Dancing About Architecture
A Native Son’s Farewell to an Ohio Original
“It was a blast. We’d like to thank everyone who took the ride with us and let us ride with them.”
Such was the short send-off from the Afghan Whigs, issued at the end of a news release from their label last month. The statement cited the strain of geographic distance between the members, with singer and songwriter Greg Dulli living in Los Angeles (after stints in New Orleans and Seattle), bassist John Curley and drummer Michael Horrigan in Cincinnati, and guitarist Rick McCollum in Minneapolis.
The reason was good enough, but it probably was more of a symptom than the disease. The Whigs had every right to call in sick forever. The bounced between three record companies, gathering a trunk full of favorable review clips but never rising in record sales beyond that of, in Dulli’s words, a “major cult band.”
Maybe the distance that broke up the band did not refer to the gap between cities as it did between expectations and reality. Or between commercial potential and coming up just short.
After all, one could be excused for predicting massive success. From the early gigs in and around the University of Cincinnati campus, it was starkly clear that this band had that hard-to-define special-something that could lead them away from their conservative environs to greater things. The myth-makers have it that the band met in a jail cell in Athens, Ohio (dubious) and gelled as a band during a regular stint at a Cincinnati lesbian bar, where they won over the skeptical clientele (likely). The local music scene, such that it was, was unprepared for a band as promising as the Afghan Whigs.
The Whigs joined Seattle’s grunge wave despite their midwest roots, recording “I Am The Sticks” for the SubPop Singles Club. It led to “Up In It,” which fit comfortably next to a Mudhoney or Green River lp in sonic blast and cover art aesthetics, but also signaled that the Whigs offered more.
Fellow travelers Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam moved millions of units, the Whigs seemed like they would join them. After its second SubPop album, Congregation, and an EP, Uptown Avondale, the band signed with a major. “We signed with SubPop to get laid, and we signed with Elektra to get paid,” smirked the band’s press release at the time.
In 1993 they let loose Gentlemen, what most critics believe to be their best album. It contains a variety of moods, tempos and sounds – the product of a band reaching for the brass ring. The Whigs received some modest video airplay on MTV for “Gentleman” and “Debonair,” and Dulli became somewhat of a regular (with actor Donal Logue, clearly intoxicated) on 120 Minutes. The album populated most Best Of lists that year, including a nice No. 17 slot on the Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll.
The relative acclaim didn’t translate to big sales, at least by the standards then being set by alt-rock heroes Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins. In a classic move, the Whigs offered up Black Love two years later, an album more difficult and complex. Sales were flat, and despite a clear single (“Going To Town”) and more touring. Elektra and the Whigs parted ways.
Columbia, for reasons that are not clear, picked them up. The band rewarded them with 1965, a party record where, in Dulli’s words “guilt takes a backseat to lust.” It was front-loaded with catchy tunes, especially “66” and “Something Hot,” but the commercial moment for them was gone, lost to boy bands and hip-hop. Dulli returned to mood music with the grow-on-you brilliance of a side project, Twilight Singers. Work had begun on a new Whigs album when the news came in February that the gig was up. The Whigs were perhaps my favorite band. I, for one, never thought they came up short. Every record and every show was a gift. Live, the band was without competition. I reveled in the fact that I often convinced friends unfamiliar with their music or not especially into the alternative rock at all to take in their show, and without exception my friends left the club agog. Dulli’s raw charisma seemed to capture most of them – his on-stage banter, his sexy come-ons, his snippets of Price or TLC – as much as the power of the songs and the force the band’s energy. Even his famous smoke breaks in the middle of the set, standing there on stage drawing heavily on his Marlboro for 20 minutes while the confused crowd yelled at him, were part of the band’s bad-boy allure.
This was a naughty band on stage. Fistfights between band members became a rarity, but altercations between Dulli and the occasional bouncer or front-row frat boy continued to the end, most spectacularly on the 1965 tour stop in Texas involving a two-by-four. More often, Dulli’s challenge to fight some goon in the pit was part act, of course, but the look in his eyes convinced me he kind of hoped the show would erupt in a brawl.
Dulli’s eyes. They were the signal that a show was really spinning. They would grow wide and spooky, and would lock with individuals on the floor. Like a good politician or preacher man, Dulli worked the crowd from the stage.
On record, the band didn’t translate for some of my friends who appreciated the live act, but I cherished every single song they set to tape. To choose a favorite song or album is too difficult, even for a compulsive list maker. I do, however, have favorite recorded moments. “I got a dick for a brain, and my brain is gonna sell my ass to you,” from “Be Sweet” is audacious and damning at the same time. I love the roar of McCollum’s guitar on “White Trash Party,” and early favorite. I love Marcy Mays’ (of Scrawl, another underappreciated Ohio band) pained vocals on “My Curse.” I love the uncomfortable mix of tinkling piano and Dulli’s growl on “Step Into The Light.” Their cover of “Lost in the Supermarket,” the only redeeming feature from the recent Clash tribute. (John Dunlevy has compiled a most complete discography.)
This is a band that believed in the album, as a whole. A lot of writers have pointed out that Whigs albums in fact played a lot like movies, a notion fostered by Dulli. The booklets note that songs were “shot at Ultrasuede Studio,” as if it were film. Dulli himself partied with the movie world, securing money from his label at one point to help finance his script, and for production or performance work for, among others, the Beautiful Girls and Backbeat soundtracks. I think the movie connection was real, especially with the chilling Black Love, but not because the lyrics followed a storyline, but because the words and music together evoked a sense of place and mood. The listener could suspend disbelief for the 50 minutes and disappear in a brooding, desperate world.
A lot also has been made of the band’s embrace of black soul music. The band, of course, made no secret of its love for the genre, recording numerous covers of their favorites such as Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” or the Supremes’ “Come See About Me.” Dulli follows today’s R & B scene, as only a true fan might. (He recently sat down for an interview on the subject with Spin.) Live, they often took pleasure in weaving in a choice Prince or Motown cover before launching into, say, “Going To Town” or some other butt-wagging favorite. But the band incorporated the essence of soul music without aping it awkwardly, unlike so many funk- or rap-metal bands.
The reaction to the break-up has been a bit muted. The Cincinnati papers gave it the blurb treatment and the major music publications noted it with some sadness. Rolling Stone admitted that the band was “more than just a footnote in the annals of the Nineties alternative scene” and Spin ran the Columbia Records release, adding their quick regrets.
The Internet provided a little more commentary, but I found no outpouring. Meredith Borakove and her top fan site posted no musings, only links to the smattering of reports. (She deserves kudos for flying the band’s banner online for so long.)
“I think it was very out of the blue for myself and others on the whigs (email fan) list,” Meredith wrote in an email to DAA this week. “The Whigs had talked about doing one last album and had released info to the press that they had started working on it so everyone was pretty shocked. People that I heard responses from on the Whigs list were pretty upset about it. I think everybody knew it was eventually inevitable but most people thought we’d get another album and more importantly another tour out of them before they called it quits.
“In terms of the music press being muted,” she added, “that sort of goes along with the way they’ve always treated the Whigs, don’t you think? Not giving them the press they deserve. A lot of people blame Greg and the Twilight Singers for the breakup but I’m pretty sure that it was a unanimous decision really based the least on Greg since he was the mobile, unattached one.”
Lee Heidel, the webmaster for the fan site of Dulli’s side project, The Twilight Singers, writes, “The Twilight Singers can not and will not compare to the chemistry, beauty, and rock and roll perfection that the Whigs embodied. I am deeply saddened by the news of their demise. I can only hope that this is a temporary situation — The Afghan Whigs were the consummate rock band. They will be missed.” (Read more.)
Perhaps the fans are not so great in numbers. Or maybe they know the music will keep coming, but under Twilight Singers’ banner. Or maybe they just feel lucky to have had the Whigs around for as long as we did. Anyway, that’s how I choose to feel. Congratulations, guys, on a great ride.
by Burton Glass