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Reunited, and It Feels So Good

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.

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."

 

"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.

After the band broke up, Napolitano settled into a happy, productive life at her homes in the Hollywood Hills and Baja with her two Chihuahuas, Cheech and Frida, four computers, and lots of Sangre de Toro wine, which she buys by the case. If indeed she ever considered herself a rock star, her level of fame today is much better suited to her. "If you're famous and you walk into a situation, it artificializes it. If you're anonymous, you can sit in a bar and listen, and that's important to me as a writer. If you're famous, every scumbag in the world wants to hang out, and that's a problem," she says. She still finds inspiration from the city she grew up in, though she's more likely to be found at home or maybe crooning at Miceli's, a favorite old Tinseltown spot, than at any of the trendy new boîtes in Hollywood.

When asked what the biggest misconception about her is, Napolitano rattles off the top three decisively. "That I'm a drug addict. I don't do drugs; for a while everyone was convinced I did heroin. That I'm an alcoholic. I'm not. I drink and I have fun doing it, but I also get an incredible amount of work done." Lastly, she adds, "That I'm difficult. If I'm difficult, I consider that a compliment. I am hell-bent on getting a vision across, and I haven't been wrong."

She's also very focused on the immediate future, which includes the limited-edition 2 by 2, an EP CD of acoustic songs with Mankey. She's challenging herself by learning to sing flamenco, which, she says, "kicks my ass creatively." There's also her solo album, all set to go on Island Records in 1998 but which she decided not to release when supporter Chris Blackwell departed the label. She's got music in the can with Berlin's Teri Nunn, and a project with writer Rubén Martínez. Would she ever consider doing Broadway? She shakes her head. "My mother asked me if I would ever want to do what Cher's doing, and I said, 'I'm too lazy to change clothes.'"

How one ages gracefully in rock is a question Napolitano's thought a lot about. "I've always been terrified of it and figured I'd be retired by now. I look at somebody like Tina Turner and go, 'Great.' Living in Hollywood, you see a lot of muttons dressed as lambs. Yet I'm not self-conscious anymore. When I turned 40, I was going through all kinds of angst that I should be doing something else with my life -- but this is what I do."LA

Concrete Blonde play at the Palace, Saturday, May 4.


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