Rykarda Parasol on…
The Afghan Whigs – Black Love (Elektra, 1996)
It seems that Duende is a difficult-to-define term that describes the soul and spirit from which art (usually the Spanish arts) can stem. And yet most artists look to a so-called “golden muse” to be inspired or aspire to. Duende is not like this grand, lofty notion of attaining beauty or relishing in it. It is decidedly connected to that which is anything but beautiful. See, Duende seems most dependent on the struggles and conflicts brewing far within one’s own core or even from somewhere far deeper below our feet. This is what I know Duende to be: a diabolical creature of one’s self that must be faced head on. It is authentic, personal, and soulful. It is intimate and universal. It is the admission of your own beasts and understanding them. Not all art has it and not all artists have it either, but I’d argue that the Afghan Whigs and Greg Dulli have it in spades and at no time more than during their 1996 third album, Black Love.
“Everything that has black sounds in it, has duende.” – Federico García Lorca
Writing about one’s struggles with vice and immorality have a certain consequence. In my own teeny, little career, I’ve seen this garner me at times unfavorable attention or trepidation from others. For all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, I’ve probably only opened the door for more to come, in the attempt to reconcile my own demons and emotional poverty. But it’s hard to leave the mistakes alone. Sometimes we are compelled to examine, make sense of, or glorify our monsters. Writing can be a way of reconciling with one’s guilt and a way to seek redemption. Sometimes it’s simply a way to get everyone to sing along with your wrongs and validate all the messes you’ve caused. It’d be hard not to separate the person from the art here and not inexplicably link him to his offenses. It seems that most of us who’ve listened to Black Love would agree that the album speaks of something very real and that its narrator, Greg Dulli, is one giant piece of work…
“Blame, deny, betray, divide /A lie, the truth /Which one shall I use?”
The Afghan Whigs is most noted for the fantastic second album, Gentlemen. It depicted the male ego in all its animalistic splendor. But for me, Black Love is simply a more psychologically-complex album. It took the caricature and made him true. The logic behind emotional reactions is explained, characters and scenes are further fleshed out, and our narrator has a wider set of emotions – making the experience of listening more authentic. It takes two to tango and lord knows there’s some mutual mind-f&#king going on. Here the animal has a means to its beastliness. Black Love sets out to chronicle the end of a tumultuous and diseased relationship. It’s full of remorse, betrayal, manipulation, and intent – things you and I know a lot about, don’t we?
Yet Black Love is also filled with soul music that underscores the intimate tales. A blend of gospel and blues, soul takes from both the sacred and the flesh. On Black Love those two battle it out face to face. It gets “Duende” on you. It pleads to somehow take the crimes and find a light through them. An old story made new. And yet, it was created in the mid-90s when I personally found myself immersed in Brit-pop from the likes of Pulp and Suede. I didn’t care for the straight-ahead anger and non-glamour of Grunge that was Stateside. In fact, I felt a real disconnect between that and myself. I wanted something more, well, debonair and yet, not affected. Something that could doubletalk me into another cognac and not man-handle me to finish a can of beer. And while I loved my spindly and lounge-luscious Brit-pop, I needed my “from-the-hip” stuff too; music that was seeped in American roots. And it’s there that the Afghan Whigs and this album make the most sense to me. The album somehow seemed to combine the artful retelling of the most mortal self-battles alongside the hard-hitting, yet hustling, Motown beats, calculated vocal delivery, and vigorous guitars. The piano plays percussion and the organ plays the devout sinner. The album is turbulent and sacrificial in its attack, but yet has very tender and reflexive moments as well. That voice in your ear, Dulli’s haunting backing vocals, switches between the Devil and the consciousness. You get down with it in that “New Orleans-Detroit” kind of way.
“To get on down / this time we go a little lower.”
As low as you can go. Duende.
I was exposed at a very young age to supreme manipulators. The kind that are so good at masking their own insecurities that they’re perpetually on the defense birthed by paranoia. Lies come in many forms: deception, exaggeration, omission, and evasion. It came as some sort of cathartic relief to hear this album (which I’ve never stopped listening to). In essence, it was the confession of my own faults and the assertion from others of theirs too. Liars know of what they do (and what is a writer if not a very fanciful liar?). In a world where there are so many songs about people being done wrong it’s validating of sorts to know there are songs that address those who know they’re not innocent and have committed misdeeds.
“Love I can’t hide / but it’s been easier since I said it now.”
Of course there is a light outside darkness. So, gentle reader, before we think that is all people can offer, the truth is that instead of engaging in the dance, we simply must see it upon first glance and walk away. True, but for now, the drama of the dance makes us feel alive. The battle of perception (real versus fake – is it love or hate?) is epic. In listening to Black Love, the world is desperate and there’s no such thing as truth, intimacy, and warmth. Everyone is so much better at being crazy than you are at being sane. Love is a place where one has to watch their back, friends are foes, and survival means more than respect.
“I have to ask, was it ever good?”
By the end of Black Love, Dulli has more than admitted his sadness and expelled some of the pain. He’s also thrown gas on the fire. But, as true as life, it’s never fully resolved; just accepted to some degree. What was once bright diminishes.
“Demons, be gone / away from me… / Come lay down in the cool grass / with me, baby let’s watch that / summer fade.”
And there is certainly a sense that for all the cocksureness, there is an unstable soul. Someone who is not simply retelling his exploits, but really feeling the effects of them and yearning for a light to shine through the clutter. The reconciliation may be not with our consciousness, but how we naturally are, as we are of course, beasts. That creature is near and can be an enemy at odds with society and lovers. It inevitably affects our relationships with the world, with love, and with ourselves.
“If I go bad / from time to time / Love to love but love is not / My only crime /Bathe the path, shine the light”
Afghan Whigs never found the success that their Seattle counterparts did. Are we really surprised? I mean, when did anything really intelligent ever make its way to the collective minds of American music charts? Anyway, their loss. Black Love to me stands as a masterpiece and an album that certainly stands as my concrete favorite. I’ll spare you my giddiness… I just mean to say that Black Love has a unique importance for me. It embodies the power of ourselves, as well as the power that music has on us to take us down and build us back up.
“Do you think I’m beautiful? / Or do you think I’m evil?”
I don’t know why other people make music – I only know why we are compelled to make it. Duende is a power not an action and it’s a tussle more than a concept. In all art we seek to release and to free ourselves of something at least a little bit. Sometimes we have to fight to feel that emancipation and in doing so, there may be casualties or bloodletting much as in Black Love. Duende is a living thing. It’s your closest friend, your challenger, inexplicably linked to ancient culture. Creation and destruction. It’s the lover who is both bad and good for you. It’s both beautiful and evil… But let’s confess: We love it all.
Notes on the Artist:
Rykarda Parasol uses the term “Rock Noir” to best describe her brand of dark and mysterious music. In it, there is a cinematic component that calls up images akin to Lynch or Hitchcock giving way to an icy, blonde plot. Indeed, the notion of the smart, fearless femme fatale is an image that Parasol finds intriguing and one that her low, sultry sing/talk seems to embody. Often compared to the likes of Nick Cave and The Velvet Underground, Parasol’s music personifies both swamp and sophistication. A uniquely gender-bending voice, her strength is in delivering Faulkner-like tales with conviction and suspense. Her music draws on American rock, soul, and Southern influences as well as the Northern European styles imparted to her by her parents. Parasol has self-produced and self-released two well-acclaimed albums (For Blood and Wine in 2009 and Our Hearts First Meet in 2006). A strong presence on the San Francisco music scene, Parasol continues to write songs based on her true-life occurrences and performs near and far.