The Rocket

From THE ROCKET (now defunct Seattle Music Mag – November 1998)
By Christopher Phillips

Transcribed by jcwean (thanks!)

[Prince’s room. Apollonia presses play on the cassette deck,
and the room is filled with echoey percussion and
passionate, otherworldly moans. She is entranced. In short
order she is standing face to face with the Purple One.
Prince raises his lace-cuffed right hand and does this weird
hypnotizey thing with his fingers for no apparent reason as
the tape continues to play.]
Apollonia: So who’s the lucky girl? Sounds like she’s having
a good time.
Prince: She’s crying. It’s backwards. Sort of makes me sad
when I hear it. Sounds like she’s laughing, doesn’t it?
–from the film Purple Rain

>From the look on Greg Dulli’s face, he could be either about
to laugh or cry as he makes his way to the bar. When he asks
for just a glass of water, I understand. The pleasure that
led to this pain, come to find out, was an all-night party
with good odds. Three guys and 15 women, to be exact, and
Dulli reports kissing eight of the latter. “I’ve got some
stuff to play back on the video rewind in my brain. Oh, a
lifetime of memories. I got my ya-yas out last night.”

He’s managed to pull himself out of bed at two in the p.m.,
pop four aspirins, and eventually, with the new Lauren Hill
record on to ease the pain, make the 15-minute drive from
his Magnolia home to downtown Seattle.

“Yeah, it’s gonna be an early night for ol’ G.D. tonight.”
G.D. only has two more days of down-time. In two days, it
will be Halloween—the 12-year anniversary of Dulli’s band,
the Afghan Whigs, who rehearsed for the first time on
October 31, 1986. In two days, Dulli and his fellow
Whigs—bassist John Curley, guitarist Rick McCollum, and new
drummer Michael Horrington—will reconvene for another
Halloween rehearsal, preparing for the tour to support their
new album, 1965. In typical Whigs fashion, the size of the
band will double on the road, adding keyboards, two backup
singers and a percussionist. In New York and L.A.—“we
couldn’t afford it everywhere”—a horn section will bring the
onstage body count to 11.

So Dulli has simply taken advantage of an opportunity to get
a few things out of his system first. “Believe me, I have my
moments, but we haven’t toured in two years, and I can tell
you from experience that gettin’ all fucked up does not
make for a good show. You can’t sustain any momentum, and we
play like a two-and-a-half-hour show.” That’s right, despite
the aforementioned ya-ya output, Greg Dulli is what is known
as a show business professional.

GREETINGS FROM YOUR LIVER
With a residence in Seattle and a couple of albums in the
works in New Orleans, Dulli spent the last couple of years
splitting his time between the two cities. Due to readily
admitted “problems in the self-control department,” once the
record was wrapped he came back to the Northwest: “Seattle
is a safer place for me than New Orleans. Because things
close in Seattle. Things don’t close in New Orleans. Never.
That’s a danger for me. Especially a single guy with time on
his hands—the devil finds work. And I was working overtime.

“My liver sent me a postcard, saying: Please go back to
Seattle for a while. We really need to get back in touch
with the trees and the water. Remember, your cat’s back
there too.”

Though the Whigs are a Cincinnati band—a fact that was
already lost on some long ago when they signed with Sub
Pop—Dulli has been a Seattle resident for four years. Along
with his cat, Clyde. The Sub Pop connection is, of course,
what originally brought him here. “And then the sheer
physical beauty of this place blew my mind,” he says. “I’ve
been gone for a year, but I love it here. I own one piece of
property in the whole world, and it’s in Seattle. I’m so
comfortable here. It’s the one place where I wanted to buy
something. In ten years I’ll look like a fucking genius.”

MR. PERSONALITY
That hometown connection gave Seattle a chance to catch a
preview of the new album earlier this year, as Dulli and the
Whigs played a one-off show for Sub Pop’s 10th Anniversary
party in April. Though the record was not nearly finished,
three new songs joined the usual slew of brilliant covers as
surprises in a stunning set.

“We won’t record a song unless we’ve played it live. Listen,
we went out and played a new song at Reading, at the height
of Gentlemen, we did this song called ‘Ascension.’ It’s on
no record, and I’ll tell you why: because we came out
thinking we were hot shit and we were gonna play our new
great song—and it sunk like a stone.”

But as for the Seattle performance, Dulli says “Up to that
moment I thought it was maybe the best show we’d ever
played. We were kicking it on all cylinders. And I’m tough
on the band. I know when we suck. We all know when we suck.
But every single motherfucker was smiling and happy when we
came off stage, and when you see everyone laughing is when
you know everyone felt it.

“Except the lady from The Stranger. Exhibit any kind of
individual personality and you’re gonna get smacked down—and
I’ve never had a problem in the personality department.”

THE TEN PLACES GREG DULLI HAS LIVED
Cincinnati, OH; Phoenix, AZ; Los Angeles, CA; Seattle,WA;
Minneapolis, MN; Chicago, IL; New York, NY; New Orleans, LA;
Charleston, WV, Louisville, KY.

MAKING FRIENDS IN THE SOUTHLAND
“I got into it with folks down in New Orleans, some
‘neo-Confederates,’ so to speak, they’re just, ‘…blah blah
blah, Yankee this, Yankee that….’ I’d just wait. And listen.
And then: ‘Alright. You sound angry, sir. Winners write the
history. Read it and weep, baby. I’m a winner. And you know
what? There aint no other side to be on. The right team won.’”

Greg Dulli is a history buff—a Civil War buff, in
particular. Really is. But in G.D., as one might imagine,
this happens to manifest itself in different ways than it
does in, say, my grandfather.

“I got into it with Chris Robinson, the Black Crowes guy.
He’s got a real hot button—I said something about the South,
we were fuckin’ drunk, and he wanted to fight me, man.”
Dulli recalls, “I’d said something about Sherman, is what it was.”

Actually, what he said was, “How’d you like the redecoration
job?” For some reason this seemed to anger Robinson.

I said, “Hey Chris, you’ve known me for a while. Where’d we
make our last three records? Memphis, Memphis, New Orleans.
I rest my case. Do I hate the South? I don’t think so, man.
I think the proof is right there—would I go live in the
South for a year if I hated the South? Hell no. I’m a free
man, I can go anywhere I want.

“He’s got a chip on his shoulder about the South, and the
worst thing is, he can’t take a joke about it. If you can’t
take a joke, I ain’t got any time for you. And I’ll tell you
what I do have, I got 60 pounds on you. And I know what do
do with ’em, too. Don’t make me shake your moneymaker. Cause
I will, baby. You haven’t been reading my press clippings,
have you? I deal with motherfuckers like you.”

YES, THAT WOULD HELP
Dulli spent a total of 14 months in New Orleans, and his
words “Ain’t a bad place to be single” drip with
understatement. Of course, staying at Peter Buck’s bachelor
pad—“he had a beautiful house right in the quarter, with a
courtyard and everything”—didn’t hurt. After spending time
in the Crescent City in early 1997, Dulli was getting ready
to leave Seattle again that September to start work on the
new Whigs record. “I didn’t have a place to live, and I was
out to dinner with Peter and his wife, and told them I was
going to New Orleans, and he said, ‘Hey, stay at my house,’
gave me the keys right there. So that helped. Considerably.”

1965 was recorded over the next eight months, during which
time the Whigs made a label switch, from Elektra to
Columbia. “At the old house,” Dulli maintains, “it was
disrespect on a monumental level. And I won’t tolerate that.
It was out and out neglect. But they just didn’t want to let
us go. And I couldn’t understand that.”

“I guess they wanted to make a buck,” he says, after a
pause. “They did.”

THE THREE MOST RECENT AFGHAN WHIGS RECORDS AND HOW THEY BEGIN
Gentlemen (1993): Whooshing ambient noise and percussion;
guitar comes in at 0:35.
Black Love (1996): Squealing ambient noise and organ; guitar
at 1:03.
1965 (1998): Striking of a match; guitar at 0:02.

WHY 1965 IS DIFFERENT, AND WHAT TO DO IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT
By the early ’90s, the Whigs had rapidly developed a unique,
signature sound to go along with Dulli’s tortured adroitness
as a wordsmith. And just as rapidly, they began to screw
with it. It takes a delicate touch—or an indelicate touch
from someone who knows what he’s doing—to keep pouring ’60s
and ’70s R&B influences into intricate, guitar-based rock
without entering red hot chili territory or coming off as a
joke. The new album maintains that Whigsian touch and is on
one hand the next obvious step in a progression—but it’s one
big-ass step. While Gentlemen and Black Love were sprawling,
slowly unfolding story-cycles, there’s an undeniable
immediacy to 1965, where pure, joyful lust replaces shame,
spite and deception.

“On that Lauren Hill record, there’s a line on that that
just hit me, made me smile so big,” Dulli says, and he sings:

Come on baby light my fire,
Everything you drop is so tired.
Music is supposed to inspire,
So how come we aint gettin no higher?

“I had a smile as big as Texas when I heard that line.
Because it is supposed to inspire. And at some point as an
artist, you have to go, y’know, I have to be true to me. I
could never in a million years say it better myself.

Though he does say something along the same lines on 1965’s
first cut: “I wanna getcha high… I wanna feel good/You make
me feel good.” After the elaborate psychodrama of the last
few albums, such no-strings-attached pleasure is taking some
off guard.

“I had a different lyrical take on this record, and believe
me, man—the diehards are angry,” Dulli says. “Angry. Not
dark enough for the diehards.”

One reason may be that Dulli was single for the writing and
recording of the record—1965 is the first Whigs record since
1990’s Up In It that wasn’t influenced by a breakup. “I’ve
been single for a year and a half. I love it. I’ve always
lived on my own… except once. I lived with a girl for a
year, and that’s the only time I did that. I’m not the
livin’-with type. I’m great to come over and leave,” he
laughs, “but I’m not good to stay there.”

Okay, so there’s evidence that the Dulli persona the
diehards know and love hasn’t exactly vanished.

There’s still a darkness lurking around corners on 1965, and
as Dulli emphasizes, “Those who have bemoaned the lack of a
thematic link on this record ain’t looking close enough.
What you first believe is not always true. Look a little
deeper, there’s a story there just like there always is.”

But as Dulli tells it, it all comes down to this: “To do one
more like Black Love, or Gentlemen, it would have been
parody. It would have been. If you don’t like it,
fuckin’…. listen to Nick Drake, man. There’s plenty of sad
music for you. I think folks need to find themselves another
angst merchant. Or I direct them to our back catalog, where
they’ll be well taken care of.”

CHILDREN OF THE ANGST-MERCHANT
On the preceding Black Love, Dulli’s darkest lyrics by far
were matched by a menacing noir soundtrack. While the album
may be the Whigs’ most fully realized and even most
beautiful album to date — it may be black, but it’s glossy
black — the sum total seemed to have something oppressive
that many critics couldn’t get past.

“I look at criticism, man, you got to. You got to. I
criticize things, therefore I should be subject to
criticism. I can fucking handle that. But I’ll tell you,
man, I’m surprised when somebody says something bad about
our records. Always have been, from the first. We put out Up
in It, and Mark Arm was like, ‘This sucks.’ I was like,
‘You’re kidding me! It’s great!’

“Black Love. That record…. if records are like children,
that’s my misunderstood child. The one you gotta take care
of, the one you gotta defend.

“The new one, this little baby here can take care of itself.
It’s scrappy.” As for the rest of the kids: “I love ’em all,
I couldn’t pick one over the other. I love Up in It as much
as I love this one, I love Congregation as much as I love
Black Love. I love Gentleman as much as everybody who loves
Gentlemen does. And Big Top Halloween, the band’s 1988
Ultrasuede debut? “We don’t really keep in touch too much.
Love to see him again, though.”

“But Black Love was sort of a fragile record, clearly the
work of a songwriter who was losing his grasp of reality, in retrospect.”

HOW SERIOUSLY DO WE TAKE THAT LAST BIT? (OR, NONE MORE BLACK)
Very, as it turns out. It was last year that he bottomed
out. “I was completely screwed up. And it took going to
Virginia Mason to straighten me out. Clinical depression. It
affects hundreds of thousands of people around the world,
every day. Bottom line was that I had it, forever. I had
friends suggest that, ‘Hey, maybe you… should…’—and I’d be
like, [growls] ‘Whaddaya mean?’

“I was raised in an environment that said: Don’t ask for
help. If you ask for help you’re a pussy.”

What is particularly amazing about Dulli’s revelation is
that had the clarity to write eloquently and powerfully
about something he wasn’t quite conscious of. “For me, Black
Love is the most painfully honest thing I’ve ever done. Just
as a person, who had to ask, ‘What the fuck’s going on
here?’ I mean, when I ended up being treated for depression,
it was like: duh! You know? When I think of Black Love now,
I think of that old Spinal Tap joke: ‘How much more black
could it be? And the answer is none… none more black.’
There’s your title.”

“I’m not worried when people talk about mainstream
acceptance. That may never happen to me. I’m a success
already. I do what I want to do, I do it with who I want to
do it with, I feel good about it. The person that I shave
every morning is someone that I know and love.”

“All I can tell you now,” Dulli smiles, “is that my stomach
problems are a thing of the past, makes me a nicer person,
makes me a more hopeful person. I’d trade that feeling for
any fucking record, or any dollar.

“Well, maybe not any dollar.”

THE NEW ALBUM, TRACK-BY-TRACK.
1. “Something Hot.” The first single. “To me it’s like AC/DC
meets “Best of My Love” by the Emotions.”

2. “Crazy.” “I sang it live, I sang it with the band—you can
hear the party going on.” Like those old Gary U.S. Bonds
records. “Oh yeah—and like ‘Psychedelic Shack’ by the
Temptations; ‘What’s Going On,’ Marvin Gaye. A bunch of
people hanging around, we were playing the song, like the
Rolling Stones’ Rock ’n’ Roll Circus, man. People running
around, animals, all kinds of stuff.”

3. “Uptown Again.” Slated as the album’s second single.
Dulli is thinking about reemerging as video director for the
first time since Gentlemen’s “Debonair.” “I already got an
idea. I’m gonna see how much money Columbia wants to spend,
but I’ve already got Hollywood on the phone. I saw that Jon
Spencer video with Winona Ryder singing, and I gotta get
bigger than Winona Ryder. Like Liz Taylor or something.
Delta Burke. Big.”

4. “Sweet Son of a Bitch.” The most unsettling moment on the
album, 23 seconds of…. lust? Pain? Dulli responds, “Aren’t
they all the same? They’re all different degrees of the same
thing. That to me makes it beautiful, and it made it a
song—there’s singing going on, you just don’t know the
words. Some people have said, ‘Oh, it’s just an intro, and
there aren’t really 11 songs on the record.’ Man, a song is
in the eye of the beholder, and I beheld these fucking
songs.

“Folks have been… they think someone’s getting killed on
that track.”

Exactly. So what is really going on there?

“Seen Purple Rain? ”

Yeah.…?

“Remember when he has Apollonia down to his room, and they
play that recording?.…”

Dulli turns his palms upward and smiles.

“It’s my homage to Purple Rain.”

This strikes me as so perfect I honestly find it hard to speak.

5. “66.” The only song for the album recorded in Seattle
(Dulli stayed in town after the Sub Pop show to record it at
London Bridge) seems to be the consensus for mind-blowing
single from the record. Dulli agrees. “It’s single number 3.
I’ve urged them to move it up to number two—I picked it for
number one. Especially the recording we got of it, I don’t
know shit if people don’t like that one.”

And the title? “I’m 33. I read something in a magazine last
year that siad the average life expectancy for a white male
in America is 66 years old. So I’m halfway there. Time to
get on it.”

“And it’s one of those songs, it came to me like that. I’ve
only had five songs in my whole life that I’ve written
everything all at once.

THE FIVE SONGS THAT GREG DULLI HAS WRITTEN ALL AT ONCE, PLUS
A STORY ABOUT ONE OF THEM
“66,” “Miles iz Ded,” “Tonight,” “What Jail is Like,” “Going
to Town.”

“‘Going to Town,’ the beat — it’s ‘Housequake’ [from
Prince’s Sign of the Times]. I did the demo by myself, on
mushrooms. I played bass, drums, guitar—it’s a mess. It’s
funny, though, because the engineer’s tripping too. You can
hear him in this exchange between us, he’s like, ‘I can’t
focus on any of the knobs! I can’t focus on the knobs!” And
I’m like, ‘just hit that red one!’ And that’s the last thing
you hear before the drum machine kicks in.”

THE REST OF THE ALBUM (OKAY, SO FORGET “TRACK-BY-TRACK”) AND
WHAT HAPPENED TO STAND UP TO GET DOWN
Dulli’s favorite song on 1965 is “John the Baptist,” a
horn-drenched rumpshaker of massive proportions. “That’s the
cornerstone, that’s the lynchpin in the middle,” Dulli says.
“I come from listening to albums. Flipping the record over
for side two, and side two is a whole different ballgame.”
Side two of 1965 includes material that was written
later—“The Slide Song,” “Neglekted,” “Omerta,” songs that
actually sound more like the old Whigs—and wound up
recasting an album originally called Stand Up to Get Down.

“A good title, yeah. But the late additions to the record
changed the scope of the album, and that was a little too
party-hardy.” So there was no “lost album” in the transition
from one label to another—the sessions did leave some
outtakes and b-sides in the end, but 1965 is an evolved
Stand Up to Get Down rather than a new record. “That was
just a working title. There’s five songs that could have
completed the record and it would have stayed Stand Up to
Get Down, but it wasn’t as interesting.”

“The Vampire Lanois” is the last song on 1965. It’s an
instrumental, and it’s probably worth starting a new section
for.

THE VAMPIRE LANOIS
“I never met him per se, I spoke — I didn’t even speak to
him, but I saw him in the house a few times.” Dulli is
speaking of New Orleans-based production impressario Daniel Lanois.

“I think you were supposed to be so impressed with the fact
that you were at Daniel Lanois’ place. And I am, but I mean,
impress me with courtesy. And with honesty and good
attitude. Don’t impress me with accomplishments. I already
know your accomplishments. I’m not gonna come in here and
spray paint “U2 sucks” in your studio.

Might be fun, though.

“Yeah, on second thought…. ‘Peter Gabriel blew me.’

“That song, honestly, it came from me being a brat. Because
the people at the studio were very cultish about Daniel
Lanois. I ain’t against the guy—I’ve never spoken to him, so
how could I be against somebody I’ve never spoken to? But
the reverence—I mean, they were talking about this guy like
he was Jesus Christ. So to take some air out of the balloon,
I made some passing remark about seeing him the other night,
and he would look right at me, and then disappear. Almost
like a spectre. So I began the legend of the Vampire Lanois,
who was 3000 years old and slept in a casket covered with
the dirt of his homeland of Acadie.

“And I’ll tell you, man, those people got so freaked out.
And as soon as I saw how freaked out they were, I knew I was
on to something. And then I’m like, look, this is more than
a joke now. Now it’s a song. And it’s a three-minute guitar
solo. And these people were mortified: you can’t call it
that! And I’m like, oh yes I can. Watch me!

TWILIGHT
It was actually prior to the 1965 sessions that Dulli was at
Kingsway. In May of 1997, Dulli was recording with old pals
and collaborators Shawn Smith and Howlin’ Maggie’s Harold
Chichester as the Twilight Singers. The result, Twilight, a
far different animal than 1965, feels like the real followup
to the last couple Whigs albums. It seems to bring some
resolution to the story Dulli had been telling prior to 1965
and offers both the sense of closure and the quiet
melancholy that the title evokes. The album will be released
in the spring.

Dulli makes it clear that though the Twilight Singers is a
collaborative project, it is, in the end, his project. As he
tells it, that fact may not have sat so well with Smith.
“Shawn and I came to a crossroads. Maybe we’ll meet again
down the lane, but for now we’re walking down separate
paths. Shawn’s a good guy, I ain’t got nothin but love for
Shawn Smith, but we don’t see eye to eye right now.”

Smith goes back a long way with Dulli—he originally came
together with his Pigeonhed collaborator Steve Fisk to remix
a Whigs song for Uptown Avondale, and—along with
Chichester—guested on Black Love.

“I think Shawn is used to being the boss—I was the boss on
this, and he didn’t like me being the boss. Maybe I’m a
tough boss. He’s got his side of the story too, I wouldn’t
try to put words in his mouth. But the relationship is
strained.

“There’s gonna be another Twilight record,” Dulli maintains,
but he’s less certain about who will be involved next time
around. “To make good art that is communicative, you’ve
gotta be seeing eye to eye with the people that you’re
dealing with. There’s no point in having to be compromising
in any way shape or form.”

THE END OF THE LINE? FIRST, AN ALBUM OF BIG BLACK COVERS
“The story of the Afghan Whigs is nearing its end,” says
G.D. “And this is something that we as a group have all
said. It will come time, at a certain point—I mean we were
21 when we started the band. You gotta outgrow the club at
some point, move on and try other things.”

Dulli has clearly already tested the waters himself with the
Twilight Singers, and he mentions a soundtrack that McCollum
has scored for a 1919 D.W. Griffith movie: “Rick wrote the
whole thing, played theremin live at the screening, standing
in front of the screen…. So we’re trying to get him to put
that out.”

“I don’t think we’ll ever officially break up the Afghan
Whigs,” Dulli qualifies. “We don’t have to. I just think
that the story is closer to its end than it is to its
beginning. But in a joyful way. Not in a sad–any
relationship that lasts 12 years, you gotta say, if it’s at
least not healthy, at least it’s love and care into it. And
therefore it deserves something a little more than, ‘it
didn’t go well, fuck it, we’re done forever.’”

And unlike a lot of relationships, they actually have
something to show for it.
“Lasting and enduring trust and love. I don’t have that in
any of my other relationships, I’ll tell you that!”

“There will definitely be another Afghan Whigs album. I want
to do an R&B album with the Afghan Whigs, like an album. Sub
Pop needs to put Uptown Avondale back out, man, cause it’s
fuckin’ out of print. So we’re gonna do a full album of it.”
Then again, he’s also mulling over an album of Big Black
covers — “do ’em real sexy and sweet” — so you may want to
take all this with a grain of salt.

No matter what, don’t look for Dulli to drop off the radar
screen any time soon. “Basically, this record’s big. And
it’s time to be playing big places. But we’ll see. All I
want to do is just enjoy, that’s my mantra. It’s already a
success to me. Anything else is gravy. Tasty gravy. All I
know is, next Wednesday I get to go out with my rock and
roll band in America and have a great time, and that’s what
I’m gonna do.… We’re gonna be bugging people for the next
year. I am, personally,” he laughs. “I’m back!”

But for now, he’s going to call it a night.

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