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Greg Dulli was never supposed to be the lead singer in the Afghan Whigs. He was originally the drummer, the stringy-haired dude at the very back--you know, the guy you never notice, never remember when he's replaced three records into the band's career. Guitarist Rick McCollum and bassist John Curley auditioned sundry singers before finally settling on one, a guy Dulli insisted "really sucked," as he tells the story now. Dulli refused to play in a band fronted by that guy and told his pals he would do better to front the band than some other idiot, so he was given the keys to the car and told, Fine, dude, you drive for a while.
That was a little more than a decade ago, not long after Dulli and Curley had played together in a band called Black Republicans in Cincinnati, a group Dulli recalls as having been "maybe one of the worst bands in the history of bands," as it had only five songs and still managed to play two-hour sets. Meaning: songwriting by accident, drinks providing inspiration, sloppy-assed covers till closing time. Dulli fronted Black Republicans, having only recently returned from Los Angeles to Cincinnati. He had dropped out of the University of Cincinnati after only 18 months and, in 1984, gone west to become an actor, then returned to Ohio to take his place on a different kind of stage--maybe not a bigger one, but most certainly a far better one. He didn't need a script, didn't have to play anyone else's part. In front of the audience, he could make shit up, be the drunken wildman--"a freak," as he says now. As in: "I just got to get up there and get loaded and be a freak." And to think, he almost ended up a drummer.
The preceding is significant because Greg Dulli has, over the course of a decade releasing records with the Afghan Whigs, become far more than just that band's lead singer, something bigger than just a mere frontman for a rock-and-roll outfit. He has evolved into something of an icon, the so-called "sex symbol" or "sex god" he's so often described as--affectionately or derisively, depending upon whether or not the writer takes his whole tortured soul-man shtick too seriously (or, for that matter, too lightly). He has become, for better or worse, bigger than the band he fronts, which is why recent issues of almost every music magazine on the rack are littered with references to his recent bout with clinical depression, his self-described fits of masochism, his tortured relationships, the therapy, the pain--all that and beyond. Even the casual rock-and-roll fan who may not own the band's new album, 1965, knows something about Greg Dulli; he is not a stranger, not just some singer.
The Whigs, by accident or design, are now created in his own suffering soul-man image. And Dulli knows this, likes it, maybe even thrives on it. He talks about his fascination with the cult of personality, how he reads books about his favorite singers because he needs to understand who they were in order to appreciate their music. He points to an album like Pete Townshend's All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes as one of his favorites, precisely because it reveals Townshend as a man struggling with his age, even his sexuality; Dulli adores it because it is, by his estimation, an honest record.
"I always wanted the people that I'd listened to or watched or whose books I read or whose paintings or sculptures I looked at to have a personality," he explains. "I wanted them to be a person that I could relate to, you know? If I can't, if I couldn't, I can't relate to their art. I've always been kind of drawn toward that. I'll go back to Roger Waters and Marvin Gaye as being two sides of the same coin--fierce artists, but with tenderness and anger at the same time, you know? I mean, they showed you both sides of the human condition, and that's what I've sort of been striving for, I guess."
Dulli points to the Whigs' third record, 1992's Congregation, as the beginning of the end for him--the end, that is, of his days as being just a guy writing songs for his band to play. Suddenly, the songs--each a throttling blend of funk, rock, and sneer--became about him, or if not him, then this character he was creating: the liar, the scoundrel, the womanizer, the miscreant, the arrogant lover, the sensitive asshole. He couched his revelations in deceit, titling a song "This is My Confession" that buried deep within its grooves a line like, "I'm lying now / I always do." He came on with the subtlety of a rapist ("I know your ass is fine / But I'm the only one who can say / That it's mine") and made little effort to mask the double entendres ("I'm in a hole / But I don't feel the safety net").
Before that, the Whigs were the Sub Pop label's Cincinnati branch, a grunge band whose cut-from-the-mold sound hinted at nothing save an early demise. The band's earliest records--1988's debut Big Top Halloween and 1990's Sub Pop debut Up in It--felt like ordinary records, something bought and played and forgotten about. When played now, they sound downright generic. But Congregation hinted that there was something dark and special beneath the common façade. Suddenly, the Whigs existed as something far bigger, better, and more perverse. They were to be taken seriously; think no less than the Rolling Stones, if they were signed to Stax/Volt--a rock band pretending to be a soul band fronted by the cuddliest misogynist ever to come on to an audience.