Concrete calling

Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano has the filthiest laugh, and it gurgles from the most unexpected places. “I just got into LA, and I’ve got allergies. God, is this what getting older is about?”

Napolitano, Miss Underground Hollywood of the last 20 years and singer/ songwriter/ bassist for Concrete Blonde, is on her way to Joshua Tree, Calif., her new home.

“It came about in a strange way,” she says, explaining her move to the middle of the Mojave Desert. “I had a little house down in Baja that was my writing retreat, my artist’s retreat, but some friends that live down there got thrown off their land by the federales. No notice, just guys with guns.” She bailed, gave her house to her friends, but that left her without her desert bolthole. A series of happy accidents led her to Joshua Tree. “I had three dogs and I was effectively homeless — now I’m on four acres of desert and my mortgage is $350 a month. I just sold a piece of art, and it paid my mortgage for two months.”

This downsizing has been deliberate, and offers her the opportunity to explore her other talents with dignity — and without financial panic. “I always wanted to move away from LA when I was 45, that was my plan. I wanted to be able to focus more on my serious writing, poetry, and make art, and I can do that here. It makes me really happy; it’s very sustainable.”

The same approach is working wonders for the long-in-the-tooth Concrete Blonde. After a long break, the band has spent the last two years touring, and recently released Live in Brazil. The double CD contains soaring takes of the band’s best moments including the hits “Joey,” “Tomorrow Wendy,” “God is a Bullet” and “Caroline.”

Napolitano says the time off was exactly what the band needed after years of relentless gigging, and she feels much more confident now.

“This is what I was born to do. You spend a lot of time doing something, and that’s who you are. I’ll always be Johnette from Concrete Blonde. The Chinese have a thing about what you do, how it becomes a third person. This band has taken on a life of its own, and we’re at peace with that.”

“I Was A Fool,” from Live In Brazil, is an unflinching assessment of the choices available to women in their 30s and 40s. You can count the number of women making rock records into their 40s on your fingers. I suggest that the song is like Logan’s Run, where women are whisked away and turned into fish food at some magical cutoff point when they are no longer deemed desirable. This despite female artists tending to hit their stride later than men, even though older writers gain a level of craft, compassion and empathy that they don’t have in their 20s.

The filthy laugh makes another appearance.

“Yeah! Is there a clock on my ass? I’m just getting good!”

“I got through my 30s by doing a lot of research into women artists,” she continues. “Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin with five children, a candle and a pencil. I don’t know how she did it. Emily Carr said artists should never marry, that they have to be available for inspiration. It’s just such a joy, a mystery. It’s the middle of the night, but here’s an idea …”

Fighting off the (illogical) pressure to have a long-term partner and children, Napolitano says “Look; I’ll do my best to make the world a better place for your children, OK?”

Discussing the phenomenon of bands like the Flaming Lips making great, relevant pop records into their 40s, Napolitano points out that “We’re the first generation to grow up with rock. We don’t know anything else. So, hey — we all look cool, this is what we do, and we’re going to keep doing it. Why stop?

“Fundamentally, my goals haven’t changed. I want the shows to do well so that the promoter makes some money and asks us back, but I don’t need to be famous. My goals are pretty simple.”

One goal is a little more ambitious: “I want to see Bush impeached. This war is illegal, he’s an embarrassment and he’s got to go. I don’t think I can describe the contempt I feel for that man. I have never hated somebody so much in my life. Little Lord Fauntleroy, like all those rich frat boys, who never have to work for anything in their lives, never have to face the consequences of their actions. That’s not a president.”

Napolitano’s not giving up hope. “Something’s gotta happen, he’s gotta go … I think the kids are pretty smart. I have a lot of faith in them. They see what’s going on, they know why we’re over there. They have all that energy, they aren’t stupid.” She pauses. That filthy laugh rises again, and she says, “Bush? You know, the dinosaurs became extinct as well.”


Concrete Blonde will perform at the Majestic Theater (4140 Woodward, Detroit) on Friday, May 2. For more information, call 313-833-9700.

Shireen Liane makes music with words for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]
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