Monday, January 22, 2007

Afghan Whigs / Ass Ponys

This split Afghan Whigs/Ass Ponys single was a pretty inspired pairing. The Whigs covered the title tune from the Ass Pony's first album, "Mr. Superlove," and it sounds like it could have been written with Greg Dulli in mind. The Ass Ponys do a nice job of transforming "You My Flower" from Up In It into a rootsy, countryish affair.

I was the music director of Dickinson College's radio station, WDCV, when the Ass Ponys' first album was released on Okra records. I put the album in heavy rotation and it got some airplay. A couple weeks later I got a phone call from one of the guys in the band thanking me for playing the record. It wasn't unusual to have someone from the label call to say thanks, but it was pretty rare for a band member to call. He seemed like a real nice guy.

I met the Afghan Whigs with some friends of mine from college back in 1990 when they played a show at the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. as the opening act for British techno-rockers Jesus Jones. We introduced ourselves to the band, and it turned out that bass player John Curley's parents had both attended and met at Dickinson, so we formed an instant bond.

It also helped that we were willing to mercilessly mock Jesus Jones, who had been such prima donnas as to force drummer Steve Earle to set up his drums at the front of the stage because they didn't want to have to set up their drums again after sound check. The stage at the 9:30 Club was notoriously small, and there was barely room on it for one drum kit, let alone two. But apparently it is a very difficult and time consuming process to set up an actual drum kit in such a way as to make it sound exactly like a drum machine, so Jesus Jones got their way. This was the single shittiest thing I ever saw a headliner do to an opening act, and the audacity of it was compounded by the fact that Jesus Jones was so totally unworthy of behaving with such arrogance, and the talent gap was so wide in favor of the opening act. I mean if Charlie Watts told you to do something like that you would say "Thank you for letting me play on the same stage as you Mr. Watts." But Jesus Jones? Come on!

Despite the fact that Earle looked a bit ridiculous set up directly in front of the audience, it was an incredibly rocking and energetic performance. As the band got to their last song Dulli asked for volunteers from the audience to get on stage and sabotage Jesus Jones' drum kit. I was strongly considering it, but my less-inhibited friend, Mike Daecher had already jumped on stage and been pushed into the drum set by Dulli before I could finish considering all the possible consequences. Daecher earned his own little place in rock history with that act, at least in my mind.

Obviously, Mike got kicked out of the club, but the band really appreciated it, and we all hung out a bit after the show. I remember walking around the neighborhood surrounding the club with Dulli when a drug dealer approached us. My reaction to drug dealers is generally to say "no thanks" and move on quickly, but Dulli started rapping with the guy, making up stories, telling the him we were in town to see the Ramones play and other nonsense. It struck me that Dulli was something of a hustler, albeit an extremely charming one, and I think you hear that side of him come through on this track. When I later heard Dulli had some drug problems (from which I understand he has since recovered), I flashed back to his easy rapport with that drug dealer, and I wasn't entirely surprised.

I kind of lost interest in the Afghan Whigs around the time of Black Love, but in general I appreciated their efforts to expand the indie/grunge sound into something more emotionally and intellectually complex. Dulli was one of the few indie rockers whose knowlege of black music didn't begin with Black Sabbath and end with Black Flag, and some of the bands' attempts to incorporate soul music into the fabric their sound were highly successful. Despite my soft spot for Up In It, the Uptown Avondale EP is my favorite release by the band.

I never did get to see Jesus Jones perform live.


dan said...

Thanks for the great post about Jesus Jones! They're totally underrated by most of the so-called "hip" music press.

Blaine said...

Funny take on Jesus Jones, but I'm hear to tell you the hardline stance (as far as striking the drums) is not uncommon in the professional touring world. In fact, in the later 90's I was mixing a local band in Cleveland that opened for the Whigs and none-other than Greg Dulli threw a wobbler about the need for an opening band. Nothing would be moved or touched. As a professional roadie, I understand this rule--and have lost no respect for Mr. Dulli, the Whigs or his current outing the Twilight Singers. Jesus Jones' come and go... Viva the dirty Ohio!

Pete Bilderback said...

Perhaps I wasn't clear in my post,but the 9:30 club was very small, and the stage was tiny--there was realistically only room for one drum kit on the stage. At every other show I attended there, the main act took their drums off the stage while the the opening act played, then set them up again before their set. Jesus Jones refused to do this, forcing Steve Earle to set up his drums at the very front of the stage. The rest of the band had to play *behind* the drummer. I've been to hundreds of rock shows at a variety of venues, and only once was an opening act forced to set up their drum kit at the front of the stage.

Anonymous said...

I have recently revisisted Up In It after not listening to it for several years... and it's way better than I remembered. Thanks for the Ass Pony version of You My Flower... I had somehow missed hearing this all these years.

Blaine said...

Pete--I know the 9:30 very well. I've been there. On the same note (pun intended), the night I noted working for the local support act was at the Odeon in Cleveland, whose lack of stage space is well-known to those who have worked there. The fact of the matter is, this is a common industry practice. Have you seen the Stones in a stadium recently? The stage is some 300 feet wide and they give the support act (maybe) 40 feet to work within. You can extrapolate down, depending on the artistic whimsy of the headling act. Rock on brother.

Anonymous said...

You should check out 1965. That's where the Whigs got their groove on for real. Soul City.

Anonymous said...

while "1965" is great as all Whigs releases are, they where @ their songwriting best on "Black Love."

Pete Bilderback said...

I have to say Black Love did not impress me at the time. I remember buying it at Other Music in NYC and the clerk (who was a friend of mine) warned me "you'll be back to sell this to us in two weeks." He was pretty much right. I should listen to it with a fresh set of ears, and pick up 1965 as well. Thanks.

Ben said...

I was at that show! The 930 was indeed very small back then, think of a rat-infested basement and you'll get the idea.
I went only to see the Afghan Whigs and arrived late so I missed most of their set. I saw 2 songs or so, then drum carnage.
Good times.