Since their formation in the early '80s, it's been nearly impossible to separate the bittersweet and poignant voice of Concrete Blonde and their main muse: the City of Angels. Lead singer, songwriter, bassist and conceptual artist (see "City Cross," below), Johnette Napolitano founded the band along with guitarist Jim Mankey during the L.A. post-punk boom that included X, Wall of Voodoo, and The Plimsouls. They even cracked commercial radio--hard to believe in these times--with the hits "Joey" and "God is a Bullet." After an eight-year break, the duo and original Concrete Blonde drummer Harry Rushakoff decided to get together and write music again, resulting in Group Therapy, the band's first album of all-new material since 1994. The release showcases the band's newfound maturity while reinforcing its undeniable impact on the So-Cal musical landscape.
But it's not like Napolitano hasn't kept busy. In '94, she started a project with Holly Vincent (of Holly and the Hollywoods) called Vowel Movement. Then in '95, she and Mankey joined Wall of Voodoo's Marc Moreland to form Pretty and Twisted. Napolitano joined up with The Talking Heads' Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison in '96 to record All Talk and No Head (sans David Byrne), and she also toured for that record. All the while, Napolitano continued to focus attention on her second career as a conceptual artist, showing her work throughout the Unted States and Mexico.
The Concrete Blonde story starts back in 1982. Napolitano and Mankey met when both were "employed as serfs" backing Leon Russell, who they ditched when they realized they shared a musical chemistry between them--an organic, musical phenomenon generated by the pair's creative collaborations. "There's a magic there, I can't explain it," says Napolitano via telephone from her Los Angeles home. The duo, calling themselves Dream 6, released an EP on a French independent label. But, adamant about retaining control over their music, they kept major labels at bay until 1987, when they signed to MCA-distributed I.R.S. Records, homes of bands like R.E.M. and Wall of Voodoo. It was then that they officially changed their name to Concrete Blonde, a moniker offered by labelmate Michael Stipe, a term he came up with trying to describe the group after he heard them play. Drummer Harry Rushakoff joined in time for the release of their self-titled 1987 debut album. For the next 10 years, Napolitano and Mankey (with Rushakoff leaving the band after 1989's Free, but returning for 1992's Walking in London) continued making records as Concrete Blonde. The band's last recording was 1993's Mexican Moon, an album that explored Napolitano's growing passion for Latin music and culture.
Concrete Blonde's return to the studio last summer followed a bleak period last May during which Napolitano was having recurring nightmares and suffered from an overriding sense of doom. She went to see Mankey, who put her in contact with a psychiatrist who she credits with helping her to see her way through the ordeal (even coming to see Napolitano perform). Shortly after, she and Mankey hooked up with fresh-out-of-rehab drummer Harry Rushakoff and they started writing music again.
With the exception of a couple of old songs Napolitano brought in, the trio wrote the entire album that June and July. Since Concrete Blonde and Los Angeles are synonymous, the band, as usual, created a soundtrack to their hometown.
"I tend to absorb the atmosphere around me," Napolitano says. "There are a few flashpoints in L.A. that I really feel ideas float in the air. Any old Hollywood place--Miceli's restaurant is one. Every time I go in, like today, I just get something to read at the newsstand across the street and settle in ... and I get a million ideas."
The group went into the studio in August, recording Group Therapy in only 10 days. Ironically, the track "Violent," which was written before Sept. 11, has Napolitano eerily predicting, "It's all so ready to get violent."
"I didn't know what I was addressing when I wrote it. It was just a feeling," she says. "Thinking about it now, it just scares the hell out of me."
Napolitano says her desire to record again was partly inspired by the reformation of glam-rock vets Roxy Music. "It was an impetus to do something too," she says. She was so moved that she penned their first single, "Roxy," in tribute to the band and her old pal, Roxy Music's Paul Thompson, who played drums on Concrete Blonde's Top-20 hit, "Joey."
These days, when they're not on the road (they do two-week-on/two-week-off stints), Napolitano splits her time between L.A. and Mexico, and has her 15-year-old dog, "Cheech," to come home to. Politically and socially active, the members of Concrete Blonde have always made it a point to volunteer their time and talents to a number of causes, most recently headlining a benefit for the teen runaway organization Children of the Night. Napolitano often takes time during a set to speak out about current political issues. (Back in '93, for example, she gave passionate voice to gun control and the importance of pressuring the government to pass the Brady Bill.)
After 20 years in the business, does Napolitano feel that she and her band have received the acclaim and notoriety they deserve?
"I think so. I don't do the things one needs to do to be a huge star," she says. "I admire someone like Leonard Cohen, who is prolific and respected--a strong identity and sense of self. I'm just starting to have that. All I've ever wanted to do was to work when and how I wanted and make my living, and that's exactly what I do. Also, I've been around enough to see people in real need, and my problems aren't anything that can't be solved. I have strong faith in God and the Universe and I know there's a plan--and a lot of faith. I saw enough when I was a kid that nothing really fazes me. Unless I've got a gun to my head, everything else is laughable."
How does Napolitano maintain her sanity--her perspective--and still be a part of the rock 'n' roll world?
"I've asked myself what the fuck am I doing--the whole rock star thing," she says. "I should be out there doing something more worthwhile."
But a recent show at New York's Knitting Factory, where the band invited firefighters and rescue workers involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to attend their show, Napolitano realized that what she was doing--performing--was "worthwhile" indeed.
"We invited all the firefighters that have been working so hard in the rescue efforts and they came and loved it," she says. "They brought pictures of other firefighters that died as a result of the 9/11 attacks that were also Concrete Blonde fans, and it really made us feel great to make this many people so happy. And I said to myself, well God, I guess you gave me this talent for a reason, so I'm going to do this, and it really is all right for me to do this."