It's been a really busy year for me.
- I finished losing 115 pounds.
- I had three surgeries to removed 120+ square inches of skin.
- I went to South by Southwest for the first time.
- I got to see both my beloved The Gracious Few and LIVE with their new lead singer on the same night. (Plus some other band. I forget.)
- I fell in love with the Mynabirds. (Missing Patsy Cline song – "We Made a Mountain")
- I finally got to see the Afghan Whigs live and to meet Greg Dulli in a dark alley behind the Masquerade. (And Ric McCollum and John Curley.)
- I filed for divorce.
- I released my first novel.
Even with all of that, there's still something missing.
Wednesday night, I will finally get to see Concrete Blonde live.
"What's the big deal?" you ask.
Well, let me tell you.
Sometime during my freshman year of high school, I went one weekend afternoon to the Southside Festival, which was a great little outdoor music and arts thing that used to take place in Five Points South in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. Five Points is a funky little area, artsy and eclectic—and it was much less dirty then than it is now. (At least it seemed that way.) My friends and I hung out there on weekends and sometimes after school, sitting around the fountain, bullshitting and getting into far less trouble than we probably deserved.
So this specific day when I was 14, some record label promo people were passing out albums to the crowd. Yes, vinyl, in the 12x12 sleeve, and for free. They handed me two: Pleased To Meet Me by the Replacements—who I saw play at Sloss Furnaces a couple of years later—and Concrete Blonde's self-titled debut. I tromped up the rickety stairs to Charlemagne Records and also bought a Billie Holiday best-of collection, as well as Metal Circus by Hüsker Dü.
(It was a very eclectic day. For those in the know, I ran into Broderick Brakefield and Bryan Simmons, who'd missed their ride the night before and had been running around down there, barefoot, for a couple of days.)
I went home and locked myself away in my bedroom, planting myself on the floor in front my stereo. I might even have stacked the records on the turntable. I loved them all, each in their own way, but I adored Concrete Blonde.
It was the first day of a now-26-year love affair from afar with the incomparable Johnette Napolitano.
As I've discussed before, I'm an alto. (Really, a contralto.) I don't have a lot of patience for wimpy soprano voices. And Johnette's voice was the farthest from wimpy I'd ever heard. It was deeply female with the most amazing breath control ever. Ever. (Those booming notes aren't higher; they're simply bigger.)
I was blown away.
So this goes on for years, but somehow I miss them live, over and over and over. I was too young for the clubs they played. My ex-boyfriend was an asshole who beat me up the night before we were supposed to go to Atlanta to see them. I lived in Huntsville where they never played anymore. They broke up.
I was supposed to see them two summers ago during their Bloodletting anniversary tour. I had ruptured two discs in my back and was in so much pain that I had to give the tickets away. (I cried. A lot.)
So when I went to Variety Playhouse with Growler and Mandypants a few weeks ago (for the Psychedelic Furs, thank you very much), I was thrilled to see that Concrete Blonde would be playing on December 19th. Finally, finally!, I get to do this shit after twenty-six years.
It's the voice and the lyrics and the fact that she plays bass. She does the most wonderful covers of Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, in part because her voice lends itself to that. But my favorites, undoubtedly, are the ones with the complicated harmonies, where Johnette seems to wrap her own voice around itself.
And, ultimately, I owe Johnette Napolitano my life.
There are a couple of people who know this story. If you're one of them and you're hearing (reading) it for the dozenth time, I apologize. This anecdote was in the first draft of what would become Persona Non Grata: A Story of Junkture. It was cut entirely when I fictionalized the book, though Concrete Blonde still made mention. (page 81, at the end of chapter 6—you can search inside the book on Amazon, btw)
NOTE: This is still incredibly difficult for me to go back to, to put myself in the place where I felt the things I write about below. I can deal with a lot of my shit, but this is one of the most personally-shameful moments of emotion in my forty years, and I'm not callous about this.
The horrible ex-boyfriend (Damien) and I had broken up for what would be the last time. After four tumultuous years with him, I was a mess. I was devastated when we broke up. For the third or fourth time since I'd known him, I decided that ending my life was the only way I would ever be able to deal with the pain.
I had a plan. I had the implements. I was crying vicious tears while driving on I-65 north in Birmingham, determined to do it as soon as possible. My little car had a cassette deck, and my very favorite tape was a home-recorded, 90-minute thing that had Concrete Blonde on one side and Bloodletting on the other—my two favorite Concrete Blonde records. Bawling my head off, I intended to listen to "Bloodletting" and all of the subsequent tracks from that records, all so dark and somber. It's an amazing record, but all I wanted was to let my own heart find its reprieve in that sadness.
Instead, what I got was "True", the first track from the other side of the tape.
Well when I've had enough
I'll get a pick-up truck and I'll drive away,
I'll take my last ten bucks just as far as it will go.
Well sometimes I'm easily fooled,
Take a painful step and I get knocked back two.
I do all I can and it's all I can do to be true.
And if I had the choice I'd take the voice I got
Cause it was hard to find.
You know I've come too far to wind up right back where I started.
And they tell me who I should be,
I'll never let those monkeys make a mess of me.
I am who I am and it's all I can do,
But I'm true.
One more sunrise
Open my eyes up – true
One more sunset
Lay my head down – true
They talk you up and then they talk you down
And you begin to doubt.
Sometimes the reasons seem so very far away.
But I'd stop breathing today,
Cause if I can't walk proud, I'd rather walk away.
I do all I am and it's all I can do,
But I'm true.
I'd give all I am and I'd give it to you.
That was what I heard, instead of a song of a crack in the mirror and a bloodstain on the bed, about being turned into the walking dead.
"What the fuck are you doing?" I screamed into the otherwise-empty car tearfully.
I went home instead.
So every time I get really down, feel really lost and can't find my inner compass, that's where I go back, to that piece of time (still so fresh inside my mind) and remember that moment of pause that saved my life.
Was it really Johnette Napolitano that saved my life? Not directly. But I don't know that I would've been listening to anything else, or that I could've heard anyone else quite so clearly that late afternoon. But I did hear it, thankfully.
So now, twenty-six years into this love affair, her music is still so often the soundtrack of my life. And of Tierney's. Six Concrete Blonde songs were included in my playlists. All of my friends know how much I love her. Half of them love her, too, because I introduced them.
Tickets for Concrete Blonde at Variety Playhouse are still available. Wednesday, December 19th, at 8:00 p.m. I'll be the first show for me and Growler, as well as for Tierney. Come say hi. I'll be the glittery Amazon belting out every last song.