When Greg Dulli first went off to college in 1983, he packed two posters to put on his wall there. One was of Aerosmith; the other, Earth, Wind and Fire.
Thirteen years later, it's evident from the music of his band the Afghan Whigs--a judicious blend of hard rock, soul, and the indefinable something that makes a band stand out above the legion of alternarock wannabes who populate the airwaves--that those utterly disparate influences still sum up his attitude towards rock and roll. Despite being a member of one of Sub Pop's flagship grunge bands, Dulli's no indie-underground elitist: He'd rather sing a jazz standard than Mudhoney's anthem, "Touch Me I'm Sick."
Dulli grew up in a small town called Hamilton, Ohio, which is a long way from the Beverly Hills Nikko Hotel, where he sits during a break from shooting the video for "Honky's Ladder" off the new Black Love. Although in pictures Dulli sometimes comes off sort of pudgy and plain, in person he exudes unfiltered charisma. In the past few years, he has shed the fat roadie-for-a-grunge-band exterior that dogged him during the band's formative years and transformed himself by a sheer act of will into a bona fide sex symbol.
Anyone who has followed his career for any length of time can see how the dark-haired, blue-eyed, husky-voiced Dulli was chosen as this month's teen heartthrob in Seventeen magazine--and also the subject of a fanzine called Fat Greg Dulli.
"Punk didn't make it to my town," he recalls now, sipping on Burgundy and listening to John Coltrane and puffing on his ever-present cigarette. "When I was in high school, I would go to just about any concert that came to town just because it was something to do! I think I saw Judas Priest five times. I saw Ted Nugent a couple of times, Aerosmith a bunch, saw AC/DC...
"But when I moved up to Cincinnati, I caught up real quick. Within my first month of living there, I saw the Damned, HYsker DY, and the Vibrators. Then I saw the Violent Femmes, the Replacements, Johnny Thunders, Big Black, the Ramones, you name it."
At the time, Dulli was attending college at the University of Cincinnati. He dropped out after a year and a half, moving to L.A. to try to become an actor; he failed and promptly moved back to Cincinnati. Upon his return, he formed a band called the Black Republicans.
"We were baaad," Dulli says now. "I mean, really bad. Some of the things we'd do to pass off as songs would be like, the 'Hail Mary' done to the tune of 'Goo Goo Muck' by the Cramps. An hourlong version of 'The End.' And we'd do a lot of Who covers and Pogues covers."
In short, the Black Republicans sounded not unlike the Afghan Whigs on a weird night--like the night, near the end of the last tour, when the band played an entire set at a club in Sacramento, California, in front of 90 people that included covers from N.W.A. ("Straight Outta Compton"), New Order ("Regrets"), as well as almost all of the Rolling Stone's Let It Bleed.
The whole silly exercise was meant partly in answer to a challenge by openers Red Kross, and partly as a caustic joke on the audience; some kept yelling for the Whigs' own song, "Debonair." "And, of course, when you yell that," Dulli says, "you better realize if you're here only to hear that, have I got a surprise for you!"
The next night, the Whigs played a mind-blowing set entirely made up of originals at the Fillmore in San Francisco. But it's incidents like that in Sacramento that explain why Dulli's sometimes denigrated by the underground as pretentious, arrogant, and cantankerous. But there is an equal number of (mostly female) fans who interpret said actions as the last word in sexiness. And "sexy" hasn't been something too prevalent in the punk, grunge, or alternarock worlds for the past decade or so. In fact, "sexy" is something of a disadvantage in the world of white rock.
Perhaps that's one reason the Whigs have had trouble breaking through the glass ceiling of grunge in the past few years. Despite 1994's masterpiece Gentlemen and the high profile Dulli achieved as the voice of John Lennon in the film Backbeat, the Whigs are still a fairly unknown presence on radio and MTV: Apparently, the noise addicts who have thus far formed the Whigs' natural fan base have little interest in the complex workings of the heart, which is what Dulli deals with on such albums as Gentlemen and this year's offering, Black Love.
"Greg is a walking, talking, thinking human being, with the emphasis on the cognitive aspect," says Sub Pop president Jonathan Poneman, who discovered and signed the Whigs to his label in 1989. "It's not that other musicians aren't, but [in other bands] I never sensed such a real soulfulness or need. There's like this honesty and reverence and legitimacy to their [music] which has made me respect them to this day. The Whigs rock out, but they also have something to say. Not that [our] other bands don't, but with the Whigs, that's the foremost thing you'll notice."
Also, unlike most of the other bands on Sub Pop, whose canon of influences consists of the MC5 and the Stooges--period--the Whigs draw on a far-broader palette for their sound, particularly such R&B and soul artists as the Isley Brothers, Al Green, Solomon Burke, Smokey Robinson, and Wilson Pickett.
Live, the band often covers the Supremes, Prince, and, lately, TLC, rather than the usual indie-rock fake-bookery of Abba, T. Rex, or some television theme songs. Poneman signed them after hearing a set that included what he recalls as a "blistering" version of Sinead O'Connor's "Mandinka."
The Whigs were the first out-of-state band to be picked up by Seattle's Sub Pop (the Fluid were only licensed), and as such, their signing to the label was one of Sub Pop's defining moments, signifying the start of a much broader evolution. They represented the first shift in the paradigm there--the instant when it became clear the sound that would later be called grunge was not simply a small, community-oriented set of rock-and-roll preferences, but something that existed independently and needed to be nurtured.
Says Poneman now, laughingly, "There was a moment when we thought--jokingly, of course--that we would create the world in the image of Seattle, and that Cincinnati would be our first grunge franchise."
It didn't quite work out that way, of course: Instead, the whole world became a grunge franchise. But the Whigs' 1990 Sub Pop debut Up In It--they put out a previous LP, Big Top Halloween, on their own Ultrasuede label--was the first indication grunge could be created in a vacuum (i.e., Cincinnati) by four isolated 20-year-olds just as potently as if it were manufactured by a whole slew of Mark Arms. The Whigs' Congregation, released in 1991, solidified that notion.
In 1992, after Nirvana had cleared the way for any band with loud guitars to sign to a major label, the Whigs hooked up with Elektra Records. But unlike so many of their peers and colleagues of that era, whose best work was in their early indie years, the Whigs have shown undeniable growth, particularly on the 1993 major debut Gentlemen--a remarkable and haunting album that both explored and expiated some of the violent impulses underlying American life.
Black Love is not a sonic departure from Gentlemen, but it contains a much less bleak vision. Gentlemen was a record about a dysfunctional relationship, and the horror of men at their worst. But Black Love is a record about personal responsibility, about a man who can't decide whether to lie or tell the truth. Over and over again, on "Crime Scene Pt. I" and "Blame, Etc.," Dulli repeats the same question: "A lie...the truth...which one should I use?"
The record also asks if the lie succeeds, whether the person who utters it is then free from its implications. "And of course the answer is, 'No, you're not,'" Dulli says, laughing. "And the whole record is about O.J.!"
"Seriously," he adds, "the whole lie-truth thing came from this sort of 'secret' fixation I went on for a while--what has everybody got to hide, what have I got to hide, what have you got to hide--and the lengths people will go to protect their secrets, however big or small they are. To me, it's the basis of everything. It really, truly is. Wars are started, people are murdered, and it's all to, like, basically get laid.
"That's what I write about. That's what's fascinating to me--about people, and within myself. When you see somebody who appears to be a happy family and you find out they're not--the husband's fucking the lady down the street--everybody's shocked. Well, I'm not shocked.
"But I think I've been pigeonholed a little bit as some kind of angst merchant, and I disagree with that perception of me. It's not that I'm insincere, it's just that I'm probably a bit cynical. And part of that is maybe a shield, and I think this time I let that slip down a little bit. I thought the last LP was vulnerable, but this one is a bit more so."
Poneman points out that although Dulli is often mistaken for the protagonist of his songs, he really is a witness.
"I think of myself as an entertainer," Dulli offers in agreement. "When we go out to play, I'm definitely me, but I'm an amped-up version of me. I'm not a character or anything like that, but I infuse the parts of my personality that are most attuned to being on stage, and I kind of inflate them a little bit. Because when I go to see shows, no matter what it is--opera, or a punk-rock bar, or an R&B club--I want to see that performer, you know? Nail me to them."
Dulli has, himself, nailed a number of people to him (and to the Whigs) over the years. But the Whigs still have a problem because their subject matter is too difficult for mainstream radio. Dulli's lyrics are too complex for teen-agers, and his band's music is too hard and challenging for more grownup listeners.
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In this day of narrow-casting--radio formatting aimed specifically at certain demographics--the band's extreme diversity of influences may also harm it. "You know, I remember, in my little town," Dulli recalls, "on the radio in the '70s you would hear Marvin Gaye, you would hear Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Al Green, even Patti Smith.
"But radio has became its parents. It became what it rebelled again. It's disgusting, execrable. I can't listen to it. It's not targeted at me. These days, you're never gonna hear Prince and then, say, Rancid, and then Enya or Hootie or whoever. And who knows? Hootie might be more palatable heard next to Prince and Enya. Bad Company didn't sound so bad coming out of 'Kashmir.'
"It's not like we're some alien band, but we are kind of unto ourselves," Dulli says of the Whigs, offering no excuses but perhaps an explanation. "I'm so proud of our group, because of our singularity, but it could fuck us in the end. Who knows? All we can do is continue to go out and make records that we are proud of."
The Afghan Whigs perform May 21 at Trees. Howlin' Maggie opens.