Super Macho Man
East Bay Express
Greg Dulli, late of the Afghan Whigs, is back on the road — and couldn’t care less if he offends you.
BY ROB HARVILLA
Take a good, long look at the smoke-billowing gentleman in this photo, and ask yourself: Does this man give a fuck?
Does Greg Dulli’s rep as a self-obsessed ladies’ man trouble him? In snarky indie-rock zine Chunklet’s infamous “Biggest Assholes in Rock” issue, he ranked a respectable 24th for being “under the mistaken delusion that he’s God’s gift to women.” Did that give him pause? Did the appearance of another snarky indie-rock zine titled Fat Greg Dulli prompt a bit of self-reflection?
But what of his fans? Plenty of adoring Dulli-ites called in sick and wept uncontrollably when the Afghan Whigs — a spectacularly morose alt-rock juggernaut led by Dulli’s jarring wounded-animal howl — abruptly disbanded in 2001 after a staggering run as architects of the most beautiful ugly rock you’ll ever hear. (Album of the ’90s: Gentlemen. Do not argue about this.) But woe is us, the Whigs dissolved, leaving the Twilight Singers behind — a weirder, quieter, jazzier, mellower Dulli solo project currently running full-length version 2.0: The Twilight Singers Play Blackberry Belle.
Now Greg is on tour, antagonizing people anew. A recent weekend stand in Chicago ignited a firestorm of righteous rage, engulfing incensed critics like the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot (“insufferable cad … frequent monologues designed to prove just how big a jerk he can be … arrogant, self-aggrandizing banter”) and fansite message-board jockeys alike (“a pretty dreadful show — one of the worst I have ever seen,” ranted SummersKiss.com).
Now, Greg, you can’t possibly have intended to piss off these people?
“Sure,” Dulli replies. “Provoke. Think. You know what? I’m not there to have you walk out feeling placid and middle-ground. I’ll turn you up or turn you off. Those are my two speeds I like to see you on. Anybody who had anything bad to say about that Saturday show in Chicago’s a fuckin’ pussy. That was a fantastic show. Nobody left. I’ll tell you that much.”
He’ll tell you plenty more. “I’m a very candid and direct person, and that makes some people uncomfortable,” Dulli admits. “Confidence comes across as cockiness. I’m cocky when I’m onstage, I’m confident when I’m off it. So either way, if you’ve got some sort of monster cruisin’ around in the back of your head, I’m probably gonna light him up.”
Dulli does this, veering recklessly between badass bravado and weirdly intimate statements about fear, loneliness, and depression. The ultra-macho ladies’ man persona now clings to him like a sweaty undershirt, but the dude loves kittens too, y’know?
“I’m a multifaceted, sentient human being,” he says. “I think people take what they want and blow it up. Again, I think that goes back to other people’s insecurities. I have ’em. You got ’em. I don’t go around fuckin’ advertising my insecurities on my chest, ’cause you know what’ll happen? You’ll fuckin’ beat the shit out of me. Take my money, take my woman, take my house, and everything else. My insecurities are my own, and they’re filed away, and I discuss them with myself, and I look over them when I need to, but I don’t go around flyin’ my pussy flag, sayin’ ‘Beat me up.’
“Standing above anybody, being King Shit of Fuck Mountain?” he asks rhetorically. “That means nothing to me. But if somebody wants to play capture the flag, don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”
So why should you ditch your family over Thanksgiving weekend to watch Greg Dulli do his King Shit of Fuck Mountain routine at Slim’s on Friday night? Because, as always, the tunes back his ass up.
The Twilight Singers began as Dulli’s ambient refuge from the Whigs — 2001’s Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers unfolded like a whispering 4 a.m. lament for lost love, an ambient experiment suffused with enough cheap sex and otherwise erotic hand-wringing to earn Greg innumerable Prince comparisons. Dulli, incidentally, really enjoyed this. “You know what? You can compare me to that guy anytime you want. That’s an overcompliment. Maybe not now, cause he’s kind of on Suck Street right now, but from 1980 to 1990 he was motherfuckin’ Mozart. He was ten for ten. Untouchable. And I’ll always love him.”
But Greg had imagined returning to the Whigs after Twilight, so he deliberately made a mellow side-projecty little album. Blackberry Belle, however, seeks to combine Dulli’s rock bombast yin with his whispering, Prince-channeling yang. Thus, fully half the tunes here start with softcore pillow talk but suddenly launch into huge, crashing arena-rock choruses anchored by the singer’s famous off-key moan, an exhilarating head rush guaranteed to make old-guard Whigs fans soil themselves.
Belle’s other stylistic innovation: substituting Dulli’s usual subject matter (sex) with far darker fare (death). He describes the record largely as a reaction to the sudden passing of his friend Ted Demme, Hollywood director of Blow and A Decade Under the Influence.
But another celebrity death has virtually hijacked the record — Elliott Smith’s ghost hangs sadly and palpably over Belle, even if its writing preceded his suicide. In concert, Dulli has taken to dedicating the tune “Martin Eden” to Smith: “Black out the windows/It’s party time/You know how I love stormy weather/So let’s all play suicide/The crowd wants you bleeding/The eyes from your head/Get off your knees/You’ll be fine.”
The two songwriters enjoyed what Dulli describes as mutual respect and a sweet, albeit brief, friendship. The outpouring of sadness and shock that followed Smith’s death doesn’t surprise Dulli. “I think that happens anytime someone takes their life, especially in such a violent way — downright Shakespearean. That was, ‘Oh happy dagger find your mark,’ the last act of Romeo and Juliet.
“Elliott Smith,” he continues, “generated a lot of goodwill because he made some beautiful music that will be around forever. It’s not the newest story in the world: It’s Nick Drake 2: Electric Boogaloo.”
So that’s Greg Dulli — morbid, cocksure, self-aware, self-aggrandizing. It’s been a messy and occasionally unsightly career, but anyone would kill to have it. Dulli still fondly recalls when the Whigs played a bar band in Demme’s 1996 drama Beautiful Girls: “In between takes Uma Thurman was in charge of making us margaritas, and Natalie Portman was in charge of bringing them to us. So, uh, that wasn’t a bad day.”
Gotta be in your Top Five Experiences Ever, right?
Nope. “Probably like 27,” says Greg Dulli, supercharged ladies’ man. “But it was cool. It made the top thirty.”