LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, 1985 – For Gurl 52, Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, and your humble narrator (YHN), the apartment on Raleigh Street was our first, true home together. It was at the bottom of the “U” in a typical Hollywood bungalow group of apartments. They were built in the Thirties as a place to house all the Howard Hughes (H.H.) starlets he was lining-up to…er, “audition.”
At the end of the street were the studios that were the ground zero of Hollywood cool and the repository of modern LA-LA depravity.
The studios where Doug Fairbanks started United Artists. Where Preston Sturges ran the California Picture Corporation for H.H. Where “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” was lensed. The same studio where George Reeves wore the ill-fitting suit that typecast him into oblivion and Marshall Matt Dillon rode Miss Kitty.
It was now a warren of porn editing suites, a wonky soundstage and office suites populated by a horde of hucksters hustling the stream of dazzling, dreamy youngsters fresh off the bus.
It was like heaven.
Meeting Johnette Napolitano before Concrete Blonde
On one of the first nights there YHN came back home from a late-night ramble to the stop and cop on Las Palmas. On the stoop of the adjacent apartment sat a hunched figure with a bottle clenched in one fist and a pen scribbling in a notebook resting on his lap. He looked familiar.
Saying hey, YHN startles upon seeing a founding member of the Paisley Underground that he knew from a legendary series of Boston shows. He was drinking root beer schnapps from a nearly empty bottle.
We were neighbors, we became friends and I soon met his inamorata, Gurl Thirty-Five, Johnette Napolitano.
They were like the Liz and Dick, the Frank and Ava, the Blondie and Dagwood of our tiny scene and the notion of living next to them only sweetened the notion that our Hollywood dreams were becoming a reality.
Johnette is the truest, most honest and, ultimately resourceful type of Gurl that only Hollywood can create.
She had come-up through the studio system and it was while working at the legendary Gold Star Studios with Leon Russell and others that she met her future cohort and musical partner Jim.
Dream 6 becomes Concrete Blonde
At the time YHN made her acquaintance, they were in an amazing combo called Dream 6.
It was doing sound for them at a show in the Alexandria Hotel in the dystopian, desolate and mostly dangerous downtown of Los Angeles that YHN was first entranced by the raw beauty and unearthly talent of Johnette.
It was after that show that they let YHN know that they had been signed to the fake C.I.A. Guys label and the guy from REM gave them a new name…Concrete Blonde.
About a week later, coming home from another run for a nickel bag, they were both sitting on the stoop. An empty bottle of banana schnapps lay on the sidewalk and a bottle of ginger schnapps was gurgling down a throat.
Johnette from Concrete Blonde and her early theories of purchasing liquor
Being a strictly illicit drug enthusiast at the time but, with many years doing sound in bars and clubs and a passing notion of beer, whiskey etc. YHN was curious about their choice of drink.
It seems that while working as a production assistant on a film starring some Italian actor playing a Cuban, Gurl Thirty-Five was given 500 dollars to buy booze for a production party.
Arriving at the package store she was struck by the plethora of choice and the acuity of cost. She was always pragmatic as fuck, harboring an inerrant distrust of anything top shelf.
In a snap judgment, she simply scooped-up every bottle from the bottom shelf. It was exactly the kind of impetuous, slightly mad type of choice that would come to define so many aspects of her and all of our lives in the years to come.
After the party, she came home with almost 30 bottles of vile juice that sat untouched on a craft table. With a 30% alcohol content and pretty colored liquids dancing inside, well, waste not, get wasted.
It was shortly after the last bottle was smashed in one of their now-frequent shouting matches that escalated wildly in our ivy-covered bungalow courtyard that Johnette parted ways with the dream rocker, and her career kicked into overdrive.
Concrete Blonde rides the rocket to fame.
It is a dizzy ride to stardom. It is like a rocket without any stabilization, just a huge whoooshh and a lurching escape from the gravity that keeps mere mortals glued to the firma of daily living. No one can ever fully prepare for it and only the strong survive it.
Gurl Thirty-Five is stronger than a Samson, wiser than a Solomon and ultimately, as transformed as Siddhartha in a strictly LA style. She is real, human and performs in a role that the ancients venerate as magic.
As alchemical as fuck! She is a Gurl.
The last time Gurl 52 and YHN hung with Johnette was on the balcony of our mega-pricy San Francisco hotel. We were all in town for a conference, guests of an industry tip sheet.
Think a raucous Shriner’s convention in Las Vegas or a cadre of plumbers from Nebraska on a bender in Dallas, add unlimited expense accounts and unholy access to every vice imaginable and you’ve come close to a mental picture of the scene as we hazily viewed the twinkling skyline that spooled before us.
Johnette knew that she was being put into a box. By her label, by her fans, by herself. That is the most dangerous time for any artist and every Gurl. How do you sustain your soul and still “perform?”
Somehow, she figured it out. Not that night, but in the 1,001 lonely nights of the soul that came afterwards.
She reads the cards.
She tends her horses and refuses to pave her ranch in wilds of Joshua Tree.
She is happy and still performs magic onstage.
No schnapps was guzzled in the creation of this article.
YHN is Ray Burk. He is a character from “Stars Screaming” known for being an aspiring writer in Hollywood whose life begins to fall apart. While searching out material for a new screenplay, he decides to mine the wild times of his youth, leading to wildly unpredictable insights.
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