Beyond Blonde

Talking about the weather with Johnette Napolitano

It's an excessively rainy Friday night in late November, and Johnette Napolitano has just finished playing a solo acoustic set at Martini Ranch in Scottsdale. We are alone together in the "green room" (which is actually a soft-maize color), surrounded by comfy brown couches, big-screen plasma TVs, and mirrors. Napolitano offers me a beer, but I can't find a bottle opener. "Here, want me to show you an old rock 'n' roll trick?" she asks, grabbing the bottle. "Watch this."

She walks to the door of the green room, throws it open, and then takes the beer bottle and wrenches the cap off on the door jamb. The cap goes flying out onto the rainy sidewalk, and the beer explodes all over the door, me, and Napolitano. It's frothing and bubbling all over the hardwood floor, too. We both chuckle.

Napolitano — whose drink of choice is Spanish red wine — tells me a friend recently showed her how to open a wine bottle with a toothbrush. You take the toothbrush, jam the handle into the cork, and firmly push down on the brush end until the cork falls down into the bottle. Brilliant. "When she showed me that, I was like, 'How did I ever get through all these years without knowing this?" Napolitano says, laughing some more.

The conversation turns to the weather on the West Coast, which has been rainy and wet for the past few days. I've never been so thrilled to talk about the weather with someone. Napolitano ("no relation to the governor, unless I get pulled over") is a tour de force in her own right, and also the former singer/bassist of Concrete Blonde. She doesn't know it, but I've been a huge fan for the past 17 years. In fact, she and I have actually met before. The weather was similarly wet and cold, but I was much younger and my music journalism career didn't exist yet. Which means there were no publicist contacts, no guest lists, and no backstage access — basically, no real reason for her to talk to me. I was just a gushing teenage fan who had a really bad night. Looking back, it clearly wasn't a good night for Napolitano, either.

That night, back in November 1994, was part of Concrete Blonde's "last tour" (before the 2002 album Group Therapy, anyway), they were playing at a 21-and-over venue in Indianapolis, and I was 19, too young to get in. So I stayed outside by the venue's back doors and listened to the whole show, hoping to get a chance to meet Napolitano afterwards and give her the necklace I'd brought for her, this really cool silver crucifix decorated with black onyx skulls.

Well, after the show she shuffled past me and onto the bus, saying only, "I have a cold." One of her crew men took the necklace and promised to give it to her.

I was heartbroken. To understand the scope of my grief, you have to understand how much Napolitano's music meant to me. As a 15-year-old kid who'd suddenly been yanked from her life and forced to move across the country with no notice, I took solace in Concrete Blonde's Bloodletting album. That, along with The Beatles' "White" album, were the only two cassettes I'd managed to grab before being hustled into the car. From then on, I followed everything Napolitano did musically, from her side projects Pretty & Twisted and Vowel Movement to her work with Catfish Scar and her solo recordings. So when she snubbed me, I was beyond crushed. I tore out of the venue parking lot, sped onto a one-way street (going the wrong direction), got pulled over while crying like a baby, drilled about my sobriety (I was stone-cold sober), and ticketed. I got pneumonia to boot.

A few weeks later, I saw a picture of Napolitano in Rolling Stone, and she was wearing the necklace I gave her. My anger ebbed. Over the next 13 years, I interviewed her a few times for various publications (but always via e-mail or phone, never in person), and I never mentioned my spurned-fan incident. She was very warm and candid during all the interviews, and I didn't want to crap on that by bringing up our shared bad night.

And I still had never actually seen her perform live, 'til last month at Martini Ranch.

On the first bona fide frosty (dripping, really) night of the year, I've just seen Napolitano perform for an audience of a few hundred people, playing an intimate but fiery set of songs that included material off her latest solo album, Scarred, as well as a few Concrete Blonde tunes, like "Carry Me Away," "Mexican Moon," and of course, "Joey." The eclectic audience was alternately enraptured and irritating — most of the crowd near the stage comprised younger hipsters swaying to the songs, but there were also several people who kept talking during the set and disregarded the army of "NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY" signs all over the venue.

After the show, I planned to smoke a cigarette under the back awning (it was still pissing down rain), and go home. I'd interviewed Napolitano a few weeks before the gig, and when I got to the venue, I'd told her manager, Carlton — a young, skinny lad with an awesome Afro — to tell her I was there. I didn't really expect to meet her. To my surprise, he came and got me right after the set.

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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