The Beast Inside: The Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen

AMID THE SLEW of so-called ‘grunge’ acts that emerged in the early ‘90s, Cincinnati rockers The Afghan Whigs stood out for their soul influences and the murky areas of the male psyche probed by songwriter and lead singer Greg Dulli. They distinguished themselves in 1992 with their final release for Sub Pop, the Uptown, Avondale EP, featuring brooding readings of classic soul numbers.

The following year they issued their third album proper, Gentlemen. It was an artistic and a critical triumph, and should have been the one to bring them wider public recognition. Sadly, the Whigs never broke and eventually split in 2001, but Gentlemen remains a pinnacle of ‘90s rock, one of the decade’s best kept secrets.

“On her way to work one morning/down the path alongside the lake/a tender-hearted woman/saw a poor half-frozen snake.” ‘The Snake’ (Brown)

“Let me in, I’m cold.” ‘Gentlemen’ (Dulli)

In R&B classic ‘The Snake’, popularised by Al Wilson (and based on Aesop’s fable of the scorpion and the frog) a woman finds the serpent of the title nearly frozen to death. It pleads with her “Take me in, oh tender woman”, which she does, gradually nursing it back to health. One day she returns home and the snake, now fully recovered, bites her. The woman is shocked, unable to comprehend the treachery. The reptile replies (with a grin): “Shut up, silly woman! You knew damn well I was a snake before you let me in.”

On Gentlemen, the Afghan Whigs are essentially retelling this classic fable/story, with Greg Dulli in the starring role as the rascally beast. Of course in Al Wilson’s version, the snake is a thinly-veiled representation of heartless manhood. In Dulli’s world, it’s the snake that is hiding just beneath a courteous gentlemanly exterior. This image of the beast within rears its head in the album’s overture ‘If I Were Going’: “It don’t bleed, and it don’t breathe/ It’s locked its jaws and now it’s swallowing.”

These same lines recur in ‘Debonair’, which also adds “And once again the monster speaks/ Reveals his face and searches for release.”

As politeness dictates, introductions are dealt with early on. “I’m a gentle man” is the refrain of the album’s title track, more like a threat than an assurance, and then on ‘Be Sweet’, Dulli lets the ladies have it with a full-on charm offensive: “Ladies, let me tell you about myself/ I got a dick for a brain, and my brain is gonna sell my ass to you.” Nobody would buy that surely? Well, some poor sap does, and she’s clearly not the first. A past love: “She kept giving me more, but it wasn’t enough.”

All of this is beautifully character-acted, and as the album progresses Dulli works through a range of relationship struggles. On ‘What Jail Is Like’ he’s claustrophobic, a trapped animal, while on ‘Fountain And Fairfax’ he’s a drunk who’s cleaned up his act for the woman in his life but finds he only resents his partner and hates himself even more. Here, he delivers a particularly unsettling vocal performance, virtually gargling and foaming at the mouth – “I’m really slobbering now!” he growls at one stage.

Dulli’s character is also abusive, certainly in the emotional sense. Actual physical harm is never mentioned, but songs like ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Fountain and Fairfax’ definitely feel violent. There is a risk here – that the physical pleasure given by the music (the barrelling riff that opens ‘Gentlemen’ is exhilarating) might be mixed up with enjoyment of the cruelty meted out by Dulli’s characters. In a way, this is perhaps apt, and poses uncomfortable questions. Can you deny having felt the pleasure of succumbing to cruel or angry instincts? Have you ever relished having power over someone? (The answer’s between you and your conscience, mate.)

But the violence, emotional or otherwise, is hardly glamorised. The music (not as rich and sensual as later Afghans stuff) walks the line between beauty and descriptive, in-character ugliness. ‘Fountain and Fairfax’, in spite of its soaring mid-section, is founded on a riff that reeks of reptilian malice, while the guitars in the chorus seem to literally heave and wretch. Any empathy is adequately set off against real disgust.

Which brings us back to the age-old imponderable – why do these women go for the bastard? Are they asking for it? The album avoids offering neat conclusions, but it does succeed in uncovering areas that most pop writers prefer to leave unexplored. ‘My Curse’ masterfully flips the point of view to let us hear things from the female perspective. Scrawl singer Marcy Mays’ pained but dignified performance describes the push and pull between the partners, the shifts of power, the defiance and the hoping for something better: “I’ll try to break your back/You’ll try to make amends/Curse softly to me baby/ And smother me in your love/Temptation comes not from hell/But from above.”

The thorny heart of the question is dealt with on ‘Since We Two Parted’- a woozy, crawling ballad that describes an almost symbiotic relationship between the abuser and the abused. Intriguingly, it appears to lift a couple of references from an Angela Carter story, ‘The Bloody Chamber’. Carter’s “I clung to him as though only the one who had inflicted the pain could comfort me for suffering it” translates (in a more ‘rock’ vernacular) as “If I inflict the pain then baby only I can comfort you.”

The title of a Gaugin painting, Out of the Night We Come, Into the Night We Go, mentioned in the story also features in the closing lines of the Whigs’ song.

In Carter’s story, a young girl becomes one in a long line to marry a cruel Marquis and live with him in his castle. Using a key that her husband has forbidden her to use, she opens up a room filled with torture devices, used by the Marquis to do grizzly things to his ex-wives. We are meant to understand that there is a part of the Marquis that wants the girl to open the room and uncover the extent of his cruelty – as hellish as this revelation is, at least he doesn’t have to work to hide it anymore. Dulli puts it succinctly on ‘Debonair’: “Tonight I got to hell/For what I’ve done to you/This ain’t about regret/It’s when I tell the truth.”

In her writing, Carter plays games with fairy-tale figures of beastly men and their female prey – she also re-wrote Beauty and the Beast – to show up the archetypal gender models that men and women frequently succumb to. Dulli’s abuser in ‘When We Two Parted’ suggests that he, and perhaps his partner, are playing out roles: “You’re saying that the victim doesn’t want it to end/Good – I get to dress up and play the assassin again/It’s my favourite. It’s got personality.” It’s appealing, the thought of being a proper bad-guy, a Bond villain, a cold killer. Never troubled by your conscience, you just get on with the job of being evil. But Dulli isn’t a cartoon cipher; he suffers for knowing what he is. And his victim is giving in too quietly, too easily – “If I could have only once heard you scream/To feel you were alive instead of watching you abandoning yourself.” He hates himself for what he’s doing to her, and hates her for letting him do it. If she doesn’t like the part, he wonders, why does she keep playing it?

Maybe it’s down to society or personal history, or maybe there’s an answer in Marcy Mays’ song, and it’s something to do with love, or power-games, or hope – but whatever it is, our man doesn’t hear it. So the relationship resolves itself, as it must, with ‘Now You Know’, which is where Gentlemen delivers a similar pay-off line to that in ‘The Snake’. Dulli, though, is a little less sure of himself than his reptile counterpart. “Did you have blinders on my dear, or were you just willing? / Or was I unaware of the damage a lie can do?” In other words, did you know what I was like? Would you have chosen differently if you had? The abuser recognises the pain he’s caused, even though there’s still little here to suggest actual guilt.

The snake’s tale ends here. And if that were all, most people could be forgiven for wanting to forgo such a bleak listening experience. Fortunately, the album has more to offer, a further two tracks that give cause for a little optimism.

Gentlemen approaches its close with an aching cover of Tyrone Davis’ ‘I Keep Coming Back’. Dulli finally breaks down and begs forgiveness – “I realise I treated you wrong/ And I’m so sorry/ Let me come back where I belong.” In spite of the great deal of pain that people seem to cause each other, he seems to say, there’s no way we are ever going to stop pairing off, forming couples, declaring our love for each other – it’s what we do. So there’s room for a concluding note, the instrumental ‘Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer’. What begins with low, brooding cello and menacing guitar figures reaches a plateau and then, with piano notes flickering like spots of light, begins a hopeful ascent. It feels like a prayer for a brighter future, for people to find better ways of being together. And I think, ladies and gentlemen, we can all say ‘Amen!’ to that.

© David McKenna, 2004

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