“Here me now, and don’t forget, I’m not the man my actions would suggest.” – The Afghan Whigs
In 1994 when my friends were listening to Pearl Jam and Nirvana, I was listening to The Afghan Whigs and Pulp. Pearl Jam played for the masses and Eddie Vedder swung from the rafters. Nirvana had written “Smells Like Teen Spirit” years before and nothing would be the same. Grunge had already peaked and, embarrassingly, Korn and Limp Bizkit would soon rule the alternative airwaves. The whole thing was cool for about two minutes and then it was gone.
My first time in New Orleans was summer of 1992. I’d been out of the Marine Corps for about a year. I was there with an ex-girlfriend who we shall call “Shelly” (totally not real name) and my parents. Being in New Orleans with your parents is kind of like watching porn with your parents, let’s just say it’s ill-advised. Lollapalooza was in town. Shelly and I saw Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers drinking coffee at Cafe Du Monde. Hey look! There goes Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil of Soundgarden walking out of some shitty Bourbon Street bar. We walked on an elevator and holy shit! That’s Cypress Hill! Hell, I even got propositioned by some Drag Queens right in front of Shelly. Yeah, I pretty much fell in love with New Orleans.
“What Should I Tell Her? She’s Going to Ask…” are the first lines you will hear from Gentlemen by The Afghan Whigs. Released late ’93, Gentlemen is a masterpiece of self-loathing, narcissism, and more than a hint of misogyny. Greg Dulli, frontman and songwriter of The Afghan Whigs, wrote lyrics that spoke to the broken, insecure, psyche of a rudderless twenty-something. The music contains elements of grunge that was fashionable at the time but added an element of old school R&B that none of their contemporaries were doing. Quite simply, Gentlemen became one of my all time favorite albums and remains so to this day.
If memory serves, I first saw The Afghan Whigs in 1996 touring on the follow up to Gentlemen, the Black Love album. I saw them in a small venue in Salt Lake City that no longer exists called Club DV8. Though details of the concert are fuzzy I do remember it being beautifully raw and perfectly sloppy. When performing live it isn’t uncommon for an Afghan Whigs song to morph into a cover of a Motown classic or a modern R&B pop song. That night they covered portions of “I Hear a Symphony” by The Supremes and “Holiday” by Madonna. The show was perfect.
I wouldn’t return to New Orleans until 2004. My life was remarkably different by that time but New Orleans had changed little. This is one of the charms of New Orleans. While Main Street, USA is abandoned as shoppers flock to the newest Walmart across town, New Orleans remains defiantly, proudly, the same, for better or for worse. It’s been my experience you either love or hate New Orleans, few people are on the fence. I am, decidedly, in the “love” camp. In fact, I always say I fell in love with my wife as I took her hand as we were walking in the crosswalk across Canal Street into the French Quarter on a typical hot, humid, New Orleans day. It was meant to be.
The Afghan Whigs broke up in 1999 or so after failing to gain any traction with their incredible 1998 release, 1965. I was happy to have had an opportunity to see them one time and continued to listen to their albums for all those years. Then, unexpectedly, they announced they were going to release their first album in 16 years called “Do To the Beast”. A full tour was announced. As many bands routinely do they decided they were going to skip Houston, the 4th largest city in America. But of course they were going to play New Orleans where Greg Dulli owns both a home and a bar. Tickets were secured, road trip planned, this was some kind of cosmic fate. Let’s do this, New Orleans.
The Civic Theater in New Orleans is a beautiful, ornate, theater which looks as if it would be equally comfortable hosting a rock and roll concert or an opera. Arriving early, we were able to get pretty damn close to the stage. I couldn’t quite believe I was going to see The Afghan Whigs again after all these years, and seeing them in New Orleans (?!); it was all just kind of surreal. After the forgettable opening act left the stage, The Afghan Whigs arrived fashionably late but after waiting 18 years to see them again, I wasn’t going to complain. I’d like to think of some witty metaphor to describe what I was feeling but let me put it this way: I was fucking losing my mind as they hit the stage.
As expected, “Parked Outside” from “Do To The Beast” started the show because it’s the first track off their latest, and first album in 16 years, and that’s what you do if you aren’t a bullshit nostalgia act like Motley Crüe. The band was tight and nearly flawless. Perhaps we all are a bit more sober than we had been in our earlier years. Maybe we just learned how to handle the alcohol and drugs better. Regardless, that show, that MOMENT, that night, was the greatest evening of live music I’ve ever had, and I’ve been to a shitload of shows. Pure, unadulterated, adrenaline and joy. They ended the evening by covering one of my all time favorite songs, “Across 110th Street”. I don’t believe in heaven because I don’t believe in fairy tales, but if there is a heaven, I’m pretty sure it involves The Afghan Whigs covering Bobby Womack.
R. Kelly has taught me (amongst other things) that there is always an after party. It’s not common knowledge where Greg Dulli’s bar is in New Orleans but it’s not exactly a secret either. So after dropping my sleepy wife off at the hotel I took a cab to Dulli’s bar. I figured if they were going to show up anywhere it would be there. Walking in, it was crowded and I was the oldest and least hip person in the place. Screw it. I took a seat at the bar and listened to what has to be the greatest jukebox in New Orleans.
After about 20 minutes Greg Dulli walked behind the bar and, entirely without ego, looked like he was about to be the replacement bartender. He talked to a few patrons, joked with a few employees, and then I talked to him. We had a brief conversation. I told him how much the show that night and his music over the years meant to me. I told him that when I heard “Fountain and Fairfax”‘ from Gentlemen at the concert that night it was the single most joyous and greatest moment I’d ever had at a rock and roll show. I told him it transported me back to my youth, “OUR youth”. Mr. Greg “Fucking” Dulli looked at me, smiled, and said, “Hey Man, we’re still young, age is just a number in your head”. Then he graciously thanked me, shook my hand, and walked away like the Lone Ranger or Matthew McConaughey or some shit. It was beautiful.
A couple beers later it had to be near 3AM. No cab needed. I didn’t know where I was but I was within a couple miles from the hotel. I walked back. This is not something I would recommend doing in New Orleans (seriously, don’t do it) but that night, I just didn’t care. It turns out that evening would haunt me for a couple months. I felt invincible and the feeling didn’t subside for awhile. I’m not sure it has yet. You see, The Afghan Whigs are kind of like the opposite of The Hold Steady for me. I love them both but The Hold Steady appeals to the best parts of my personality; the joy and the happiness, The Afghan Whigs appeal to the very worst and darkest parts of my personality. I won’t elaborate on the darkness but I’ve seen Star Wars and the Dark Side is a powerful thing.
Despite my fading invincibility, I hope to see you again at Christmas, New Orleans. Through the good and the bad, dark and the light, wives and children, addictions and pain, you are my greatest muse. You bounced back from Katrina and you are “Same As It Ever Was”, you gorgeous, regal, whore. You will always be my favorite city and for better or worse The Afghan Whigs will always be one of my very favorite bands. Somehow, the three of us belong together. Let’s have a drink, shall we? Will it be Sazerac or Absinthe? Regardless, I will be waiting for you on Fountain and Fairfax, or Royal and Dauphine.