While I’m not quite a junkie, I am fairly addicted to the “33 1/3” book series from publisher Continuum. If you’ve yet to hear about the series, the books are each dedicated to one specific album that has gained some sort of notoriety in the music world. The records chosen are mostly cult favorites with a few influential blockbusters mixed in. Of the 60 books written so far (each by a different author), the series has covered Pet Sounds, Songs in the Key in Life, Exile on Main St. and Led Zeppelin II but also lower-selling but no less influential recordings by the Magnetic Fields, Belle & Sebastian, Guided By Voices, DJ Shadow and Sonic Youth. (For a great overview, pick up one of the two Greatest Hits volumes released by the publisher.)
The tomes vary in approach, with some offering strictly historical examinations, some more about the author’s personal relationship with the album and others a mix of both.
Chicago-based writer and music industry vet Bob Gendron has written what will likely be the only Cincinnati-connected album in the series, telling the tale behind Gentlemen, the major-label debut and relative breakthrough album by The Afghan Whigs. I would argue that records by Over the Rhine and The Ass Ponys, among others, deserve the 33 1/3 treatment, but they’re likely not well known enough to pique the publisher’s interest. I’d also argue that my personal favorite Whigs’ album, Black Love, should get a book, but the chances of having two Whigs stories in the series are just as slim.
Gendron mostly plays historian, telling the story via research and numerous interviews with the prime players, including all of the Whigs (drummer Steve Earle included), Sub Pop employees (Gendron himself used to be one) and other friends and industry connections. He also does a fantastic job of recreating the state of the Whigs at the time, a band of tight friends on the brink of major success yet also inflicted with drug issues and internal and external squabbles.
The story of Gentlemen is bookended by the tale of the band’s beginnings and their breakup, all the way up through last year’s greatest hits album. There are a lot of interesting tidbits and revelations. Gendron gets singer/songwriter Greg Dulli to talk about his serious relationship with the mysterious “Kris,” the dissolution of which led to the album’s tortuous, heartbroken tone. Other fun facts: Dulli recorded several of the album’s lead vocal tracks in one night while flying on coke and trying to impress a girl; Steve Earle was booted for several reasons (alcohol abuse, meddling girlfriend, creative control issues, ego conflict); and labelmate Linda Ronstadt was allegedly furious about the album’s cover (depicting a young boy and girl lounging on a bed), apparently under the impression that it was a naked bellybutton away from being child porn. It was also interesting to read that one of the band’s main friends at Elektra Records was feeding information to the nasty, slanderous 'zine Fat Greg Dulli.
Gendron gets to about every detail of the album, from the cover art’s original inspiration and liner notes to the songs’ inspirations and recording. But he doesn’t just relay facts. He also talks about Gentlemen as an artistic statement, carefully dissecting and describing the individual songs’ and the general album’s mood, cause and effect.
Not only does Gendron’s book offer the last word on Gentlemen, it also shows what a compelling story The Afghan Whigs’ entire career remains.
For Whigs fans or even just those who were around Cincinnati to witness the band’s rise from little underground touring unit to soulful, seductive Rock machine, the book is a fascinating remembrance. For those who’ve never even heard of the Afghan Whigs, the story is universal and dramatic enough to be read as a novel (save the music-critic-y song dissertations).
The story is so good, in fact, that it would be great to see Gendron expand it beyond the 113 pages of this book. As his Gentlemen proves, the Whigs are deserving of a long-form biography that tells the band’s complete story. Who knows? Maybe Gentlemen: The Movie isn’t totally out of the realm of possibility.
Too bad John Belushi isn't around to play Greg. And Jimmy Page is too old to play Rick McCollum.
— Mike Breen