Love For The Band Whose Debut Was One That “No One With Ears Would Give A Second Listen”

October 8, 2011

It was some time in early autumn of 1990 when I read that assessment of Concrete Blonde’s self-titled debut in a copy of the Trouser Press Record Guide.

I tucked the book back onto the shelf and, as I left the bookstore, reached up and felt the sides of my head.

I had ears – I needed somewhere to put my ear buds – and, in my backpack, I had cassettes that contained all three albums by the trio of Los Angelenos.

I’d missed Concrete Blonde’s Trouser Press-disapproved debut from three years earlier and the 1989 follow-up, Free, had also gone unnoticed by me.

(though I had seen – and taken note of – the video for God Is A Bullet a few times on MTV’s 120 Minutes)

I finally became hip to the apparently unhip band with Bloodletting and that discovery was also made watching 120 Minutes late one Sunday night with the video for Joey.

Joey, a plea to an alcoholic, became an unexpected hit single – reaching the Top Twenty on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 in the US – and Bloodletting, a spectral brew of gothic-tinged, punk-influenced alternative rock, was a fixture in my Walkman throughout the autumn and winter.

The two earlier albums were soon added (and enjoyed) though neither Concrete Blonde or Free got listened to as much as Bloodletting.

(few albums were listened to as much that winter as Bloodletting)

I remained a devotee of Concrete Blonde up through 1993’s Mexican Moon, on which there was a windswept, Southwestern vibe, and was bummed out when the band split shortly thereafter.

(though I did have the good fortune to see them live)

Pretty & Twisted, which saw Concrete Blonde lead singer Johnette Napolitano join with ex-Wall Of Voodoo guitarist Marc Moreland, offered an enjoyable fix with their lone self-titled album.

And then, unexpectedly, Napolitano and guitarist James Mankey united with Los Angeles-based Chicano punk band Los Illegals for 1997’s Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals before vanishing again.

Napolitano and Mankey have reunited a few times since, but I haven’t heard much aside from Group Therapy a decade ago and that album didn’t really pull me in.

I spent a lot of time in the ’90s with the music of Concrete Blonde.

There are still stretches of a few days, every so often, during which I will dial up some of the one hundred and fifty-some Concrete Blonde tracks on the iPod.

And Trouser Press be damned, I can’t help but think that Concrete Blonde was one of the more underappreciated alternative rock acts of their time and much of their music still sounds pretty cool two decades on.

Here are a pair of songs each from a quartet of Concrete Blonde albums…

Concrete Blonde – Joey
Concrete Blonde – Tomorrow, Wendy
from Bloodletting (1990)

The seedy underbelly of Los Angeles often provided a backdrop as well as the film noirish characters to populate Concrete Blonde’s songs as in Joey, their best-known song which addressed addiction. The mid-tempo track was highlighted by Napolitano’s raw vocals and Mankey’s serpentine guitar.

On Bloodletting, the band conjured an atmospheric vibe that was almost dreamy and no song was more haunting than Tomorrow, Wendy, a song about a woman dying of AIDS and written by another ex-Wall Of Voodoo member, Andy Prieboy.

Concrete Blonde – Ghost Of A Texas Ladies Man
Concrete Blonde – Les Cœurs Jumeaux
from Walking In London (1992)

Following up their greatest success, Concrete Blonde returned with the eerie Ghost Of A Texas Ladies Man, a song driven by Mankey’s twangy guitar as Napolitano recounts a tale of spectral seduction that, apparently, was based on an experience she’d had at The Driskill Hotel in Austin.

Les Cœurs Jumeaux is a bit of a departure for the band, a lush, romantic ballad partially sung in French that conjures up the feel of a walk along the Seine on a moonlit night.

Concrete Blonde – Mexican Moon
Concrete Blonde – Heal It Up
from Mexican Moon (1993)

As much as the urban vibe of Los Angeles provided inspiration for the music of Concrete Blonde, the band also incorporated elements of Hispanic music and culture – subjects of particular interest to Napolitano – into the mix. Rarely did this fusion prove more effective than on the shimmering, evocative title track to their 1993 album.

Heal It Up strips things down to a straight-ahead, snarling rock song delivered with some ferocious vocals from Napolitano.

Concrete Blonde – Everybody Knows
Concrete Blonde – 100 Games Of Solitaire
from Still In Hollywood (1994)

Concrete Blonde performed a lot of cover songs during their career, mining the work of acts including Cheap Trick, Jimi Hendrix, Nick Cave, and Bob Dylan, putting their distinctive twist on the material.

Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows found the band in fine form as the trio turned the song into a brooding rumination on the darker aspects of human nature.

A previously unissued B-side, 100 Games Of Solitaire is an ode to wanderlust where “any place with a bar and a bathtub’s all right.” Twangy and grungy, you almost feel the need to shake the dust off your boots by the song’s end.

The Arch-Nemesis

September 21, 2011

For a good decade or so, I have had an implacable foe, an entity which I have formally and officially declared to be my arch-nemesis.

Making this struggle more complex is that my arch-nemesis is the brother of a good friend.

In truth, I don’t know David very well. I’ve been buddies with his brothers for close to twenty years, but I’ve been around David no more than a handful of times.

Our rivalry has no origin other than a decision I made to declare him my arch-nemesis.

(it actually was encouraged by his brothers)

But David is a good guy, so this confrontation has gone no further than our mutual understanding of the conflict and our verbal acknowledgement of it on the rare occasions that we do meet.

Our relationship lacks the cold war sizzle that existed with my previous arch-nemesis –

The Dutch.

I had never had an arch-nemesis until a half dozen or so of us who were drinking buddies and worked at a record store together suddenly began hating the Dutch.

(it happened during an evening of drinks)

We took to the idea with enthusiasm, blaming the Dutch for all of the ills of the world several years before it was chic to blame Canada.

We would shuffle into the back room of the store, muttering expletives directed at the Netherlands under our breath after dealing with difficult customers.

If our usual barkeep at our favorite watering hole was not working and the music being played did not meet our approval, it was a plot originating in Holland.

But our distress over the Dutch was inexplicable.

I had assumed – for some reason – that it dated to the 1994 World Cup, which we had followed that summer.

One evening, during the 1998 World Cup, I asked one of my buddies why we hated the Dutch.

He proceeded to tell tale of another large record store where he had worked and a customer visiting from the Netherlands who threw a tantrum over some perceived grievance, bellowing to all who listen that his mistreatment was because he was Dutch.

“I figured that we must have some long-standing issues with the Dutch and I wanted to do the least that I could do,” my buddy said with a shrug. “It would have been unpatriotic to not hate the Dutch.”

Of course, we didn’t really hate the Dutch. We just enjoyed having an arch-nemesis.

Here are four enemy songs since arch-nemesis is a bit cumbersome to use in a lyric I suppose…

Swan Dive – Sweet Enemy
from Circle (1998)

Swan Dive’s music has been described as bossa nova pop.

Sweet Enemy is light, breezy, and sophisticated stuff, but its just a hint of the wonderous sounds made by the duo of Bill DeMain and Molly Felder.

The Waterboys – Be My Enemy
from This Is The Sea (1985)

This Is The Sea was my introduction to Scottish band The Waterboys. I’d been prompted to purchase the cassette after hearing the glorious The Whole Of The Moon before school one morning on a rock radio station out of Dayton.

(it might have been the only time I’ve ever heard the band on radio)

I was immediately smitten by their “big music” and the tape spent a lot of time in my Walkman that senior year. The rollicking Be My Enemy clatters alongs with a dizzying urgency that caught my attention and made me hit rewind a time or two.

(which, of course, drained the double-AA batteries rather quickly)

Roger Hodgson – Had a Dream (Sleeping with the Enemy)
from In The Eye Of The Storm (1984)

If you have followed my babbling on this site, you might be well aware of my affection for Supertramp (at least Breakfast In America). By 1984, founding member Roger Hogdson had left the band for a solo career that didn’t exactly pan out.

Had A Dream (Sleeping With The Enemy) got some airplay on some of the stations to which I was listening at the time. In truth, it could have been on Breakfast In America and not sounded out of place.

Rage Against The Machine – Know Your Enemy
from Rage Against The Machine (1992)

I didn’t immediately gravitate to Rage Against The Machine. I thought their politics to be somewhat half-baked. However, seeing them live, opening for U2 – a band for whom the same accusation could be made regarding politics – made me a fan of the sheer sonic force of Rage’s music.

A few friends and I bumped into the band before that show at a vegetarian restaurant. The might have made some angry music, but the band members and crew were quite polite and friendly.

Today, My Best Friend…Tomorrow, Who Knows?

May 11, 2011

Sometime last week, during the spate of coverage on the demise of Osama bin Laden, I happened upon a program on the life of the iconic terrorist.

One of the people interviewed was described as bin Laden’s best friend as a teenager.

It must make a pretzel of the mind to have such a notorious character as a former best friend.

The first best friend that I can remember having was a kid named George. There’s little else I recall aside from his name and I have no recollection as to what earned him status as numero uno amigo.

I do recall that I stripped him of the title and I slotted another classmate into the position.

I wanted John as my best friend because he was tall, a head taller than everyone else.

(people have been placed in high office using such logic, but I was five)

I’ve had no contact with either of these kids in almost forty years, but it seems as though George is a DJ in the upper Midwest, so perhaps I was being prescient about the interest I’d someday have in music.

By the time I reached high school, I was in a transitional period with friendships. The concept of best friend had evolved into a group of eight or nine of us who would end up together in different permutations and numbers.

One of these buddies was a bit of a fire enthusiast and devotee of things that go kaboom.

During senior year, Kirk The Pyro went to California with another of our friends for spring break.

(most of us settled for wandering the malls in Cincinnati)

This dynamic duo returned to the grimness of March in the Midwest with tans and dynamite.

“Where did you get dynamite?”


“So, you brought dynamite from Tijuana on your flight home from California?”

It was a simpler world and a time when – relative to today – the airlines essentially had a don’t ask/don’t tell policy.

The interviewee on the television screen had described bin Laden as quiet and polite, their friendship rooted in a shared love for soccer.

I could only describe Kirk The Pyro as like Woody Woodpecker in human form and our bond forged by a common appreciation for antics, hijinks, and shenanigans.

And though I haven’t had contact with him since college, I also haven’t seen him become the target of a global manhunt.

Here are four friend songs…

Clarence Clemons And Jackson Browne – You’re A Friend Of Mine
from Hero

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band were probably as big as any act in my lifetime. During the mid-’80s. Born In The USA sold ten million copies and pretty much every song on the record got extensive airplay on the radio. The group’s success was so massive and demand for more music so great that b-sides like Pink Cadillac and Stand On It got played heavily.

E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons even had a solo hit during the winter of ’85 when he duetted with Jackson Browne on the upbeat and catchy You’re A Friend Of Mine.

The Rolling Stones – Waiting On A Friend
from Tattoo You

Personally, I’ve always thought that Waiting On A Friend was one of the Stones’ finest post-’70s moments. The song is so casual and the vibe so laid-back that it’s always welcome when it pops up on shuffle.

Apparently it was the first video by the Stones played on MTV (with reggae great Peter Tosh hanging out on the steps).

Grateful Dead – Friend Of The Devil
from Skeletons From The Closet: The Best Of Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead got discovered my generation while I was in college when A Touch Of Gray put the venerable band all over MTV. I liked the song and I even liked a lot of its parent album, In The Dark, which was played often in the record store where I worked.

I’ve also enjoyed stuff from their catalog as I’ve been introduced to it here and there, but I’ve never felt the rabid passion for The Dead that they inspired in a lot of my peers.

Jellyfish – He’s My Best Friend
from Spilt Milk

I discovered Jellyfish when the record store where I worked received a promo copy of the band’s debut, Bellybutton, in 1990. The psychedelic album cover was eye-catching and the music earned the group from San Francisco comparisons to greats like Queen, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, XTC, and Cheap Trick.

Despite plenty of swooning by critics, Jellyfish was unable to find mainstream success and would split up after just one more album, 1993′s Spilt Milk, but the group has continued to loom large in the hearts of power pop devotees for the past two decades.