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Older, Wiser and Newly Content

After eight years and a particularly bleak period, Concrete Blonde clicks again.

January 13, 2002|NATALIE NICHOLS

What did it take to get Concrete Blonde back together after eight years? A Roxy Music reunion, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist, and some basic growing up for singer-bassist Johnette Napolitano, guitarist James Mankey and drummer Harry Rushakoff.

All those things played a role in the creation of "Group Therapy," the L.A. band's first new album since 1993's "Mexican Moon." It's due in stores Tuesday from local independent Manifesto Records (see review, Page 70). The band, which performed together for the first time in years in September during a Spaceland benefit for New York disaster relief, will also start a U.S. tour Friday, coming to the El Rey Theatre in L.A. on Jan. 25 and the Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana on Feb. 1.

The iconic British art-rockers Roxy Music, who brought a rare reunion tour to the Greek Theatre last summer, inspired the album's opening valentine, "Roxy." "Their music was always one of the things that touched me," Napolitano says, and she was happy to know the band was back, older but still vital.

As for the psychiatrist, well, the album's title is almost painfully literal, because making it actually was therapeutic. Particularly for Napolitano, who last spring found herself in a bleak state of mind.

"I was really cracking up, and I didn't know what was happening," she recalls. She had been having nightmares, and she became convinced that something bad was going to happen. Indeed, when she went to see Mankey in May, it was not as a former bandmate looking to get Concrete Blonde back together. All she wanted was a trusted friend to help her deal with this recurring sense of doom. Sensibly, he helped her get in touch with a psychiatrist.

"She was feeling bad, and part of her feeling better was getting together with the old gang," says Mankey, who has known Napolitano since 1981 when they formed the duo Dream 6, which eventually became Concrete Blonde.

In the late '80s, Concrete Blonde gained a college-radio following with a blend of classic rock and gothic moodiness that was more straightforward than Siouxsie & the Banshees but more extravagant than the Pretenders.

By turns wistful and tough, Napolitano's lyrics and husky voice reflected her self-doubts, social conscience and blunt emotionality. Mankey's noir, blues-edged guitar work gave the band an atmospheric touchstone, even as its albums became diverse to the point of distraction, incorporating whatever elements--hip-hop, Spanish folk, country--the creatively restless Napolitano fancied.

Concrete Blonde gained wider exposure with 1990's "Bloodletting," which included the Top 20 hit "Joey." But by "Mexican Moon," the excitement of possibly making it big had given way to in-fighting and the ennui of endless touring. The band broke up in 1994.

Napolitano continued in various groups, including Pretty & Twisted and Vowel Movement. In 1997, she and Mankey even combined forces with another L.A. group for the rock-meets-Latin collection "Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals."

But, the players all say, they never quite clicked as well with anyone else. And that's really why the reunion happened. "We tracked down Harry's number and cold-called him," the 46-year-old Mankey says, laughing. "He was kind of shocked to hear from us. The last time we talked, we weren't on very friendly terms."

Napolitano and Mankey don't dwell much on past tensions in the band. When asked, Mankey allows that part of Napolitano's reputation for being difficult with label executives and managers probably stemmed from her not being as compliant as women were expected to be. "But," he says with a deadpan twinkle in his voice, "she was also difficult."

Rushakoff, 42, is even less diplomatic--about himself. "I put Johnette through a lot," says the drummer, who was replaced on some early recordings by former Roxy Music drummer Paul Thompson. "I'm pretty lucky she even gave me another whirl." Yet Rushakoff, who was in rehab when his bandmates first contacted him for the reunion, says he didn't have a drug or alcohol addiction in those days. It was more of an attitude problem.

"It was just stupid things," Rushakoff says. "Like having huge guest lists, and wanting all [my] friends around to see what a big shot I was. And I did a lot of flashy drumming, with cymbals behind me and stick-spinning and stuff like that. Johnette was like, 'Look, this isn't Judas Priest!'" Once, he would have bristled at such a comment, but now Rushakoff says he welcomes Napolitano's direction. "It's not about how groovy I look, but more about what's appropriate for the song," he says. Mankey concurs. "We've all learned to play less," he says.

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