Black, White, and Gray
The Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli, in black, white and gray.
BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
westword.com | originally published: May 2, 1996
One smoggy day in West Hollywood circa 1985, I was standing behind the front counter at Tower Records’ Sunset Strip branch when Greg Dulli, my best friend among my co-workers, entered the store carrying a plate of edibles and wearing a merry grin. “It’s Cornbread Day,” announced Dulli, a fledgling actor still several years away from alterna-stardom with the Cincinnati-based band Afghan Whigs. “Today only, customers get a piece of cornbread with every purchase.”
True to his word, Dulli pushed the flaky, yellowish slabs, which he’d made himself, at anyone who dared bring an LP to the main register. The responses he received generally broke down along class lines: More affluent types were leery of the offer–fearing, perhaps, that Dulli was propagating an elaborate food-poisoning scheme–while hungry, disheveled musician wannabes gobbled up the grub, visibly grateful to be ingesting something other than their dietary staple, ramen noodles.
Dulli was unfailingly chipper to everyone whether they ate his chow or not, but there was still something about his manner that bothered me. Rightly or wrongly, I read into his lampoon of Southern hospitality a racial component; in short, he seemed to me to be channeling Aunt Jemimah. After watching Dulli go through his routine with an African-American shopper, I mentioned my misgivings to him. In a voice oozing with political correctness half a decade before the term was in wide circulation, I asked, “Don’t you think people like that guy might find what you’re doing a little, um, offensive?”
“I don’t know,” Dulli replied brightly. “Let’s find out.” Before I could object, he flagged down Harold, a tall, slender African-American who worked as a Tower security guard. “Harold,” he began, “do you find my giving out cornbread racist? Are you demeaned by it?”
“What?” Harold wondered, trying without much luck to figure out what on earth Greg could possibly be talking about. But Dulli wasn’t deterred by his confusion. He plowed on with his comic interrogation, hitting me with his broadest smile at regular intervals. Obviously, the more embarrassed and uncomfortable I became, the better he liked it. Even then, Dulli enjoyed jumping back and forth across the color line.
Today, Dulli is able to push the buttons of U.S. race consciousness with much greater ease. As one of contemporary music’s most acclaimed songwriters, he is watched so closely by the nation’s critics that the rest of his band (bassist John Curley, guitarist Rick McCollum and drummer Paul Buchignani) is frequently pushed into the background. He’s taken advantage of this recognition by exploring many of the issues–including those rooted in skin color–that tend to make the average Joe nervous. For example, the cover of the 1992 Afghan Whigs album Congregation pictures a nude, very black woman holding a naked, very white baby. And on the Whigs’ latest CD, Black Love (issued by Elektra), Dulli includes a song called “Honky’s Ladder,” in which he screams the oft-quoted lead line (“Got you where I want you, motherfucker!”) like a bloodthirsty pimp in a Fred Williamson movie.
Predictably, a good many observers have reacted viscerally to such gibes. Some find Dulli’s willingness to jump into these thematic areas proof of his artistic courage. (“I’m the bravest man in America,” he jokes in reply. “Other than Ted Kaczynski, that is.”) Others see him as pathetically desperate to exchange his Caucasian heritage for one that he finds more titillating and exotic. Dulli, who admits to reading much of the journalistic spew that’s been splattered in his wake, says he’s entertained by either take.
“Most of the stuff, either good or bad, that people say about me is amusing to a certain extent,” he claims. “But that’s especially the case on the ones where you can tell they’re thinking that I’m trying to be black or something. The tone is so weird–like I got in their ass.”
After a cackle, he continues. “None of that bothers me, though, because I guarantee you that every writer who wrote that stuff considers himself a liberal and is definitely a white male. They’re basically carrying their own guilt into it. Listen, I’m not doing anything the fucking Rolling Stones didn’t do thirty years ago, when Mick Jagger blatantly and admittedly copped Don Covay’s voice. So to me, it’s pretty fucking laughable. This is all coming from semi-educated liberal white men, of which I am one–albeit one with a bit more of a sense of humor. And the fact is, I’ll listen to whatever I want to listen to. I’ll play whatever I want to play. I’ll take influences from Fugazi to Al Green if I want, and I’ll shove them together in the same song. And I’ll enjoy doing it.”
According to Dulli, his childhood, spent in Hamilton, Ohio, provided him with the raw material from which he built his opinions. “I grew up in a white neighborhood, but I’d always go across the river to play basketball with my black friends because the games were–let’s face it–a little more competitive,” he notes. “And watching these kids make fun of white people was so funny to me. I was a Richard Pryor freak when I was a kid–Bicentennial Nigger and That Nigger’s Crazy were my favorites of his albums. So I kind of led a dual life. I could hang with black kids or white kids. It didn’t seem like that big a deal to me.”
Likewise, Dulli listened both to white rockers and soul superstars–although the latter made more of an impact on him. “The music felt more free,” he says. “They were using words, slang words, that I’d never heard before, and they were talking openly about sex and the enjoyment of it, rather than the repression of it. I liked Led Zeppelin, but I related more to Marvin Gaye saying he wanted something sexually more than Robert Plant talking about Dungeons and Dragons. I just connected with it more.”
This love of music wasn’t so all-encompassing that Dulli immediately dedicated himself to making his own. He also dug film, and when it came time to enroll at the University of Cincinnati, that subject was the one in which he chose to major. He lasted a year at the institution, then set out for Los Angeles, hoping to make a name for himself as an actor and writer. Between auditions, he toiled at Tower, and when his turn came to program the music there, he usually alternated between symbols of his twin tastes: Todd Rundgren on one side of the fence, the Supremes on the other.
In late 1985, all that came to an end; Dulli’s mother got sick, and he had to return to Ohio and take care of his sister. Shortly thereafter, he learned how to play guitar and began working out his ambitions in various bands. One of those groups, the Afghan Whigs, released its debut album, Big Top Halloween, in 1988. Word of the disc soon reached Jonathan Poneman of Seattle’s Sub Pop label. At the time, the company was concentrating almost entirely on acts near its home base (the Fluid, from Denver, was a rare exception), but Poneman took a chance and inked the Whigs to a deal. Up In It–largely produced by Jack Endino, who also helmed the first Nirvana CD–appeared in 1990 and immediately struck a chord with reviewers. Even at this early stage, Dulli’s lyrics were more interesting than those of most of his contemporaries–and while a lot of the music on Up In It is fairly standard guitar rock, a few songs, including “White Trash” and “Southpaw,” contain hints of the soul jones that would pop up down the line.
Congregation, two years later, found Dulli climbing deeper into his characters, many of whom seemed derived from the most disturbing portions of the male psyche. In the title cut, he yells, “I am your creatorE/Get up/I’ll smack you back down”; later, during “Let Me Lie to You,” he croons, “I’ll be kind when I deceive/But you must never question me/Just quietly believe.” Yet Dulli, who’s become enough of a sex symbol to have inspired his own fanzine, Fat Greg Dulli, warns against taking these lines for autobiography. “I’m such a sweetheart and a pussycat to women,” he protests. “My dad was never around when I was little–it was just my mom and my sister, and my grandma and my aunt were around all the time. I was constantly around women, so if I ever gave even a hint of misogyny or chauvinism, I got the shit smacked out of me.”
So why the fascination with such louts? In answering this question, Dulli offers a story so appropriate that it’s probably apocryphal–but the actor in him sells it hard anyhow.
“The best way I can explain it is to tell you something my grandpa told me when I was little,” he says. “We were watching a cowboy-and-Indian movie, and I was rooting for the cowboys. And he was like, ‘Let me ask you something. Why are you rooting for the cowboys?’ And I said, ‘Because they’re the good guys. Everybody knows they’re the good guys.’ And he was like, ‘Wait a minute. Did you know that those Indians are fighting for their land? Did you know that the white guys are trying to take it away from them?’ And after I admitted that I didn’t know that, he said, ‘You’ve got to check stuff out before you go judging people. Let me give you a valuable piece of information: Good people aren’t good all the time, and bad people aren’t bad all the time.'”
Speaking for himself, Dulli adds, “Saints fall and sinners transcend. So you have to give people the benefit of the doubt. It’s not a black-and-white world. More than likely, you find yourself floating in the gray world. That’s why it’s so shocking when some leader of the community gets caught in something he’s not supposed to be doing. These are loathsome people to some. I’m trying to maybe give them a human face.”
His success in this regard on Congregation led to numerous offers from major labels, and after putting out a final EP on Sub Pop (Uptown Avondale–appropriately, a collection of soul covers), Dulli and company made the jump to Elektra. Gentlemen, which hit stores in 1993, was the Whigs’ most confident effort yet: musically varied, sonically impeccable and filled with subtly unsavory imagery like this couplet from “Be Sweet”: “Ladies, let me tell you about myself/I got a dick for a brain/And my brain is gonna sell my ass to you.”
The tradition of defining Dulli by his strongest, angriest verbal affronts and by his personal takes on racial politics has continued on Black Love, in large part because there are plenty of them available for the perusing. Dulli admits that the album’s handle was not chosen by accident: “With my history, I knew that sticking the word ‘black’ in there would tweak certain people. And I did it gleefully.” But he was more interested in using the title symbolically, not literally. “I was thinking of Jim Thompson and especially James Ellroy,” he says, referencing a pair of well-regarded purveyors of pulp fiction. “Ellroy’s book The Black Dahlia was the big one. And if you look through the CD booklet, it’s filled with Hollywood Babylon-style photographs, some of which I redid in the interest of not being sued. The whole thing is supposed to read like a dime-store crime novel.”
With songs such as “Crime Scene Part One” and “Bulletproof,” Black Love does indeed suggest an aural equivalent of noir. Dulli’s soul influences are also on display: “There are a couple of tunes where I pulled up some Curtis Mayfield strings, and I copped ‘Superstition’ on one of the songs,” he concedes. But there are also a handful of tender tracks in which Dulli consciously set out to subvert expectations. That the first batch of notices that greeted the album ignored these efforts chafes at him.
“The sweet songs are never mentioned in any review,” he gripes. “‘Step Into the Light,’ ‘Night by Candlelight,’ ‘Summer’s Kiss’ and ‘Faded’–those four songs. If you listen to them, there’s nothing there but hope, sweetness, longing–sentiments like that. But people aren’t going to give me props for that stuff. Now, I could understand that on Gentlemen, because every song had a zinger. And maybe this time the absence of the zinger has made people suspicious. And as a result, they’ve taken the most sensational angles and tried to make me a one-dimensional creep. I guess I have to take it, but it’s pretty unfair–and it’s pretty lazy journalism, I think. Because of that, people are missing out on some of the most beautiful moments on the record.”
If the slights of these scribblers become too much for him, Dulli has other career options; over the past year or so, he’s become more involved with film. He provided the singing voice of John Lennon in Backbeat, last year’s look at the Beatles’ early years; the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner were also involved with the picture’s Fab Four re-creations. More recently, he served as one of the executive producers for the soundtrack of Beautiful Girls, directed by Ted Demme and co-starring Uma Thurman, Matt Dillon and Mira Sorvino. The Whigs appear in the movie, playing Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe.” Their version of the ditty is loving, but Dulli was forced to give it a bit of a twist. “We tried to play it Barry’s way, and I swear to God, it sounded like The Love Boat theme. It works for him, but with us doing it, it was so sappy. So I was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to disembowel this one.'”
More recently, Dulli began developing his first feature film, which he may produce and/or direct. “I bought the film rights to this book called Spoken in Darkness, by Ann Imbrie–she’s head of the English department at Vassar. It’s sort of the classic good girl/bad girl story about two girls who are friends in junior high school but then kind of go their separate ways. But then the bad girl disappears, and the good girl goes back to find out what happens to her. And what she uncovers is just what I was talking about before–the good girl wasn’t so good, and the bad girl wasn’t so bad.”
Neither is Dulli–but don’t let that get around. He may not be a musician forever, but he’ll always be a provocateur. He couldn’t help needling folks back when he was passing out cornbread to baffled Los Angelenos, and he can’t help it now. “When writers show their colors so early on in a piece–when they show that I’ve gotten to them,” he says, fighting in vain to muffle a laugh, “I have to just stand back and admire my own fortitude.”