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Dulli Noted

The Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli, in black, white and gray.

One smoggy day in West Hollywood circa 1985, I was standing behind the front counter at Tower Records' Sunset Strip branch when Greg Dulli, my best friend among my co-workers, entered the store carrying a plate of edibles and wearing a merry grin. "It's Cornbread Day," announced Dulli, a fledgling actor still several years away from alterna-stardom with the Cincinnati-based band Afghan Whigs. "Today only, customers get a piece of cornbread with every purchase."

True to his word, Dulli pushed the flaky, yellowish slabs, which he'd made himself, at anyone who dared bring an LP to the main register. The responses he received generally broke down along class lines: More affluent types were leery of the offer--fearing, perhaps, that Dulli was propagating an elaborate food-poisoning scheme--while hungry, disheveled musician wannabes gobbled up the grub, visibly grateful to be ingesting something other than their dietary staple, ramen noodles.

Dulli was unfailingly chipper to everyone whether they ate his chow or not, but there was still something about his manner that bothered me. Rightly or wrongly, I read into his lampoon of Southern hospitality a racial component; in short, he seemed to me to be channeling Aunt Jemimah. After watching Dulli go through his routine with an African-American shopper, I mentioned my misgivings to him. In a voice oozing with political correctness half a decade before the term was in wide circulation, I asked, "Don't you think people like that guy might find what you're doing a little, um, offensive?"

"I don't know," Dulli replied brightly. "Let's find out." Before I could object, he flagged down Harold, a tall, slender African-American who worked as a Tower security guard. "Harold," he began, "do you find my giving out cornbread racist? Are you demeaned by it?"

"What?" Harold wondered, trying without much luck to figure out what on earth Greg could possibly be talking about. But Dulli wasn't deterred by his confusion. He plowed on with his comic interrogation, hitting me with his broadest smile at regular intervals. Obviously, the more embarrassed and uncomfortable I became, the better he liked it. Even then, Dulli enjoyed jumping back and forth across the color line.

Today, Dulli is able to push the buttons of U.S. race consciousness with much greater ease. As one of contemporary music's most acclaimed songwriters, he is watched so closely by the nation's critics that the rest of his band (bassist John Curley, guitarist Rick McCollum and drummer Paul Buchignani) is frequently pushed into the background. He's taken advantage of this recognition by exploring many of the issues--including those rooted in skin color--that tend to make the average Joe nervous. For example, the cover of the 1992 Afghan Whigs album Congregation pictures a nude, very black woman holding a naked, very white baby. And on the Whigs' latest CD, Black Love (issued by Elektra), Dulli includes a song called "Honky's Ladder," in which he screams the oft-quoted lead line ("Got you where I want you, motherfucker!") like a bloodthirsty pimp in a Fred Williamson movie.

Predictably, a good many observers have reacted viscerally to such gibes. Some find Dulli's willingness to jump into these thematic areas proof of his artistic courage. ("I'm the bravest man in America," he jokes in reply. "Other than Ted Kaczynski, that is.") Others see him as pathetically desperate to exchange his Caucasian heritage for one that he finds more titillating and exotic. Dulli, who admits to reading much of the journalistic spew that's been splattered in his wake, says he's entertained by either take.

"Most of the stuff, either good or bad, that people say about me is amusing to a certain extent," he claims. "But that's especially the case on the ones where you can tell they're thinking that I'm trying to be black or something. The tone is so weird--like I got in their ass."

After a cackle, he continues. "None of that bothers me, though, because I guarantee you that every writer who wrote that stuff considers himself a liberal and is definitely a white male. They're basically carrying their own guilt into it. Listen, I'm not doing anything the fucking Rolling Stones didn't do thirty years ago, when Mick Jagger blatantly and admittedly copped Don Covay's voice. So to me, it's pretty fucking laughable. This is all coming from semi-educated liberal white men, of which I am one--albeit one with a bit more of a sense of humor. And the fact is, I'll listen to whatever I want to listen to. I'll play whatever I want to play. I'll take influences from Fugazi to Al Green if I want, and I'll shove them together in the same song. And I'll enjoy doing it."

According to Dulli, his childhood, spent in Hamilton, Ohio, provided him with the raw material from which he built his opinions. "I grew up in a white neighborhood, but I'd always go across the river to play basketball with my black friends because the games were--let's face it--a little more competitive," he notes. "And watching these kids make fun of white people was so funny to me. I was a Richard Pryor freak when I was a kid--Bicentennial Nigger and That Nigger's Crazy were my favorites of his albums. So I kind of led a dual life. I could hang with black kids or white kids. It didn't seem like that big a deal to me."

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