Book Review: 33 1/3: The Afghan Whigs' Gentlemen by Bob Gendron [Continuum Books; 2008]

The principle idea behind Continuum's 33 1/3 series is nothing new: waxing poetic about a band's seminal release. It's the approach to the selected topic that continues to define its successes and failures. Nothing has quite matched the fictional via factual Music from Big Pink from John Niven's imagination. Nothing has given us the in-depth fervor provided by Dan LeRoy's take on Paul's Boutique or Drew Daniel's 20 Jazz Funk Greats (both heavily relying on many interview subjects and time sensitive events). But it's not all insight: nothing has failed quite like David Smay's take on Tom Waits' swordfishtrombones (Smay prattles on, preferring to see his prose on paper rather than give us greater insight on a neglected Waits masterstroke).

Bob Gendron's take on Gentlemen, a forgotten gem of the mid-'90s from Cincinnati's The Afghan Whigs, may not be as epic or in-depth as other books in the 33 1/3 series, but it also never fails as miserably as the series' worst moments. Gendron approaches the band and album as a fan, but he refuses to betray his journalistic integrity to tell us the tale of Greg Dulli, John Curley, Rick McCollum, and Steve Earle. Beginning the book with a story of Dulli's near-death at the hands of a Texas bigot who took a cheap shot at the back of Dulli's head with a 2x4, Gendron segues into a bit of background about each Afghan Whig (including how the band's name was a play on an old Dulli band named the Black Republicans) and their Cincinnati home. Gendron sucks us into the story by taking a bit of his fandom and mixing it in with clever storytelling tactics.

Thankfully, Gendron avoids bogging down the book with page after page of technical details, recording techniques, and Tape Op logistics -- elements that often turn away fans and the curious alike. Instead, Gendron superbly ties in the story of The Afghan Whigs to the story of music in the late-'80s and early-to-mid-'90s. Any failure of The Afghan Whigs' success is hardly attributed to the musicians, according to Gendron, but instead to being a band of so many influences with so little in common with the alternative scene of the time. While cities across the United States found heavy metal outfits changing into flannel and slowing down their riffs, The Afghan Whigs were more concerned with making sure they were the best at what they did – to hell with fitting in just to make a dime. The band was enamored with Stax and Motown, soul and funk, rhythm and blues. Never did The Afghan Whigs water-down or trim-out influences to appease a mainstream crowd. Of course Gentlemen suffered as a result — only 162,000 units have sold in the 15 years since its release.

Gendron makes sure we connect to that. This isn't the story of Pearl Jam shunning the limelight and still moving a million units per album, nor is it the tale of Stone Temple Pilots enduring a lead singer's many rehab stints and a breakup, only to reunite and still make piles of money thanks to a '90s mainstream sound now considered nostalgic. If The Afghan Whigs were to reunite today, it wouldn't be for a quick cash grab or a chance to move older albums — it'd be for a love of what they did and what they can still do. Gendron drives the point home with interviews from the four founding members; each member still loves each other but has moved on and is comfortable in their respective lives.

What works so well is how Gendron transcends Gentlemen and the era from which it was birthed to tell us the whole story. The focus is squarely on Gentlemen — as it should be — even if Dulli tells us he believes 1965 is the best Afghan Whigs album or Gendron drifts to tell us the fallout from years of touring behind an album few gave notice. The book may bank on alternative nostalgia to sell itself, but it never sells that nostalgia in its pages, choosing to give fresh stories to old fans and new converts alike. Gentlemen the book is a companion for Gentlemen the album, and that should be a goal of each 33 1/3 book. Gendron may do the minimum to accomplish this goal, but in doing so he pays tribute to a band that did so much with seemingly so little.

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