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Gentlemen

Praise for the series:


It was only a matter of time before a clever publisher realized
that there is an audience for whom Exile on Main Street or
Electric Ladyland are as significant and worthy of study as
The Catcher in the Rye or Middlemarch. The series is
freewheeling and eclectic, ranging from minute rock-geek
analysis to idiosyncratic personal celebrationThe New York
Times Book Review
Ideal for the rock geek who thinks liner notes just arent
enoughRolling Stone
One of the coolest publishing imprints on the
planetBookslut
These are for the insane collectors out there who appreciate
fantastic design, well-executed thinking, and things that make
your house look cool. Each volume in this series takes a
seminal album and breaks it down in startling minutiae. We
love these. We are huge nerdsVice
A brilliant serieseach one a work of real loveNME (UK)
Passionate, obsessive, and smartNylon
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Religious tracts for the rock n roll faithfulBoldtype
[A] consistently excellent seriesUncut (UK)
We arent naive enough to think that were your only
source for reading about music (but if we had our way
watch out). For those of you who really like to know
everything there is to know about an album, youd do well to
check out Continuums 33 1/3 series of books.Pitchfork
For reviews of individual titles in the series, please visit
our website at www.continuumbooks.com and
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3
Also available in this series:
Dusty in Memphis by Warren Zanes
Forever Changes by Andrew Hultkrans
Harvest by Sam Inglis
The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society by
Andy Miller
Meal Is Murder by Joe Pernice
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn by John Cavanagh
Abba Gold by Elisabeth Vincentelli
Electric Ladyland, by John Perry
Unknown Pleasures by Chris Ott
Sign O the Times by Michaelangelo Matos
The Velvet Underground and Nico by Joe Harvard
Let It Be by Steve Matteo
Live at the Apollo by Douglas Wolk
Aqualung, by Allan Moore
OK Computer by Dai Griffiths
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Let It Be by Colin Meloy
Led Zeppelin IV by Erik Davis
Armed Forces by Franklin Bruno
Exile on Main Street by Bill Janovitz
Grace by Daphne Brooks
Murmur by J. Niimi
Pet Sounds by Jim Fusilli
Ramones by Nicholas Rombes
Endtroducing by Eliot Wilder
Kick Out the Jams by Don McLeese
Low by Hugo Wilcken
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Kim Cooper
Music from Big Pink by John Niven
Pauls Boutique by Dan LeRoy
Doolittle by Ben Sisario
Theres a Riot Goin On by Miles Marshall Lewis
Stone Roses by Alex Green
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Bee Thousand by Marc Woodworth
The Who Sell Out by John Dougan
Highway 61 Revisited by Mark Polizzotti
Loveless, by Mike McGonigal
The Notorious Byrd Brothers by Ric Menck
Court and Spark by Sean Nelson
69 Love Songs by LD Beghtol
Songs in the Key of Life by Zeth Lundy
Use Your Illusion I and II by Eric Weisbard
Daydream Nation by Matthew Stearns
Trout Mask Replica by Kevin Courrier
Double Nickels on the Dime by Michael T. Fournier
Peoples Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm by
Shawn Taylor
Aja by Don Breithaupt
Rid of Me by Kate Schatz
Achtung Baby by Stephen Catanzarite
If Youre Feeling Sinister by Scott Plagenhoef
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Lets Talk About Love by Carl Wilson
Swordfishtrombones by David Smay
20 Jazz Funk Greats by Drew Daniel
Horses by Philip Shaw
Master of Reality by John Darnielle
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Gentlemen
Bob Gendron
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10
2008
The Continuum International Publishing Group lnc
80 Maiden Lane, New York, NY 10038
The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd
The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX
www.continuumbooks.com
33third.blogspot.com
Copyright 2008 by Bob Gendron
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by
any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying recording,
or otherwise, without the written permission of the publishers
or their agents.
Printed in Canada on 100% postconsumer waste recycled
paper
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Gendron, Bob, 1975-
Gentlemen / Bob Gendron.
p. cm. - (33 1/3)
eISBN-13: 978-1-4411-4625-0
1. Afghan Whigs (Musical group) 2. Alternative rock
musiciansUnited States. 3. Alternative rock musicUnited
StatesHistory and criticism. I. Title. II. Series.
11
M1.421.A326G46 2008
782.421660922-dc22
2008022030
12
13
Table of Contents
Dedicate It
Intro: Hard Time Killing Floor
I. Back from Somewhere
II. Bandwagonesque
III. Rebirth of the Cool
IV. Now You Know
V. Ladies & Gentlemen
VI. Take Me Away
VII. Epilogue: Each to Each
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15
Dedicate It
Many thanks to David Barker for taking the chance,
believing, and viewing music as art still worthy of meaningful
prose. Grazie mille to the original members of the Afghan
Whigs (Greg Dulli, John Curley, Rick McCollum, Steve
Earle) for agreeing to oft-lengthy interviews and, in Greg and
Johns case, giving me contacts, personal tours, valuable face
time, and honest responses; without their participation, this
book would not have been possible. Merci to Lee Heidel, for
contacts and music, and to Robert-Jan van der Woud, Keith
Hagan, and Chris DeVille, for contacts.
Journalistic integrity, diligent reporting, and historical context
are too often absent from the agenda-promoting opining that
today passes for music criticism. For setting and maintaining
an irreproachable standard, and being a good friend, sincere
thanks to Greg Kot. His writing has always been and remains
a primary inspiration. Thanks as well to my friend and
colleague Andy Downing for lending an ear and taking an
interest. And many thanks to my editors past and present
Jonathan Valin, Robert Harley, Chris Martens, Heidi
Stevens, Lou Carlozo, Kevin M. Williams, Carmel Carrillo,
Emily A. Rosenbaum, Scott L. Powersfor their expertise,
advice, and guidance.
Danke, to Jeannette Chernin for being a caring sister. Extra
thanks to Michael L. Miller for constant support and kind
words; a better friend doesnt exist. Utmost gratitude to my
mother, Nanette, who always permitted my music obsessions
and allowed me to work at an indie record store and travel to
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concerts long before I was old enough to drive. Most of all,
supreme love and thanks to my beautiful wife, Ann, for all of
the love, encouragement, faith, laughter, and patienceand
for going to the fateful Whigs concert with me in Austin one
week before our wedding. This book is for you, and in loving
memory of George J. and Leona Gendron.
And thank you, the reader, for purchasing this bookor at
least, browsing through it long enough to encounter this
passage. Like it? Hate it? Email me thoughts or questions at
afghanwhigsbook@yahoo.com. I will reply.
Unless otherwise noted, all factual information and quotes are
from the authors interviews or experiences witnessed
firsthand.
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18
Intro
Hard Time Killing Floor
Greg Dulli lies motionless on his left side. His body is
crumpled, his eyelids shut. The singers expression is blank,
his mind unconscious. His wavy black hair mashes up against
a pillow. Wrapped up in white sheets, Dulli looks limp and
frail, particularly in the eerie pall cast by the yellow-haze
sunlight filtering through the window. The bumpy outline of
his physique, like an ancient mummy, seems small and
insignificant. If not for the methodical blip of heart monitors
tracking his breathing, one could easily presume him dead.
He almost is. Dulli is in the midst of a fifty-hour coma that,
before it ceases, will see the singer flatline and receive Last
Rites.
As the Afghan Whigs frontman remains stationary on a bed in
an Intensive Care Unit at a downtown Austin hospital, bassist
John Curley slowly paces outside the rooms door, staring
down at the floor in disbelief. His solemnity has nothing to do
with the groups future, which, as an active band, will
effectively be over within a year. Hes concerned
about whether or not Dulli will surviveand if he does,
whether hell recover without suffering brain damage or
related health issues.
Hours before being forced into traction, Dulli led his
Cincinnati ensemble through a sweaty, revue-style concert in
front of a packed house on December 11, 1998, at Liberty
Lunch. Teasing out songs with impromptu banter and
snippets of Prince, James Booker, and Beatles tunes, the
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Afghan Whigs were again proving themselves the most
riveting live rock act goinga band so formidable onstage,
Dulli was able to convince Columbia Records to pony up the
money to allow the group to travel with horn players, backup
singers, and a pianist. Persuasive, smooth, and confident, hes
someone who doesnt easily take no for an answer or back
down from a challenge. Particularly when his friends are
involved or his ambitions questioned.
While they give no indication of prior turmoil during their
two-hour-plus show, upon arriving at the now-leveled Texas
venue, the Whigs are met with good-old-boy attitude. Along
with Dulli, opening act Alvin Youngblood Hart and
tour-support vocalist Steve Myers, both African-American,
customarily pound on the metal fire door in order to gain
entrance for soundcheck. An angry redneck greets them:
Niggers. The remark sends Dulli into frenzy. He grabs the
hick by his billy-goat beard, yanking him around as a pit bull
would a chew toy. After learning of the incident, Liberty
Lunch managers pledge to remove the offending employee.
The concert goes off as planned. But this being Austinland
of George W. Bush, and the very city where the Whigs were
sued by a girl who was accidentally nicked by a water pitcher
passed around in the crowdTexas-style justice is about to
be served.
Long after finishing the closing Miles Iz Ded, and at the
end of a scheduled after-show meet and greet, Dulli enters the
mens restroom to urinate. The last thing he remembers is
washing his hands. Its probably best that he not recall the
specifics of being hit from behind, smacked with what he
believes was a 2 x 4 before being kicked twice in the head
while he was already down. Or that he recollects his assault at
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the hands of a loser named Teitur, the same rube who rudely
answered the door and learned that Dulli isnt someone to
take lightly before milling about in the club so he, with
assistance from fellow bouncer Porkchop, could blindside
his target and fracture his skull. Or that Dulli relives hitting
the Lunchs unforgiving concrete floor, headfirst, with no
chance to reactlet alone fight back. Or that he reflects on
his pool of blood being left on the floor by Liberty Lunch
management, which concocted a false defense and protected
Teitur and Porkchop by sneaking the tandem out a side door
before police arrived and started asking questions. Or that he
knows that as news of the attack hits the wires, haters light up
Internet message boards saying the singer deserved his fate.
It takes a rare breed of artist to inspire such reactions. Keeper
of a radiant aura and mojo hand, Dulli knows this. Hes no
stranger to arousing passions, inciting opinions, and
provoking responses. Suave and debonair, the magnetic
front-man worked stages with a self-assured sensibility and
larger-than-life presence that went unrivaled during the
90san era when unkempt grunge noisemakers, punk-pop
pretenders, and cartoonish rap-rock oafs dominated, leaving
soul, style, and sensuality by the wayside. Dulli is a mans
manthe type who assists a male fan by doing the awkward
prom-dance asking for him, and the very next moment steals
away an undeserving
dudes girlfriend, all the while taunting her date. Does he
love you? Because if he doesnt, then meet me backstage, he
exclaimed with regularity during the Whigs 1965 tour, only
half-kidding. Dressed in a dark suit, puffing on Camels, and
sauntering as a casual playboy, he was the center of attention
every guy wanted to be and the sex symbol every tumed-on
girl wanted to fuck.
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And on Gentlemen, in he swaggers, the chain-smoking
assassin who has a dick for a brain, invading our dark
subconscious and secretive past. Like no record before or
since, Gentlemen is fraught with the psychological warfare,
bedroom drama, Catholic guilt, reprehensible deception, and
uncleansable shame that coincide with relationships gone
seriously wrong. Its seemingly thick skin is rife with
argument, infection, claustrophobia, temptation, accusation,
illness, addiction, blood, scourge, and spite. Certainly, the
albums psychoanalytic posturing, vindictive blame, and
sinister betrayal offer sanctuary for self-loathing romantics
and catharsis for unrepentant sinners. Yet behind the
bulletproof veneer and cocksure innuendo reside anguish,
sickness, pain, and disgust, emotions mirrored on the records
suggestive coverwhere two children, playing the grown-up
parts of embittered lovers, depict obvious disconnect, the
twisted image a potent metaphor for the albums themes of
anger, hurt, confrontation, disappointment, and contempt.
And then theres the music. Dullis liquor-cabinet confessions
are chased with some of the blackest-sounding rock ever
committed to tape by a white band. Hopped-up on primal
energy, the mesmerizing R&B, funk, slide-blues, garage, and
chamber-pop strains are tied to a come-hither soulfulness
perfumed with hyssop and stained with nicotine.
To this day, Gentlemen remains as cursed as its controversial
narrator, an album out of time even in its time. Released on
October 5, 1993, it has sold 162,000 copies, a respectable
number, but far fewer than works by many alternative
bands of the day. The situational ironies run deep. The
Afghan Whigs were the second non-Seattle and first
East-of-Denver artist signed to Sub Pop, the very imprint
whose meteoric rise helped launch countless coattail-riding
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groups with flannel shirts and four-day-old-growth
beardsthe same bands whose in-vogue distortion and
soft-loud songs ran contrary to the Whigs loose, sexy
dynamic. Gentlemen was the Whigs major-label debut, and
still it bore the hip black-and-white Sub Pop logo. Not that it
mattered. MTVs fleeting flirtation with Debonair mirrored
radios widespread disinterest. Despite glowing reviews and
feverish tour support, Gentlemen faded from view. And yet it
remains dearly beloved to almost everyone whos heard it,
taking its place amidst Richard and Linda Thompsons Shoot
Out the Lights, Marvin Gayes Here, My Dear, and Bob
Dylans Blood on the Tracks as one of the rawest, most
searing break-up records in history.
This book is about Gentlemen and how it came to bevia a
polarizing frontman whose fierce bravado, GQ appearance,
and gloves-off exuberance concealed deep-rooted mental
depression and chemical dependency; and the invaluable
contributions and chemistry of a driven quartet, whose
differing personalities, backgrounds, and tastes comprised a
band that truly sounded like no other. Its about
boundariesbetween North and South, black and white, rock
and soul, personal and private. Rivers and hills provide
Cincinnati with natural borders, but Dulli, Curley, guitarist
Rick McCollum, and drummer Steve Earle were too curious
to stay on their side
of the tracks, too obsessed with how blues, booze, drugs, and
sexstrictly taboo in their conservative hometowncould
ignite a groove, seduce a girl, and stroke the ego. Its a story
about what happens when intellectual sophistication and blunt
reflection are star-crossed with outspoken braggadocio, a
charismatic mixture that managed to alienate the mainstream
horde and arms-folded scenesters while, for good measure,
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instigated outsider jealousy, condescending rumors, and,
ultimately, insider sabotage.
Now.
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25
I. Back from Somewhere
When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati
because its always twenty years behind the times.
Mark Twain (attributed)
Cincinnati is nestled in the Southwest corner of Ohio, a
geographical location that stirs debate about whether or not
its a North or South cityor, for that matter, Midwest, East,
or West. Notoriously conservative and highly segregated,
most residents tend to stay within their own neighborhoods
and are very slow to adopt changes. Rolling green hills,
hidden enclaves, and wooded areas afford a bucolic setting
uncommon to most metro areas. It is beautiful country, and
nature makes its presence known everywhere you turn.
Downtown, the Ohio River separates the Queen City from its
nearby Kentucky neighbors of Covington and Newport. Both
are a one-minute ride away.
Settled in the late 1700s, Cincinnati was an abolitionist town
and stop on the Underground Railroad. For slaves lucky
enough to escape, freedom was potentially just a half-mile
swim away. Conversely, for those seeking vices, a jaunt over
to the Bluegrass State offered what the increasingly
moderating Cincinnati climes lacked: liquor, prostitutes,
drugs, and gambling. With such narrow borders separating sin
from temperance, and slavery from freedom, pronounced
tensions and divisions quickly developed.
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Bounty hunters camped in Cincinnati, hoping to recapture
slaves before they permanently disappeared into the North.
Abolitionists stumped there as well, risking their lives for
those of others. A major race riot erupted in 1829. And while
a majority of residents sided with the Union in the Civil War,
a number headed south in favor of the Confederacy. In the
same way it divided racial opinions, the citys straddling
bearings caused cultural clashes, with country bumpkins and
progressive urbanites claiming the same territory and further
muddling identity issues.
Today, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
sits off the Ohio Rivers banks in lower downtown. The base
of the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge looms in front of
the south entrance. Opened to pedestrians in 1866, the
stone-tower span served as the prototype for the Brooklyn
Bridgealso designed by Roeblingand remains the
primary pathway for automobiles and pedestrians traveling
between Covington and Cincinnati. Fittingly, the sound of a
car driving across the Suspension Bridgethe demarcation of
social, racial, and political boundariesmarks the beginning
of Gentlemen.
John Curley doesnt say a word as he drives his station wagon
across the Roebling overpass. He doesnt have to. In the
background, one can detect the haunted intro to Gentlemens
opening If I Were Going. Its a hot mid-May afternoon, and
the rubber grooves of the Mercedess tires are dancing across
the bridges metal grates, creating a buzzing sound thats
reminiscent of an agitated hornets nest. Most drivers
unconsciously tune it out. But listen closely, and the noise
produces uncomfortable, claustrophobic tones. It was here in
April 1993 that Curley hung a microphone out of his car
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while Dulli drove, capturing the perfect noir prelude to an
aurally cinematic drama.
Curley was bom March 15, 1965, in Trenton, New Jersey.
Save for his senior year of high school, he was raised in a
nuclear family environment in Delaware before moving to
Cincinnati for a photography internship at the Cincinnati
Enquirer. He hasnt left since. Solidly built and slightly
chunky, he now looks like a barrel-chested teddy bear.
Salt-and-pepper whiskers sprout like weeds throughout his
formerly all-black beard. He wears a plaid button-down shirt
over a white T-shirt, khaki pants, and Ray-Ban pilot
sunglasses. Bedhead hair rounds out his informal demeanor.
When Curley grins, a small gap between his upper left teeth
appears and adds to his laid-back charm. Eyebrows dominate
his forehead when he thinks. Calm and collected, he speaks
with a slight drawl. He currently plays in the Staggering
Statistics and runs Ultrasuede Studios, a red-carpeted spot
that would be right at home on the Partridge Family. Yet
everything about him confirms his primary occupation as a
devoted husband and father of two children.
I remember really liking music since about the time I was in
the first grade, Curley recalls, as Tom Pettys American
Girl plays on a Sirius Radio amidst the whooshing air
conditioning. I got a cassette player and would record my
favorite songs off the radio. I think its always been the twin
interests of music and recording. And I think photography
also falls into that because its using machines to be creative.
For a musician whose posture, physique, and approach evoke
those of John Entwistle, its only apropos that Curleys
motivation to pick up a bass at age fifteen came after hearing
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the Whos Quadrophenia. It was like hearing the bass for the
first time, he admits. A music teacher who forced him to
learn exercises and repeatedly practice taught him the basics.
Later, some cooled-out stoner jazzheads opened his mind up
to musical theory and improvisation. Absorbing the music of
Earth, Wind & Fire, Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas, the
Beatles, and Jesus Christ Superstar did the rest.
With the Whigs, I draw on stuff that I know will work. Greg
and Rick are more naturalthey dont have the intermediate
step of having to remember what works with what. They just
go there. I knew enough to be able to thread the gap, and
connect with the drums. So musically, that helped us. And
then, of course, having a singer like Greg.
Greg Dulli was born May 11, 1965, in Hamilton, a town
about twenty-five miles northwest of Cincinnati. Its where
hed spend his entire young life. Since his mother was a soul
fanatic and only eighteen years old when she delivered him,
Dullis childhood was filled with music. He recalls
purchasing his first single (the Jackson Fives I Want You
Back) when he was four and remembering his mom spin
Stevie Wonder, Temptations, Supremes, Lee Dorsey, Al
Green, and the like on the turntable. On visits to his
grandparents house in West
Virginia, he soaked up the country sounds of Conway Twitty,
Loretta Lynn, George Jones, and Kitty Wells. Neighborhood
kids exposed him to rock, with Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones,
Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Kiss being favorites.
I was in Kiss Army. I probably still amnever did get my
discharge, Dulli cracks, a shit-eating grin washing over his
face as he lounges in the living room of his
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late-eighteenth-century house on a sultry August day in New
Orleans. For a moment, his expressioncute, curious,
mischievousresembles that of an eleven-year-old who just
snuck a long peek at a gorgeous woman in the shower. Its a
look that repeats every time he has a good idea, turns wise, or
talks about what makes him happy.
Casually dressed in a blue polo shirt, shorts, and sandals,
Dulli exudes breezy California cool. His frame is more filled
out than it was a decade ago. Specks of gray color his tousled
hair. He gulps iced tea by the gallon and lights incense for
ambience. Yet aside from a mellower disposition, Dulli
possesses all of the savvy charm, contagious energy,
straight-shooting candor, and biting humor that have made
him a permanent part of alt-rock folklore. As he talks about
his upbringing and takes an extended drag from one of the
countless cigarettes hell inhale during the next nine hours, a
History Channel show about the Antichrist airs on a muted
television thats always left on to ward off wrongdoers. As if
picking up on the shows unpleasant vibe, the conversation
steers to Dullis strict father.
Unlike his supportive mother, Dullis music-alienated dad
refused to allow the singer to take any sort of lessons. But that
didnt hinder Dullis passion. A Catholic altar boy, he sang in
church but would occasionally accompany his neighbors to
their Baptist church. It was fun. Theyd throw-down
and people would start rolling their eyes in the back of their
heads and fall on the ground and speak in tongues. Im like,
Well youre fucking nuts, but theres the joyousness of it.
He also took up the drums, heading over to friends houses to
practice and pick up what he could. Other outsider
influencesHunter S. Thompson, Keith Richards,
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Cincinnatis uptightnessfed his early desire to experiment
with marijuana and cocaine. Religion had already lost its
hold, though its precepts would haunt Dulli for years.
I stopped going to Catholic church in the eighth grade
because I began to have philosophical differences. I found it
hypocritical. I told my mother, who was very Catholic, that I
didnt want to go to church anymore. She told me if I stated
my reasons in an essay, shed read it and decide if it was
okay. I wrote a three-page essay stating my reasons I wanted
to leave the Catholic church and left it on her dresser. When I
came home from school the next day, she sat me down. She
was crying. But she said I had stated my reasons and that I
wouldnt have to go to church anymore. I never went again.
At fifteen, Dulli joined his first band as the vocalist for Helen
Highwaternamed by Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Allen
Collins. While the group originally played Stones, Kinks,
Who, and Doors covers, a guitarist suggested that it become a
Skynyrd tribute act. Dulli bristled, leading to a betrayal that
shaped how he would view band organization and discipline.
Rather than being fired, Dulli discovered hed been replaced
by a Ronnie Van Zandt look-alike after hearing music waft
out of his old guitarists house and spying his former band
jamming in the basement. The experience devastated him. It
was like catching your wife fucking somebody else. It broke
my heart. I was like, Im not doing this anymore.
But once Dulli enrolled at the University of Cincinnati, band
life beckoned. He started the Black Republicans as a
freshman before dropping out and moving to Los Angeles.
After his mother got sick and needed him to serve as his
sisters legal guardian, Dulli returned to Cincinnati and
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reformed the Black Republicans, which became a going
concern by 1985. Around that time, Dulli began noticing a
weird, older dude he thought to be about forty coming out
to the shows. Finally, at the end of one gig, the seemingly
out-of-place fan came up to talk to him. It was Curley, who
made it a point to tell the vocalist he was a better bassist than
the one in the Black Republicans. Dulli took the bait. I said,
Well, come on out. Lets see what you got. I knew our
[bassist] was going back to college. And he was great. To this
day, my favorite bass player Ive ever played with.
The two had actually met once before, at an apartment, under
less-auspicious circumstances. Dulli was writing somebodys
term papers and got distracted by the sounds of the Allman
Brothers Bands One Way Out being blared at loud,
shaking-the-pictures-off-the-wall levels from across the hall.
Ironically, Dulli was a fan of the band and the album (Eat a
Peach) but insists the volume was unbearable. I went to
knock on the door and said, Youve got to turn that down,
man. The guy who answered was the dude who came to our
gigs. And I remember peaking in the door and seeing some
freakish long-haired dude sucking on a bong who turned out
to be Rick.
Rick McCollum was born July 14, 1964, in Louisville,
Kentucky. Like Dulli, he was brought up Catholic and started
playing drums in junior high. But he soon switched to guitar,
self-learning from playing records back at half-speed.
McCollums mother died when he was just twelve, and his
father, who passed ten years later, was already on his way to
an early grave via alcohol abuse. Understandably shy and rail
thin, McCollum admits to having been a loner throughout his
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childhood and tenure in the Whigs. His mysterioso reticence
inspired the nickname Moon Maan.
Greg gave it to me because Im a smart guy but at the same
time I was very quiet and hard to pinpoint, says McCollum,
talking on the phone from his home in Minneapolis. I didnt
really get close to anybody. Nobody could ever bond with me
and I kept a shield around me from everyone. I didnt put too
many opinions out just because thats the way I was; it hides
your personality.
Hes super quiet, very polite, and pretty inward, confirms
Dulli. I could tell he was one of those in-his-room kids, had
no friends, and played guitar twelve hours a day. And thats
exactly what he turned out to be: a savant. Not that
McCollums Type B personality meant that he was someone
to pick on. Rick is like tightly wound cable, cautions Dulli,
who often introduced McCollum onstage by saying, Folks,
you dont have to do heroin. You just have to look like you do
heroin.
He has no body fat even though he just piles donuts in his
mouth. I remember when Steve Earle took him on. Earle went
from upright to on his back in less than a second. It was
fucking Matrix-type shitswift and surreal. In that
half-second that he went down, I made a mental note: Dont
fuck with Rick.
Even though he grew up in Kentucky, McCollum remained
mostly unaware of Southern Rock until his college years and
didnt play slide guitar until Dulli later tasked him with the
challenge. Instead, McCollums tastes gravitated to 70s R&B
such as Earth, Wind & Fire, Bootsy Collins, and
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Brickmusic that focused on the grooves and beats first and
foremost, and riffs and vocals second. Its a soul music type
of thing. It might be geographical, where, the further south
you go, the more prevalent it is.
After the Black Republicans broke up, McCollum continued
to jam with Curley. Dulli relocated to the Arizona desert,
where he worked a midnight shift, taught himself guitar, and
wrote half of the songs for what became the Whigs
self-released and roughly amateurish debut, 1988s Big Top
Halloween. He joined a band called Bakersfield Mistakethe
moniker referencing VD the bassist caught while gallivanting
in Bakersfieldwhose lifespan was cut short after said
bassist screwed the drummers girlfriend. Aptly, a sexual
liaison led to the advent of the Afghan Whigs.
Bored and without a band, Dulli moved back to Cincinnati
with the intent of starting his own group. He was also sitting
in with Curley and McCollum, who were trying out
drummers. Dulli explains: They didnt get any drummers
that were as good as me. I said, Dont get that guy. Dont get
that guy, either. Then Rick put up an ad and Steve Earle
answered. Steve was a great drummer. Thats when I was
like: This could be cool. So maybe Ill stay as the second
guitar player and singer.
Steve Earle was born March 28, 1966, in Cincinnati. Raised
by Protestant-Catholics, he became enamored with the drums
after attending a ninth-grade sock-hop dance at which he
noticed the drummers double-bass kit. It sounded so
powerful, he says on the phone from his home in Ohio. I
loved the way it looked and seeing how much fun the guy was
having. Thats pretty much it: Its loud, its cool, Ill do it.
34
Primarily influenced by Keith Moon, John Bonham, and
Ringo Starr, and a fan of some heavy metal, Earle took
lessons from an old-school jazz hound that steered him
toward Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich, and Philly Joe Jones. His
tolerant parents-who appear in leather in the Whigs
Debonair videoallowed band practices in their basement.
Earle had attended University of Cincinnati for two years
when he tried out for the Whigs. The audition consisted of
playing the Temptations Psychedelic Shack, Zeppelins
Rock and Roll, and the Churchs One Day (McCollum
had a flair for goth), as well as a few other covers. By
Halloween 1986, the quartet was loosely rehearsing.
Christened by Curley as a play on the name Black
Republicans, the Afghan Whigs performed their first show at
Jockey Club in December 1986.
From the startthey quickly became a regular attraction at a
local lesbian pool hallit was clear the Whigs werent going
to be a typical college-rock band. The members claimed
disparate personalities, interests, and backgrounds, and yet,
these differencesand some common bondsmelded into a
distinctive being. Dulli also possessed uncommon vision and
organizational skills. Determined not to repeat the errors of
his previous groups, and inspired by the machine-like
precision of James Brown, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Berry
Gordy, he took charge and put the band through boot camp.
Two other influences weighed heavily on Dullis progressive
shaping of the Whigs into an explosive act that appealed to
both sexes. I saw the Zen Arcade tour and it changed my
life. Hsker D was something primal, really intelligent, and
overwhelmingly powerful and beautiful. I also remembered
that at lots of the punk rock shows I went to, there was a
35
preponderance of dudes. I remember thinking: There are a lot
of dudes here. Theres got to be some way to have there be
not so many dudes. The answer to that was black music,
because you could dance to it. Girls liked it, pretty girls liked
it, pretty girls will stand in front of the dudes. Thats what you
want. A lot of hardcore and punk lacked sexuality. And I like
sexuality. And I like sensuality. When I first saw Prince, I
was [blown away]. Id say the 1999 and Zen Arcade
tourswhich I saw around the same timewhile divergent,
were wildly similar and equally inspirational. You could say I
spent the rest of my life trying to reconcile those two
experiences.
Before such enterprising ambitions took hold, the Whigs got
their ya-yas out. Stages doubled as spaces for wrestling
matches. Multiple occasions found members too liquored-up
to play. Equally stubborn, Curley and Dulli knew exactly how
to annoy each other. In Montana, they stopped the van on the
side of the road, got out, and brawled. At a show at Bunrattys
in Boston, Curley smacked Dulli upside the head with the
headstock of a bass. Dulli retaliated by taking off his guitar
and dropping Curley with one punch. The melee continued
backstage, where the promoter informed them they hadnt
fulfilled their contractual commitments and needed to
continue if they wanted their pay. The Whigs had no choice.
No money meant theyd be marooned.
And as they did that night in Massachusetts, the group split up
countless times. Even as Dulli was leaning on the band to get
serious, uncertainty ruled. No one was paying attention, but
we broke up right before we got the call [to do the
seven-inch single] from Sub Pop, recalls Dulli. We went to
play one more gig. That concerta Wednesday night Rock
36
Against Depression show at Chicagos Metro, which by then
had already made certain the band was a regular part of its
schedulesaved the Whigs.
Sometimes you just get so excited about a band, or someone
in a band, or what they are doing as a band, that you work
hard to support and help and plan and plot and co-conspire,
gushes Metro owner and early Whigs convert Joe Shanahan.
We were like, How much more can we do for these guys?
This has to continue.
Shanahan got his wish. Soon after having after-show drinks at
Smart Bar with Curley, Shanahan, and former Metro booking
agent Fred Darden, Dulli phoned Sub Pop co-owner Jonathan
Poneman: Okay, well do the single. Days before, Dulli had
actually told the Seattle tastemaker no.
37
38
II. Bandwagonesque
Were the Whigs to emerge in todays entertainment-obsessed
and information-overloaded age, they wouldnt remain
unknown for long. Nowadays, a band, no matter how good or
bad, has to strive for anonymity or obscurity. And even then,
given the preponderance and enthusiasm of bloggers, theyre
unlikely to succeed.
But during the late 80s, attracting attention was a slow,
arduous process. No Internet meant that underground groups
didnt have the fortune of happening upon a record deal,
posting a Myspace page, or being crowned Spins Artist of
the Day. Affordable home recording wasnt yet an option.
Venues were scarce. Funds were nonexistent. Word-of-mouth
buzz, regional touring, and demo tapes did the heavy lifting.
A small network of sympathetic promoters, club owners,
managers, and labels was only beginning to develop.
At the time, it was only Bob Lawton, Steve Carl, and our
agency, remembers former Bulging Eye promoter Scotty
Haulter, who became the Whigs first manager shortly after
Dulli gave him a cassette at a concert. There werent venues
in every town. People would rent out VFW halls or do shows
on whatever money they could scrounge up. It was really
exciting. You did it for a lot of different reasons.
If anything, the challenging conditions weeded out lesser
bands given the fact that groups were forced to earn their due
rather than rely on unsubstantiated hype drummed up by
publicity teams. At the time Sub Pop first got word of the
39
band, the Whigs were getting about $100 per show, a case of
beer and, if they were lucky, a floor on which they could
crash. Not that they expected much.
At home in Cincinnati, every member save Curley roomed at
a mangy four-bedroom house at 2340 Flora Street. Doubling
as party central for the surrounding area, the Whigs version
of Fulton Street mirrored a low-rent frat house. A single light
bulb illuminated the porch. Rickety wooden stairs led to the
front door. Empty beer bottles littered the lawn. Rent totaled
$300 a month. And even with five guysHaulter and a
rotating cast of associates bunked there to help keep bills to a
minimumone man was always short his $60 share.
Amazingly, the accommodations represented a step up for
Dulli and McCollum, who had previously shared an
efficiency apartment.
The Whigs practice space was equally econo. Looking to
vacate Earles parents basement, they were invited by a
bohemian couple to play in a tarpaper house on the comer of
Luckey and Vinton. Despite the structures leaning angles,
broken windows, and rotting wood, the setback
locationsnuggled in a hollowwas ideal. No one
complained about volume levels as the band worked up the
chops necessary to secure better time slots at local venues
such as Sudsy Malones, Jockey Club, and Bogarts.
It was at one such show in 1988 when the Whigs scored an
opening gig for the Fluid, a Denver act that at the time was
the only non-Pacific Northwest band on Sub Pops roster. As
was typical for the cash-starved imprint, Fluid drummer
Garrett Shavlik served as one of the labels unofficial talent
scouts. Liking what hed heard at the concert, he mentioned
40
the Whigs to label honcho Jonathan Poneman, who told
Haulter to send off a demo tape. Despite agreeing with
Shavliks taste, Sub Pop didnt act immediately. The label
wanted to keep its exclusive Northwest focus. Striking a deal
with the Whigs would compromise the balance.
Finally, an intern convinced the powers-that-be that
something needed to be done. A 45-RPM single for Sub
Pops Singles Club made the most sense. Poneman extended
the offer, which came with an invite to play a show at
Seattles now-defunct Squid Row club. While most bands
wouldve drooled over such an opportunity, the Whigs took a
wait-and-see approach. A sizing-up courtship dance between
the broke label and the equally broke, little-known band
ensued.
I think all parties involved wanted to see what the other had
to offer, admits Poneman. So youre Sub Pop, huh? What
the fucks up with you? You guys are hot shots from
Cincinnati? What the fuck are you all about? And why the
fuck do you live in Cincinnati? It wasnt anything hostile.
Everyone just wanted to see what the other party had to
offer.
We did the single [I Am the Sticks, limited to 1,500
copies] and went out and played, says Dulli. And those
guys are like, You should move to Seattle. And were like,
No. And theyre like, Maybe well call you. And were
like, Alright. I think [it was] the fact that we said no at first
and then said we wont move out there. It probably was basic
human nature:
41
Our resistance made us more interesting. That and a potent
show in front of just twenty people led to a Sub Pop dealthe
first for a band east of the Rockies.
The thing that sold me was passion, great songwriting, a
very spirited vocal delivery, and a fucking incredibly intense
live performance, explains Poneman. [And] Gregs
song-writing. He was and remains a great lyricist and the sort
of singer, particularly in the live context, which is riveting.
He really had a soulfulness. Not soulful in an R&B context,
but something where you felt like he was really exorcizing
some demons and really pouring out his heart in his vocal
delivery. It was somewhat evident in those early demos but it
was so completely front-and-center when we saw them
perform. They were very much a band with a point of view
and cohesion. Those guys, early on, really were like
brothers.
The bond extended to how the band coughed up the money
for a lawyer at the contract signing. Part of the payment was
a bag of quartersliterally. Unrolled. But we put rollers in
there, so he could do it, laughs Dulli, who was then working
odd jobs as a painter, roofer, cook, photo technician, and
cabbie. Those quarters might have come from Earle, who
took them from his dad, who did candy machines for a living.
Then we had a bag of quarters in the back of the van to beat
somebody in the head with in case they tried to steal our shit.
We were fucking classy.
Classy enough to meld in with an enviable roster of misfits
that included a lanky quartet singing about a girl named
Sickness being hounded by crotch-sniffing dogs (Mudhoney),
a butcher howling about drunkards driving a pickup on a
42
barely frozen lake (Tad), and a band bemoaning a broken
heart while lauding masturbation (Nirvana). Fitting
in with the labels grunge sound would be another matter.
Like nearly every Sub Pop album made in the late 80s, the
Whigs Up in It was cut with the labels inhouse producer,
Jack Endino. During the week in September 1989 when the
band recorded at Reciprocal Recording studios, everybody
slept on Ponemans floor. Noisy and boozy, the record
confirmed the groups Midwestern rock/post-punk influences
and effort to blend in with Sub Pops murky rawness. Still,
there are faint hints of the soulful and lyrical elements that
would later blossom. And right from go, the Whigs played
more notesand more dynamicallythan their peers.
I was trying to fit in with the Sub Pop sound, admits Dulli.
So things got faster, things got heavier. Although a couple of
songsSon of the South and SouthpawSub Pop hated.
They were like, You cant put those on there. Im like,
Fuck you, man. Watch. Sounding apart from anything Sub
Pop had ever released, Ciaphas was a tune Dulli didnt even
try to sneak by the style police. Endino warned the band
ahead of time. We tried to record it for Up in It and Endino
said, Theres no way theyll go for this. The song would
reemerge four years later with new words and a new title:
My Curse.
Up in It was very consciously a Sub Popstyled grunge
record, says Poneman. They had a lot of other things going
on musically but recording with Endino, the whole
presentation was something they had tailormade to fit our
vibe. Thats not to say the songs wouldnt have been that way
anyway; they were more conscious about that sort of thing.
43
With the later records the R&B thing really started to emerge.
The one thing I remember about the Afghan Whigs and Up in
It in particular is that we had, up to that point, really nailed it
with our graphic identity.
Frequently distinguished by Charles Petersons
black-and-white jacket photos and symbolic cover art, Sub
Pop albums were instantly identifiable and of the moment.
Because of the labels aesthetic reputation, the Whigs
surrendered control of the artwork and almost immediately
regretted the decision. Perhaps confounded by the bands
singularity, the label choked. Dulli recalls the ugliness.
The arm was going sideways. It had not been airbrushed at
all. The back was an orange-and-black nightmare. The
lettering was orange on the front. We were fucking mortified.
I came up from Key West and we were starting the tour. I
remember calling [Sub Pop] from a pay phone and going, I
fucking hate you. Look what you did to us.
Dulli quickly stepped in and orchestrated a redesign. While
some first-edition copies still circulate, the refurbished
coverfeaturing a vertical arm on the front and, on the
flip-side, Curleys bracing black-and-white snapshot of a
young, defiant black girl leaning on a stereo speaker standing
in front of a weathered Cincinnati building tagged with
FUCK YOU graffitiprevented the Whigs debut from being
the worst-looking Sub Pop album in history.
No design problems plagued 1992s Congregation, whose
commanding cover imagea nude African-American woman
holding a crying, white, equally naked baby girl while seated
on a dark red blanketsuited the bands increasing
44
incorporation of black influences. The thought-provoking
picture (the flipside art depicts the same pair staring upward)
can be interpreted as a metaphor for black music existing as
the birth mother for every style that followed. It could also be
an extrapolation of the undefined albeit twisted relationship/
racial issues broached on the title track of the bands 1990
Sister Brother single, a song whose twinkling piano accents
hinted at the groups creative growth.
Less than two years removed from Up in It, Congregation
drastically improved upon the former in the areas of
songwriting, diversity, and subtlety. Without forsaking their
rambunctious rock roots, the Whigs latched on to the funk,
swagger, eroticism, and innuendo that would from then on
distinguish them from all comers. Arrangements reflect a
pronounced shift toward soul and McCollums riveting slide
guitar work. I cant recall yet if Im black or if Im white and
wrong, Dulli staggers on the title track, the lyric seemingly
anticipating the passionate reactions that awaited the bands
fusion of North and South via Southern soul smoothness,
garage bluster, and hip-swaying soul.
Congregations role in the Whigs evolution isnt restricted to
the bands gradual development of its own sound. Apparent
from the start of the brief mood-setting intro, the record
marks the beginning of the Whigs viewing albums as a
unified constructa concept they enhanced and perfected on
Gentlemen. Dripping with hedonistic desires, Congregation
also witnessed the bands brotherhood tighten via an unlikely
source.
McCollum explains: The major bonding thing in
Congregation was that all three [Curley, Dulli, McCollum] of
45
us knew Jesus Christ Superstar. I listened to it a lot when I
was five or six. It was that Catholic thing. We were all
Catholic boys growing up. That suppression. At the same
time, we had the most evil thoughts in our heads but tended to
laugh about them. It was something that separated us from
other people and other bands. That the band ironically
happened to rehearse Congregations lustful material at Our
Lady of Perpetual Helpa shuttered church/convent/school
complex located
directly across from a field where Pete Rose played Little
Leaguehad to have only helped matters.
Like McCollum, Dulli also took to Jesus Christ Superstar as
a boy after hearing his babysitter play the record. The groups
decision to cover the rock operas flea-market-evoking The
Temple on Congregation is concurrent with Dulli inhabiting
the guise of a glorified pusherman over the course of the
albums thirty-nine-plus minutes. Here is where his oversized
ego and oversexed personality first appear. Like the
merchants in The Temple who believe theyre bigger than
Jesus, the singer embraces a bacchanal identity. Too much of
everything isnt enough.
A stream of searing one-liners, titillating imagery, disposable
admissions, and lewd proposals make evident that Dulli has
settled into the role of devils playthingand philanderer. His
intentions are illicit and insidious; scruples and morals dont
enter his vocabulary. Theres no need or want for absolution.
As such, the predatory invitations (Tonight), submissive
behaviors (Im Her Slave), dominating assertions (Conjure
Me), manipulative persuasions (Let Me Lie to You), and
scathing put-downs (Dedicate It) find him in control.
Dullis conscience is clearor, at the least, any guilt is
46
couched too far back in his mind to matter. Hes too busy
making the rounds (It was all just meat to me / You were
only meat to me, he coos on This Is My Confession) to
ponder any personal culpability, embarrassing shame, or
equitable blame. After all, all is fair when playing the field.
However steeped in callous circumstances and cunning
maneuvers, Congregation is as compunction-free as the
frontman is lascivious. The self-loathing and self-reproach
would wait.
So would the bands labelfor a pair of eleventh-hour
additions, one of two similarly timed fateful twists that would
alter the groups fortunes. Wed already turned in the
artwork, explains Dulli. I remember calling Poneman and
saying, Ive got two songs I have to record. One of them has
to be on the record. It will just be uncredited at the end.
The feverish song, Miles Iz Ded, and its memorable Dont
forget the alcohol chorus, served as the consummate finale to
an album that reintroduced carnal delightsand the enticing
prospect of getting into the opposite sexs pantsback into
an indie-rock era primarily defined by angst, depression, and
downers. Dullis other last-minute idea, an invigorating cover
of the Supremes My World Is Empty Without You, had an
even greater impact. As the B-side to Conjure Me, it
became the bands breakthrough in England.
In addition to the songs, the other unexpected albeit
unsurprising developmentSub Pops dire financial
straitsforced Dulli to change his address. While the band
recorded Congregation in July and August 1991 at a
professional studio in Woodinville, Washington, mixes and
overdubs were handled in Californias Sun Valleyan
47
outpost as sweltering as the towns name implies. That place
was like a jail cell, says Curley. Gregs sentence was a little
longer than mine. I got paroled early back to Cincinnati.
That was right when Sub Pop ran out of money, sighs Dulli,
who suddenly found himself stranded outside of Los Angeles.
I was supposed to be able to get the money to go home but
they didnt have any money for a plane ticket or a rental car. I
was stuck. I had to get a job. I moved in with my girlfriend.
She would soon be immortalized.
48
49
III. Rebirth of the Cool
The Congregation tour was the beginning of people coming
to see us and selling out places because the Afghan Whigs
were playing. We were starting to get something going:
getting good reviews, having a lot of good shows, going back
to places we had played before, and playing bigger places.
Like every member of the Whigs, John Curley fondly recalls
the groups late 1991 to mid-1993 tours. But the bassist
admits that they were on the road for so longthe band
crisscrossed Europe and the States multiple timeshe cant
remember specific details. Neither can Dulli. The vocalist
estimates that the Whigs played between 230 to 240
concertsa staggering number considering that, save for a
few exceptions, the band, soundman Steve Girton, and a
manager tooled around in a van while towing a trailer full of
gear.
And nothing tests a bands will like being cramped together in
a van for weeks at on end, always seeing the same faces,
killing down time between shows, and rarely getting any
privacy. When they could afford a cheap motel, logistics
dictated that only two people got their own beds. Under such
duress, a groups bond either strengthens or everyone comes
out hating each others guts.
For Dulli and Curley, road life meant long shifts behind the
wheel. Earle only drove when supervised. In Oregon, he took
off from a gas station with the pump still attached to the
vehicle. On another occasion, the drummer landed in the
50
wrong state after everyone else had fallen asleep. McCollum
was permanently barred from chauffeur duties due to the fact
that hed gotten in a wreck in his own driveway. That allowed
plenty of time for playing pitch, reading, and listening to the
radio, with Dulli absorbing tunes to work into the bands
ever-evolving live sets.
While the Whigs never lacked for onstage chemistry, the
Congregation tour witnessed the band transform into the kind
of supremely tautalbeit spontaneously loosewell-oiled
machine that Dulli revered about James Browns old groups.
Such mastery only comes from collective experience and
playing in front of crowds night after night.
You get to know each other so well, you can almost read
each others minds. It becomes almost telepathic, says Earle
of the bands knack for both flexible changes and tight
grooves. Thats what I found what happened with John. It
also comes from growing up on some of the similar
influences and going where the other person would assume
youd go with the riff.
For the microphone-phobic McCollum, concerts became
outlets for self-expression. I always stressed in the back of
my mind that there is nothing more boring that watching
someone holding a piece a wood and playing something.
After a certain point, the guitar has to be an extension. To be
able to
be lively onstage was the main thing I wanted to do. Thats
the only place I became extroverted: onstage with the guitar
on me. I had this little bubble around me but at the same time,
Id connect with the audience and make it feel like Im not
from this world. Not to have to look at your guitar when
51
youre playing [becomes] second nature. This is a person up
here with just an extension of his body thats playing and
writhing with the beats. It makes for a more interesting stage
show.
Rick really shines when he thinks no one is paying attention
to him, adds Curley. As soon as he thinks youre paying
attention or looking at him, he starts doing it differently. But
when hes just over there doing his thing and he thinks no one
is paying attention, its magic. With McCollum surprising
from the shadows, Earle bringing up the rear, and Curley
functioning as the soldering agent, Dulli pushed it all over the
edge.
You get good or you go home, says the singer, describing
the Whigs anything-goes shows and cover-song mash-ups.
You either evolve and make it fresh to yourself every night
or youre fucking dead in the water. Youre a cover band. It
would be as simple as I heard this song on the radio on my
way here and this kind of sounds like that. Or this would fit
over that. Youre sharing with the audience, who clearly
knows the song too. Its as simple as making someone smile
out of recognition in the audience. Youre connecting.
No two shows were the same. Performances reacted to the
crowds moods, the days headlines, and the citys locale. As
the bands interplay advanced, Dullis legend as an
uninhibited frontman who bantered with the crowd, took
requests, challenged hecklers, blew cigarette smoke in
peoples faces, called out lackadaisical concertgoers, quoted
popular song lyrics, dished on the history of rock and roll,
offered up opinions
52
on pop culture, and acted as the superlative ladies man began
to spread. So did the Whigs reputation for stringing together
smart medleys that sandwiched their own songs around
related covers.
The bands affinity for Motown and Stax, as well as its
unabashed love for great pop hooks, surfaced nightly in
extended versions of Turn on the Water and You My
Flower. Partial renditions of tunes such as the Beach Boys
Surfer Girl, the Shirelles (via Carole King and Gerry
Goffin) Will You Love Me Tomorrow, and the balladic
standard Blue Moon helped establish mood, underscore
irony, and eradicate tension. The soul music excursions,
seat-of-the-pants improvisations, and candid dialogues were
as foreign to the grunge/shoegazer era as the Whigs visual
appearance.
Never known for flying the flannel, the band made a
deliberate attempt to stand apart from the alt-rock scene,
whose fashions were already being exploited by national
retailers. For the Whigs, ripped jeans, tennis shoes, rumpled
T-shirts, cutoffs, and long hair were out. Formal
button-downs, suit coats, turtlenecks, the color black, and,
most noticeably, short hair were in. Just as grunge bands
scraggly looks seemed congruent with their fuzzy distortion,
the Whigs stylish makeover paralleled their increasing
panache and sophistication.
Dulli recalls waking up one morning in Basel, Switzerland,
after having passed out drunk the night before. There
obviously had been a party in my room. There was a naked
girl in bed with me. As I got up, there were booze bottles
everywhere. CD covers with smeary shit on them.
53
Overflowing cups of cigarettes. And a garbage can filled with
bottles with hair all over them. Im like, Wow, somebody cut
their hair.
And then I went like this [brushes his hand through his hair],
and Im like, Oh god, its me!
I remember that it upset some people. Looking back on that
gang, I was kind of the first dude to cut his hair. I remember
thinking about David Bowie. He would be one thing and then
he would not be that. And then Prince. Im like, Lets draw
the line between us and the flannel bands right now. It was
conscious and calculated. And entirely successful.
The Whigs also benefited from the seemingly overnight sea
changes occurring within the music industry. The
Congregation tour overlapped with college rocks categorical
mutation into alternative rock. Bands that had struggled to fill
small clubs were now headlining big theaters. Heavy metal,
butt rock, and overproduced pop died quiet deaths. MTV and
radio stations switched up their formats and playlists to
incorporate the new sounds, even though many of the days
leading bandsSoundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains,
Faith No More includedplayed a hard-rock style not far
removed from what was deemed outmoded. Seeking to cash
in on a trend and disguise their late-to-the-game ignorance,
major labels opened up their wallets and scrambled to fill
their rosters with acts that had any connection (real or
imagined) to Seattle. For artists being wooed by the big boys,
there was no better bartering chip than being tied to Sub Pop.
Every label wanted to sign a grunge band from Seattle, says
Curley. They wanted a Sub Pop jewel in their crown. We
were straight with everybody, but those guys had so much
54
money. My god. The only time they spend it on you is when
theyre trying to get you to bed. Once you put the ring on, the
money stops and the accounting starts.
Dulli was also mindful of the wining-and-dining stakes.
Not one to suffer fools, he recognized that the mad signing
spree was like nothing that had ever occurred in history and,
therefore, was unlikely to happen again.
I was really conscious of the shelf life of that sort of
spending frenzy. I flew around for a while and talked to
everybody. I did a bunch of stuff I always wanted to do, he
says, naming visits to swank hotels, meals at four-star
restaurants, and dugout seats at Yankee Stadium. I wasnt
being disingenuous. They were calling me, and I was the
manager of the band at that point. We had no manager. I did
all of the meetings. I helped draw out the contract. And I did
not take a percentage. That was my fringe benefit. There was
a degree of calculation going on. And it wasnt a one-way
calculationthey were calculating too.
In the end, Elektra won out over the other dozen-plus suitors
because of personnel, size, and repute. We signed with
Elektra because we had somebody there that had been a fan of
the band for a long time and supported us coming up,
explains Curley. He had the support of the president, it was a
small company, and they had put out great rock records in the
past. We felt we were going to be part of something that was
going to continue to be what it was.
Dulli concurs. It was the smallest label. The other labels
were so massive. Getting lost in the shuffle was uninteresting
to me. Elektra did Ween, Metallica, the Cure, and Jackson
55
Browne. They were wacky. They had Bjrk! I liked the
eclectic nature of the label and it had a cachet. And I liked a
lot of the people on the staff. Chief among those the band
admired was President and CEO Bob Krasnow, who, upon
arriving at Elektra in 1983, downsized the bloated talent
roster to ensure that every artist received dedicated attention.
Despite Elektras
major label status, the Whigs became just one of a few dozen
acts on the imprint.
Nobody dealt with the situation in a classier manner than the
Afghan Whigs, says Jonathan Poneman, talking about the
bands split with Sub Pop. I remember Greg saying to me, I
was just a boy when I came to the label and now Im a man.
Its kind of a corny thing to say but the sentiment behind it
was very true. They made a very fair deal. They treated us
with an enormous amount of personal and professional
respect. Its no coincidence that, fifteen years later, Dulli and
Sub Pop teamed up again.
Released as an EP in October 1992, the Whigs final
recording for Sub Pop, Uptown Avondale, epitomized the
bands soulful maturation. Haunted interpretations of Freda
Paynes Band of Gold, Percy Sledges True Love Travels
on a Gravel Road, the Supremes Come See About Me,
and Al Greens Bewareall deep tracks that address the
ravages of romancespoke to how deeply ingrained R&B
had become in the bands sound. In their own way, the Whigs
were paying tribute to and reviving a dormant Cincinnati soul
tradition that began in the 1950s with King Records, a local
race music imprint that recorded crossover singer Hank
Ballard, boogie-woogie pianist Ivory Joe Hunter, unsung rock
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pioneers Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris, and, most
famously, a young James Brown.
1
Queen City natives the Isley Brothers and Bootsy Collins
carried the torch into the 1970s.
And just as Uptown Avondales R&B flavors heralded a
major advance, the EPs pronounced shot on location
creditsit was recorded in early August at Cincinnatis
Ultrasuede Studios, then located in a loft space above a
pottery shop at 4046 Hamilton Avenueaffirmed that the
narrative organization alluded to on Congregation had come
full circle.
I began to see everything in a cinematic way where Im
telling a story, whether its abstract or linear, its a personal
statement of cinema verite, explains Dulli. Coming from
my background of studying film and taking the viewer or
listener on some kind of journey, it started with Uptown. That
is the bridge between the two versions of the Whigs.
Poneman agrees. The Whigs went on to forge a unique
musical perspective. I think in the records that they did for
Sub Pop, they were really just starting out. Uptown Avondale
was just a segue between what they were doing on Sub Pop
and the more R&B-tinged stuff that was really going to define
who they were.
To this extent, the bands chilling reading of Come See
About Me served as a sonic harbinger. While Diana Rosss
mood on the snappy Motown original is optimistic, the Whigs
shape her trios confident plea into a despondent call ridden
with dejection, loneliness, misery, and disgust. When Dulli
utters hurry, hurry at the coda, he barely manages to get the
57
words out of his mouth. He sounds as if hes lying facedown
on the floor, overcome with defeat, and certain that his love
isnt returning. Hes spurned, angry, crippled. Robbed of its
hopeful urgency, the song doubles as a disdainful
kissoffalbeit one on which the narrator, despite his wishes,
never gains the upper hand.
As Come See About Me intimates, absence may indeed
make the heart grow fonder but the endings arent always
happy. Too much time away stresses relationships by
triggering doubts, changing hearts, inviting temptations, and
hampering growth. Naturally, anyone that spends more than a
year away from home and tours the world is susceptible to
such circumstances and challenges. Succumbing to some
measure of debauchery is a foregone conclusion. Having the
foresight to understand the potential consequences isnt
nearly as automatic. It may not even be part of human nature.
Dulli first met Kris in her native Louisville when she was
twenty. The two were smitten with each other at first sight.
She became his first adult loveand, ultimately, the first and
last girl hed ever live with.
We lived together for a year. But during that year I was gone
almost the whole time. Whereas my indiscretions were
random and on a semi-nightly basis, she was probably
seeking consolation with a bit more permanence. When I got
back from the third [leg of the] tour, thats when she told me
she had hooked up with a new dude and he had been in our
apartment. Wow. I think I reacted in the way someone
raised in a patriarchal family in Ohio would react. It was in
retrospect that I began a closer examination of my
contribution toward the dysfunction of the relationship and
58
the fact that I was being a hypocrite. I did what she did. I just
did it with numerous people and it was what it was. Then I
began to examine my own failings and why the thing went
down.
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IV. Now You Know
Sometimes you can go home again. After splitting with Kris,
Dulli moved back to Cincinnati and into a place on Stettinius
Avenue located across from the park. Withdrawn and
depressed, the singer entered a solitary soul-searching period
during which his cat served as his primary companion. He
upped his drug use, began to sketch out lyrics, and immersed
himself in the universes of Van Morrisons Astral Weeks,
Marvin Gayes Here, My Dear, and Bob Dylans Blood on
the Tracksnot surprising given his fragile state.
Yet the record that received the heaviest amount of rotation in
Dullis apartment wasnt a 33 1/3-RPM LP but an old-school
soul 45-RPM single seemingly lost to everyone but dusty
show deejays, R&B aficionados, and crate diggers. And even
then, the singer didnt opt for the traditional A-side.
A chart-topping R&B smash and number-three pop hit in
May 1970, Tyrone Daviss sweeping Turn Back the Hands
of Time is a song of longing, regret, and second chances.
Recorded for Dakar Recordsa label that billed itself as
The Sound of Chicagothe tune is emblematic of Daviss
enviable pairings of velveteen and vice, grit and groove.
Upon hearing his voice, you dont need to see a picture of the
Mississippi-to-Chicago transplant to know that he was a
ladies man who proudly hung thick gold chains around his
neck, left his shirt unbuttoned at the chest, stuffed an oversize
handkerchief into the left pocket of his colorful smoking
jacket, and donned flashy pinky rings. According to producers
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Leo Graham and Leo Sacks, despite his flamboyant
personality, Davis was a down-to-earth gentleman.
That helps explain why I Keep Coming Back, the B-side to
Daviss biggest hit, sounds so sincere. On the surface, the
song (cowritten by Graham) is a crawling-back-to-you plea, a
tandem apology for mistreatment and declaration of true love.
Soul music is replete with myriad examples of such
confessionsthe aural equivalent of a dozen roses and a box
of chocolate. But Daviss on-his-knees proclamation goes
deeper. It speaks to a particular woman as an addiction that
the singer wants to drop but, like anyone caught in the throes
of a gripping dependency, lacks the willpower to quit.
Wasting no time, the songs opening lineI wanna leave
you / But I just cant leave youclearly identifies the vexing
emotional push-pull, with the conflicted protagonist soon
opening up about having recurrent nightmares. Its as if hes
an alcoholic going cold turkey and sweating out the DTs.
Even though he knows better and wants to break free, his
candid reflections and vulnerable state cause him to realize
how badly he craves his partner. He knows that he screwed
up, but hes not beneath begging, even screaming to return to
what he feels is home. Completely lovesick, he takes his most
serious oaths at the end of the song, swearing
his honesty and professing, I lay down and die, a sentiment
that can be read as both a barometer of pain and pledge of
selfless sacrifice.
Alternatively silky and ravaged, cool and embellished,
Daviss performance makes it all utterly believable. Never
once does it seem that hes going through the motions to
simply get back in his babys good graces as a way to bide
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time while he continues to play the fool. Over a slinky guitar
motif, delicate brass accents, and Willie Hendersons
sympathetic arrangement, Davis testifies like a junkie who
has hit rock bottom, mulled his mistakes, and is ready to
reform.
Dulli instantly bonded with the songs message and vibe. I
went to that song because it was my confessor, my friend in
the night. It was a comfort to me, a shoulder to lean on. Not
that he had time for much consolation. The Congregation tour
placed the up-and-coming band back onto stages with little
room for any breaks. The demanding schedule also meant
that, for the first and only time in its career, the band would
have to write an album on the road. And while the foursome
had collaborated on all preceding projects, an unspoken
expectation within the group meant that the need for new
material fell to Dullia responsibility that, contrary to
perceptions and reports that made him out to be a self-serving
egomaniac, he didnt invite.
I never wanted to do that. I really didnt. There was no
conscious Im taking over the band. To this day,
collaborating with people is one of my favorite things to do.
Dulli hadnt any premeditated plan or specific agenda when
he began writing for Gentlemen. While possessing such focus
helps shape concept albums, the approach also tends to
make them stiff, bloated, and restricted. Rather than come
together naturally, the results are forced to fit into a deliberate
schematic. Spontaneity, rebelliousness, emotion, and
loosenessbellwethers of great rock and rollare
compromised if not totally exhausted. For every Zen Arcade
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and Southern Rock Opera there are a dozen Kilroy Was Here
and Music from The Elder debacles.
With the vocalist free from topical constraints, Gentlemen
revealed itself in an organic manner. The early emergence of
the title track functioned as the starting point to something
bigger. I came up with the riff in Tampa and really liked it,
recalls Dulli. Everybody went to Clearwater to go
swimming. But I went back to the hotel and wrote, Your
attention, please [the first line of the song] and all of that
stuff. I had a melody during the soundcheck and started
writing the words. I knew then that would be the album tide.
Another verse was written en route to a hardware store; the
band was searching for a van part in swamp country.
Fountain and Fairfax soon followed. Dulli sensed that his
first batch of songs shared a similar vitriolic spirit, and
followed that muse when the band headed to Europe, where
he wrote a bulk of the albums lyrics. By late August 1992,
the group was trying out early versions of Gentlemen
onstage. Trial runs often featured Dulli singing different
words or simply uttering gibberish to fill the space.
A lot of times, I just scat lyrics, he explains, accounting for
the sometimes-incomprehensible verses of yet-unreleased
songs heard on bootlegs. Its mostly phonetic sounds that
sound good to me. I write the words last. I come up with the
riff, I arrange the song, and then Ill scat the melody on top of
the song. Ive never written the words first in my life.
Its all based on how the song is going to go, how am I going
to feel during the song.
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To anyone within earshot, there was no doubt about how or
what Dulli was feeling. In writing about intimately personal
issues before his wounds had a chance to scab over, questions
arose about whether the songs were appropriate for the
bandor whether his mates would want to plunge into such
dark, psychosocial worlds and angry fare. Understandably,
the singer had doubts.
I remembered being really self-conscious about it. When I
started listening to shit, Im like, Man Im dragging these
guys into the rabbit hole. I even asked the band and said,
Hey, we can go another way. I was prepared to disassemble
and reassemble if they wanted to. But they liked it. That they
went with me speaks volumes of the mutual respect in the
group, especially between me, Rick, and John. We were the
three who started the band. Thats not to discount Steve
Earle.
The group dynamic was reflected in the collective excitement
for the new material. Curley cites the moment that Dulli
devised the riff for What Jail Is Like while onstage in San
Sebastian, Spain, as one of his all-time favorite memories.
The songs ferocious bent is partially the by-product of its
hostile birthplace: Basque Country.
There were only a few so-called terrorists in the world at that
point. The [Basque organizations] were some of them. There
was some anticipation of getting to go there and see what that
was really like. The club was really weird. It was two rooms
divided by a triangular wall that came to a point right at the
center of the stage. Onstage you could see everybody but the
two sides of the room couldnt see each other.
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Divisionphysical and mental, real and imaginedis
a common concern on Gentlemen, surfacing most explicitly
on When We Two Parted and, to a lesser extent, on Be
Sweet, a song written in Bordeaux and debuted in Paris.
Composed toward the end of the writing cycle, both tunes
reflect transferences of anger and shifts in perspective. No
longer is Dullis finger exclusively pointing at someone else.
Its now up in his face as well. The tracks are also the only
original compositions on the album that feature a shared
writing creditboth given to McCollum.
I dont come up with Be Sweet without Ricks riff, Dulli
divulges. If you gave me a guitar, I dont know how he plays
that. You have to move your fingers into weird jazzy areas
that I dont know how to do.
McCollums guitar of choicea 1964 burgundy-mist Fender
Jazzmasterattests to his modesty and versatility. Known for
a biting treble and fluid lead action, and designed for the
player to have extra control when bending notes, the
instrument was originally marketed to blues and jazz artists.
Their dislike of the oddly shaped models proclivity for
feedback is precisely the reason why it became a favorite of
noise-inclined indie-rock artists such as Sonic Youth, My
Bloody Valentine, and Dinosaur Jr. McCollums utilization of
the Jazzmasters overlooked capabilities also extended to the
guitars pronounced slide tones and colorful textures, which
became fundamental to the Whigs soundand their
penchant for stringing together era-defying medleys.
As the Congregation tour progressed, the bands profile and
allotted stage time grew. Rather than draw from Up in It, a
record the group was now well beyond, the Whigs used the
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opportunity to take risks and play more soul. Three Supremes
songsMy World Is Empty Without You, Come See
About Me, I Hear a Symphonymade regular
appearances in sets. The bands reputation for embracing
black music preceded it everywhere.
No one really does that kind of music anymore, Dulli told a
Netherlands deejay during a September 1992 on-air interview,
responding to a question about the groups infatuation with
soul. Its kind of been forgotten except for oldies stations
and things like that. To my way of thinking its a style and art
form that never went out of style, and we want to remind
people that these songs are still there.
For their thanks, the Whigs were saddled with the hideous
soul-grunge tag. While selling them short, the label doubled
as a backhanded compliment: Its generic reach indicated the
difficulties critics were having in trying to pin down the
bands sound, which, even going back to Son of the South,
never subscribed to a conventional model.
John and Rick used to tell me things like, You cant do
that, says Dulli. And Im like, Why? Who says? There
are no rules in rock and roll. Its lawlessness. That is what we
are here for. We are here to break the rules. Thats the fun of
it.
Hence, Dullis idea of capitalizing on an everyday source for
the beginning of Gentlemen. Im very sensitive to sound. I
can conceptualize a sound and have it represent a place in
time. To me, the singing bridge was just a very lonely,
traveling sound. Traveling has always been a strong, powerful
metaphor for me because Ive done plenty of it. And Ive
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lived in so many different places. But my hometown was
grounding. As much as Gentlemen was written on the road, it
came together in Cincinnati.
Still above the pottery shop, Ultrasuede was again key,
serving not only as the recording location for the albums
opening track, but as the spot where the group fleshed out
arrangements and tracked Gentlemen demos. By spring 1993,
Elektra helped finance a European jaunt during which the
Whigs fine-tuned more material. As an added bonus, Dulli
met a Belgian girl with whom he had a short albeit very
passionate love affair.
It was Jane in particular who helped me move past all of the
stuff, he says. By that time I already had this thing sussed
out and ready to lay down. We came back from Europe and
were home for a month. Then we went to Memphis.
Its hard to imagine any studio more suited to the Afghan
Whigs tastes than Ardent. Its history is that of Memphis soul
and American music in general. Opened in 1966 with
equipment that owner John Fry schlepped over from a
rudimentary set-up at his parents garage, the facility has
hosted Leon Russell, Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers Band,
Rufus Thomas, and Albert King. Its where Led Zeppelin
recorded Led Zeppelin III, the Replacements cut Pleased to
Meet Me, ZZ Top made Tres Hombres, Fandango!, and
Eliminator, Cheap Trick laid down In Color, R.E.M. turned
Green, Cat Power perfected The Greatest, and the White
Stripes devised Get Behind Me Satan.
Ardents soul roots run even deeper. During the late 60s and
early 70s, it was the beneficiary of receiving clients from its
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neighbor down the street: Stax Records. The Staple Singers
Respect Yourself and Ill Take You There, Sam & Daves
Soul Man and I Thank You, and Isaac Hayess Hot
Buttered Soul comprise just a scratch list of the enduring
classics Ardent committed to tape. Local upstarts and
power-pop legends Big Star also cut its three studio
gems#1 Record, Radio City, Third/Sister Loversthere.
The experiences made a
lasting impression on Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, who,
years later, became Ardents managera position he still
holds. Back in the early 90s, he also served as a combination
talent scout/studio promoter.
All of us, and me in particular, were fans of Big Star, says
Dulli, describing the chance meeting with one of his heroes.
We were playing a gig in LA and Jody Stephens came.
Unbeknownst to me, he was running the show at Ardent. He
basically invited us to record our next record there. Im like,
Theres my man. Hes invited us to play at Ardent. This is a
slam dunk.
Indeed it was, both in theory and in practice. As a gear-head,
Curley was ecstatic to get the chance to record at a first-rate
studio. The initially overwhelmed McCollum appreciated the
better equipment and chance to improve upon the flat
production of Congregation. After meeting the staff in
advance, the band officially departed for Memphis in early
May. The Whigs bunked at the Oakwood, an apartment
complex converted from an old hotel located just ten minutes
away from the studio. Dulli cleared all of the potentially
sensitive logistical issues in advance.
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I told them that I would be producing the record. I knew
John Hampton, who was going to engineer the record, was a
producer in his own right. But this was very personal to me.
Even though I produced Congregation, on this one, I had to
have the final say. Before I came, I did not want it to be an
issue. I did not want to have a personality clash with someone
who had a much larger resume than me. Was he okay with
that? And he was.
Ardent houses three separate studios, all of which were
booked once the Whigs arrived. Primal Scream was in the
process
of recording Give Out But Dont Give Up in Studio B. Dulli
recalls Andrew Loog Oldham producing a Spanish Rolling
Stonessounding bandmost likely Ratones
Paranoicosin Studio C. The Whigs holed up in Studio A.
Overhauled in 1991 at the request of producer extraordinaire
Tom Dowd, the twenty-five-by-forty-foot space had been
transformed into a live wood room outfitted with a Studer 827
twenty-four-track analog recorder and Neve console replete
with Flying Faders Automation. It remains Ardents choice
tracking room.
As originally intended, recording sessions began with
Hampton serving as main engineer and Jeff Powell as
assistant engineer. But two days into recording, Hampton got
called away to do a quick mix for a Little Texas record. The
band was asked if it would relax for a few days while
Hampton finished the job. Dulli had other plans.
We were already starting to roll. Im like, Fuck that. Why
dont we just keep working with Powell? Hed never done a
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full-blown thing before. Hamptons like, Well, if youre
sure.
We basically took Powell from a second engineer and
elevated him within the studio. Personality-wise, we flowed
with him. And we didnt want to go back to another dude
coming in off of something else. Jeff just fit us. Hes sly,
really one of the funniest guys Ive ever met. Hes really dry.
Hell drop ten bombs on you and a couple of them go off two
minutes later and youre, Oh my god, thats fucking
hilarious. His humor level is very sophisticated. Hes a
down-home dude. Hes from Missouri. There was something
very similar about our upbringings and the stories we told. He
was our age. It was almost predestined that that would
happen.
Having worked his way up at Ardent from an entry-level desk
job, Powell didnt completely lack experience. Sitting in
the chair next to Dowd and Hampton taught him about theory,
microphone technique, sound panning, and meter monitoring.
What he didnt know much about was the Whigsa factor
that ironically worked in his favor.
I was a little bit nave about the Whigs. I had met them once.
I got to see part of a show that they had done in town years
before and knew that I really liked it. But I didnt own any of
the records before I worked with them. Again, I was just
always in the studio working in those days. Sometimes when
you are just going project to project, if youre not careful, you
can miss what is going on in the outside world. I think that
was an advantage because we were just doing our thing and it
happened to turn out the way it did.
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Just as importantly, Powell understood his role and kept
within his boundaries. Both were essential when working
with a band like the Whigs. As engineer, he was responsible
for running the equipment, recording the audio, interpreting
what the producer wanted, and getting the requested results to
come out of the speakers. All final creative decisions rested
with Dulli, whose direct approach blended with Powells
aim-to-please ethic.
Basically, when Greg says, I want this, you should be able
to deliver it and deliver it quickly, Powell remarks. Thats
what he expects. And Greg thinks so fast sometimes, or
comes up with ideas, he doesnt want somebody to argue why
this cant be done or thats not how you should do this or that.
You just do it. There is no wishy-washiness of what Greg
wants it to sound like.
The desire for control dates back to the bands origins, and
Dullis experiences when he allowed an outside party take the
reigns. Curleys lifelong fascination with machines and his
attention to detail made such decisions obvious. If there was
going to be any debate about production, it would be handled
within the band.
Greg and myself are Type A personalities who are more
comfortable knowing whats going on and wanting to be
involved in the process, sometimes to a fault, explains the
bassist. It seemed like more often than not when we would
do that it would wind up getting screwed up, or youd wind
up doing it yourself and it was twice as hard. We just thought,
Who is going to do a better job than we are? At least we
wont screw it up. Its possible it could be better but at least it
wont be wrong. Gregs production experience comes from
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ideas and opinions, and having listened to and analyzed
songs. Hes always thinking about that stuff. Hes on a
constant search not to become bored.
Dullis industriousness facilitated the Gentlemen recording
process. Even if in skeletal form, nearly everything was in
place before the band arrived in Memphis. After completing
If I Were Going, he had eight of the records songs
assembled in a working sequence. Now You Know, I
Keep Coming Back, and Brother Woodrow/Closing
Prayer evolved in Memphis. Ciaphas, the shelved Up in It
song Dulli wrote in West Virginia and played for his
grandmother, morphed into My Curse.
In combination with the bands tireless touring and shaping of
new songs on the road, the advance preparation allowed the
album to be completed in what Powell approximates as 18
daysa figure that accounts for both mixing and recording
but not a brief period in between when most of the band went
home. By major-label standards, it was a speedy pace,
particularly given that groups were then known to take full
advantage
of the now nearly extinct big budgets. Moreover, Gentlemens
total costapproximately $60,000was well below industry
standards. The swift timetable, prudent spending, and solid
planning all signified an inevitable truth: from its hurtful Los
Angeles origins to its organic construction, Gentlemen was
and remains a record of fate. While many great albums gel
from random accidents and come together from unexpected
mistakes, everything about Gentlemen owes to kismet.
Once settled in the studio, with Powell having replaced
Hampton and developed a symbiotic relationship with the
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band, the Whigs wasted no time completing the tracks. Dulli
occupied the rear left isolation booth with Curley directly
across in the rear right space. McCollum camped out in a
small booth in the right front corner. Earle sat in the middle of
the room, his mates shielded from the blaring drums.
A typical day witnessed the band start with a song, from
which Powell would focus on pulling a good drum and bass
take. After several run-throughs, Dulli would head into the
control room, listen to the playback, and pick the best
performance. Once a decision was made, other pieces of the
song were built around the rhythmic core. Vocals were added
last. Powell credits the expediency with which the material
came together to Dullis non-muss approach.
We tried to leave the live guitars on there as much as we
could. If we needed to fix something or add a solo, wed pull
the guitars in the control room, dial up our sounds, and do
overdubs. We didnt get a part and say, Lets layer five
guitars down for this. Its pretty much what went down live
with a little embellishment here and there. Thats why there is
still space on the record that you can hear. Every single crack
isnt
filled up with something just to fill a space. Its not cluttered
up with every idea that pops into somebodys head.
For his part, Powell relied on a balance of instinct and
direction. I go from record to record, but I do have certain
places that I start from. Or if Greg were to say, I want a
roomy guitar sound, Ill stick a mic halfway across the room.
Typically, it would be standard 57s and 421s on guitar amps,
shoved right down the throat. I remember they had a little
amp called the Growler that was awesomesome little cheap
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amp that had a ripped-up speaker. That was important to the
sound.
So was Dullis drive for originality. While most of the
periods alt-rock groups requested producers and engineers
make them a carbon copy of the Butch Vig/Nirvana
Nevermind formula, the Whigs were adamant about having
Gentlemen sound apart from the polished, coattail-riding
flavors of the day. It made for more work but kept the
sessions lively.
On a lot of records you get into a lull at some point, says
Powell. Bands think, Well, theres our guitar sound. Lets
use that same guitar sound for this song, too. Greg was
always pushing the envelope on that. Dont be lazy and dont
be afraid to get your ass out of the chair and go move a
microphone or try a different amp.
Theres a big difference between a records soundwhich,
given enough money, resources, personnel, and studio
trickery, can be manipulated into anything, and a bands
inherent sound (or its aural chemistry), which, no matter
what, cannot completely be duplicated or mimicked. Its why
no matter how closely Jason Bonhams technique resembles
that of his father, and no matter how perfectly he plays the
beats, Led Zeppelin will never sound exactly like the
Zeppelin of old. The slightest
change permanently alters the dynamic and therefore affects
the overall sound. The impact of member turnover isnt as
easily detected in lesser bands, which lack the rapport, talent,
patience, vision, and experience of their superior peers. Such
characteristics are a large part of what makes a group great.
And the Whigs had them in spades.
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Working with the Whigs in different studios in different time
periods and with different gear, they always sounded like the
Afghan Whigs to me, explains Powell, who was involved
with all of the bands post-Gentlemen output. Most great
bands, they sound like that band in two notes when they put
their fingers on the strings. I think there is more emphasis on
thattheir touch and style of playing. A lot of that is the
combination of Greg and Ricks guitar playing. Together, it
has this roaring sound. One thing that I tend to do is hard-pan
stuff. Gregs guitar is all over in one speaker, Rick is all over
on the other side. It makes it a much more stereo experience.
You can really separate a lot of the things out, to see what
Greg is doing and what Rick is doing and see how it
combines to make that sound thats them.
Its a sound thats totally idiosyncratic. While Dulli owns
most of the songwriting credits, Gentlemen is the masterwork
of a four-headed hydra. Its songs are strangely arranged, often
tuck-pointed with irregular tempos, bizarre fills, difficult
solos, and jazzy harmonics. They exist in a vacuum removed
from contemporary tastes and trends, past or present. They
couldnt have been made by anybody else. Recalling their
demo form, Dulli is quick to declare that none of the songs
would exist in their current iterations without the ideas and
contributions of Curley, McCollum, and Earle.
The great thing about the Whigs is that the three string
guys are rarely playing the same thing. We are playing three
interlocking parts. While I may have made suggestions, they
were very intuitive guys. I would make suggestions but their
ideas came intact and they are their own. Its really hard to
impose your will on playing personalities as strong as John
and Ricks. Thats why we were very much a band. While I
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would make suggestions, and a lot of times they would be
used, they were reacting to my songs.
In recording studios, this partnership was nearly exclusive.
Up until Gentlemen, the Whigs played every instrumental
note on their records save for the piano (as well as a few odds
and ends on Big Top Halloween). But for Gentlemen, Dulli
recognized the possibilities afforded by the major-label deal
and Ardents top-notch room. Still, the guest list was
extremely limited. Ohioan and Royal Crescent Mob member
Harold Happy Chichester sat in on piano and mellotron.
Barb Hunter played cello. And most memorably, Scrawl
vocalist and Ohio resident Marcy Mays sang My Curse.
Marcy was one of my favorite singers, Dulli explains. I
loved Scrawl and I loved her as a person. I felt she had the
worldweary quality, but the simultaneous defiance and
resignation to bring that song to life.
Mays was also brought in because Dulli couldnt bring
himself to sing My Curse after rewriting it. He nonetheless
attempted to impose his will on Mays, who had none of it.
She started doing it and I started interrupting her, saying,
No, dont do it like that, do it like this. Then she tried it like
that and Im like, No dont do it like that, do it like this. And
finally she told me to please leave and come back in an hour
and I could say stuff then. I came back and listened to it and
Im like, Nice job, Im sorry.
Dulli wasnt demanding perfectionism; he was after raw
emotion. Conflicted, lacerated, claustrophobic, naked, real,
out of controlexactly the sensations Dulli was feelingis
how Gentlemen sounds. There isnt a fake or false move on
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the album. And one particularly productive evening
guaranteed that an honest, on-edge vibe would be forever
preserved for all to hear.
Even for the most focused bands, twelve-hour days in the
studio tend to stifle creativity. To loosen up, the Whigs took a
trip to a Mississippi casino and paid multiple visits to area
bars. But Dullis twenty-eighth birthday called for a more
festive celebration. The band rented a limo and headed out for
a deserved evening of debauchery. Powell begged off as the
Whigs familiarized themselves with the areas finest strip
joints. Before the night was over, Dulli had taken an interest
in one of the ladies.
Like any red-blooded man looking to impress a beautiful girl,
Dulli decided to try what for mere mortals is normally
impossible. Loaded up on cocaine and out of his tree, he
ripped off six songsincluding the final vocal takes of
Fountain and Fairfax When We Two Parted,
Gentlemen, What Jail Is Like, and Debonairin one
evening, all while the stripper sat in the studio. Its one thing
to sing six songs in a row; its another to do it while flying on
coke. Dulli may not always be in tune, but theres no denying
the authenticity of what hes feeling.
He was just on, recalls Powell. It was just coming out of
him. Hed come in and listen and say, I cant beat that.
Thats awesome. Next!
The feat may not have the same audible effects as Guns N
Roses Rocket Queenfor which the live-action sounds of
W. Axl Rose fucking then-drummer Steven Adlers girlfriend
and ex-stripper Adriana Durgan in the studios vocal booth
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were recordedbut its inspired just the same. And yes, Dulli
slyly notes that the ploy worked. Anything for love.
Gentlemens closing instrumental, Brother Woodrow/
Closing Prayerthe only song besides Now You Know
devised in Memphisdidnt require such flair, but it lays
claim to its own mystique. As if passing on Memphis folklore
via assimilation, the compositions spoken introduction
remains a mystery that may or may not involve Sun Records
founder Sam Phillips. A collector of odd ephemera, Powell
explains.
I had this tape called the Drunk Preacher. Wed listen to it a
lot and laughed about it through the whole session. At the
very end, this drunk preacher, hes like, Brother Woodrow,
lead us in a closing prayer. So we actually lifted that off the
cassette.
Ive heard that it is Sam Phillips. Id played it years before
for Tom Dowd. He swore that it was Sam Phillips. But Ive
never got any proof. The story I heard when they gave it to
me was that it happened in Nashville, and that there was some
street bum that used to yell at everybody and preach hellfire
and damnation, and he was drunk off his ass. They thought it
was funny, brought him in, gave him a bottle of whiskey, and
put him on tape talking to the air. I dont know which one is
true.
Galvanized by Dullis marathon singing performance, the
Whigs finished recording several days ahead of schedule. The
sessions did not yield a single leftover track, continuing what
for the band represented a career-long trend. The group
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always penned as many songs as a particular album
requiredno more.
Dulli wasnt a prolific writer but he was smart. He knew
enough to leave lesser songs behind rather than take them into
the studio. If a tune wasnt good enough to make the album, it
wasnt good enough to record. This once-elementary tenet
steadily faded away during the 90s as the compact discs
larger storage capacity (and higher-priced retail cost) enticed
bands to fill up all 79-plus minutes of space with inferior
material, resulting in a glut of albums that extended the length
of traditional LPs by a half hour but which added little in the
way of worthwhile content.
While most performers lacked such discretion in the CD
ageand permanently marred potentially great albums by
backloading songsthe Whigs managed to err on the side of
judiciousness. Gentlemen clocks in at a relatively lean
48:56a time that, using the LP as the customary measuring
stick, averages out to less than twenty-five minutes a side.
With the basics completed, the albums eleven songs were
prepared for mixing, a process in which balances are set,
effects added, and vocals are floated on top of it all.
Everything is boiled down to two tracks to be sent away for
mastering.
Despite his conceding the engineering tasks to Powell,
Hampton was still slated to come back and mix. But again,
Dulli had other ideas. During the free time, the vocalist
prodded Powell to try his hand at mixing one of the songs.
Powell initially declined. He felt like he was stealing
Hamptons gig and knew that his approach would differ. But
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Dullis persuasion won out. Powell executed a mix, Dulli
heard the results, and loved it. The vocalist asked Powell to
tackle another track. This time, however, the outcome was
radically different.
At the time, Curley was coproducing, recalls Powell. So
Curley and me jumped on the next one. Greg had been
outside shooting baskets. He comes in and says, Let me hear
what youve got. I said, Well, Greg, were just getting rolling
on this one, were still working on the drum sounds. And he
says, Well let me hear what youve got. I hit play, and it
probably didnt make it to the first chorus and he said, Stop.
So I stopped the tape machine. He bounced the basketball
once and goes, You guys couldnt be further away from
what Im hearing in my head. And as a matter of fact, Jeff,
can you give us a minute?
Overcome with grief, Powell walked back to owner John
Frys office to tell him he was getting fired. Upon returning to
the studio, he got the news: Dulli was taking over as sole
producer, Curley was headed back home, and Powell was in
as the records mixer.
For mastering, the Whigs had the good fortune to land Bob
Ludwig, whose lengthy resume includes mastering records for
U2, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead,. Bruce Springsteen, and
countless catalog reissue projects.
Ludwig is one of the champions, affirms Powell, relieved
that the iconic engineer took a hands-off approach to
Gentlemen and didnt destroy it with compression, the audio
industrys equivalent of steroids in professional sports. While
it makes the records appear to sound louder, thus giving them
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a competitive attention-getting edge for radio play, it destroys
dynamics and fatigues listeners.
He had the good sense not to straighten it out. The great
ones listen to it and do what little processing they want to do.
They may add a little tippy-top, make it a little brighter and
shiny, add a little more oomph on the bottom and low-end.
But for the most part, they leave it alone.
Once treated as crucial threads of a records fabric, cover art
and liner notes have largely become mere afterthoughts in an
era when music is increasingly downloaded as compressed
bytes and albums are bypassed in favor of individual tracks.
Whereas 12.25 x 12.25inch images were once the norm,
thumbnail-sized pixels now pass for brilliant when displayed
and finger-shuffled like postage stamps on iPod screens.
Liner notes and credits are virtually nonexistent in the digital
world. Packaged media is also following this trend. In an
effort to keep costs down, many compact discs are housed in
nothing more than bifolded cardboard with information
printed in microscopic font on one panel. The notion and
definition of an albummusic, art, presentation, sonics,
lyrics, creditshas steadily devolved, the degeneration
paralleling musics continuing freefall into disposable,
background entertainment that many believe should be free.
Yet this regression was underway before downloading
became reality. Long before Napster helped usher in
revolutionary distribution methods and entitlement attitudes,
purists decried the CD for desecrating cover art and ruining
sound quality. Their outcries reached fever peak in the late
80s, just as the format became the record industrys dominant
playerand savior. However nostalgic, the complaints
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werent without merit. With pictures on discs shrunken to 15
percent of their former size, details became scant.
Opportunities for unusual designs were forfeited. Meanings
and messages were minimized. One had to squint rather than
effortlessly stare, dream, and wonder. And, for recreational
LP devotees, CD inserts didnt easily lend themselves to the
assorted cutting, snorting, rolling, and passing of drugs.
Moreover, the formats sound was reliably cold, plastic, and
veiled. By their very nature, compact
discs expedited the death of the album as representing an
involved, immersive experience.
Such wholesale shifts didnt immediately erode traditional
viewpoints and art budgets; that would come at the turn of the
century. While working with a smaller canvas, most artists
continued to view records as an interconnected platform of
sound and visiona conviction that, in addition to the
support of dedicated indie labels, explosion of hip-hop,
discerning ears of younger generations, and demands of
deejays, accounts for why vinyl continues to thrive as a
cottage industry. Theres a reason why, as CD sales plummet,
LP sales are holding steady.
Growing up, Dulli scoured liner notes to learn who produced
what and where the label was based. The process helped
shape his worldview and taught him that different locales
were responsible for specific sounds, cultures, and methods.
Curley was similarly enthralled as a teenager, smelling and
feeling the covers and holding the sleeves while the album
played. As both the uproar over Up in It and look of
Congregation demonstrated, the Whigs were disciples of the
old-school belief of the album constituting an interrelated
wholethat artwork, feel, music, and presentation comprise a
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complete package. No single component is greater than the
sum of its parts. And Gentlemen is nothing less than a
four-sense experience. The records cover art is another
reason why it is an all-time great album in every sense of the
term.
Photographer Nan Goldin is renown for her documentation of
autobiographical images and underground subcultures. She is
a champion of intimacy, mood, tension, discord, unease,
vacancy, and tone. Her work favors interior settings, stark
immediacy, yellowish light, and contrasting hues. Goldins
best-known snapshots depict waif-like subjects staring into
bathroom mirrors, standing in bleak rooms, partying in seedy
bars, wearing drag-queen outfits, taking showers, and
sprawling out on beds in various states of embrace, undress,
and temperament. Prostitution, drugs, sex, pain, and domestic
violence figure prominently. A tumultuous childhoodher
sister committed suicide by throwing herself under a train;
Goldin turned to drugs and moved in with a foster
familyforeshadowed her photographic pursuits and reckless
lifestyle.
In the late 70s, Goldin left Boston for New York Citys
Lower East Side, where she became one with the
neighborhoods subterranean scene. She blossomed into a
full-blown addict and alcoholic, all the while chronicling her
passionate relationship with an abusive boyfriend in a series
of photographs. In particular, Nan and Brian in Bed,
NYCa 1983 image that doubles as the cover for The
Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a book of Goldins work that
bears the same title as her early 80s slideshowepitomizes
her stark autobiographical honesty.
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In the shot, Goldin is lying on her right side on a bed. Her
head rests on a pillow thats pushed up against a decorative
headboard. Her left hand is adjacent to the pillow, the only
comforting object in sight. Her mouth is obscured; all
expression comes from her body language, face, and eyes.
She looks at Brian, who is seated to her right and near the
bottom of the bed, with a troubled gaze thats at once sad,
weary, adoring, distraught, and defeated. Shot from behind,
Brians naked back is turned to her leer. He smokes a
cigarette but remains in complete isolation. His obliviousness
makes it easy to pretend that Goldin isnt on the bed let alone
in the room; either way, his position wouldnt change. His
face is mostly out of the cameras range, and yet, whats
visible of his lips and left eye
communicates deadened blankness. Physically and mentally,
Brian is somewhere else, goneor, at the least, wishing that
he was.
A yellow-orange tint illuminates the room. Recalling the
manner in which shadows, lines, and bars are used and appear
in film noir, the wall behind Goldin is brighter and lighter, as
if lit by a hesitant sun. But at the left edge of her pillow, and
beginning of Brians lower back, the same wall grows darker
and redder, and progressively becomes so as the viewers eye
wanders over Brians head. Sickly and burnt, the colors are
reminiscent of a Caucasians unwashed nicotine-stained
fingers. As if suggesting shared fault and blame, the same
muted light that brightens the interior directly behind
Goldins head shines even more intently against Brians face
and upper body. The luminescence appears to be coming in
through a window, but no opening is visible. Like the
communication between Brian and Goldin, the windows
presence is only suggested; any certainty is cut off, removed.
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Radiating claustrophobia, vulnerability, suffering, grief, and
contempt, the photo exists as an uncomfortable albeit moving
distillation of bedroom drama. The image is deceptively
frozen. Hundreds of thorny conversations, bittersweet
memories, argumentative exchanges, and dismissive
accusations play out within its framework. It hurts to look at,
and yet, we cant help but be drawn in by its ugly truths.
Atmospherically, the photo projects a hazy glow thats the
visual equal to the stale disinfectant smell of hospitals. Just as
the latters stench evokes death and dying, the mournful
shot-through hues of Nan and Brian in Bed, NYC convey
similar dissolution: the demise of a relationship. In doing so,
it made for an ideal muse for Gentlemen.
Dulli counts himself as a big fan of Goldins work. He
remembers being instantly captivated the first time he saw
Nan and Brian in Bed, NYC, recognizing how the photo
imparted understood dismay without giving too much away.
On a purely human level, it doesnt take much imagination to
place Dulli, cigarette and all, in for Brian, and Kris in the role
of Nan. The photos depiction of a situation nearly all lovers
experience is part of its magnetism. Inspired by the snapshot,
Dulli conceived his own iconic image: Gentlemens cover.
While Dulli borrowed and duplicated many elements, the two
biggest changes between the records cover and Goldins
photograph involve perspective and age. The original work is
shot from behind in that the most central object of the
photographBrians backfaces the viewer. While Dulli
directed photographer Billy Phelps to shoot from those angles
as well, he settled on a head-on perspective. We see scene as
if peering through the implied window in Goldins shot.
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The other alteration is less subtle and more striking. Teeming
with metaphor and depth, the female and male subjects are no
longer adults; theyre kids. I just remembered thinking that
[the body language depicted in the photo] is learned behavior
that starts when we are children, explains the singer. And
thats why I substituted the children for the adults. I think you
lose innocence as soon as you pop out: Youre in it now.
Youre safe in there. Its not that you dont experience beauty
here. But especially in my nihilistic late twenties, I had a bit
more of a pessimistic view of human nature and
relationshipsalthough that really hasnt changed much.
An extension of and tribute to Goldins photograph, the cover
of Gentlemen conveys many of the same emotions and vibes.
The expression on the little girls face is similar to that of
Goldin. Shes lying down on the bed in a related posture,
and her eyes look in the vicinity of the boy, whose back faces
his mates stare.
Where Gentlemen differs in mood and meaning is how it
portrays the male. Even though we cant see most of his face
in Goldins photo, Brian appears to be in his own zone,
impervious to Nan. He doesnt look relaxed but hes not
agitated. His head and glance are pointed straight out toward
whats facing him. Gentlemens flipped perspective provides
the benefit of allowing us to read the boys face. But it holds
no easy answers. Burdened by sadness, hopelessness, guilt,
rejection, and frustration, he looks like he wants to cry, that a
small tear could run from the comer of his eye at any
moment. But he also looks as if hes harboring considerable
anger, spite, and animositysentiments seemingly absent in
Brian. The boys head is also slightly bent to his right, and his
eyes stare off in that direction. He seems caught in the
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moment, under siege, unable to achieve the escape afforded
Brian. He is a prisoner of his own bedroom, and while the
picture gives him a degree of control, he cant break away.
Disgust consumes him. The longer we look, the more
acrimonious he seems to become. The hostility and
exasperation make perfect sense; they lash out on the albums
songs.
Devoid of Goldins contrasting lighting, the Gentlemen cover
also opts for similar pale yellows and a murky aura. Dulli is
quick to heap praise on Phelps. I couldnt have done it
without him. He certainly had the composition ideas. That
composition is his, the way that looks. I give total credit to
him.
Despite being produced with the childrens parents present
and its rendering signifying anything but copulation, the
cover didnt agree with labelmate Linda Ronstadt. Sherry
Ring, who at the time served as the Elektra publicist for both
Ronstadt
and the Whigs, lent her daughter as the model for the cover.
She initially had a few motherly misgivings but, given that
she was at the sessions and promised by Dulli that the
outcome wouldnt be inappropriate, didnt second-guess her
judgment. Not until Ronstadt chimed in with a scolding
opinion.
I was working with Linda and I told her I was working with
this band called the Afghan Whigs. I said my daughter was on
the cover and I think I showed it to her. She said, You let
your daughter do that album cover? I cant believe it! I said,
Well, to be honest, I didnt know it was going to be quite
what it turned out to be because Greg sort of kept assuring me
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that it wasnt. He lied, Ring says, half-jokingly. Its not
something I showed around her kindergarten class or however
old she was at the time; it wasnt like show and tell. Look,
Linda is very womens lib and very protective of children. It
wasnt out of line. I thought it was very Linda.
Still, Ronstadts snap judgment reeks of sanctimonious
grandeur. Likely unbeknownst to the Whigs or Ring, the
singer appeared on The Johnny Cash TV Show in 1969, at the
start of her career, joining the Man in Black for a duet of the
Carter Familys I Will Never Marry. In the broadcast,
Ronstadt is adorned in a striped purple jumper that barely
covers her hips. Yet the lovely Lolita attracted more attention
for what she wasnt wearing.
During rehearsal, June Carter Cash noticed Ronstadt didnt
have panties on. Snapping into the role of protective wife,
June Carter ordered a handler to go out and buy Ronstadt
underwear. Told that she needed to put on the newly
purchased undergarment, Ronstadt began bickering with the
feisty Mrs. Cash. Needless to say, June Carter won out. And
how. Watching Ronstadt make eyes at Cash and
strategically place her hands between her legs during the
performance is priceless.
Powell, who has a copy of Gentlemen hanging above a closet
in his office, expressed surprise upon hearing about
Ronstadts knee-jerk reaction. She didnt listen to the record,
then. She went by looking at that. Thats the kind of thing that
Gregs really good at. Hell give you enough rope to hang
yourself if youre going to be an idiot about something.
Thats part of his sense of humor. I think its hilarious.
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So does the rest of the band.
Thats one of the high points of my musical career, beams
Curley, delighted the Whigs irked one of Elektras flagship
artists. You can interpret that cover a lot of different ways,
including in a naughty way as well, which obviously people
are going to do. But I never interpreted it that way or believed
it was meant in that way, that simplistic.
Dullis feelings toward Ronstadt are more bluntand, like
the Cash episode, telling of her hypocrisy. Im like, Linda
Ronstadt: Youre dressed like a whore on the cover of Living
in the USA with roller skates, curls in your hair, and shorts up
to your twat. Fuck you. That was my attitude toward Linda
Ronstadt, who was a great singer. Now shes kind of a bore.
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V. Ladies & Gentlemen
The thematic concept executed in both the music and on the
cover of Gentlemen is followed through in the albums CD
booklet. Its first two pages resemble the beginning of a movie
script; the paragraph layout of the songs functions as a table
of contents. On the opposing page, the bands name and
album tide stand alone, making it clear that the listener is
about to enter an isolated world. Of the subsequent seven
pages, five are given over to lyrics and two to photographs,
one of the band at the comer of 12th and Jackson in
downtown Cincinnati, the other of an oval-encased shadowy
figure against a wall. The inside back page rolls the credits
and the last page depicts just the little boy, again sitting on a
bed, shot from a side angle and looking even sadder.
Repeating an idea first established on Uptown Avondale, the
credits again read like those of a film: Played by John
Curley, Greg Dulli, Steve Earle and Rick McCollum. Greg
sang. Shot on location in Memphis, TN at Ardent Studios,
MayJune
1993. Except If I Were Going shot April 1993 at Ultrasuede,
Cincinnati, OH. Produced by Greg Dulli.
Thus, the vrit feel carries through in the lyrics, production,
design, photography, and music. Working in harmony with
urgency, intensity, sophistication, self-confidence, and
astonishing hooks, the provocative naturalism and song-cycle
sequence beget an unbreakable cohesiveness that, like all
great music, permits Gentlemen to achieve the most elusive
distinction of all honors: timelessness.
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If I Were Going
Smothering from the second it begins, If I Were Going
never gives the listener a chance to breathe. A tribal drumbeat
blends in with the distorted murmur of the Roebling Bridge.
The queasy sonic combination signifies the gateway to an
abyss, the entrance to a maze. As in Goldins photo, we know
something here isnt right. Ominous guitar chords rattle and
lather up the tension.
As soon as Dulli opens his mouth, its immediately apparent
that his character is in a weakened defensible position. He
needs to plot out in advance how hes going to handle
itan obviously uncomfortable state of affairswith his
partner. Rather than feeling joy over the impending
encounter, hes wracked with nausea and dread. Feigning
ignorance isnt an option; that tactic only adds to the
discomfort and dredges up the past, leading to further
argumentative conversation. So he broods, opting for a
devious plan based on the fact that shes still buying the
words that come out of his mouth. Or so he thinks.
Lies and deceit have become weapons of choice. Dulli cant
distinguish the fabrication from the facts. Hes lost all
sense of his identity. Hes sick of it all, sick of himself, but
hes in so deep, hes going to press on. Theres no escaping
the monster. It has invaded the heart, the head, the home. Its
not visible or physical. Like an all-consuming parasite, it eats
the host alive. There is no cure. There is no escape. There is
no hope.
Curleys single bass notes toll like a death knell. The song
suspends itself in mid-air, hovering as a threatening, dictating
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forecast of whats to come. As a prelude, If I Were Going is
frighteningly precise: The Whigs capture guilts physical toll
and psychological trauma in just over three minutes of time.
But there is much more to say.
The walls-closing-in hum returns. A faint percussive throb
lingers in the distance. The direct bleed-in to the next song is
a guidepost: Gentlemen is more than a collection of tracks.
Were in it now.
Gentlemen
The storm has arrived. A staggered R&B beat and fierce
guitar squall pull back the curtain to reveal anger and
contempt. The song swaggers as it slithers, starts as it stops.
McCollums coiled chords strike like venomous snakes
attacking their prey. Nobody plays a duplicate part. But
everyone locks into the same bounding groove.
Dulli is ripped. Hes raging, seething, foaming at the mouth.
Guilt may be on his characters mind, but for now, its taking
a backseat to sadomasochistic pursuits. Sex is an infection.
He and McCollums dueling, intertwined guitars create a
massive sound not unlike that of a string section furiously
scraping bows against violins. The revved-up chorus is a
hurricane of disgust, sarcasm, and indignation. The very
definition of gentlemen is perverted until utterly subverted.
Graciousness, courteousness, and honor are dead. Long live
vulgarity, churlishness, and boorishness.
By the second verse, sex with one partner has become a task,
a marathon contest in which pleasures are removed and
revulsion sets in. The upshot of the relationship split is
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availability: Theres time now for conquests, more spreading
of the wealth. Dullis person is, at least mindfully, in control.
Arrogance prevails. Ladies come to him, not the other way
around. You also becomes an excuse for Dulli to challenge
himself. How many women can he infect? When he sings
For you, you, you, and me too, hes indiscriminately
pointing, as if randomly selecting pretty faces out of a crowd.
Whats it matter? Its just another tryst, another acquisition,
one more name to add to the list. Hes Mr. Superlove.
At the break, McCollum unleashes a scorching wah-wah solo
while Earles drums slam like bedroom doors. Staked to
springloaded guitar fills and snapping rhythms, on the third
verse, Dulli staggers in like a displaced drunk. Hes loaded,
looking for trouble, and will settle for whatevers available.
Open the liquor cabinet and let the spirits flow. Just dont
delay. Indecision triggers reflection and contemplation, and
that has forced him to reconsider everything. What was once
familiarspecifically, the qualities and words associated with
being a gentlemanare almost imperceptible. Lies have
stripped away meaning and identity. Dullis character is now
so far gone hes unknown to even himself.
Be Sweet
A clipped, finger-picked blues riff and jazzy beat give way to
one of the most self-loathing introductions in rock history:
Ladies, let me tell you about myself / I got a dick for a brain
/ And my brain is gonna sell my ass to you, Dulli sings, with
the exaggerated breathiness of a lounge crooner. McCollums
hypnotic phrasing borders on that of a rumba. Ba-bahm,
ba-bahm. Bahm-ba, bahm-ba. The timing parallels the
tick-tock of an antique wristwatch. Taking swipes at himself,
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Dullis character is as certain of his faults as he is his desire to
ditch commitment and stick to fucking. The frank disclosure
gives McCollum authority to break the metered pattern, allow
acidic distortion to well up, and spit it all back out with
caustic intent. It burns.
As does Dulli, who confesses shame for his actions. The error
of his ways netted freedom, but at what cost? The prom-dance
waltz of hell-bound sinners continues. Ba-bahm, ba-bahm.
Bahm-ba, bahm-ba. No sympathy. Ba-bahm, ba-bahm.
Bahm-ba, bahm-ba. Loneliness. Another swell of feedback
arises, but this time, rather than fling acid into bare eyes,
McCollum underlines the alienation with a mournful
Southern slide. Its melancholys first appearance on
Gentlemen. Dullis wracked mental condition is such that it
can no longer be concealed with He-Man boasts: On my
grave / Am I OK? / Im sure / Im not. A decay of clashing
guitars and wiry reverb let the revelation sink in.
On the third verse, Dullis character is ready to accept
liability. The admission is at once sincere and pompous. Yes,
his partner gave him more love. But not enough to fulfill his
libido. And the jokes on you, sisters. The reason hes trolling
is because hes on a quest to understand himself: What kind
of person is he? Has he always been this way? To whom does
the blame fall? If he and his ex both engaged in the same
behavior, are they both wrong?
The kiss-off is the punchline. The directiveAnd baby, you
be sweetis at odds with everything in the song, most
explicitly, the protagonist. Its an empty, impossible,
contradictory, and ironic sentiment, one that leaves a bad
aftertaste and plagues the narrators self-esteem. While
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Dullis character could be uttering the line to the general
audience referred to at the songs beginning, hes more likely
repeating the phrase to himself. Kris actually said those very
words to the vocalist when they broke up. Echoing in his
head, the idiom is another painful reminder of his character.
The bands soulfully sleazy exitMcCollums high-pitched
slide notes, Curleys nimble bass maneuvers, Earles punchy
rhythmic combinationsreflects a dynamic ushered in on
Uptown Avondale and fully realized on Gentlemen.
Heightened levels of instrumental complexity, tempo shifts,
moody charisma, and lyrical awarenessas well as the
emergence and examination of guilt, buried on
Congregationare evident just three songs into the album.
Debonair
Funky chords, skin-smacking gospel-choir handclaps, and a
crawling, sensuous bass line: the black-sounding and
Motown-influenced Debonair begins like a lost Soul
Train trackalbeit one with aluminum-tinted punk
overtones. During the verses, a scuffed R&B rhythm
interlocks with Curleys stairstepping grooves. The song
encourages dancing, and even the rolling bridge, which rises
to match Dullis anger, remains loose, game for a shakedown.
The entire song revolves around a rotating pattern whose
altered tempos, well-placed instrumental dropouts, and
bass-driven foundations give it an urban edgeand
foreboding menace that offsets the merry vibe.
There is no secret about the intent. Unrelenting and
unforgiving, Debonair plays up misery and anguish, and
doesnt let go until its victims are skewered. This aint about
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regret / My conscience cant be found / This time I wont
repent / Somebodys going down, promises Dulli, his
smokers cough filtered through an ugly haze of distortion.
And Debonair is all about ugliness. The vocalist prizes
anger over kisses; his characters mindset is that of a little boy
who takes the easy way out rather than that of a man who
holds it together; hed rather snap than examine his sense of
right and wrong. Things take an even more fiendish turn.
Reprising the bridge of If I Were Goingwhich also shares
the same chords as DebonairDulli now sings the words
as if shoving them down his lovers throat. Hes out for
blood, bent on revenge, resolved to humiliate, eager to abuse.
The masochistic chorus is waived about as incriminating
evidence of transgressions, rationale to attribute blame and
inflict suffering. The performance is merciless. Dullis
chomping-at-the-bit wrath runs contrary to the musics upbeat
energy.
And yet the second bridge and third verse, while not as
forthcoming as in Be Sweet, again undress Dullis
characters cocksure guise. He isnt contrite, but Catholic
guilt gnaws awaythe truth will condemn him to hell. The
monster has revealed its face. Its him, its her, its everyone
caught up in lies and indiscretions. They are forever damaged,
forever stained. The mark will not go away.
When We Two Parted
A down-tempo ballad, When We Two Parted offers the first
respite on Gentlemen. But any sense of relief is illusory. As
dark, menacing, and moody as anything on the album, the
song eviscerates the lines between the personal and public.
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McCollum and Dullis guitars moan in commiserate agony,
the notes mimicking the flow of a slow-drip IV. For the first
2:20, Curley and Earle primarily keep the song from
frayingand just barelywith understated, minimalist lines.
On the occasions guitar notes creep into the mix, they poke
and prick like sharp needlesapt for a song riddled with
puncture wounds. McCollums weeping country slide
reluctantly pushes the tune ahead, but not before rubbing until
it bleeds. Dullis vocal boost briefly allows the budding
pressure to escape, with McCollums plaintive slide chirping
over a swampy progression. But the uptick doesnt last.
A wordless chorus of oohs, ohs, and oa-ahs act as
decelerators. A desert of quietude returns. The refrain creeps
along until Dulli again ups his vocal intensity. In tandem with
McCollums glissando lead, he carries the song to its
conclusion. Nothing is over- or under-played. The soulful
arrangement, which could pass for a Stax side, is so
wrenchingly demonstrative that it almost neednt have words.
Almost.
Dulli sing-speaks in hushed, whispered tones. He milks
syllables. At first blush, the tenderness seems consoling. But
hes not here to soothe or pacify. Dullis sweetness is
derisive, his concern acerbic, his exaggerated timbre
condescending. Hes relaying and repeating whats being
played out and insinuated in bedroom dramas. The words
could very well be the thoughts running through the head of
the boy depicted on the albums cover. The frontmans
character revels in self-deprecation, assuming the roles of the
Great Pretender and aggressor. The digs dont quit. Dullis
quips continue as the music groans in reaction to the illness
and abhorrence.
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Traces of solicitude crop up in the second verse before
quickly turning to scorn. Exchanges between the lovers are
severed. Dullis person is witness to watching his partner
retreat into a self-abandonment thats put on her. As much as
the dysfunctional relationship scars him, hes crawling on top
of the wreckage rather than sinking beneath it. His partners
withdrawal affords him elevated authority and unquestioned
dominance.
And please allow me to present you with a clue / If I inflict
the pain / Then baby only I can comfort you / Yeah, he
sermonizes, knives out, realizing the genius of the disclosure.
His statement is true, and he knows it. The torture will persist
until a cry for mercy is sounded. But with honesty shredded,
and interpersonal communication debased into a cruel form of
charades, the future is bleak. Entropy ensues.
Fountain and Fairfax
With Dulli slashing open guitar strings to sound an alarm, and
Earle pouncing on a jumpy Bo Diddley beat, the irresistibly
catchy Fountain and Fairfax announces itself as a
walk-on-water anthem. Barrelhouse pianos and sitar-like
slide-guitar lines ratchet up the bomp-de-bomp action, and the
turbulence escalates all the while threatening to explode.
Jittery chords, boogie-woogie rhythms, and battered piano
keys crisscross and zigzag but never get tangled. Halfway in,
a cello is thrown into the bonfire, and the tune becomes a
conflagration of blustery R&B, New Orleans soul,
overamplified blues, resplendent chamber music, and blaring
rock. It has no choice but to bum out at the end.
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His throat raw, larynx shredded, and pitch off-key, Dullis
primal vocal effort feeds the maelstrom. Meters are pushed
into the red. Between 1:49 and 1:53, the singer wails
Let it dry up with the rough desperation of somebody whos
just been stabbed and is determined to scream bloody murder
before collapsing in a heap. It sounds as if hes gurgling blood
as he ejects the last few syllables from his mouth. Sonic
fingerprints of Dullis cocaine binge are smeared everywhere.
He really is slobbering now. High on stimulants, he howls
with retribution and rubs stink in the noses of adversaries.
Tempers boil with ridicule and mockery. By the time hes
said his piece, hes spent.
Hypocrisy, finger pointing, false promises, drug addiction,
treachery: the songs topics are congruous with Gentlemens
oeuvre. But Dulli is not the person in the song, which draws
its title from the meeting place at the intersection of Fountain
and Fairfax Avenues in Los Angeles.
The singer explains: Its the Crescent Heights United
Methodist Church and they have AA meetings there. I went to
a meeting with my friend who was confronting alcoholism
and asked me to go with him. I went, and because it was in
West Hollywood, I felt like there was a lot of forced pathos
going on: hand across the brow, then my uncle raped me
Very highly dramatic. I was trying to take the piss out of a
couple of the Hi my name is blank and Im a blank, Hi, my
name is Ass and Im an ass [people].
Not that the song is completely devoid of the personal;
nothing on Gentlemen is. Some lines are based on Dullis
breakup, including Baby, forever, but I dont like to be alone
so dont stay away too long, which Kris told the singer.
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What Jail Is Like
Claustrophobia infests Gentlemen, and never more blatantly
than it does here. A crystallization of the Whigs molding of
divergent influencesnoise-rock, Motown, pop, punk, hard
rock, garage, gospelinto their own sound, What Jail Is
Like owes to the bands experimenting with soul and
atmospherics on Uptown Avondale. Take away Dullis vocals
and the pungent distortion, and its easy to picture the
Supremes, dolled up in matching backless dresses, beehive
dos, and glossy lipstick, singing What Jail Is Like on The
Ed Sullivan Show. Its another invitation to dance.
Without warning, McCollums saw-toothed feedback careens
until brought under control, folding into a melody established
by Chichesters clanking roadhouse keys. The coarseness
goes mute during verses and reappears for bridges and the
racing chorus, which sprints to a mad finish. As McCollum
and Dulli scratch and claw at their strings like feverish
desperados, Earle makes the rounds on his kit. After the
untamed burst, everything falls back into a calm pocket of
silky piano, restrained guitar, and rounded rhythm. The song
is bipolar.
All the better for the lyrics, which put on a defiant front in the
face of debilitating shame. The title serves as an apt metaphor
for amorous infatuationand all its associated traps. Dullis
character bargains throughout, cautioning his partner not to
comer him and warning her what will happen if she does. In
this cat-and-mouse game, fear is the brass ring both parties
chase. You think Im scared of girls / Well maybe / But Im
not afraid of you, Dulli announces near the onset, hunkering
down for a long fight. He slings a few zingers, but the truth
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begins to slip out. Pride is neutralized by ignominy; and,
while unstated, an underlying fear of women adds to the
cyclical misery.
By the third verse, admiration turns into indignation. Dullis
negotiating and admonishing lead to dismissal. Loneliness is
selected as the best available option. His character is left with
smug I-told-you-so satisfaction and a slice of wisdom that
could double as Gentlemens epigram: Resentment always
goes much further than it was supposed to go.
My Curse
Up until now, everything on Gentlemen is told through a male
perspectivealbeit one thats aware that the dysfunctional
culpability, fault, and compulsion are shared. My Curse
ends the monopoly. Sung by Marcy Mays, who gives the
performance of her lifetime, the steamy canzone is an
emasculator that erases any vestige of testosterone-ridden
superiority or chauvinistic spite. While Dulli never once leans
on self-pity as a crutchan achievement that alone hoists
Gentlemen above the music of its angst-ridden peers and,
later, whiny emo descendentshis handing off to Mays of the
most naked psychological expose on the record drastically
changes the point of view and opens up the dialogue, making
it irresponsible and impossible to simplemindedly interpret
the record as a misogynist take on sexual and social politics.
Dulli explains the strategy. I liked that it came out of
nowhere. I sing song 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Whos this? To me, it
tilts the perspective. It gives a voice to the woman. In my
way, I was trying to concede that she had a voice all along
and that I never listened to her. It goes a long way in
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describing my relationship with Kris. Through the ups and
downs that we had, ultimately, relationships are built on
friendships and we were very good friends. And we still are.
The Whigs wisely play the role of a backup band on the track,
with folksy acoustic guitar and spare piano leading into
a full instrumental entrance. The song twists and writhes,
McCollums greasy slide mimicking the motions of two
bodies rolling underneath the sheets. Crescendos shade
Mayss teeth-gritting vocals, and this warped minor-chord
wedding dance rides out on a wave of saloon blues and
southern breezes.
The fear that the male manages to temporarily reign in on
What Jail Is Like catches up to him here. Mays spits the
counseling back in his face, canceling out any advantage he
might have held against her. She proves just as capable of
flagellation and acting as a wronged victim. Under her heels,
Dullis patronizing character is a slave. Shes leads him
around by the collar; he pleasures her. Dullis substitution of
Mays into the lead also subverts the common male
fantasyin her voice, oral sex becomes cunnilingus. Flipping
western custom, the man gets on his knees. She smiles,
knowing that she possesses her own secrets. And, no matter
how much she has to bite her tongue, in her head and between
her legs they shall remain.
And still, as Dullis persona indirectly and directly
acknowledges in preceding songs, Mayss words concede that
the males capitulation is tethered to an unhealthy
codependence spurred on by her own sadomasochistic desires
and culpable temptations. In him, she recognizes herself:
You look like me / And I look like no one else / We need no
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other / As long as we have ourselves. For good or bad, the
revelation damns both partners to each other. What has
transpired cannot be scrubbed out, erased, or forgotten. Sex is
both an outlet for the purging of guilt and the creating,
sharing, and prolonging of pain. Love and pleasure are
synonymous with blood, scourge, and hurt. Friends until the
end.
Now You Know
The last track written and completed for Gentlemen, Now
You Know is pure emotional catharsis. A screaming tantrum
of energy, verve, and rancor, the song doesnt give out until
Dulli is forced to give inthe music actually fades out before
he finishes. He cant and wont be contained.
Now You Know begins as a giant, rolling snowball and
ends as an avalanche. Dulli and McCollums lacerating
guitars tumble around in a back-alley tussle, Curley is up for
the down stroke, and Earle hits everything in sight.
Chichesters barrelhouse playing is a perfect foil for what
comes across as a barroom brawl. The raucousness mounts as
the tune progresses. It gets so rowdy that McCollums
fractured slide struggles to be heard amidst the din.
Every word here is free-styledthe vocals were cut in one
take. Dullis manic performance is a by-product of
stream-of-conscious adrenaline, synthetic stimulants, and
visceral willpower. His throat-scraping yowls are unedited;
his mannerisms unrefined. He reaches for falsetto heights,
sometimes succeeding, other times falling short and out of
tune. The imperfections add to the authenticity. Before he
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leaves the studio, Dulli is determined to leave blood on the
floor.
While Mays may have evened the power struggle on My
Curse, Dullis character uses this opportunity to reflect on
the fallout and take solace in knowing his partner wears
similar bruises. The repercussions of the ongoing deceit are
myriad. Somebody is going to suffer the consequences.
Scathing rhetoric and confrontational mayhem ensue.
Blame, denial, betrayal, divide: Which one shall he use? As if
in reply to Mayss Zip me down / Kiss me there command,
Dulli offers up a demand of his own: Let me kiss
that beautiful mouth / Tell me is it the same? / My sweetness /
My everything he asks, before derisively wondering if his
condescension is comforting. He knows well the answer to
both questionsand has known since he thought up the
songs first line. The taste is rotten, the sensation
contaminated, the disgust mutual, the disdain demeaning, the
bitterness everlasting.
I Keep Coming Back
The Afghan Whigs interpretation of this Tyrone Davis
B-side is the rare remake that manages to top the original.
Curley pumps out a dirgey melody on a B3 organ. Dulli
fingers a deliberate bass line. McCollum enters a twilight
zone and taps into voodoo, his magnetic notes dripping with
redemption and solemnity. The song acts as a cleanser. Every
bit as persuasive as the 1970 versionand even more
romantic, heartfelt, and sincereit stands as the most soulful,
emotionally penetrating morsel of black music recorded by an
alternative-rock band.
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This is Dullis tuxedo-clad moment, where his dreams of
being Marvin Gaye singing in a black nightclub and winning
over the crowd come true. All the ugliness has gone, the
vindictiveness extinguished, the animosity exhausted on the
preceding track. For 4:52, devotion replaces anger. Just as
When We Two Parted is an anti-valentine, I Keep Coming
Back is a testament of sensuality, honesty, and love. As it
did for Dulli back in Cincinnati, the song here functions as a
cocoon, a protectoran escape.
Whats nearly lost in the translation is that, while Dullis
emotional investment is beyond reproach, the words arent his
own.
By the end of Now You Know, at least in the cycle of the
record, I had nothing left to say, admits the singer. I needed
to have someone else say it for me.
And so, while the Whigs sell the song and the sentiment, the
secondhand nature destroys any expectation of Gentlemen
achieving peaceful closure.
Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer
The film credits roll. An unidentified voice calls upon
Brother Woodrow to lead a prayer. Alternatively beautiful
and sorrowful, the finale serves as a needed breather. It allows
us the chance to try and absorb the records harrowing
purgation without overdosing on or suffocating from its
impact.
And yet the cinematic instrumentals forbidding overtures
suggest theres no happy ending to whats gone down.
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Theres no way there could be. The will to love is diminished.
Faith is trampled. Personal identities are cast into doubt.
Dullis character might be an asshole, but with his protective
veil of arrogance lifted, conclusions arent so clearcut.
Tacked onto the end of most records, Brother Woodrow
would be excessive and gratuitous. Here, its not only
necessaryits indispensable. We need to come down before
we can come out.
Released on the same Tuesday in October 1993 as Yo La
Tengos Painful, Jamess Laid, and Pet Shop Boys Very,
Gentlemen failed to crack Billboards Top 200 Album chart.
But in the week after its release, it debuted at #17 on the
Heatseekers chartreserved for best selling titles by new
and developing artists, defined as those who have never
appeared in the Top 100 of the Billboard 200 chart. A week
later, the record slipped to #36. It marked the last time
Gentlemen would be on any Billboard album chart.
Critical reactions were overwhelmingly positive. In a profile
piece for the October 16, 1993, Billboard, Rick Clark wrote
that Gentlemen is a riveting journey that may in time be
regarded alongside such downer classics as Lou Reeds
Berlin, Neil Youngs Tonights the Night, or Big Stars
Third. A month later, the trade publications review of
Gentlemen deems it a bluesy grunge offering in league with
the best of the genre.
In a review for Entertainment Weekly, Tom Sinclair awarded
Gentlemen a B+ and opined: On the major-label debut by
ex-Sub Poppers Afghan Whigs, guitars scratch, bleed, cry,
and soar all around singer Greg Dullis tormented howling.
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Lyrically, the albums a downer, but the brooding intensity of
these anthems-for-the-alienated is as addictive as cheap drugs,
a subjectalong with deviant sexthat the Whigs appear to
know something about.
In his Consumer Guide column for the March 1, 1994, edition
of the Village Voice, Robert Christgau gave Gentlemen an
Aand said: With the turn-ons of Liz Phairs
music-qua-music a commonplace, how about giving it up to
Mr. Greg Dulli? No Butch Vig or Steve Albini tidying or
toughening up this suckerthose conflicted guitars are a
direct function of the singer-writer-producer-guitarists
agonized self-exposure/examination.
Writing for the Chicago Tribune, esteemed music journalist
Greg Kot also championed the records ambiguous facets.
One listen to this riveting song cycle of romantic burn-out
establishes that the album tide is meant ironically. Other
conclusionsabout the decency of the character singing
these songs, for exampleare not nearly so clear-cut. Public
Radios Sound Opinions cohost added: Dulli captures the
moment when infatuation loses its bloom and gives way to
something a bit more realistic.
Amy Linden was similarly moved in the New York Times,
where she observed that Mr. Dullis eloquently articulated
shame, guilt and frustration at what has gone wrong and what
he could have done to prevent it give Gentlemen power and
purpose before concluding Mr. Dullis willingness to tackle
adult themes and to examine his sexual psyche places the
Afghan Whigs miles above the whining collegiate concerns of
many alternative rock bands.
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A three-and-a-half-star review in Rolling Stone boasted: On
Gentlemen, the Whigs break from the sludgy guitar morass
favored by fellow Sub Pop expatriates like Nirvana and
Mudhoney. Instead, they opt for a clean, oddly detached
hard-rock sound that shifts erratically between purgative and
disarmingly pretty, adding tension to Dullis caterwauling.
Overseas, New Musical Express granted Gentlemen a 9 (out
of 10) rating, and later, ranked it #20 on its Top 50 LPs of
1993 list. Melody Maker raved, positing, Gentlemen is an
album which can only grow in stature. The UK magazine
later declared it the runner-up Album of the Yearsecond
only to the Tindersticks self-tided debut.
The enthusiastic press carried over to reviews of the bands
animated concerts, which, while laden with exaggerated
entertainment devices, functioned as thematic extensions of
the album. So did the various B-sides tabbed for the groups
overseas singles. Both formats are mostly relics today, but
common to a period that encouraged artistic excess and
exploited a collector mindset.
Akin to scraps that are trimmed from USDA prime meat and
later reprocessed into ground beef, songs recorded for but left
off albums often got a second life as bonus tracks on a range
of CD singles, seven-inches, and, for a brief period,
Cassingles. The thinking held that hardcore fans would
willingly drop money on a pricey import to get exclusive
music they couldnt find anywhere else. Despite smacking of
greed and elitism, the strategy flourished until filesharing and
artist Web sites made it possible for listeners to avoid having
to spend $12 for one new song and several others they already
owned.
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Yet Gentlemen challenged industry convention in that no
studio extras existed. The absence of such planned aural
mediocrity forced labels to look elsewhere for value-added
material and, ultimately, resulted in an inspired string of rare/
unreleased tracks that rivals any associated with a single
album. The B-sides of the import singles of Debonair,
Gentlemen, and What Jail Is Likereleased between
September 1993 and August 1994are drawn from live radio
sessions and a one-off July 1993 recording stint at
Cincinnatis Audiocraft studios. Taken as a whole, they are an
inextricable supplement to Gentlemen. Every cut relates to
Dullis disposition. Each was deliberately chosen. And every
song is riddled with despair or calamity.
The Audiocraft excursion produced four songs, including a
chamber-music rendition of Scrawls Ready recorded with
local singer-songwriter Niki Buehrig. She and Dullis
subdued duet unfolds like an ex-lovers thinking-of-you letter
that is never stuck in the mail. I thought Id feel better / If we
got together / To talk it all over/Just in case Id ever need you
/ Be ready, the pair sings, the readiness taking
the form of an invitation that exists as a polite formality and is
understood by both parties as such.
Gloomier and more despondent, a starkly beautiful and
irony-free cover of Little Girl Blue shatters hearts. Backed
by Chichesters piano, the Whigs do justice to Rodgers and
Harts 1935 pop lament associated with Nina Simone, Frank
Sinatra, and Doris Day. I know how you feel / I know you
feel like youre through, coos Dulli in a sympathetic and
woeful voice, sounding as if hes just lost his best friend and
any reason to live, and, like the girl in the song, should be
placed on suicide watch. Hunters cello and McCollums slide
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guitar sigh woefully in the background. The four and a half
minutes personify depression.
Most famously, the July session returned a consummate
interpretation of James Carrs The Dark End of the Street,
which became a staple of the Gentlemen tour. Dan Penn and
Chips Momans Muscle Shoals classic has been covered by
dozens of artistsPercy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Richard
and Linda Thompson, and Frank Black included. Most
performers have approached the song from a cautiously
optimistic perspectivethe adulterous narrator is still
sneaking in shadows to meet his lover and, although worried
the pair may eventually be caught, the singers tone and/or
bright nuances suggest the protagonists will escape all
ramifications save guiltor treat it as rehabilitative penance
wherein the tune is used to teach a lesson. None come close to
matching the terror, defeat, and anguish inherent in the
Whigs rearrangement. They confiscate the song as their very
own.
Stripped and slowed down, the tune comes on like a loath
march to the electric chair. Dulli calmly sings as a convicted
thief deserving of his sentence; hes so sorrowful that it seems
as if hes already been caught, that hes singing the words
after the fact, humming them to anybody who will listen.
McCollums wavering distortion shivers against cold walls.
Hunters mournful cello echoes funeral taps. The impact is
sinister, heartbreaking, and utterly personal.
The other B-sides are in similar emotional shambles. Live
renditions of Tonight, I Keep Coming Back, What Jail
Is Like, and Now You Know throb with rawness and
intensity. A backwater country-rock stab at the Ass Ponys
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Mr. Superlove falls out with scenes of domestic violence
that betrays the grinning instrumentation. A bloodthirsty
version of Patti Smiths Revenge, a funked-up take on
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas Easily Persuaded, and a
Dulli-led My Curseall recorded February 1994 for the
John Peel showspew vengeance and cynicism. A mercurial
medley of the Supremes My World Is Empty Without You /
I Hear a Symphonyboth longtime concert
favoritesamplifies the bands fondness for taking happy
songs and turning them sad, and, correspondingly, combining
seemingly incongruous elements, like garage-rock and soul,
post-punk and R&B, to create singular music. A Mark
Goodier Session, broadcast on August 30, 1993, for BBC
Radio 1, engendered another Scrawl numberthe corrosive
Rot, the title of which sums up the general malaise that
courses through all of the cover songs.
Theyre all thematic, confirms Dulli. There was a degree
of nihilism that ran through all of that stuff. I come from a
long line of mental illness in the form of different things, the
worst being outright dementiaa long line of depression.
This was all before there became widespread treatment.
Coming from where I came from, you were a pussy. And fuck
you, suck it up, and get over it. Thats obviously not the best
way to attack
that condition. So you self-medicate and look for ways to
bring yourself out of it. That usually involves stimulants and
depressants, legal or illegal. At that point, looking back, I was
finally treated for depression in 1997. But from 1993 to 1997,
1 was an immensely and complicatedly unhappy person.
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VI. Take Me Away
As the band develops its own sound, a feat nearly
accomplished on Gentlemen, expect the Whigs to move out of
the club circuit and into a much bigger spotlight.
Variety, December 1993
Shortly after Gentlemen was released, a star-crossed fate
began to befall the album and the Afghan Whigs. At once,
critics predicted that the group was primed to break out and,
while adulatory in their assessments, were often hesitant to
fully commit. Acclaim was often qualified with slight
reservations that, likely owing to a confusion of what to make
of the album, sent the band into a limbo in which they were
praised, came thisclose to mainstream success, and yet never
completely broke through.
The record suffered a similarly tortured fate on most year-end
lists. Like a prized underdog, Gentlemen was acknowledged
but remained just beneath what was deemed to be the upper
echelon. Granted, 1993 was a very, very good year for music.
Nirvanas In Utero, PJ Harveys Rid of Me, and Liz Phairs
Exile in Guyville all deserved spots on the highest reaches of
every best-of list. The Flaming Lips Transmissions from the
Satellite Heart, Yo La Tengos Painful, the Breeders Last
Splash, Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream, and P.M.
Dawns The Bliss Album? werent far behind.
Yet apart from Melody Maker, Vox, and Spin, which named
Gentlemen the seventh-best album of the year, no other major
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music publicationRolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly,
Select, Q, The Face, NME, Musik Express Sounds (Germany),
Les Inrockuptibles (France), Rock De Lux (Spain)
includedranked it in the Top 10. Some didnt deem it
worthy of the Top 30.
In a January 1994 features piece for the Los Angeles Times,
Richard Cromelin summed up the predicament: The Afghan
Whigs album Gentlemen wasnt a commercial smash, and it
didnt show up on a lot of year-end Top 10 lists, but it just
might be the overlooked masterpiece of last year.
Results of the Village Voices annual Pazz & Jop Poll support
Cromelins statement. Tallied from the collective responses of
308. critics, Gentlemen placed seventeenth and netted
twenty-four total mentions, confirming that the record didnt
place on most Top 10 lists yet made a lasting impression on a
few dozen journalists. It placed thirteenth in Canadas
similarly tabulated Eye Weekly poll. USA Today and the
Chicago Tribune gave the album honorable mention status.
The under-appreciated slights extend through most best-of
decade lists. Gentlemen doesnt crack Mojos 100 Modern
Classics or The Mojo Collection. Rolling Stone leaves the
record off of its Essential Recordings of the 90s (which
nevertheless includes albums by Korn, Lenny Kravitz, and
Hootie
and the Blowfish) despite promoting Gentlemen to a
four-and-a-half-star-caliber album in The New Rolling Stone
Album Guide. The record fails to rate in Pitchforks Top 100
Albums of the 1990s; the Whigs arent even listed as an
example of an unfortunate casualty that almost made the
cut. And Gentlemen is nowhere to be found on Chicago
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Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatiss list of The Ninety Best
Albums of the 90s published in Milk It!, the Sound
Opinions cohosts handy anthology on 90s alt-music. The
dissenters? Spin, which lists Gentlemen at #99 of its 100
Greatest Albums 1985-2005, and CM], which places it as the
fourteenth-best record of the 90s.
Radio and television yielded similar frustrations. Reviewing
the Debonair single in early October, Billboard spouted,
Early press rumblings bill this act, on its first major-label
outing, as a big thing waiting to happen. The speculation
proved false. In early November, Debonair debuted at #25
(out of 30) on the Modern Rock Tracks chart, where it spent
thirteen weeks, peaking at #18 and spending most of its
residency in the lower twenties. The bands name was
misspelled Wigs in every entry. MTV briefly rotated the
Debonair video on its 120 Minutes show, for which the
band also made an in-studio appearance. But the medium
failed to demonstrate any lasting faith, treating the
Gentlemen video with related tepidness.
A starred review of What Jail Is Like, the third and final
single taken from Gentlemen, in the July 9, 1994, Billboard
said it all: Programmers who missed the brilliant first single,
Debonair, and fine follow-up, Gentlemen, should not let
this be three strikes. Simultaneously hormonal and cerebral,
talents like this will garner fans for years if afforded proper
exposure. Few listened. What Jail Is like didnt even land
on the Modern Rock Tracks chart.
Then again, Gentlemen wasnt cut out for what passed then
(or now) as radio-friendly fare. The records intellectual
content, cognitive twists, painful honesty, and consummate
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eloquence simply made it too legitimate, too uncomfortable,
and too genuine for public airwaves. Not to mention that the
Whigs sounded like nobody else. Originality is seldom
encouraged in the mainstream, and the bands
soulfulnessabsent from a commercial era touting
hand-me-down acts such as Gin Blossoms, Stone Temple
Pilots, and Candleboxserved as a further impediment.
Historically, black and black-influenced music have been
shunned in favor of sanitized remakes and flagrant
counterfeits that almost always outsell the superior original.
American Idol is evidence of Americas ongoing appetite for
sterilized mediocrity.
The Whigs combination of style and soul sent nearly
everyone scrambling for comparisons. Matt Diehls review of
Gentlemen in Rolling Stone illustrates such tunnel-vision
thinking. In less than 270 words, he name drops no fewer than
nine other bandsPearl Jam, American Music Club, Nirvana,
Mudhoney, Soul Asylum, Hsker D (via a Zen Arcade
mention), U2 (via a Bono mention), Joy Division, and
Soundgardenas points of reference rather than focusing on
the Whigs inventiveness. Problem is that Diehl, or any other
critic guilty of laziness, could have listed a dozen more iconic
artists and still would fail to capture the essence of a band
whose creativity, for better or worse, isolated it.
Gentlemen didnt fare much better in indie-rock circles.
Granted, the Elektra affiliation automatically distanced it
from snobs that refused to go near anything on a major label.
And
just as it didnt parlay into an advantage on the commercial
circuit, the small Sub Pop logo on the albums back cover
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didnt carry any weight in that everyone was already well
aware the Seattle imprints entire roster had been raided.
Yet the biggest hindrance had little to do with pretension or
labels; it related to Gentlemens subject matter. Indie-rock
doesnt handle sex too well, particularly when openly
discussed. Reacting against the chauvinistic views usually
reflected in hard rock, elementary attitudes of pop, and
stereotypical silliness of modern country, indie-rock tends to
treat sex with kid gloves. The topic is often broached (and
concealed) via hush-hush whispers, wobbly vocals, and
delicate poetry. Any sense of sexual pleasure, fun, and
eroticism is either bypassed or lost in translation.
Testosterone and estrogen are commonly feared. As
demonstrated by the shy makeup of the monstrously
successful Juno soundtrack, the indie world at large still
hasnt crawled out from under its protective shelter. It isnt
ready for lines such as Cause she wants love / And I still
want to fuck, the frankness of which doesnt jive with the
scenes timid values and lo-fi moxie.
And the Whigs were anything but apprehensive, especially
onstage, the one forum where they enjoyed unmitigated
success. Having graduated to headliners, the band regularly
performed 90-to-120-minute shows replete with Supremes
covers and snippets of songs like PJ Harveys
Sheela-Na-Gig, Dr. Dres Nuthin But a G Thang,
Princes When Doves Cry, Teenage Fanclubs
Alcoholiday, Madonnas Express Yourself and Into the
Groove, and Pavements In the Mouth of a Desert. In a
clever homage to their influences and independence, the front
of the groups concert T-shirts depicted Stax Records finger
snap logo with the fingers now
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holding a cigarette. On the back, the tagline THE NEW
SOUND OF YOUNG AMERICA was written underneath an
AW logo scripted in the fat Motown font.
From the tours beginning, Dulli played up his role as
dynamic frontman, taking more liberties with songs, banter,
and situations than he did on the Congregation outing. He
was also attracting notice from fashion and lifestyle
magazines for his looks and, while the band couldnt get on
the radio, Dulli became an unlikely alt-rock sex symbol
mentioned in publications such as Seventeen.
The GQ attentionand the volatile mix of the Whigs urban
cool, live flamboyance, and perceived arroganceignited an
inevitable jealous backlash. Denigrators accused the viewed
group as cartoonish, overhyped, and undeserving. A majority
of the potshots were reserved for Dulli, whose outspokenness,
bravado, and looks were lampooned with the kind of severity
normally reserved for pop celebrities. The most ignorant
attacks accused him of thinking and pretending he was black,
further underscoring that a certain taboo remained attached to
black music and that a priggish America couldnt shake its
obsession with racial or sexual boundaries. Most infamously,
Dulli inspired the creation of Fat Greg Dulli, a faux zine
whose sole mission was to ridicule and belittle the singer.
Some excerpts from Issue 6:
Greg Dulli Subscribes To:
Sassy to keep in touch with what the little girls want and
because hes determined to one day be named Sassiest Boy in
America!
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Mirabella to nurture his feminine side!
National Geographic. Photos of topless African chicks and
old guys with plates in their lip are good decor for the tour
bus!
Newsweek, Tiger Beat, Martha Stewart Living, Cigar
Aficionado: Somebody sent his name in with all those little
subscription stamp things and he still cant get off these damn
lists!
Greg Dulli One-Night Stand Kit Nifty Afghan Whigs money
clip and dice cufflinks; 8 miniatures of Wild Turkey; 2 packs
of Dunhills; 1 bottle of rib sauce; 3 moist towlettes; Karaoke
With The Staples Singers tape; Best Of America karaoke tape;
1 Today contraceptive sponge; 17 condoms; Don Flemings
phone number
Exciting News Items From Our Midwest Sources: (its old)
Greg lives in Hyde Park, a wealthy section of Cincinnati, with
bandmates Steve Earle and Jason from Throneberry. He used
to drive a blue Chevy Econoline van, but now hes usually
seen just walking. Hes nearsighted and used to wear big
round blue glasses, but that was years ago and we presume his
swarthy good looks won out and hes opting for contacts. He
keeps mum about his relationships, probably because hes just
saving the material for the next record. Hes a big fan of
Italian food and barbecues and he doesnt really do drugs. He
used to wear navy blue pocket t-shirts and black chinos alot,
although sources infer that he may have just been wearing the
same outfit. A lot. Hes said to remember everything friends
say, much to their surprise. Greg goes on exotic vacations
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and recently went to French Morocco and Amsterdam. Greg
doesnt wear cologne and one source says hes a sloppy
kisser. His birthday is May 10th.
That is grade-school taunting. What can I do?, says Dulli,
conscious that its always better to get some kind of reaction
than none at all. In the end, for someone who portrayed it to
not give a fuck about me, I was like you sure put in a lot of
effort into not giving a fuck about me.
Despite sold-out shows, positive press, Dullis exposure, and
a climate favorable to alt-rock, sales of Gentlemen stalled out.
Attempting to pinpoint reasons for its (or any records)
lukewarm popularity is an inexact science. A litany of
subjective factorsincluding promotional efforts, media
saturation, label budgets, public tastes, and commercial
appealobstruct any definitive verdicts. Yet historical
research proves clearer. A clash of dubious label decisions,
incongruous planning, atrocious undermining, and artistic
character triggered a downward spiral that found both the
band and label retreating.
Even before they signed to Elektra, Dulli was well aware of
the myriad challenges that the Whigs presented to publicists.
There was a panel during [the 1993] College Music Journal
Festival that I believe was actually titled How Do You
Market the Afghan Whigs? We were so fucking weird. What
were we? I think we were so hard to pigeonhole, you couldnt
call us anything. There was soul-grunge. That was silly. I
actually marveled at people trying to figure us out. Few ever
did.
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In an October 1993 Billboard article, Terry Tolkin, Elektras
then-director of A&R, explained the labels marketing
strategy
for the still-forthcoming Gentlemen: We are going to take
out an extensive campaign in a lot of the indie publications, as
well as concentrate on creating a lot of visibility in retail.
There is so much competition at the time it is coming out, but
we believe when people hear the record, it organically sells
itself by the buzz it generates.
Buzz is what sold Gentlemen yet buzz alone usually isnt
enough. Without the advantages of the Internet, bands were
dependent on radio and video, and for the Whigs, that support
didnt happen. Sherry Ring, the groups Elektra publicist,
recalls meetings in which frustrations concerning the Whigs
album sales dominated conversations.
To me, its unbelievable that theyre not U2. They were just
fantastic. But in praising the band shes also quick to absolve
the label from any culpability. I personally dont think it was
the label fucking up. Elektra and the people under [Bob
Krasnow] were so dedicated and into good music. It wasnt
like the music business is today where there are priorities and
if the song isnt a hit then you go onto the next thing and it
has to sell a certain amount of copies. Elektra was always
behind all of their bands no matter how much they sold as
long as the music was great. It just might have been the
timing. And sometimes thats what it comes down to.
Yet Rings recollection of what might have gone wrong also
comes with revealing qualifiersI think maybe they didnt
fit into a certain niche, Maybe they wanted to be more
indie/alternative and really they should have been more
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rockthat illustrate an obvious disconnect between label
and band, and fundamentally, Elektras inability to fully
understand what it had.
I think there were more people out there that would have
liked us than found out about us, says Curley. I really felt
like we were not really on [Elektras] radar. They had signed
this band that people were saying was good. The president
wasnt entirely convinced. He was willing to give us a shot,
and that was enough. He was going to put his weight behind
it, but I dont think it was one of their priority things. I think it
took them a little by surprise when [Gentlemen] was so well
received by the press.
Unbeknownst to those outside the band, the Whigs were also
contending with internal -sabotage. Dulli learned that the
perpetrator behind Fat Greg Dullia slur still used by his
harshest criticswas not only a woman, but that she had
help. It turned out to be not only that girl but [one person] at
Elektra who didnt like me. It was a conspiracy.
While Dulli and Curley opted not to name the culprit, the man
who on his MySpace page claims he coined the phrase
alternative music, saved both Sub Pop and Touch & Go
Records, and spent more than half a million dollars in label
expense funds boasted of his slimy deeds on a fellow
exElektra staffers blog in June 2007: I supplied Yvonne
Garret with the unflattering photos of him and she wrote it
and put it out. Greg spent months trying to figure out who did
it! gleefully admitted Tolkin, who backstabbed a band he
was being paid to help.
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Such hijinx compounded bumpy relations. Dealing with the
corporate machine for the first time in their career, the Whigs
were already trying to find a middle ground that satisfied
Elektras requests while staying true to their own principles.
We were always looking for opportunities to become more
successful. But it had to be within the scope of something we
were comfortable doing, explains Curley. At the
point we were on Elektra and [later] Columbia, there are a lot
of compromises. You cant say no to everything. You have to
pick your battles. If you say no to everything, then they wont
care. Theyll move onto the next band because theyll think
youre a pain in the ass. In that regard you have to make
compromises. I dont feel that we ever did anything that made
us feel bad about ourselves, or if it wound up that way, that
was the last time it ever happened.
High standards soon put the band at odds with the labels
hard-sell propaganda ideas, which began to reflect the
growing discrepancies between the imprint and the band as
well as the general mishandling suffered by most exSub
Pop acts that jumped to the big leagues. Elektra exhorted the
Whigs to perform at multi-act concerts sponsored by radio
stations that rarely, if ever, played their music. The label also
requested that the group play instores at inopportune times.
The more they were pressured and pushed, the more the
Whigs withdrew from the process.
I sort of began to sabotage it, says Dulli, copping to his role
in jeopardizing any possible greater fame and album sales. I
wouldnt play the game. I wouldnt do the meet-and-greets. I
wouldnt go to the instores. I became so aware of the fucking
bozo factor that was going on. When we started playing these
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radio festivals, I just never felt comfortable. Whether it was
real or imagined, I just felt like a whore. I couldnt do it.
Playing in a record store? I wasnt going to do that. Rock and
roll is nighttime. We were being asked to play morning and
daytime shit. Who knows [what would have happened] had
we played the game and played acoustic songs on the radio
and gone to this and that. I wasnt willing to do that. I dont
regret not doing it. I go with my gut. It has served me well. If
I didnt
get something from it, [its] okay because it was my choice.
We had already basically learned and decided that those
[promotional gambits] were not for us, adds Curley. [Radio
stations] would try to get cool bands to play their festival
with the promise that they would play their music, and then
they wouldnt play the music and youd wind up playing this
festival with a bunch of bands that you didnt belong onstage
with. It was bullshit.
Maybe we blew off two or three of them that we should have
done. But we also blew off a hundred of them that we
shouldnt have done. In the end, for us it was the right
decision. Whether we would have sold a few more records or
not, I dont know. That is the whole part of it that I didnt
like. The more I thought about it, the more it took away from
the part I did like.
For Dulli, who in spite of an extroverted stage personality
claims he is extremely self-conscious and private, the
demands became unreasonable. Expectations that he mingle
at after-show meet-and-greets were too muchand too
phonyfor someone battling depression and confronting
demons.
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I wouldnt hang out and meet people after the shows. Shows
to me have always been real. I go out and fucking give it up.
To act like I just watched a movie with everybody else and
Im walking out to the parking lot and I can casually talk
about it [with them]? I cant do that. Especially with an album
where Im stripping naked and pulling the bones out of my
skinthats the way it felt to me. I wanted to leave.
While the honeymoon between Elektra and the Whigs had
significantly cooled by early 1994, it was completely over by
early April. The group was in New York to play what at the
time was its biggest show yet. Before the end of the concert,
Dulli instructed the tour manager to call a cab and have it wait
outside the rear entrance. As soon as the final song of the
encore ended, the singer jumped in the taxi and left,
abandoning a host of label personnel, radio deejays, and
assorted industry hangers-on awaiting him backstage. Elektra
fumed.
It became irreparable at that point, says the singer. I had
sent a message that they took as a giant Fuck you. Which in
retrospect, it kind of was. Maybe they thought I was looking a
gift horse in the mouth or biting the hand that fed me. I
looked at it as self-preservation. Had I stayed I think I would
have lost something I could not have gotten back. While it
may not seem a big deal to anybody else, it seemed like a big
deal to me at the time. All I wanted to do was be by myself.
The following day, Dulli headed to Elektras New York
offices to present an idea for a What Jail Is Like video that
culminated with his crucifixion on Golgotha. The label wasnt
having any of it. Nothing was ever filmed.
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I remember slam slam slam. I walked out and went back to
the hotel and was like, Were done here dude. We toured,
went back to Europe, and toured some more, and made some
money. That was that. I had pissed off a whole bunch of
people. And I didnt even do anything that offensive. I didnt
break a promise. I just did what I wanted to do and that
proved unpopular. I paid for it with the shutdown of the
machine. Ill take responsibility for it but I wont apologize
because it was self-preservation for me. Being the biggest
rock star on the planet has never ever been my aim.
Dullis New York retreat coincided with an era-defying
moment: Kurt Cobains suicide. News of the Nirvana singers
death, and the circumstances that led to it, lingered in Dullis
thoughts. At a concert in Hoboken, New Jersey, that occurred
one night after Cobains body was discovered, and right after
the New York show, an obviously shaken Dulli dedicated
When We Two Parted to the fallen vocalist: When we first
came to Seattle to record and play, the fellas in Nirvana came
out and kind of made us feel really welcome cause we felt
kind of weird for not being from there, kind of young and
stupid and hillbillies and stuff, so. Its been kind of sad to lose
somebody that you know and you really like, so were going
to do this next one for a friend of ours.
In retrospect, Dulli isnt shy about shouldering responsibility
or ashamed of his actions. I gave what I could but I refused
to give what I didnt want to give. I think some of my
actionsthere was some cause and effect. And I think I was
the cause, and we all saw the effect.
If pejorative backlashes and label politics werent enough
hassle, the Whigs were also grappling with and concealing
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serious internal problems. As the last member to join the
band, Steve Earle had always been content remaining behind
the scenes and following the groups lead. He readily admits
that Dulli either wrote, suggested, or showed him the drum
parts on Gentlemen. But Earles carefree nature didnt last out
the tour, where the former Mr. Happy Go Lucky turned ugly.
Curley bitterly recalls the drummers steady decline into an
embarrassing drunk.
Everybody had their moments where they drank too much
onstage and played a crappy show. But Steve had a problem
with drinking where he couldnt drink two beers. He had to
drink all of the beers. Or none of the beers.
Steve was drinking a lot, and drunk more often than not. He
was not himself anymore. I dont think anybody in the
band was friends with him anymore. It was a bad scene. The
worst part about it is here you are doing something you love
with your bud, and now its a bummer. Youd rather be home
and not doing it. The best job in the world, and its a job. It
wasnt every single day, but the number of those days
increases as the dynamic starts to go sour.
He was funny until he got pathetic, says Dulli. And he was
a trooper. He got in the van with us for a lot of years. I think
as a social experiment there is probably always going to be an
odd man out, a dude who doesnt keep up with the rest of the
guys or doesnt share the common vision. And he became that
guy.
On top of the alcohol-induced tension, Earle butted heads
with the band over bringing his girlfriend out on the toura
violation of the one rule most rock groups keep. The Whigs
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told him no, and that if he insisted, hed be forced to rent a car
and drive separately. It was decided that shed meet up with
Earle in Texas, where the band had a string of mid-April
shows. But before the group arrived in the Lone Star State,
the tour snaked through Florida, where Earle hooked up with
another woman.
Once in Houston, Earle connected with Mary Kay at
soundcheck and entrusted her with a few errandsfilm
development among them. The drummer forgot that the
pictures were of him and the other girl from Florida. Incensed
at what she saw, Mary Kay used the photographic evidence to
shoot Earle down with ammunition hed provided her.
However humorous, the escapade gave rise to a power grab
that likely came out of Earle being forced into capitulation.
We played Dallas and that was really frosty, recalls Dulli.
I dont know what happened between Dallas and Austin
maybe he fucked her really good or somethingbut by the
time we got to Austin, MTV was meeting us there. And they
wanted to talk to me. By that time, Rick and John hated
talking to the press. Steve, theres no way we were going to
let him talk to the press because the one time he did, it was
fucking embarrassing for everyone. So I was the dude.
Right before the MTV interview, Mary Kay came up to me
and said, Greg, we need to talk to you. And Im like,
Whos we? Steve and I. I look over at Steve and hes
hanging his head. She brought up something about the
management. Im like, Who the fuck are you? Youre
Cincinnati town whore and now youre Steves manager?
Fuck you. Shes like, No, fuck you, because I am
representing Steve now. And Im looking at Steve and hes
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like, Ugh. She said, I want to know why its always you.
Why youre the one always interviewed. Why its always a
picture of you.
Dulli replied using common sense, noting that
band-associated photos werent always of him and that the
reasons he was pursued as an interview subject might have
something to do with his being the singer and songwriter. But
Mary Kay didnt back down. She pressed for Earle to be
included in the MTV interview. Dulli recalls the
uncomfortable situation the dilettante manager created with
the networks producers. Let it be known that I didnt say
no, [MTV] did. And then with Steve, it was just painful after
that.
Earles ignominious free-fall climaxed at the Reading Festival
in late August. The band was jazzed. It had a propitious
early-evening time slot on the main stage. Marcy Mays even
joined the group for My Curse. A never-released new song
(Ascension) was performed. But the show had a hitch that
Dulli will never forget.
We were playing Debonair. Halfway through, the drums
stopped. Earle fell off his stoolwasted in the middle of
70,000 people. At that moment we were effectively done. We
played one more gig with him in Manchester. He couldnt
keep his shit together.
Despite the setbacks, the Whigs stuck by their drummer. In
the winter of 1994, the quartet began wood-shedding new
material in advance of a final hometown Gentlemen show
scheduled for Christmas time at Bogarts. During rehearsal,
Earle made a strange requestone also known as the punch
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line to the joke about what the last thing a drummer says
before he leaves the band: Hey, can we work on some of my
songs? The Whigs complied out of sheer curiosity. Earle had
never written anything in the bands history. The results?
Three repeating chords and a chorus.
Two days later, Dulli was buying marijuana at someones
house when he got a call from Curley. Earle wanted to meet
with them. Hed quit the band.
Thats a really long story, very complicated, says Earle,
who on the phone elected not to discuss the issue.
Personalities clashed after awhile. I just really wasnt happy
in that situation anymore. Its too bad, because I really
enjoyed playing with those guys.
McCollum also remained mum on the subject, though the
guitarists tensed-up speech and penchant to change the topic
all but concurs with Dulli and Curleys feelings: Earles
friends now abhorred him. Everyone agrees that the vibe had
spoiled.
I dont think Steve was happy, says Curley, trying to
maintain a balanced perspective. Speaking in a reserved tone,
its apparent that the bassist is still both saddened and enraged
at what unfolded. Earle is a sore topic.
We were all dealing with shit, collectively and individually.
Im still trying to learn how to figure out how I feel,
communicate it, decide when its worth saying something and
when its not, and how to say it. Im not that great at it now,
and I was a lot worse at it then. Im going to guess everybody
else was on the same timeline. And then youre in this thing
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and you dont know how to get off of it. You dont want to
pull the plug and fuck your friends or let people down that
have given you their backing. None of us are quitters. Its not
easy to get us to commit to stuff, but when we do, it gets a
full commitment. It was just hard at the end trying to.
Curley pauses.
We started to go in different directions. Musically, Steve
was a metal guy and still into that. We wanted to go more
R&B and I dont think he was into it.
Because of the short notice, the Whigs needed to scramble to
find a replacement drummer for the Bogarts gig. The
Breeders Jimmy MacPherson was brought in for a few
sessions. But there was too much to learn and not enough
time. The show was canceled and the band were out of a
guaranteed paycheck.
It was dumb, charges Curley, who says the band was worth
a little more than $20K when Earle split and demanded an
accountant. Because we all would have made some money
off of it. But I guess that speaks to how he felt about things.
Dulli is less understanding. He views Earles bombshell as the
most selfish maliciousness possible. He was trying to hurt
us. Im sure there was one drunken night where we were
all-for-one and one-for-all, if one guy leaves we break up the
band. If that one guy was John, Rick, or me, we wouldve
broken up. But we werent going to let fucking ding-dong
take us out. As soon as he quit, it fucked us. We had $12K
sitting
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on the table. And $3K of that was his. At that point I was like,
Fuck you, dude. Fuck you. And fuck you forever. Youre
dead to me.
The Afghan Whigs survived Earles stunt and the other
travails associated with Gentlemen only to encounter a
ruinous July 1994 shakeup at Elektra in which Sylvia Rhone
replaced Bob Krasnow and practically rendered the group
invisible. On August 2, with no fanfare, the label issued a
seven-track What Jail Is Like EP featuring the title track,
three recycled European B-sides, and three live songs (also
included on overseas singles) performed in Denver in May
1994 for KTCL Radio. It was much too little, too late, and
remains the only official domestic release with live Whigs
music.
Having recruited Paul Buchignani to fill in on drums, the
band staged a brief club tour in the summer of 1995 to debut
fresh material in advance of sessions for its fourth proper
album. Darker, denser, and dramatically soulful, the
intentionally cinematic and funkier Black Love appeared in
March 1996. It showed just how disturbed and unhappy Dulli,
since relocating to Washington State, had become. like
Gentlemen, the record begins with field-recording
effectsthe sound of train yard close to
Ultrasuedecaptured in Cincinnati. Yet the instrumental
arraytimpani, cello, organ, Fender Rhodes electric piano,
sleigh bells, conga, pedal steel, and hammer dulcimer are
presentweigh the music down. The production decisions
often stifle the melodies. Removed of the trappings, the best
songsCrime Scene Part One, Blame, Etc., Going to
Town, Bulletproof, Summers Kiss, Fadedbecame
live favorites.
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Dulli acknowledges the shortcomings. I had lost my
mind. I should have had someone there in the studio to go
[gently but assuredly wagging his index finger]: Nooooh.
After getting help for depression, Dulli didnt make the same
mistake twice. He invited everyone down to record in his new
co-homebase, New Orleans, a city where the 24/7 vibe
matches the festive feel of the songsand the singers
cocaine highs.
I used all 24and 24 the next day and 24 the next day. Id
go three days without sleeping. At one point, I went eight
days without sleeping because I was exploring sleep
deprivation as a drug. All I needed was a Hershey bar and a
Coca-Cola to keep going. I remember at Mardi Gras I was on
the sixth day and somebody offered me cocaine. And Im
like, Dont waste your coke, dude. Im so far past coke right
now. Im on caffeine and fumes and its so weird. I was
seeing things. And it was cool. Curley used to say that I was
the dude who loved going over the edge except that I never
found the edge. I was like Wile E. Coyote. I had gone off the
cliff hours ago but I was still running in the air.
Released on October 27, 1998, 1965 is an island in the
Whigs catalog, a joyous record that simmers with
ass-shaking R&B, cocky swagger, sensual horns, bawdy
boogie, unquenched lust, and black-soul grooves that never
quit. George Drakoulias and Dave Biancos mix helped make
1965 the best-sounding Whigs album. New drummer Michael
Horrigan and the bands move to Columbia Records added a
palpable energy missing since Earles exit. The label fronted
the money for the big-band revue Dulli always wanted.
Onstage, the Whigs felt like deities, and played like it.
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I was singing about a celebration within myself rather than a
bunch of shitty stuff that had happened in which I had
become an over-accomplished miserablistand then, quickly
became one again, says Dulli, proud of the bands
swan-song album and tour.
The singer smiles, his boyish grin a sign of a man whos
grateful for having endured ordeals and addictions that should
have put him in an early grave.
I liked the guy who sings those songs. That dude is cool.
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VII. Epilogue
Each to Each
Citing geographical distance, the Afghan Whigs quietly
announced their split in early February 2001. Reasons for the
amicable dissolution dont go much deeper.
When I had a kid, those guys knew that my days were
numbered even if I didnt, says Curley. Greg was living in
LA and he was staying here. And then the time came for us to
go out [there], and I was going to be gone for two months. I
didnt feel like I could be gone. I didnt feel like I could be
committed to the band the way I had been, and to my family,
and be fair to both of them. Its not possible.
I was hemming and hawing and [Greg] just called me out on
it. It was actually a quite civilized and nonemotional
conversation. All the times when I quit screaming or Greg
quit screaming, none of those [conversations] lasted. The one
that was for real was two friends talking.
Even though the band had worked on new material during the
previous summer, the break-up decision didnt come as a total
surprise. By late fall 2000, Dulli had already released his
first album and toured with his ambient-leaning side project
the Twilight Singers, whose King Only appeared in Whigs
199899 sets. The song was performed at what became the
Cincinnati groups last gig by default. Billed and played as a
normal hometown show at Bogarts on September 25, 1999,
the concert bore none of the conceits and disappointments
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that accompany final performances. For Curley, a more fitting
ending couldnt have been scripted.
Im glad we didnt do a farewell show for a lot of reasons. I
think part of it is the cheese factor; its such a clich now.
Everybody does a farewell show and then a reunion tour and
then a farewell show and then a reunion tour. I mean, look at
the Who. Theyve been doing that for twenty years.
Content to play bass in the Staggering Statistics, a local indie
band that doesnt travel, Curley now labors at Ultrasuede
Studios and records garage-rock acts like the Greenhomes.
But primarily, hes a devoted family man.
So is Earle, who, akin to Curley, resides in the Cincinnati area
and plays in a band. As the leader of the power-pop quartet
Earle Grey, the former drummer has abandoned the trap-kit in
favor of guitar and vocals.
McCollum has likewise stepped out of his own shadow and
taken to singing. He fronts Minneapolis-based Moon Maan,
playing guitar and theremin.
Having made four Twilight Singers albums and a solo record
in a six-year span that also witnessed him guest on numerous
LPs by other artists, Dulli remains both musically engaged
and contemporarily relevant. A long-running partnership with
exScreaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan progressively
blossomed into the Gutter Twins, whose Saturnalia debut
stands as one of 2008s best albums. The collaboration
reignited a passion, mystique, and personality in Dulli not
seen since his time in the Whigs. Yet the frontman has clearly
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moved past his old quartet. Since the initial Twilight Singers
outings, hes rarely played much Whigs material onstage.
It felt like cheating on my wife with everyone watching,
Dulli confesses, explaining a reluctance to indulge in
nostalgia. In a lot of ways those [Whigs] songs will have to
live on in their recorded form, but thats okay. If I were
starved for material then Id worry about it. But now is
exciting for me and obviously exciting enough for other
people that theyre coming to the showsand coming not
expecting it. If I do it, theyre thrilled. Some of the [younger]
people are like, Whats that?
Yes, the Afghan Whigs are now old enough to be unknowns
to new generations of music listeners. In June 2007, the band
was honored with what in the music industry represents the
ultimate symbol of vintage agethe career retrospective.
Beyond exposing longtime followers to previously unreleased
photos and serving as a CliffsNotes for newcomers,
Unbreakable (A Retrospective 19902006) provided further
evidence of the Whigs permanence, originality, initiative,
command, spunk, and influence. The compilation was greeted
with widespread acclaim. Reviews acknowledged the musics
era-defying qualities and asked, again, just how large-scale
success avoided the group. They also recommended diving
into the Whigs back catalog, knowing that no matter how
good, no single-disc retrospective could fully portray the
album band.
Most tellingly, reports that the group was reconvening
preceded the anthologys release. The news set off a flurry of
feverish reunion rumors, some complicated and fueled by the
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emergence of another band desperately and derivatively
calling
itself the Whigs. Yet theres no substituting for an American
original, and the excitement over the possible reunion
validated that the Whigsthe real Whigshad so
memorably struck emotional chords, inspired lasting
reactions, touched central nerves, and left indelible
impressions that their music wasnt going to fade away. In
addition to a loyal following that continues to keep the
groups lore alive, and fans that have picked up on Dullis
various projects, people that for whatever reason didnt see
the band want a chance to experience the Whigs. Promoters
and club ownersincluding mega-fan Shanahanrecognized
this, and presented the band with a serious financial offer to
tour. But the wish would remain fantasy.
Dulli, Curley, McCollum, and Horrigan did in fact meet again
in the studio. Two new songs (Im a Soldier and
Magazine) were recorded. New pictures were taken. Old
stories were told. Debates over which tracks should be placed
on the retrospective were decided. By all accounts, plenty of
fun was had.
I think the catching up and hanging out part for me was more
fun than the music part, admits Curley, who keeps in regular
contact with Dulli and McCollum. Thats how we spent most
of our time together. I was just looking forward to hanging
out. And honestly, at this point in my life, thats what Id
rather be doing. Just watching TV with them or going out to
dinner.
Dulli is even more resistant to reuniting. He seems too smart
and too classy to try and recreate the past, knowing well that
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such gambits are almost always losing propositions. The
singer values the Whigs music and experiences, and his
brotherly friendship with Curley, too greatly to put them all at
risk.
In the grand scheme of things, I have fond memories. Not so
fond that Im going to go back and do it again, because Im
not. I loved my time in it. More great times than bad. Thats
really nice to be able to say. I grew up in that band. I think
that when it ended, its why I stopped for a couple of years. I
wasnt going to find a new girlfriend that fast. It took me a
while to get to where I felt comfortable playing music again
and doing it on my own terms.
So far, his approach seems to be working, thanks in part to
healthy diversions. Dulli owns two Los Angelesbased
barsShort Stop and Footsiesand renovated the Royal
Street Inn and the R Bar in New Orleans. The entrepreneurial
pursuits reflect the future-gazing mindset of a musician who
swears his troublemaking days are through. After years of
battling depression, demons, and himself, Dulli is embracing
life.
I remain interested in music, but for the most part I read
books and go to baseball games and watch movies at home
and practice cooking. Rehab bars and hotels. There are other
ways to be inspired.
Im out here trying to pave my way to retirement to Hawaii
when Im fifty. Ultimately, if I can get a little bar by the
ocean, and just kind of hang out, maybe play piano shows at
the bar on Friday nights, Ill be psyched.
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Now its through.
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Visit for a fascinating history of King Records and other
related articles/discographies on Ohio soul.
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1
http://www.shakeitrecords.com/history-links.html
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