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Force of Nature

After eight years and a near mental breakdown, Concrete Blonde is back in black.

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Sometimes you just have to go home. That sense of safety, the familiar, it can make all the crap melt away. It was the only thing Johnette Napolitano could think to do. Early last year, her life seemed to be crashing around her. “It was the lowest I’ve ever been,” she admits. “I didn’t know what was going on.” The only thing she could think to do was to go for the comfort zone.


But for Napolitano that wasn’t her SoCal bungalow. It was Concrete Blonde, the band that she had both founded and, in 1993, put a quick end to when she decided to just walk away. It had been eight years since the three members of the group—Napolitano, guitarist Jim Mankey and drummer Harry Rushakoff—had even been in a five-mile radius of each other. That didn’t seem to matter. Napolitano was having nightmares, panic attacks, you name it. “I was paranoid. I felt like I was going to die. I had to do something,” she says.


She ended up on Mankey’s doorstep, initially just for solace. He helped her get in touch with a shrink. They also started to hang out again. As the two began to talk more, the old times kept coming up. Finally it was decided that maybe they could try working on some songs, just for the fun of it. Napolitano and Mankey got in touch with Rushakoff—he was in rehab at the time. Within a couple of months, the reborn Concrete Blonde was in the studio working on a new record.


“It all happened so fast,” Napolitano says. “It was a rash impulse, just to see what we could do.


“But it was kind of weird at the same time, just to get used to being around each other again. Not musically. That was always there. We always do what we do, and when we fell back together it was definitely a comfort thing. But I was going through some major fluctuations in my life, and so were Jim and Harry. It was a force of nature. We all needed it.”


That urge for comfort has had a major impact on the group’s music, though. Throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Concrete Blonde was a college radio staple, riding that fine line between the gothic darkness of Souxsie & The Banshees and the sheer grit of The Pretenders. Napolitano’s lyrics were often portraits of her own fractured world and self-doubt. Her deep and smoky voice carried that pain like a mother holding her newborn. The mix yielded one Top 20 hit, 1990’s “Joey,” which helped make the group’s third record, Bloodletting, a fixture on every social outcast’s shelf.


But the aptly titled new Group Therapy (Manifesto) is markedly different. Napolitano is to blame for most of it. Mankey’s guitar work is still as brooding as a frustrated teen, and the band as a whole doesn’t seem to have lost touch with its splash black eyeliner on the blues. The lyrics, however, come dangerously close to being a pick-me-up. Example: The rather mature and self-aware “When I Was a Fool,” which is stacked with lines like, “How I don’t even miss/My glorious past or the lips that I’ve kissed/And I smile to myself at how easy this is/Easy to breathe, easy to live.” The tone is a shock, not only because of the band’s past penchant for Valium rock, but because of the all the chaos that was raging in Napolitano’s head when the group made the record.


“I really realized something at that time,” she says. “At the end of the day, we all have to have hope. We all were going through the lowest parts of our lives and when you hit bottom, the only way to go is up. Beyond all else, I believe that life is worth living. I hope that comes through, especially this year. We can all go through hellish stuff and still be all right.”


Yet even with all that optimism gushing through Napolitano’s psyche, she’s not hoping for any sort of major comeback. She says that the success of “Joey” and Bloodletting was more of an accident than anything, and she really doesn’t want to go back to the mayhem that came out of that. It’s part of the reason why the group had L.A. indie label Manifesto Records release the album—less pressure, less chance of things going drastically wrong. The people who want Group Therapy will find it. That’s all Napolitano really wants—no distractions, just enjoy the moment and play music.


“We thought about where we fit in the grand scheme of things for about five minutes,” she says. “We all realized that if we thought about it too much, none of this would have happened. And if we asked other people to listen to the album and tell us what they thought, we’d be totally fucked. We just had to do it and be done with it. We never fit in with anything in the first place. It was never about that. And it would be absurd to have it be now. We just need to play this music, and people seem to need this music. That’s all that really matters.”

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