By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
"We'd switch instruments and I'd play drums and Harry'd play keyboards and Jim would play bass, and it was fun," says Napolitano. Though she wrote all the lyrics, the songwriting credits go to the whole band. "The way to get my freedom to do what I want is to split it all with everybody. One guy can't be in a Porsche while another guy can't pay his rent. If somebody covers a song, Harry will get a third of it, and that's cool."
Making the album was a cathartic experience, but the question remained: Would anyone care? "We didn't think anybody would care at all," she says. "Someone asked, 'How relevant are you now?' Well, how relevant were we then? We've never fit in easily anywhere, and I don't feel that today things are that different. And I'm really surprised at the turnout. There are a lot of young kids who never got to see the band the first time."
It's no surprise that it was Mankey whom Napolitano called in her hour of need that terrifying night. The two have known each other since 1981, having met when Napolitano was working for Leon Russell. "I was in awe of Jim because he'd been in Sparks, so he was the star and was the only one allowed to come late," she says. Napolitano and Mankey were briefly involved romantically but now consider each other more like family. "I appreciate his musical vocabulary and the fact that he's just such a great player. And his levelheadedness -- when Harry and I'd be flipping out of our minds on speed or whatever, Jim was always the one who was centered."
Onstage, the aw-shucks Mankey will stand off to the right, in the old days shielded by a curtain of hair. Offstage, he's equally coy. "I'm comfortable onstage because I know nobody's watching me. I figure I could drop my pants and nobody would notice. And I often do." When asked if he thought it was a good idea to ask Rushakoff to rejoin the band, Mankey does an "Oh, you know, gee whiz" act, though Napolitano confirms that Mankey didn't want to play with Rushakoff after the initial breakup. "Harry's the only one of us who could ever have made an impressive Behind the Music," he says. "He has the dirt, that rock-star lifestyle. And he's just written a new chapter for himself."
THOUGH SHE'S BEEN IN THIS BUSIness we call rock for close to two decades, it's only on the current tour that Napolitano hasn't been "paralyzed" with fear about performing. "I'd wake up in the morning, start agonizing about the show the night before, what I'd fucked up, then start agonizing about the show tonight. I'm finally over that, because I realize that I've been doing this for so long it should be fun. And it's more fun than it's ever been."
Having fun has been a long time coming since her days as a rebellious teenager growing up in the San Fernando Valley as the oldest of five siblings. "My parents had a very violent relationship. There were guns and blood and me calling the police all the time. They split up when I was 14, which is generally the time when you go wild. My mom was working nights as a nurse, and it was hard. I was smoking pot in the laundry room of the apartment building, climbing out the window at night." There was no rock & roll in the house; her biker dad preferred the Rat Pack, and her mother loved musicals. "I knew I wanted to be a musician very early. I was hanging out with a lot of guys listening to what we called Valley rock -- Hendrix, Led Zeppelin."
Even in her mid-40s, there's a hell-raisin'-teen quality about Napolitano that makes it easy to picture her driving down Ventura Boulevard with some longhaired dude and "Immigrant Song" blasting. "At 15, I lied to get a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Sherman Oaks. They were such losers; it's probably the only KFC that isn't there anymore, a really dirty place. This was Original Recipe, way before Extra-Crispy." A self-proclaimed poor student, she lasted one day at Valley College, then took off for Pennington, Tennessee, with her high school boyfriend, who had joined the Navy. "We were living on Tennessee Ernie Ford corn bread for 30 cents a week. He was pulling in 90 bucks a week, and if we got married we could get 140 bucks a week. Then we went to Coronado, and I'll tell you, those carriers bring in a lot of drugs."
There were health problems brought on by a severe bladder infection, her husband had an affair, and she ended up at Leon Russell's place. "I remember when he first heard me sing on this demo. I was washing dishes, and he came up and said, 'Johnette, you sing like Rita Coolidge.' I was shaking."
With Mankey, she formed the first incarnation of what would be Concrete Blonde, called Dream 6, in 1982. With Rushakoff onboard by 1986, the band put out their first full-length album on IRS. There were college hits on the 1989 raucous romp Free. When Bloodletting came out in '90, its somber "Joey" made them downright famous, a favorite even of David Letterman, and they were headlining the Greek.