Whigging Out

Details // The Afghan Whigs have made a career out of confrontation, failed love affairs, and loud guitars. Jason Cohen joins their traveling circus of maladjustment in Germany.

The Afghan Whigs live in that most un-rock ‘n’ roll city, Cincinnati. When they first started, they had to leave town just to play shows. But after seven years together, they’re on the cusp of fame due to their repeated tours, a couple of acclaimed re cords on Sup Pop, and their latest album, Gentlemen, a hard-edged meditation on love gone ugly. Now the Whigs have discovered a pleasant side effect of being a rising American rock band: In Europe, you are treated like a star. As they travel throug h Germany, they’re feted with huge color posters, national radio play, and their faces on magazine covers. In Germany, the Whigs revel in their luxury hotel rooms; in Ohio, the lead singer and the drummer still share a modest apartment with a third roomma te.

But despite the trappings of fame, the band feel that they’ve been in Germany too long. The Whigs have so many shows scheduled here- thirteen in all- that the result has been smaller crowds spread out over cities just a few hours apart. The group’s ge neral feeling of alienation is intensified because nobody in the band speaks the language much beyond “danke schon,” “schnitzel,” and “Hamburger Royale,” which is what they call a Quarter Pounder at German McDonald’s franchises.

Tonight’s venue, the Charter Halle, is a building on the site of the old Munich airport where, in 1972, PLO terrorists were captured after Olympic Village attack on Israeli athletes. But these days it has solid purple walls, a remnant from one of Prin ce’s afterhours shows a few years back. The band is sound-checking with Teenage Fanclub’s “Everything Flows,” and Whigs leader Greg Dulli is sporting a ridiculous floppy leopard skin top hat. He takes it off when told that it makes him look like a member of 4 Non Blondes.

There’s no bathroom in the dressing room, just a sink with the words BAND TOILET scrawled in Magic Marker on the wall above it. After a ceremonial shot of Jagermeister, Greg takes this invitation up, pissing in the sink with his back to the rest of th e room. Everyone groans, but nobody’s suprised.

In performance, Greg is alternately a smartass entertainer or- if a lifeless audience or overbearing heckler gets to him- a confrontational asshole. “I’ll make you hate me,” he promises the crowd in Munich, so grim that he likens the scene to a morgue .

Soon he’s drawn into confrontation beyond his usual taunts. All night the handful of stagedivers have amused him- several times he almost cracked up in midsong. But when a couple of moshers get handled roughly, things turn ugly. Greg pounces on an ove rzealous bouncer, fists flailing, wrenching him away from the fans with an impressive headlock. The rest of the band keeps playing, and when the tangle clears, Greg and one remaining diver are at the center of the stage, hugging.

The last time the Afghan Whigs toured Europe they were crammed into a tiny custom-made van- “custom-made” meaning the interior was fitted with used coach-class airplace seats. This year they’re marveling at their first-ever tour bus. but although the fridge comes in handy (especially when they hide pot in the ice cream at border crossings) and the bunks, bathroom, and stove are welcome perks, the truly essential amenities were brought aboard by the band. Specifically, two copies of Howard Stern’s P rivate Parts (everyone’s read it, although Greg admits to feeling guilty about it) and one Apple Powerbook, perennially booted up with Sim City 2000. The computer game’s ability to swallow eight-hour chunks of time may be evil in real life, but on the road it’s probably the greatest invention since drugs. Or at least the VCR.

Greg is circumventing the schedule by flying between cities some days, cashing in his own frequent-flier miles to see a bit of Europe. While he speeds ahead to Frankfurt, drummer Steve Earle sleeps, lead guitarist Rick McCollum quietly surveys his beloved collection of movie soundtracks, and bassist John Curley and I network powerbooks, swapping software and Sim City tips. John is the organizational mind behind the Afghan Whigs- he’s got all the band finances and tour itineraries on the Mac. He also runs a studio, Ultrasuede, recording some of the Whigs’ stuff as well as numerous Ohio bands. He’s the only member of the band who didn’t attend the University of Cincinnati, although you could also say he’s one of four members of the band who failed to graduate from the University of Cincinnati. John came to Ohio to intern at The Cincinnati Enquirer, and though that job was secured through connections (his dad is the publisher of USA Today and his uncle is CEO of Gannett, which owns the Enquirer ), he quickly established his bona fides as a photographer, continuing to work for the paper until the band’s schedule got too heavy.

According to myth, the Whigs formed when Greg and Rick spent a night in jail together, a dubious tale concocted by Greg that the band has allowed to balloon out of proportion- the night has become a year in some versions, while others identify Rick as Greg’s drug dealer. Rick is unlikely convict material- a longtime National Geographic subscriber and former architecture student, he barely ever goes out with the band after shows, and he’s anxious to return to his girlfriend in Minneapolis.

Admittedly, time in the clink is a more entertaining origin than the band’s actual university roots. John hooked up with the three college boys when Greg, immersed in writing a term paper for a friend of his, stormed over to John’s apartment to ask hi m to turn down the stereo. Sometime later John and Greg went to see Husker Du with Greg’s friend Michelle, a pal of the ostensible author of the term paper. Addled by a dose of crystal meth, Greg bailed out of the show early and asked John to see Michelle home. Last February he was best man at their wedding.

After a self-released debut, the Whigs became one of the first non-Seattle bands signed directly to Sub Pop, releasing Up In It in 1991. But 1992’s Congregation really saw them developing their own identity, equal parts gothic atmosphere , tearful melodrama, and sweeping stadium-rock throttle. Greg found his voice, both literally, as he began to use his near-falsetto scream as a tool of contrast rather than the only trick in the box, and as a songwriter. His lyrics became seasoned with ta stes of sex, submission, guilt, a hint of themes to come on Gentlemen. For the new record, Greg surveyed the debris of his own four-year relationship and owned up to his complicity in romantic failure. In song, he indulges in the dark, manipulative impulses of any relationship- he’s not oblivious to sorrow, but he’s more likely to gloat than apologize. “If I inflict the pain then baby only I can comfort you,” Greg boasts on “When We Two Parted.”

Around the time of Congregation Greg said that the Afghan Whigs were a “soul” band. Though he was referring to spirit more than style or sound, the point was pressed with a remarkable cover of the Supremes’ “My World is Empty,” Greg’s yowl tran sforming despair into ominous, vengeful violence. Uptown Avondale, an EP of mostly R&B covers, followed.

Greg did listen to lots of R&B radio and his mom’s Motown 45s growing up in Hamilton, Ohio, where his father worked for the B&O Railroad. So he feels entitled to the conceit. “My dad got it,” says John. “My old school called him up for a yearbook upda te, and he told them we play ‘grunge-soul.'” As catch-phrases go, “grunge-soul” is probably preferable to the legend emblazoned on one German poster: DER NEU NIRVANA!

The Frankfurt show is a sweaty, sold-out mob scene. Backstage, the band casually hold court, sitting in the back of the dressing room receiving visitors. Frankfurt is home to a NATO base, and Greg spends most of the evening chatting with two American enlistees, sprinkling the conversation with quotes from Full Metal Jacket. Then an earnest young ponytailed guy interrupts, a German Sony publishing rep hoping to make a deal. Greg introduces me as his agent and turns to talk to a freakish German h ippie who’s brandishing hash. The publishing guy stands there uncomfortable for about fifteen minutes, apparently fooled, because he keeps talking to me. I tell him one of Greg’s songs is going to be covered by Whitney Houston for The Bodyguard II and he wants a ninety-ten royalty split. Preposterous terms, but Greg has asked for stranger things in the past- the Whigs’ contract with Elektra calls for them to finance a full-length feature film, if he ever finds the time to direct it.

The next show is supposed to be in Oldenburg, Germany, but after a dozen gigs the band have had their fill of Deutschland, and besides, canceling means an extra day in Amsterdam. The only problem is that as a contractual formality they have to provide a doctor’s note proving that one of the band members is sick. Steve Earle, who’s asthmatic, comes to the rescue, smoking twice as many cigarettes as usual and shunning his inhaler. By the time morning comes there’s nothing fake about his hacking.

We don’t reach the Holland border till after dark. At the first town, most everyone ventures off to the Reggae Coffee House and McDonald’s. Soon Rick is near-catatonic with sleep and John’s talking into my minirecorder. Steve Earle and roadie Doug Fal setti threaten to drown the bassist out with a cappella rederings of the complete Exile on Main Street, Disraeli Gears, and Abbey Road: “And in the end/ The love you take…”

Steve Earle, who for some reason is always addressed by his full name, is either the philosopher-king or the court jester of this band. He’s part Frank Capra, part Frank Zappa, a superfriendly naif with a loopy, wild core. His sordid past includes sti nts in a heavy-metal band as well as business school and a fraternity. “The first time I met him I thought he was one of the kids off My Three Sons- Chip or Robbie,” Greg says of his drummer and roommate. “He comes cruising up in these plaid shorts and Docksiders, on a motorcyle. But he’s totally, completely insane.”

I spend the evening with Steve, breezing through Amsterdam’s coffeehouses and redlight district. He’s impossible to keep up with, alcohol-wise, and he’s the smoothest thing since Warren Beatty in Shampoo, wielding nothing but his own open-book nature. “Hi, my name is Steve,” he says to two bartenders, two coffeehouse customers, and one hooker before the night is through. It’s a line Greg knows well. “‘Hi, my name is Steve,'” Greg mimics, laughing. “‘I want you to know me, and anything you want to know about me I’ll tell ya.’ He is truly guileless.”

“I’ve never had that ability to go up to a girl,” Greg adds. “If I’m with then, it’s because of them, not because of me.” This doesn’t sound like the cocksure character in Gentlemen who sings, “Ladies let me tell you about myself/ I’ve got a d ick for a brain/ And my brain is gonna sell my ass to you.” Greg found himself pushed beyond the limits of that facade last year in New York, when a girl from the audience jumped onstage to dance with him. She proceeded to rip his shirt off with one arm w hile the other snaked its way down his pants. “Everybody thought it was staged,” he recalls. “I was totally freaked out. I had no idea she was going to do that. I just thought, Well, I’ll dance with a girl onstage- it’ll be very Bruce Springsteen.”

I ask Greg what it is about his songs that women latch onto. He gropes for an answer, admitting that the honesty about relationships so prominent in his songs doesn’t come easy for him in everyday life. “Women are much more willing to confront this ki nd of stuff,” he suggests. “I think I stumbled onto a coupld of dead-on truisms, and I do mean stumbled- I ain’t bright enough to find ‘em on my own.”

At the arena in Vienna, a converted pig slaughterhouse, I’m standing in the third row watching opening act Paul K when a guy gives me a shove and takes up residence directly in my line of sight, jumping up and down to further destroy it. It’s Greg, gr inning. A girl in front of us turns to ask for alight, which he leans over and provides without her showing any sign of recognition. Greg’s not famous yet. But the determination- and ego- are there. With a small chuckle he admits, “I want to make one of t hose trillion-selling records.”

After the show, we end up at Pandora’s Box, a cozy little bar populated entirely by folks who were at the show, including promoters, record staff, and all the Whigs except for Rick. We’re sitting at the bar, and Greg says that the last time he came he re he was ready to get married.

Or so he’s been told- his memory of the night is a little hazy. But it seems that on this previous visit, liquor-soaked to stupefying extremes, he regaled a lovely bartendress with repeated marriage proposals. He might not have remembered the exchange at all- just another night of doomed romance- but the story found its way back to him though a friend of a friend, who told him how his potential bride spent the next day chuckling over the weird drunken American musician who kept asking her to marry him .

“The thing is,” he recalls, still crestfallen a year later, “is that afterward she said, ‘If he had just asked me to sleep with him, I probably would have.'”

–Jason Cohen, Details, May 94

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