" Like a cross between Dorothy Parker and Bridget Jones' Diary!" - Simon Kirke (drummer from Bad Company)
An interview with Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde
A review of their show and new CD, "Group Therapy"!!
Show review of The Motels!
Greetings, loyal readers, fans and foes! Well, due to the fact I covered more shows and events in one month than any serious journalist should ever attempt (folks, don't try this at home!) I am choosing to focus on only one main topic this go-round: Concrete Blonde and my interview with the captivating Johnette Napolitano. Also included: a review of The Motels to accompany our Mas Sake restaurant review - Sushi and 80's rock together, baby! Stay tuned next month for an interview with Wayne Brady (from "Who's Line Is It Anyway") and a review of his live show, reviews of the Grammy-award winning Nelly Furtado, an on-stage interview with Willie Nelson by Ben Fong-Torres, other highlights of the final Gavin radio & records seminar, and the return of my "Almost Famous" stuff and Unsung Heroes 'n Zeroes. Thanks, in advance, to those of you who made the scene at Zebulon's grand opening and my musical debut there on March 15! Now, on with the show(s)...
"Moving The Goal Post" - a "Group Therapy" session with Concrete Blonde's Johnette Napolitano"
Concrete Blonde, an 80's and early 90's LA rock band, and their enigmatic lead singer/bass player, Johnette Napolitano, have always seemed to fly somewhere under the radar. And it has become my civic duty to champion those type of artists, whether they are "Up and Comers" or "Comeback Kids". Or somewhere in between...
Now, I must admit my direct connection to them and their music was limited to singing a few of their songs in cover bands ("Bloodletting", also known as "The Vampire Song", was a popular favorite, particularly among the lipstick lesbian crowd at some of the "girl bars" we played on Long Island), and a manager friend of mine from the early 80's, Scott Hurowitz, was really hot on signing Johnette before they got their deal. But I always found her voice and the songs I knew unique and cool, and wondered whatever happened to them, since I hadn't heard anything for years, since "Joey" (their Top 40 single).
When I heard the original members, including guitarist Jim Mankey and drummer Harry Rushakoff, had gotten back together, put out their first CD in eight years, and were touring, I decided to investigate.
After disbanding in '93 for the usual laundry list of reasons, including drugs, personality conflicts, and stagnation, Johnette went on to a stint as lead singer/guitarist in The (Talking) Heads, a project called "Pretty and Twisted", where she set Charles Bukowski's words to music and paintings.
Johnette pulled Concrete Blonde back together, however, for some very other-worldly reasons. Around May of last year, she started having intense nightmares about bombs, destruction and death. Acute paranoia and insomnia set in to the point where she couldn't function, couldn't shake the feeling that something horrible was about to happen, and she was going to die. She knew the only people in the world who wouldn't have her committed immediately were her former bandmates, so she went to Jim Mankey's house at 2 a.m., clutching a bible and crying. After a couple days of her freaking out, he made her go to a psychiatrist , who simply told her, "There are some things we can't explain."
Johnette was certain the shrink totally validated her experience. So what's a severely distressed artist and her guitar player/soul brother to do? Grab your old drummer, hang out intensely for a few lunches in June, go into the studio and come up with enough material to produce one of the most moving works of art in the history of contemporary rock music (to my ears, anyway!).. Recorded in just ten days in August! And then came September 11th...
I started listening to the record right before I interviewed Johnette. I had heard about several people who had experienced the same 9/11 premonition through dreams. When I asked her about it and whether she subscribed to the teachings of Carl Jung and "past life this 'n that", she said, " It's there, for sure. But the reason you're living this life is because you're meant to live this life. You need to appreciate being here in the moment, right here, right now. This is what people regret not doing, which is why your cycle starts again and why you come back again. But watch out, I'll go all Shirley MacLaine on your ass!"
Before we come back again, here's something for the here and now: "Group Therapy" is a must-have for anyone on this pre or post 9/11 planet who: a) has been alive for more than two decades (that they know of) and wasn't born with a silver spoon in their mouth, b) can handle being assaulted, rocked, rolled and soothed (sometimes in the same song) by a true visionary, c) appreciates what a serious band can still truly accomplish, d) feels deeply or needs to (i.e. has a heart that still beats), or e) all of the above!
When I conveyed these sentiments to Johnette, she exclaimed, " Wow. That is a high honor to hear, for anybody to hear! It was like, when I realized we could die tomorrow, have I made my statement? That's cool to know someone really got it."
And it's true. Johnette is one of the most gifted and underrated singers and songwriters of this generation. Like Gladys Knight and Mavis Staples, two of her (and my) favorite singers, Johnette has this uncanny ability to go from a whisper to a primal scream and back again without sacrificing the integrity of the song (like too many young singers do these days). She achieves this in songs like "When I Was A Fool": So do I surrender and give up my dream/for a brick in the wall and a washing machine and "Take Me Home": Now don't you cry, it'll give you lines around your eyes/you gotta try not to live so much of life alone. This last one had me clutching my CD Walkman to my chest, like a stuffed animal and weeping.
Johnette claimed a chance reunion with an old friend inspired that song. "The only thing we had in common was this certain place in time and I had moved way beyond that and he hadn't. I fucked up the take lyrically, but I won't do a take again because the performance is more important. Like my friend Steve Wynn says, 'If you're gonna fuck up the 90% that's there for the 10% that isn't, you're really gonna fuck it up!'"
Okay, maybe I'm in a place in my life where this stuff is really speaking to me. (Or maybe I need a vacation.) But my guess is, so are a great many 30 and 40-somethings who have chosen the road more or less traveled, found it wanting, and are now holding the map, wondering, "What the fuck?" Johnette admits that she's a different chick than she was back in the day. She's happy.
"It was a big mess, in some respects, but I'm glad to have lived the life I did and very happy to still be around. I appreciate it a lot more. You get bogged down in crap, and once you find your way out, you can go, 'You know what, this is really good!' And you realize, 'Oh my God, half my life is gone!' And with God's love and luck, I will live another 40 years and if I do, then it's damn well not going to be miserable, it's going to be good, I'm going to be happy, I'm going to celebrate being here. It's about wanting to see the light, not dwelling in all that other crap. And that means cutting a lot of people out of your life. You elevate yourself and vibrate at a different level and you have to find like-minded people to do that with." (We then went into a whole astrological discussion, but since our starry-eyed publisher vehemently hates all things Zodiac, I'll sadly skip that part.).
"A lot of personal things happened during those years," Johnette said. " I had to close my art gallery, my mother's house burned down, Danny, my drummer got cancer. The company supported us as best they could. People said, 'The business fucked you over', but that's not true. I'm not a victim. I think I've done pretty well, considering. There are ups and downs in any job, and I'm going to make music all my life."
But don't think for a moment that this CD doesn't have some moments of sheer fun, like on "Valentine" or "Fried" (an amusing pseudo rap tune). For a departure, there is the lovely "Your Llorona", a tribute to Johnette's Flamenco influence and interests (she is studying the history, taking voice and dance lessons) and to Jim's versatility. Johnette's opening act is a Flamenco music and dance trio, and she is even going to Spain in May to pursue this passion further. "I have an incredible respect for people who never get paid for playing this mind blowing music!"
The band's arrangements and production, including Harry and Jim's vast contributions, are stellar, nuanced and mesmerizing. A couple of mistakes could have been overdubbed without losing the vibe, but that's a tiny critique on an otherwise brilliant piece of work.
Oddly, there wasn't much pre-production or even planned arranging. "We're in that rare place where we could check our egos at the door", said Johnette. "We were there to serve the song. We weren't overly concerned about our individual performances, no one was freaking out about who should do what, where, all over the place. It was a relaxed, gorgeous thing, which is the only way to play music!" I pointed out how dynamically correct I thought the production was, especially the vocals. "You hit it right," she responded, excitement in her voice.
"That means so much to me! It's because of the arrangements!! Where things could go a little crazy, where we could contain the chaos, it was complete objectivity. It wasn't about anybody's angst-ridden self expression."
Both Johnette and Jim laughed when told we recognized the Beatles' "She's So Heavy" in the powerful guitar solo in "When I Was A Fool", where over it, Johnette wails, "I'm 45/Free to a fault/Playing guitar/Living my life! "Ha! Nobody else has caught that yet. I knew it sounded familiar and I had to ask Jim what it was! We enjoy all the references. It's a collective consciousness." Jim said most of the time his solos get likened to the theme song from Perry Mason.
"Memory", written before this project began, was re-written as a touching tribute to their reunion. Hauntingly beautiful, an old record softly scratches in the background and closes the CD on a somber, yet uplifting note. I told Johnette that "Group Therapy" has genuinely made me re-think some things in my own life. "I re-think things every year, " she replied. "Have I reached my goals, should I move the goal post?" "Move the goal post"!! Bingo! TITLE For this piece! Oh, for God's sake, people, just go BUY THIS CD NOW!!
The show at the Great American Music Hall in late January was a most satisfying experience to these previously virgin live Concrete Blonde eyes and ears. From what I understand, Johnette used to crawl around the stage on her knees and howl into the microphone like a wounded animal. According to the amiable Jim Mankey (whose on-stage vibe has been described by one writer as "frighteningly stationary"), in the old days, drummer Harry Rushakoff would literally be foaming at the mouth, wailing away behind his kit. Jim has maintained his cool, stoic stance while making beautiful guitar sounds, but there was nothing out of control about the others' performances.
With the exception of a tense moment, early on, between Johnette and someone with a video camera, the band mixed record quality, relaxed performances of half a dozen songs off the new CD with faithful versions of older hits like "Bloodletting" and "Still In Hollywood." The sold-out crowd of fans ate it all up.
The high point was Johnette's masterful vocal performance on the Leonard Cohen song, "Everybody Knows." Starting low and subdued, she jumped the octave in the middle and sang out the title in a full, resonant voice, as if to proclaim, "I am back!". Everybody looked healthy and happy, and the band was definitely in sync throughout. Group Therapy, indeed. Sign me up for many more sessions, Dr. Concrete Blonde: Heal me!
"Checkin'in /Checkin'out" - The Motels featuring Martha Davis at The Icon, Palo Alto, February 20, 2002
Submitted for your approval: Martha Davis, sultry lead chanteuse/New Wave diva for the popular 80's band The Motels, puts together a new band and begins a tour after almost two decades away from the Top 40 spotlight.
As with Concrete Blonde, and Berlin (covered previously in this column), I was a fan of this group and it's charismatic singer. I had also covered their hits, like "Only The Lonely", Mission Of Mercy" and "Take The 'L'( Out of Lover and it's Over)" in Top 40 bands over the years and had a particular affinity for Martha and the Motels. So it was with great anticipation that I set out to reconnect with my 80's past and check out Martha's scene.
There are some simple guidelines to successfully putting yourself firmly on the comeback trail : a) If you're not using your original members, put together a band that compliments your sound b) Do radio and press interviews in the town you're playing to get the fans out who may not know you're still alive 'n kicking c) put together a set that mixes up new material with at least a few faithful adaptations of your old hits d) be in "total control" of band dynamics, arrangements and the sound guy, as much as is humanly possible! (Terri Nunn has done a great job of this with her re-formed Berlin).
Sadly, not much of this was in evidence the night we caught Martha and her new Motels at the Icon in Palo Alto. After a wonderful dinner at their adjoining restaurant Mas Sake (reviewed this issue!), congenial club booker/manager Jimmy Arceneaux told us he had experienced some difficulty with their management company and indeed, not only had my interview request been ignored, the press kit they finally sent me included three copies of the band's rider
( contract stipulations for the musicians personal services for the venue)!! Um, why? Apparently, there had been several requests for local radio interviews, and with the exception of the station sponsoring the show, none had been granted. So hardly anyone knew they were playing! Instead of filling the large club to capacity, which they might have, there were barely a hundred people in attendance, which probably accounted for the really awful mix.
Dressed in a black men's suit, hat and feather boa, Martha Davis took the stage and led her five piece band (accompanying herself on rhythm guitar the entire set) through a ninety minute set of mostly new material. The hits she did decide to throw in, were lesser known ones, like "So LA" and "Remember The Night". When she finally did get to the songs that put her on the map, at the very end of the set and during the encore, like "Take The L", "Suddenly Last Summer" and her signature tune "Only The Lonely", they contained very few of the musical hooks and nuances that made these songs special, rendering some of them almost unrecognizable. The main part of this problem seemed to stem from the band's lack of dynamics. Although in fine form vocally, Martha could not compete with her drummer unabashedly bashing his way through every tune, as if he were playing in a heavy metal cover band. Granted, the sparse attendance probably made the band a nightmare to mix - but it is ultimately up to Ms. Davis to lead her band, and this colored every tune they played, old and new alike. From what I could hear, the lead guitarist and bass player did a fine job, but with the snare drum overpowering everything, it was difficult to tell.
We did get to speak to Martha after the show for a bit and she couldn't have been nicer. She told us she's recorded a children's album and is looking for a new pop record deal. I'd be interested in hearing the new material and what she's done with it in the studio. When I mentioned I had interviewed Johnette Napolitano and loved the new Concrete Blonde record, she requested I hook them up, which I did. Perhaps Manifesto, their new record label, will take an interest, and with the right producer, they can make some magic.
Fun fact: I hadn't seen the new bass player, David Sutton, an old friend from LA who used to play in a cool reggae-flavored band called Talk Back, in a decade! Now he's a brunette, I'm a blonde. Go figure. We chatted about all the clubs we played and people we knew. He did a stint with Tears For Fears! Go, David! The guitar player and drummer were really cool, too. Sorry, "Drummer Dude" - I gotta call it like I hear it, know what I'm sayin'? Lighten up on those skins, baby!
Martha Davis is a survivor: of her mother's suicide, raising her own young children at the height of stardom, cancer, and the cutthroat music industry, any of which could have broken her spirit. It has not. She still possesses a unique voice and songwriting ability that deserve to be heard. In a youth dominated industry with the attention span of yesterday's news, the obstacles to "come back from the dead" are enormous at best, even when all your ducks are in a row. I hope she can get out of her own way and get back on track.
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