Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano thinks Mick Ronson was a genius



By Steve Newton

Last year, Los Angeles–bred guitar-rockers Concrete Blonde released Group Therapy, a CD that reunited the original lineup of vocalist-bassist Johnette Napolitano, ex-Sparks guitarist James Mankey, and drummer Harry Rushakoff. It was the group’s first record in almost a decade, so when Napolitano calls the Straight from her current home in the desert near Joshua Tree, California, my first question is easy. What the hell has she been up to?

“Lotsa stuff!” she blurts out. “All kindsa things: studying flamenco; I went to Morocco; I was in Baja, Mexico for quite a long time. I still have a place down there, and so I was down there working on art. I had always wanted to return to just handwork, you know, clay and things, so I’ve been doing that. I had my first solo [sculpture] show, which I was extremely proud of, in Northern California, at Delta College. So I’ve just been doing stuff I wanted to do.”

Other stuff the husky-voiced Napolitano has been up to since Concrete Blonde called it quits includes brief stints in Vowel Movement (with drummer-guitarist-singer Holly Vincent) and Pretty & Twisted (featuring ex–Wall of Voodoo guitarist Marc Moreland). She and Mankey hooked up again in ’97 to record an album with L.A.–based Los Illegals, and when they reunited with Rushakoff in September 2001 to play a benefit for the New York Firefighters 9-11 Disaster Relief Fund, the trio was back in business.

“I never would have thought it would ever happen,” notes Napolitano, “but it did, and I’m glad it did.” Nevertheless, the reunion didn’t last. “Harry’s in jail,” points out the singer, whose band—with new drummer Gabriel Ramirez—plays the Commodore on Friday (January 24). “He’s gone, end of story, whatever, that’s fine. Harry’s a heroin addict, heroin addicts have a one-percent recovery rate, and sure enough he disappeared off the road and he’s back in jail. You know, we love Harry, right, but it’s like everybody loves every heroin addict they ever know. I know Harry’s talented; if he gets it together that’s great, but it’s not gonna be with us, ’cause I can’t do it anymore.”

It’s a shame Rushakoff couldn’t get off the horse, because from the sounds of Group Therapy, the magic Concrete Blonde made during its early-’90s heyday—with hits like “Joey” and “God Is a Bullet”—is still conjurable. The CD kicks off with the line “All the young dudes”, making me wonder if Napolitano was paying casual tribute to Brit glam-rockers Mott the Hoople.

“I love that band,” she raves. “I saw Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson at the Palace in L.A., and what a great show that was. They were screaming chords to each other—‘C!’ ‘G!’ ‘D!’—and it was so cool. I mean, Mick Ronson was a genius. As a matter of fact, I just thought today—’cause I have his Slaughter on 10th Avenue album—I thought, ‘Now, we have to do that.’ It’s Gershwin, for Christ’s sakes, and Mick Ronson did it. It’s pretty amazing.”

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