Gun violence and AIDS misery inspire Concrete Blonde’s dark Bloodletting

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JUNE 14, 1990

By Steve Newton

If you listened to rock radio at all last year, most likely you came across Concrete Blonde’s hit tune, “God Is a Bullet”, a fuel-injected tirade against the proliferation of guns, particularly in the drug- and gang-infested core of urban L.A. Over a thundering backbeat and squalling guitar harmonics, Johnette Napolitano’s vocals seethed, and you could tell she’d really had enough of mindless death and misery. A year later, she still feels strongly about the subject.

“That’s why I don’t live in L.A.,” says Napolitano, on the line from the band’s current home base in London, England. “I was a twitching, neurotic mess in Los Angeles. In Europe I’m a lot more calmed down. You can walk on the street without worrying that somebody’s gonna come by and blow your head off.”

“God Is a Bullet” created quite a controversy when it was released as the first single from the band’s second album, Free. Although it had been written two years before, it hit the airwaves just as the debate over the banning of semi-automatic weapons was in full swing. A lot of U.S. radio stations felt the tune was too intense for airplay; MTV wanted the band to remake its hard-hitting video for the tune. But Napolitano wasn’t too fazed by all the fuss.

“I just do a record, put it out, and if it gets played at all I’m really happy, ’cause I’m always amazed when I write a song that it actually gets recorded and sees the light of day. But I do think it’s kind of ridiculous the things that they censor and the things they don’t. There are some videos on MTV that I wouldn’t let a child of mine watch; I just think that some things are crass and vulgar, and other things are important. The United States as a whole has a big problem with what’s decent and what isn’t, and that’s why I’m not there, really.”

Nowadays Napolitano and her band have a new album on their hands, Bloodletting, and a North American tour that brings them to 86 Street next Thursday (June 21). But the group hasn’t tried to avoid any rough topics this time around, either. The album’s most hard-hitting tune, “Tomorrow, Wendy”, was written for the band by former Wall of Voodoo member Andy Prieboy:

“It is complete now—two ends of time are neatly tied/A one-way street, she’s walking to the end of the line/And there she meets the faces she sees in her heart and mind/They say—goodbye—tomorrow Wendy’s going to die.”

“Andy and I both lost a friend to AIDS last year,” explains Napolitano. “Wendy was Andy’s friend in Indiana. Ron Scarselli—who the album is dedicated to—was the art director at IRS Records, and he died last year. He worked on Wall of Voodoo’s records, and our records, and R.E.M.’s records. And it was the first time I’d really experienced anything like that. Andy had called me to sing the demo of ‘Wendy’ with him, and I did it, and as I listened to it and listened to it and listened to it I thought, ‘This is really important, and the words are incredible. I’ve gotta do this song!’ ”

In the time between their last two albums, Concrete Blonde has gone through a major line-up change. First bassist Alan Bloch was let go, and Napolitano took back the bass spot she’d vacated after the band’s startling debut album of ’86. Then drummer Harry Rushakoff lost interest, and was replaced by Paul Thompson, whose previous work with Roxy Music had both Napolitano and guitarist James Mankey quite enamoured.

“It gave Jim and me confidence about our own playing, that this guy would like us enough to join. I mean, who hasn’t heard ‘Love Is the Drug’? And he says we’re better than Roxy, which—aha!—I don’t think so. But he really does enjoy being in the band.”

Napolitano says that Concrete Blonde’s changes came quite naturally, and didn’t involve a lot of bass practise for her to get the ol’ fingers limbered up. “I only had one day of rehearsal, and I pulled it off! I was very surprised, to tell you the truth, that I picked it up again as fast as I did. I felt like I never stopped playin’. And I probably never should have.”

Napolitano and Mankey have gone through a lot of ups and downs since they first met while working at a Los Angeles recording studio owned by Leon Russell. Their first album was a critical success, and sold reasonably well for a debut. But tough times were ahead for the band, which went bankrupt shortly after, due to an influx of “insta-bros”, with questionable motivations, in the guise of managers and accountants.

“I’m still solving that,” groans Napolitano. “We have no money, but we’re happier because we’re happier with the band. I mean we’ll never be hopeless, as long as we’re able to play music for people. We’re still very much in debt, but we’re gettin’ there. By the end of this year we’ll be all right.”

Although they’ve been down about as low as a band can get in terms of the green, Napolitano and Mankey have somehow managed to make the world a little better place by scraping together whatever it cost to adopt foster children in Bangladesh, Chile, and Mexico. And just as the band’s luck has been turning for the better recently, so have the lives of the needy kids they’ve taken on.

“When we played here [in London] on the 19th , and my sister sent my package of mail, there was a letter that said one of the kids—my favourite one, actually, the one in Mexico—didn’t need the money anymore because the father now knows a trade, and can work. We were putting him through school, basically.

“So I was really glad about that. But they did send me details on another child in Mexico that I can pick up. And I will.”

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