Johnette Napolitano

TIME OUT, 2012

When she isn’t making music, painting and taking photos, Hurricane Johnette spends stints working as a telephone psychic, a tattoo artist and a volunteer at a rescue shelter (there’s the sound of trotting as a snow storm hits her home in Joshua Tree and some animal is urged to take a look).

Read Jenny Valentish’s 2012 Time Out Melbourne interview with Johnette Napolitano.


Something strange is going on here tonight. Johnette Napolitano, writer of a swag of magnificently spooky songs dedicated to lovers past, contorts her face, gurning and whispering between lines. At first I think it must be the effort of wrangling an acoustic guitar with a busted finger and arm, but increasingly it looks as though she’s channeling somebody the rest of us can’t see.

Tightly wrapped in a long black dress, trails of which she impatiently tosses over her shoulder, along with fronds of hair, she stamps her foot athletically to keep time, alternating between her trademark wearied moan and anguished howl.

The set opens with a couple of intimate numbers: desert ghost song ‘Rosalie’ and ‘The Wedding Theme’ forCandy – one of a few Australian films she’s scored. And already, she’s close to tears: “I was dreaming I was flying over everything and laughing”.

“Sorry,” she laughs. “I get a little emotionally involved. Thank you for your patience with my psychotic existence. I’ve learned to live with it… all the time.”

Napolitano’s in possession the sort of voice that suits smoky nights, rough mornings and remorse – and you don’t earn that timbre by taking the path of least resistance in life. Owning up that she just flooded the neighbouring hotel rooms by leaving her bath running (“The last time that happened, I…”), she leads us through an occasionally stumbling set that has an enjoyable, flying-by-the-seat-of-pants feel. You get the idea that Napolitano doesn’t know what’s going to happen next any more than we do.

Both her home in the Joshua Tree desert and the spiritual city of New Orleans have made their mark on her writing, appealing to the esoteric side of her nature that saw her working as a telephone psychic until recently. She rumbles through a thoroughly haunted rendition of country classic ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, then introduces the first of many drinking songs: Concrete Blonde’s ‘Take Me Home’. “Remember when we used to stumble down the boulevard… St Kilda Boulevard!” she yells, gamely. “Oh boy, it was nasty … So, don’t you cry, it’ll give you lines around your eyes…

The song’s more than likely about Marc Moreland of Wall of Voodoo, who met Napolitano on Concrete Blonde’s first Australian tour and died of liver failure in 2003. And if it’s not, well, Concrete Blonde evergreen hit ‘Joey’ definitely is. Napolitano sets the song up by telling the story of drinking and smoking with Moreland in a European bar. (“Or it could have been Mexico.”)

“Is ‘Joey’ about me?” Moreland asked, through a plume of smoke.

Napolitano shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Do you owe me money?”

She laughs uproariously. As it turns out, ‘Joey’ isn’t a highlight of the set tonight; feeling a little rushed and carrying the weight of everyone’s expectations on its shoulders. “Sheesh, how do you fuck up ’Joey’?” she mutters after one stumble, and when she hits the top “Ohhhhh” in the chorus, the two men next to me lean back in… relief? Awe? Nerves? Raw emotion? There’s plenty of that flying around tonight.

Napolitano relaxes as the unbidden audience participation ramps up, with the crowd stamping, clapping and singing through various codependent classics like ‘New Orleans Ain’t Been the Same (Since You’ve Been Gone)’.

She takes to the piano for a rendition of ‘Don’t Take Me Down’ (“You walk like a dead man”), a song written with former lover Moreland in 1995 under the guise of Pretty and Twisted. Between songs, she reads beat poetry from her memoir, Rough Mix. There’s more talk of ghosts (“I talk to ghosts. I love them”) and more gratitude laden on the audience for putting up with her.

The haunting melody of ‘Tomorrow Wendy’ sets off goosebumps. Written by former Wall of Voodoo singer Andy Prieboy, it was adopted by Concrete Blonde for their classic Bloodletting album, and this tale of a woman dying of AIDS very much became their own.

After a brief disappearance from stage, Napolitano returns to treat us to ‘Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)’, which depicts the New Orleans of Anne Rice’s imagination. Then, during her a cappella version of Janis Joplin’s ‘Mercedes Benz’, Time Out’s companion – a renowned medium – suddenly sits bolt upright and looks like she’s seen a ghost. It would seem Napolitano’s not the only one feeling a presence. “Male aura, very powerful,” I duly scribble down, slightly agape at the unscheduled route this review is taking.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Napolitano’s black, off-kilter humour and stark, unbridled displays of emotions, though. It’s been an experience.