You Look Like Me. I Look Like No One Else.
In this season of national remembrance, I feel somewhat guilty to report that the song I’m listening to the most now is “My Curse” by the Afghan Whigs. I’m sorry if this means I am not a patriot.
“My Curse” is not about firefighters or soldiers. It is not about rebirth through struggle, or the inherent beauty of the national landscape. It is distinctly not about September 11, 2001. It couldn’t be about that: the song’s from 1994. It is about men and women, regret, loneliness, codependence and self-hatred. Which may have something to do with why I keep listening to it right now.
Of course, I’m not alone in this desire to leave the whole Nouveau-Memorial-Day bit behind. My roommate insists on not having cable until it’s November, the better to avoid the tribute-y dreck we’re sure to endure for a while. I’ve read at least six newspaper columns that essentially urge major media outlets to let well enough alone. Even Jimmy Buffet, no stranger to dead-horse beating, has advised people to maybe cool it a little bit with the honoring bit.
Before I start sounding like a callous jerk, permit me to say that I am perfectly willing to acknowledge the epochal sadness of the date in question. It was a terrible, terrible thing that happened. A lot of people died in a way that is new, baffling and tragic to this country. And it is only natural that we will remember it in our own ways forever. None of this is a bad thing.
But I would argue that we should reserve whatever thinking and feeling we might want to do for ourselves. The idea of mourning doesn’t rankle me; it’s the idea of a public, mass-media trough-feed of sweet sorrow. I will do my own kind of mourning by listening to "My Curse," because it’s the only song equal to the weird mixture of feeling and thought that presents itself at this bizarre time of year
Gentlemen, the Afghan Whigs’ finest hour and the album on which the song appears, can seem, after its first few spins, like a historical curio. At the time of its release, it registered for a lot of people as a peak moment in early-‘90s alt-rock self-loathing. Its subtitle could be Gentlemen: Wherein Yet Another Young White Male Bemoans His Fate and Failings. On nine of its 11 songs, singer/guitarist/songwriter/auteur Greg Dulli catalogs the whys and hows of male assholery in the realm of romance. His narrator, the titular gentleman, performs upon and submits to assorted petty cruelties received and committed by girlfriend, with whom he quote-unquote enjoys a tumultuous off-and-on-again relationship. It only takes two or three cuts of careful attention to figure out that one is dealing with the real thing: a Rock Opera. It is perhaps the only good one that the Grunge Era, not exactly a time marked by precise thinking, produced. The classic, now cliched markers of the album’s era appear: bottomless, melodramatic self-pity; recurrent images of filth, dirt and smoke; a smidge of injectable drugs. In light of its release in mid-to-late ’94, the Whigs released what may have been the great alt-rock love record just as the concept of alt-rock was preparing for a smackdown by an unforseen steamroller of Ecstasy, a booming Dow, Clinton-era cheer and, ultimately, teen-pop.
The Afghan Whigs (who, despite their record deal with Sub Pop were about as much a grunge band as they were a seven-piece jazz orchestra) ended up capping perhaps the last gasp of artistic legitimacy the Troubled, Gravely-Voiced Young White Male would enjoy for a long time. The archetype still exists in a degraded form as the callow mewling of Creed and Linkin Park and… Take your pick, really. Angst, once an interesting and novel addition to the radio menu, became obligatory for rock success, the 1990s edition of the drum solo. So Gentlemen, with its unabashed embrace of the genre’s thematic (if not aesthetic) tropes, was sort of a final hurrah for this great nation’s last Era of Cultural Seriousness. Until, of course, 9/11, when we all became serious again, largely by state decree.
Which may have something to do with why I'm listening to "My Curse" so much now, as if connecting with what we might now call a "simpler time" will help make sense of the special brand of exploitation and genuine feeling we're knee-deep in right now. Most of the time, I would say that my favorite songs on the album are “Be Sweet” and “Gentlemen,” a pair of raucous rave-ups powered by Dulli’s gravel-road vocals and weird, soul-influenced passages of strings and keyboards. “My Curse,” on the other hand, is a shuffling, country-inflected acoustic ballad, and Dulli doesn’t sing it. Instead, he recruited Marcy Mays of the much-missed Scrawl to offer the woman’s point of view.
Dulli is a commanding vocal presence; aside from the low, growling quality of his voice, he has none of the average alt-rocker’s anti-charisma, instead employing wild swoops in range, timbre and attack. And the harshness of his voice is usually offered ingratiatingly, as an endearing infirmity rather than as a sign of a dark, mysterious soul. He is, in every sense, a performer. But Marcy Mays, whose days in Scrawl were marked mostly by spindly, minimalist arrangements and laconic vocals, detonates him the second she opens her mouth. After she sings her five and a half minutes, Dulli’s character sounds like he’s had the wind knocked out of him, singing through wheezing, distorted amplifiers and gradually receding into silence for an instrumental closer. It’s as if Dulli’s Artful Dodger has finally come to the realization that every boy finally has to, from good old Leopold Bloom on down: this woman could eat me alive. And Mays does.
The point of “My Curse,” I think, is to create a different kind of discourse than Dulli’s usual dirty-boy swagger. Where he imagines the repeated self-abnegations involved in his relationship as necessary – if messy – byproducts of ‘getting some,’ he writes lines for Mays that lay the whole thing out as an endless, repeating cycle of emotional sadomasochism. Her voice points out that, for damaged people with a desire for pain in their relationships, the joy of a turbulent, punishing affair is knowing that you’ve met someone else who wants to hurt as badly as you do. Because both of you believe that pain makes you special, the connection between you is special: “You look like me,” she sings in the chorus, her voice an impossible mixture of sorrow, pleasure, nostalgia and rage, “I look like no one else.” Dulli’s view of codependence, on the other hand, takes the form of a snide joke: “If I hurt you/I’m the only one that can comfort you.” And next to Mays’ astonishing, ambiguous performance, Dulli’s voice sounds parched and pathetic.
It’s a deliberate effect, I think, as is Mays’ late appearance on the record, as is the astonishing sonic brightness of the song. It has to be that way, because, for Gentlemen to work as anything other than a collection of songs, this particular five minutes and change really have to stick. “My Curse” is the kernel of what Gentlemen is about. In an extremely dark way, you could call it the album’s moral: sadism and masochism are as much about the recognition of another person’s damage as they are about the actual inflicting of pain. The record is about coming to that understanding, but it does not imply a redemption: the last vocal track on the record is a cover of the soul classic “I Keep Coming Back.” And then, in this day and age of digital technology, the record starts over again, until you make the same realization again. There are things, Gentlemen says, that you can’t walk away from.
Granted, that’s a hard and horrible thing to think. But that’s what gives Gentlemen its weight, what makes it maybe the only legitimate classic of the post-Nevermind angst-rock era. Most of that period’s music was a form of young American white male self-abnegation, for national, racial and class privilege, maybe, or perhaps for more complicated cultural reasons we can’t understand yet. The Afghan Whigs certainly carry a whiff of the same thing, but they didn’t just express angst: they also expressed ideas about it, exploring its dynamics and sources.
So that’s how I’m observing this particular season of Cultural Seriousness, by listening back to the peak moment of the last one. Certainly, the sources of darkness from that period sound laughable now – the Gulf War and recession pale in comparison to the country’s current woes – but artifacts like “My Curse” offer a much-needed antidote to the brainless documentaries and human-interest pieces we’re going to have to withstand for the next little while. We’re going to have to do without work that talks about sorrow and anxiety, and instead tolerate things that hope to provoke or assuage it mindlessly. Like the duo in Gentlemen, all we can do is hurt ourselves and one another, because the pain is at least special. It’s better than not feeling anything.
I suspect that’s the secret motivation behind a lot of the 9/11 retreads going on right now. As cynical as it sounds, the word I always have to suppress when I talk about said retreads is “celebration,” as if it were New Year’s Day, maybe, or Christmas. Underneath all the solemnity in these network specials, these telethons, these very special episodes, is a celebration of feeling bad. “Finally,” the collective unconscious is saying, “we have suffered! Go ahead and call us blithe, rich America now! Look how we mourn! We’ll even cancel Friends to do it!” So a nationwide union of pundits and celebrities will feel bad for a living, until we can return to an era of Cultural Silliness. Because, I suspect, we still haven’t figured out how to talk about our secret thinking openly, at least not the way Dulli figured out on Gentlemen.
We haven’t yet developed the vocabulary to examine our feelings about the defining event of the current era, so we may as well look backward for art that tried to explain and contemplate the sorrow and anxiety that was in the air during its creation. We’re still waiting to invent the right tools for use in the current moment; for now, we’ll have to use old ones, from when we felt a sorrow and dread we had not yet come to deserve.
By Sam Eccleston