Goodbye to the White Stripes
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
When a band is finished, folks want to know what the defining moment was. If given three or four minutes to describe the White Stripes to the unfamiliar, where to turn? Was it “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” or “The Denial Twist?” The piano rumble of “My Doorbell?” Their live performance of “Seven Nation Army” and “Death Letter” at the Grammys?
It could be any of those. But since this is my forum, the White Stripes discussion begins and ends with their performance of “Let’s Build a Home” on Conan O’Brien in 2003. Finishing of a week in which the Stripes were Conan’s musical guest every night, Jack and Meg kicked into a bit of southern boogie from their second album, De Stijl.
Immediately, Jack White is nearly off the rails. Wringing every tortured note and chord out of a beaten-to-hell guitar, he’s the 21st century incarnate of the head-cuttin’ blues man storming into the dance hall to show off his chops. It’s not refined, it’s not pretty and it’s not clean, but it’s a blast, and it’s real. After about three minutes, Jack makes a bee line for Conan’s desk to tear up some slide action. On the way back to the stage, the guitar cuts out, he tosses it, grabs the mic and jumps into Son House’s “John the Revelator.” Crash, thud, bow, the end. It was musical carnage.
It’s the greatest four minutes of television I’ve ever seen.
Like many who weren’t quite underground enough to pick them up right away, I discovered the band as White Blood Cells was being released, and the first single I heard, “Fell in Love with a Girl,” was enough to grab my attention. Beyond the lego video, it was so ripped away and different from everything else on the scene at the time. It was loud, raw and strangely innocent. It harkened back to the fuzzy pop of the late 1960s psychedelic bands, but it was modern and, most importantly, gripping.
There was always sweetness to the band. Very evident on their early records, the Stripes were willing to display an innocence that was rare in rock music. Driving tunes like “We’re Going To Be Friends” and “Apple Blossom” was a childlike playfulness that would have set them apart had their aesthetic — a minimalist duo clad in red, white and black — somehow gone unnoticed.
That aspect of the band slowly faded as material grew more mature and sophisticated, but it never disappeared. That much was evident in the band’s live show. Jack never stopped running over to jump on Meg’s bass drum, Meg never stopped smiling while Jack scurried from instrument to instrument in his concert playground. There was no need to fake it; they legitimately enjoyed what they did every night.
If we want to talk about perception-altering albums, 2003’s Elephant was that for me. Carrying on the work of their first three albums, Elephant was bold, confident and, most importantly, flawless.
“Seven Nation Army” became a phenomenon from the instant it was committed to tape, earning the band that ever-important footnote in rock lore. It’s loping bass line (of course, just played on the guitar’s low E string) was catchy as all hell, and that edge that fueled their best work was present in spades. It’s the song that turned the White Stripes from curiosity into respected keepers of the rock flame.
One song does not an album make, however. Elephant is loaded. My calling card for most of 2003 was a line from “Black Math,” “I’m practically center stage.” “The Hardest Button to Button” and “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine” were driving, manic pieces. The sweetness was there with “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart” and “It’s True That We Love One Another.” It felt as if there was nothing the band couldn’t do. Their live show proved as much.
The second time I saw the White Stripes, I was perched in the balcony of the Boston Opera House. It was 2005, and I was listening to Get Behind Me Satan almost religiously, poring over every bizarre lyric and intriguing choice of instrument. The stage had, from my view, Meg’s drumkit on the left and a host of toys for Jack scattered about — a few guitars, a mandolin, a ukulele, a marimba, grand and electric pianos, a pump organ, and I’m sure I’m forgetting something else.
The most vivid memory of that evening is one of exhaustion. I was gassed trying to keep up with those two as they blasted away for the better part of an hour and a half. To begin, Meg walked out to her drums, Jack sprinted to the mic, and with a quick crash, it began:
“WHEN I HEAR MY NAME / I WANNA DISAPPEAR! / OHHH! YEAH YEAH!”
They were relentless. They shook and shimmied through their set, blasting from one song to the next, Jack jumping from station to station, sometimes mid-song. To watch them was to watch superheroes in action. There was nothing they couldn’t do, and if there was any doubt, they were doing their damndest to prove they were capable of anything.
I walked out of the building that September night completely drained. I barely had the energy to process what had happened before my eyes. I had no idea how they were able to keep that up night after night.
There was a definite edge to the band. Jack White was opinionated on how music should be played and what it should say, at least his music. Right from the first album, “The Big Three Killed My Baby” rails against the Detroit motor companies and the way they had gutted White’s hometown. A decade later, General Motors and Chrysler became the poster children for the failing American economy. Those righteous attitudes never left the band — just listen to “The Union Forever” or “Icky Thump,” to name two.
They were determined to make what was once old new again. Not since the late 1960s had a band so obviously turned to the blues for inspiration and grown so popular on their twisted reinterpretation of the roots. Jack White has often professed himself a disciple at the alter of blues legend Son House, and the band’s roaring version of “Death Letter” is one of the many highlights of their early career. Many folks will point to “Ball and Biscuit,” Elephant’s seven-minute triumph of fuzzy guitar blues, as the band’s high water mark. I wouldn’t argue against that.
That attitude extended to their actions as a band. The stripped-down aesthetic on stage, recording quickly to tape and emphasizing vinyl releases were all evidence of that. They did their best to avoid the hypocritical monster that swallows so many bands as they grow in popularity. They worked to remain true to themselves and the music. Calling it quits at this point is just another example of that.
Perhaps this move was inevitable for the White Stripes. In stopping now, they leave behind a near flawless catalog — six unbelievable albums, two live DVDs, a handful of incredible singles, groundbreaking videos, and an influence that will be felt long after you and I are too old to remember what the fuss was about. They were too good to hang around if it wasn’t right.
The hurt is here now, but in the end, this feeling will fade. Assuming that today truly is the end of the band as a functioning unit, there’s no worry of late-career slips. The music made won’t slip to ether. Their reputation will grow as more bands in their debt come along to make amazing music, and as more kids discover their power and genius.
What else can you say? They were the White Stripes. They always will be.
Feb. 2, 2011
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com