Beyond Blonde

Talking about the weather with Johnette Napolitano

So here I am, and there she is, and we are talking about the weather. And all I can do is sit and grin. This is so cool.

Carlton walks in and asks if Napolitano's going to do one more song, because there are still a lot of people out there. She jumps up and the three of us file out toward the stage. Napolitano gets onstage, grabs her guitar, and plays two more songs. As she turns to walk offstage, her foot catches the mic cord and brings the mic stand crashing down. She quickly recovers by grabbing the mic and belting out the coolest cover of Janis Joplin's a cappella classic "Mercedes Benz" that I've ever heard, followed by monstrous applause and howling.

As we walk back into the green room, I ask, "Was that last one completely impromptu?"

"Yeah," she says. "But I don't like to do it very much anymore. Mainly because I get tired of the Janis Joplin comparisons."

When she says this, I'm glad I didn't tell her how much she reminded me of Joplin onstage, both visually and vocally — similar frizzy hair hanging in her face and sticking to her lips, the same soulful swaying, and most importantly, the comparable vocal abandon: raspy acrobatics alternating with a deep, rich alto and pipes that pack a knockout punch. But Napolitano and Joplin are alike only in terms of range and singing styles; each of their voices sounds distinct. Napolitano's voice is one of the few truly signature voices in rock, almost always described as some combination of "sultry," "smoky," and "soulful." Personally, I think she sounds like a female Leonard Cohen with an octave ladder that reaches much higher.

Turns out, it's not the vocal similarities she minds.

"I don't like the comparisons to Joplin as a tragic figure," she says. "I'm not that. I didn't die at 27."

Not that there wasn't a time when she could have been a rock 'n' roll casualty. Concrete Blonde's first record came out in 1986, and by that time, Napolitano had lived in Hollywood her whole life and been around all sorts of rock riffraff. Concrete Blonde had a handful of hits in the early '90s — most notably "Joey," "Caroline," and the title track from Bloodletting, as well as a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" on the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack — and yes, there was lots of touring and partying. She'll admit there were times when she didn't have her shit together. But at 50 years old, she's still here, and she's singing better than ever. She gives partial credit for her survival to the desert community of Joshua Tree, where she relocated several years ago. "You can't even find my house on a Google map," says Napolitano, who lives in a cabin in the middle of high-desert nowhere.

"Moving out to Joshua Tree is the best move I ever made. It probably saved my life," she says. "Things get a little crazy on the road, which is fine — it's rock 'n' roll, and everybody else can fuck off. People say stuff like, 'Oh, you were drinking at the show?' And I'm like, 'Yeah! It's a rock show!' I mean, c'mon! But when I'm at home, I drink tea, smoke weed, and experiment with guitars. It's a very yin-yang life I have, but it's balanced."

As for the possibility of a Concrete Blonde reunion, Napolitano says, "I can safely say we don't wanna play live again. I still work with Jim [Mankey, Blonde's guitarist/producer]; he mixed some of Scarred, and he watches my dogs when I go on tour and stuff. We wouldn't rule out recording together, but I have so many more things I want to do."

Many of the "more things" Napolitano wants to do involve technology. She loves MySpace and iTunes and plans to get some podcasts going during a three-month break after the tour. "Oh, and I got an iPhone for my birthday!" she beams, beckoning me to sit on the couch next to her while she shows me the features. "Check this shit out," she says, scrolling through her phone pictures.

At this point, people start knocking on the door. Napolitano's not about to be distracted from the digital show-and-tell. She yells, "Come in, thank you!" and continues telling me the stories behind the photos: This is a painting she purchased, this is the hotel in Nashville, this is her dog. When people start shuffling in with equipment and I look up, Napolitano grabs my arm. "Look, look!" She exclaims excitedly. "This chick is the daughter of Jim Dandy from Black Oak Arkansas."

After a few minutes, we're surrounded by people, all engaged in various conversations about everything from the Navajo language (which Napolitano loves) to her next gig, which is in Santa Fe the following night. Before I leave, Napolitano and I agree to meet up again in the spring, when she plans to do an exhibit of her artwork at Victoria Boyce Gallery in Scottsdale.

I never told Napolitano about our disappointing encounter years ago, because it doesn't really matter now. I can now say something more to her than "Oh, my God, you're so great, I love your music so much, you're awesome." Now I can talk to her about stuff like the tone of her guitar, publishing rights, collaborations, and, of course, the weather. I've learned that it's easier to meet someone on common ground when you don't have them on a pedestal, and that people are people — even rock stars. On my drive home, I remember something Napolitano said after the beer-opening trick, when I commented that one of the great things about life is you're always learning new tricks.

"You can always learn new tricks," she said. "When you stop learning, you're dead. You can't put out anything good without taking something in. There's so much more to life than rock 'n' roll."

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