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Maverick Women Come Out Kickin' : Johnette Napolitano : A Tough 'n' Tender Rockin' Dude

December 20, 1987|CHRIS WILLMAN

Ten years ago, at a time when "Women in Rock" stories were still trumpeting the likes of Grace Slick, Heart and Linda McCartney, a revolution was getting under way in Los Angeles.

On the then-growing L.A. club scene, it was hard not to notice that--especially compared to certain Eastern burgs--a disproportionate number of those at the forefront of this city's scene were charismatic, gutsy, mercurial women: X's Exene Cervenka, the Motels' Martha Davis, the Go-Go's. . . .

Come late 1987, and the scene is far more scattered and factional, the pickings more diverse. Country and folk bills peacefully co-exist in the same clubs as rock shows, with a greatly overlapping audience.

Out of all that it shouldn't be much of a surprise that the year's three most accomplished vinyl debuts in those respective fields have all come from maverick L.A. women: ex-Texan Rosie Flores, ex-Louisianian Victoria Williams and home girl Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde. None of them is the girl next door. None of them is Nancy Wilson, either. Calling Robert Altman: Do we have a trio for you. . . .

Johnette Napolitano--the singer, bassist and co-writer of L.A. rock band Concrete Blonde--frequently earns post-concert compliments that sometimes seem a bit backhanded. "People are always saying, 'Oh, for a girl, you rock , dude!' " she said, doing her best approximation of a Valley boy.

That's acceptable. Napolitano is proud of "playing hard," as she put it.

"But when somebody says something like 'Oh, you're scary on stage,' that hurts my feelings!" she said. "It does! That bums me out. It's not like I'm a big bull or anything. . . ."

Napolitano does at times recall the old-style danger and drama of the Motels' Martha Davis, or the tough defensive bluff of the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde--the two most frequent comparisons made--but she's most assuredly not out to frighten anybody. If anything, there's a touching vulnerability in virtually all of Concrete Blonde's songs, even the most musically ferocious ones.

But being tough and tender isn't always an easy balance to strike.

"A lot of the things that make you female and you're proud of and want to hold onto can really work against you, if it means being taken seriously sometimes," said Napolitano, sipping water in her favorite non-trendy Hollywood bar recently.

"But it's not even a trade off for me. I would much rather enrich my music, if that's the word, with my emotional, female point of view than care about being taken seriously.

"I like these qualities in myself. I trust people, I like people and all that, and sometimes, boy, I shouldn't do that. But I don't want to be a cynical, tough-skinned person."

Not succumbing to the romance of defeat is what many of Concrete Blonde's songs are about. Although many, if not most, have dark overtones, hope pervades the music--how many other L.A. bands, after all, would record a remake of George Harrison's "Beware of Darkness"--and mean it?

Napolitano has seen the followers of Los Angeles' trendy "death-rock" scene, and she has some advice for them: "Kids, look: planet, thousands of years; your life, 70 years-- stick it out! No problem! Piece of cake! I mean, God, you're white, you live in California, what are you moaning about?'

"I know what they're moaning about; sometimes it seems a very hopeless situation. But you can moan about the hopeless situation, or you can find joy wherever you find it, and everybody finds it somewhere. No matter how down they are, there's something that makes everybody happy, for each person. And if you find that and accept it, great. That's the best it gets."

For having painted themselves into a supposedly uncommercial corner, Concrete Blonde did decently enough on radio and video channels with their debut album, "Concrete Blonde" (on I.R.S.), released early in the year. Even though the group recently declared bankruptcy and is involved in legal squabbles with the record company, when a second album does finally appear, the future looks bright for public acceptance.

Even if things don't pick up, commercial frustration won't ever lead to musical frustration, Napolitano promises. She claims it wasn't "any problem" for her and guitarist Jim Mankey to wait 10 years for a record contract (drummer Harry Stinson completed the trio less than two years ago).

"I always liked playing music for myself anyway," she said, "so it doesn't bother me to sit and write a whole closetful of songs, because I like to do them and hear them. As long as that's your motivation, you can play forever and you don't need any acknowledgement or anybody to even hear it.

"I mean, I love playing to people and I'm always astounded that people get something out of it, but we didn't have that for a long time, and it's just kind of icing on the cake for me. Because each time I write something, I'm real proud of it."

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