the Afghan Whigs: I'll be waiting for you / at Fountain and Fairfax

The Sound of Young America

the Afghan Whigs: I'll be waiting for you / at Fountain and Fairfax

It’s 7pm, magic hour. I make the light before the on-ramp and merge onto the highway in that golden almost-summer light. There’s a ringing guitar like a reveille, and then a rolling syncopation.

angel i’m sober i got off that stuff just like you asked me to

The phone is on shuffle and it’s not entirely surprising that a composition written by Greg Dulli comes through the speakers. It’s the Afghan Whigs’ “Fountain and Fairfax.” Fountain and Fairfax is a corner down the street from a famous AA meeting, or so the song’s author has claimed. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, what matters is the story, and right now we already know how this thing is going to end, right? This is not a declaration where everybody ends up happily ever after. Greg Dulli’s lyrics have always painted an immediate, vivid picture in my head and it is one of the reasons I have followed this man’s work obsessively for quite literally decades now. In my mind this conversation is taking place on the balcony of one of those two-story worn-out 1950’s motels somewhere in Hollywood, or anywhere, really, that those places still exist and end up the refuge for people who can’t go anywhere else. Maybe it’s on the second floor balcony, she’s standing with the door to the room open just wide enough to see him standing there, pleading to be let in. We already know how this ends because getting sober because someone else wants you to never works.

The verse shifts into the character’s internal dialogue -- come closer -- before the song opens throttle and the full power of the Afghan Whigs accelerate. There’s John Curley’s melodic, rock solid bass, there’s guitars from both Dulli and Rick McCollum, an insistent lead melody, nervous and shaky like a newly clean . There’s also a solid if not particularly distinguished drummer; that position in the Whigs rotated regularly, but Dulli manages to always find himself someone well-qualified to sit behind the skins. The thing that kills many a band, Greg Dulli somehow manages to never have a problem with. The person may change, the swing may shift, but the drummer is never not above-average, and many times he is exemplary. The Whigs’ songs -- and those of the Twilight Singers or any of Dulli’s other projects -- are based in ancient and modern rhythm and blues, Stax to Motown. Dulli can play easily around the edges of modern rnb but always stops before he could potentially embarrass himself. He knows his limitations, he knows he is a white boy in Harlem, he is the guy who went with Lou Reed to see the man.

Second verse and already it’s all not only fallen apart, it has completely gone to shit. She’s told our hero “Baby, forever” but then Dulli jump-cuts, following the action like Scorsese when he’s got a song he needs to use: “it's Tuesday now / I hear him breathing inside of her.” The singer is breathless, you can feel the acceleration and panic, feel his heart pounding. But it’s too late, he has given up, he has lost control: Let me drink / Let me tie off, he is howling in desperation and pain. “Tie off” is one word, as though he is talking as fast as he can because everything is happening all at once.

Then it’s full-on dueling guitars and bass and drums, it’s melodic and intricate and heart-breaking, it is always heart-breaking, there is always someone making wrong choices in an Afghan Whigs song, and somehow the music always conjures the inner workings and the outer landscape.

In the last verse, he is reminding her of what she promised -- forever -- of what he promised in return, of how they cannot go on like this and still survive. That this was a very bad decision but they don’t know how to be done with each other.

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedAngel Together I'll be waiting for you On Fountain and Fairfax

I am screaming that last line as it happens with an emphasis and a catharsis I did not know was there, frankly. It is always a moment at Whigs shows, where the audience has come on this journey with Dulli -- or, correction, that he has transported them on. He’ll pause playing guitar, step away from the mic, and hold one hand behind his ear, to remind us that it’s our turn now, we need to be part of this show. It’s an old timey kind of 70s stadium rock gesture, which of course originated from every rnb front person worth their salt. It is exactly the kind of thing that made this band irresistible to me from the moment I heard them. They made this record in Memphis, at Ardent, and you cannot listen to it, ever, and not feel that in your bones. It is every essential tradition of rock and roll that I adore.

Dulli and I are the same age, we grew up on the same music, and we heard the same things in that music. I deeply, deeply felt it at the kind of essential, experiential level that you don’t even have to articulate back in the days where Greg did more talking than singing sometimes, where there was an ashtray and a cocktail in dual cup holders on the mic stand, the latter refilled regularly by Dulli’s own Bobby Byrd/Jerome, Doug Falsetti. I realize now that I never had a discussion with anyone about what all of that meant, because I always assume that everyone knows what I know, and it’s so obvious how could you not see it? Greg also stayed up and watched Midnight Special and saw Lynyrd Skynyrd and Black Oak Arkansas and listened to Quadrophenia through headphones over and over and over again. So much of the Whigs can be connect-the-dots with so much of the Who. Make some weed brownies and invite me over sometime.

My first Whigs CD was Congregation. I was living in Tel Aviv, and a friend and his brother went to the States not long after it came out and were in Seattle and went to the Sub Pop store, the old one near the Moore that had the Polaroids on the wall, and saw it there and decided from the cover it was something I would like. Seattle was Ground Zero in the early 90s, remember, and rock and roll crazed kids from anywhere were going there to see if they could somehow grab onto some of that particular grade of stardust. I mean, he wasn’t wrong. With the next record, they were on Elektra which meant that that advance cassette was in my mailbag and I remember the moment I closed the door to my tiny office (find that photo) and put it into the tape deck. It was the second or third song when my phone rang and the PR woman who sat outside my door (it was a very small office) said, “What is that amazing thing you are listening to?” Yeah.

The Whigs were one of the first bands I saw play live when I moved back home at the end of 1993. They were at the Academy, which was a theater in the 40s somewhere, and I was with a friend I’d met while getting my MBA and some of his friends. They were the kind of people who thought they were huge music fans, and I just wanted to see the show. I was living with my parents in Connecticut so it required ridiculous machinations, even at the age of 30. I couldn’t believe I was getting to see the Afghan Whigs and it was just like seeing every band I adored for the first time, it was one glorious blur of lights and vocals and guitars, like one long song for 90 minutes. I was with people I didn’t know, I couldn’t run to the front and edge around the pit and scream the lyrics alongside the diehards. This would be the only time that this would happen for me at an Afghan Whigs show.

Greg lived in Seattle around the same time I did, which meant there were always plenty of Afghan Whigs shows to see. I joined the congregation-l mailing list, where I lasted exactly one week after I tried to insist that lyrics are not non-fiction and that also most of the dudes there did not understand that the actions of the characters in Dulli’s songs did not imply an endorsement of similar real-life actions by other men. I didn’t understand how anyone couldn’t suss the concept of a musician playing a role. How could you possibly take “I got a dick for a brain/and my brain is gonna sell my ass to you” as advocacy and not as an admission of the dick-brained inside Everyman? I know, I know, I was on the internet, it has always been a problem for me, and is why I do not do message forums (and why I am not ever turning on chat here). Everyone I know who has actually known Greg Dulli has either insisted he is the worst person ever or the sweetest man and I am sure he is both of those things. But I don’t like his songs because I think they are pages from his diary. I like them because they are stories and I like well-told, interesting stories that have dark and light and a rhythm section that’s elastic as fuck and guitar work that is every excessive 70s classic rock guitar solo pared down to the essentials.

This is part of a project where I am going to be randomly writing about Greg Dulli and the Afghan Whigs\ because I have not ever done this at sufficient scope and length and the upcoming Twilight Singers box set has reminded me of this fact.

the sound of young america.

Caryn Rose • Jan 19, 2019

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