped Tour mates. But she's not mellowed with age. At 46, her sound remains as hard-edged and unforgiving as it was during her stint as a 16-year-old Runaway.

"Joan has always been rejected by the mainstream, even the mainstream radio," says producer/songwriting partner/friend Kenny Laguna by phone from Blackheart Records' headquarters in New York City. "The big shot executives at the label left Joan for dead when she was 16, and have continued to do so. But we always managed to fight our way back and get something going on."

Jett started her own label, Blackheart, with Laguna, and in 1982 released her signature valentine to rock, "I Love Rock and Roll." But even with that success and two follow-up hits that same year -- covers of Tommy James' "Crimson and Clover" and Gary Glitter's "Do You Wanna Touch Me" -- she was largely ignored by the print media. Jett did make Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists of all time list a couple of years ago, but coverage trends sparse. "The image of a guitar player is a guy," says Laguna, who jokes that he plays invisible keyboard and percussion and sings flat in the background. "He runs his hands up and down that thing the way he masturbates." Jett may not measure up by those standards, but she has some that many rock stars can't fulfill. "The one guitar player who played on all of Joan's hits is Joan."

Her sound is unique, Laguna says, because Rhodes electric piano inventor Red Rhodes made special pickups exclusively for Jett. She also came up with the riffs, plays great rhythm and has a voice perfectly suited to hardcore rock.

"I think people just took it all for granted," Laguna says. "She's like Chuck Berry, not like the super flash of Alvin Lee of 10 Years After, or somebody like that."

Record execs finally came around, giving Jett grudging respect for her determination and talent. But it's been her peers, including Guns 'N' Roses, the Who and David Bowie, who have been the most supportive over the years. "The White Stripes, (West Coast punk trio) MXPX, people like that -- they've reached out to us ... always think Joan is like amazing and was a trailblazer and did it when she was fifteen."

Jett's age won't be a factor when the Warped Tour hits Charlotte on August 8. As she proved on Broadway as Rocky Horror's Columbia and on her new album, Sinner, Jett can still belt 'em out. She won't be the oldest onstage either. A couple of her peers will be performing as approximations of their original selves.

Hardcore LA punk band the Germs' had its career shut down for 25 years, when their original singer, Darby Crash, died in 1980 at age 22. The band was resurrected in 2005 with most of the early 1977 lineup intact, including guitarist Pat Smear, bassist Lorna Doom and drummer Don Bolles. In a turn of events as unlikely as a plotline from his former day job on E.R., actor Shane West played Crash so convincingly in the indie film about the band, What We Do Is Secret, that the group decided to reform with West as lead singer.

The Buzzcocks got their start in 1975, inspired by the Sex Pistols. But the 'Cocks were never as hardcore, going for a more pop-punk sound that influenced a younger generation of bands including Green Day. Since disbanding in 1980, the band has regrouped several times. Now, at 51, original drummer Pete Shelley may be the elder at this gathering.

The tour, which features over 100 bands on multiple stages plus extreme sports, once revolved around punk and ska, but has expanded to include pop-punk/emo groups like Philly's Valencia. Their radio-friendly debut, This Could Be A Possibility, prophesizes big time success.

For a more esoteric sound, try New Orleans Mute Math's innovative blend of jazz, rock and electronica. They don't have a label for their sound, but objected so strongly to Warner Bros. trying to market them as Christian rockers that they sued the label.

There's plenty to choose from, including locals like Valient Thorr, ska-punkers Less Than Jake from Gainesville, FL, and the metalmen in Helmet.

On the road since 1994, the VANS Warped tour now focuses on music more than skateboarding. But for those whose day isn't complete without a few runs on the half-pipe, one is provided. Injuries are optional.

The VANS Warped Tour hits Verizon Wireless Amphitheater on August 8; 12pm; $27. Consult www.warpedtour.com for full lineup and details.

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