by Mike Breen
The Afghan Whigs' music hit me hard in my 20s and hasn't left me since
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
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
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
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
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
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.