The rock critic had just vomited all over his bed. It was 3:04 a.m. on yet another early morning in 1986 in New York City and the scribe had just come off a three-day benderpalooza of self-prescribed medicines for the wounds of a break-up with a prevaricating witch. He hated his job, he hated his life – and more importantly – he hated rock ‘n’ roll.
As he gathered the bed sheets covered with effluvia to throw out the window, the 24-hour television set broadcast that voice. He turned and saw this dame for the first time and recognized the cry of a street angel whose epic vocal power contained human history, the strength of iron and steel, and the vulnerability of someone insisting on freedom when she knows damn well she might not get it.
He dropped the crumpled sheets short of their eleven-story descent and sat at the edge of the bed to watch the tube. There she was – someone named Johnette Napolitano from some L.A. band called Concrete Blonde. She was beautiful and whip smart and had confidence and poise and wit. Again, there was that voice. “Mmmph. Hope for rock ‘n’ roll after all,” he said out loud, knowing full well he was talking about his own sorry ass.
Twenty-seven years later Johnette Napolitano is talking to the rock critic on the phone from her home in Joshua Tree, California. He wants to know about that voice. “When I was in junior high school and started goin’ to parties, I wasn’t the most socially graceful creature at all. So I’d take my guitar around and the one thing I know is that whenever I’d start singing, everyone would shut up and listen.”
Shut up and listen. Shut up and listen. And so they did.
Concrete Blonde came howling out the chute in that year of our Ronnie Ray-Gun 1986 and knocked out three classic albums by 1990: Concrete Blonde, Free and Bloodletting. The latter begat the hit single “Joey” – a sobbing love song to a dying alcoholic – perfect rock balladry. Napolitano was born in Hollywood – the belly of the beast – and her songs were (and remain) cinematic – feature films compressed into three-minute rock ‘n’ roll: “Still In Hollywood,” “God Is A Bullet,” “True.” Walking In London, Mexican Moon, and a collabo with Chicano punk-rockers Los Illegals followed. “Ghost Of A Texas Ladies Man” and “Heal It Up” – among others -- hail from that period. She is also one of the great song interpreters of our time, as proven by the way she turned James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World” and Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” into Johnette songs.
In between recording she toured the planet. “Gigging was always just as much about traveling,” she explains. “Like my godmother told me when I was 9 years old ‘you must travel, you must go to Europe, you must see these places.’ I never forgot that – this was my way out and into the world.” She worked on side projects -- Pretty & Twisted, The Heads with Talking Heads vets, and a legendary, much-bootlegged ‘90s solo album that went officially unreleased because of record racket shenanigans. Just as importantly, the girl who’d dreamed of an unaffordable art school when she was a child became the woman who pursued all of her dreams. She’s been an artist and art gallery owner, conducted psychic readings, keeps horses, studied pottery with a master in Mexico as well as flamenco dance and song in Spain and is now a practicing tattooist. “I’m licensed to ill, baby!” she proudly exclaims in her delicious, throaty laugh. Her Joshua Tree Tattoo business focuses on “nature-based design.” After moving from L.A. a dozen years ago, she’s incorporated the desert aesthetic like she used to use Hollywood as a muse. “I absorb my surroundings,” she explains.
The 21st Century brought the gorgeous, solo Scarred, various Concrete Blonde reunions and her book Rough Mix – a collection of short stories, lyrics and drawings. She’s now touring on her own – just an acoustic guitar and her songs, passages read from Rough Mix against projected backdrops of original and found art – and that voice.
“I get a little impatient with people my age because they’re always talkin’ about the old days bein’ so much fun and I’m thinkin’ ‘well why don’t they just dig themselves a hole now?’ This is the time to really fuckin’ bring it. I’ve been doin’ it long enough that I oughta know what I’m doin’. Insecurities that used to plague me aren’t there cuz I’m too tired for ‘em. It gives me the freedom of not giving a fuck. I’ve been having the best time of my life and I’ve never seen an audience have a better time.” She pauses and then adds for emphasis: “I’m looking forward.”
The rock critic whose faith in rock ‘n’ roll was restored all those years ago by Johnette Napolitano laughs. His only advice is shut up and listen.