Starting a new weekly feature today, “Music Monday,” dedicated to retelling great stories about popular music from the last half century or so. Most of these stories have been told before, but all are compelling enough to warrant being told again.
If you’ve listened to American pop music over the last twenty years with any regularity, you are most certainly familiar with “Joey“, the 1990 single that has been the only hit to date for the enigmatic group Concrete Blonde. It’s never been my favorite song from them — I prefer their edgy takes on LA life, such as “Still in Hollywood” and “City Screaming” — but the opening power chord, combined with Johnette Napolitano’s booming vocals, have preserved the position of “Joey” in the soundtrack of my mind.
It’s definitely not a feel-good song; it’s not hummable, you can’t dance to it, and the lyrics are clearly about a man suffering from alcoholism (if you’re somewhere drunk and passed out on the floor). There are many theories about the song’s origin, but the most popular, and the one advocated by Napolitano in her musical autobiography “Rough Mix“, is that it was written about the singer’s relationship with Marc Moreland, guitarist for Wall of Voodoo and other bands (some of which also featured Napolitano). A dozen years after “Joey” made the charts, Moreland would die after a liver transplant necessitated by his alcoholism; Napolitano doesn’t mention her relationship with Moreland in a 2013 interview, but it’s clear from her description of how she wrote “Joey” that the song was written about a deeply troubling experience:
We did a demo with no lyrics. It was just like scratchy vocals, just me making sounds, basically, where I knew the melody would go. … I knew what I wanted to say, but I wasn’t looking forward to saying it.
Napolitano was in a cab, riding to the studio where she would provide the song’s vocals, when the lyrics finally came:
it’s just a matter of like a cloud’s forming and then it rains. The lines are forming in my head and they’re all in my head, and I know the chorus, and I know what I’m going to say. It’s just a matter of fine tuning the details and how I’m going to lug it out. And then it rains. The clouds all formed and it rained. And then it happened. And that was it. And it was just there.
A love song, written spontaneously, for a doomed man. It’s eerily prophetic, tragic, and beautiful.