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33 1/3: Bob Gendron's Gentlemen

Bob Gendron's Gentlemen

In the growing stack of 33 1/3 books sitting on my desk hutch, five of the albums covered made my Record Per Year list (the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street and David Bowie’s Low might’ve joined this list if I had been born a decade earlier). Yet the Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen sticks out as the album I was most excited to read a book about, owing to a combination of the Whigs’ comparatively relative fame (or perhaps, more appropriately, infamy), the deep-rooted emotional attachment I have for the record, and the strange circumstances involving my acquisition of a copy. I was a freshman in high school when I heard “Debonair” and “Gentlemen” on WDST, Radio Woodstock, but it took one of my friends mistakenly getting a copy of Gentlemen from BMG Music Club and then trading it to me for five bucks and an extra Obi-Wan Kenobi action figure for the album to make it into my hands. Trading a youthful artifact for Greg Dulli’s seedy, adult world and unrelenting self-flagellation seems like the devil’s own recipe for adolescent disaster, but even without a trace of the album’s sex and drugs, I was able to transfix my high school alienation to Gentlemen’s post-graduate despair.

I knew that Bob Gendron—a writer for the Chicago Tribune and editor of The Absolute Sound and Playback—was tabbed to write a 33 1/3 volume on Gentlemen, but its appearance in the Harvard Book Store took me by surprise. Unlike the lengthy delay for Mike McGonigal’s Loveless (which hardly lived up to the wait), Gentlemen snuck up on me and did not disappoint. Like the other volumes in the series that I’d recommend without hesitation—Michael T. Fournier’s Double Nickels on the Dime and Hugo Wilcken’s Low—I tore through the 114 page volume in a single sitting and immediately pulled out the album for a dedicated listen.

Gentlemen falls in line with more traditional 33 1/3 entries, covering the band’s back story, the album’s creation, the critical response, and the enduring legacy in lieu of a central conceit like Joe Pernice’s coming-of-age novella Meat Is Murder or Kate Schatz’s presumably catharsis-driven Rid of Me: A Story, but Dulli’s relationship trauma and coke binges hardly require fictional ballast. Solid coverage is given to the group’s early days on Sub Pop, but Gentlemen wouldn’t exist without the conscious decision to separate themselves from their flannel-clad peers and the lingering stain of the “soul grunge” label. Yet the core of the book comes with the investigation of Dulli’s relationship with Kris, which prompted the album’s conceptual focus, and the subsequent substance abuse. One night during the recording session in Memphis, a local stripper that Dulli brought back to the studio witnessed the coke-addled singer rip through final takes of five of the album’s songs. While the titillation of Dulli’s infidelities and drug usage reminds me of how entertaining the Replacements and Butthole Surfers chapters of Michael Azerrard’s Our Band Could Be Your Life were in comparison to chapters on preferred acts like Dinosaur Jr. and Mission of Burma, Gendron’s discussion of the group’s soul influences and fallout with Elektra Records is just as memorable. I had no idea that Terry Tolkin, the A&R man at Elektra, was partially behind the infamous Fat Greg Dulli fanzine, but this post at A Deeper Shade of Soul helps elucidate that particular topic with further comments from Dulli’s close friend, actor Donal Logue. (I remember the two of them hosting 120 Minutes and reenacting scenes from their favorite movies—I could only wonder if dudes got much cooler than them.)

My quibbles are minor. The opening of the book suffers from an awkward transition from Dulli’s near-death experience following an attack in an Austin night club in 1998 to a description of Dulli’s gallivanting playboy ways, but I prefer the former event being covered at the start of the book as opposed to the end. Gendron’s occasional dismissals of recent music trends might date the book, like a mention of the Juno soundtrack as an example of the lingering prudishness of indie/alternative rock, but I can’t harbor resentment about Gendron’s longing for the days of LP artwork in favor of iTunes thumbnails given my overwhelming preference for vinyl. The dismissal of Black Love in two short paragraphs as a bloated album choosing instrumental glut over clear melodies underscores Gendron’s clear preference for its predecessor, but I have little doubt that Black Love is the second-best Whigs album. My biggest complaint is actually a compliment in disguise: I simply wanted more.

Reading that Gentlemen sold only 160,000 copies and never cracked the Billboard Top 200 made me feel lucky to own a book on such a personal favorite. He also mentioned that few publications put the album in their top 10 lists for 1993 and Pitchfork’s Top 100 of the 1990s lacks even a mention of the group, but those critical blind spots made me proud to mention that Gentlemen was #33 in the Signal Drench 100 of the 1990s. (It would rank even higher in my personal list.) The Afghan Whigs have been a love-’em-or-hate-’em proposition, but those in the former camp would be wise to track down Gendron’s Gentlemen.