February 5, 2011

A White weekend: The Meg version

I wasn't going to write any further about the end of the White Stripes.  I've read so many wonderful articles and blogs about it, it seems like every music writer out there has already had a crack at saying anything I might say better than I possibly could.  But this weekend is the first anniversary of my "White weekend", when I was stuck at home during the 2010 east coast blizzard and spent five days watching It Might Get Loud and trolling YouTube, discovered the fantastic White Stripes message board called The Little Room, and became hopelessly addicted to Jack White's music.  So the occasion seems to call for expounding just a bit about the most special of his three known bands.

Unfortunately,  I didn't have the chance to see this band in their element.  Back when I first heard of the White Stripes, a bit after the release of Icky Thump, they were taking Canada by storm and titillating the whole world by playing surprise shows at bowling alleys, back-country bars, on fishing boats, even, most famously, on a municipal bus.  I listened to the album, heard the stories from that tour, and thought that this was a band I should be into.  For whatever reason, though, I didn't latch onto them at the time.  By the time I realized my mistake last year and dove headfirst into their albums, it was too late.  They were already over, though no one knew it at the time.  

This is not as gutting for me as it is for those people who were in the right place at the right time and avoided my error.  For those fans who were attached to this band for years, who were actually fortunate enough to experience them live, last week's announcement must have seemed like a bomb had dropped.  I can't fully know what that felt like, though I definitely recognize the sadness of it and feel regret at being so very late to what was such an incredible party.

Fortunately, I still have much to look forward to from one half of the band.  It sounds clich√© to say it, but Jack's a force of nature.  He'll always make music, it's apparently as essential to him as oxygen.  Whether he'll revive the Raconteurs or the Dead Weather, create a new band, finally make that long-asked-about solo album, or just contribute searing guitar riffs on the recordings of other musicians he produces at Third Man Records, he's sure to continue providing the world with excitement and stimulation for years to come.

But what about Meg?  It seems that many people overlook her contribution to the White Stripes.  There are endless debates at message boards and in YouTube video comments about her abilities as a drummer.  And, even if it was subconsciously, Jack must have realized how having a cute bare-footed girl with pigtails behind the drums would attract attention and make people stop to listen to his music.  But just like the debate over her and Jack's marital status vs sibling-hood, any question of Meg's contribution to the band is entirely academic.  She was essential because she did something undefinable that inspired Jack to tremendous heights.  Jack's said that he wrote the majority, if not all, of the songs in the Stripes catalog on his own, on piano or acoustic guitar, and then brought them into the studio where they became White Stripes "covers" of his initial words and music.  What would any of those songs have been without Meg?  It was her "childlike, caveman" drumming that inspired him to begin with, she brought some spark to the equation that alchemized his writing and created magic.  As Jack put it:

Meg is the best part of this band. It never would have worked with anybody else, because it would have been too complicated. When she started to play drums with me, just on a lark, it felt liberating and refreshing. There was something in it that opened me up. It was my doorway to playing the blues, without anyone over my shoulder going, 'Oh, white-boy blues, white-boy bar band.' I could really get down to something.” 

And he was fiercely protective of her as his partner and band-mate.  In one of the many blogs written about the Stripes in the last few days, one writer mentioned that Jack would "turn vicious when people would slag Meg, because they just didn’t get it."  In a thread at the Little Room forum, someone mentioned the belief that Jack wrote the song Truth Doesn't Make a Noise about Meg, which is something I've also felt--

My baby's got a heart of stone
can't you people just leave her alone
she never did nothing to hurt you
so just leave her alone

The motion of her tiny hands
and the quiver of her bones below
are the signs of a girl alone
and tell you everything
you need to know

I can't explain it
I feel it often
every time I see her face
but the way you treat her
fills me with rage and I
want to tear apart the place

You try to tell her what to do
and all she does is stare at you
her stare is louder than your voice
because truth doesn't make a noise

For all Meg's silence, the moments when she did use her voice made a difference.  

Aside from fan favorites such as In the Cold, Cold Night, her accompanying vocals on songs like This Protector and Little Ghost add a subtle touch that couldn't be achieved with Jack's voice alone.  And Rag and Bone is probably the best example of a song that just did not work without Meg's participation--  There were three versions of the song recorded for the album.  One was never pressed and has apparently never been heard.  The version on the vinyl release of the album is Jack singing altered lyrics alone.  While the words and delivery are still clever, the tune falls flat.  It's the addition of Meg on the cd version that provides the sass necessary to bring Jack's part to life and elevate this song to one of the best on the album.  

But while her effect in the studio might still have been all but invisible to people not paying attention, it was blatantly apparent on stage.  I envy anyone fortunate enough to have seen this live.  I've watched it countless times in recorded performances and the writer of a tribute article in the Chicago Tribune described it perfectly:

"In concert, the interaction between Jack White’s vocals and guitar and the way Meg White answered him on drums was as snappy, witty and cutting as the dialogue in a Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall movie. Play out the scene a little further, and anything from a kiss to a gun could be produced.

Meg White took a lot of heat for not being a particularly accomplished drummer, at least technically. But she was the perfect drummer for the White Stripes, listening to and playing off Jack White better than any other human being on the planet could have. The body language, the glances between the two, were a theater all their own. That’s why the element I will miss most about the band is not the recordings, great as many of them are, but the live performances. The 'tension' that Jack White spoke of was real, and it could be revealed in a smile, a smirk, a flick of Jack’s hip or the way Meg came crashing down on a cymbal with just a little extra force to punctuate one of Jack’s lyrics."

The chances of Jack ever finding anyone else who creates the same seemingly psychic, magnetically endearing interaction with him are slim. I would assume that Meg's going to continue living her life as discreetly as she has since the Stripes first went on hiatus back in 2007. She obviously never felt the compulsion to perform that Jack does and is probably very happy to be out of the spotlight. But for 10 magical years, she gave it her all and was a true partner in a band that made so many people so very happy. How could anyone not love her for that?


mrthompson said...

Excellent blog post. Meg is the essence of The White Stripes. Many people say she contributed almost nothing to the band. Those people are wrong. She was a muse. She added a feminine softness to the rough masculine edges brought forth by Jack. Her vocals were simple, but sweet and endearing. Innocence and sex appeal. I could go on and on.

KaliDurga said...

"She was a muse." That's really perfect, and probably all anyone needs to say. Though it's more fun to go on an on.

Roxxan said...

Lovely post. It's the first thing to bring tears to my eyes since the news was announced on Wednesday.

Meg is wonderful. I hope we will someday see her again, but I honestly don't know if we will. I think she is different from Jack, who must be occupied. She is happy to just live.

the gardeners cottage said...

dearest tam,

what a wonderful, thoughtfully written tribute to meg. you have perfectly captured her essence in this post. i am in the same missed boat as you as far as never seeing them play live. i've tried to explain to anyone who will listen, which isn't many btw, exactly why i'm sad. for me it's not only that i never got to see them live but also there is a tinge of sadness for my lost youth. when i was a teen i was a rolling stones fan and saw them every chance they came to california. i saw lots of iconic bands during that time frame, but i will tell you that as obsessed as i was over them, none of them compare to the effect tws had/has on me. so some of my sadness is that i was not a young girl experiencing this band. i hope some of this makes sense. i'm not like you as far as writing goes. you express yourself so v well and me, i tend to blather. anyway, pls keep writing. i will never, ever tire of reading what you have to say.


ps - i read your reply to me on your last post and would love to tell my story but i just don't know where to do it. :(

KaliDurga said...

Roxxan: Thank you for the compliment. Considering how many other articles from the last few days have brought tears to my eyes, knowing that mine had that effect on someone is pretty profound. And I agree with you about Meg. Somewhere amongst all the stuff I've read, I saw a quote from Jack saying that she's a simple person. I think that's something to admire.

Janet: Thank you. And, yes, I do understand exactly what you meant. You express yourself better than you think you do.