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Strange Pilgrim 

Thursday, Jul 15 2004
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Photo by Susan San Giovanni

Years ago, someone asked legendary South American writer Gabriel García Márquez what he thought of the term “magical realism” that had begun creeping into the lexicon as a means of describing his books. It was a way for critics to bend their minds around the fact that in García Márquez’s books, the fantastical — whole towns suffering amnesia plagues, little girls plucked from their laundry chores and this world by a ray of light — is commonly plopped down alongside the ordinary. By way of response, García Márquez said, “I write about the world I live in.” The same might be said of Jim White. And if there is a difference between the two, it is only geographical. García Márquez sets his prose in fantasia South America, while White chooses the ghostly underbelly of the Pensacola, Florida, panhandle, where he makes his bed and sings about it, too.

In the past 40-odd years, Jim White has made quite a bed. He has lived a dozen lives: as a drug taker and then drug purveyor; a professional surfer; a holy-rolling Pentecostal Christian; a professional model; a virtuoso guitar player; an ex-virtuoso guitar player who lost the better part of two fingers to a band saw; a mutilated, ex-virtuoso guitar player turned NYU film student; an ex-NYU film student turned NYC cab driver; a bedridden man suffering mysterious illness; a bedridden man suffering mysterious illness who passed those long hours relearning how to play the guitar minus a few key digits; a Luaka Bop recording artist; an alt-country darling; a father whose daughter has something like 37 names, including Charmela, Tiki Bird, Scooter Mandango, Cranky Avalon, Swift Maneuver and Scarlet-No-Haira. Which is to say that Jim White has lived more wild and weird stories than most and, mainly these days, through the exegesis of his music, has become a master storyteller.

In the past 10 years, such stories have appeared on two albums: Wrong-Eyed Jesus! The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted and No Such Place — which he describes, respectively, as “an Okie on acid” and “hick-hop.” He has just released a third, the appropriately titled Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See, which may be the world’s first full-on country trip-hop album — or maybe not. With Jim White it’s always hard to say.

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If you ask Jim White about this third album, this is what he will say: “I need to tell you about the truth tree. If you go to people and ask them to build you a tree of truth, well, 90 percent of them will start with the roots and add a trunk and some branches and finally some leaves. But 10 percent will start with the leaves. They’ll begin by throwing all these leaves into the air and running wild trying to attach the branches and the trunk and the roots before they blow away. If you happen to be one of the people who can pull this method off, then you end up with a tree that’s very interesting, but not quite the kind of tree most people expect. My last few albums were those kinds of trees — some kind of Dr. Seuss bonsai nightmare. On my new album, I started with the roots. It’s the first time I’ve done something like that.”

White started with some pretty heavy roots. Joe Henry produced much of this album, and joining White musically were folks like Bill Frisell, Aimee Mann, the Barenaked Ladies and Ralph Carney (the man who does most of Tom Waits’ horn playing). The end result is both the best backup band White has ever had and an album that is both meticulous and adventurous, and both at the same time. It is certainly chock-a-block full of the same crazed characters who show up at every truck stop on the strange road to hell this man has ever visited. It is more cohesive than his other work, not that that’ll count for all too much. “Folks who’ve heard it,” says White, “say the same thing they always say: ‘We love it, we just don’t know what to do with it.’”

How hard could it be? Just listen to the damn thing. Music like this doesn’t come along every day.

JIM WHITE | Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See (Luaka Bop)

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