By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
“I don’t want to talk about that. It’s kind of a personal thing.”
Jack White of the White Stripes is on the phone from Detroit, and he’s not giving up the secret. I’ve got a lot of questions for him about the astonishing things I saw him do at Spaceland last week. Things like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” done straight-up, gritty and desperate. Slide runs on a weird semi-acoustic guitar during an “In My Time of Dying”-esque number that would make Jimmy Page swoon. Sweet, almost Kinksy pop-tinged songs with titles like “You’re Pretty Good Looking” and “Apple Blossom.” A monumental cover of the country-blues standard “Death Letter” that was full of spit ’n’ bitterness. Vintage Cramps-like menace riffs slowed down to two-player bombastic blues, topped by gasp-worthy field hollers. This was honest, open-hearted music by someone with preternatural skills and an ambitious range — music that not once lapsed into strutting licksmanship or bonehead cave-stomp. Music as much evocation as invocation, a congeries of train whistles and assembly-line clangor, of the scent of buttercups and bacon grease.
It was a performance so good that I witnessed an act that’s usually beneath members of L.A.’s infamous bet-you-can’t-impress-me audiences: After the show, a dude stood at the foot of the deserted stage, thought for a few seconds, then furtively pocketed one of Jack’s spent guitar picks.
At Spaceland that night, something mighty powerful happened. The kind of thing that can get you thinking that deeper, potent forces are at play. I don’t know if this is the devil’s music, but I do know it’s something well beyond what a red guitar pick can reveal.
The White Stripes are Jack White, 25, on guitar, vocals and piano, and Pippi-tailed sister Meg, 26, on drums. They were born and raised in southwest Detroit in a Catholic family in a Catholic neighborhood. They are the youngest of 10 children. Jack is the seventh son.
Their latest album, De Stijl, was recorded on 8-track in the living room of the house Jack owns — he bought it from his parents when they moved out.
“It’s a wooden house, three floors,” says Jack. “I think it was built in 1911 — my whole life I grew up here. I was a drummer for a long time, from 11 on. About 15 or 16 I picked up the guitar — I used to play guitar with my friends after school. We’d record Bob Dylan songs on 4-tracks. When my parents moved out, they left a piano and I taught myself how to play it. I don’t really know what it is I’m doing. I’ve got this thumb-and-pinky technique and I just base things off of that. I know how I want it to sound.”
When did you start listening to blues music?
“Since I was 18. I’ve always loved blues, especially Son House. A few years ago, I didn’t have a lot of money to go out and buy records, so I only had, like, the major things — Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters. But some friends in Detroit started working at record stores where I could get discounts! So now I have a pretty nice collection. Blind Willie McTell I only got listening to last year. I fell in love with him immediately.”
The records a musician hears can change everything. Robert Johnson listened to phonographs by Leroy Carr and Lonnie Johnson. Son House listened to Charley Patton’s records, he once said, “before I ever started to play or think about trying to play.” House also learned from a Clarksdale musician named Lemon, who had in turn listened to [Dallas] Blind Lemon 78s. Dylan checked out records by “Bukka” White — who had learned from Patton’s records. It doesn’t sound like the White Stripes have been spending much time listening to the wheedle-ee beer-commercial boogie stuff that’s passed for mainstream blues in this country for the last 30 years.
“I’m not too big a fan of electric blues. I don’t like Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan and all those guys. I like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, that’s the only electrics that I think are any good. It’s a difficult line to walk, though, being white, and having had the influence of the Yardbirds and Cream and other bands in the ’60s that already did this kind of electric blues in a hard style. At least they knew they wanted to go where the dirt was, and go where that real feeling of soul was.”
White people have been doing blues in the last five years in “alternative” circles, but it always seems to be done with smarmy, ironic cool.
“An easier way for white people to be involved in the blues is to make it like it’s a parody of wild, bluesy antics. All this stuff with raunchiness and swearing and talking about naked girls and all that, I’m really turned off by that kind of stuff. Lyrics are real important to me. I wish music could be more like Cole Porter and different Broadway writers from back in the ’30s and ’40s — more melody and idea instead of just chords and lamenting about girls and cars or drugs. That’s really getting old.”