The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen
(Blast First/Electra 1993)
By: Brett Spaceman
“Ladies, let me tell you about myself
I got a dick for a brain
And my brain is gonna sell my ass to you”
Lead singers may not be THE most important element of a band but they are focal points – windows into their own particular world. In Greg Dulli’s case that’s one hell of a cracked, grimy, finger-stained viewpoint.
The Afghan Whigs were part of the grunge movement. At least Sub Pop thought so, snapping them up on the basis of their self-released debut Big Top Halloween. I guess everyone bought into the ‘grunge’ typecasting because the Whigs sound, at that time, was still malformed? Wailing, raw vocals not a million miles away from J Mascis could be found buried in a mire of effect-heavy guitars but something more would emerge. The Whigs began to incorporate a lot of covers into their sets and their releases. Many of these were Motown covers.
Apparently, the Whigs had soul.
Gentlemen is one of the most corrosive and bitterly personal albums ever laid to plastic. In a decade of heavy subject matter, Gentlemen made a mockery of much of the pre-millennial tension and so-called ‘angst’ records. Anxieties over flight safety and government conspiracies are rendered mere college boy chin-stroking in comparison to this self-loathing opus. These are grown up concerns – proper male subjects. Dulli is at the heart of this of course but the band puts down a fearsome backdrop. I have a friend who literally cannot get past the sheer claustrophobia of the opening track ‘If I Were Going’. Me, I just love the way it grows out of a subway station howl before locking its jaws into you and never letting up.
“Tonight I go to hell
For what I’ve done to you
This ain’t about regret
It’s when I tell the truth “
Gentlemen is an ‘Angel Heart’ record and Greg Dulli is going to burn. Failing relationships, abuse, betrayal, misogyny – all these elements are brooding at the heart of Gentlemen and therefore in the soul of our anti-hero. Dulli spends the whole album reflecting on his failings and wallowing in guilt. It’s difficult to pin down whether Dulli is truly baring his soul in the first person or just playing in character. Subsequent releases would point to a merging of the two. Dulli’s character would take him over. Dulli would become his character. Whatever. On 1996’s Black Love, Dulli would give in to his dark side altogether and embark on vengeful night manoeuvres and by 1965 he’d be found celebrating all his flaws like old Nick himself. Roll over little rabbit, I’m feeling adventurous tonight.
Both Black Love and 1965 are masterpieces. I’ve picked Gentlemen because it is deliciously poised on the brink of something special. Here Dulli remains unsure which way his ‘Id versus Ego’ civil war is leaning while the band are starting to realise how good they are. Gentlemen also contains ‘Debonair’, which is arguably THE archetypal Whig track. Gems abound. ‘What Jail Is Like’ is another damning indictment to unfulfilment, ‘When We Two Parted’ is a sleazy abusers ballad and ‘My Curse’ really hits home by using Marcy Mays as guest vocalist.
The band were exceptional. What a pity they no longer exist. I’m going on record to say that The Afghan Whigs – Kentish Town Forum was the best gig of my life. John Curley, bass – taciturn and the epitome of ‘Ray Ban’ coolness. Rick McCollum, wild-eyed and ‘sent’ as he wrought all kind of squeals out of his axe. “A body built to play lead guitar” exclaimed Dulli as he introduced each member Vegas style. (I kid you not) Fuck me, what a show.
So I’m looking at the sleeve art for Gentlemen once again – the cold, silent hostility of a loveless bedroom. It’s like a scene from Love Will Tear Us Apart. Yet it is two young children that are pictured. This jars. This perverts things somewhat. The effect is oddly disquieting just as listening to Gentlemen is a difficult and cathartic exercise. And as awful as it gets, Gentlemen maintains a morbid fascination. You know you should really hate a man like Dulli. But in all honesty you end up seduced like the rest of his victims. There he is inflicting misery on women, loathing himself and respecting the abused even less for taking it – and you kind of admire it. Maybe this guy is only behaving the way we’d all wish to if we had the chance?
Or if we had the guts.
Unbreakable: A Retrospective 1990-2006 is out now on Rhino Recordings.
Greg Dulli is now in Twilight Singers and Gutter Twins
John Curley is now bassist for Staggering Statistics
Rick McCollum went on to form Moon Maan