The music of one of Cincinnati’s all-time greatest musical exports, The Afghan Whigs, hit me at precisely the right time.
As a child, the music of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who tattooed itself on to my DNA, while my high school years found me becoming obsessed with College Rock, Punk, Hip Hop and Hard Rock.
But The Afghan Whigs were my “coming-of-age” soundtrack — from (approximately) the ages of 20-27 — and, like those childhood musical heroes, their music has never left me.
Those years were pivotal in my growth as a human being. In that brief span, I was a raging alcoholic, a one-step-from-the-gutter junkie and a newlywed — at least for a few years all at once — with a handful of relationships that played themselves out painfully woven in between, followed by the “light” that comes with sobriety and clarity.
I can’t remember exactly the first time I heard The Afghan Whigs. I knew of
them right after high school by seeing their names on fliers for shows
at bars I wasn’t old enough to get into. But once I finally got my hands
on the band’s debut for SubPop, Up In It, in 1990, I was hooked.
While the music on Up In It still gives me a jolt every time I listen, the songs (save “You My Flower”) never became as emotionally resonant as 1992’s Congregation, 1993’s Gentlemen and 1996’s Black Love would prove to be for me.
The sound of the Whigs’ music was the perfect transition
for me from favorites like Dinosaur Jr., The Replacements and Husker Du.
But there was an aura in the Whigs’ music that those groups were never
capable of invoking. And originality — no one before or since has
conjured the magical abstract-art guitar squiggles Whigs guitarist Rick
McCollum has churned out and John Curley is one of the “Alt Rock”
revolution’s most distinctive bassists, with his sublime mix of melody,
feel and sheer propulsiveness. Original drummer Steve Earle also had a
trademark sound in his playing, a flurry of Hard Rock bluster and
shuffling dance rhythms.
Together with the hearty, evocative songwriting, The Afghan Whigs always had something more — an air of mystique and a sound beyond the trends — than their late ’80s SubPop peers, not to mention their ’90s Alternative Nation breakthrough cohorts.
I got lost in the dark corners and ominous shadows of the music, as well as its manic moments of pure, jubilant uplift and smothering, inescapable sadness. And I soon began to pick up on the words of frontman Greg Dulli, which have repeatedly given me those moments every deep music lover has where they’re almost freaked out by how closely the lyrics mirror their own feelings and experiences.
Dulli’s lyrics were raw, clever, poetic and brutally honest “love songs.” It was the brutal honesty of his poetry about relationships that led to a still ongoing belief by detractors that Dulli is a misogynistic asshole. But I never got that vibe, even when the lyrics (always taken out of context when used against him) skewed that way, like on Gentlemen’s “Be Sweet,” where Dulli croons,“Ladies, let me tell you about myself/I got a dick for a brain/And my brain is gonna sell my ass to you/Now I'm OK, but in time I'll find I'm stuck/'Cause she wants love and I still want to fuck”
Some find Dulli’s swaggering “lothario” persona onstage off-putting and such lyrics crude, sexist, deplorable. I find them a relevant part of the story and character development, but also a realistic portrayal of a virile young man’s mental process. Dismissing Dulli’s words because you find them dick-ish or “sexist” just seems disingenuous. Men are assholes sometimes. And they can realize that in themselves. And women can be assholes, too.
When I met my current longtime partner, she was as obsessed with Liz Phair’s music as I was The Afghan Whigs’, which made me draw some parallels between the two. She loved Liz Phair for the same reason I loved the Whigs — their music spoke directly to us and was dazzling in its self-awareness and rare candor.
It should be noted that I really love Liz Phair’s first album (the main one she built her legend upon, Exile in Guyville), but my girlfriend merely seems to tolerate my affinity for the Whigs. Still, The Afghan Whigs have tons of female fans, some who just love the sound of the band, some who appreciate the quality writing and musicianship, some who find Dulli’s honesty sexy and some who find the man himself a hunk among hunks. There are usually an equal amount of male and females in an Afghan Whigs audience.
Dulli’s lyrics have a personal, intimate style, like something being revealed to you in a whisper or drunken yowl in the backroom of a speakeasy, which might be why most of his critics fail to consider the possibility of a non-autobiographical “narrator.”
What Dulli’s lyrics offered to me was something I hadn’t heard before, and it all goes back to that brutal honesty. He was presenting a more complete and complex picture of love, one that admitted mistakes, wielded vitriol like a sword, cranked up the self-deprecation, wallowed in sex, drugs and misery and held on to the hope and promise that love first presents. The Whigs’ connections to classic Soul music isn’t just in the sound or beats; that lyrical description could also be about Marvin Gaye or any number of great vintage Blues and Soul artists.
Dulli sings about the emotional ups and downs a man in, out or around love feels. And his honesty made a lot of uptight people (and men trying to seem “femi-sensitive”) uncomfortable. It’s sort of like a non-ridiculous version of Howard Stern’s “He says the things we all think and feel but can’t say ourselves!” Like Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller, Dulli never ran his insight through a PC filter — he just ran it out, filter-less.
I can be masochistic in my listening habits, cuing up songs that are painful in their reminder of darker times or clinging to them during fresh, new depressing moments. But I’ve also listened to the Whigs while elated and ready to celebrate. Though I don’t have the same visceral response to the Whigs’ more upbeat “party” anthems (particularly on the band’s swan song, 1965), I’ve grown to love them almost as much.
During dysfunctional moments in love affairs, with my issues with drugs and alcohol, Gentlemen’s “Fountain and Fairfax” — with it’s lines like “Let me drink, let me tie off/I'm
really slobbering now” — stung. But it was a good sting, like a shot of
whiskey. Songs like these, the ones that echoed my weird, nihilistic
feelings of “fuck it all,” helped me realize I wasn’t totally insane. Or at least I wasn’t the only one who was trying to understand and deal with this insanity.
Black Love closer “Faded” has been an anthem for many breakups, the Purple Rain-sway
giving me the same kind of chills Wendy and Lisa get in the Prince
movie when he plays the title track for the first time. And whenever my
longtime battle with depression has led me to suicidal thoughts in my
life, “Crime Scene (Part One),” the numb, opening salvo on the Whigs
noir, emotionally-wrenching masterpiece Black Love, starts
running through my brain: “Tonight, tonight I say goodbye/To everyone
who loves me/Stick it to my enemies, tonight/Then I disappear.”
More than once, it’s brought me to tears and squashed all suicidal thoughts — thinking of saying goodbye to everyone who loves you is sometimes all it takes.
As I eventually got my shit together, getting off the hard drugs and managing my alcohol intake, another Whigs’ song would haunt me, but this time in a purely reassuring way. I’ve used a “program” called Rational Recovery to help me stay off of drugs and alcohol and the essence of the system is mental cognizance — being able to recognize when your mind and body are trying to get you to drink or do drugs. You turn this “feeling” into a physical thing and name it. I suppose it could be named anything, but I’ve gone with “The Beast,” per the suggestion of the Rational Recovery book.
It sounds silly, but merely saying in my head, “That’s The Beast,” has worked wonders for me staying sober. I eventually started to cling to a line from The Afghan Whigs’ single “Debonair” from Gentlemen: “Once again the monster speaks/Reveals his face and searches for release.” It so perfectly matches my “sobriety mantra” and mental ritual, I’ve considered having it tattooed on my arm.
I’m fairly certain that I would’ve become a huge Afghan Whigs fan if I wasn’t from Cincinnati. Even before I found a way to make a living from writing about music from the area, I loved “homegrown” music and never saw it as simply “local music.” But being able to see the Whigs in concert dozens of times, venues big and small, all over the region, including a few epic holiday shows and a couple of “secret” warm-up shows the band would sneak in before hitting the road — that certainly helped their “favorite band” status in my mind.
The Whigs have long been a phenomenal live band.
Musically, it’s always been a tight but ragged glory. But Dulli is one
of the most entertaining, funniest banterers in the history of Rock
& Roll. His mid-set chats (formerly trademark “smoke breaks,” though
Greg is now apparently a non-smoker) were like an edgy, fired-up
stand-up comedian going into the audience for some “Hey, where you
from?” volleying. But in Dulli’s case, it was usually a time to talk
musical tastes, new bands, maybe throw out some humorous sports
commentary, playfully taunting every other person in the venue. It was
loose, like party chatter, and I always found it an hysterical highlight
of every Whigs show. Comedy and music are my two favorite things in the
world and the Whigs usually delivered both in concert.
The band members were a few years older than me, so there was a sense of awe early on when seeing them around town. When a band I was in was playing at Sudsy Malone’s in the early ’90s, it would be a total mind-fuck to hear a Whigs member was in the crowd. Especially because I’d taken to listening to the band’s music so much, almost everything I played for a long time was informed by the Whigs. (Big C chords with a suspended 7 or mere C to E-minor chord progressions are classic early Whigs’ motifs.)
I’m far from the only local musician from the’90s (and likely beyond) inspired by the Whigs’ music, but there was another kind of inspiration during that era when all of the band members were out and about in Cincinnati. The Whigs’ “fuck it, let’s just go do this” ambition, just getting in the van and going, actually worked. That gave a lot of musicians hope that they could be heard outside of city limits even if they were from Cincinnati. But, unlike in Seattle, where there were several groups with similar sounds rising simultaneously, the Whigs were too unique to copy to the point where a label might sign a “soundalike” band. It’s what’s great about Cincinnati music — the lack of a unifying sound as a result of artists trying to make their own unique thing.
The Whigs were even involved in starting my career — the very first review of any piece of art I ever wrote was a take on the band’s Congregation album for a features/criticism class I took at the University of Cincinnati. (I remember getting a pretty high grade and thinking, “I got this.”) Once I’d decided I wanted to write about music full-time, I accepted an internship in New York City. Driving over the hills into New York City, the Whigs’ remix of “Miles Iz Ded” called “Rebirth of the Cool” came on some random NY/NJ-area radio station. It made me feel like I was on the right track.
Gradually, I’d meet all of the members out and about, and each had that Midwestern down-to-earthness that it usually takes outsiders to point out.
Well, I’d meet every member except Mr. Dulli. During the peak Whigs years, Dulli seemed especially sensitive to negative press, reportedly calling out (or just calling up) writers who’d say sometimes legit, sometimes stupid things about him or his band. I was a mentally unstable substance abuser who, for reasons I don’t completely remember or understand, added a couple of dumb barbs about the band into my column or elsewhere in CityBeat over the course of a few years. They weren’t especially harsh, save for one aside where I mentioned (jokingly) that a rumor was suggesting Dulli had developed a massive bourbon habit and gained 500 lbs (or something equally outrageous). It was stupid and baseless and, given his family lives in the area and might read it (this was pre-internet-is-everywhere), he had every right to be angered by my youthful idiocy. If you’re reading this, Greg, I apologize. It was another lesson in growing the fuck up, courtesy of The Afghan Whigs.
I came to despise that sort of trashy journalism but, in a cruel twist of fate, baseless gossip websites might just be the only job I’ll be able to get one day given the state of newspapers.
In response to my bad-taste alcoholic/obesity sentence, I received a fax (a fax!) from Dulli’s publicist saying the Greg was challenging me to an AIDS test. I’m still not totally sure why, though I think it was either a comment on my taste in women or my IV drug problem at the time. I was flummoxed. Embarrassed. Ashamed. Confused. Then tickled. “Greg Dulli knows who I am?” (Then ashamed again: “One of my musical heroes hates me.”)
That how much I love Dulli and his musical partners’ output — he might’ve strangled me with his bare hands if we ran into each other at a bar and I would’ve been all, “He touched me!”
Many of Dulli’s more direct peers from the Cincinnati area who were around when the Whigs were coming up don’t seem to have a very positive opinion of the man, but I’ve always taken their shots at him with a grain of salt. There might have been some jealousy or maybe Greg really was an asshole in his mid-20s. I can relate. There are so many stories and legends about Dulli’s personal life and actions during his time in Cincy as the Whigs were taking off, he’s like an urban Rock Star Davy Crocket.
None of it has ever changed how I listen to the Whigs’ music. To this day, when I’ve been in a relationship in turmoil or crumbling apart, I still think to myself, “My life is becoming an Afghan Whigs song again.” And I know there will be some emotional pain and probably a few bad decisions involved, but it’s at least going to be an interesting ride. The one that never ends.
In our local music column Spill It from the CityBeat issue out today, we announced the lineup for this year’s much anticipated MusicNOW festival, which includes a closing-night headlining appearance by Cincinnati-bred Indie music stars The National on May 15.
National guitarist Bryce Dessner is the brains behind MusicNOW, which began in 2006 and has featured unique performances by some of Indie music’s biggest names, as well as up-and-comers and those on the edgier fringe of modern Classical/Chamber music. Dessner’s Avant Chamber group Clogs has played the fest in the past, but this is The National’s first time at MusicNOW.
The Cincinnati Health Department recently released a list of the most popular baby names of 2010. We live in Cincinnati, so there's enough average people to balance out all the Braidans and Jakilynns (read: smooshing two names together or purposely misspelling a name isn't being creative, folks) which means there aren't any big surprises on this list. It just means that in 2020, fourth grade classes everywhere will have Ava S., Ava B. and Ava M. instead of Ashley R., Ashley T. and Ashley O. like when I was a kid.
Besides being mildly interesting, what's the point of a list like this? To point out the least creative parents in the city? To give really dumb preggo people a basis for naming their offspring? Either way, If you're walking around and you hear a little human crying, its name is probably…
The most popular name for baby boys in Cincinnati was a pretty classic one. If names dictate a person's life, these little dudes will grow up to have giant teeth, front a really shitty Hip Hop group or be a general badass sax player:
Or, if that screaming spawn is wearing pink...
Olivia, the #1 baby girl name in Cincinnati, is alright. According to my research (15 seconds on Google), there are a lot of hot hoes by the name, but Olivia Newton John (pre-scary face) is the best of them all. Hopefully these babies will take after her, with a penchant for headbands and first words being "Xanadu."
On their own, the second place names appear to be perfectly normal. Who could have anything mean to say about...
JACOB AND ISABELLA
That's right, fucking Twilight. I can only assume that the increasing amount of teen moms out there are contributing to this fuckery (Thanks a lot, MTV!). There once was a time when I heard the name Jacob and immediately thought of the most perfect man of my John Hughes-inspired dreams...
Isabella is a cute name, too. It has the potential of many 'breves. Izzy. Ella. Sabel? I don't know, but when little Isabella and tiny Jacob have their first kiss on the playground, "Twihards" around the world will feel a sense of glorious satisfaction that I just can't deal with.
The rest of the names are pretty uninteresting, so here's a quick list complete with what people (myself and Google) will probably associate with them:
Obviously because the nearby Creation Museum is building a to-scale (WHAT SCALE?) ark
Would still be cool if it wasn't on this list
Boring interior design
My arch-enemy. Stereotypes are hilarious!
All about the Benjamin...Buttons
Holly Madison, Dolly Madison - They're both full of fake stuff, but probably preserved for all of time.
Go here to read more boring names.
And he's not done yet: Fincher's American version of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is currently in production and has a release date of Dec. 20. How’s that for an early Christmas present?
The accelerated speed of tech developments over the past decade has changed the world in innumerable ways. The impact it has had on music is glaring, completely readjusting how the worldwide music industry operates and affecting everything from the way the sounds are created, recorded and distributed to the way they are experienced by listeners. Cincinnati’s Walk the Moon is currently in the midst of a quick rise in the music world that is a perfect example of how the career plans of aspiring young artists can today play out over an amazingly short period of time. It’s why you might want to catch Walk the Moon’s concert tonight at Oakley’s 20th Century Theater.
The city of Cincinnati is prepared to formally recognize King Records’ place in the city’s cultural history with a historic marker, a partnership with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a King-oriented class or lecture series, a King Records Center on the campus of Xavier University and a prominent role in this year’s Cincinnati Entertainment Awards for Music (CEAs). City Councilman John Cranley, Bootsy Collins and others announced the plans at a news conference this morning at the former King Records site in Evanston.
[See photos from this morning here.]
Cranley read from a motion he introduced to City Council that asks for up to $10,000 in city funds to install a historic marker on the former King Records office/studio in Evanston to be unveiled on Nov. 23, with the remaining funds used to book a former King recording artist to perform at that night’s CEAs. This year is the 65th anniversary of the founding of King Records in Cincinnati.
The Rock Hall of Fame in Cleveland has agreed to construct, donate and maintain the historic marker, and if Cranley’s funding request is granted the Rock Hall president has agreed to attend the marker unveiling and the CEAs. The institution also will work to develop a class or lecture series on King Records at Cincinnati State.
Other newsworthy items from this morning:
• Xavier officials are looking into developing a King Records Center on campus, a history exhibition that also could be a working recording studio for use by students and the public.
• CityBeat Marketing and Promotions Manager Dan McCabe announced that the 12th annual CEAs for music will be the first event held at the reopened Emery Theater in Over-the-Rhine. The CEAs were the final public event at the Emery just before it closed in 1999.
Feather hair extensions are one of the trendiest fashion accessories right now (I say this knowing that Cincy's always a little behind the times on all things stylish). Celebrities from Ke$ha to Steven Tyler to Roseanne Barr have been rockin' the look, which may sound like a deterrent, but now these birdy little weaves are everywhere. Even on dogs.
I'm reviewing another show for next week's issue of CityBeat, but on a few nights ago I saw the final rehearsal of New Edgecliff Theatre's staging of Peter Shaffer's Equus. This is one you'll want to catch, and since this is the opening weekend, now's the time to do so — once this is reviewed by others and the buzz gets going, it will be hard to get tickets for the tiny Columbia Performance Center (3900 Eastern Ave., Columbia-Tusculum).
A Cincinnati outdoor advertising company announced Tuesday that it will take down controversial billboards that opponents claim are aimed at intimidating voters.
Norton Outdoor Advertising had been contracted to put up about 30 billboards that read “Voter Fraud is a Felony!” The billboards also listed the maximum penalty for voter fraud — up to 3 and a half years and a $10,000 fine.
Opponents of the billboards claim they were strategically placed in predominantly low-income and black neighborhoods in Cincinnati as a means to discourage those largely Democratic voters from going to the polls.
The billboards were funded by an anonymous “private family foundation.”
In a statement posted online, Norton Executive Vice President Mike Norton said the displays would be taken down as soon as possible. He wrote that the foundation and Norton agreed after hearing criticism that the sentiment surrounding the displays was contrary to their intended purpose.
The family foundation didn’t intend to make a political statement, but rather make the public aware of voting regulations, he wrote.
“We look forward to helping to heal the divisiveness that has been an unfortunate result of this election year,” Norton wrote.
Norton had previously told CityBeat that the billboards were not targeted but distributed randomly throughout the city.
Several Cincinnati officials wrote to the company requesting the billboards be taken down.
ClearChannel Outdoor Advertising announced on Monday that it was removing similar billboards in Cleveland and Columbus.
The billboards throughout Ohio had garnered national criticism and media attention.
A rival outdoor advertising company is putting up 10 new billboards to rebut the voter fraud ones.
The new red, white and blue billboards will read “Hey Cincinnati, voting is a right not a crime!”
Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld said in an emailed news release that he reached out to Lamar Advertising Company to ask if they would donate the billboards throughout Cincinnati.
“We should be encouraging folks to participate in our democratic process, not trying to scare them,” Sittenfeld wrote. “I salute Lamar’s generosity and their support in encouraging citizens to raise their voice and not be scared away.”
I don’t like Radiohead.
Just like that, my budding career as a music journalist is destroyed by one, four-word sentence. I’m sure the pretentious Pitchfork police are on their way to my house right now to take me away.
I can imagine most of you yelling at me through the monitors on your Mac Book Pros, passing judgment on me through the lenses of your dark-rimmed Woody Allen-esque glasses.
I assure you, I can’t hear a damn thing you’re saying. So just save your breath and read.
I know why people like Radiohead. They are talented musicians who are constantly expanding their sound. Not to mention, Thom Yorke’s (even though he doesn’t know how to spell his name) vocal range goes for miles, making him one of the most impressive singers in Rock & Roll today. They are like the indie rock version of The Beatles, except The Beatles don’t take an eighth of magical mushrooms to appreciate. (Although I’m sure it makes it better, I wouldn’t dare know about such devilish things.)
Upon numerous occasions during my 23 years, I’ve tried desperately to enjoy this band.
At 16, I would peruse through cute “indie” girl’s MySpace pages, listening to “Karma Police” among various other cuts off of OK Computer. I would force-feed my metalhead mind to try and wrap itself around the ambient tones coming from my speakers. No matter how hard I tried (believe me, I tried; I needed something to trick these girls into liking me) it just never stuck.
A few years later, I made my second attempt. In Rainbows had just been released and it was a hot topic of conversation between my more “hip” friends. They would play the record on an endless loop and, eventually, I really did begin to dig it. Then I had a revelation.
While I was driving to work one day, I put the album on and quickly realized that I had never listened to this while I was sober. I mean, I know 2007-2008 had pretty much become a blur of various substances, but as the docile sounds of “House of Cards” rang through my car stereo, I said to myself, “Blake, put down the bottle and get your shit together! Also, take off that ridiculous v-neck shirt and skinny jeans. No one wants to see your Teen Wolf-covered man-boobs or your ‘Basilisk’!” (That’s right, my junk is nicknamed after the giant snake in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets; get over it.)
It was as if the smoke had finally cleared (literally and metaphorically) and I came out of this catatonic state of intoxication a new man. That man just still happened to dislike Radiohead.
My final attempt was no more than four months ago. My lovely girlfriend bought me a record player for my birthday and I decided I would give In Rainbows one more shot.
I had grown up quite a bit since the last time I heard this record. Not only was I knee-deep in my journey to becoming a music journalist, but also I wasn’t totally sloshed all the time either.
Plus, if it doesn’t resonate with me on vinyl, it never will.
This last go-around, however, was a futile one.
I always thought, “Maybe I was just too young to get it?” Or “Maybe, I was just too fucked up to understand?”
But as I put the record on, more questions came up, like “Am I too old to get it?” or “Jesus, what’s that drug dealer’s number again?”
As I racked my mind trying to figure out why I’m the only music journalist who isn’t a part of this worldwide circle-jerk over Radiohead, I finally came up with a simple, yet honest explanation.
Radiohead fans can be broken down into two factions. You’re either a Radiohead guy or a “Creep” guy. I’m obviously a member of the latter group.
“Creep” is the anthem for every broken-hearted loser too cowardly to talk to the girl he dreams about every night. It’s the anthem for every outcast kid that roamed their hallways aimlessly; unable to find their place in the proverbial hell that was high school. It’s the anthem for every overweight, underachieving, late-blooming, weirdo band kid that the band chicks didn’t even want to associate with. It’s pretty much my 7-12 grade experience told in three minutes and 56 seconds.
“Creep” just always spoke to me in a way that no other Radiohead song ever had. It was effortless and truthful, yet, real and depressing. I made a connection with that song, a connection which I tried ever so earnestly to do with the rest of their catalog, but failed miserably.
So to the Radiohead fans out there, keep listening to them.
Do whatever makes you happy, whatever you want. Because truly, you’re so fucking special.
I just wish Radiohead was special, too.
Radiohead then …
Radiohead lately …