By Noah Hubbell
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Likewise, Dulli listened both to white rockers and soul superstars--although the latter made more of an impact on him. "The music felt more free," he says. "They were using words, slang words, that I'd never heard before, and they were talking openly about sex and the enjoyment of it, rather than the repression of it. I liked Led Zeppelin, but I related more to Marvin Gaye saying he wanted something sexually more than Robert Plant talking about Dungeons and Dragons. I just connected with it more."
This love of music wasn't so all-encompassing that Dulli immediately dedicated himself to making his own. He also dug film, and when it came time to enroll at the University of Cincinnati, that subject was the one in which he chose to major. He lasted a year at the institution, then set out for Los Angeles, hoping to make a name for himself as an actor and writer. Between auditions, he toiled at Tower, and when his turn came to program the music there, he usually alternated between symbols of his twin tastes: Todd Rundgren on one side of the fence, the Supremes on the other.
In late 1985, all that came to an end; Dulli's mother got sick, and he had to return to Ohio and take care of his sister. Shortly thereafter, he learned how to play guitar and began working out his ambitions in various bands. One of those groups, the Afghan Whigs, released its debut album, Big Top Halloween, in 1988. Word of the disc soon reached Jonathan Poneman of Seattle's Sub Pop label. At the time, the company was concentrating almost entirely on acts near its home base (the Fluid, from Denver, was a rare exception), but Poneman took a chance and inked the Whigs to a deal. Up In It--largely produced by Jack Endino, who also helmed the first Nirvana CD--appeared in 1990 and immediately struck a chord with reviewers. Even at this early stage, Dulli's lyrics were more interesting than those of most of his contemporaries--and while a lot of the music on Up In It is fairly standard guitar rock, a few songs, including "White Trash" and "Southpaw," contain hints of the soul jones that would pop up down the line.
Congregation, two years later, found Dulli climbing deeper into his characters, many of whom seemed derived from the most disturbing portions of the male psyche. In the title cut, he yells, "I am your creatorE/Get up/I'll smack you back down"; later, during "Let Me Lie to You," he croons, "I'll be kind when I deceive/But you must never question me/Just quietly believe." Yet Dulli, who's become enough of a sex symbol to have inspired his own fanzine, Fat Greg Dulli, warns against taking these lines for autobiography. "I'm such a sweetheart and a pussycat to women," he protests. "My dad was never around when I was little--it was just my mom and my sister, and my grandma and my aunt were around all the time. I was constantly around women, so if I ever gave even a hint of misogyny or chauvinism, I got the shit smacked out of me."
So why the fascination with such louts? In answering this question, Dulli offers a story so appropriate that it's probably apocryphal--but the actor in him sells it hard anyhow.
"The best way I can explain it is to tell you something my grandpa told me when I was little," he says. "We were watching a cowboy-and-Indian movie, and I was rooting for the cowboys. And he was like, 'Let me ask you something. Why are you rooting for the cowboys?' And I said, 'Because they're the good guys. Everybody knows they're the good guys.' And he was like, 'Wait a minute. Did you know that those Indians are fighting for their land? Did you know that the white guys are trying to take it away from them?' And after I admitted that I didn't know that, he said, 'You've got to check stuff out before you go judging people. Let me give you a valuable piece of information: Good people aren't good all the time, and bad people aren't bad all the time.'"
Speaking for himself, Dulli adds, "Saints fall and sinners transcend. So you have to give people the benefit of the doubt. It's not a black-and-white world. More than likely, you find yourself floating in the gray world. That's why it's so shocking when some leader of the community gets caught in something he's not supposed to be doing. These are loathsome people to some. I'm trying to maybe give them a human face."
His success in this regard on Congregation led to numerous offers from major labels, and after putting out a final EP on Sub Pop (Uptown Avondale--appropriately, a collection of soul covers), Dulli and company made the jump to Elektra. Gentlemen, which hit stores in 1993, was the Whigs' most confident effort yet: musically varied, sonically impeccable and filled with subtly unsavory imagery like this couplet from "Be Sweet": "Ladies, let me tell you about myself/I got a dick for a brain/And my brain is gonna sell my ass to you."