Thoughts of Death

Robert Cherry
Special to the Plain Dealer
Cleveland.com

“For better or worse, I’m my own guy,” says Greg Dulli. “You try to drum up a list of people who sound like me or write songs like me, and that’s a very short list. I’m inventing my own music. However egotistical or delusional that sounds, I don’t give a [expletive].”

The Twilight Singers’ main man has never been shy about sharing his opinion. As singer for ’90s alt-rock greats the Afghan Whigs – formed, as legend has it, in an Athens, Ohio, drunk-tank – he was known for baiting audiences about the shortcomings of their home athletic teams. It occasionally earned him bloody knuckles or a cracked skull.

Is he still contentious? Sure. But whatever he may say about your sports team, he’s right about one thing: They don’t make rock stars like Greg Dulli anymore.

Self-aware: “Someone said I was the best bad singer in rock. I took that as a compliment.”

Well-read: Jack London’s “Martin Eden” “is one of the most beautiful pieces of prose I’ve ever put my eyes on and let my heart feel.”

Funny: “When I’m by myself, I don’t talk to anybody but my cat – and we don’t get into anything weird.”

Prone to excess: “Oh my god, I’ve had sex dreams about bourbon.”

Dulli is all of these things and more, qualities that can be heard in his music.

He directs a shifting cast of players – from former Prince protege Kotero to former Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan – in a project called The Twilight Singers. The project’s second album, “Blackberry Belle” (Birdman), is classic Dulli: epic, harrowing, soulful, cinematic.

The songs were inspired, as they often have been for the singer, by the death of a friend. When Dulli’s mentor, film director Ted Demme (“Blow,” “Beautiful Girls”), suddenly died of a heart attack at age 38, the singer’s response was “total shock.” Initially he had no interest in creating music again.

“I couldn’t even tie my shoes for a while,” he says. “I’ll never figure that one out. But there are things that, throughout your life, have brought you comfort. For me it was always sitting down at an instrument and letting it come out. And the music just started doing its thing. I had to honor what he meant to me.”

Unsurprisingly, the album’s point-blank lyrics are sometimes bleak and always bracing, even as the music offers glints of reassurance. Over a descending piano line, “Martin Eden” opens with Dulli crooning, “Black out the windows. It’s party time.” On “Fat City” he ponders, “Why you watch a car wreck? ‘Cause it looks fun to die.”

“Everyone always wants to see what a death in a wreck looks like because it’s coming for you, too,” he explains. “It missed you today, but – now appearing in a theater near you: your death. I literally try to carpe diem. There’s some days I’m trying to sleep off a hangover, but most days, I’m in attack mode.”

Apparently, the premature death of his friend hasn’t slowed Dulli, who in 1998 told British music magazine NME that he’s dabbled with “every kind of drug” at one time or another.

“Other people’s deaths I have a problem with. My own? Bring it on. I’m ready. But you watch, I’ll outlast everybody. That’s gonna be the joke on me. But if I hit 70, I’m going back on heroin. Are you kidding me? Pooping my pants? Hell with it. I’ll have a 25-year-old girlfriend by then, too.”

Cherry is a free-lance writer in Cleveland.

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