Tonite I go to hell
for what I’ve done to you
This ain’t about regret
It’s when I tell the truth” Debonair (Dulli)
Twenty years ago this month, Greg Dulli and the Afghan Whigs dropped their fourth studio album, ‘Gentlemen,’ an album that foraged through the darker realms of a supposed enlightened, modern American male psyche, and sonically mastered the band’s mutant identity of Dinosaur Jr. stomp and Rick James Punk-Funk. To overstand this achievement sonically, you first have to understand that the mutant king presiding–lead singer Greg Dulli– is at heart, a Soul Man. Not strictly ‘lurve’ man et al Barry White or Maxwell, more in the Bobby Womack , D’Angelo vein. Like Rick James, a brotha with a rock ‘n’ roll heart in a vortex of 70’s funk, Dulli is and was a classic soul man residing in rock ‘n’ roll.
I remember buying this album that Indian summer in ’93. I had a bad break-up. It was my first real break-up. It was when I found out, if it’s real, it really hurts. Anyway, one of the things we shared was a great love for the ‘Whigs. Ironically, our relationship started around the release of their second album, and their raw debut on Sub-Pop, ‘Up in it’ (from their first album, 88’s indie ‘Bigtop Halloween’). They evolved up into their second and last album on Sub-Pop, the amazing ‘Celebration’. So I picked up ‘Gentlemen’ (issued on Elektra), as my roommate at the time, feeling great pity for my brooding, pathetic ass, dragged me out to Nantucket.
Frankly, it was the best thing for me–first to get out the city–and second, something about being near water heals me. One day though, I opted out of going to the beach. My buddy’s family front porch had a hammock, a slice of pure heaven to chill in and listen to music. There I popped in the CD, and like that, I was in it ’til the end. ‘Gentlemen’ is one of those moments in life where a piece of art someone puts together far away arrives at the right time in your universe. That period was a time where a lotta of us young American dudes, were expressing ourselves honestly, and yeah, if you stepped too far, you were gonna be challenged by young women of the time–same with issues of race. No one claimed to have the answer, there was no real set agenda, that came later, just before everything fell apart. The art of that era reflected the time, So ‘Fight Club’ was a great accompaniment to an album like ‘Gentlemen’. Navigating modern relationships, trying to control the reptilian mutations in our brains that always cause us trouble, without immediately rendering the modern female bored.
Track one to track five of ‘Gentlemen’ unfolds like a Tarantino movie. Here are the characters, here is what’s going on now, but you don’t know how we got there–that’s what Act Two is for. Opening with ‘If I Were Going’, A soulman’s honest trip through his inner voice.
What should I tell her
she’s going to ask
If I ignore it
it gets uncomfortable
She’ll want to argue about the past
If I were going (If I Were Going)
What Dulli may lack in traditional soulman vocals, he makes up for by baring the essence of his soulfulness in the delivery, and the truthfulness of the lyrics. Equally powerful is the straight up ‘rawk’ of the band’s then line-up. Dulli on throat- rhythm guitar, Rick McCollum on lead guitar, John Curley on bass\ and Steve Earle on drums. Spanning the gamut of contemporary rock ‘n’ roll got its first time to shine on college radio. The album weaves strands of REM guitar runs into Husker Du agit-pop, deconstructs Mudhoney, puts it back together with Jesus Lizard parts, then blends it all down and filters it through Prince and Rick James. From title track ‘Gentlemen’ to ‘Be Sweet’, Debonair exemplifies Whigs version of Punk funk. Macho swagger to burn, but its undercut by a very slight feminine touch, something rock ‘n’ roll kept as it evolved from R&B, but only by true masters. ‘When We Two Parted’, ends Act 1.
Act two begins with the new millennium electric Blues of ‘Fountain and Fairfax’ which drops you in to the grungier Blues of ‘This Must Be What Jail Is Like’. After that is the epic climax of this love story, with guest star Marcy Mays of the band Scrawl. She rolls in as the lone female voice in this rock ‘n’ roll locker room and starts with her swinging vocals on ‘My Curse’. Make no mistake, if you can make your way to the epilogue of this story with the rock tinged r&b of ‘Now You Know’ to the soulful rendition of ‘I Keep Coming Back’, that post-break-up residual “thing” is well depicted. Also ‘Brother Woodrow/Closing prayer’, with it’s Johnny Cash-ish title ends with credits rolling. But you are dead inside if you don’t go back to ‘My Curse’.
All ugly thoughts are gone
I’m sure we’ll all be friends
I’ll try to break your back
You’ll try to make amends (My Curse)
I played it over and over again. Very few times do you actually hear a soul cry during a song, and even fewer times do you feel it. Right then is when the healing started.
So in the Indian Summer of 1993, Greg Dulli and the Afghan Whigs saved my soul. If you’ve never checked it out, do yourself a favor do so. And if this is during a break up, may I take this opportunity to say “you’re welcome.”