“And that’s a marvelous feeling. . . We’re all one when it comes to rock, because we love it, and we love it together. It just hit me that time when we were singing ‘Black Water’ — people with their arms around each other, just singing together with the people onstage. That’s what rock does for you.” –Jane Scott
“Jane Scott was important. She didn’t critique music. She reported facts. And, subversively, she demystified the art.” – David Scott (Pere Ubu)
Eventually, she’d go to all the shows – an estimated 10,000 — by anyone and everyone, from open mic nights to Live Aid. David Bowie would personally leave a pass for her whenever he came through town. But Jane Scott missed the one that started it all by three days.
Later, she’d say it was due to greed: Alan Freed’s Moondog Coronation Ball was on a Friday, March 21, 1952. She’d waited until the following Monday to start her new position with the Cleveland Plain Dealer so that her boss could sneak an extra $5 per week onto her $45 weekly salary in his boss’s absence. “Think of the firsthand stories I’d still be writing about that night,” she’d say years later.
Jane was born May 3, 1919 in Cleveland and grew up west of the city in Lakewood and Russell Township. After graduation in 1937 from Lakewood High School, she headed to the University of Michigan, where she was a staff member for the school paper, The Michigan Daily. She received her B.A in English, Speech and Drama in 1941, but never would use the teacher’s certificate she also earned. The following year, she went to work for the Cleveland Press as a secretary in the advertising department.
That didn’t last long: later that year she enlisted in the Navy as one of Cleveland’s first WAVEs, where she rose to the rank of lieutenant as a codebreaker, or as she termed it, “a glorified typist.” After the war, she went to business school for typing and shorthand, and in 1947 joined the staff of a startup paper called the Chagrin Valley Herald as the women’s editor. For five years she juggled that with stringing for the Plain Dealer until that $45 (then $50 per week) job opened up.
In truth, she wouldn’t have covered the Moondog Ball anyway, although a “real” reporter likely showed up for the infamous riot. Jane’s beat was the society page. Two years later, she landed the “Senior Class” column, geared to the retirement crowd, a post she’d hold for 20 years, even after rock writing became the focus of her career. In 1958, she took on the weekly “Boy and Girl” children’s column, which eventually morphed into “Teen Time.” As her co-workers put it, she covered “pimples to pensions.”
It was through that teen column that she found her calling, or it found her. In September of 1964, her editor gave her an assignment that no one else wanted: covering a show at Public Auditorium by a shaggy-haired English quartet from Liverpool. The classical columnist wrote the actual review (he hated it, of course); she was there for the human interest.
And she found it. “I never before saw thousands of 14-year-old girls, all screaming and yelling…I realized this was a phenomenon…the whole world changed,” she said years later.
Her friend Anastasia Pantsios, her longtime colleague at the Plain Dealer, said of it: “She was allowed to take the rock beat because [people at the paper] thought it was trivial at the time, and a woman could have it. Most of the papers at that time would have sent a columnist, who would have made fun of it and the screaming girls.”
But Jane was mesmerized, and she knew that her readership was too. She may have been 46 but this “teen music” clicked for her like nothing else had before. She dropped the school news from her column and devoted it to the performers that kids were hearing on WIXY and WHK: As the teen writer, she could do it without objection from higher-ups at the paper. In the process, she made history: one of the few rock writers in the country, one of a tiny number of women, and the first — man or woman — to write for a major paper. When the Beatles returned to play Municipal Stadium two years later, she was the only woman at the closed interview session. Even Brian Epstein had trouble getting past security.
Over the years that followed, Jane became a fixture at Cleveland concert venues, unmistakable with her signature blond pageboy, oversized red trifocals and her car keys, pass, and ticket pinned to her blouse. She always toted her “security kit,” an oversized bag filled with safety pins, two notebooks (one for the interview and one for notes on the crowd), and at least four pens (“because people borrow them and don’t return them”). A true concert veteran, she also carried Kleenex for the inevitable shortage of TP in the ladies’ room, ear plugs, and a peanut butter sandwich (“because peanut butter doesn’t spoil easily and sometimes you don’t have time to stand in line for food.”). Sometimes she’d bring photocopied notes on that night’s act, offering extras to her fellow journalists.
She got to be on a first-name basis with rock royalty. The stories are legendary: She went with Jimi Hendrix when he bought a blue Corvette at Blaushild Chevrolet on Chagrin Boulevard for $8000. Jim Morrison invited her to have a beer with him before their 1967 Public Auditorium show (a Christian Scientist and a professional, she assuredly turned him down). She sang “California Girls” in a hotel lobby with Brian Wilson. When Bowie saw her from the stage at a performance of “The Elephant Man,” he sent an assistant to bring her backstage for a private dinner.
The things that made her special, that made her the darling of artists and fans alike and got her into places other journalists never saw, were her boundless curiosity and open-mindedness. Even the famously cranky Lou Reed was unabashed in his affection for her, describing her as a “very smart, guileless lady who loved music and musicians and had unbiased attitudes toward the evolving culture.”
Artists appreciated her appreciation for them, addressing her as “Ma’am”; respecting her as what the Plain Dealer’s John Petkovic called “the cool aunt or mom who accepted people as they are.” It also helped that she’d often find their parent’s contact info and chat them up for a scoop on their famous offspring—they knew she had the real dirt.
She valued the personal connection, and not just as a story tactic. Remembers the Plain Dealer’s longtime rock writer John Soeder, “Jane was ego-less. She wanted to hear about you, and she treated everyone with respect. Everybody had a story that made her want to whip out her notebook.” During a 1998 joint interview, Joel dutifully answered Soeder’s questions about classical composition, but came to life when Jane leaned in and asked him about his daughter Alexa. Cleveland legend Michael Stanley said, “You always felt you were extremely important when you were talking to Jane.”
But Jane had no illusions about the real nature of these relationships and the business she was in. As she put it to writer Alana Baranick, “These people are not my friends. They’re using me for publicity, just as I am using them to get a story.”
Her ability to get backstage, onto tour buses, and wherever else she wanted to go flummoxed even industry pros. According to promoter Jules Belkin, he could never keep her away: She’d just materialize. Of course, most of the security crews knew who she was and were more starstruck over her than the artist they were paid to keep under wraps. And if charm and reputation didn’t work, she wasn’t above using her age to get to where the story was. She was once seen waving her arms wildly while trying to get past a resistant security guard. Finally, she just shoved him aside and went on past. What was he going to do, fight a defenseless old lady?
While personally conservative, she almost never judged, only recorded. She was unfazed by things like a haze of pot smoke or Rod Stewart’s publicist’s girlfriend cavorting topless in the background during an interview.
But there were a few exceptions. Unimpressed by the Beastie Boys’ liberal dropping of the F-bomb, she dismissed them in print as “crude and lewd without a redeeming social value in sight.” When Elvis Costello was rude to her, she simply devoted more column inches to his opening act, Eddie Money.
Jane was sometimes dismissed by rock cognoscenti (who no doubt came on the scene well after she did) as a glorified fan who “never met an artist she didn’t like.” But she would’ve been the first one to assert that she wasn’t a critic; she was a reporter. She saw it as her job to bring be “the eyes and ears of the fans,” who hadn’t the means to see all the concerts, let alone meet their heroes. She sought out the faces in the crowd and included their thoughts in her column. “If you want to write for yourself, go write a diary,” she said. “There’s something interesting at every concert, even if it’s not my style.”
Her style was, like her, wide-ranging and unpretentious. She was hip enough to appreciate Frank Zappa and Pere Ubu, as well as the Doobies’ “Black Water.” She liked ELP’s “Whiter Shade of Pale,” but once described being backstage at one of their shows and falling asleep for eight minutes during an “interminable” song, only to wake up and find them still playing it. She loved all the Beatles, and to the question “Which one to take home?” her puckish answer was “John. I told you he was the mature one.” She’d no doubt approve of the Rock Hall’s inclusive definition of the genre: “It’s the excitement of rock ‘n’ roll that keeps me going…(the) unexpectedness and the swift changes. You go from pop to hip-hop. And it all melds into rock somehow.”
She had a reporter’s instincts and an ear for trends. She wasn’t an essayist on the level of a Robert Christgau or Ellen Willis; her famous opening interview gambits were “What high school did you go to?” and “What’s your favorite color?” But she had a flair for description and detail, shown in her famous 1975 piece on an up-and-coming artist from New Jersey, two months before he appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week:
“He looked like a cross between a dock hand and a pirate. He stood on the darkened Allen Theater stage last night in a black greaser jacket, blue jeans, a gray wool cap pulled over an eye and a gold earring in his left ear. Only a pianist played as he began singing about slums and switchblades in his ‘Incident on 57th St.’ His name is Bruce Springsteen. He will be the next superstar.”
As with many glamourous jobs, Jane’s meant a lot of hard work behind the scenes. She was often in the office at 3 a.m. to file her story after a show. For years, she spent every Saturday downtown at the WEWS TV-5 studios for the taping of Cleveland’s seminal pop performance show “Upbeat,” where she got one last interview with Otis Redding the day before his death. Michael Heaton, for 30 years the Plain Dealer’s “Minister of Culture,” said of her: “Jane gets the joke about herself. The standard take…is that nobody’s home. But forget the kooky image and all that “world’s oldest teenager” bullshit. She’s sharp as a tack and the hardest-working reporter I’ve ever met. The woman will not be denied.”
Over the years, she’d become a local celebrity; artists looked for her when they came to town. When they talked to other journalists, they’d ask about her. She often found herself the one mobbed by fans when she showed up at the clubs and arenas. She graced the covers of local publications including Cleveland magazine. But it never went to her head.
But after a time, all this wasn’t enough for the Plain Dealer. In 1987, after 35 years, they told her they were looking for new rock writers and that maybe she “could cover gardening.” Stung, she said she could see their point of view but wrote them a letter to make a case for her ability to “help out.” Her co-workers rallied to her defense, with 126 of them signing a petition to keep her. The story made the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and then broke in People magazine and on MTV, Entertainment Tonight, and Art Linkletter. The shaming worked. Jane stayed.
She kept at it for 15 more years, sometimes going to two or three shows a week for her new “Backstage Pass” column. She’d said that “retirement” was a word she didn’t understand, but in 2002, just shy of 50 years with the paper and her 83rd birthday, she decided it was time. She settled into a quiet but still social life at the Ennis Court assisted living facility in Lakewood. When school choirs would come to sing for the residents, she’d interview them, and if given a notebook, take notes.
Of course, she didn’t stop going to shows. And of course, everyone remembered her, including the Boss, who welcomed her backstage for a private chat before a show in 2005. In one post-retirement photo she’s right up next to the stage with her walker, beaming joyfully at an equally delighted Joan Jett. She’d been wrong: they were her friends.
Jane Scott died on July 4, 2011 at age 92 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Her public memorial was held at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum, and she was buried, surprisingly, at Washtenong Cemetery in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She’s survived by a nephew, two nieces, and several grandnieces and nephews. Never married, Jane did say that she’d had a fiancé “but lost him to the war.” When asked which one, she replied “Civil.”
Her extended family was on hand the following year when a life-sized sculpture of her was unveiled at the Museum. Appropriately, it depicts her sitting with pen poised over notebook, ankles demurely crossed, wearing her trademark red glasses and with a big smile. Originally at home in the lower lobby under the CBGB’s awning, it’s since been moved to the Hall’s Library and Archives. Fitting, perhaps, but now it’s only visible to those who likely already know about her, when everyone should see it and learn her story. It’s not like there’s a shortage of space. The Hall did mark the centennial of her birth with a reception and panel discussion featuring a few of her friends, colleagues, and writers whom she inspired.
That same year, the Archives acquired Jane’s personal papers and memorabilia. Among the rarities is her notebook from her first Beatles interview, signed by John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and a handwritten set list for a 1999 Springsteen show. Together, the 70 boxes of rock and roll treasure make up one of the five largest collections in the Archives’ holdings. Everything bears tangible witness to a career that as noted writer Holly Gleason put it, “…captured the essence of rock coming of age, growing into maturity and finding its way into the 21st century.”
Music, and the music business, have changed almost beyond comprehension in the almost 10 years since Jane left us. But if she were here, she’d be along for the ride, notebook in hand and ready to experience it all. She deserves a permanent place among the artists and music she loved and and shared with her readers for half a century. The next time the ceremony is in Cleveland, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame needs to induct and pay tribute to Jane Scott. It’s time.