For the casual fan, most know Johnette Napolitano as the singer/bassist for the critically acclaimed band Concrete Blonde, but this talented artiste is more than that … much more.
Not only has Napolitano fronted Concrete Blonde since the early 1980s, she also had two side bands – Pretty & Twisted (with the late Marc Moreland, formerly of Wall of Voodoo) and Vowel Movement (with Holly Beth Vincent of Holly & the Italians). In addition, the 53-year-old is a poet, a painter, social activist, and soundtrack composer.
As a child of Italian immigrants, Napolitano didn’t have to go too far to discover the arts. She was born and raised in Hollywood, where she quickly took to drawing and cut her teeth in the underground Los Angeles punk and new wave scenes.
“From a very young age, about 5-years-old, I was always the artistic one,” Napolitano said from her home in the California desert. “As soon as I could pick up a pencil, I would draw all the time. The teachers recognized my drawing talent I guess, and I was enrolled in a magnet-type program at UCLA for gifted artistic kids. It was like a dream come true. I would go to this huge studio with clay, paint … just every medium possible.
“It was such a different time back then, parents and teachers would actually encourage kids to be artists. Now that I am older and I can see my Mom and Dad as parents, they were different people. They were artistic and talented. It was just a different time and place when I grew up in the early 60’s.”
As her art manifested into music, Napolitano met guitarist Jim Mankey, and they formed the band Dream 6 in 1982. With Harry Rushakoff on drums, the trio recorded an EP that caught the attention of I.R.S. Record. However, the label didn’t like the band name and wanted something more memorable. Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who was a label mate at the time, came up with “Concrete Blonde” as a description of their sound and lyrics.
“At first we were called Dreams I think…yeah, but that was too vague. There were too many ‘dream’ bands,” Napolitano said. “I couldn’t come with a name, I really didn’t care. So we came up with Dream 6 because there were six songs on the EP. Well, the label didn’t like that. It was all just a big hassle. The label liked the songs on the EP that’s all that mattered to me, is they liked what we had recoded, not some stupid name.
“So Michael was our label mate, and he was friends with the art director at I.R.S. and liked our sound and came up with Concrete Blonde. Of course the label liked it because they liked anything Michael said or did. Hell, he could give us some crazy name. I bet if he came up with Dream 6 at the time, they would have loved it.”
The band released their self-titled debut in 1987, and then found moderate college radio success with the single “God Is a Bullet” of their sophomore longer player Free. Everything changed for the band with their release of 1990s Bloodletting. The band had their first number one single with “Joey” on the Modern Rock Tracks chart and the top 20 of the pop charts. Concrete Blonde became a household name and the band, well, they were tired.
“It was great, it was the best of everything, but we were maxed out by that time,” Napolitano said of the band’s first taste of success. “What people didn’t realize is we, as a band, had been at this for nearly 10 years already. Years before Concrete Blonde, I and Jim were doing everything in Dream 6. We were constantly touring, so by the time Bloodletting broke, we were just fucking exhausted. Some people handled the success better than others. I think the 10 years of constant touring, little sleep, sometimes no food at all, took its toll at the same time Bloodletting was getting big.
“We couldn’t quit though, everything were worked for was happening, so we toured and toured and toured then immediately came home and cut our next album Mexican Moon. That album wrapped up the contract we were under, and we knew that was it for the band.”
Also factoring into the band’s decision to call it quits was their label, which was going through major changes. The guy who signed Concrete Blonde and pushed for them was gone, the label was putting its money into another band, and internet downloading was starting to rear its ugly head.
Concrete Blonde officially broke up in 1993, but it was short lived when they reunited four years later then broke up again in 2001. In that on-again off-again time period, the band released the aptly titled Group Therapy (2002) the fantastic Live in Brazil (2003) and their criminally overlooked studio album Mojave (2004).
“Nobody knows what the hell we are doing… even us,” Napolitano said with a laugh. “The first break up we were done we had nothing else to say. We were together for a long fucking time, and I wanted some fucking time to myself. We were all just drained.”
Since they have been “officially” back together, Concrete Blonde has toured the world, playing Japan for the first time in their career, did a 20 anniversary tour for Bloodletting, and worked on new material on their weekly Sunday rehearsals.
“The band just got back from China, where we headlined two nights there. It was the first time we ever played there; we want to go back and tour all of Asia. We also played Peru and Australia, and we will be heading to Brazil to play a huge festival with Peter Gabriel. Snoop Dogg is going to play. Can you believe that? Yeah Snoop Dogg…. We might do something stateside in the fall. Some under the radar gigs to play some new songs.”
As far as a new Concrete Blonde album, things are pretty loose right now. They have some new material but are just trying to figure out what to do with it.
“It’s a good time for us now. We want to make sense for us and have fun. We are about to spend some of the holiday season in and out of the studio. I think we have lots of cool stuff going on. It’s a good time to stand back and see what’s going on and where. We have been talking about taking the new material and making maybe Mojave 2. We talked about repackaging it with the first one because we feel like not enough people heard that record. We also have a ton of video footage we are compiling, which we could add a DVD to the package, maybe make it a triple disc release, who knows.”
With the future unknown and the past behind her, Napolitano stays embedded in the arts. In her Joshua Tree home, she surrounds herself with paints, a small library of books and a guitar. Not to mention she also volunteers at the local animal rescue shelter.
“I learned early on from Leon Russell you have to surround yourself with many forms of art. If I don’t want to paint, I have my books. If I don’t want to read have my guitar all surrounding me.”
In the last year, Napolitano also learned a valuable life lesson when her father passed away. She has learned to step back and look back on life and all its accomplishments.
“My Dad didn’t really get it when it came to my music career. It wasn’t until later on in life when I started making some money that he picked up on what I was doing. Since losing my Dad, I’ve really sat back and paid attention to what he taught me and get my life in order. I published a book that is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid.”
Another accomplishment the singer/songwriter has achieved recently was graduating from tattoo school and acquiring a couple clients.
“Man I was fucking nervous; I wanted to do it for my Dad and myself because we both have tattoos. As an Italian-American, my parents didn’t understand rock ‘n’ roll and tattoos. But that first couple times I was learning tattooing, I was so nervous I couldn’t put the needle to skin. I was in a class with two 19-year-olds, and they had experience! This one girl in class was from New York, and I was tattooing her and she said ‘don’t fuck it up.’ Damn I was scared, but I stuck with it and by the end of it, I was kicking ass.”
There is no doubt that Johnette Napolitano has been sticking with everything she does and kicking ass for decades. Now she has learned to look back on all she has accomplished.
“If you want to know the magnitude of who I am, just flash my ID at the LAX and sit down for all the free drinks. People think I am related to the homeland security lady. It’s all relative really. But yeah, I look back every day and think…wow what the fuck happened?”