February 8, 2015

A White weekend: Five year anniversary

Wish me a happy anniversary, it's been five years since my first White weekend. Between that and a bunch of recent shows, this be-log's been a little inundated by Jack White the last couple of days (weeks, months, whatever).  Might need to take a break and try to write about other things for a while, even I'm beginning to need a little relief from the addiction (just a very little).  But before I do that, I'm gonna reminisce over how it all began and then draw a parallel.  

So it's been five years since my epiphany but, really, it's been longer than that since I first began trying to get into Jack's music.  I heard of the White Stripes on the message board for another band I was into at the time, where people were discussing the Stripes' tour of Canada for Icky Thump.  The crazy b-shows they were playing struck my fancy and I began paying attention to conversation about the band.  But I didn't go looking for their music, not yet.  I was just fascinated by the idea of what they were doing up there in Canada and the whole nothing but drums'n'guitar, brother'n'sister thing.  It wasn't until an October night in Baltimore that I heard their music. 

Some friends and I were in B'more for the annual Fells Point Festival, one of the largest, longest-running festivals on the east coast.  For lunch, we escaped the crowds by ducking into the restaurant upstairs at Sláinte, where we ended up with an especially flirtatious waiter. Yeah, I know this seems like quite a digression, but this guy is The One Behind It All. He told us he was tending the bar downstairs that evening and that we should come back later to see him. How could three single women resist an invitation like that?  So we finished lunch and headed back out to wander the festival until evening.  

The bar was packed when we came back. And our buddy the waiter was now a very harried bartender, with people placing food orders in addition to drinks and no one from the restaurant upstairs bussing for him. There were stacks of plates and cutlery all over the floor behind the bar. He was pissed as hell about it and acting out his anger in an alarmingly maniacal manner.  He flirted up a storm with us again as he took our orders, then headed to the other end of the bar, cussing out loud and kicking plates along the way.  But we settled in and after a while he brought our drinks.  By that time, I'd been struck by the music playing in the bar and asked him who it was. He said it was the White Stripes.  Ok, I was finally hearing this band I'd heard so much about.  A few songs later, I was still digging the mix and when he waded through the debris of dishes down to our end of the bar, I asked him again "What's this song?"  Again, he said it was such-and-such song from such-and-such album by the Stripes.  Then he picked up a glass from behind the bar and, while looking me straight in the eye, threw it over his shoulder where it smashed into a pile of plates.  The dude was insane, but I was seriously excited about his choice in music. This went on and on, every single song I asked about was the White Stripes and he finally said that was all he was playing, just their six cds on rotation. I asked which of their records I should start with and he told me the later ones were best because Meg finally learned how to keep time (if I'd known more about the band at that point, I might've chastised him for dissing her. Meg was integral to the band whether she kept proper time or no.).  By that point we'd finished our drinks and realized he was keeping us hostage by not bringing our check, so I headed upstairs to find a manager and get us out of the line of flying glassware.  I hope to this day that I didn't get the guy in trouble, because I owe him a huge debt of gratitude, crazy as he was.

It was still a while before I picked up any of the band's records, though. Dunno what held me back.  And when I did finally get ahold of a copy of Icky Thump, I was held back again. The music was immediately appealing, and I was struck hard by Jack's lyrics.  Four songs on the album resonated with me especially-- 300mph Torrential Outpour Blues ("I'm getting hard on myself, sitting in my easy chair".  The simple profundity of that line was like a punch in the sternum. To this day, if you held a gun to my head and forced me to name a favorite White Stripes song, this would be it.), Little Cream Soda, Rag and Bone, and Martyr For My Love For You.  The word-play in all was so witty and clever and the sardonic angst expressed in them was something I related to strongly.  But then there was Jack's voice, so high-pitched and nasal and unpolished compared to singers like Chris Cornell and Maynard James Keenan, who I was heavily into at the time.  I just couldn't connect with it. 


For almost two years I kept coming back to Icky Thump, knowing there was something there that I should be into, but unable to make it click.  Finally my buddy Leo told me that if I was interested in Jack's music, I should check out one of his other bands that she'd seen at Lollapalooza a couple years before, the Raconteurs.  We just happened to be in a record store as she told me this, and that record store just happened to have a copy of the first Raconteurs record, Broken Boy Soldiers, on cd. So I bought it. But I didn't listen to it that day.  No, it wasn't until a week later, on a bright, clear, cold day at the end of January, when I was out driving the curvy backroads along the border of Maryland and West Virginia, that I popped that cd in and gave it a go.  Like Icky, the music struck me as appealing, but it was just that-- appealing. Not profound or astonishing.  Until Blue Veins came up.  

You know how sometimes things happen to you and you know that you will never, ever forget where you were at that moment?  I feel like I'll go to my grave still seeing that bright blue winter sky through the windshield of the car, that I'll always remember the exact spot along the road paralleling the Potomac River when Jack sang the final line of that song and the lightning bolt came down from heaven and I finally... got it.  The combination of intensity and delicacy in his voice in those final few words was exactly what I needed to hear and changed everything. 

I feel like I've learned a lot about Jack since then, and I don't mean personal, gossipy, trivia shit.  I mean about his art and his philosophy.  I've been accused of "verbosity and mind-numbing analysis of... mundane detail" but, for crying out loud, when something moves you in such a way why shouldn't you throw yourself into it deeply and express the things it makes you think and feel?  To that end, I'm going to explore a little parallel before wrapping this up.
Around this time last year, I decided to finally get into Elvis Presley's music and went down a similar rabbit-hole to the one I went down with Jack, though not quite to the same degree.  A few months later, Jack covered Elvis's Power of My Love as a b-side to the World's Fastest Record.  To my knowledge, it was the first time he'd covered an Elvis tune and I was struck by the synchronicity (or was my brain just looking for patterns?).  Since then, I and other folks have been seeing what seem to be little nods to Elvis from Jack. Some of the parallels are superficial, such as Jack's recent pompadour haircut. Others are more profound, as in the way both blurred genre lines to make their music appeal to a widely diverse audience and to introduce that audience to styles of music they might otherwise have remained ignorant of. And there's no denying that both have (had) the same intense magnetism, the ability to hold crowds large or small in the palm of their hand. But there's one way in which Jack will presumably always differ from Elvis and it's a vital difference-- Where Elvis allowed decisions to be taken out of his hands by his manager, Colonel Parker, Jack has from the very beginning exerted a strong effort to protect his music. Third Man Records, his headquarters in Nashville (record label, venue, storefront, distribution warehouse) was created for just that purpose, to allow him to maintain control of his art. He will always do what inspires him and just hope that people dig it. So far, his instincts, much like Elvis's in the very beginning, have proven pretty much infallible. It's a sad shame that Elvis didn't have Jack's confidence and strength of will. He seemed to crave love, acceptance, and fame too much, whereas Jack may want those things (it's obvious he gets intense fulfillment from connecting with an audience and his ambition is palpable) but doesn't seem to need them the way Elvis did.

I read this the other day in Greil Marcus's Mystery Train--

"...When an artist gives an all-encompassing Yes to his audience (and Elvis's Yes implicitly includes everyone, not just those who say Yes to him), there is nothing more he can tell his audience, nothing he can really do for them, except maybe throw them a kiss.

Only the man who says No is free, Melville once wrote. We don't expect such a stance in popular culture, and those who do might best be advised to take their trade somewhere else. But the refusal that lurks on the margins of the affirmation of American popular culture... is what gives the Yes of our culture its vitality and its kick. Elvis's Yes is the grandest of all, his presentation of mastery the grandest fantasy of freedom, but it is finally a counterfeit of freedom: it takes place in a world that for all its openness (Everybody Welcome!) is aesthetically closed, where nothing is left to be mastered, where there is only more to accept. For all its irresistible excitement and enthusiasm, this freedom is complacent, and so the music that it produces is empty of real emotion-- there is nothing this freedom could be for, nothing to be won or lost.

For all the little signs over the past year that Jack seems to be channeling Elvis, the thing that will always set them apart (or that I assume and hope will always set them apart) is that Jack will never give that all-encompassing Yes to his audience. He constantly walks the line between Yes and a hint, or threat, if you will, of No. The "are you with me or against me?" question at so many shows on the Lazaretto tour, voiced so vehemently recently in Austin and New York, the immediate switch from semi-scripted arena shows in New York and Nashville to spontaneity in Ohio, and to lecture/complaint and willfulness at shows after that in the southwest, are indications that the No will always lurk on the edge of Jack's art. He will never succumb to the complacence that Elvis did. He can pay all the homage in the world with his cover of Power of My Love, his pompadour, playing the stages Elvis played... Hell, tell me that hair, shiny jacket and open collar, and even some of the motions of his recent performance on The Tonight Show don't call to mind the King's early days--

Update 3/14/2017: Thanks for taking this down, NBC. Y'all reading this are just going to have to take my word for it.
He could even hit the stage in a rhinestone-emblazoned white jumpsuit, but he will never become what Elvis became. He will always make demands of his audience. One of the best reviews I've read of one of his shows included this line that's become my signature at the two Jack-related message boards--  
"And the message is clear: if we want Jack White as our hero, he will entertain, but not pander. We have to accept all his flaws, whims, caprices and manias as a critical, sometimes uncomfortable, part of the contract."

In other words, he will sometimes tell us No. And, as Greil Marcus put it, that is exactly what gives his Yes such vitality and kick.  After five years of addiction to that vitality and kick, I still crave it as much as I did from the very beginning.  And, heaven help me, I hope to still be verbosely expressing mind-numbing analysis of every mundane detail of Jack's art five years from now.  

And is it just my brain looking for patterns again when I notice that this post about my 5 year anniversary is the 55th in which I've written about Jack?  It ain't 3s, but hmmmm... 

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