Beyond Bedlam

© David Bennun

Formatting by Bennun

Published in Melody Maker

BEYOND BEDLAM

strikes me as a good place to start. We are not dealing with half-assed melancholia here. Nor are we dealing with the chaos of madness.

We are not dealing with alienation, confusion, vague malcontentment or manic depression. We are not dealing with the Gen X hangover, post grunge fallout or the culture of despair.

We are dealing with keen eyes and bloodied souls. We are dealing with Dante and William Blake. We are dealing with cruel knowledge, lucid horror, cancerous joy, black love. We are dealing with Afghan Whigs. And while “Cruel Knowledge” and so on might have done just as well, it is

BLACK LOVE

that serves as the title of the new Afghan Whigs album.

Greg Dulli and John Curley are in town to talk about it.

Greg Dulli wears a black suit, a black shirt, black shoes and a black eye. He is the kind of man who would fight to defend the honour of ladies unknown to him, and recently has.

John Curley’s more stolid figure is also clad in black. He is Greg’s accomplice. Bass-player to his singer-guitarist-songwriter. Anchor, you sense, to Greg’s wayward ship.

I too am dressed entirely in black. The three of us look like mourners at a beatnik funeral.

The auguries bode well. The album is

TERRIFYINGLY GOOD

which will come as no surprise to those who own the Whigs’ last opus, Gentlemen. They will already know that Afghan Whigs are one of the very few rock bands worth selling your body to a dogfood factory for. That Dulli is gifted/blighted with dangerous insight into the human mind, male variety a specialty. That the soul of soul music didn’t die in the Eighties, it transmigrated into a Cincinnati guitar band. That what every flatulent modern “soul” clinician lacks, Dulli radiates.

Afghan Whigs tap into aspects of the psyche which on all available evidence have existed for as long as humankind. Longer, if John is to be believed.

“I think our brains have developed faster than our ability to make sense out of what they can do for us,” he claims. “The thinking is still controlled by the

LIZARD PART OF OUR BRAIN

that tells us to eat, sleep, hunt -”

“Fuck,” interjects Greg.

“ – even though we know better sometimes. We’re still controlled by this primæval thing.”

“The songs come from the fact that the lizard part of the brain is uncontrollable.” That’s Greg’s theory.

At the core of the Whigs’ sound lurks this ferocious, elemental, reptilian force, all lust and instinct and pheremones. But far from adopting a laughable Iron John posture of masculinity – let’s all retreat to the woods and make like iguanas – the songs bring to bear the merciless knowledge that “nature” is no justification for anything.

Or, as John puts it, “Evolution doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t mean you can get married,

FUCK AROUND

on your wife all the time, and say, ‘Hey baby, it’s my lizard brain.’ If you were a lizard you could do it and not think about it. It’s the fact that you can think about it that makes you all fucked up.”

“I wish I was a lizard.” Greg sounds truly wistful. “I’d be a good one.”

“You’d be the Lizard King,” agrees John.

If you don’t buy the Basic Instinct theory, let’s put it another way. The conflict between morality and desire has been one of the great themes of every kind of art down the ages. Hurricanes gather where they meet. Black Love is the sound of just such a storm forming, raging and dissipating. It opens with a first-person account of a suicide. Settle your scores and say goodbye. Pure imagination on Greg’s part, triggered by the death of a girl he knew in New York. But of course somebody had to ask if it was about Kurt Cobain. It wasn’t. He hardly knew Cobain, wouldn’t presume to write about him. And in understanding this, you’ll understand the

CRUCIAL DIFFERENCE

between the Whigs and their contemporaries. They never fitted in with grunge, slackerdom, check shirts, long hair. They tried. They wore the gear, they made the noise, they signed to Sub Pop, but all along there was something else going on. Grunge’s pain, the Misery that Made a Million, was nebulous, amoral, apathetic: “Oh well, whatever, never mind.” It belonged to the Nineties, a very modern disaffection whose fashionability inevitably died with its high priest. The torment in Dulli’s songs is the opposite: specific, immoral, obsessive (I mind! I mind!) It is ageless. It’s the torment of knowing that you have done, want to do, will do wrong. Of relishing your own self-castigation and despising yourself all the more for that (You evil bastard! How dare you enjoy torturing yourself with a dissection of your own foulness?) In these songs, Dulli is engaged in a war of one, and he takes no prisoners.

So it was only right that the Whigs shucked the long, lank hair and lumberjack clothing (they’re from Cincinnati, Ohio.) With Cobain gone and grunge without him revealed as being mostly

CACOPHONOUS, WHINING BULLSHIT,

the Whigs stand alone. Dulli frets that too much attention is paid to the lyrics at the expense of the music, but for the listener, the two are inseparable. Black Love is too funky, too dense, too tangled to pick apart. Gentlemen was songs for swinging lovers who had strung each other up from the rafters. It vivisected the persona of the gentleman, the surface courtesy, consideration and charm, the inner lust and fear and self serving deviousness, and it used no anÊsthetic. Black Love is broader, but one thing remains: the terror of coming face to face with your own failings.

Greg points out that “I’ve been asked since we first began making records, ‘Is this autobiographical?’ Who knows? Certainly not 100 per cent. My life isn’t so fucking interesting that if I wrote an autobiographical record everyone would want to listen to it. It would include ordering pizza and going to play basketball. Watching sports shows on TV – who wants to hear that? If I’m going to get slammed or praised for my songwriting, I’ve got to be slammed or praised for my imagination. It can’t be for laying my life on the line, because I didn’t.

“I don’t want to come off sounding like I’m wallowing in self pity,” Greg worries.

“There are plenty of writers – I could name them, but I won’t – who get down there, and it’s like, ‘Oh, poor me’. I have never presented myself as a pitiable character. I have always presented myself as accountable for my own actions.”

Is he as hard on himself in life as he is in his songs?

“Harder.”

“I can vouch for this,” John puts in. “Sometimes I’m the guy that has to help him out of it.”

“There is nothing that anyone can do to me,” says Greg, “that is worse than what I can do to myself. I am my own worst enemy and my own best friend too.”

Do you think that’s why you do it, so you can be sure that there’s nothing anyone can do that’s worse?

“I don’t know. I try to wander around inside myself sometimes and find out why I think what I think – like that song, Night By Candlelight: ‘Am I vain? Have I shame?’ Are these things I’m thinking sane things? Should I be thinking them?Why can’t I stop myself thinking them?’

The searchlight doesn’t always shine inward. Black Love is infused with a dose of good, honest spite, that most invigorating of emotions. There’s a smell of violence coming off the album as pungent as cordite. Hatred is a treat dished out to others, too. Take the opening line of Honky’s Ladder, described by Greg as “the ultimate revenge fantasy”, which spits out

“GOT YOU WHERE I WANT YOU, MOTHERFUCKER!”

with almost unholy fervour. In a band who were once notorious for their bust-ups, you have to wonder if this has any bearing on matters close to home.

“We parted ways with our drummer [Steve Earle],” Greg recounts, “who was a brother for a number of years. Upon talking to John and to Rick [McCollum, guitarist], I had begun to feel (a) that I didn’t know this person any more, and (b) what I did know, I didn’t like. That was a tough one – we were in the middle of a tour, and you want to give someone the benefit of the doubt. But when a situation becomes as polarised as that one did, it was excruciating. It probably was to him as well.

“When violent thoughts enter my head,” he continues, unprompted, “I don’t invite them in. They just come in. You don’t say, ‘Boy, I wonder what it would be like to kill somebody.” I don’t willfully bring that on. But when that comes floating through your transom, you gotta go, ‘Well, do I? Why am I thinking like this?’”

On the album itself, to quote Greg,

“THE VIOLENCE IS PALPABLE,”

and it’s curious that each enemy, each traitor, each object of hatred gets the snarling epithet “Brother” stamped across him.

“Yeah, and you know what?” reckons Greg. “It’s not even really Steve. Honky’s Ladder and the other songs that allude to betrayal or denial or shifting of blame – well, I experience and have experienced all my life people who I thought were my friends and turned out not to be. When you got somebody saying, ‘I got your back’, and all of a sudden you feel something sharp, you turn around and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t mean stick me in it.’ That goes back to being five years old and learning that the kid down the street who you thought you were pals with only wanted your candy.

“There are other relationships aside from romantic relationships. This guy at the BBC said, ‘Well it’s obvious from Honky’s Ladder that you hate women.’ There is not one point in the song that mentions women, alludes to women. I’ll tell you flat out right now, it has nothing to do with women. You missed the fucking point pal.

FUCK YOU BUDDY.

You’re lazy. You just insulted me.”

The accusations of misogyny are pretty much inevitable for a songwriter who has focused so strongly on the dark and unhealthy side of love affairs. But love is like that. It’s not the milk-and-water, counselling approved, sweet, sensible partnership of modern orthodoxy, and if it is, what kind of way is that to live anyway? Love is often as not a battlefront. Dulli is no more a misogynist than a war correspondent is an enemy spy. Give a dog a bad name. . . Black Love, despite the title, covers a far wider range of emotional discharge than that. And Dulli is obviously weary of issuing denials.

“I was raised by my mother, my grandmother and my sister. If I pulled any misogynistic bullshit, they would collectively beat the living fuck out of me. I’ve had to deflect or walk into charges of misogyny, which I wholeheartedly refute. I’ve even got accused of calling women victims in songs. Not true.”

Conversation between Greg and female friend, as reported by Greg.

GREG (reading magazine article on Jack Nicholson, sucking in breath through teeth): “God, Jack, you’re going to get lynched for that.”
FRIEND: “That looks like something you would say.”
GREG: “I would never say that. And if I would say it, I would never say it like he did.”
FRIEND: “You would just rhyme it.”

Do you

FIND EVIL A TURN-ON,

Greg?

“Yes. That comes from when you’re a child and you’re told not to something, you’re right away telling me to go and do that.”

Maybe it’s no coincidence that Greg was brought up Catholic.

“We’re all recovering Catholics,” says John.

“I’m not blaming all my shit on the Catholic church,” Greg emphasises. “I think there is a certain cult-like thing in any religion, but in the Catholic religion, as soon as you walk in the door, you are guilty. When I finally started to understand the Catholic religion, it was all about apologising for something you didn’t know you’d done. Somebody did something wrong and you’re here to pay for it. When I was 13 years old, I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I wasn’t there, I didn’t do that.’”

“But it got in your mind,” John points out, “and messed you up. So now you hold yourself accountable for stuff.”

“To a certain extent,” reflects Greg, “the thing that they get you with in the Catholic Church is, they have so much damn money. I remember when my mom took me to church every Sunday, a lot of times I couldn’t wait, because there was that giant organ that played that beautiful music. We got to stand up four times during the mass and sing these songs with 400 people. The pageantry was awesome. I got to be an altar boy, and all of a sudden I got to be up there with the priest and hand him stuff and wear the cool suit. It’s very seductive. But after a while, you start listening, listening, listening. After the rejoicing part, he always left you with, ‘Alright, you sinners, I know you’re going to leave here and go out and sin again. You get your

SINNIN’ ASSES

back in here next Sunday and give me some money!’”

“The climax of the mass,” recollects John, “was right before the communion, where they say, ‘I know I am not worthy, but only say the word and I shall be healed.’ I don’t buy into that.’
 
“And if you do buy into it,” Greg pleads, “go around saying the word 24 hours a day, because I wanna fucking be healed. I wanna stay healed. A general interest in theology has taken me into other churches. I’ve been to Holy Roller churches, I’ve been to Baptist churches, I’ve been to synagogue, we snuck into a mosque in Morocco to check that out. You know – not allowed in there – did take my shoes off, though. The one place that I saw some actual positivity going on was a black Pentecostal church. Maybe if I had grown up in a church like that, or in an agnostic way. . .

“There is good,” he insists, “and there is evil, and I think you should aspire to good. Those evil thoughts are going to come on their own, and there ain’t nut’n you can do to stop them. But if you’re armed with some goodness and a sense of right and wrong. . . but you are weak, and there are weak moments. Maybe it comes when you know you shouldn’t go uptown and get that bag of heroin. You know you shouldn’t, it’s really bad, but that urge overtakes you. Maybe you’re overweight and you know you shouldn’t have that doughnut, but it’s sitting there, and it’s gonna taste so good. You know you shouldn’t go down the street and sleep with that married woman, but she sure is hot and she wants you bad. You know it’s wrong, but all of a sudden there’s this like” – he grins – “‘It’s gonna be fun, I gotta go do it.’ That’s the whole thrill of getting away with it.

“I wanna know why I’m thinking this shit. But that line, from Double Day, ‘I must confess I love it all’, that is the truth, because, you know, I do, I even love it when it’s bad.”

Secrecy, temptation, treachery, rage and guilt. The most fascinating aspects of life. Certainly the most fascinating aspects of art.

“When I write songs,” Greg concurs, “when all else fails, go back to the bible:

INFIDELITY, BETRAYAL, LUST, MURDER. . .”

Yeah, the Old Testament. The New Testament is too. . . Christian.

“There was certain period where I just could not shut my brain off. Maybe the way to finally stop it and shut it off is to write it down. I write it down and try to figure it out. I’m like anybody else. That shit is fascinating to me, it’s scary to me and it’s exhilarating to me. So which reaction is the right one? If it’s exhilarating, oh no, am I bad because I like this? If it’s shameful, am I just some kind of uptight wannabe puritan?”

Greg sounds a little defensive about the darkness in his songs. Perhaps in America, where there’s so much concern with Feeling Good About Yourself, he’s come under fire for it. But I love the Whigs’ moral scrupulousness. Why should you feel good about yourself, when you’ve done nothing to earn it – often just the reverse?

“I should just blow my brains out,” Greg jokes. “But then I would feel guilty about that too.”

“Not for long,” mutters John.

“For Chrissake,” Greg says, “it makes me feel uncomfortable. But what’s my choice? Walk around feeling uncomfortable, or pimp it onto somebody else so they can feel uncomfortable too. Some people are like, ‘Why you gotta make people so uncomfortable?’ Because I want to. Because maybe I feel uncomfortable and I don’t wanna be alone at my party.”

If you could think or feel differently, would you choose to?

“I’m me now, and there’s no looking back. I’m as good and as bad as I’m going to be. I aspire to be a good person. I’m certainly no Mother Teresa. I’m also not Jack The Ripper. I linger somewhere in between. Probably closer to Jack The Ripper.

“But who knows? Mother Teresa might be a

CHRONIC MASTURBATOR

who steals money from – that’s horrible, I can’t say that, my God, she’s a saint.”

I recommend Christopher Hitchens’ television essay on the subject to Greg and John’s attention. Then I ask them if they believe in the soul.

“I absolutely do,” replies Greg.

And do you ever fear for yours?

“I fear for it, but I keep it in check. I’m gonna be okay.” Greg laughs. “Despite all my rage, I’m still just a rat in a cage. I half wish I was fucking born the son of Anton LaVey where I got to be a Satanist and just go out and have fun all the time and consequences be damned. Let’s fucking get down! I read The Satanic Bible. Anton LaVey’s not saying, ‘Let’s go out and murder people.’ He’s just like, ‘Hey man, don’t hurt anybody, have fun. . .’

What kind of milquetoast Satanism is that? He sounds like a liberal.

“He’s a liberal Satanist,” cackles Greg. “Anyway, there are angst free songs on the record. Step Into The Light, Summer’s Kiss, they’re just my attempt to write a straight, simple love song – you’re gone, I love you, I miss you. There’s no

ACID ZINGER

to get you on those. And Faded – in 10 or 11 years, I don’t think I’ve written a more hopeful or optimistic song. It says, ‘Come help me, I might be beat down but I don’t wanna be beat down.’ I will accept that 99 per cent of GentlemeN is pretty bleak, but I won’t take that rap on this record.

“ The surprising thing is that I don’t loathe myself. I actually like myself quite a bit. Just ask John. There have been times when someone will come up to me after a show and say, ‘I’m you’re biggest fan.’ And I say, ‘No you’re not, I am.’

“Conversely,” he adds, “anything you can love that much, you can fucking hate equally. It’s an ongoing thing. It’s all contrasts. Light. Darkness. Maybe we should have done a fucking Led Zeppelin and stuck a yin-yang symbol on the cover.”

“At least,” says John, “we’ve got an idea for the next one.”

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