Reunited, and It Feels So Good 

Everything’s fine, thanks, with Concrete Blonde

Wednesday, May 1 2002
Photo by Max S. gerber

TWO PEOPLE START A BAND; GET A DRUMMER; get another drummer; get rejected; get a deal; write a crucial L.A. fist-pumper; write several more crucial L.A. fist-pumpers; get another drummer; have a really big hit song; open for Sting; get a song on an Anne Klein II commercial; get old drummer back; play bigger and bigger venues until the lead singer decides to break up the band.

At their final L.A. show at the Wiltern in 1994, Concrete Blonde's lead-singer-songwriter-bassist Johnette Napolitano told the crowd that she and her bandmates -- guitarist Jim Mankey and drummer Harry Rushakoff -- were moving on to "other things," which prompted Mankey to quip, "Yeah, poverty and obscurity." Now, eight years later, Concrete Blonde are back in business, and, like Liz and Dick, it's just as if they never parted. You can feel the love, though there's been some ugliness.

Concrete Blonde disbanded with a legacy that frequently cited their musical skills and literacy. At a time when L.A. was home to edgier, rawer bands like X, Jane's Addiction and the Gun Club, Concrete Blonde were making old-fashioned rock that was lavish at times, punkish at others. There was Mankey's eloquent guitar work, which could be both brutal and bewitching. Then there was that voice. Johnette Napolitano is a kick-ass rock & roll singer, keeping a seemingly lost art alive with her husky, passionate bravado. She's the emotional spitfire of the band, and her dramatic sense of storytelling resonates with anyone who's ever trudged Hollywood Boulevard at every hour of the day and night. Concrete Blonde first gained notice with their flagship rocker "Still in Hollywood," a tale of life on the 'Vard that's still making the kids bounce when the band play it on their current tour.

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Concrete Blonde weren't the wildest act around -- someone once called them "the thinking man's Heart" -- but as Jim Mankey says, "Anyone who wants a good, durable product need only to look to Concrete Blonde." There were five albums of solid rock and many, many great songs, some even played on the radio -- "God Is a Bullet," "Bloodletting" -- and one MOR radio hit called "Joey" that to this day pays Napolitano's mother's rent.

On why they broke up, Napolitano says, "I was fried. Harry was on a rock-star trip like it was never going to end, and Jim was very comfortable. I didn't think there was anything left to do except play the same old shit, collect the paycheck and go home, and I didn't ever want to get to that point. I can't believe anybody would be happy in the same situation for that long without readjusting their lives."

It's not as if that "other things" period didn't produce some wonderful music by Napolitano, who, among numerous projects, put out an overlooked album as Pretty & Twisted, the band she formed with late Wall of Voodoo guitarist Marc Moreland. Meanwhile, Jim Mankey spent his time working on what he calls his "nerdy guitar stuff." Rushakoff did the most rock-star thing of all and checked into rehab.

The new Group Therapy, the band's sixth album, came together as a result of some harrowing circumstances, hence the title and cover shot of a vintage electric chair. In the spring of last year, Napolitano began having nightmares about bombs. "I'd been really paranoid," she says. "I felt like some kind of end was near -- this feeling of doom and death that was overpowering. I thought I was going to die." Terrified, she showed up at her old colleague Mankey's door. "She was like a crippled bird," recalls Mankey.

"I've known Jim for 20 years," says Napolitano. "He knows I'm not crazy. I was hiding under the bed in his guest room for a couple of days, and then he made me go to the doctor." She ended up seeing a shrink. "I thought, If I live, I'm not going to fuck around with my life anymore. I'm going to get work done." And that work could only be done by getting her old band back together.

Well, that's one way to deal with a mental breakdown.

Neither Napolitano nor Mankey had been in contact with Rushakoff in years, but Napolitano wanted him in the band. They met him at his rehab facility, had lunch, and then they were three again. (Rushakoff, by the way, is no longer with Concrete Blonde. He failed to show up while on tour in Kansas City in March and has been replaced by Maria Fatal drummer Gabriel Ramirez.)

Released on the local indie label Manifesto Records, Group Therapy isn't Concrete Blonde's best album, but it does suggest the band are moving into a new period of inspiration. Along with dense rockers that conjure the old days, the album's standout is "When I Was a Fool," an introspective follow-up of sorts to "True" from the first album, where Napolitano sang, "And if I had the choice, I'd take the voice I've got, 'cause it was hard to find." On the new song, she proclaims, "I walk through the airport and read magazines/Every face that I see so much younger than me/I drink and I think and I don't even miss/My glorious past or the lips that I've kissed," then shouting, "I'm 45!" It's also Mankey's favorite new song to play live, "because it gets all noisy in the end."

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