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the Afghan Whigs: Uptown Again
This is a live version, a liberated soundboard from Bowery Ballroom in 1998. Legendary shows that I was not at because I lived in Seattle at the time. Detroit is hazy today, the Canadian wildfire smoke, and it reminds me of LA smog which seems perfect for this song, it’s not about LA at all but LA was already part of Greg Dulli. There are those people who are born to belong in places. Probably past lives, unresolved karma, something where a place you’ve never been before feels comfortable and familiar fast. I felt that way a little about LA in the 90s, like I had *spent time* there. Maybe I was Jim Morrison’s cat.
It’s taken me a long time to figure out what it is about the Afghan Whigs/Greg Dulli’s OUVRE that rings my particular bells. And I realize that I think it’s the foundation of 70s classic rock - he is my age - and RNB and Stax and Motown grungified, even though they were an early Sub Pop band so not really grunge per se, but those bands took those foundations and stripped away the pretense and the overindulgence and then made it loud or innocent or fast. Every one of those bands pulled one dominant thread. It’s a version of what Springsteen did pushed to the edge of the envelope, those dudes have more in common in their record collections than most people would think on the surface. Bruce learned how to lead a band by watching Sam and Dave at the Satellite Lounge. Dulli learned by watching American Bandstand and the Midnight Special. Bruce could’ve taken a detour through punk, he got close (he has a cameo on Street Hassle. He drank vodka with Alan Vega in the bathroom of the Record Plant. He wrote a song for the Ramones.) Greg came through punk, like me, at the far end. By the time I was old enough to legally go to CB’s and Max’s things were over, done, kaput. Max’s became a deli and I went to see Sonic Youth and the Violent Femmes and the Replacements at CB’s. It’s a very specific and odd cocktail and I am sure some people are going to read this and think I am insane because they don’t hear or see any of this. It’s a theory!
I thought of this tonight in the haze when that scratch guitar begins on the first verse of “Uptown Again.” I thought of my favorite moment in “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” on the album, in the second horn crescendo in the intro, it’s in the background so you have to listen for it, it’s supposed to be subtle, it’s the bones not the focus. Same here. It’s the bones and it’s also the song’s forward motion. It is a DRIVING song. It’s one of those songs I always put on the wrong album, thematically and musically it could have been part of Black Love. Here it’s just batting cleanup on side one. “Just”.
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There’s an OH BABYyyyyy on the chorus. There’s an oooooohhhhhhhhhhh in the background. This could have been recorded in Stax Studio A. There could be a horn section. There is, sometimes, a horn section, when Dulli has the inclination. It’s too expensive to have a horn section. Unless you are Bruce Springsteen! (See? I got back there.) Dulli would want, and could lead, an 18 piece band. I have often thought there should be NEA grants with loaner horn sections.
On this recording you also have the fabulous Susan Marshall and probably Joshua Paxton (or Harold Chichester) on what could be a Hammond organ humming in the background. More people don’t do this because it’s hard to do right. You have to know your shit so well you don’t even think about it because otherwise you just sound like a cover band. A bad one. There are plenty of wannabes. That’s because it is not easy to be good at.
This is part of a project where I am going to be randomly writing about 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.
Thrilled to announce that pre-orders are open for The White Label Promo Preservation Society, Volume 2, where I contributed an essay on David Johansen’s first solo album, alongside other contributors like Bebe Buell, Susan Whitall, Tammy Faye, Lenny Kaye, Peter Holsapple, Steve Wynn, and many more. Get your copy today!