“The perfect cv: liquor, pugnacity, political incorrectness, Catholic guilt and incorrigible horndoggery…”
GREG DULLI IS AT PAINS TO POINT OUT THAT HE ISN’T EXACTLY an ex-convict. “I mean,” he smiles, “it wasn’t like Rick McCollum and I worked on the chain-gang or anything.”
Still, the story of Dulli’s first encounter with lead guitarist McCollum in an Ohio holding cell is a key part of the mythology behind his band the Afghan Whigs. “OK, I was whacked on acid, running amok through this college town on Hallowe’en in 1986. I took a swing at a cop and wound up in a paddy wagon with a bunch of other waste cases, one of whom was Rick. We got talking about forming a band and arranged to meet after our morns came to get us out.”
That “moms” part doesn’t quite gel with the picture some people have of Dulli as a crazed hellraiser. But those 12 hours of incarceration were not the best of omens for the Whigs, whose volatile internal chemistry once had them slugging it out onstage in Boston.
The drolly-titled Gentlemen, The Afghan Whigs’ first album for their new American label Elektra, is a collection of searingly intense songs about obsessive love and rampant libido and puts Dulli in the front rank of post-grunge rock ‘n’ roll stars. Which is ironic, considering the band was on Sub Pop for two years.
“We were the first band Sub Pop signed from outside Seattle. They sort of made us grungier than we were, but we were too young and impressionable to stand up to them.”
It was the Whigs’ final Sub Pop release, 1992’s Uptown Avondale EP, that really signalled the band’s move away from flannel-shirted slackerdom. A five-track tribute to the days when a teenage Dulli (pronounced Dooley) crossed the tracks to play basketball with black kids, it consisted of skewered covers of soul songs both renowned (Freda Payne’s ‘Band Of Gold’, The Supremes’ ‘Come See About Me’) and comparatively obscure (Al Green’s ‘Beware’, Percy Sledge’s ‘True Love Travels On A Gravel Road’).
The irresistible frisson of a “grunge” band tackling such material made everyone sit up and take notice. Now Dulli has entered into a Faustian pact with the press as the latest member of the Dionysiac Messiahs club founded by Perry Farrell: you know, the kind of dude who comes on like a major rooster but thinks women are “more powerful” than men – ‘specially black women, naturally. And he’s got the perfect cv to back it up: liquor and drugs, pugnacity and political incorrectness, Catholic guilt mixed with incorrigible horndoggery. One blushing hackette called him “a beautiful sinner”.
One of the standout tracks on Gentlemen is a wasted, Keef-esque version of soul vet Tyrone Davis’s ‘I Keep Coming Back’. It’s not “soul”; it’s not even blue-eyed soul. But just as the Whigs’ readings of Sledge and the Supremes dump from a great height on the Michael Boltons and Phil Collins’s of the world, so their take on Tyrone trashes all those simply awful pretenders to black passion.
“You can achieve so much more by not covering these songs in an obviously ‘soulful’ way,” says Dulli. “To me, it’s about pulling the guts out of them.”
© Barney Hoskyns, MOJO, November 1993