Bombast: The Afghan Whigs
I got the Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen and Nirvana’s In Utero in the mail on the same day, one of those BMG or Columbia House eight-CDs-for-a-penny deals. This would’ve been in the fall of 1993, when I was 12 years old, pubescent, and particularly susceptible to the sway of pop music as one perhaps can never be again. Everyone’s heard of the latter band, but for those who don’t know the former, a bit of context. The Whigs were former label-mates of Nirvana’s at Seattle’s Sub Pop Records—they are often cited as the first band outside of the Pacific Northwest to be signed there, but this honor belongs to Denver’s Fluid. They were out of Cincinnati, Ohio, my own hometown, and the possibility that anything interesting might be going on where I lived was reason enough to pique my interest.*
Gentlemen and In Utero were both important albums for me as a kid, though in the last decade I’ve almost never had occasion to revisit In Utero, while Gentlemen has been in nearly constant rotation. This is attributable to more than just the plain fact that Kurt Cobain’s addiction had begun to erode his musical gifts by the time that the band went to the studio for In Utero. There was also a basic attitudinal difference. Like many of my generational coevals, I felt a little bitter and left in the lurch when Kurt decided to French-kiss a shotgun. In high school, a good friend recorded a whingy-sounding cover of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” that broke off midway with the original lyrics “I don’t care that Kurt Cobain is dead / He sucked a fat dick he used heroin…” Nirvana were great and all, but Kurt’s boundless self-pity and masochism didn’t offer a particularly workable formula for getting through day-to-day life. (I suppose this explains my inordinate fondness for “Drain You,” one of the few occasions where Kurt plays the vampire himself, rather than offering up his neck.) The Whigs, however, had a rugged survivalist streak, even if this betrayed another sort of paranoiac, trust-averse neurosis. The credo could be boiled down to a lyric in “Conjure Me”: “I’m gonna turn on you before you turn on me.”
We’ve just commemorated the 20th anniversary of Cobain’s death with hideous statuary and sententious testimony from vintage MTV talking heads. Meanwhile, in these last 20 years, Whigs front man Greg Dulli has been on the grind, recording under the auspices of the Twilight Singers and Gutter Twins (with Mark Lanegan, formerly of Screaming Trees) after the Whigs officially split in 2001. The core lineup of Dulli, bassist John Curley, and guitarist Rick McCollum would reunite in 2006 to write two new songs complementing a Rhino greatest hits album called, aptly, Unbreakable. Dulli denied this was tantamount to a reunion, repeatedly likening getting back together with a broken-up band to “shacking up with your ex-girlfriend,” but in December of 2011 he did exactly that, and the Whigs announced a handful of makeup-sex live dates. And then Tuesday before last, for the first time since 1998, Dulli released the first album of new music under the imprimatur of the Whigs in 16 years, called Do to the Beast. (Due to alluded-to personal problems, McCollum is sadly missing from this incarnation.)
As “painterly” is one of the most vague and frequently misapplied cross-medium adjectives applied to cinema, so it is with “cinematic” and music. Dulli’s projects, however, have always pleaded the comparison—beginning with the Whigs’ 1994 Uptown Avondale EP, he’s used the phrase “shot on location” in liner notes to designate where the album was recorded. Speaking about this in Bob Gendron’s book about Gentlemen for the 33 1/3 series, Dulli says “I began to see everything in a cinematic way where I’m telling a story, whether it’s abstract or linear, it’s a personal statement of cinema vérité,” tracing the tendency to his stint in film school in Cincinnati. Dulli described the experience thus in a 1996 interview with Guitar World magazine:
“The great thing about it was meeting my first roommate there. He was six years older than me and in grad school. It turned out that they had different film schools there, an artsy one and a more conventional one.** I fortuitously moved in with this guy who was making the craziest, most violent, and sexually deviant films I’d ever seen. He completely won over my 18-year-old brain, and pretty soon I was bringing my own sick films to class—people getting assassinated and stuff like that. The dean had a little talk with me, and we both decided that it would be better if I didn’t come back the following year. I was grossing people out, and all I wanted to do was impress my roommate who’s been booted out of film school for doing the same thing. Spike Lee also got booted from the NYU film school, and he’s made some great movies. In my case, I moved to California. I decided that if I was going to be a great director I had to understand actors. And to understand actors, I’d have to become one. I spent a year there, during which I decided to play guitar and be in a band.”
Dulli, like any good front man, never dropped the acting: “I get to dress up and play the assassin again,” he sings in “When We Two Parted,” and time and again, Dulli would typecast himself as the heavy in first-person narratives of dysfunctional, mutually destructive, invidious love. (I am sure the list of film school dropouts-turned-rock stars goes beyond Dulli and Jim Morrison, but I am presently at a loss.)
Before this bit of self-invention, Dulli was a Catholic boy growing up well north of Cincinnati, in Hamilton, Ohio—also the birthplace of chanteur/cinephile Scott Walker of the Walker Brothers, who has had a career-long engagement with the films of Ingmar Bergman. Dulli’s father was an employee of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and his mother put her earnings from a department-store lingerie counter right into the latest from Motown—the primal combination of lace and wax goes a long way towards explaining Dulli’s later musical output. Of Dulli’s key cinematic influences, we know that he claims to have seen Purple Rain five times the week it came out, and that he can quote Brian De Palma’s Scarface chapter and verse. (The use of the word “hassa” in the Whigs song “Retarded” is a homage.)
The world is yours! The Whigs, after years of paying their dues, were signed to Elektra in the Nevermind aftermath, when panicked A&R men were frantically signing bands for dollar amounts that most of the artists could scarcely hope to recoup given their realistic commercial possibilities. (The textbook example is Interscope Records’ million-dollar advance to Helmet.) This carte blanche environment explains the clause that the Whigs were able to wrangle in their own sweetheart contract, in which Elektra was allegedly called to put up money for a feature-length Dulli-directed film. (I say “allegedly” because Dulli, in interviews, is a chronic bullshitter.)
Dulli referred often enough to his holding the rights to Spoken in Darkness: Small-Town Murder and a Friendship Beyond Death—a 1993 novel by Ann Imbrie which, in synopsis at least, sounds awfully Twin Peaks-ish—that it seems very likely to be true. Various sources have him developing the project along with music-video director Mark Pellington and buddy Ted Demme, nephew of Jonathan and creator of Yo! MTV Raps. Dulli and Demme also report “collaborating on a long-form music video of two of the Whigs’ new songs,” which Demme described as “a short movie à la Sympathy for the Devil.” Neither short nor film ever materialized, though in Demme’s 1996 Beautiful Girls, Dulli and the Whigs do appear as a bar band covering Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe.” Generally, Dulli’s film work has been piecemeal, including a small appearance in Demme’s Monument Ave. and contributing his soul-shriek to the “supergroup” assembled to record the soundtrack for the otherwise unremarkable 1994 Beatles biopic Backbeat, providing the angsty, guttural Lennon parts. Demme’s death in 2002 at age 38 effectively put the kibosh on any future collaboration, though his widow, Amanda, took the photograph that’s on the cover of Do to the Beast.
The video for “Algiers,” the leadoff single from Do to the Beast, is unlikely to gain the band auteur status. It has Dulli, in Texas oil millionaire chic, being chauffeured across a desert landscape in a white limousine to arrive in a wide-open Wild West town. (“I thought of the movie High Plains Drifter, and we sort of adapted it to the music,” Dulli says in a recent interview). It’s a very good song and a very bad video, somewhere between Bon Jovi Young Guns soundtrack territory and Sublime’s “Santeria.” The most hysterical moment has Dulli being slapped in the dewlaps by some strumpet he’s evidently done wrong, before he uncorks a bottle of whiskey with his teeth and takes a slug. And yet, and yet—I don’t think my affection for Dulli and the Whigs can be separated from the entire lack of self-censorship which made him think, yeah, I can pull this off, this is a great idea.
The Whigs have been cranking out videos for 25 years and, given their pedigree, they are something of an anomaly in this. There are very few classic or even competent music videos representing the major bands of the post-punk/college rock/“Left of the Dial” moment that preceded the Nirvana watershed. Part of this was imposed by finances; part of it by photogenic facts; part of it by ethics. Defined by their opposition to the flash and artifice of an MTV culture that they were all but completely excluded from, most of these bands weren’t especially big on videos, making them, if at all, under duress. A classic move was the anti-music video video: the Pixies’ contemptuous “O”-mouthed lip-synching in the “Here Comes Your Man” video and their live-sound one-take shoot for their cover of The Jesus & Mary Chain’s “Head On”, given surprising dynamism through being fractured into a dozen stacked screens. Perhaps the highest achievement of the mock-video form is the video for Superchunk’s 1997 “Watery Hands”, in which the band are victimized by two over-ambitious, pretentious directors, played by Janeane Garofalo and David Cross.
The Whigs dressed like a lounge act rather than gas station attendants, and from back in their Sub Pop days they had no compunctions about doing videos—even throwing in the requisite dancing girls in the 1994 “Come See About Me”, a magisterially glum, minor key cover of the 1964 Holland-Dozier-Holland song that was popularized by the Supremes, in which the Whigs play a go-go bar band, and Dulli also appears as a soused, lovelorn patron—at once exploiter and victim.
None of the videos that the Whigs appeared in are, in their own right, what you would call great short films. Music videos in general are a subservient art form, a supplement to the personality that the musicians are showcasing or, if you prefer, advertising—in this regard they resemble LP sleeve art.*** Musicians, even those who are dedicated to playing the fame game, very often regard videos as a necessary evil, an inconvenience, or an outright waste of time: I would point to this compilation of “audio highlights” from Noel Gallagher’s commentary track to a collection of Oasis’s singles as Exhibit A. But they nevertheless make an interesting vantage point through which to view the career of a group, and the times in which they lived and played.
The fine “Come See About Me” video, as well as the unfortunate new “Algiers,” are both the work of one Phil Harder, who has been working with the Whigs since they shot the video for 1989’s “Sister Brother”. Harder is himself a rock scene vet, formerly the second guitarist for Breaking Circus, a Minneapolis band who released a full-length and a couple of EPs on Homestead Records in the mid-Eighties. Harder cut his teeth as a videomaker on a handful of clips for Breaking Circus, as well as early works by Big Black and Rapeman, the projects of one Steve Albini, who produced the first LP by Harder’s new group, Big Trouble House. (The ginger front man visible in his video for “Union Feed Grain Mill”.) More recently, Harder has been shopping around his Low Movie (How to Quit Smoking), a feature compiled from 20 years of footage of the Duluth band.
To return to Harder’s work with the Whigs: the “Sister Brother” video, a collision of Soul Man and Genet’s The Blacks, has the band playing on a stage at some kind of loft theater performance in which a white man wearing blackface greasepaint courts and beds a black woman. She rubs off his makeup in the throes of passion, and so discovers his true identity. A domestic row ensues, in the course of which he throws her on the bed and starts throttling her. The audience becomes alarmed, and a man in the front row jumps onstage to clobber the actor. The actress then pops up, evidently unharmed, to take a bow for the applauding audience, while the actor remains unseen on the floor, evidently having been actually hurt, perhaps fatally. (His assailant leans over him, still clapping.)
“Sister Brother” was the B-side to the single for “Retarded,” off of the 1990 album Up in It, whose “You My Flower” also produced a video. It’s formula stuff, cross-cutting footage of the band “playing” live with conceptual illustrations of the song—in this case, Dulli’s big, sweaty noggin slapped in the middle of a bouquet, impressionistic smears of a forest canopy, and a model fondling a butcher knife that might be labeled Castration Anxiety. (The song contains one of the better bitter kiss-offs in the band’s discography: “So what you made me smile?/ I had smiled at lesser things before I ever thought of you.”) It’s unclear who directed “You My Flower,” but it seems a safe guess that it was Harder, who is credited with all of the surprising three music videos the Whigs made for 1992’s Congregation, the group’s last full-length for Sub Pop prior to Do to the Beast. (Nirvana, by contrast, made one music video total before “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” for a pre-Nevermind version of “In Bloom.”)
Certainly the most memorable of the Congregation videos is that for “Conjure Me,” which has Dulli, wearing what initially appears to be a billowing Vampire Lestat–type blouse, but is actually a crumpled bedsheet, addressing the viewer from over the shoulder of a woman whose bare back is turned to the camera, who happens to be straddling him. It’s impossible to imagine any other figure associated with the “grunge” tag—Cobain or Chris Cornell or Mark Arm, or even bandwagon-jumper nothings like Eddie Vedder or Scott Weiland—doing something that so closely skirts the R&B parody of a Three Times One Minus One video. That “Conjure Me” never had a Beavis and Butt-head appearance seems a tremendous wasted opportunity.
The other Congregation videos are “Turn on the Water”—pretty literal-minded, with lots of splashing H2O and a pale Dulli, with wax-red lips and black pajamas, looking more like Robert Smith than he ever did before or after—and “Miles iz Ded”, which kicks off with some snazzy black-and-white heroin cooking and shooting up, then moves to a back-and-forth lateral pan along a line of bathroom stalls in which can be seen isolated vignettes of suicide, frantic sex, addiction and withdrawal. There’s also some unfortunate material involving a dancing chicken and a dude in a Cat in the Hat chapeau, of which the less said the better. I hope the drugs were good, at least.
Congregation was released only a few months after Nevermind, and the stakes had changed for Elektra and Gentlemen. Some evident money was put behind rolling out the band for a wider public, and the spot for the album’s leadoff single, the title track, was a polished piece of work directed by Rocky Schenck, whose later work includes two notable videos for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads album. (For their brooding first-person lyrical content and swaggering personas, Cave and Dulli are sometimes compared. One vital difference is that Cave actually went on to make his bad movies.) The “Gentlemen” video has Dulli in full-on scoptophiliac mode, looking out the window onto scenes of domestic discordance, parental persecution, and tacit exhibitionism, with face near enough the glass to fog it with his breath. (Dulli’s restraining order-worthy self-presentation is very much intact in Do to the Beast’s opener, “Parked Outside.”) This is intercut with Dulli strutting through a breathtakingly tacky Venetian palazzo-style manor, wearing one of those leather bouncer coats, and getting caught up in a grope-grapple with an Erotic Thriller femme fatale before busting up the place. (He also occasionally morphs into a big black guy and an old white dude, for reasons that are beyond me.)
The “Gentlemen” video was done one better by that for follow-up single “Debonair”, which is variously attributed to Dulli and Harder, which may be the work of some combination thereof, and which is the most perfect expression of the Whigs aesthetic. In it, Dulli has grown a goatee, seemingly to increase his resemblance to Pete Nice from 3rd Bass when wearing an ice cream man suit that I can only presume was purchased from House of Adam on Vine Street. The lateral tracking shot from “Miles iz Ded” is again the signature camera movement, passing ranch-style houses and yard sales and kiddie pools and a Friday-night balls-out shirts-off teenaged donnybrook/tailgate make-out orgy in the parking lot of a bowling alley—all scenes which Dulli presides over as imperious non-participant. The bowling alley, Columbia Lanes, is on Pyramid Hill Boulevard in Hamilton, meaning that Dulli was shooting on his home turf. At one point he is seen in a wood-paneled rec room with doilies on the coffee table, sitting on a sofa between two senior citizens dressed up in Run DMC black leather. (They’re Gentlemen-era Whigs drummer Steve Earle’s parents.) It’s all pretty heavy on the Fischl/Lynch Weird Americana aesthetic that was inextricable from the flyover-country grunge boom, but does manage to convey something essential about the group’s white trash/ R&B pedigree.****
It’s been noted that, after the initial major-label feeding frenzy had subsided, the Whigs were one of the few acquisitions who managed to survive and, creatively at least, thrive at their new home. Their post–Sub Pop trilogy—Gentlemen, Black Love (96), and 1965 (98)—exhibit a logical creative progression, as Gentlemen’s blunt force attack cools into a prowling stalk-and-pounce malevolence. The cover of Black Love is pure noir, while sonically—and cinematically—one of the main influences is blaxploitation, with Dulli considerably upping the presence of brass and Mellotron keyboard on each album. This is accompanied by McCollum’s slide guitar playing, which tends to provide the soundtrack to redemption, as the Mellotron does the uptown allure of sin.
As in contemporary work by Quentin Tarantino and in Cave’s playing at Stagerlee, Dulli’s notion of “badness” is an essentially African-American one: see, for example, the “Got you where I want you, motherfucker/I got five up on your dime” that opens “Honky’s Ladder,” the leadoff single from 1996’s Black Love, which might’ve been cribbed from Big L. The video was shot by Samuel Beyer, who got the calling card of all time with his video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and who was a key figure in squiring “grunge” into more radio-friendly Alternative, being culpable for videos by Candlebox, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Blind Melon. (More recently, he directed the 2010 “reboot” of A Nightmare on Elm Street.) It features Dulli, in black feather boa, presiding at the pulpit before a mixed-race congregation of pimps, addicts, and Mardi Gras castoffs at some manner of Pentecostal-Voodoo church, is lousy with Fincherian flash-frames and focus-lurches, and is without a doubt one occasion where this band who have balanced on the ridiculous-sublime tightrope with remarkable consistency fail wholly to walk the line.
There was one other video from Black Love, for the rave-up “Going to Town”. Dulli and Demme are credited as co-directors, seemingly working on a shoestring after “Honky’s Ladder” had failed entirely to move units. It’s pretty standard stuff, with Dulli & Co. playing before a primary colored background, Dulli frugging around in a gelled spotlight, and everything cross-dissolved with some silhouetted writhing dancers. Since the resignation of president Bob Krasnow, who’d signed the Whigs to that sweetheart deal, the band had been unhappy at Elektra, and they jumped ship to Columbia for 1965, up until recently their swansong. By then the Whigs’s lack of commercial viability had been all but proven, and the only video was a somewhat perfunctory job for leadoff track “Something Hot”, by one Banks Tarver, which makes good use of a peephole/glory hole perspective.
If nothing else, “Going to Town” and “Something Hot” are fine showcases for Dulli’s King of Sex arsenal of front-man moves. Throughout the Whigs videography, one thing that’s evident is the fact that Dulli has not an ounce of self-consciousness. He smokes cigarettes with the ginger delectation of a movie Nazi, and his public image carries more than a smidgen of the zoot-suited cartoon wolf about it. It’s a matter of putting across a seemingly untenable persona through sheer force of mojo—much the same phenomenon which accounts for the current success of Future Islands. Dulli’s unabashedness, the off-putting neediness with which he croons “Do you think I’m beautiful?” on Black Love’s “Crime Scene Part One,” along with the unrelenting nastiness of much of the music he writes, makes the Whigs and other Dulli-associated acts pretty much take-it-or-leave it propositions. To use a popular gripe by film and television reviewers, they are not what you would call “likable characters.” (Recall how the interpreter of jealous malice in “Sister Brother” winds up getting clobbered for his transgression.) There was, at the height of the band’s fame, a playground taunt zine called Fat Greg Dulli, which has been cited several thousand more times than it has actually been seen by human eyes. I well recall Tom Scharpling on the lamented The Best Show on WFMU, during a phone interview with Albini: “Did you ever record the Afghan Whigs? The first thing I’d do is turn that dude’s voice all the way down in the mix.”
This isn’t the only touchy aspect of the Whigs discography. It is impossible to exaggerate the free-floating racial animus in the Cincinnati of my boyhood—the photograph that graces the back cover of Up in It, in which a black girl poses standoffishly next to a graffiti reading “FUCK YOU,” speaks volumes. Dulli is very much a product of this environment, and has a profound involvement with the topics of race and cultural miscegenation, himself embodying what, in my bygone youth, was referred to as “wigger”-dom. (You can probably figure out the etymology; the first part is “white.”) Even before the Whigs, Dulli fronted a band called The Black Republicans. The “Sister Brother” video, with its blackface affair, anticipates the cover of Congregation, in which a dark-skinned, nude black woman, sitting on a red blanket, cradles a squalling white baby. (This might be taken as Dulli’s self-created origin myth, but closer inspection proves that the baby is a girl.) In “Come See About Me” a black go-go dancer is prodded with money by an all-white crowd, seen in lurid POV—though she seems to be visibly enjoying herself, a point a more P.C. reading wouldn’t concede. Before the blight of nu metal, Dulli was engaging with hip-hop in a smart, playful way, quoting Nas’s “Sleep is the cousin of death” on 1965 track “Omerta”—though in his covetous rages, lacerating self-recriminations, and insecurities-worn-on-his-sleeve style, I’d say he has a closer kinship to Ghostface. As with his insoluble personal dilemmas, Dulli shoves his racial hang-ups right out front, in a way that they most assuredly are not emphasized in, say, Sky Ferreira’s Compton-set new video for “I Blame Myself” or Avril Lavigne’s Japan-shot “Hello Kitty”, both of which have been catching cultural safari flak in social media feed in recent weeks.***** The optimistic line is that these younger performers don’t have any hang-ups to put out front, but is that, precisely, progress? It’s whitey, after all, who has nothing but guilt feelings to lose with the implementation of the post-racial myth.
The burly, bullying Do to the Beast, whose existence owes much to a South by Southwest collaboration with Usher, is an album that’s thorny with hang-ups—that is to say, it’s an Afghan Whigs album. With tracks titled “It Kills” and “Lost in the Woods” it’s as sex positive as a giallo, and is without doubt my Movie of the Moment.
* In the fallout of Nevermind breaking huge, a major label land-rush began to stake a claim on a “next Nirvana,” and to find the “next Seattle,” and for a hot second between The Breeders Last Splash and Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand, even southwestern Ohio was a viable candidate. (Ass Ponys were on A&M! People cared about Brainiac!)
*** The Whigs have at least one masterpiece in this medium, the sleeve for Gentlemen, which uses preadolescent actors to riff on Nan Goldin’s photograph Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City, which itself graces the cover of her The Ballad of Sexual Dependency—a suitable subtitle for the Whigs career.
**** Harder’s wiki videography makes mention of a video for “My Curse,” the one song on Gentlemen where Dulli cedes the mic to a guest vocalist, Marcy Mays from the Columbus, Ohio band Scrawl, but it’s nowhere to be seen on the Internet. (In lieu of that, here is Mays performing “My Curse” for a crowd of seeming billions at the ’94 Reading Fest.)