Feel His Pain
Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli is the unsexiest sexy mutha you’ll ever meet
BY ROBERT WILONSKY
Greg Dulli was never supposed to be the lead singer in the Afghan Whigs. He was originally the drummer, the stringy-haired dude at the very back–you know, the guy you never notice, never remember when he’s replaced three records into the band’s career. Guitarist Rick McCollum and bassist John Curley auditioned sundry singers before finally settling on one, a guy Dulli insisted “really sucked,” as he tells the story now. Dulli refused to play in a band fronted by that guy and told his pals he would do better to front the band than some other idiot, so he was given the keys to the car and told, Fine, dude, you drive for a while.
That was a little more than a decade ago, not long after Dulli and Curley had played together in a band called Black Republicans in Cincinnati, a group Dulli recalls as having been “maybe one of the worst bands in the history of bands,” as it had only five songs and still managed to play two-hour sets. Meaning: songwriting by accident, drinks providing inspiration, sloppy-assed covers till closing time. Dulli fronted Black Republicans, having only recently returned from Los Angeles to Cincinnati. He had dropped out of the University of Cincinnati after only 18 months and, in 1984, gone west to become an actor, then returned to Ohio to take his place on a different kind of stage–maybe not a bigger one, but most certainly a far better one. He didn’t need a script, didn’t have to play anyone else’s part. In front of the audience, he could make shit up, be the drunken wildman–“a freak,” as he says now. As in: “I just got to get up there and get loaded and be a freak.” And to think, he almost ended up a drummer.
The preceding is significant because Greg Dulli has, over the course of a decade releasing records with the Afghan Whigs, become far more than just that band’s lead singer, something bigger than just a mere frontman for a rock-and-roll outfit. He has evolved into something of an icon, the so-called “sex symbol” or “sex god” he’s so often described as–affectionately or derisively, depending upon whether or not the writer takes his whole tortured soul-man shtick too seriously (or, for that matter, too lightly). He has become, for better or worse, bigger than the band he fronts, which is why recent issues of almost every music magazine on the rack are littered with references to his recent bout with clinical depression, his self-described fits of masochism, his tortured relationships, the therapy, the pain–all that and beyond. Even the casual rock-and-roll fan who may not own the band’s new album, 1965, knows something about Greg Dulli; he is not a stranger, not just some singer.
The Whigs, by accident or design, are now created in his own suffering soul-man image. And Dulli knows this, likes it, maybe even thrives on it. He talks about his fascination with the cult of personality, how he reads books about his favorite singers because he needs to understand who they were in order to appreciate their music. He points to an album like Pete Townshend’s All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes as one of his favorites, precisely because it reveals Townshend as a man struggling with his age, even his sexuality; Dulli adores it because it is, by his estimation, an honest record.
“I always wanted the people that I’d listened to or watched or whose books I read or whose paintings or sculptures I looked at to have a personality,” he explains. “I wanted them to be a person that I could relate to, you know? If I can’t, if I couldn’t, I can’t relate to their art. I’ve always been kind of drawn toward that. I’ll go back to Roger Waters and Marvin Gaye as being two sides of the same coin–fierce artists, but with tenderness and anger at the same time, you know? I mean, they showed you both sides of the human condition, and that’s what I’ve sort of been striving for, I guess.”
Dulli points to the Whigs’ third record, 1992’s Congregation, as the beginning of the end for him–the end, that is, of his days as being just a guy writing songs for his band to play. Suddenly, the songs–each a throttling blend of funk, rock, and sneer–became about him, or if not him, then this character he was creating: the liar, the scoundrel, the womanizer, the miscreant, the arrogant lover, the sensitive asshole. He couched his revelations in deceit, titling a song “This is My Confession” that buried deep within its grooves a line like, “I’m lying now / I always do.” He came on with the subtlety of a rapist (“I know your ass is fine / But I’m the only one who can say / That it’s mine”) and made little effort to mask the double entendres (“I’m in a hole / But I don’t feel the safety net”).
Before that, the Whigs were the Sub Pop label’s Cincinnati branch, a grunge band whose cut-from-the-mold sound hinted at nothing save an early demise. The band’s earliest records–1988’s debut Big Top Halloween and 1990’s Sub Pop debut Up in It–felt like ordinary records, something bought and played and forgotten about. When played now, they sound downright generic. But Congregation hinted that there was something dark and special beneath the common fašade. Suddenly, the Whigs existed as something far bigger, better, and more perverse. They were to be taken seriously; think no less than the Rolling Stones, if they were signed to Stax/Volt–a rock band pretending to be a soul band fronted by the cuddliest misogynist ever to come on to an audience.
“Congregation to me is the key record of our catalog, because that’s the one where we sort of grew up and became comfortable putting some R&B influences in our music,” Dulli explains. “Up in It was our first record for Sub Pop, and I kind of overcompensated to make it sound a little more Sub Pop in retrospect. I mean, there’s moments on that record that, you know, you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, OK–I see where they are,’ but Congregation to me was when I started to kind of show my hand a little bit.
“Congregation was the…” Dulli pauses a few seconds, then reveals the motivation behind the record as only someone obsessed with the man behind the music can. “I had never been in a serious relationship before that, and I was in one all of a sudden, and I was confused and…uh…I didn’t know why I was doing the things I was doing. And all of a sudden, you know, the shit hit the fan, and I started…you know, it started to pour out of me.”
By 1993, Dulli had found he couldn’t stop it. That year, Gentlemen was released, and a star was born…at least in Greg Dulli’s mirror. Somewhere between there and here, he cut his hair and purchased a silk wardrobe befitting his desire to be the sexiest, most desirable motherfucker in the room–and, somehow, also the biggest asshole. Really, he didn’t see much of a difference. Gentlemen was the most intense, troublesome record released that year, and by far the best thing the Whigs had ever done. Suddenly, the music vibrated, pleading and pushing all at once. It wore a black heart on its custom-fit sleeve; Gentlemen was a nasty record, a masterpiece that had no right to exist–because listening to it was so thrilling and damned uncomfortable.
Dulli had decided to dive head-first into the mess that he claims was his life at the time the record was made–the failing relationships, the storm that occurs when lust turns to love disintegrates into hate. Gentlemen is at once apologetic and defiant, a caress and a slap: Only Dulli would title a song “Be Sweet” and then put in the lyric “She wants love, and I still want to fuck,” then insist “I’m ashamed.” Featuring Scrawl’s Marcy Mays singing lead on one song (“My Curse,” where she begs her love to “hurt me, baby”), Gentlemen was the most obscene sort of concept album, putting you smack in the center of a relationship as it consumed and destroyed its participants.
“Do you know the record Here, My Dear by Marvin Gaye?” Dulli asks, referring to Gaye’s tortured, frightening 1978 album about his divorce from Anna Gordy. “That and Pink Floyd’s The Wall–they’re two different records, but they’re both very kind of confessional. Those were the two albums that I leaned on the most as far as how to make Gentlemen. I was on a dark lyric juggernaut…I was just, uh, beside myself with sadness and self-loathing on that record. I can say that now, ’cause it’s five years later since I wrote it. I even told the band, ‘Let me just get this over with, and we’ll let the record company reject it, and I’ll come up with somethin’ a little catchier,’ but it ended up being, you know, the one they all still talk about, soooo…” He trails off, laughing.
Black Love, released three years later, was even darker, more degenerate, beginning with the lines: “Tonight I say goodbye to everybody who loves me.” From there, it’s only downhill, culminating in the song “Faded,” which ends the record by uttering, “It’s gonna kill you.” Dulli says now Black Love was written as a result of the depression that physically hurt him so deeply that he often felt like a knife was stuck in his gut. Leave it to him to conjure such a romantic, noir cliche.
But 1965 is the bright, shiny side of the same coin–a R&B record made by the greatest bar band in the world, sans the poor-poor-me tragedy that dripped all over its two predecessors. It owes more to the 1992 EP Uptown Avondale, which featured straight-faced Motown and Al Green covers, than to Gentlemen or Black Love. With its horny-horns, black-up singers, come-on-come-on whispers, and Marvin Gaye references to gettin’ it on, 1965 does away with the regret and hate and dives straight into the satin sheets, coming up for air only when it’s time for the post-doin’-it smoke. Goodbye, self-hate; hello, luuuuv. “I wanna getcha hiiiiiiiiiiiigh,” Dulli sings, like a man for whom therapy did some good.
Or maybe it’s all an act in the end, a put-on for his amusement–the whole “angst merchant” routine he likes to tell interviewers. After all, his shtick makes for good copy, good music, and the occasional good laugh. One need look no further than the second song on 1965–“Crazy,” heheheh–to discover that maybe Dulli doesn’t love himself and hate himself as much as you think. “There ain’t nuthin’ wrong with me / If I use it to get me some sympathy,” he sings in that I’ve-got-a-secret voice of his. Listen close enough, and you’ll find that maybe the liar’s finally telling the truth. Fact is, Greg Dulli will say anything to get you to love him.
“You know,” Dulli says, laughing when that point is made to him. “If anyone else has gotten it, they haven’t called me on it. But I couldn’t have said it better myself. A lot of times, there’s more wink-wink than you’d like to imagine.”
The Afghan Whigs perform December 12 at Deep Ellum Live. Alvin Youngblood Hart opens.