Jack White Rocks Himself Out of His Socks

Excerpted from Music in a Word: 50 Years on a Rock and Roll Soapbox Volume 1, available now as an E-book.

By Ira Robbins

I’m pretty sure this is the only concert review I have ever written that incorporated quotes from the artist. Blender, one of several magazines that rejected my offer to become reviews editor (I recall an inane job interview with Andy Pemberton; I believe J.D. Considine ended up in the position, followed by Rob Tannenbaum), had a format that required shows to be covered this way. So when I went to see the White Stripes, I first spoke with Jack and Meg in the bar. Honestly, that part was more entertaining than the show that followed.

The White Stripes
Bowery Ballroom
June 16, 2001
Blender, Issue 2
“The shows I like the most are when we’re trying to win somebody over,” says Jack White, “When they’re yelling at us, that really gets me going.” Right now, the White Stripes are definitely going. The Detroit duo is indie rock’s great white hope, and audiences are falling for them like a punch-drunk boxer throwing a fight. The guy standing with his wife behind the sound board heard one song on a college radio station, bought the White Stripes’ current album, White Blood Cells, and drove in from Connecticut for the first of their three sold-out New York shows. He’s not disappointed.

Jack White sings, whacks guitar and occasionally plays piano. He’s an impressive and improving songwriter with great taste in covers. He loves Delta blues, Detroit bands and Bob Dylan. He hates live albums, Stevie Ray Vaughan, being pigeonholed, big venues and bands that don’t change.

Meg White plays drums. Simply. No fills, no turns. She loves Mo Tucker of the Velvet Underground, Emmylou Harris and Keith Moon.

Meg and Jack are the most color-coordinated act since Prince. They wear cherry red and white clothes and play red and white instruments. Their albums are red and white. At least one of them lives in a red and white house.

Meg is not — as they have steadfastly claimed — Jack’s big sister.

In the course of three albums, the White Stripes have done roaring blues that reeks of late nights in dangerous places, catchy pop froth, country stomp and (relatively) ambitious rock. With arrangements so elementary they wouldn’t cut it as major-label demos, they still manage to summon the ghosts of the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin.

Jack says, “The studio should always be different from the live show. The album is what lasts forever, the live show comes and goes.” Thankfully, he’s right.

This night, the White Stripes — who roadie for themselves and don’t prepare set lists — burn their blueswailing first-album killer “Jimmy the Explorer,“ Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and the catchy “Pretty Good Looking” (“…for a girl”) right off the bat and lose their reverb-caked charm not long after, as Jack’s frantic yelp and fretwork and Meg’s metronomic simplicity blur into a monochromatic rec-room blare. Only the timely arrival of four strong, diverse tunes (“Hotel Yorba,” “We’re Going to Be Friends,” “Truth Doesn’t Make a Noise” and “Astro”) remedies the sonic two-dimensionality. What seems to be their draw — two members, no bassist — is in fact a footnote, a limitation, to the material. At an hour, the show — two dozen songs, including the old folk standard “Boll Weevil,” served up virtually without pause — is plenty, exciting at times but in no need of further elaboration.

One time, Jack “forgot” his shoes and borrowed a friend’s. “They were too big on me and I had to stuff another pair of socks inside ’em to make ’em fit. When we were playing, [the extra] socks flew. I rocked my socks off!” ◆

Interview with Jack and Meg White / 16 June 2001
Weirdest thing that’s ever happened onstage?

Jack: Not too long ago I forgot my shoes and I used a friend’s shoes and they were too big on me and I had to stuff another pair of socks inside ’em to make ’em fit. When we were playing, they were falling out, and the socks flew off onstage. I rocked my socks off!

We don’t have a set list. There’s a couple of songs we love to start off with and love to end with. “Let’s Shake Hands” was our very first single, it’s like a greeting song.

Meg: He’ll start playing songs I’ve never heard before.

Jack: We only have a couple of songs that Meg starts. The first song on our first album starts off with Meg. The last sound on the album is by Johnny Walker, who plays slide guitar with us on the last song.

We’ve been to New York a few times. The first time we came here we played the Mercury Lounge, and it was sold out. We were amazed because we thought no-one had heard of us in New York. We were on tour with Sleater-Kinney and we booked our own show just to see what happened and it was really nice reaction. We always figured that New York and LA wouldn’t like us. And here we are doing three sold-out nights.

Whenever we’re onstage I never comprehend that there’s more than five people in front of us. A couple of weeks ago we played in New Orleans and Ray Davies came to the show. Nothing was miked in the club, and my tuner didn’t work. After the first song, I looked out and caught where he was standing. I couldn’t stop looking over there — I don’t know why, I’ve never done that before.

What if A&R men are watching?

I don’t care. If God wills something to happen to us that’s good, if not, we still have our house in Detroit and we can afford to live there. All we’ve ever heard is bad stories anyway, and I’m sure that if we do [sign to a major label] it’s going to be a bad story, too.

My favorite bands to watch are Detroit bands. Whirlwind Heat. We’re huge Bob Dylan fans.

Meg: Emmylou Harris, that was a phenomenal show.

Jack: “Jolene” was on a picture disc single. We do “I’m Bored” by Iggy Pop. We were going to do a Ziggy and Iggy single, but we never did it.

The best show we ever did was about a year ago in Asheville, North Carolina. The crowd was waiting for us, man. That was amazing. They knew all the lyrics to every song and would not let us go away. That was a really happy experience. We got the chance to open for Weezer in a small club in LA. I like Weezer. They have good songs. Then someone had tickets to see them in Detroit, and it really depressed me. It was sponsored by some computer company. I hate when those big lug security guards….We’ve had the opportunity to play bigger places and we won’t do it. I hate being a spectator and getting frisked three times, getting yelled at for your ticket…

[If we get really successful], We’ll just play small clubs for seven nights in a row. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Rolling Stones did a tour of small clubs?

The blues is my number-one love. I love it to death, yet I’m white. I wasn’t born in 1910. When we’re playing it I feel bad at the same time as loving it. It’s difficult for me to think about. It makes me uncomfortable. That’s why the new album is called White Blood Cells, and there’s no blues on the album. Everything to me is derivative of the blues, that’s why it’s important to me, but I don’t want people to think Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s not about guitar solos. Blues is a simple thing to play guitar solos – every guitar shop you go to in the country there’s some idiot playing something like that. I don’t ever want to be associated with… “Oh, check this out!”

We never want to make the same record twice. We don’t want to get pigeonholed. I’ve never heard [an entire] Jon Spencer Blues Explosion album. People were saying that about us. It gets uncomfortable to just be “this is our thing, look at what we’re doing.” I get bored so fast.

I love blues to death, but I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. It disappoints me when I see other bands doing that.

Meg’s influences: Mo Tucker, Keith Moon, the girl from the Gories.

Jack: I don’t think artists should be at the service of the audience 99 percent. It should be 50-50. I appreciate Dylan that he doesn’t kowtow to the hits or doing them exactly as they were on the album. Every time Dylan goes out he does a different version of his songs. He’s not just phoning it in.

Critical praise?

There’s so much more journalism than there was 30 years ago, and so much more knowledge. With mass communication everybody now knows everything that’s ever been done, it just makes people so ready to knock things down.

If you were a completely original band, with a whole new idea, would it go over well?

I don’t think it would. People would [compare it] to Devo or something.

The studio should always be different from the live show. The album is what lasts forever, the live show comes and goes. If a band has a string section [on a record], I don’t think they should bring an orchestra along [on tour] just for that song. If we have a song on an album where I’m overdubbing piano and playing guitar, and Meg playing tambourine and drums that we should do it live with just guitar, drums and vocals. Different is better.

I just started playing piano a little on stage. Clubs don’t have pianos. If they did I’d play a lot more.

Goal of a great show?

The shows I like the most are when we’re trying to win somebody over. When they’re yelling at us, that really gets me going. It makes me feel something, it’s much more exciting.

Someone made a rude comment to Meg and I singled him out and made the whole audience look at me.

Last time we were here, during a break between songs, while I was tuning up, someone in the crowd said, “It better be good.” We had just played Hoboken [the night before] and it was a whole crowd of rock critics – everyone was like, Oh, impress us. I said, “Where are we, Hoboken?” Half the crowd went “ooh.” The other half cheered.

Everybody’s got a garage in Detroit. Actually it’s mostly basement rock… ◆