by Afghan Whigs
150 Favorite Songs: #75, “My Curse,” Afghan Whigs (1993)
Greg Dulli gets a rap sometimes as a sleaze and a misogynist in his lyrics, and I get why he does: the depictions of relationships he offers are ugly, and he his male narrators are gleefully cruel to the women in their lives. You get lines like, “Allow me to present you with a clue / If I inflict the pain then only I can comfort you” and “Angel, come closer / so the stink of your lies sinks into my memory,” and they are certainly unkind.
But what always stood out to me about Dulli’s writing was that he didn’t revel in the first person-ness of his writing. Not after his very first songs, anyway.
(“You My Flower” is a fairly standard “look at how bad she treats me!” alt-rock number; though for a while, in the 90’s, he changed the perspective of it from the first-person to the second and it became infinitely more interesting. Let’s digress for a minute to look at that before we get to “My Curse,” because it’s one of my favorite examples of how a dull piece of writing becomes totally compelling with just a little perspective.
So, in the original version of “You My Flower,” the song’s climax involves this series of lineups, culminating in a gotcha punchline:
"Better get myself a drink
better get a couple so I can look you straight in the face
and tell you that I think of you
almost as much as you think of you”
I mean, not a terrible kicker, but, like, okay — she’s selfish, you want us to know about it, you’re the wronged-man stuck in a relationship with somebody who doesn’t treat you so well, though this is all coming from your point of view, and who knows what song she would sing…
But in the version that the band played on the Black Love tour, he flips it to: “Better get yourself a drink / better get a couple so you can look me straight in the face / and tell me that you think of me / almost as much as I think of me!”
And holy shit, does that change everything. The cruelty in that set of lines is just staggering. You know she’s in pain, you know she’s trying to figure out how to deal with it, you know that your selfishness is the reason — and it’s all a hilarious joke to you. You see it coming, and if you cared at all, you wouldn’t be singing about it like it was funny. But you don’t, and that’s the point of those lines now. How do you take your eyes off of that sort of writing, when it was otherwise just another grunge-era whine?)
Okay, so out of the parentheses now and back to “My Curse,” which is the same sort of thing, but with the added bonus of Marcy Mays’ absolutely tortured vocals. Because Gentlemen is a vicious portrait of a failing relationship, one that tells a fairly coherent and linear narrative.And it never sounded sexist to me because I never felt like we were ever supposed to identify or sympathize with Dulli’s narrator. (I don’t think you introduce a character with the line, “Ladies, let me tell you about myself / I got a dick for a brain / and my brain is gonna sell my ass to you” if you want us to feel bad for him later.)
You get all of this from Gentlemen, and then, about two-thirds of the way through, after you’ve heard Dulli’s narrator make his case, you get the counterpoint. Suddenly, the sad song isn’t sung by the man who’s screaming about the betrayals he’s both suffered and inflicted; now, we get her point of view. Marcy Mays’ voice, which is not anything that could be described as “pretty,” starts singing the missing piece of the puzzle — the endless reconciliations, the unending deceptions, the way that these things are reciprocal. They go both ways. Gentlemen isn’t Pinkerton, or even Blood On The Tracks — one of those one-sided accounts of a bad breakup that privileges the voice of the person doing the singing. It’s a portrait that makes time for a counterpoint.
What that means is that Gentlemen is honest in a way that very few breakup albums are, and it’s because of “My Curse.” When we hear Mays sing about the relationship, too, we check it against everything that Dulli had told us. All of the ugliness and cruelty in Dulli’s songs have to match up with the depiction of the relationship in “My Curse,” or we don’t believe either of them.
It’s a remarkable trick, and one that convinces me, at least, that Dulli’s songs are much more of an exploration of cruelty than an example of it. There’s no good guy here, no one to root for. Gentlemen, like a lot of the songs that Dulli’s written, is about the way people hurt each other, and “My Curse” makes it abundantly clear that in a broken relationship, everybody’s guilty, and that guilt is nothing to celebrate. When Marcy Mays boasts of how she pulled off her end of the betrayal (“zip me down / kiss me there / I can smile now / you won’t find out, ever”), it’s no better or worse than anything Dulli’s narrator admits. That’s the whole point.