(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #29 – released September 19, 1990. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 4/15/2015.)
Track listing: Bloodletting (The Vampire Song) / The Sky Is A Poisonous Garden / Caroline / Darkening Of The Light / I Don’t Need A Hero / Days And Days / The Beast / Lullabye / Joey / Tomorrow, Wendy
Autumn, 1990. I’m not yet listening to any of the artists I’ve written about here so far. I have the taste of an average 15-year-old (albeit without much love for rap or any for metal), formed almost exclusively by top 40 radio and MTV. Thus, like 99% of the rest of the world, “Joey” is the first Concrete Blonde song I hear, although it comes from their third album. A few songs from the first two (“Still in Hollywood”, “God Is A Bullet”) were marginal “hits” on college radio, MTV’s 120 Minutes and other outlets I had little exposure to at the time.
Preceding the album’s release, “Joey” was a summer college radio smash that crossed over to pop, reaching #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 in November. A classic, direct ballad, it even kicks off with an instantly recognizable “Be My Baby” style drum roll, just like The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey”. However, any hint of retread vanishes when Johnette Napolitano’s darkly expressive voice appears on the first verse. She’s not as trailblazing or charismatic as Chrissie Hynde or Patti Smith (or even Ann Wilson of Heart), but she’s a firm progenitor of all the female alterna-rock vocalists that followed her in the ‘90s, from PJ Harvey to Liz Phair. She adeptly shifts from quiet tenderness (“Joey, honey / I’ve got the money”) to forceful maelstrom (“I know you’ve heard it all be-fo-oh-ore”), wringing so much passion and nuance from the lyric that you’re convinced the song is a letter or diary entry directed at an actual person, not a character or a construct; Napolitano would later reveal the song’s subject to be ex-Wall of Voodoo guitarist Marc Moreland, whom she later recorded with under the moniker Pretty and Twisted.
For a few weeks, “Joey” was seemingly everywhere; afterwards, as it fell down the charts, it assumed the status of all former hits: occasional play on various radio formats and a place in the collective memory of once-popular songs, fondly recalled by fans and surprising those hearing it for the first time in many years who had forgotten it. Historians and music nerds forever remember Concrete Blonde as a “one-hit wonder”, for they never had such crossover success again. For some time, to me they were simply the band who did “Joey” and nothing more.
Spring, 1994. WARP, Milwaukee’s first alt-rock radio station is pretty lame, playing canned, automated playlists (occasionally identical week-to-week!) on a fuzzy AM frequency, but it’s where I first hear The Smiths and XTC so it’s revelatory at the time. They also incessantly play two tracks (“Heal It Up” and “One of My Kind”) from Concrete Blonde’s recent fifth album, Mexican Moon and the band re-enters my consciousness. With encouragement from A., a friend who adores them, I purchase Mexican Moon and Bloodletting. Both are fine, but I’m concurrently acquiring so much new music that neither rises to the top of the pile of stuff making the most profound impact on me.
As a college freshman, I begin frequenting Mad Planet, a club in the city’s Riverwest neighborhood (a few years before it underwent considerable gentrification) that hosts 18+ Saturday nights. Not explicitly a venue for goths, it clearly attracted what then passed for an alternative crowd: young men and women decked out in black clothing, Manic-Panic’d hair, multiple piercings and Doc Martens, most of them big Depeche Mode fans in high school, at least some of them questioning their sexuality. Needless to say, my friends (mostly female high school classmates) and I had little difficulty fitting in, even though I didn’t really look the part—for one thing, I was just starting to grow out my hair.
Not a fan of the harder stuff they played (Ministry, Front 242), I still heard a lot that I loved, from The Cure to, well, Concrete Blonde. Without fail, the DJ would spin Bloodletting’s title track every week. Subtitled “The Vampire Song”, it doesn’t cloak itself in any ambiguity—it is emphatically a brooding anthem about being a vampire and doing what vampires do: “going down to” New Orleans (was Charlaine Harris a big fan?) to feast on human blood. Even Robert Smith could not devise a more perfect goth anthem if he tried. Curiously, Concrete Blonde’s earlier records barely hinted towards such subject matter, instead fixating on Mexican/Catholic imagery and the seedier side of L.A. Rather than hopping on any bandwagon, it simply sounds like Napolitano thought it would be fun to write a vampire song. Just as it set a rich, defining tone for the album with its descending bassline and evocative air of sensual menace, “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)” also sounded fantastic at Mad Planet, a dependable staple we all danced to, some of us even miming the decadently silly sucking noise Napolitano makes in the instrumental breakdown after the guitar solo.
Autumn, 1994. A. gives me a cassette including the band’s 1987 self-titled debut on one side and Walking In London, their fourth album from 1992 on the other. Both it and a dubbed tape of Bloodletting are always in my Sony Walkman throughout my sophomore year of college. I’ve moved out of my parent’s house and into a dorm, where I continually play these three albums nearly as much as the compatible Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack. Whenever I think of afternoons spent perusing used record stores up and down Brady Street on Milwaukee’s East Side or hanging out on Madison’s State Street while visiting friends attending the University of Wisconsin, I recall those four albums more than anything else I was listening to.
Much of Concrete Blonde’s appeal stemmed from Napolitano. In an ideal world, a rock trio fronted by a bass-playing woman with a powerful voice would not be a novelty, but back then for me it most certainly was. I’ve already praised her expertise as a front person, but it bears repeating, for throughout Bloodletting, her vocals bring out emotional shadings and layers arguably undetectable from the backing tracks alone. For instance, “The Sky Is A Poisonous Garden” would be very much the routine, up-tempo thrash rocker if not for the personality she almost effortlessly injects into the lyrics, like her sudden exclamation of “young naked PREY!” or her insistent reading of the song’s title, especially at the very end. Likewise, “Days and Days”, whose main hook is arguably Napolitano’s killer bassline, feels less generic and more personable as she rattles off the verses in a near-inimitable spoken-word rush, setting up a nice contrast to the fiercely sung chorus.
That’s not to take anything away from the rest of the band, for guitarist Jim Mankey is nearly as crucial to Concrete Blonde’s sound as Napolitano. While his solos tend to be a little samey, he contributes significantly to each song’s atmospheric pull—try to imagine “Lullabye” without his melodic riffs supporting Napolitano’s wail or his more somber contributions to “I Don’t Need A Hero”. Completing the band on Bloodletting is former Roxy Music member Paul Thompson, the latest in a series of revolving drummers. As with his work on such classic Roxy albums as Country Life, Thompson provides unflashy but solid support. Together, Napolitano-Mankey-Thompson make an inspired trio, one fully attuned to some of Napolitano’s most wrenching and emotionally open lyrics to date, baring her soul about the alcoholic “Joey”, the estranged “Caroline” and the specter of a friend that haunts “Darkening of the Light”.
July 4, 1995. A. and I and two other people are driving home from visiting a friend at a mental health facility in Waukesha County. It’s evening, Independence Day, but no one feels much like watching fireworks or partying; we’re all pretty speechless for obvious reasons. We silently listen to Concrete Blonde’s Still In Hollywood, a rarities compilation that also serves as a postmortem, the band having split up the year before. Among all the B-sides and cover versions, there are acoustic takes on two Bloodletting tracks: “Joey” (performed on a show called ‘”Hangin’ With MTV”), and “Tomorrow, Wendy” (from a concert at the Malibu Nightclub on Long Island, New York).
The latter was Bloodletting’s sole cover, written by another ex-Wall of Voodoo member, Andy Prieboy for his great, long-out-of-print solo album also released in 1990, Upon My Wicked Son. “Tomorrow, Wendy” is about a woman dying of AIDS, rare subject matter for a pop song at a moment when that health crisis was near its peak. Prieboy’s lyrics alternate between poetic reverie (“We can make believe that Kennedy is still alive / We’re shooting for the moon and smiling Jackie’s driving by”) and angry candor (“I told the priest, ‘Don’t count on any second coming / God got his ass kicked the first time he can down here slumming’”), preparing us for the chorus’ plainspoken, affecting bluntness: “Tomorrow, Wendy is going to die.” Himself a friend of Napolitano’s, Prieboy contributes keyboards to the luxuriant, wall-of-sound rendition that closes Bloodletting; naturally, her dramatic reading fully devastates, illustrating the ridicule, despair and loss Wendy endures.
Still In Hollywood’s version is radically different from the Bloodletting one, stripping the arrangement down to the bone: one guitar, nimble percussion and Napolitano’s voice. In this intimate setting, Prieboy’s song turns almost unbearably poignant and urgent, reminding us that death is not simply unjust, inevitable and unavoidable—death is the end, and yet, as Napolitano says in the spoken intro, “We all go through it.” As much as death is certain, it’s still absolutely harrowing for both the victim and those close to them. Napolitano startlingly emits both sympathy and terror, particularly when she suddenly shifts into a daringly higher register than what she attempts on the studio version; so chilling and starkly powerful, this version is what first resonated with me on that long drive home. Regarding the friend we visited, her illness had nothing to do with AIDS (and thankfully, she did get better), but the song nonetheless seemed complimentary—it reminded me how helpless I felt sitting with her at that facility, trying to offer my support and comfort, feeling perplexed as to what she was going through, not understanding how she could go through it at all. Rarely had I identified with any song so closely before.
Autumn, 1999. I’m walking down Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge towards Porter Square, Concrete Blonde playing on my Discman. Suddenly, I feel five years younger, once again walking down Brady Street, hair much longer, clothes a bit more ragged, altogether blissfully unaware of the life changes ahead. This sensation lasts only for a few seconds, but it leaves behind a nostalgic glow as I re-engage with the present and the different place and state of mind I am in now (though truthfully, not all that different regarding the latter). It’s not as if I haven’t listened to this band in the two years since I’ve moved to Boston, but other bands and songs have obscured and overtaken that heightened place I once automatically reserved for Concrete Blonde in my affections. I associate them with the past—one of the more formative periods of my life, but still the past.
As I age, Bloodletting’s appeal inevitably diminishes, but I doubt it will ever entirely fade for me. I even bought the 20th Anniversary edition released in 2010 (among its bonus tracks are the languorous “I Want You” (from the movie Point Break!) and that live version of “Tomorrow, Wendy”). Every Halloween, I’ll put on the title track and often listen to the entire album. In recent years, I’ve come to love a three-song sequence on the first half. It begins with “Caroline”, the flop follow-up single to “Joey”: a brisk, minor-key lament teeming with echoing guitar chords, it’d be witchy enough for Stevie Nicks to cover, although Napolitano attains just the right mix of menace and longing. Next comes “Darkening of the Light”: featuring R.E.M.’s Peter Buck on mandolin (a year before “Losing My Religion”!), it reveals a more vulnerable side to the band, almost coming off like a beguiling electric folk murder ballad. That leads into the even more fragile and mysterious “I Don’t Need A Hero”: with guitar softly coloring in the background, Thompson’s fills silently twitch in the verses and forcefully tumble through the choruses while Napolitano forever keeps her cool, her every word imbued with wisdom but not overthought, perhaps best embodied by her wonderful, casually defiant “I don’t wanna be your mother” towards the end.
So I try to have it both ways, loving Bloodletting in context of those times when it was the soundtrack of my life, while also returning to it, hoping for that same profundity or, perhaps, something new in it to adore and dissect—after all, “I Don’t Need A Hero” was never one of my favorite tracks until I hit my 30s. Last year, I began my essay on Blue with a Geoff Dyer quote about how the meaning of art changes as it ages although literally, the work of art stays the same. I think of that now as I wrestle with Bloodletting, a remnant of my past that still holds meaning for me, just not the exact same meaning it once did.
Up next: Subverting the System.
“I Don’t Need A Hero”: