Gentlemen at 20

gentlemen-cover

It started with the “Debonair” video.

As a highly impressionable seventeen year old, I had just begun transferring my naive attempts at teenage rebellion into full-on suburban teenage angst. In the early ’90s, that meant giving up on MTV’s Headbangers’ Ball and instead setting the VCR to record 120 Minutes.

I was obsessed with music. My relationships and personal identity were intensely intertwined with the band t-shirts I wore and the glossy photos taped to my bedroom walls, previously trapped inside of Rolling Stone and Hit Parader. I loved a loud, fast guitar riff. I lived vicariously through the bad attitudes of raspy vocalists, immaturely recounting sordid details of shallow relationships. The theater of it all was beautiful.

But I was a smart kid and it didn’t take much introspection to realize that Motley Crue was not the soundtrack my waning teenage years deserved. It was hollow, fake, silly. Many years later I would appreciate the ecstatic glee of that genre; but at the time I made a conscious effort to engage in the serious music of college radio. Music that was far too often dour and mopey. There was some charm to those songs, crafted by men and women who were thoughtful, intelligent – but mostly milquetoast indoor kids. I missed the charisma, the fire, the attitude.

It was probably in between a Cure video and a Depeche Mode interview that it happened. The quick hit of a bass note and percussion, followed by the rapid jangling of an open guitar chord. A man in the suit of a southern gentlemen lounging amongst the perverse extremes of a white trash cul-de-sac.

Tonight I go to hell – for what I’ve done to you. This ain’t about regret. It’s when I tell the truth.

Greg Dulli was Iceberg Slim, a pimp strutting between horrifying scenes that could be documented in any poor, small town in America. He was the ghost of Christmas past, invisible to the inhabitants of these worlds. The devil. The cool kid.

Dulli’s lyrics and personal presentation combined to form a character that was instantly likable but also sordid and dangerous. People didn’t talk like that. They couldn’t be so brutal to each other, could they? They certainly didn’t stand up straight and look you in the eye when they told truths that cold, detached, calculated.

Later, I discovered the album in a friend’s CD collection, tossed casually underneath a stack of Cypress Hill and Prince. The cover disturbed me, as I’m sure it was intended. I read the track listing. I put it on his tower stereo console and listened to it all the way through. I immediately understood. This album was important.

Gentlemen had the riffs. It had the attitude. It had theater. It was smart. But it was also heartbreaking, intense and more adult than I could handle. I put it away.

Time passed.  I was a freshman in college and digging through the stacks of obi-wrapped Japanese discs lugged back to the States from the greasy haired Navy brat down the hall. Again, I found Gentlemen. This time, I bootlegged a copy onto cassette with Hole’s Live Through This on the other side. I wore side A out – to the point where Courtney Love could be heard as a backwards ghost during the quieter moments of “When We Two Parted.”

I became a fan. That kid down the hall became my best friend. We traveled to shows. We sourced bootlegs. We became bigger fans and closer friends.

Some of the best moments of my life were scored by The Afghan Whigs. I proposed to my wife while “Faded” played on the turntable. I celebrated that best friend’s birthday at the 9:30 Club while the band played an epic, substance fueled set that included the most amazing group of covers I’ve ever heard. I made new friends in New Orleans on Decadence Weekend during the last days of the band’s original tenure.

Despite my fandom, I always considered myself lucky that I could appreciate Gentlemen as an abstraction, pure fiction. I never faced the demons of substance abuse or the even more abusive, caustic side of the wrong relationship. In part, that may be because I found this album at the right time. It was a cautionary tale, beautiful and messy and aggressive that didn’t glamorize the demons. It’s the oddball album in my collection in that I never related to any part of the story. But it still changed my life.

Gentlemen turned 20 this weekend. I have spent more of my life with this album than without it. It has provided me with expert company on too many roadtrips to list. I have bought more copies of this album than any other. I’ve replaced worn out CDs, collected it in pristine LP editions and given it as gifts to friends and ex-friends. Even now, it’s not always an easy listen but  this is the music I was searching for at seventeen. A soundtrack that would make me feel like the adult I eventually became.

Comments
26 Responses to “Gentlemen at 20”
  1. Trent Rosecrans says:

    funny, it started with the Debonair video for me too. And I was supremely jealous that Jim Stokes could grow that goatee and I couldn't

  2. Matt Anderson says:

    My first into to the Whigs was actually the Conjure Me video. While watching 120 Minutes on MTV one late Sunday night as a teenager I was on the prowl for awesome new music. I was immediately hooked. Went to the record store the next day to buy the record and they didn't have it. They did, however, have the new Whigs record, Gentleman. I bought it. Wow. Never in my life had I heard such an incredible collection of music. Each song stood well on its own, but as a whole, the album came together in such a way that I could listen to it front to back and be taken through an incredible array of emotions. As cheesy as it may sound, I was breaking up with my girlfriend at the time, and the record was a mirror image of our dysfunction. Yeah, that's a relative term when you're a teenager, but her drug and alcohol abuse were mirrored on the record in strange and amazing ways. It's not a pleasant journey to listen to the record, but it's so damn HONEST. And that's why I love the Whigs.

    I spent the next month hunting down every Whigs release I could find and I was lost in all of them. To this day, no other band speaks to me like the Whigs. I credit them with my own desire to learn to play guitar and write music myself. Greg and Co. have been the number one influence on me as a songwriter and musician for the last 20 years. All of their records are amazing, but Gentleman stands at the top. "If I could have only once heard you scream; to feel you were alive instead of watching you abandoning… yourself."

    I met Greg briefly outside a Minneapolis venue a few years back on a Twilight Singers tour. He was kind enough to take a brief minute and take a photo with me and my wife. I politely thanked him as he walked off, but would have loved to have told him how his music has had such an incredible and lasting influence on me as a person.

    I also had the incredible fortune of playing music with Rick once. When he was in MoonMaan, the word on the street in Minneapolis was that they were looking for a bass player. Long story short, I scored an audition. Needless to say I didn't get the spot, but those two hours of playing music with Rick will last as one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Rick is an incredibly kind yet soft-spoken man, and an amazing musician, just like Greg.

    I saw the Whigs live on the Black Love and 1965 tours, and again on the last reunion tour. No other band generates the kind of vibe that they do. Please, keep it up. You are all amazing Gentlemen.

  3. Laura M. Halling says:

    We should all be lucky enough to have music (one song, at least, if not a whole album) that has that kind of profound influence on our lives. Cool story my friend. :)

  4. Marc Lazar says:

    I first heard this record while visiting colleges as a HS junior. My relationship is not quite as obsessive as the author of this piece, but he does a great job describing just how seminal this album is. To this day I dont have another record that means more to me in my collection.

  5. find those kids who are now in their 20s and make a new gentlemen cover.

  6. Greg Malecki says:

    Matt… Cheesy as it may sound (with the exception of the breaking up part of the story) my discovery story is an exact mirror! Conjure Me, 120 Minute, record store next day, no Congregation record, but there was Gentlemen! Special ordered Congregation, bought Gentlemen and the rest was history!

  7. Barb Abney says:

    That's beautiful, Lee! One of these days we'll get to attend a Whigs show together, I just know it!

  8. Ryan L. Carter says:

    Yup. Dulli showed me that perfection doesn't need to be clean. It can be dirty as hell.

  9. Thanks Lee.
    That was perfect.

  10. I can't find it via google search. But do remember seeing it fairly recently.
    Think it was in conjunction with an article about the piece of art that inspired the cover shot. Lee probably knows more

  11. Tim Frazier says:

    I first heard the band on a SubPop comp called the Grunge Years. Retarded was the stand out track on it to me. I purchased Up In It at a shopping mall in Myrtle Beach, S.C. shortly after that. I wore it out. But the first video from Gentlemen that I saw was the title track and man did I love it. It's definitely one of my favorite albums of all time.

  12. Jef Wilson says:

    "This album was important." …and remains important.

  13. Jəf says:

    "This album was important." …and remains important.

  14. Alex Levas says:

    Well said, and very well played, indeed.

  15. Lee Heidel says:

    Jim Bartasavich – the Gentlemen book by Bob Gendron is the definitive resource. The cover was based on a Nan Goldin photo (http://goo.gl/90UnMM). There's info on the models also (http://goo.gl/Wsvws7).

  16. Tony Stokes says:

    "Turn on the Water" on 120 Minutes was the first time I heard The Afghan Whigs, but Gentlemen is one of my all time favorites. As someone who grew up in the 70's and owned hundreds of albums and thousands of CDs which range from mid-sixties to current, I can say I've never enjoy an album more than Gentlemen. It may have equals, but no superiors.

  17. Seminal Record, although I have to get all of the sharp objects out of the house before I play it.

  18. "I read the track listing. I put it on his tower stereo console and listened to it all the way through. I immediately understood. This album was important. Gentlemen had the riffs. It had the attitude. It had theater. It was smart. But it was also heartbreaking, intense and more adult than I could handle. I put it away." = hell yeah. I comprehend this feeling too, my friend.

  19. Jen Cheung says:

    You described Afghan Whigs perfectly when you say "I always considered myself lucky that I could appreciate Gentlemen as an abstraction, pure fiction". I never went down that rabbit hole either, but their songs made me take a peep with a lifeline. It started for me with Black Love, it's gonna be depressing when that's 20 years old.

  20. Leah Ott says:

    For sure. This was the beginning of it all for me…and I've never looked back.

  21. That was one of the must disturbing album covers, yet people never really comment on it either.

  22. Sunny Hong says:

    Congregation's Turn On the Water was my first taste. Been hooked ever since.

  23. Leah Ott says:

    Steve Dalberg have you seen the cover of Congregation? Of course you have! In this day and age, that is still shocking…I kinda love the provocative nature of their album covers…and of their music (Black Love…sooo good).

  24. Ged Coffey says:

    Wow i bootlegged it onto cassette 1st thrashed it till the portishead girl was on b/vs otherside of my copy n i also ave bought it loads on my 4th or 5th copy now . Cheers

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