Local Wire

Beyond Blonde

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.