He stole the soul

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."

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Gina Arnold