Note: This entire post was written on February 2, 2011 immediately after The White Stripes announced they had broken-up (but I edited it a little bit the next day once my thoughts had cleared enough that I was in a state to write the tribute I wanted for a band that has meant so much to me).
Two thoughts keep racing through my mind. One is the baffling final scene in The White Stripes’ documentary Under Great White Northern Lights: Jack White plays “White Moon” on a backstage piano while Meg sits beside him and cries – for no apparent reason – cries. It’s quintessential White Stripes in so many ways: the unspoken dialogue between Jack and Meg, the simplicity of the filming, that Meg’s tears are never explained, how it draws the viewer in, that it fits so well to being shot in black and white…
The second thought stuck in my head is John Lennon singing “Is it for her or myself that I cry?” on The Beatles’ “I’m a Loser.” After all, as John also sings in that song, “She was a girl in a million, my friend.” “She” of course, in my mind right now anyway, is The White Stripes.
I’m not literally crying… not quite. But I feel like am. Why is this? The White Stripes haven’t put out an album since 2007 – excluding last year’s live soundtrack to Under Great White Northern Lights (which I enjoyed, but found a bit disappointing) – nor have they toured in that time. Frankly, I don’t particularly care that they won’t record any more (even though I’d definitely want to hear if they did). I’ve been mostly content with their inactivity the last few years – I haven’t given it that much thought really – so why am I shaken up by the announcement that they have officially broken up?
For some people the split is upsetting because they’ll never get to see The White Stripes play live, but I’m fortunate that’s not my case. I saw them put a lid on what was in many ways the most ground-shaking year of their career: New Year’s Eve 2003. Held at a great venue, Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom, with my favorite band, The Flaming Lips, it was a priceless inspiration for me, and one of the magic moments of their career.
There was a strong rapport between the two groups at the time. The previous spring The Flaming Lips released “Thank You Jack White For The Fiber Optic Jesus That You Gave Me,” a song about meeting everybody’s favorite fake brother-sister duo (hear a live version at 6:30 in the video below). That summer the Lips filled in for the Stripes on Scotland’s T in the Park main stage after Jack injured his hand in a car accident. The Flaming Lips – who were just beginning to earn their reputation throughout the world as a “must-see festival band”, and were still usually an opening act on a second stage – came on to an audience disappointed about Jack, and stole the show. New Music Express remarked that night, “everything today pales in comparison to the show by The Flaming Lips… one of the performances of their career: a confetti-blast of acid-assisted good vibes and dancing animals which features.. a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ directed to the absent Jack White… totally fantastic.”
As surrogate Stripes, The Flaming Lips – and even the animal-costumed stage dancers (Har Mar Superstar and members of the Super Furry Animals among them) wore strictly red and white. They started the crowd in a massive “White! Stripes! White! Stripes!” chant, then launched into an arrangement of “Seven Nation Army” with new lyrics loosely taken from The Butthole Surfer’s “Moving to Florida”. Their version worked so well that it became a staple of their concerts for the next few months. That December 31st they began to play it, then cut themselves off, saying something like, “wait, we can’t play this tonight, the White Stripes are here!”
The Flaming Lips did end up playing “Seven Nation Army” that night – with The White Stripes at the strike of midnight. Jack supposedly insisted Wayne sing the “Florida” lyrics for the first verse. It’s a golden memory in my mind that would be just as vivid even if I hadn’t watched it on video many times since. So is driving three days to get to that show – including a detour into a ditch! So is forming a band with my art-major friend on the ride back. She had never played drums but after that concert I was able to convince her that’s why she should be the drummer. Even opening Rolling Stone the week I got back to college for the second semester is pleasantly present in my mind: a big picture of Wayne and Jack from the first minute of 2004.
I can’t complain about not seeing them live, only about longing to go back to places that can now only exist in my brain (and on YouTube, of course). OK, I’ll admit it – I’m starting to get a bit teary eyed, but it’s not because I’m sad for the White Stripes…
… I’m actually happy for them. Jack’s talked about recording a solo album (playing all the instruments himself), and even if that doesn’t happen, he sure is plenty busy as a sideman, producer and leader of other bands. I can’t wait to hear his contribution to Danger Mouse’s Rome project with Daniele Luppi, and his work the past few weeks with Wanda Jackson is unbelievable! Though Meg publically has no projects on the horizon, I wouldn’t be surprised if something popped up. At the very least, it must be pretty cool for her to have Patti Smith as her mother-in-law…
The White Stripes’ break-up is explained on their website as “mostly to preserve what is beautiful and special about the band and have it stay that way.” Their last two studio albums, Get Behind Me Satan and Icky Thump, had some super songs (especially the latter), but I also felt the charm of their earlier releases slipping away. In other words: I agree with their decision and reasoning to professionally part.
The Beatles disbanding while “that magic feeling” was still intact – at least from the public’s perspective – has always seemed admirable to me. But then again, by the time I formed that opinion, I had seen what their peers had become (nobody in 1970 could have predicted Pete Townshend falling asleep at Who concerts). I came to the Beatles as their legacy took on a second life: the 1990s. They were no longer to be blamed for the worst ’70s AOR, the backlash through punk-based music scenes had receded, numerous books explained every detail distinguishing them from all others before and since, Kurt Cobain considered Meet The Beatles one of his favorite LPs, and Live at the BBC and the Anthology film/ CDs brought them back to the top of the charts. I also had the hindsight to know that the best of what the ex-Beatles did in the immediate years after they were “Fab” – particularly John and George – would not have fit into the confines of being Beatles. They grew apart, they moved on…
The Flaming Lips, The Beatles and a few other of my all-time personal favorites have inspired my life and music in so many ways… but it was The White Stripes that got me out of my self-imposed “little room” – writing and recording songs since I was nine years old, but mostly keeping them to myself – and onto stages in a band that was actually exciting. I’d been in groups before, but it was only after White Blood Cells hit me – and, even more so, watching Late Night with Conan O’Brien’s Elephant week – that I got over my hang-ups of what a band “should” be.
“Your limitations can be anything,”
they seemed to say,
“it’s what you do with and within those boundaries
that makes music
beautiful and special.”
The White Stripes liberated my singing, schooled me in arranging and dynamics, changed my perception of drumming and how I played guitar in relation to the groove, turned me on to artists I’d overlooked or under-rated, and showed me how blues and traditional country could be refreshed. The White Stripes re-arranged the ways I thought about music, visual art and the correlation between the two; they (r)evolved my views on gear and technology; made me realize the sound of a guitar riff defines it as much its pitches; reminded me the reasons I played music prior having any lessons and re-attuned me to the fundamentals of song-writing and the power of simplicity. They did this by redefining every 20th century cliché rumoured dead in music post-Y2K: from the nature of being a “rock star” or “guitar hero,” to John Lee Hooker licks boogied to death, to the very structure of a “rock band.” Most music starts with rigid presumptions (chops, established song forms, preferred gear, “good” singing, etc) and then tries to expand out from that basis. The White Stripes took the opposite approach, “your limitations can be anything,” they seemed to say, “it’s what you do with and within those boundaries that makes music beautiful and special.” No bass player, no problem! An inexperienced drummer, all the better! Who needs setlists?
From the roots of the Stones, the thrill of Beatlemania, and the lore of Zep to the arty fuzz of Nuggets, the ethos of punk and the lure of lo-fi, The White Stripes filtered all of rock history through their own charisma. They presented romance, religious imagery, and old-time American ideals in a way that was sincere – even reverent – but edgy. They rhymed “West Virginia” to “lies within ya.” Their songs and how they played them were a gender studies class. Just like great actors don’t act, The White Stripes didn’t sing or play songs: they became the songs. Meg is rock’s all-time master of the unsteady beat. Their attack was often urgent, uninhibited and harsh, but they sometimes seemed even more on a wire when they were gentle. They never played it safe.
Except for The Flaming Lips (and we all know they’ll never break-up… right?), there’s no band active in the past decade that has impacted me as much as The White Stripes. It’s one thing to realize how music and moments from earlier eras are still relevant, to feel how they resonate with you and your peers also too young to remember the contexts the music came from – it’s quite another to react to events as they happen.
Every riff I’d played in my high school band (a great experience for me, but – objectively speaking – a bit lame musically) had to be reappraised and re-imagined because of The White Stripes. And with that, all the ’77 punk “changing everything” nonsense I’d read about – because I was too young to encounter it any other way – suddenly made sense.
I can feel for John Lennon’s December 1980 mourners even though it too is before my time, but the film footage of fans in tears a decade earlier because their beloved Beatles had called it quits has always seemed a bit silly to me. It was just a band – one in a million my friend, but still, just a band. When boomers say I’m too young to understand, I’ll believe them now. The Beatles can never be to me what they are to my uncles. I’ve doubted them about this before, but in the instant I read The White Stripes’ announcement I suddenly understood what they were trying to express to me. I realized that as much as I adore The Pixies’ Doolittle and Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation I’ll never be able to hear them like fans born circa 1970 heard them in the late ’80s. To live through The White Stripes’ rise – from the garage underground to their guest spot on The Simpsons – as a musician in my late teens, is indescribable and irreplaceable.
I still have no idea why Meg was crying in the last scene of the movie that essentially ended The White Stripes career, but I am able to answer Lennon’s question: it is definitely for myself that I cry. It’s for the realization that whatever strains of adolescent I am grasping onto have already been cut off, and I didn’t notice until a defunct band announced it was officially over…
Thank you White Stripes for the fiber-optic, American gothic that you gave us…