Gentlemen at 20
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.