Concrete Blonde returns after years of "Group Therapy"
March 15, 2002
For the members of rock-trio Concrete Blonde, their latest collaboration, “Group Therapy,” was just that.The band – consisting of vocalist Johnette Napolitano, guitarist Jim Mankey and drummer Harry Rushakoff – found limited fame in their first 12 years together, but boredom (and a rumored fight with their recording label) split them up in 1994. In the years that followed, the trio saw little of each other – Napolitano and Mankey played together a few times, Rushakoff dragged his former bandmates to court for the occasional lawsuit – but Mankey said they had pretty much gone their separate ways.”I was just living a life – being married, getting divorced, working on instrumental music – stuff like that,” Mankey said. “I aspired to early retirement.” But last spring, Napolitano suffered through a few sleepless nights that changed the musicians’ direction completely. “Johnette turned up at my door late one night thinking everyone was trying to kill her,” Mankey said. “I guess it was comforting to get into her old milieu and do something familiar.”It was out of the blue to me,” he said. “I talked to her [Napolitano] occasionally, especially whenever Harry would be suing us. I got this call, and she was literally out of her mind – and she would be the first to admit it.”Napolitano holed up at Mankey’s California home for a few days after her surprise visit, and the pair ended up talking about their storied past together. And, despite the bad blood between the former bandmates, they gave Rushakoff a call. “We had lunch in Venice Beach, and it was kind of like old times,” Mankey said. “Harry’s mind was clear – he had his eyes firmly set on the goal of succeeding and not being a failure. It was a great lunch, and there were really no questions about what we would do next.”Concrete Blonde’s first album in nearly eight years was written in two months and recorded in less than two days. And, by the look of the “Group Therapy” cover art – on one side, a wooden chair fitted with restraints, and on the other, all three band members fitted with strait jackets – the album helped the trio work out frustrations two decades in the making. Napolitano and Mankey first joined musical forces in 1982 as the duo Dream 6, even releasing an EP with an independent French label. Larger recording groups took interest in the years that followed, and the pair eventually cut a deal with I.R.S. Records in 1987. For their second record together, Napolitano and Mankey decided to adopt a catchier name. They settled on Concrete Blonde, a moniker label mate and R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe suggested after watching the duo rehearse.Napolitano and Mankey picked up a new name for a new album, and ended up with a new bandmate, as well. Rushakoff joined the group in time for the self-titled “Concrete Blonde,” as well as the group’s sophomore release, 1989’s “Free.” Their music was pigeonholed as “post punk,” a form of rock that had strayed from the harsher sounds that dominated most of southern California.”When punk was happening, we didn’t want anything to do with that. We just weren’t very cool,” Mankey said. “We didn’t do heroin or anything like that, which was kind of required, and later on we didn’t fit that scene too well – I guess we sold too many records. We just wanted to make cool pop songs, songs that would send shivers down your spine.”Both “Concrete Blonde” and “Free” enjoyed college radio play – “God is a Bullet,” Napolitano’s litany of life in L.A., a city ripped apart by gang warfare, was a favorite – but Concrete Blonde wouldn’t find success on the mainstream airwaves until 1990 when “Joey” hit the pop chart’s top 20. Though the song was originally rumored to be a tribute to punk icon Joey Ramone, the “alternative rock anthem” was actually about a relationship ruined by alcoholism.”I was shocked,” Mankey said of fame after “Joey.” “I remember standing on a street corner in Australia, with a series of cars passing by with ‘Joey’ coming out of the windows. It sort of changed the shows – the idea is to get more people at the shows, but it was a shock. Fortunately, we’d been at it long enough, and we knew ourselves well enough, that we were OK. It could have turned our heads.”Street recognition helped push the group’s next two albums, 1992’s “Walking In London and 1993’s “Mexican Moon,” but those last efforts weren’t pushed far enough for Concrete Blonde. Though Mankey said the trio was able to explore new musical tastes – Napolitano is known for her love of Latin music and culture – and after an extensive tour, the trio parted ways after 1994’s “Mexican Moon” tour.Then, eight years of near silence. Napolitano kept in touch with Mankey, and the pair even joined with popular Latin rockers Los Illegals for an album in 1997. Concrete Blonde continued to make a few headlines, but usually as a result of Rushakoff’s legal battle for song rights. “He was also addicted to some very expensive drugs, so he would sue us for money he felt he had coming,” Mankey said. However, the trio did have something in common – at some point after the initial breakup, each individual sought private counseling.”I never in my life had therapy and neither had Johnette, and suddenly we find ourselves all together again, and we all had been seeing psychiatrists. It was an odd coincidence,” Mankey said.The best therapy for the group might have been worked out with “Group Therapy.” Some of the old Concrete Blonde is apparent – Napolitano’s voice is unmistakable, even after eight years of rest, and the group’s interest in Latin sound rears up in tracks like “Your Llorona” – but Mankey sees the new Concrete Blonde, the older, wiser group, in singles like “When I Was A Fool.” The song, softer than the tracks that surround it on the new album, seems to be Napolitano’s homage to the years that separate Concrete Blonde’s past successes and their hopes for a new recording. “Every face that I see/so much younger than me … but I don’t even miss my glorious past,” Napolitano sings of the group’s feelings that, though they might be 20 years older than they were during the group’s inception, they’re still willing to record in a youth-dominated field, Mankey said. “As far as summing up the totality of the music, ‘When I Was a Fool’ describes where we’re at and emotionally where we’re at,” he said. “It pretty well describes the force driving us to make the record … ‘When I Was A Fool’ couldn’t say it better.” Concrete Blonde will make a stop in Aspen early next week with a Tuesday night show at the Double Diamond. Call the Double Diamond at 920-6905 or the Silver Bucket Saloon box office at 920-9744 for ticket information.