Last of the white negroes
>> Hashing it out with the Afghan Whigs
by ADAM GOLLNER
The “hipster” was defined by Norman Mailer as a “marriage between the bohemian, the juvenile delinquent and the Negro, with marijuana as the wedding ring.” I don’t know about the Afghan Whigs being juvenile delinquents, but when singer Greg Dulli howls, “I want to get you high!” (with female gospel backups, natch) on their new LP 1965, Mailer’s subterranean equation still rings true.
Being black sho’ ain’t no recent development in the Whigs’ evolution. To illustrate, their previous album was entitled Black Love; the cover art of Congregation features a nude black woman holding a white baby; they have songs called “Miles Iz Dead” and “Honky’s Ladder,” and Uptown Avondale is a collection of their renditions of classic ’60s and ’70s soul blasts.
“We sometimes call ourselves a soul band,” admits bassist John Curley. “But our audience, while pretty mixed in terms of males and females, is predominantly white. I wish we had more of a black audience, but the normal channels are so segregated. I mean, they don’t play us on urban radio stations, so they can’t really market us properly. We’d love to get our music out to all the brothers and sisters.”
The fact of the matter, despite the band’s inherent dislike of laying their cards on the table, is that they’re just four angelheaded, sepia-dreaming honky-tonks from Ohio. While some of their old gems are so sharp they make a razor blade look like pudding, and Dulli’s velvet-clad tonsils successfully maintain their silky appeal on 1965, it seems like they just haven’t quite done dood it like they used to on this latest effort. Duelling horn solos are cool when it’s, say, Coltrane vs Rollins, but here it just reeks of the ersatz. In one song, Dulli sings “Across town, a girl plays guitar,” and then an overdubbed Spanish guitar comes tinkling in like some Euro-muzak love anthem spreading fairy dust all over the cheese and wine. And why do they always mention vampires?
Regardless, their music blends a kaleidoscope of chops, going from full-on disco-ball psychedelia to classic/alt-rock manoeuvres in the dark, with the steady flow of narcotics and a love of great black American music keeping the whole gumbo in flux.
“In Cincinnati, where I’m from,” continues Curley, “it’s rare for blacks and whites to hang out with each other. But in New Orleans (where they recorded 1965) everybody pretty much hangs together. Ah, Nouvelle Orléans. A place whose “spectacular wickedness” inspired at least one sociologist to describe it as “a city of sin and gaiety unique on the North American continent.”
For Curley, that spirit hasn’t dissipated. “New Orleans is a never-ending party. You either leave or you die. We like to party, but we also know when the party’s over.” What? I thought every day was a stoned soul picnic for the Afghan Whigs. “Well, let’s just say that the drugs become real important when we can’t get any, y’know what I mean?”
Even their name, upon greater reflection, betrays a deep-rooted affinity for getting out of their heads. “We just came up with it on liquor and psychedelics,” explains an evasive Curley. But the symbolist fun-with-words game actually starts making sense once one realizes that a Whig is the obsolete term for a member of the Liberal party, and Afghan is a type of hashish. “Well, yeah,” he concedes, “it really means Liberal Hash Smoking Committee.” Insane in the membrane!